Described as “the slow road to Petra”, route 35 is the Kings Highway and a real adventure for kids and adults visiting Jordan. If you have the time, this old, steep, narrow & twisty road gives way to amazing views and a greater understanding of Jordan’s history. If you’re on holiday with kids in Jordan, the extraordinary beauty of the Kings Highway has to be top of your to-do list. Be prepared for low gear, twisty, steep mountain roads that climb higher, giving way to amazing views and lots of ‘stop, I need to take a photo’ moments.
Self-driving Jordan on Route 35, The Kings Highway
Clearly you’ll need to drive for this route. We rented our car through RentalCars and then wrote this post on self-driving Jordan and what to expect. We travelled in February and even though it’s bleak mid-winter, it was still 22*c during the day and the sun shone brightly. The roads were dusty and I think we only had a brief shower on one evening although the wind was quite strong.
We collected our rental car at Amman airport and paid 173,54€ for 8 days rental. I took out full insurance of 70,32€ although it wasn’t necessary as the quality of roads, signposts and driving was pretty good. The total was 243,86€.
Where Does The Kings Highway start?
Route 35 actually starts much further north of Amman, near the Syrian border at the Al-Wehda Dam, although most tourists pick the route up from Madaba. If you have the time to venture north of Amman city it is definitely less busy up there.
During the Roman Empire’s occupation of Jordan, Beit Ras was called Capitolias, possibly founded circa 97-98 AD for military purposes. In 2016 as road workers were digging up the city’s roads, they found a 52 metre cave under the town housing a number of Roman tombs, coffins and brightly coloured wall drawings. The cave is currently being prepared for tourism and isn’t open but in the mean time there is a Roman Theatre.
The Roman Theater has the longest stage in the Middle East and although it is in need of some repair but I think it adds to its charm. The theatre has seating for more than 5,000 people and is one of thirteen Roman Theatres in Jordan.
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The city of Irbid contains two museums; the Dar As Saraya Osmanli Museum (archaeological museum) and the Museum of Jordanian Heritage. The museum of Jordanian heritage is large, spread over floors and halls presenting the story of Jordan, people and the history of Jordan through its main stages of development.
Although we didn’t have time to go, Wadi Al Shallala was originally on our to-do list. It is not on the radar of many tourists, let alone locals but it offers beautiful scenery and a number of natural and man-made water holes.
Jerash is enormous and you’ll want to leave a good couple of hours to explore Jordan’s largest Roman site.
Settled by humans as early as the neolithic period (approximately 7500-5500BC) and founded as a Hellenistic city in 2000BC, it was one of the wealthiest and most cosmopolitan cities in the East. Most of the ancient city of Gerasa was destroyed in an earthquake in 749 AD however today it is one of the best preserved Roman cities in the Middle East.
Entrance through its towering ceremonial gates, walk through the impressive colonnaded avenue, explore the multiple temples and finish in the theatre!
Without leaving Route 35 or heading into the city, you’ll pass the Children’s Museum & the Royal Automobile Museum and slightly further on Amman National Park & Amman Waves. The children’s museum is nothing like a museum and more comparable to an interactive science centre.
It was too cold for us to use Amman Waves which is an outside pool complex with slides and rivers.
We stayed at Nomads Hotel & Hostel in Amman and booked through HostelWorld. We booked a private room to share as a family.
South-west of Amman and a 27 minute detour from The Kings Highway is Qasr Al-Abed; a lesser known castle that sits in a small village high up in the mountains. Whilst here you could also visit the Rajib caves or the Women’s Association of Iraq al-Amir for a cooking lesson.
The castle of Qasr Al-Abed was once a floating castle, surrounded by water. Dating to 2BC it was possibly a summer residence for dynasty. The castle with it’s enormous stones and elaborate carvings, stands randomly in the middle of the countryside and the locals graze their goats and sheep among the pillars. We were the only people visiting this castle and it was a brilliant introduction to our Highway Roadtrip as we climbed the ruins, sat on them, looked out over the country vista and talked to a local.
Apostles Church, Madaba
The 6th century Apostles church is beautiful from the outside and contains a small number of excellently, preserved mosaics.
We flew to Amman for less than £50 each.
Route 35 culminates in Petra but first you must slide your way around the hair-pin bends that take you high above the vistas overlook ancient sites of biblical importance. Now I have no real interest in the bible or christianity or judaism but from a historical perspective the sites are fascinating as you’re allowed to walk, touch & experience the ruins.
The Mount Nebo lookout point is free; just park up, cross the road and gaze over the view. The significance of this remote hill is to do with the Israelites and Moses, who apparently saw the promised land whilst there. He is believed to be buried somewhere locally although he could be in a tomb near the Jersulamen Highway. Nobody is quite sure but it’s a nice view regardless.
Moses Memorial Church
Although the view is free, the church is not. Entry is 2JOD and the price is not included in the Jordan pass (which we recommend you get).
The basilica was originally built in the 4th century but was abandoned by the 16th century. We’re not particularly interested in churches or religion, so why did we go? The mosaics!
the church is home to the best mosaics in Jordan which date to around 530AD. The mosaic masterpiece is a hunting and herding scene featuring an assortment of African animals, including an ox, lions, tigers, bears, boars, zebras, an ostrich on a leash and a giraffe.
The church is also part of a functioning monastery, off-limits to visitors, but there’s a small museum presenting the history of the site. There are also clean flushing toilets, the last you may see for a while!
Close by is Moses Spring. You can walk down from the main road although it is steep. This is said to be the place where Moses found water by hitting a rock. Six eucalyptus trees mark the spot but there’s seldom water here.
Driving back through Madaba
As we re-entered Madaba a number of coaches were in front of us and so we decided not to stop. We missed the pottery & tapestry factories, St George’s church & mosaic map and the church of the beheading of John the Baptist.
Umm Ar-Rasas is not on every tourist’s spot and for that reason it’s usually pretty quiet and to be fair it looks like it belongs in a wild west film with tumbleweed blowing down the streets in the wind. This place is actually a World Heritage Site with Unesco and well worth a visit even if it is a bit off the traditional route.
The site is sprawling and contains four churches, city walls, multiple arches and lots of rubble & stone debris. The church of St Stephen is protected by a hangar and what we liked about this slightly neglected spot is the ability to crawl, climb, touch, jump and watch the locals herd their jumping goats over the plethora of fallen rocks. There’s so much to explore here but do WATCH YOUR FEET. There are just holes in the ground that lead to caverns and underground rooms.
The ancient Jordanian town of Um er Rasas is home to 16 historic churches, secret crypts, and towering stone archways.
Perhaps the most breath-taking view along the actual route is that of the Wadi Mujib. It has been compared to the grand canyon and it’s not hard to see why!
There are a number of places you can stop for Bedouin tea, coffee, a photo or a rest along the way. Tea is about 1JOD per pot and although it’s a bit windy up there, the view is spectacular.
The Mujib Dam
Highway 35 actually crosses the crest of the dam and you can stop and take photos too. The dam contains 35 million m3 of water and is a combination of rain run-off and desalinated water piped from brackish wells along the Dead Sea.
Al Kerak Castle
Among the dry and baron mountain vista of southern Jordan, lies Al Kerak Castle with its hilltop walls and boasting one of the best-preserved Crusader castles in the Middle East. The hill on which Karak stands has sheer cliffs to three sides, clear views over Karak and the Wadi Karak and is written about in both the Old Testament and on Madaba’s Byzantine mosaic map. The Crusaders began building the fortress in 1142AD.
The narrow, winding passage ways, steep staircases, empty rooms and subterranean spaces await your discovery.
Dana National Park
Dana is Jordan’s largest nature reserve, covering 320 square kilometers of spectacular mountains and Wadis along the face of the Great Rift Valley. The Dana Village dates back to 4000 BC when it received its first occupants. It is believed to have been the residence of the Paleolithic, Egyptians, Nabateans, and Romans.
With spectacular hiking, soaring canyons, copper mines and home to a number of birds of prey, this is the place I wish we’d taken an extra day or two to explore.
The Campsite Trail has a number of viewing points across the Dana Mountains whilst the Cave Trail visits a group of caves and the Wadi Dathneh Trail is a 19km descent across the canyons and rocky terrain of Wadi Dathneh.
We stayed at Al Nawatef Camp in Dana National Reserve and booked through Booking.
Shobak seems the most remote of all castles mentioned here even though it’s the closest to Route 35. Perched high above a rocky, orange landscape Shobak was built by the Crusader king Baldwin I in 1115.
The castle has been restored in parts with some wells, a church, a baptistery, a market, a watch-tower and catacombs which contain Islamic tablets and christian carvings. I did not find them but apparently there are 375 steps into a secret passageway that leads to a subterranean spring, surfacing via a ladder outside the castle.
The locals here are the friendliest people we met in Jordan and it’s well worth spending an extra 10JOD to have a tour explained to you as there are no signs. From the castle the view is spectacular and you can only just make out the buildings built into the mountainside.
Siq al-Barid aka Little Petra
Little Petra also known as Siq al-Barid is an archaeological site located 5km north of Petra and the town of Wadi Musa. It is so incredibly quiet there in comparison to Petra. Like Petra it has been a Unesco world heritage site since 1985 and is famous for its ancient buildings sculpted out of solid red sandstone. It’s on a much smaller scale to Petra but we much preferred it.
If you’re up for a challenge, you can actually hike from here at Little Petra all the way over to the backdoor of Petra and through Petra to the town. It is a fair old hike and we only did part of it. If you want a hiking route head here to jordantrail where you can download the map. The hike we did started at the backdoor to Petra and climbed hundreds of carved steps through the deserted mountains. We encountered about 5 other people during the few hours we walked. It was peaceful and beautiful.
What if I was to tell you that I didn’t like Petra? It was too busy, too frantic and manic, too noisy, too harassing, far too much animal abuse and was really an anti-climax. You must go but be prepared to look for off the beaten track experiences where other tourists are less likely to go.
Route 35 stops and merges with Route 15, the Desert Highway, and takes you down past Wadi Rum and west to Durra border crossing with Saudi Arabia. From here you must either go east to Wadi Rum or west towards Aqaba.
Fancy Seeing More Desert Castles?
There’s another road in Jordan called Route 15 that runs parallel to Route 35 but is even less on tourist’s radars than the Kings Highway. With a castle every 10km or The Desert Highway (Route 10) follows the Hedjaz Railway.
I didn’t have time to follow this route sadly so you can read more about this from Michelin.
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