Mountain Hike Vacation in Jamaica
The Mountain Hiker Rating: 9 out of 10
Time required: 5-8 hours round trip
Degree of Difficulty: 7 out of 10
Height (as per my GPS): Just over 7,450 feet (2,270m) at the highest point / Actual vertical hiked was just over 3,400 feet (1035m), as the trailhead began around 4,050 feet (1,235m) above sea level
Distance: About 11.5 miles (18.5km) round trip
Guide Required: YES – More from the point of view of following the local customs, and for confidence.
It was a 2 hour drive from Kingston to the Rasta lodge on Blue Mountain where I would spend the evening before the Sunrise hike. Well, the first 30 minutes or so were what could be considered a drive, from the bus station in New Kingston to the outskirts of town. The next 30 minutes was uphill on narrow winding partially paved roads… then things got interesting.
The rest of the journey was on progressively rougher, gravel / dirt roads that included large stretches of really rough terrain, with huge ruts where water had washed away any level grading that once existed. There were sections that weren’t much of a road at all, and our average speed over the last hour couldn’t have been much more then 5 – 10 miles/hour… This swath through the forest climbed upwards around the mountain and was probably the roughest drive I’ve ever experienced in the Caribbean. Already a fun adventure!
Later that evening, after a local meal of red beans & rice, accompanied by various root vegetables, I settled down for a few hours rest/sleep. I woke at 1:30am, got dressed and went outside to meet the rest of the hiking group. There were 7 of us in total, including a young local couple from Kingston, and two Rasta guides.
This hike was very different than any other I’ve experienced, as we started off around 2 in the morning in order to catch the sunrise from the peak. It was fairly cool in the middle of the night, so I wore a couple of shirts along with a lined raincoat – A first in my Caribbean hiking experience. The hike itself started on a decent incline on a rough road that feeds a couple of properties high in the Mountains. It was dark, with our headlamps providing the only light. Within a few minutes we were on ‘Jacobs ladder’, which is a long and lazy switchback dirt and gravel road with many ‘washed out’ ruts. It was fairly steep at this point and I heated up quite quickly, so I peeled off my coat and was back in my normal Caribbean hiking clothes of shorts and t-shirt.
The next section of trail was amazing as it was a well worn path that occasionally took us through 3-4 foot wide and 3-6 foot deep trench like sections. We were still on an incline, however it wasn’t too steep. As it was a total black out, I didn’t see much of the trail in advance, rather I just put one foot in front of the other and kept moving forward – I basically focused the light, and my attention on the ground so as to keep my footing. We were surprised a couple of times when we came across donkeys, who were just standing on the trail at a few locations – Apparently, they are used to haul bags of cement up to the Portland Gap Ranger station which appeared to be in the process of being rebuilt.
It was a strange experience not knowing where we were on the mountain, however I did notice that the steep Mountain side of the trail was originally on our left, until we passed through Portland Gap, then it was on our right. We must have occasionally crossed a few ridges as there were times when there was no mountain side and there was a refreshing cool breeze.
Once we passed through Portland gap, we were on the final third of the hike to the top. Before we knew it, the temperature suddenly dropped and we were there… At the peak, which is a large flat area with considerable scrub / bushes and a small tower. As it was still dark and I couldn’t see much, I put my coat and winter hat on, and had a bite to eat. In a few minutes, my body had cooled down from the hike and the cold really started to set in – my fingers were getting a little numb. I wandered around a bit taking a look all around – I couldn’t see much, however there were blob like shapes all around us, so I assumed that we were surrounded by other / lower mountain peaks. Over the next hour or so, a few other small groups of hikers joined us at the top.
As it became more and more light out, I realized that the shapes all around us, weren’t mountain peaks, but were in fact clouds… We were above the clouds – Wow… was that ever a cool surprise! As the sun slowly climbed over the horizon, we could see the surrounding valleys and distant mountain ranges, as well as Kingston’s twinkling lights below us near the coast. We could also see Port Antonio’s distant lights on the other side of the island. Eventually the red ball of fire that is the sun, became extremely bright and things started to warm up.
After taking countless pictures in all directions from the peak, we headed back down. On the way down the mountain, I realized that the top half of the trail is through fairly heavy rainforest canopy, although there were occasional breaks, when I could see coffee plantations, a number of valleys, ridges and mountains, as well as some coastline in the distance.
In summary, this was an extremely enjoyable hike at a leisurely incline, and a comfortable (not soaked with sweat for a change) temperature, with the exception of the peak, which was quite cold for an hour or so. It took us 3.5 hours, taking only a couple quick rest stops, to make it to the top. The views all around the east end of the island under the new rising sun was a special treat – I strongly recommend that everyone should do at least one sunrise hike in their lifetime. As the trail was not overly steep, we managed to descend the mountain in 2.5 hours without any real breaks.
Note: For a longer, potential backback/camping experience to Blue Mountain Peak, you can start at Mavis Bank, a small town part way up the mountain. Take a taxi to the local police station and ask them where the trailhead is. This trail takes you to Penlyne Castle and Abbey Green before reaching Portland Gap and the peak itself. This trail is approximately 21 miles (35km) long and estimated to take 12-16 hours (return). Camp sites are available at Portland Gap.
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