Watching the sun rise from Blue Mountain Peak in Jamaica
While Jamaica is probably best known for it’s reggae music, Rasta culture, white sand beach resorts, and rum… I think of the 10+ peaks over 3,300 feet (1,000m) tall, and know that Jamaica is a Caribbean island worth hiking. When I realized that one of their signature hikes starts in the middle of the night and culminates in watching the sun rise, and I had to make the trip.
The third largest island in the Caribbean after Cuba and Hispaniola, Jamaica is roughly 3 times the size of Long Island (NY, USA). The Blue Mountain range dominates the island’s eastern landscape and is typically covered in a bluish mist and cloud, hence its name. The Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park is a World Heritage Site and is home to 800 endemic plants, 200 bird species as well as 500 flowering plant varieties. This is also where the Blue Mountain Peak, the highest point on the island at 7,402 feet (2,256 m) above sea level, is located. This is where/what I hiked.
I travelled to Jamaica at the end of March, which I believe is the sweet spot (January – April range) for comfortable temperatures and the least amount of rain. My journey started with a 2-hour bus ride from Ocho Rios where I was staying, to the island’s capital of Kingston. The bus ride could not have been more comfortable; however, my transportation experience was about to change dramatically.
A Rasta picked me up from the Bus Terminal in New Kingston for another 2-hour drive to a Rasta lodge somewhere in the Blue Mountains. I use the term “drive” very loosely… This turned out to be a mini adventure on its own. After the first 30 minutes or so we were on the outskirts of town, heading uphill on narrow and winding partially paved roads – Then things got really interesting…
The rest of the journey was on a progressively rougher, gravel / dirt road that included large stretches of cartoonishly bumpy terrain, with huge ruts carved across the road. Our average speed at times couldn’t have been much more then 5 – 10 miles/hour as this rugged jungle track through the forest climbed upwards around the mountains.
Later that evening, after a local meal of red beans & rice, accompanied by local 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 two Rasta guides.
I’ve never hiked in the dark before, so this was a new experience for me. In order to catch the sunrise from the peak, we started the up-hill trek around 2 in the morning, so it was fairly cold – Another first for me in the Caribbean. We started the hike on a rough road that led to a couple of properties high in the Mountains. Within a few minutes, we were on ‘Jacobs ladder’, which is a long and lazy switchback dirt 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 to my usual Caribbean hiking attire of shorts and a t-shirt.
It was dark, with our headlamps providing the only light, so 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 – Basically focusing the light and my attention on the ground, so as to keep my footing.
We came across some amazing 3-4 foot wide by 3-6 foot deep trench like sections of trail. This made the hike even more dark and eerie (in a good way). We were still ascending, however it wasn’t too steep. We were then surprised when we came across donkeys, who were just standing on the trail in a couple of places – 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 and bushes as well as a small tower. It took us about 3.5 hours, taking only a couple of quick rest stops, to make it to Blue Mountain Peak. According to my GPS readings, we had started off around 4,050 feet (1,235m) above sea level, and had just hiked about 6 miles (9.5km) with a 3,400 feet (1,035m) increase in vertical. We were standing just over 7,450 feet (2,270m) above sea level!
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. After a few minutes, my body had cooled down from the hike and the cold really started to set in. I wandered around a bit to stay warm and to have a good 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 some lower mountain tops. Over the next hour or so, a few other small groups of hikers joined us at the peak.
As it became more and more light out, I realized that the shapes all around us, weren’t mountain tops, but were in fact clouds… Wow – We were above the clouds! That was a stunning surprise! As the sun slowly climbed over the horizon, we could start to 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 north side of the island. Eventually the red ball of fire that is the sun, became extremely bright and things started to warm up. Absolutely spectacular!
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 weaves its way through heavy rainforest canopy, although there were occasional breaks, when I could see coffee plantations, several valleys, ridges and mountains, as well as some coastline in the distance. It warmed up on the way down and it was actually a nice change to hike in the Caribbean, in a comfortable temperature and not be soaked with sweat. As the trail was not overly steep, we managed to descend the mountain and make it back to the lodge in 2.5 hours.
This was an extremely enjoyable hike at a leisurely incline and pace. Taking in the views of the east end of the island under the new rising sun was a special treat. While there are lots of things to do in Jamaica, I strongly recommend that everyone should do at least one sunrise hike in their lifetime, and this might be one of the best places to do it!
For the complete hiking report as well as much more information on traveling to Jamaica, please reference the following links: