After you’ve experienced the majesty of Islamic holy sites in Medina, a wealth of natural wonders awaits just outside the city limits. Located in the Hijaz region along Saudi’s western coast, Medina makes a good base for short trips both to the Red Sea and deeper into the desert.
With more than 1,760 kilometers of Red Sea coastline, Saudi boasts some of the most pristine and untouched coral reefs in the world. Yanbu is one of the country’s two main hubs on the Red Sea for underwater adventure (the other is Jeddah). Several professional dive centers, such as Saudi Diving Center, Diving Bubbles and Dolphin Free Diver, can get you outfitted for a day under the sea. One of the best-known diving locations is Seven Sisters, which is home to walls of hard and soft brightly colored coral as well as hammerhead sharks year-round. You might also spot eels, rays, lionfish, clownfish, turtles and octopuses wriggling through the little-explored waters. Nearby is a World War II-era coral-covered shipwreck, a Chinese tugboat that sank here in 1947.
● Yanbu is 230 kilometers from Medina by road, which takes about 2½ hours to drive.
Saudi’s most fascinating and enigmatic archeological site is Hegra, an ancient trading city along the spice and incense route once the southern capital of the Nabataean civilization, which also carved the mighty sandstone constructions into the cliffs at Petra, in modern-day Jordan. What remains of the city now is a sprawling necropolis of 131 elaborately sculpted tombs, decorated with ancient Roman, Greek, Egyptian and home-grown Nabataean motifs, proving that this region was as much of a blend of cultures millennia ago as it is today. The journey to Hegra from Medina makes for a long day, but the distance is worth it. You might even stay overnight for an unforgettable view of the Milky Way arching over the monoliths.
● By road, Hegra is 356 kilometers from Medina. Driving takes about four hours.
The surreal Al Wahbah Crater looks otherworldly, but it isn’t the aftermath of a meteorite crash landing. The reason for its formation is totally terrestrial: an underground volcanic explosion that occurred when groundwater came into contact with bubbling lava. The crater is enormous, at 2 kilometers across and nearly 250 meters deep. When it rains, a milky-white lake of delicate white sodium phosphate crystals forms at the crater’s core. Visitors can take a two-hour return hike into the crater on a rough trail (wear sturdy hiking boots) or around its circumference along the rim, which takes about three hours.
● Al Wahbah Crater is 287 kilometers from Medina by road, and the drive should take a little less than three hours.
On a rocky plateau above an oasis of lush green date palms rises a desert-hued mud-brick and stone fort, now abandoned but that has stood watch here for centuries. Khaybar was once an important stopping point for caravans on the incense and spice route between Hegra and Medina. It was also the site of the Battle of Khaybar in 628 A.D. between the Prophet Muhammad and the Jewish Banu Nadir tribe. In addition to the fort are ancient remains of the deserted city. Whether you road-trip to Khaybar or stop at this destination during a luxury tour across Saudi, be sure to wear sturdy hiking boots and bring plenty of water when visiting.
● Khaybar is about 180 kilometers north of Medina, which takes about two hours to drive.