Measuring 4km wide and 250-meters deep, the sprawling Al Wahba crater is one of Saudi Arabia’s most dramatic natural wonders: a vast hollow with an opaque lake at its heart.
Carved into the western edge of the Hafer Kishb basalt plateau, the crater is around 250 km and a two-hour drive north of Taif, or about a four-hour drive from Jeddah. The lunarlike landscape offers a near-otherworldly experience for those who come to climb it – complete with glorious views over the desert from the crater’s rim.
But as wonderful as the views are from above, the real magic happens when you climb down into the heart of the crater. In the center of the bowl, you’ll find white sodium phosphate crystals that create a glittering crust visible from the sky. This salt-bed transforms into a pearly lake whenever rain gathers in the hollow, fringed by the shrubs and palms that dot the crater’s rim. A dried lava field can also be seen snaking away from the northern edge of the hollow.
The crater was once thought to have been formed by a meteorite crashing to earth, but research by geologists in the 1960s revealed Al Wahbah to be a maar crater. These shallow hollows are caused by volcanic eruptions that occur when groundwater comes into contact with hot lava.
Locals, however, have their own legend of Al Wahbah’s creation. According to the tale, the area once held two mountains: Tamia and Cotton. One night, after a flash of lightning illuminated Cotton’s beauty, Tamia fell in love with him and vowed to uproot herself to be closer to her beloved. But before she could reach him, her mountain-cousin Shelman became jealous and shot her with an arrow, sending her crashing to the ground. The crater was formed by her fall.
To visit, take the Wahbah crater road leading to the site – it’s paved, so no 4x4 vehicle necessary – and stop in the car park. From here, you can access the visitor centre with its small museum, and a few covered vantage points ideal for picnicking.
For visitors making the descent into the crater’s salt-crusted base, there is a rough trail to follow with steps hewn into the rock. Even in winter ensure you bring plenty of water and sturdy hiking boots and don’t expect to have a mobile phone signal this far out.
It’s best to make the trip either early or late in the day and during the cooler winter months, as summer can see temperatures here top 50°C, making the 45-minute hike down and 90-minute hike back up significantly more of a challenge.
For those not making the descent, it takes up to three hours to hike the circumference of the crater’s rim. It’s also worth visiting the nearby lava fields that are a 10-minute drive away.
Although there isn’t a designated campsite area, overnight camping is possible, and the serenity of the desert with the absence of light pollution makes Al Wahbah an ideal spot for stargazing.