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Hiking Jamaica’s Blue Mountain

Jamaica’s Blue Mountain range, which spreads northeast across the island from the parish of St. Andrew to St. Thomas, Portland and St. Mary, is better known for the world-class coffee it produces than its hiking trails. However, there are 12 trails of varying lengths and levels of difficulty though not all of them go to the top.

I’m not a hiker and prior to a few days ago, the only way I’d been up a mountain was by car. But the memory of a spectacular Blue Mountain sunrise that I’d seen a few years ago on an episode of Globe Trekker, and the thought of viewing the island from its highest point (7,402 feet), had me seek out a guide to help me make the climb.

The trail we decided on would take us a distance of 6 miles, rising from approximately 4,000 feet (the area around Penlyne Castle/Whitfield Hall) to 7,402 feet, and is estimated to take 4 hours up, 3 down. We planned a 2:00 a.m. departure so that we would get to the peak by sunrise.

Blue Mountain trail
Hiking the Blue Mountain

Except for lights in the direction of Kingston, the trail is pitch black at that time so we equipped ourselves with flashlights; and to provide fuel for the hike, energy bars and water. Since the temperature on the mountain can be up to 40 degrees Fahrenheit lower than in Kingston, from where I left, I dressed warmly in sweat pants, a long sleeved running shirt made of material that wicks away moisture, two t-shirts, woolen socks and hiking shoes.

I began to feel the effects of the mountain air as soon as we set out. My breathing felt shallow and for a second, I wondered if that would derail me before I even began. It did slow me at first, but thankfully, I adjusted.

Hiking Jamaica's Blue Mountain
Canopy over the trail

For the first 20 minutes or so, the trail seemed pretty easy. Then we reached Jacob’s Ladder, a series of switchbacks that take you up the one of the series of mountains that make up the range. I’m not sure how long it took as I stopped often to catch my breath or take a sip of water. This was the most challenging part of the hike.

After clearing Jacob’s Ladder, we arrived at Portland Gap, a part of the trail which lies between Mossman’s Peak (6,653 ft/2,028 m) and the Blue Mountain Peak (7,402 ft/2,246 m). Looking at it from the ground the day after, it appears almost flat.  A ranger’s station, considered the halfway point of the climb, is also located in a lush clearing in the Gap.

Facilities for camping are also located there, however, my guide said they aren’t well maintained. Here is also where hikers are supposed to check in and pay a user fee (about US$1) but there was no one there to collect it at that hour. We refilled our water bottles and got back on the trail. For anyone considering this particular trail, this is the only place to get water.

As we were leaving, I noticed that the skies were no longer dark. When I asked, Ipal said we had another 3 1/2 miles to the peak! At the rate we were going, I knew we wouldn’t make it before the sun rose even if we hurried but I decided to keep going.

Sunrise caught us just as we arrived at the second lookout point, about two hour’s walk from the peak. I was very disappointed. I hate to give up but my goal was to see the sun rise on the Blue Mountain. That I had done. I promised myself to return another time, stronger and fitter, so I could reach the top in time to greet the sun.

Hiking Jamaica's Blue Mountain
Blue Mountain sunrise
View of Jamaica's Blue Mountain in the morning sunrise
Sunrise on the mountain

As the sun illuminated the trail before us on the return, I was surprised by what I had missed in the dark. Ferns of all varieties were everywhere. Trees towered above us, sometimes forming a canopy that almost blocked out the light. Moss covered rocks along the trail and hung from branches and trees, giving them an ethereal feel. Everywhere was lush and green, a wall of mountains on one side.

The Blue Mountain range is home to about 200 species of birds and the swallowtail butterfly, the second largest in the world. I didn’t get to see him but I heard and saw the hummingbird and some of the 500 species of flowering plants, half of which are endemic to Jamaica.

Hiking Jamaica's Blue Mountain
Slowly rising sun

What to Wear

Comfortable clothes – sweatshirts, pants, woolen socks, waterproof shoes. A good part of the trail is wet — the Blue Mountain range gets between 2-300 inches or rain annually — parts are rocky, and in some places, it is wide enough for just one person.

Carry a small backpack with water and snacks – energy bars and potassium-rich foods like bananas, chocolate, dried fruits and water.

A flashlight is a must, whether you’re going for a sunrise or sunset hike.

If you need one, take a walking stick. I found one useful especially on the return.

Where to Stay: There are several guest houses and hostels in the Penlyne Castle/Whitfield Hall area. I stayed at Jah B’s place (876) 377-5206. There’s also Whitfield Hall and Wildflower Lodge within walking distance.

Best time to go: Between December and April, the dry season.

This is my submission to this week’s Budget Travelers Sandbox Travel Photo Thursday series. Be sure to check out other photo and story entries on their website.