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  • Writer's pictureKristin

Top Places to Visit in Al Ula Without a 4x4

Updated: Feb 26, 2023

When we decided to head to Saudi Arabia, we knew that we’d have a lot of driving in store for all the places we wanted to visit. While long driving days can be hard, we’re so happy that we made the decision to do them, as the reward has been incredible! We headed northwest of Medina to visit the area of Al Ula and were completely blown away by what we have seen & experienced here! In some ways it has felt like we were transported into another world! Our only regret is that we didn’t have a 4x4 to explore the area more intensely, as this is definitely 4x4 territory. However, we made our little car work and compiled a list of the Top Things to do in Al Ula without a 4x4!

No. 6: Dadan Heritage Trail to Old Town

This 3 km trail passes through Date Palm groves and through the surviving ruins of the old village. The admission is even free as well. Clara even found little shells that had been mixed in with the mud to create the walls and gates. It was a perfect place for the kids to play a little Hide & Seek, as we proceeded down the trail. We didn’t personally make it all the way to the Old Town, but there was still plenty to see & view.

A different evening we headed to Al Ula Old Town and ate dinner there. There were a variety of shops and restaurants set up.

No. 5: Vessel Hole Rock

This particular rock formation is located just north of Al Ula on your way to Elephant Rock – you actually just take the little dirt road prior to the turnoff for elephant rock. We proceeded down it for a bit to where there were some houses and we couldn’t go any further. We went one evening at sunset and Alex climbed up to the top to view from the hole. There were also some sand dunes that the kids enjoyed running down and playing in! We could even see Elephant Rock from a distance.

Two children playing in the sand in front of the red rock formation of Al Ula, Saudi Arabia.
Playing in the endless sand at Vessel Hole Rock, Al Ula.

No. 4: Waterfall Tourist Resort

The name definitely doesn’t describe what you see here! Instead of a waterfall, it is actually a slot canyon that leads you to an open area where you can hang out or enjoy something from the café there! There was an admission fee here for 10 SAR ($2.67 USD/$3.42 CDN) per adult, but the kids were both free of charge. We were told it didn’t open until 4 p.m., but we went earlier another day to inquire and they were open, so not really sure when their official opening time is.

Saudi man stands in front of the entrance of the slot canyon.
Waterfall Tour Resort has a slot canyon entrance - Near Al Ula, Saudi Arabia.

Once you enter, you head through a slot canyon where they have put different colored lights to light-up the canyon walls! As we exited out the last narrow slot, it popped us out in this open area between the canyons where they had set up several seating areas for people to sit down. One super nice thing we have noticed about Saudi Arabia, is that they often have free sitting areas without an obligation to buy something. However, the setting was so perfect that we went ahead and bought a mint tea for about 5 SAR (about $1.33 USD/$1.50 CDN) – seemed very reasonable to us! And while we enjoyed our tea, the kids had a large rock that they could play on behind us!

Mother sitting at table while 2 children sit on the large rock in the background. Waterfall Tourist Resort, near Al Ula, Saudi Arabia.
Parents enjoying some tea, while the kids play at Waterfall Tourist Resort.

No. 3: The Arch "Rainbow Rock"

This arch isn’t accessible right off of the road, but if you’re willing to hike for a bit you can access it without a 4x4 vehicle. Using this location on Google Maps, we were able to exit west off Highway 375 and proceed down the defined sand-dirt road towards the various rock formations. We got as far as some abandoned buildings/sheds and turned right when we reached a fence on the righthand side. You continue to follow the tracks through the sand/rocky area. We went as far as we safely could and then ended up parking the car. From there we walked towards Rainbow Rock.

Car parked in middle of sandy field with people walking away from it in Saudi Arabia.
As far as we could make it without a 4x4 vehicle to Rainbow Rock - Near Al Ula, Saudi Arabia.

However, there is no defined hiking trail, so you are left to your own sense of direction to get you to the spot. We used some of the 4x4 and camel tracks to guide us.

Little girl walking towards the sandstone rocks in the background with sand in the foreground.
Hiking Towards Rainbow Rock 'The Arch' - about 90 minutes north of Al Ula, Saudi Arabia.

However, if trying to locate on your own, just head towards the two rocky hill faces, climb over them and you will eventually be able to see the Rainbow Arch from there & know how to proceed. The hike took us about 45 minutes, but that was at a kids’ pace & trying to navigate, so it would likely be able to be done closer to 30 minutes.

Man standing on top of large rock with Rainbow Rock 'The Arch' in the near distance. Al Ula, Saudi Arabia.
Standing on the large rock face to get a view of Rainbow Rock in the distance.

Once we reached Rainbow Rock, we literally just hung out there for 30 minutes taking photos and enjoying the view – we had the whole place to ourselves. The only other people we saw were a good ½ kilometer away in their 4x4 vehicle.

Family of four holding hands in front of Rainbow Rock, with large archway, in the background. Near Al Ula, Saudi Arabia.
Enjoying Rainbow Rock 'The Arch' to ourselves.
Father & two children walk down from the rock near Rainbow Rock in Saudi Arabia.
Feeling on top of the world in Al Ula!

No. 2: Elephant Rock (Jabal Al Fil)

The first night we arrived in the Al Ula area we headed to Elephant Rock around sunset. Sunset is a popular time for people to come and enjoy the rock. However, even with it being a popular time to visit it didn’t feel crowded like some tourist places do. The rock is accessible from the main highway and easy to locate just past Al Ula. However, as with most places that we accessed, there are no ‘proper roads’ to get to the area. Instead, you exit off the highway via the ditch and take one of the sandy dirt roads into the site. The Elephant Rock site isn’t too far off the highway, so it was pretty quick and easy to access the parking lot on site.

The average road exit near Al Ula, Saudi Arabia.
The exit off the highway is pretty much straight from pavement to packed sand.

There was no admission or parking fee once you reached the site either. We were only asked to show the ‘Saudi ID App’ as proof of our vaccination status.

Elephant Rock - facing towards the west for a view of the sunset. Al Ula, Saudi Arabia.
East side of Elephant Rock with horseback rides available.

They have set up the area around Elephant Rock really nicely! On the east side, there were a variety of people offering horseback rides – however, none were pushy at all! Then on the west side there is a shisha bar and a coffee bar along with a variety of seating options that you could sit in to enjoy the view of Elephant Rock. In addition, to low setting tables and cushioned seats, there were also sunken seating areas that were dug into the ground. We sat here for a bit before heading to the east side so we could capture the sunset colors in the sky behind it. On the surrounding hillsides there were a variety of 4x4s enjoying the sand dunes!

Mom & 2 kids sitting on the mini stools & tables at Elephant Rock in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia.
The west side of Elephant Rock with the variety of small tables and sunken seating areas available.

After the sun set, they turned on spotlights on the elephant rock, which made it a magical place to be at night.

Elephant Rock lit up at night with the sunken seating areas in front of it. Al Ula, Saudi Arabia.
After sunset, Elephant Rock is lit up to enjoy.

We enjoyed it so much that we came back our last evening in Al Ula for a pizza picnic dinner.

Father & 2 children sitting on picnic blanket with Elephant Rock as view for dinner.
Picnic Pizza Dinner in front of Elephant Rock - Al Ula, Saudi Arabia.

No. 1: Hegra - Mada’in Saleh

A trip to Al Ula wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Mada’in Saleh or Hegra.

One of the most historical towns in Saudi Arabia is Hegra, previously known as Mada’in Saleh, which was established by the Nabatean people between the 4th century BC to the 1st century AD. These people were desert nomads, but they played an important part in the incense and spice trade through Arabia and Jordan to the Mediterranean. They had two major city areas – one was Hegra, here in current-day Saudi Arabia, & the other was Petra, in current-day Jordan. They searched out these areas because of the type of rocks present here and the ability to carve tombs out of them. While we haven’t been to Petra yet, they definitely have a very similar look to the Petra carvings that we have seen in photos.

Hegra was the very first UNESCO World Heritage site within Saudi Arabia in 2008 and for many years it was restricted to only 5,000 Saudis being able to visit per a year and international visitors had to put a request into the government to come to the site, which amounted to less than 1,000 per a year. Therefore, it has just been the last couple of years that more Saudis have been coming to this historical site, as well as some international travellers.

How to Visit Hegra

Our first day in Al Ula we popped Hegra in our GPS and cruised up there to check it out. However, as we tried to enter the gate, the attendant said that we would have to take a bus and purchase the ticket in Winter Park. We pulled over on the side of the road to look up where to go, when we had a knock on the window, it was a police officer. We explained where we were trying to head and he offered to show us the way, so we got a police escort to the main entrance gate of Hegra.

Once we arrived, there was a sign at the entrance stating that the only way to visit the site was to take an organized bus. We confirmed with the people there where to buy the ticket and headed to Winter Park. Located in the central green space of the town, there is an Al Ula Tourism Kiosk where you can go inside to purchase the tickets for the bus. The cost was 90 SAR ($24 USD/$31 CDN) per adult and 45 SAR ($12 USD/$15.50 CDN) per child over 6 years old. However, they were sold out for that day, as well as the following day. Luckily, they had some spots available on the 3rd morning we’d be in the area, so we booked those spots.

TIP: Make sure to pre-book bus ticket tour tickets for Hegra or head to Winter Park (photo above of ticket office) immediately upon arrival to get tickets for the bus.

While we typically like to go out and explore these types of places on our own, there was no option to do that here. Previous things we read on the Internet, it seemed like you might be able to do this, but the only other option to view this on a smaller scale was to do a private Land Rover tour, which didn’t quite fit our budget travels. We aren't certain whether this is the plan for long term or not. We also read something about how they are restricting the number of people visiting due to Covid, but these were pretty big tourist buses that I don't think would be 'just' for Covid times.

The tour bus was mainly geared toward Saudi or Arab tourists, as that is their main market at this point in time. However, they had signage in English, as well as the guide would explain things to us in English after explaining things in Arab. We had to arrive 30 minutes prior to our bus departure at the Winter Park location, then the bus departed and it was approximately a 20-25 minute drive to the entrance of Hegra. The tour lasted about 2 hours and we stopped at 3 different locations around the Heritage City: first was Jabal Ethlib, the second was Jabal Al Banat and the final was the iconic Tomb of Lihyan son of Kuza (or sometimes known as Qasr al-Farid Tomb).

The first stop at Jabal Ethlib was a temple where they worshipped their statue gods and would come together and meet. There was also original Nabatean script inscribed in the rock.

The second stop was Jabal Al Banat. This was a large rock structure and there were tombs on both sides of it – some of these carvings would take at least 9 months to complete. On the front side were two larger tombs for the high ranking officials, but on the back side were tombs for women and their families. The tombs had chambers dug in the ground where bodies might be put, as well as inserts in the wall where they would put the wrapped body and then put a seal over it. It was interesting how the concept was very similar to Ancient Egyptian Noble Tombs.

The final stop was Tomb of Lihyan Son of Kuza (or Qasr al-Farid Tomb) or in English as the ‘Lonely Castle’, which stands 72 feet tall. They believe it was erected in the 1st century CE. As with the other rock faces, it was used as a tomb, but many believe that the entire structure was never completed, but there are several inscriptions that remain.

Tomb of Lihyan Son of Kuza (or Qasr al-Farid Tomb) at Madain Saleh (Hegra) near Al Ula, Saudi Arabia.
Tomb of Lihyan Son of Kuza (or Qasr al-Farid Tomb) or in English as the ‘Lonely Castle’ from 1st Century CE.

We did one other day trip during our time in Al Ula to Wadi Al Disah, which was about a 3 hour drive away. However, it was one of the most spectacular places we visited in Saudi Arabia – check out our blog entry for all the information about this particular spot.

Accommodation Around Al Ula:

In total we spent 5 nights/4.5 days in the area. To be completely honest, there weren’t a lot of choices for accommodation in the area. Even the tourism board for Saudi Arabia has admitted that accommodation options need to grow and they are in the process of developing thousands of beds for the area. However, in a way, the lack of tourists and chain hotels is that made the area so special!

We found a good-sized place just on the outskirts of the town of Al Ula for $97 USD/$125 CDN per night on; however, we extended our stay from the first 3 nights we had booked and the price jumped to $105 USD/$135 CDN per night, but there was a school holiday break so overall it was hard to find places to stay during that timeframe. However, don’t expect places similar to this pricing to be a 5-star accommodation.

Don’t get me wrong, the place was a nice and offered the absolute necessities (i.e. beds & a bathroom), but it just lacked some of the amenities that western people have grown to expect, so it caught us a bit off-guard. Both at our place here in Al Ula and our hotel in Medina, we were only given one towel for all of us and then we had to supply our own toilet paper here at this particular stay. In addition, after traveling almost 6 months we have grown accustomed to getting plates, frying pans and silverware in the kitchens. However, this must not be common practice, as we had a hard time finding fully set-up kitchens in Egypt, United Arab Emirates and now here in Saudi Arabia. But as we continued our time in Saudi Arabia, we realized this is more so the standard for this region, as they have mostly created these accommodations for their own domestic tourists.

We had a wonderful time in Al Ula – in ways it reminded us of Southern Utah, Nevada and Arizona. It truly seemed like a different world, and we are happy we made the decision to come here to visit even with the extra driving. It honestly can’t be missed! After our time here it was back to Jeddah, where we spent a few days exploring this historical, but modern city.


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