Did someone say Road Trip?! My husband, who does not like driving here for various reasons, including having an older car, “too many trucks on the road”, speedy drivers and the fear of breaking down somewhere in the heat of the day, with little water, no gas, etc. decided that he would be willing to drive the 3 1/2 hours it takes to reach Al Ula from Madinah. We’ve taken road trips before, such as the 4 hour drive from Al Khobar to Riyadh, that turns into 6 hours with kids who need breaks for the bathroom, stretch legs, whine, etc. That drive is pure desert sand, not much scenery, and hot even with the A/C, not to mention the hole-in-the-ground, dirty bathrooms along the way.
This time things were different! We rented a 4 door full size car and headed out of Madinah. There are many dark colored mountains that surround this city, that to me look like a pile of stones and sand. No vegetation can be seen from the road. The highways here are fantastic, wide, and well marked. They curve around various parts and bring you out through smaller industrial-looking residential areas. We decided that the highway plan here must have followed the USA in terms of road construction. They are very smooth and easy to drive with multiple lanes. Then you make a left turn off these easy roads, onto a single lane highway that will go for miles and hours until Al Ula. My husband was actually enjoying his driving! Even when the road became a single lane, there is plenty of room as you won’t have much traffic. There are many hay trucks piled high and almost looking like they will fall over, that usually will drive closer to the shoulder of the road so you can pass them.
This is an amazing drive if you are up for a road trip! With the quaint towns way off near the mountain bases, to miles of flat plain studded with shrubs, trees and bushes, to grazing camel herds near the road, as well as patches of goats being tended by a farmer, you will get the feeling of being back in ancient times. The terrain changes drastically from very mountainous and rocky areas that are sand swept, to flat plains where farms and towns reside.
Before you go: Make sure you have a full tank of gas and check your tire pressure. Bring extra water, cups, snacks, sunglasses, toilet paper, and of course your camera. Empty disposable water bottles are really useful for kids urine collection, so you don’t need to stop. It’s a good idea to let you host, hotel, etc. know you are coming and when you plan to arrive. Remember camels are a road hazard and you need to slow down while passing.
Good to Know: The internet, if you have a Saudi plan like STC, will work throughout this trip. We had no issues with lost signal, etc.
Make your journey in the morning or later afternoon (3 to 7pm). This is for safety reasons: It is really hot during the day and can be cold at night. The majority of road has no light, so at night you would only have the moon to see by. Really only trucks and the locals will be driving much of this road. There are few gas stations and no rest stops. Camels can be a hazard when near the road. We made our trip to AlUla from 10am to 2pm and then back to Medina 8:30am to 12:30pm.
The Environment: You will be surprised at the change in surroundings as you drive. Sometimes you might think you are on Mars or some such bare, sparse, rocky mountains and dry pebbly ground that shifts from dark colored rock to reddish. In front of you at places the road seems to disappear into the air, and you are not sure if you will drive off the land, however this is just a heat mirage as you head upwards and then down between flat plains. Always mountains and hills will be visible no matter which direction you turn. You are IN the mountains and will be the rest of this trip! The photos I took do not capture the majesty of the surroundings, but I hope they give you some sense of the vastness and true beauty of this land. Go to the website at the end of this post for amazing photos.
Sand Storms and Flooding: Some areas have highway warning signs about sand storms, which means your visibility may be reduced and the road may disappear in places between the sand that blows across it. Everything will be the same sandy color. There are some bulldozers out at these places, but lucky for us, the sand storms had just passed a few days before our journey. The roads were all fine and sun shown down without shadows as we drove from 10am until 2pm. Flooding happens in the low areas of the plains, probably during winter months, so there are water mark guides to tell you how deep the water is. The sign will tell you at which mark you should turn around and not continue. I wonder what it looks like at this time?…if it is greener and has a river running through the area with flood plain.
How you know you are close to arriving: Eventually you will come to signs that say “Al Ula” one way and “Madinah” the other. That is the only direction you follow. Before this you will see little town names listed, Yanbu, Tabuk and other cities. You know you are close to Al Ula when you only see AlUla and Medina directions, and will see palm farms, more green areas, small farms and the rocks will be an orange color. Finally you will turn left and be driving into Al Ula. Currently there is some building going on at the outskirts of town. Looks like maybe a shopping area, or welcome area, etc. You take a right, and this road will bring you right into and through town. You will notice new villas under construction, some hole-in-the-wall restaurants, bukhari (chicken and rice) places and some rental car offices.
Good to Know: You have the ability to get a rental car for your stay, right at the beginning of town. Especially good if you are flying direct. Pick up your copy of “Destination–Tour Guide Saudi Arabia”, available at the airport and also at the visitor center in Old Town, Al Ula. It is all about touring Saudi, road trips, popular places, things to buy, etc.
Stay safe, explore, be amazed, and have a great drive!
The is an excellent site by Saudi tourism, on anything AlUla. Great videos and beautiful photography will get you excited to visit.