The Kings Highway Jordan: where to stop on your road trip
The Kings highway in Jordan is one of the most ancient and scenic road trips in the Middle East. For more than 5000 years it was a trade route connecting the Arab world with the Levant. Nowadays the Kings highway connects the North of Jordan with the South and it is the most popular way to travel from Amman to Petra.
If you look on the map you can see there are now two other highways doing the same. The Desert highway and the Dead sea highway are in fact faster and more straightforward. However, there are still plenty of reasons you should take the longer and slower Kings highway.
The Kings highway, or highway number 35, runs along the edge of the Great Rift Valley. The winding roads offer beautiful sceneries as you pass by small mountain villages, biblical sites, Roman ruins, ancient castles and spectacular nature reserves.
History of the Kings highway in Jordan
Most people take the King’s highway to travel from Amman to Petra, but this historic route was once much longer. The Road is said to be constructed by Roman emperor Trajan under the name of the Via Nova Traiana. It ran all the way from Heliopolis in Egypt through Jordan’s Great Rift valley to Damascus and facilitated trade between Africa and the Middle East.
The Romans did not build the King’s highway out of nowhere though. Emperor Trajan made use of already existing trade routes such as the ones used by the Nabateans to import luxury goods such as spices from the Arabs. The Romans too mainly used the Kings highway to trade.
Later, in the Byzantine era, the route was also used by Christian pilgrims that visited Mount Nebo among other biblical sites along the Kings highway. Once Islam took over in the region the route saw another group of pilgrims on their way to Mecca.
The Kings highway remains a cultural and religious melting pot. Although no longer the fastest way to travel from north to South in Jordan, it still is an important road full of history
Where to stop on the Kings highway Jordan
The Kings highway starts at Irbid near the border with Syria and runs for 384 kilometers all the way south to Wadi Musa, the gateway to famous Petra. Most people will start their road trip on the King’s highway in either Amman or Madaba.
Here I will mention the most important stops on the Kings highway from north to south when starting from Irbid.
From Irbid the first worthwhile stop are the Roman ruins of the ancient city of Gerasa, now Jerash. While actually built by the Greek, most of what remains comes from the Romans. The archeological complex includes a large hippodrome, several temples, theatres and a large circular forum. There are many Roman ruins in the Middle East, but Jerash is one of the best preserved examples of a Roman city
Time needed: the archeological park that holds the ancient city of Jerash is quite large.You will need 3 to 4 hours to visit.
The ancient town of As Salt was once a more important trade city than Amman and has a long and intriguing past. Despite its rich history and scenic location it gets surprisingly few visitors. It is the lack of tourist crowds and the authenticity of this small town that is part of its charm.
As Salt is also home to a great community based tourism initiative that set up the Harmony trail. A walking route through the historic center along traditional merchant homes, Ottoman architecture, ancient churches, mosques and the vibrant bazaar. In As salt one not only learns about its history, but also about daily life in modern Jordan.
Time needed: If you follow the 2 kilometer Harmony trail you get to see all the highlights of As Salt. Its historic center is small and compact, still there are many things to see. You will need 3 to 4 hours to visit. It makes for a nice and easy day trip from Amman.
Amman is Jordan’s capital and for many the start of their road trip on the King’s highway. It’s a city that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. It is true that compared to Petra or Wadi Rum, Amman might be a bit underwhelming and chaotic. Yet, Amman makes the perfect introduction to the country and has lots to offer.
With all the history and natural beauty in Jordan, it is easy to forget the modern culture of the country. Amman with its liberal and cosmopolitan atmosphere is the perfect place to learn more about the daily life in Jordan. One only needs to go to the lively bazaar to meet the welcoming people of the city and experience Jordanian hospitality when invited over for a cup of tea.
While Amman has its own share of historic sights, it is the food that is the real highlight. You can spend days trying traditional Jordanian food in some of the best restaurants in the country and if you have enough time there are cooking classes that teach you how to make them at home.
Time needed: You will need one day in Amman to see and taste the city’s highlights. Add more days in case you like to visit Jerash or As Salt on a day trip from Amman.
Where to sleep: Amman has plenty of places to stay. If you are staying only one day in Amman I recommend to choose a centrally located option. Cliff hostel and the Jordan Tower hotel are long standing backpackers favourites. For slightly more comfort you also have the Zaman ya Zaman boutique hotel and the boutique hotel Amman.
Madaba & Mount Nebo
Madaba lies just south of Amman and is another great place to start a King’s highway road trip. The city of mosaics is a destination in its own right. It’s renowned for its christian history and most of all the well preserved Byzantine era mosaics that you can find throughout town.
The most prominent mosaic is the 6th century Madaba Map that shows the Holy Land including Jerusalem. Other remarkable mosaics are at the archeological park and at the church of the apostles.
Madaba is also a great base from where to visit the Dead Sea and the biblical site of Mount Nebo. It was at Mount Nebo that Moses first saw the Holy Land and the views are still worth a visit. On a clear day you can see much of the Jordan valley, the Dead sea and some of Israel in front of you.
Time needed: One day or even half a day is enough to see everything in Madaba. Add an extra day for a day trip to both the Dead sea and Mount Nebo.
Where to sleep: Right next to the Saint George’s church is the Pilgrims guest house where I stayed. Its central location and extensive breakfast buffet made it a very convenient choice. The staff was very helpful in arranging tours. Mariam hotel is slightly more expensive than the pilgrims guesthouse, but has good reviews. It is a great place to meet travellers to share the cost of a taxi tour. They also organize a bus from Madaba to Petra with stops along the Kings highway.
Umm Ar Rassas
30 kilometers south of Madaba are the ruins of Umm Ar-Rassas. This place holds layers of history as it was once a Roman military camp, then a Christian site of worship and later an Islamic center.
Much of the archeological complex has not been excavated though. For being a UNESCO World heritage site it is not very well maintained and it will be difficult to understand what it is you are looking at without a guide. For the outsider it might look like a vast expense of ancient rubble. Do look out for the beautiful mosaic in the ruins of the St Stephens church.
Time needed: a quick stop on your Kings highway road trip of about an hour will do.
Wadi Mujib is a great place to stop on the King’s Highway for those that love natural beauty. Your first spectacular view over the Wadi Mujib canyon comes from the Wadi Mujib viewpoint on the King’s highway. Most people stop here for a quick photo stop and then continue their journey along the King’s highway.
For the real beauty and real adventure you need to get into the canyon, which is a bit of a detour from the Kings highway. If you have the time though, it is certainly worth exploring the Wadi Mujib Nature reserve where you can go hiking, canyoning or swimming. It is the lowest nature reserve in the world and the scenery is spectacular.
Time needed: A quick photostop at the Wadi Mujib viewpoint can be as short as 10 minutes, but if you really want to explore the Wadi Mujib Nature Reserve you need more time. The easiest hike is the Wadi Mujib siq trail that takes about 3 to 4 hours. Others are more difficult and a guide would be recommended.
Where to sleep: there are not a lot of places to sleep at Wadi Mujib. If you want to splurge you can treat yourself at the spa resort at the scenic Ma’in hot springs or stay in Madaba and make a day trip to Wadi Mujib.
Insider tip: be prepared to get wet. Even on the easy siq trail you need to walk and swim through water.
The Kerak castle is one of the highlights of the King’s highway. It is one of the largest remaining crusader castles in the Middle East. Kerak was an important trade town that was already mentioned in the bible. The Kerak castle was built in the 12th century and became the center of power for the crusaders in this region.
Soon the Ottomans, the Byzantines and the Muslims took over the castle, each adding their own structures to the complex. The strategic location on top of the hill means you have wonderful views over the modern city of Kerak and the agricultural fields that surround the town.
Time needed: Kerak castle is pretty large. The best preserved parts of the castle are not on the outside though. It is the underground passageways where you feel like a true archeologist explorer. It is easy to spend about one or two hours at Kerak castle
Where to sleep: There are a few basic hotels in Kerak, but it is best to move on to the more quiet and beautiful Dana Nature Reserve
Dana Nature Reserve
Dana Nature Reserve is Jordan’s hiking paradise and is a must stop on the King’s highway if you love nature. Like Wadi Mujib, the landscapes are spectacular. The small traditional village of Dana has a scenic location overlooking the Dana gorge and is the perfect place to base yourself. From there you can organize a number of day hikes.
The easiest and most popular one is the Wadi Dana trail that runs from Dana village to the Feynan eco lodge. It is 16 kilometers of beautiful scenery around you. For me it was one of the highlights in Jordan.
Time needed: I spent two nights in Dana so that I had a full day to walk the Wadi Dana trail. As there are a number of other hikes I would have loved to stay longer. I heard that the wadi ghuweir trail is even more spectacular.
Where to sleep: I stayed at the Dana tower hotel and although they have a delicious dinner and breakfast buffet I wasn’t too impressed by the somewhat sketchy owner. They are the cheapest and most popular option in town, but certainly not the most friendly. A good alternative is the Wadi Dana Eco camp.
Shobak is another crusader castle on the King’s highway. If you have already explored Kerak castle, you won’t miss much if you simply watch Shobak castle from the road. In fact, it is best seen from a distance to appreciate its size and spectacular surroundings.
Time needed: If you do decide to visit an hour would be enough to see Shobak castle. Otherwise a quick photo stop, best around the sun set would suffice.
Wadi Musa and Petra
Wadi Musa is a modern Jordanian town that is the gateway to famous Petra where a collection of hotels and restaurants catering to tourists is waiting for you. Here you have reached the end of the Kings Highway. To go further south you can connect with the Desert highway to Aqaba.
There are plenty of reasons to stay for a couple of days in Wadi Musa. First of all, to explore the ancient Nabatean capital of Petra. A city carved out of the rocks by the Nabateans and that was mysteriously left abandoned and hidden for centuries.
It was only in 1812 that a Swiss explorer stumbled upon the ruins. Nowadays it is the number one attraction in Jordan. It is also known as the Rose city, because of the pink and reddish sandstone that the city is made from.
The ancient city is incredibly large and right before it was left abandoned it was in the hands of the Romans and the Byzantines. While there are some ruins from those era too, most of what you see in Petra is the incredible Nabatean art of making their buildings in the rocks with impressive facades that still leave people in awe.
Where to sleep: Petra has lots of accomodation options. If money is no issue you should certainly check out the extraordinary Petra Bubble Luxotel, the scenically located Infinity Lodge or the seven wonders luxury camp. Because of Petra, prices in Wadi Musa are slightly higher than the rest of Jordan, but if you do your research there are still some budget options too. I ended up staying at the Petra Gate hotel. The facilities were basic, but the owners super friendly.
Transport along the Kings highway Jordan
Public transportation along the King’s highway is rare and far from straight forward. While not impossible, it is recommended to arrange your own transport so that you have the freedom to stop wherever you want. In the end, choosing the scenic Kings highway rather than the much faster desert highway is because of the interesting stops and beautiful scenery along the way.
There is no direct public transport from Amman to Petra along the King’s highway. There is a direct bus from Amman to Petra, but it takes the faster Desert highway.
If you are looking for the cheapest and fastest way to get from Amman to Petra and don’t mind missing out on the scenic Kings highway, you have two options. The cheapest are the public minibuses leaving from the Amman South bus station. There is also the more comfortable JETT bus that leaves from the Jett bus station. This way you will be in Petra in 4 hours.
Traveling along the King’s highway in public transport is not completely impossible though. On the northern stretch of the Kings highway it is very well possible with frequent minivans between Jerash and Amman and Amman and Madaba.
To go further south there is also a minibus from Amman to Kerak. In Kerak there is another bus around 1 PM that goes to Tafilah. From Tafilah’s south bus station there are buses to Ma’an that is actually a detour from the Kings highway. From Ma’an you can take a taxi to Wadi Musa.
If you are really planning to go with public transport I recommend you to stretch your trip out over several days with overnight stops in Amman, Madaba and Kerak.
Another reasonably priced option that does allow you to travel the Kings highway in a single day is the tourist bus from Mariam hotel in Madaba. This bus runs from Madaba to Petra with stops at the Wadi Mujib viewpoint and Kerak castle. If there are 3 people or more it will only cost 18 JOD per person.
A taxi with a driver
One of the best ways to travel along the Kings highway is by taxi. There are plenty of taxi drivers willing to take you along this scenic road trip for a day. The advantage is that you have the freedom to stop wherever you want.
It is certainly not cheap, but if you manage to get a group of 4 travellers together, the price per person really isn’t that bad and certainly worth the freedom you have.
This is the option that I used myself in combination with public transport. I visited Jerash, Amman and Madaba with public transport and then hired a taxi with a driver for the last part from Madaba to Dana and from Dana to Petra.
Renting a car
Renting a car is the best option if it comes to comfort and having the freedom to make all the stops you like. I met several travellers that rented a car to drive around Jordan. All of them were very positive about the experience and said that the roads in Jordan are very safe.
Kings highway road trip itinerary
When you are planning your Kings highway itinerary a lot will depend on how much time and money you have. With limited public transportation, taxis and tours do take up a big part of your budget.
The kings highway in one day
Most people will travel the King’s highway in a single day with some quick stops in Madaba, the Wadi Mujib viewpoint, Kerak castle and Shobak castle.
This will be a long day, but one that will definitely give you lots of beautiful sceneries and a chance to see the biggest highlights on the Kings Highway. Not all stops are really worth the extra money and effort to get there. For example, as a non religious person I found Mount Nebo a bit underwhelming and without a guide it is difficult to interpret the ruins of Umm ar Rasas.
If you do spend some time in Amman to see Jerash beforehand there is nothing wrong with travelling along the King’s highway in a single day. One of the cheapest options in this case is to continue to Madaba and then take the Maryam hotel bus from Madaba to Petra.
The Kings highway in more than one day
Although it is very well possible to travel the Kings highway in one day, it will not allow for extended stops at the Wadi Mujib Nature reserve and the Wadi Dana Nature Reserve.
Personally I found my stop at the Wadi Dana Nature Reserve a very welcome change from all the history related activities on the King’s highway. It was great to do some hiking and see a bit of Jordan’s spectacular nature.
I can therefore really recommend adding in at least one extra stop in either wadi Mujib or wadi dana. I found wadi Dana to be the more budget friendly option with more accommodation options.
My Kings highway itinerary
Just to give you an example how your Kings highway itinerary could look like, I will share with you my own itinerary. I used both public transport and a taxi to be able to stop at Wadi Dana.
- Day trip to Jerash (public transport)
- Day trip to As Salt (public transport)
- Amman to Madaba (public transport)
- Day trip to the Dead Sea & Mount Nebo (taxi)
- Madaba to Dana with a stop at Wadi Mujib and Kerak castle (taxi)
- Hiking the Wadi Dana trail
- Dana to Petra (taxi)
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