One of the most sought after adventures on the island of Jamaica begins in the pitch black of night, deep in the heart of the Blue Mountains, hiking the Peak. Rising through the mists to 7,402 ft. above sea level is the highest point on the island, Blue Mountain Peak, the site of bragging rights for locals and tourists alike. The Peak is located at the heart of the John Crow and Blue Mountain ranges, now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Setting foot at the pinnacle of ‘the Peak’ at sunrise and being able to see the mountains of Cuba, 90 miles to the north, is a ‘must do’ on the list for many nature and adventure lovers who visit Jamaica. Being woken up and crawling out of a warm, cozy bed in the middle of the night is well worth it when you do catch that very elusive view. Many have made the hike numerous times and still have yet to glimpse the distant Cuban shores, as the mountains are often wreathed in clouds and a low haze can obscure the view even at the height of summer.
The tradition is to start the hike at two in the morning, to catch the sunrise from the Peak. So the entire Blue Mountain Peak hike experience often begins with spending the night at one of the hostels nestled deep in the mountains. The most popular place to stay is Whitfield Hall and Hostel, a 200 year old house set on a working coffee farm, one of the elite few producing Blue Mountain Coffee, some of best (and most expensive) coffee in the world. If you’re lucky, you’ll meet owner John Allgrove, who grew up in the area and can regale you with tales of Jamaica over the years, including the fact that he’s only seen Cuba 3 times out of his 80 plus treks up to the Peak! With no electricity, you can immediately unplug from the hustle and bustle of the world, while you talk in the light of traditional Tilley lamps with your companions or others you may meet from all over the world, before heading to bed or your tent to get some rest.
Once you’ve gotten the sleep out of your eyes and are on your way at 2 a.m., the walk to the trailhead makes a great warm up. The stars overhead seem to fill the skies on a clear night, and the crisp, clean air fills your lungs as you start the first and steepest section of the trail. After the first mile, it isn’t as steep, but it can be a little slippery when wet. You’ll soon reach Portland Gap, your last stop to fill bottles and use (very) rustic toilet facilities. This is also where you pay the park fee. Take Jamaican dollars if you can and pay only the ranger. Since no one is there at that time of night, the tradition is to pay on your way down. The trail is straight forward after this and short cuts are discouraged for your own safety. Many have gotten lost thinking they can just cut through, and there are also wild pigs in the areas off the beaten path.
For the last mile of the seemingly never ending switchbacks of ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, you may find yourself racing the sun to try and get to the top, as glimpses of light start to peek through the trees. At the top you’ll see a small cabin in disrepair, take the footpath to the Triangulation Station (a steel frame pyramid surrounding a pillar) and look north to Cuba to get your reward. If not, well, there’s always next time!
The 13 mile trek is usually around seven hours long in total and the views on the way down are breathtaking. The trail passes through an elfin forest of stunted trees, a result of the high altitude. Gradually, the dense, shaded undergrowth of mosses, lichens, ferns, lianas and rich foliage take over and eventually give way to primeval tree ferns, bamboos and shrubs ending at the forest line. Reviews of the hike are filled with the phrase ‘Never Again!’, yet these are often the same people who return year after year, bringing along others to experience Jamaica’s majestic, natural state for themselves for the first time. So, as you check the batteries in your flashlight and question your sanity at 2 a.m., hold on to the thrill you’ll feel at crossing this one off your Jamaica experiences bucket list.
7,402 ft./2,256m above sea level
Sights from the Peak:
Cuba - Sierra Maestra Mountain Range, 90 miles north.
Navy Island and Portland Point, easternmost end of Jamaica.
Town of Mandeville, Manchester.
Santa Cruz Mountains, St. Elizabeth (west)
Hike Time: Avg. 7 Hours
Hike Distance: 13 miles total
Difficulty Level: Intermediate Strenuous Hike
Traditional start time:2 a.m.
Park Entrance Fee: JMD $2000 paid to ranger at Portland Gap (cash only)
Interests: Hiking, Nature, Off The Beaten Track, Rural Jamaica, Birdwatching, Botany.
Hints & Tips:
Call to verify all arrangements (vs. relying on email)
Give a Jamaican contact number eg. your hotel.
There is no sufficient shelter at the Peak itself.
Never take short cuts.
Hire a guide (only use those attached to your tour or lodgings in the area).
Allow time for photo ops.
Don’t miss the chance to taste a fresh brewed cup of Blue Mountain Coffee.
Best Time of Year for the View: Funnily enough the rainy months! April, May, September, October and November the mists burn off before raining again in the afternoon.
Recommended Clothing: Traditional running shoes are sufficient. Dress in layers as you will be chilly at the start, get warm on the hike and it gets cold at the Peak.
Recommended to Take: A good flashlight with spare batteries, protein bars or other light snacks, water and a small thermos with a warm drink.