When you have limited vacation time to use, it is easy to remove itinerary stops that are far away or hard to get to. You want to maximize your time experiencing the country, and not driving or transferring between locations. Especially in a country the size of Egypt, you have to make choices and tradeoffs. But when you make the time and expend effort to go to those far away, off-the-beaten path spots, the rewards can be totally worth it.
That is 100% the case when it comes to the White Desert in Western Egypt.
Often overlooked on a 2 week trip to Egypt, White Desert National Park in western Egypt is a hidden gem and a truly spectacular natural wonder. It is an otherworldly portion of the Sahara desert. Unfortunately, it is not super accessible and requires a 20 hour round trip drive through arid desert scenery. I can understand why a lot of people would think that it isn’t worth on a standard vacation in Egypt, but trust me when I say, you must go to western Egypt. It is so unique and incredibly beautiful; definitely the biggest surprise of my entire experience in Egypt!
Here’s Why You Have to Visit the White Desert in Egypt
The White Desert gets its name from the unique composition of rock characteristic in this part of the Sahara Desert. It is an ancient sea floor that formed millions of years ago and then dried up. The white color comes from the now decomposed and solidified bodies of the ancient crustaceans and sea life, which formed the bedrock. The rock is like talc or chalk, very soft and semi-porous.
The rock itself has been eroded from water and wind through the millennia, creating these really unique rock formations. On the bottom of the formations, it is round and fairly smooth from the water erosion while the tops of the formations are erratic and angular forming strange shapes from the wind erosion. You can almost visualize where the old water level used to be, because the impact of the wind vs water erosion is so drastically different.
I’ve traveled to a lot of cool natural areas, like the Salt Flats in Uyuni or Reed Flute Caves in China, but I can honestly say that I have never seen landscapes like the White Desert. The shapes, the colors, the remoteness. It is all so unique and special. Plus, the off-the-beaten path nature of the White Desert makes for a cool story unlike any others!
How to Get to the White Desert
The White Desert can really only be accessed by road, although there are plans for an airport to open in Siwa sometime in the next decade. It is roughly a 7 hour drive from Cairo to White Desert National Park in one direction. Round trip will take approximately 14 hours. If you decide to add on the bonus stop in Siwa (mentioned below) you’ll tack on approximately another 8 hours. In total, if you decided to take a circle route from Cairo, in total it will be about 22 hours driving.
It’s a lot. I know.
Thankfully, the roads are in good condition and the ride is pretty smooth. The entire drive is through the Sahara Desert and the scenery is fairly repetitive but nonetheless lovely. Queue up some podcasts and get ready to enjoy the open space! When you arrive back in Cairo, the noise and chaos is going to feel like a completely foreign environment.
What to See in the White Desert
We spent the day driving through the White Desert, enjoying the scenery in a four wheel jeep. You can drive up and down these massive sand dunes and around the natural rock formations. It is so fun to have the driver pulling wheelies in the sand. With no AC and only the windows, you get a real feel for the heat of the desert. You’d feel the wind blow, expecting a breeze, and you’re blasted with super hot air.
There are a few high points in the desert where we got some excellent views of the surrounding desert, all in the blinding white color. Now it’s not quite the same as seeing Egyptian ancient temples, but some of the formations have nicknames based on their shapes, like the sitting camel, chicken and the tree, and rabbit rock. It is unlike anywhere you’ve ever seen before. Don’t forget to reach down and touch the soft chalky sand, although, I wouldn’t recommend rolling down a dune of it; it sticks to absolutely everything and is so hard to get out of your clothes.
Where to Stay in the White Desert
After a sand filled day of driving, we made camp for the night in the middle of the National Park. It was a pretty basic campsite, but nonetheless cozy. We put up a few sheets to form protective walls and some mattresses on the ground. No roof, leaving the top open for a full night of stargazing. That’s right – an open air glamping site! You don’t always need these fussy hotels or luxury comforts to enjoy yourself. Good company, good food, and beautiful nature makes for one hell of a memorable evening.
And wow, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many stars. With no moon or light pollution to block your view, we got a full view of the Milky Way, shooting stars, and complete constellations. You could see everything! It was such a simple night and I loved that about it.
Make a Bonus Stop in Siwa Oasis
Siwa Oasis is also located in western Egypt, near the Libyan border. If you’re already making the trek out to the White Desert, I think adding on a few extra hours to visit Siwa is totally worth it. Reading stories about the desert as a kid, I never understood the relief that comes from arriving at a true oasis. Aside from the military checkpoints and the occasional car, there was nothing around us. No trees, no bushes, no camels, no birds, no nothing. Just empty space. After hours of driving through the Sahara, I now understand why an oasis has this mythical allure around it. It’s such a humbling and relieving feeling when you finally do arrive to town.
Susceptible to occasional flash flooding, Siwa was nearly destroyed in the early 20th century by strong rains. All the buildings are built out of mud bricks, so you can imagine what happens when there are heavy rains — everything just washes away. The ruins of that city still exist today and they are haunting and strangely beautiful. They remind me of a surrealist painting, like something from the mind of Salvador Dali. They are jagged, irregular, and totally deformed. Some roofs still stand but the whole side of the house is missing. Some windows still appear in the walls, but are strangely sunken or lopsided from the rain.
I had been desperately missing my bike with all the driving we did on our 2 week Egypt itinerary so I was especially excited when we decided to explore Siwa by bicycle. We rented the some crossover bikes with fairly thick tires (for the sand) from a local shop and then went out for a few hours. Although it was still incredibly hot outside, it didn’t feel so bad on the bike thanks to the little breeze you generate as you peddle.
What I love about riding bikes during my travels is the way that you feel life happening. You get to smell, hear and bounce your way through people’s lives. It was such a joy riding through the massive date fields and getting to pull some ripe ones directly from the branches to sample. Date trees look almost exactly the same as palm trees and the dates grow in these big bundles that are harvested by farmers by climbing up the tree and cutting them off. And they are delicious!!
We biked around Siwa, exploring some of the famous ruins and historic sites. Mountain of the Dead is a large hill full of tombs dating back to the Greco-Roman period. We also visited Oracle Temple made famous by Alexander the Great. Finally, there was a rest at Cleopatra’s bath, a natural spring that Cleopatra used to visit during the long summer months. We went for a short swim, and ordered a few delicious fresh juices, including fresh date juice which I had never drank before. Super good!