When we planned our recent trip to Egypt, we knew there was one experience we didn’t want to miss: hiking Mount Sinai. While the Pyramids and the Nile have their allure, there are few holier places on Earth than Mt. Sinai. As devout Christians, a pilgrimage to Mount Sinai was a bucket list experience we needed to have.
While hiking to the summit of Mount Sinai is one of the coolest things we’ve ever done, it was a challenging feat to organize. From local permits to booking our accommodation at the Saint Catherine Monastery, this leg of our trip took a lot of planning. This post aims to clearly lay out exactly what we did, and what we recommend when it comes to planning your trip to Mt. Sinai.
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If you want to see what it’s like to sleep at the oldest monastery in the world or if you want to see the most beautiful sunrise in the world, watch this video.
Where Is Mount Sinai?
Mount Sinai is located in the middle of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. While most of Egypt is in Africa, this peninsula is actually located in Asia, right between mainland Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. By car, Mount Sinai is about 5.5 hours away from Cairo, 3 hours away from Sharm El Sheikh, 2 hours away from Dahab, and 2.5 hours away from the Israeli border at Taba.
The Sinai Peninsula is entirely desert and very mountainous. Most of Egypt’s tallest mountains are in this desert, including Mount Catherine which is the country’s highest mountain peak. While Mt. Sinai is the most iconic mountain in Egypt, it is by no means its highest peak.
Religious Significance of Mount Sinai
Mount Sinai is one of the holiest places on Earth for all three Abrahamic religions. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all believe that this is where Moses received the Ten Commandments and encountered the burning bush. This is what colloquially earned the mountain the nickname of Jebel Musa in Arabic, or the Mountain of Moses. There is some debate as to whether or not this is the true biblical Mount Sinai, but the majority of Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that this is the real mountain where Moses received the Ten Commandments.
The religious significance extends beyond just the stories of Moses and the Old Testament. Some Muslims believe that the prophet Mohammed transfigured off of the peak of this mountain.
One of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world is also located at the base of the mountain. St. Catherine’s Monastery was built in the 6th century AD by the Roman Emperor Justinian, and has become a very popular pilgrimage site for Catholics, Orthodox, and other Christians.
The monastery is just one of many located in the region, but it is the oldest and largest and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the peak of the mountain, there is both a mosque and a small chapel that belongs to the Greek Orthodoxy.
How to Get to Mount Sinai
Mount Sinai is very remote. There are no major airports near the city of Saint Catherine. To get to Mount Sinai, you will need to first fly into either Cairo or Sharm El-Sheikh.
Cairo has the biggest and busiest airport in Egypt, and you’re likely going to find the best flight options into this airport. However, it’s a 5-to-6-hour drive from there to Mount Sinai. Sharm El-Sheikh is one of the biggest tourist cities in Egypt, and its airport is only 3 hours away from Mount Sinai.
Get to Mount Sinai from Cairo
There are no direct bus routes from Cairo to the city of Saint Catherine. You will have to arrange private transportation. The drive takes between 5 and 6 hours, and it passes through the famous Suez Canal.
There are a lot of security checkpoints along the drive, but this is for your own good. Don’t be alarmed if you stop at a military station with armed guards. Kindly hand over your passport, and remember they’re there for your protection.
There are tour providers who will arrange your transportation and tour from Cairo to Mount Sinai. This is a pretty costly option but makes a lot of sense if you aren’t otherwise traveling to South Sinai and its popular beach destinations.
Get to Mount Sinai from Sharm El Sheikh
Sharm El Sheikh is one of Egypt’s most popular Red Sea resort cities, and it has been booming in popularity. It is located just 3 hours away from the city of Saint Catherine and Mount Sinai. Despite being closer than Cairo, there are still no bus lines linking the two cities, and you will need to arrange private transportation.
Similar to Cairo, there are many tour providers who will arrange this transportation for you if you ask. Most hotels in Sharm El Sheikh can happily arrange it as well. Private transportation from Sharm El Sheikh is much cheaper than from Cairo, as it is half the distance to Mount Sinai.
Get to Mount Sinai from Dahab
While Sharm El Sheikh is the most popular resort city in South Sinai, Dahab is a popular destination as well. Dahab is located further up the coast and is a whole hour closer to Mount Sinai than Sharm El Sheikh. Again, there are no bus lines from Dahab to Mount Sinai, and you will need to arrange private transportation.
This is what we did. After debating between driving from Cairo, staying in Sharm, and staying in Dahab, we settled on Dahab due to our desire to explore this city after our Mount Sinai hike.
Transportation from Dahab to Mount Sinai is usually about the same price as Sharm, even though it is much closer. This is because most of the local drivers are based in Sharm El Sheikh (which is where the airport is), and they still need to drive to Dahab to pick you up. There are many police checkpoints on the road from Sharm or Dahab to Mount Sinai, but again, they’re there for your safety.
Should You Book a Group Tour or Private Tour to Mount Sinai?
The most popular way to get to Mount Sinai is via a group tour. Many people who are staying in Sharm El Sheikh or Dahab see Mount Sinai as the perfect day trip.
There are tour groups that leave these cities late at night, arrive around 2am, and then hike to the top of Mount Sinai in time for the sunrise. A sunrise hike up Mt. Sinai is pretty epic, and most of these tours include a visit to the monastery afterward.
If you have limited time in South Sinai, or if you aren’t very religious, this may be a great option for you. It is much cheaper than a private tour, and you still get to do the same hike. We highly recommend choosing Sharm Club as your tour operator, as they are who we worked with and they provided a great service. (Although our tour was private.)
We Recommend a Private Hike Up Mount Sinai
However, we opted to arrange our own transportation to Mount Sinai and stay at the Saint Catherine’s Monastery Guest House. Yes, you read that right: you can sleep at the oldest monastery in the world.
For us, traveling to Mount Sinai was a pilgrimage. We wanted to have more time to pray and revel in the glory of Mount Sinai and St Catherine’s Monastery. We stayed for a full day and a half at the monastery, and we are so grateful that we did.
Firstly, staying at one of the oldest monasteries in the world is epic. The monks serve complimentary breakfast and dinner every day for their guests, and the scenery is breathtaking.
Secondly, being able to hike at your own pace is a game-changer. When you visit with a tour group, you need to move at the slowest person’s pace. When you hire a private bedouin guide, you can move as quickly up the mountain as you want. There are also long security lines at the entrance to the city when you visit in a group, and this is a drag to get through at midnight.
Where to Stay at Mount Sinai
There are two main places to stay at Mount Sinai: the St. Catherine’s Monastery Guest House, or local Bedouin camps in the city of Saint Catherine. Between you and me, there is a clear best option here.
Staying at the Monastery is just too cool to pass up. The place is a ghost town when the tourist groups leave around lunchtime, too. We felt like we had the entire place to ourselves, which was a crazy feeling being somewhere as legendary as Mount Sinai.
The St. Catherine’s Monastery Guest House is epic. Although we had a tough time making a reservation! Luckily, we’ve ironed out the details, and if you’re reading this post it will be very easy for you to reserve a room.
The Guest House does not list its rooms on any aggregators like Hotels.com or Booking.com. To book a room, you need to contact the manager directly. You can do this either via email, phone call, or WhatsApp. His information is below.
St. Catherine’s Monastery Guest House Contact Information:
Manager Name: Moussa Boulos
Phone Number: +20 1091633440
Email Address: [email protected]
Best Time to Hike Mount Sinai
We hiked Mount Sinai in the middle of the night in August, and we can’t imagine a better time to do it. While most of Egypt is pretty steamy in August, Mt. Sinai is very comfortable due to its high altitude and desert location. Our local guide recommended visiting between August and November for the best weather.
We packed winter jackets because we read online that you need warm clothes. Everyone made fun of us when we packed parkas for our trip to Egypt.
Well, it turns out that they were right. Starting in late October, you will want a winter jacket, hat, and gloves to hike Mount Sinai, and you’ll need these through February. However, if you visit outside of these months, you won’t need anything thicker than a sweatshirt or thin jacket.
In fact, I was comfortable in thin pants and a t-shirt for the entire hike, including our time on the summit.
I also read online that the best time to hike Mount Sinai is during the middle of the night. I agree with this, as the sunrise is the most spectacular sunrise we’ve ever seen…and we love finding cool sunset hikes around the world.
However, it’s untrue that you can’t hike the mountain during the day. During our visit in August, the temperature at Mount Sinai was in the 70s and 80s the entire time during the day. It is not too hot to hike Mount Sinai during the day even in August, and you could absolutely do this and be comfortable.
Is Mount Sinai Safe to Visit?
Many travelers wonder about safety while visiting Egypt. However, especially given the continual instability between Palestine and Israel, this question is especially relevant. After all, the Israeli border is less than three hours from Mount Sinai, and Gaza is only six hours away.
Safety concerns are valid, but they’re not necessary. Mount Sinai is a very safe place to visit, and for many reasons. Firstly, there are so many security checkpoints on the road to Mount Sinai, it is nearly impossible for bad things to happen.
There Are Security Checkpoints Everywhere
The Egyptian military staffs several thorough checkpoints all throughout South Sinai. Coming from Dahab to St. Catherine’s, we passed through three police checkpoints. It is very common for cars to be searched.
Beyond these checkpoints, the local Bedouin tribes take security very seriously as well. The city of Saint Catherine has its own checkpoint run by local bedouins at the entrance to the monastery property. At this checkpoint, we had to fully empty our bags, suitcases, and pockets, and proceed through a metal detector.
Mount Sinai Is Holy to All Three Abrahamic Faiths
Secondly, Mount Sinai is a very holy place for all three Abrahamic faiths. Many people don’t realize that all three major faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all on the same page when it comes to the Old Testament. Nobody from any of those faiths wants to harm the place where God made his covenant with mankind.
Heck, the prophet Mohammed even stayed at the monastery one time. During the Arab conquest of the Sinai Peninsula, Mohammed himself decided to let the monks live in peace in the monastery unharmed.
North Sinai has its issues, but South Sinai is considered a very safe place to travel. Mount Sinai is in South Sinai. We felt very safe every step of the way, and the Bedouins are very kind and welcoming people.
Our Experience on the Hike to the Peak of Mount Sinai
I had read online that the hike wasn’t too bad. Let me tell you – it’s tough.
I’m a fit young man in his 20s, and I had a tough time at parts of the hike. To be fair, I was carrying my toddler in a carrier on my back. This added a 50-pound burden the whole way up!
Still, I had seen many places that the hike is easy, and I really don’t think that is accurate.
Historically, there were two ways to get up the mountain: the camel path, and the steps of repentance. Due to safety concerns, the full steps of repentance path was shut down in 2021, and our guide told us will probably stay closed forever. Now, the only way up the mountain is on the camel path.
The closed steps of repentance should not be confused with the steps of atonement! The steps of atonement are indeed still open, and they’re actually the only way to get to the peak.
If you are weary about the distance of the hike, you can hire a camel at the foot of the mountain. The cost is usually around $15. The camel will be guided by a local Bedouin person, and it will take you all the way to the bottom of the steps of atonement. From this point you’re on your own, as no camels are permitted on the steps.
The best way to get a sense of the hike is to watch our vlog where we take you through all of the different stages of the hike and end it with the sunrise on the peak.
Layout of the Mount Sinai Hike
The hike begins at the back of Saint Catherine’s Monastery, at the start of the camel trail. The trail consists of a series of switchbacks leading up to the steps of atonement. The steps of atonement is the nickname for the final quarter of the hike, which consists of 750 steps carved into the rock of the mountain that lead to the summit.
The distance of the camel trail is a little over 2.5 miles each way. The first quarter is the easiest, the second quarter is the toughest apart from the steps of atonement, and the third quarter is somewhere in between. The steps of atonement are…well…aptly named.
Along the hike, there are several tea houses run by local bedouins. They sell water, coffee, snacks, and tea. I highly recommend asking for a local bedouin bread with Nutella if you need a snack, because boy did that hit the spot!
Once you finish the series of switchbacks that make up the camel path, you will arrive at the steps of atonement. There are 650 steps that lead up to one final tea house, then another 100 steps to the summit.
Mount Sinai Hike Terrain
I was nervous about the hike, to be honest. The mountain looked pretty massive online, and I knew that we’d be bringing our toddler. I was wrong to worry.
Despite being a pretty steep grade at points, the trail is very safe. It is a smooth trail that varies between dusty dirt and loose gravel. The incline of the mountain is pretty slight, and there is a brick wall lining most of the trail.
At most points, the camel trail is about 6-8 feet wide. It’s wide enough for a line of people and a line of camels to walk side-by-side.
The steps of atonement aren’t easy, but they aren’t dangerous either. They don’t wrap around the mountain but rather cut through a mountain pass. There’s very little risk of falling and getting seriously injured on this hike.
I recommend wearing sturdy boots, and there are some parts of the terrain that are a bit uneven. However, our guide hiked in sandals, and there were plenty of people hiking in regular sneakers.
How Long Does the Mount Sinai Hike Take?
As a married couple in our mid-20s with a toddler in tow, the hike took about 2 hours and 45 minutes to get up, one hour to admire the sunrise at the peak, and 1 hour and 15 minutes to get down. We stopped three different times, and that stoppage time is included in the 2 hours and 45 minutes. Large tour groups tend to take longer, as they need to move at the pace of the slowest group members so that everyone stays together.
We hiked much more quickly than most people on the mountain. We passed about 20 people on our way up. If you opt to hire a camel, the hike will take a bit longer, around 3.5 hours.
I recommend leaving the Guest House by 2:30 to get to the peak in time for the sunrise if you’re moderately fit. If you think you may need more time, leave earlier.
Our Pro-Tips for Visiting Mt. Sinai
1. Bring cash – no credit cards are accepted
The first, and possibly most important tip about visiting Mount Sinai, is that the entire monastery operates on a cash-only basis. They do not accept credit cards, and there are no ATMs. The coffee shop, gift shops, Guest House, and tea houses accept both dollars and Egyptian pounds, and probably also accept Euros.
2. If you are traveling with an Orthodox priest, you may be able to get a key to the church on top of the mountain
There is an Orthodox church on the summit of Mount Sinai, as well as a small mosque. The mosque is open to Muslim worshippers most days, but the Orthodox church is usually locked shut. If you are traveling with an Orthodox priest, there’s a good chance that the monks will allow him to take the key along on the hike and celebrate a liturgy in the church.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t apply to any other Christian denominations. As it is a Greek Orthodox monastery at the foot of the mountain and a Greek Orthodox chapel at the peak, only members of the Orthodoxy have this special privilege.
3. Don’t try to drive to Mount Sinai by yourself
Many people will tell you that renting a car in Egypt is a bad idea. While the roads in South Sinai are pretty calm and high-quality, you should not try to drive to Mount Sinai in a rental vehicle. The local authorities require a slew of permits before you’re allowed to pass through, and you will be turned around and sent back to where you came from if you don’t have the proper paperwork.
It’s best to work with a private driver from a tour company if you want to visit Mount Sinai alone. We worked with Sharm Club and had a very positive experience. They picked us up at our hotel in Dahab, drove us to Saint Catherine’s monastery, waited a full day for us, and then took us back to Dahab.
The total cost was a bit steep, especially compared to the group trips that are often less than $50 per person. However, if I were to go back, I’d do it this way again. Having free time to breathe the fresh air of Mount Sinai and relax at the monastery is incredibly special.
4. The monastery is only open in the morning and on certain days
If you are planning a trip to Mount Sinai and St. Catherine’s Monastery, note that the monastery is closed on Fridays and Sundays. Additionally, it is only open from 9-11:30am the other days of the week.
If you do an overnight group tour, the timing usually works out perfectly to where you visit the monastery after the hike. If you’re booking a private tour, just make sure that you leave time to visit the monastery during these hours.
You’re always allowed on the grounds of the monastery. But there is an internal area that is closed outside of these special hours. Additionally, all of the gift shops close outside of these hours.
The monastery is a place that you don’t want to miss.
The true burning bush is here, as well as a stunning church, the well where Moses met his wife, and a great iconography museum. We were even able to bring a branch of the burning bush home with us.
5. You can hike at any time of the day
As I mentioned earlier in this post, you can hike Mount Sinai at any time during the day. There are no rules governing when you’re allowed to hike. The only rule is that you must be escorted by a local Bedouin guide to head up the mountain.
You’ll be assigned a guide as you arrive in the town and pass through the security checkpoint. They’ll ask if and when you want to climb, and they’ll arrange for a guide to meet you at the Guest House, if you choose to stay there.
If you visit during the summer months, hiking during the day may not be a good idea. The heat in June and July may be too much to safely hike. However, starting in August, hiking in the day should be fine.
6. Bring a book if you arrive early
There is very little to do at the monastery outside of its limited hours of operation. There is also limited internet connection and cellular service. I recommend bringing a book, or planning out some meditations or prayers as the time passes by.
The monastery is truly tranquil, and you don’t need to be religious to visit. We ran into another traveler who told us that he was an atheist, but he came from Dahab just to relax in the tranquility of the mountain. Honestly, it feels like a small mountain town in Spain or Italy, and we were stunned by its beauty.
7. Snacks and water are available all day at the coffee shop, the security checkpoint area, and the tea houses along the mountain
I recommend bringing your own snacks and water, as the monastery is pretty remote. However, if you do need a bite to eat or something to sip on, there is a coffee shop in the heart of the monastery that sells a range of coffee, tea, soda, beer, and other soft drinks, as well as candy, ice cream, and other snacks. It is open for most of the day, and doesn’t follow the limited schedule of the rest of the monastery.
In addition to the coffee shop, there are several small shops at the foot of the hill leading up to the monastery, and several tea houses along the hiking trail. All of these places sell water, snacks, and other refreshments.
We Discussed Visiting Mt. Sinai on the Amateur Traveler Podcast
We went into great detail about hiking Mt. Sinai on Episode 871 of the Amateur Traveler Podcast. Feel free to give it a listen below!Travel to Egypt and Mount Sinai – Amateur Traveler Episode 871
That’s all we have for you about Mount Sinai! Hopefully, this post is helpful as you start planning your journey to one of the holiest places in the world.
If you’re planning a trip to Mt. Sinai, let us know! We’d love to chat ahead of time and answer any questions you have. Otherwise, have a wonderful day and stay present!