Hiking to Blue Mountain Peak
Southern view from Blue Mountain Peak
Last weekend, a group of friends and I went hiking to the top of the Blue Mountains. Blue Mountain Peak is the highest point in Jamaica at 2,256 metres or 7,402 feet above sea level. I had hiked to the top once before many years ago and didn’t remember it being too strenuous, but after revisiting it I’d have to warn others that at least a basic level of fitness is required to make it to the top and back without too much pain (or even at all). Proper shoes and provisions are also a necessity. The trip, however, is definitely worth the work out as the views are spectacular, both from the top as well as during the ascent and descent.
Our odyssey began on Friday afternoon as we traveled to historic Whitfield Hall (a 150+ year old guest house where many hikers spend the night) to overnight before proceeding with our climb. The journey to Whitfield Hall is also a bit of an adventure in itself. Many persons make the relatively easy drive to Mavis Bank, park their vehicles and are then ferried the rest of the way by Land Rover. Not relishing standing in the open back of an aging Defender for an hour or more on unpaved dirt roads, we chose to drive the whole way ourselves. A word of advice- in anything other than very dry conditions, this is not a drive to undertake in anything less than a solid 4-wheel drive vehicle (a Toyota Hilux Surf in our case).
We left Kingston at around 5:00 pm and made it to our destination by 7:00 pm. The drive goes up through Gordon Town, St. Andrew to Mavis Bank and then up into St. Thomas through the small coffee farming districts of Mahogany Vale, Hagley Gap and Penlyne Castle. By the time you arrive at Whitfield Hall, you have already climbed from sea level to approximately 1,280 metres or 4,200 feet.
Accommodations at Whitfield Hall are rustic- most rooms are filled with bunk beds and have very little space to move around in. There is no electricity or hot water, although there is running cold water, flush toilets and decent lighting at night via kerosene lamps. Hardy Jamaican meals are available upon request.
We spent the evening on the front lawn of the aging structure, admiring the towering eucalyptus trees that ring the perimeter of the property. You don’t see tall trees of this variety in Jamaica very often, and the setting was more reminiscent of northern California than our tropical homeland. Thankful the evening temperature was also of the cool west coast variety, as Kingston was literally baking in summer heat below us.
We departed Whitfield Hall at around 6:00 am, opting not to bother with the 1:00 am departure time that many hikers choose in order to see the sunrise (which more often than not is invisible due to the clouds, mist and rain at the top). I found that hiking in the daylight was infinitely preferably to the nighttime hiking I did the last time and much safer as well. Our companions also had the foresight to hire a donkey to accompany us- this made our load much lighter and the trip all the more enjoyable.
The ascent was steep- the entire hike is about 12 km or 7.5 miles each way, and you climb almost 1 km in the process. The first half takes place on wide tracks and trails in reasonable good condition, although the grade is quite severe especially for the first hour. After about an hour and a half, we reached the rough midpoint (actually about a third of the way), the ranger station at Portland Gap. Here we paid a small trail use fee (JMD 100 per person) and stretched our legs- there is running water here for refilling your canteen, and also small cabins if you want to camp for the night.
The remainder of the climb took approximately two hours and the conditions are significantly worse. Narrow trails with loose stones and gravel are bordered by almost vertical precipices. On our way up, we passed more than fifty persons coming back down, who had obviously gone up in the wee hours of the morning to view the sunrise- surprisingly many of these were tourists, including a substantial number of Koreans and a smattering of North Americans and Europeans.
Upon reaching the top, we were greeted by a clearing and what could only be described as the sad ruins of a building- apparently this was constructed in the 1930s and at one time featured bunks for persons wanting to overnight as well as pit toilets and facilities for trash. As the picture illustrates, we are poor stewards of our national treasures, and I felt embarrassed as a Jamaican given all the foreign visitors we had passed on the way up.
The peak itself is actually just around the corner from this clearing, and features a small monument and a large metal tripod. The views are spectacular- to the southeast you can see the Yallahs River as it winds its way down through St. Thomas, as well as Morant Point, and to the direct south Kingston and Portmore. To the north you can catch glimpses of the Portland coast, and on clear days it is said that one can make out Cuba in the distance, although we were not so lucky.
More information on Whitfield Hall is available at www.whitfieldhall.com.
A somewhat precarious pedestrian bridge on the drive up
The road gets narrower
Whitfield Hall, St. Thomas
Setting out at 6:00 am
Errol and “Big Boy”
Taking a break at Portland Gap
Keeping warm at the peak
The dilapidated structure that greets you at the peak
The trail coming down
Errol and Big Boy coming down
Mind the edge!
Coffee growing on the mountain hillsides
View on the way down