Home / Destinations / Thru-hiking the Lebanon Mountain Trail by Lisa Robbins

Thru-hiking the Lebanon Mountain Trail by Lisa Robbins

Looking across the southern Bekaa toward Jebel al-Sheik (Mt. Hermon), on the border of Lebanon, Syria and Israel. (photo by Béatrice Le Bon) -1
Looking across the southern Bekaa toward Jebel al-Sheik (Mt. Hermon), on the border of Lebanon, Syria and Israel. (photo by Béatrice Le Bon)

I arrived in Beirut three days before the start of my month-long hike in the mountains of Lebanon, the eastern Mediterranean nation bordered by Israel and Syria. I wanted to explore Beirut before heading off into the countryside, but I knew no one and spoke no Arabic, so I looked for an organized walking tour as an introduction.

WalkBeirut.com received the best reviews. They said its owner, Ronnie Chatah, expressed his obvious love and affection for the city by sharing it with visitors. I checked his website for tour dates.

There were none. A few months earlier, Chatah’s father, a former finance minister and ambassador to the United States, had been assassinated in a central Beirut car-bombing that killed eight and wounded scores more. In grief, Chatah ended his tours.

Welcome to Lebanon, a stunningly beautiful country maimed by past wars and years of sectarian power struggles. If mafia families divvied up a state the size of Connecticut and enforced their authority with the threat of violence—leaving inhabitants to rely on personal connections for services and stability—it would resemble modern Lebanon.

Roman temple ruins at Faqra, dating to the 1st century A.D.
Roman temple ruins at Faqra, dating to the 1st century A.D.

All this makes the Lebanon Mountain Trail (LMT), a 300-mile route north to south along the nation’s rugged crest, a miracle of environmentalism, conservation and civic pride. In a country where the idea of the common weal remains a radical notion, the builders of this trail decided to create something for all Lebanese to enjoy, out of nothing but love for the place itself.

You have to walk it to believe it.

I hiked with the nonprofit Lebanon Mountain Trail Association, a fledgling Appalachian Mountain Club of the Levant, if you will. The LMT is new, its routing completed in 2009 with funding assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Though you can walk it on your own, I chose to join the association’s annual April thru-walk, designed to raise awareness of the trail and its mission.

In the al-Shouf Cedar Reserve
In the al-Shouf Cedar Reserve

Most of my fellow hikers were Lebanese, and eight of us made the complete trip. Others hit the trail for anywhere from a day to two weeks. They were a boisterous, friendly group, eager to teach me how to say “Cheers!” in Arabic and to tease me about being an American spy.

During the day, we hiked the Mount Lebanon range, the trail oscillating between 2,000’ and 6,000’ elevation. The range runs the length of the country, rising sharply between the coast to its west and the Bekaa Valley—actually a high plain—to its east. From several places on the trail, we could view the sea like colored glass in the distance. In winter, snow blankets these mountains. In April, snowmelt feeds dozens of potable springs and wildflowers spread across rocky slopes.

Descending Qurnat as Sawda, the region's highest peak, at 10,131
Descending Qurnat as Sawda, the region’s highest peak, at 10,131

Our group hiked south to north, starting in the hotter, lower elevations of the Bekaa region near the Israeli border. We crossed agricultural lands, through fields, olive orchards and small villages. Once out of the south, we began to encounter wooded areas, with umbrella pine, juniper and the legendary, stately cedars of Lebanon. The LMT passes through three nature reserves, where reforestation efforts are attempting to reclaim areas decimated by centuries of human habitation. Much of the trail also crosses rocky open slopes, affording continuous views as one treks.

After summiting Qurnat as Sawda, at 10,131’ the Levant’s highest mountain, we made a steep descent into the lush Qadisha Valley. Maronite Christians first sought refuge in this valley in the 7th century; it is famous for the monasteries and convents built into its precipitous cliffs. We stayed the night at one.

Above the Qadisha Valley  (photo by Niels Rasmussen)
Above the Qadisha Valley (photo by Niels Rasmussen)

From Qadisha we continued on into the wilder, greener north. We spent a luxurious afternoon in Horsh Ehden, a small remnant forest thick with cedar, juniper and fir. Forty percent of plant species in Lebanon are found there, though it encompasses only .1 percent of the land. We passed through apple orchards and dense vegetation, which in places had overtaken the trail. By our endpoint near the Syrian border, the landscape looked very different from where we’d started in Marjayoun.

The trek was a cultural journey as much as a physical one. On the trail itself, we encountered archeological sites, including Roman ruins; Bedouin encampments; small towns and villages. I snuck off in Bsharre to enter the Khalil Gibran museum, a trove of his artwork housed in a former medieval monastery. Another day our hike through cedars in the Shouf reserve led us to the Druze shrine of Nabi Ayoub, where we were introduced to the beliefs of this offshoot of Shia Islam.

A monastery built into the cliffs of the Qadisha Valley.
A monastery built into the cliffs of the Qadisha Valley.

We felt the influence of each region’s predominant religion. In the Shia-dominated south, we saw Hezbollah flags everywhere. In some northern Sunni villages, we hid our alcohol. Crosses stood high on hilltops above predominantly Christian towns.

The hike also gave glimpses into Lebanon’s tough realities, among them deep poverty; exploitation of natural resources; fallout from the Syrian civil war next door; and military tension, internally and externally.

I never felt unsafe. Our trip leader, Christian, and his co-leader, Joseph, knew the trail and the people along it very well. In the south, where United Nations forces still patrol, he re-routed our path one day at the instruction of the Lebanese Army.

With a few exceptions due to logistics, we hiked each day lodging to lodging. One of the goals of the LMT is to support economic development in rural villages, which in turn builds community support for the trail and environmental protection. We stayed at family-run guesthouses, hostels, monasteries, convents and small hotels. When time allowed, we explored our surroundings, taking in the architecture or visiting small shops. We ate local cuisine for dinner and breakfast, typically cooked by our guesthouse hosts, and packed the leftovers for lunch. One of our best meals was prepared by the nuns of the Couvent Mar Sassine.

Our guesthouse hosts baking manakeesh with zaatar (thyme, olive oil and sesame) for breakfast.
Our guesthouse hosts baking manakeesh with zaatar (thyme, olive oil and sesame) for breakfast.

Before you object to this indulgent state of affairs, let me be clear: You cannot experience Lebanon without sampling its culinary delights and regional specialties. The food here is simply fantastic, the one religion all Lebanese seem to share. My companions never hesitated to instruct me on how to properly enjoy dishes, to the point where several times I was commanded to open my mouth so someone could directly insert an expertly prepared bite.

At one guesthouse, I tasted hindbeh, a delicious dish typically made with dandelion or chicory leaves. (It may not sound like much, but the secret is in the preparation.) The next day, on the trail, I passed a man in a pasture, with scissors and a sack. He told me he was cutting greens for hindbeh, and held out a leaf for me to taste. His friendliness was typical of the hospitality I experienced all along the trail. My attempts to communicate with a few Arabic phrases, high school French and lots of hand gestures were greeted with humor and helpfulness.

An LMT hiker with a relative of one of our hosts in Qemmamine (photo by Béatrice Le Bon)
An LMT hiker with a relative of one of our hosts in Qemmamine (photo by Béatrice Le Bon)

Hiking with a group isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and you can hike the LMT on your own (though I’d highly recommend consulting with the trail association during planning, and hiring local guides who specialize in the areas around their villages). That said, nervous as I was about committing to a close-quarters hike with complete strangers for a full month, I’m thrilled I did. The combination of physical exertion and cultural immersion was exhilarating. I cried on the last day. There are many participants who do a section of the thru-hike every year, unable to say a final goodbye to the beauty and unique camaraderie of this trail.

The 2015 LMT Thru-Walk takes place April 3-May 3. For more information, you can consult the association’s web page (www.lebanontrail.org) or find it on facebook (https://www.facebook.com/LebanonMountainTrailAssociation).

About Lisa Robbins

Lisa Robbins is a hiker and freelance writer who loves to explore the world, near and far, on foot.

25 comments

  1. CAPT Dan Smith, USN (Ret'd.)

    You are a brave soul, Lisa!
    I was a U.S. Naval attaché to the region in the late 1990s, and I met some of the finest and truest people that I’ll ever encounter in my life. The many micro-cultures are amazing and the food and hospitality wherever I went, especially with my young family at the time, energized us. I hiked the green areas and the rocky deserts almost every day in my job, and even got to fly fish the Jordan River.
    At the same time, because of the close cultural crowding in the area, normal life can be fraught with dangers. You can never count on the security and stability that we take for granted (most of the time) in the U.S.
    Your trek leader should take most of the credit for leveraging his family and community ties in guaranteeing your safety and continuity. He must have been a gem to hike with.

  2. Dan, our trek leader was fantastic. He and the rest of my hiking companions, who included active LMT volunteers, showed me the warmest hospitality, despite the many cultural faux pas I seemed determined to make. They were kind, funny and proud of the country’s beauty and heritage. As to safety, yes, I wanted to be careful. It would be naive to think nothing could go wrong. But things can go wrong anywhere, especially when hiking. I felt quite confident that, all variables considered, this hike was low risk. Honestly, the most nerve-racking experience I had was when I got a lift in a truck carrying our bags. That driver should race Nascar!

  3. Adventurous, and looks wonderful. Well done, and thanks for sharing.

  4. Congratulations on a great adventure, Lisa and thanks for sharing. I’ve done a lot of wandering around the Sahara and the Sinai so I’m particularly appreciative of your story. I wish you many more adventures around our magnificent world. All the best.

  5. I’ve always been fascinated by Mount Hermon. Someday…

    • Someday, I’d like to hope, the border in that region will be peaceful, and one will be able to hike throughout–from the Mt. Lebanon range, across the Bekaa, up to Hermon and onward… We might have to wait a while.

      • CAPT Dan Smith, USN (Ret'd.)

        In that area of the world, a prayer to God is a local call.
        Well done, Lisa, and thanks for sharing your life-changing experience with us.

      • Lisa,

        The future holds a peaceful world without borders and hatred. People pray for it all the time when they offer the Lord’s Prayer and ask, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.” Of course, in praying for God’s Kingdom to come, they are entreating Divine intervention, which is what it’s going to take to solve this world’s problems. There’s plenty of information on this at jw.org and one of the featured articles right now is “What Will God’s Kingdom Accomplish?”

  6. Brendan McNally

    I can’t wait to do my first international backpacking. This looks like a great place to start.

  7. Thank you Lisa, I have been considering doing this next year and wondering whether I would prefer the group walk-through or to hire a guide and go alone. You’ve made me sway slightly to the former. Did you find time to write in evenings etc, as that will be my intention? Best wishes, Linda

    • Hi Linda. Yes, there was plenty of free time in the evenings. We often arrived at our lodging with much daylight to spare. Lunch breaks on the trail were also relaxing, siesta-like affairs, with time for contemplation and solitude. If you go, I would love to hear from you about your experience!

  8. Hi Lisa, it’s Martin from Switzerland, we met on the LMT. Thanks for your amusing report. I read it with great pleasure. See you hopefully on the LMT again.

    • Thank you, Martin! Will you be heading there this spring? I am tethered home this year, but optimistic that I will get back to Lebanon in future.

      • I will hiking in April on the through walk for two weeks. You have to come back to Lebanon definitely !

      • Hi Martin,
        We are also doing the trek in April. Which two weeks are you doing? Fox, or Wolf team? We are going north to south for the entire trail. Look forward to meeting you!
        Barbara from Whitehorse, Canada

  9. Hello Lisa, we read your contribution with great interest! We are doing the Walk Through this year and are very excited about travelling through the mountains of Lebanon. Are there other hikers out there who are also participating in the Thru Walk 2016? We arrive in Beirut on March 30th. We are a retired couple from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada.
    Thanks again for sharing your story about your time in Lebanon! Happy hiking!
    Barbara Adam

    • Hi Barbara, it’s great to hear about your trip! I hope you find the hike as physically fun and culturally fascinating as I did. I’m sure many of the Lebanese hikers I met will be back for at least part of this year’s walk, and they are a fine group of people. In the comments above, another hiker, Martin, from Switzerland, mentions that he will be on the trail for 2 weeks. Are you planning on doing a section or the entire walk? Best of luck!

      • Hi Lisa
        We are doing the entire walk. We don’t usually hike in a group either but we are looking forward to meeting Lebanese people doing the hike and other international hikers. And honestly, we are also reassured by the presence of local guides and the Association support and organization. Thanks for your quick response! Look forward to meeting Martin!
        Cheers,
        Barbara

      • I am jealous :) Out of curiosity–how did you hear about the thru-walk & LMT?

      • Hi Lisa
        We were doing one of the long distance trails in Turkey and met a man who knew about it. That was in 2010. Turkey is a ire wonderful destination for walking- the Lycian Way, Kachkar mountains and the St. Paul’s trail. Hope you have a wonderful hiking season!
        Cheers,
        Barbara

  10. I really want to do this hike sometime. I tried in early May 2008 but a couple days after starting at the north end of the trail a conflict broke out and there was fighting in many areas of the country. I walked for another 3 days with guides, but was fearful of running into trouble in the villages along the way. The conflict continued and I had to leave the trail in Bcharre and go back to Beirut. But I really want to try again!

    • HI Fred
      My husband and I did the through walk with the Lebanon Mountain Trail Association in April 2016. It was a very rich experience both culturally and socially. I would highly recommend this organization! And I would not recommend doing it on your own. The guides are experienced, organized and very knowledgeable. They will have two 10 day trips this October on the LMT and another through walk -30 days in April and October of 2017. We loved everything about the walk and the experience of getting to know Lebanon on our feet! The organization has a Facebook page and you could check out the official website. Hope you get to go, it will be well worth it! Barbara Adam, Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada

  11. Hi Lisa,

    Thank you for such an informative post. The trek looks wonderful and I am planning to do the LMT Apri 2017 walk. I was wondering what the cost was to walk with the association?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *