Original post 05/10/16 Republished August 2017
Ever had those Friday nights when you’re home alone and can’t face anymore Netflix? Maybe it’s just me. Feeling bored but sufficiently fuelled from my recent climbing adventures in the Rockies, I decided to solo hike the to the Blue mountain peak. That’s right – the highest mountain in Jamaica (at night).
The Blue Mountain is the sixth highest peak in the Caribbean at 2,256 m (7,402 ft) and a respectable test of your hiking muscles. It was almost midnight and Hurricane Matthew was forecast to hit Jamaica in 48 hours time, but I was wide awake and really fancied hiking it again.
By 1am on Saturday morning I’d packed my rucksack, jumped in my car and set off for Whitfield Hall, up in the mountains. By 2:30am I’d arrived and spotted the sign saying no vehicle access between 10pm and 7am. I had to ignore it otherwise I would have been blocking the track. I should have called Miss Lynette at Whitfield to let her know I was going to park there but as it was so last minute, I figured she’d understand.
I made my way up Jacobs Ladder to Portland Gap, which is the steepest bit of the trail, hoping the rain would ease off a bit. It didn’t. Just think of the glorious sunrise I told myself unconvincingly.
The rain was relentless and it felt like I was standing in a power shower wearing clothes for the entire hike. I wondered if it was the tendrils of the hurricane or just tropical mountain weather. Whatever, it spurred me on and I just wanted to get up and down the trail as fast as possible. I got a bit confused on approach to the false summit, taking a wrong turn, but then I figured it out and arrived at the Blue Mountain peak shortly after.
Great news, it had only taken 2:45 minutes; bad news, I was frozen and soaked. There was little point in waiting for sunrise, the cloud and mist covered everything and the lightening was making me nervous. Last place I wanted to be was hugging a metal trig point on top of a mountain.
I ditched my saturated waterproof jacket and put a down jacket over my wet mid-layer. I was so cold and my hiking trousers were now chafing so bad, I had a huge friction burn on my thigh. I was tempted to ditch my trousers and descend in my pants but that just felt too weird. So I got the hell out. I decided to run down, as my goose jacket was already getting soaked and man, those chafing trousers.
It was all going so well and I’d finally warmed up, when I face-planted Superman style, landing face down on the muddy trail. That will teach me to look where I’m going. I was probably overly cautious coming down after that but by the time I got my muddy, wet self back to the car, the whole hike had taken five hours and I had successfully solo hiked the highest mountain in Jamaica (at night). So much fun (minus the face-plant) and easy. If only the rain had given me a break.
I chatted briefly to the Rasta at Whitfield who was bunked up waiting for Matthew, he was bored but didn’t fancy venturing out in the rain. I’d packed a change of clothes in the car, popped on the heated seat, downed some hot chocolate and drove back to Kingston for a well earned breakfast and some zzzz’s.
Hiking the Blue Mountain Peak
A visit to Jamaica would not be complete without hiking the Blue Mountain Peak. Hopefully, you’ll have glorious weather. If you’re hiking between Oct and Dec expect rainfall. The 10 km steady hike consists of a 3,000-foot (1,000 m) increase in elevation to the peak. It’s a local thing to reach the peak for sunrise, if you fancy that, then obviously prepare to hike in darkness. Head-torch essential.
Ignore the urban myth that on a clear day you can see Cuba; you’ll be lucky if you can see the surrounding Blue Mountains. What your eyes miss your body certainly feels. The cold, wet weather up there that is. Yeah, I know it’s the tropics, how cold can it be? This time of year expect single digits. If you’re interested in flora and fauna, the higher you ascend the vegetation changes from mountain shrubs to tropical rainforest and the Elfin Wood just before the approach to the summit is a spectacular sight to behold. It’s quite magical to walk through.
Allow 5 hours return trip from Whitfield Hall to the Blue mountain peak and back. Though, when I hiked it with a group it was at a leisurely pace and took 8+ hours.
- Hiking boots best but trainers would be OK – as long as it’s dry
- Warm jacket essential for peak
- Cash to pay ranger fee
- Head torch
- Waterproof jacket – it WILL rain
- Water and snacks
From Kingston, drive towards Papine and then keep left for the mountains. Follow the road for a few miles to Gordon’s Town (don’t take the left turn for Newcastle, just keep straight on). At Gordon’s town, turn right in the main square by the police station and follow the road to Mavis Bank. Go straight through Mavis Bank and the road follows the river for a while, eventually crossing a small bridge before Hagley Gap. Take the left fork in the road where the blue sign points towards the Blue Mountains.
The road then climbs steeply for a few miles – a 4×4 is essential (you’ll see local minibuses rattling up there during the day, but when it rains, the road becomes difficult). As you approach Penlyne Castle, there’s a little “square” with a shop or two; turn right here on what looks to be a dirt track – there’s a white and red sign indicating Whitfield Hall. Drive up and park at either Whitfield Hall or at Jah B’s Guesthouse.
Take the mountain roads slowly. I’ve done it in the darkness and torrential rain and as long as you take it easy, it’s straightforward. You can park at either place or if you’d rather drive in daylight, then both offer friendly, affordable hostel like accommodation within easy access to the trail. Best to call in advance to let them know you want to park there.
I don’t think a guide is necessary at all, but if you like the company or want to explore further trails, I’d recommend Adrian (a park ranger at Holywell he’s on: +1 876 391 6311). He’s a responsible pair of hands and can also arrange transport if you’re not comfortable driving. Contact me for his details. There’s a user fee for using the park (Residents: $200JD Non-residents: $20USD) – the ranger will find you as you pass through Portland Gap in one direction or the other.
On the hike
I’ve rather awesomely mapped the route on the gps and uploaded the gpx file here, so you can download it and easily find the way, even in the dark. The first mile or so is on a steep vehicle access track to the coffee farm. The is the steepest bit of the trail, known as Jacob’s Ladder. Once complete, you keep left as the trail narrows to a single footpath and the gradient eases. The next landmark is Portland gap where the ranger hut is situated. There are camping and hut options at Portland Gap which would break up the hike slightly, but if you started at Whitfield Hall, it’s not necessary. This is the last opportunity to fill up with water at the outside tap, so if your water bladder is empty replenish there.
From Portland Gap, it’s circa 3.5 miles to the Blue Mountain peak. The trail weaves up through the changing vegetation and across the occasional stream. There are viewpoints along the way, marked with white signs; they offer spectacular views towards Kingston and the coast. You know you’re approaching the summit when you pass through the Elfin wood.
As you approach the Blue Mountain peak, you will see a ruined hut ahead – turn right before you get to the hut (you’ll see the plaque commemorating the National Park) and walk a further 100m to the trig point at the summit. There’s no shelter up here, so if it’s wet and windy (and it often is) you’ll want a warm jacket.