The eastern side of the lush green island of Jamaica is dominated by the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park. The park was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 2015 due to its unique and diverse flora and fauna, much of it endemic to Jamaica. Magnificently undeveloped, this mountain paradise is best explored on foot. Hiking the Blue Mountains is one of the most rewarding experiences to be had in Jamaica.
The peak of the Blue Mountain sits at a majestic 2256 m (7402 ft), and is made all the more dramatic for the fact that it is possible to see the sea from the top (and from several points on the hike up there). This elevation has a dramatic effect on the climate which is usually several degrees cooler and much damper than at sea level. It is possible to leave Kingston or the coast wearing shorts, and require a coat, hat and umbrella long before the summit is reached. Regardless of fitness levels, there is something for everyone in the Blue Mountains and indeed everyone should make time to visit this area of outstanding natural beauty. It is possible to drive or take a pre-booked taxi to all of the hikes mentioned here.
By far the most relaxing way to experience the Blue Mountains is to drive up to Holywell National Park. Situated just an hour outside of Kingston at Hardware Gap on the Blue Mountain ridge, Holywell is a beautiful and peaceful place to spend the day. There is a solar-powered visitor centre; picnic sites with fire pits and shelters; toilets; camping sites; and well marked trails. The park is maintained by friendly rangers who are happy to chat about the park and are full of useful and interesting information.
The hikes are all easy, and depending on how many photo stops are made, should only take 30-45 minutes each. The trails are punctuated with information boards detailing local flora and fauna. View-points are marked with wooden platforms ideal for taking that perfect photo – there are outstanding sunrises and sunsets to be seen by those who are up there at the right time of day.
Park in one of the two designated car parks and follow the wooden signs for the trails. No maps are necessary as each trail loops eventually back to the start point. The gradients can be steep at times, but there are magical moments to be had ducking beneath tropical canopies that hang low over paths, or pausing to photograph hummingbirds. Leave the picnic in the car to enjoy at one of the designated sites after the hike. The views from the picnic sites are worth the drive alone.
Catherine’s Peak is famous in Jamaica as the location of a mountain spring that supplies much of Jamaica’s bottled natural water. The trail head is in the Jamaica Defence Force’s camp at Newcastle on the road to Holywell and just a 45 minute drive from Kingston.
The road passes right through the middle of the camp, so it isn’t difficult to find. Park the car at the far side of the parade square in the designated spot. Then walk back to the other side of the parade square, keep left and follow the tarmac path up into the army camp. Explain to the lone soldier in the guard post that you wish to walk to Catherine’s Peak and he should oblige by taking details and handing over a permit.
Pass through the single-bar barrier on the left and follow the trail, up and up and up. It takes about about 45 minutes in each direction and gets very steep towards the summit. There is only really one wrong turn that can be taken – into the Clifton Mount coffee farm, a mistake which should soon become apparent.
The peak is marked by radio antenna masts and a triangulation point installed by the original surveyors. If the weather is clear, then the views are spectacular. The descent is back down the same track. After the hike, it is worth either driving the extra 15 minutes to Holywell or stopping at one of the cafes (Eits or Cafe Blue) on the road back down to Kingston.
The hike to the peak of the Blue Mountain should be on the to-do list of every visitor to Jamaica. The track is well marked and not too steep, but it is a long walk and people who are less than fit might find it difficult. The most popular way to hike to the peak is to spend the night near Penlyne Castle at either Jah B’s or Whitfield Hall, and start out in the early hours hoping to reach the peak by sunrise.
The hike from Whitfield Hall to the peak is circa 10km (six miles) and involves a 1000m (3000ft) gain in elevation. Done at a brisk pace, the summit can be reached in about two and half hours, although a leisurely stroll with frequent stops for photos and food can take twice that. A round trip of between five to eight hours is normal.
Many people opt to use a guide, especially if doing it in the dark and for the first time; however, it is perfectly possible to hike to the peak without a guide. Waterproof and warm jackets are essential, as is water and food. On the hike, the trail passes through Portland Gap, where there is a ranger station (the ranger will collect the park fee as you pass through). This is the last place on the trail to top-up water bottles. It is also possible to camp overnight here, but be prepared to get wet – it rains every day up in the mountains.
As the trail ascends high into the mountains, it is fascinating to observe the changing vegetation – the Elfin Wood near the peak is a magical place. One final word: ignore the people who tell you it is possible to see Cuba from the summit – you’ll be lucky to have a cloudless day.