Wadi al-Hitan, or Valley of the Whales, is an incredible open-air museum in the Egyptian desert that boasts fossil remains of one of the earliest forms of whale.
Wadi al–Hitan is a true Egyptian hidden gem for nature lovers and travelers off the beaten path.
The fossils are remarkably well-preserved thanks to the dryness of the Western Desert – even some of the stomach contents remain intact.
And you can view these fossils laying right in the sand along winding pathways at an outdoor museum.
There’s also a small indoor museum with stunning fossils that narrates the region’s history of climate change.
Walk through the desert sand littered with seashell fragments. And gaze at the otherworldly landscapes dotted with gigantic sand dunes straight out of Star Wars.
Wadi al-Hitan is a perfect day trip from Cairo (or combined with nearby Fayoum and its pottery village and lakes).
The fossils at Wadi al-Hitan include the archaeoceti, the earliest forms of whale that’s now extinct. And it’s like nowhere else in the world for the sheer number, concentration and quality of these fossils.
Here’s what you shouldn’t miss:
Wadi al-Hitan outdoor museum
Dating back some 45 million years, Wadi al-Hitan’s vast outdoor museum contains petrified whale skeletons, shells and shark teeth.
Wadi al-Hitan is the only place in the world to see archaic whales in their original location – just as they were discovered.
The sand is littered with sea shell fragments and coral.
And you can easily spend a few hours walking along the winding, rock-lined pathways to explore the exhibits of fossils along the way. The walkways are all laid out right in the sand and they’re well-marked and labelled.
Besides the fossils of ancient whales, you’ll also spot the remains of sharks, crocodiles and turtles.
There are a few shaded alcoves, but this trek is not easy in the summer. If you’re visiting Wadi al-Hitan in the heat, wear plenty of sunscreen and pack iced water. The path is quite sandy and hilly in parts – and it’s quite a workout.
The Fossil & Climate Change Museum contains an enormous whale fossil and smaller pieces that narrate the story of the region’s climate change.
The collection includes the largest intact whale fossil of a Basilosaurus, the largest of the ancient whales.
This indoor museum tells the story of Wadi El Hitan’s transformation across millions of years from a vibrant and diverse sea that was teeming with life to an arid desert that hardly sustains plant life.
The museum aims to boost awareness of climate change and the urgency of protecting the environment. And it’s a timely reminder of the devastating impacts of climate change on the landscape.
The museum is airy and modern with displays in Arabic and English. There are also skeletons and smaller seashells on display inside glass cases.
The missing link
Wadi al-Hitan solved one of the biggest mysteries in the evolution of whales.
The first fully aquatic whale specimens with legs and feet were discovered at the Valley of the Whales in 1989.
And these remarkable specimens showed that whales evolved from four-legged mammals that once lived on land. This ancient species eventually entered the sea as global temperatures rose.
“This is the most important site in the world for the demonstration of this stage of evolution,” says UNESCO. “It portrays vividly the form and life of these whales during their transition.”
The largest discovered skeleton measured some 21 meters long with developed five-fingered flippers. The skeleton surprisingly included hind legs, feet and toes which hadn’t been seen before on any archaeoceti.
Wadi al-Hitan at night
Stargazing in the vast desert of Wadi al-Hitan is an incredible experience. Far from any city, there’s no light pollution. And the brilliant skies let you clearly see all the constellations.
Wadi al-Hitan is an ideal spot for astrophotography and time-exposure shots of the night sky.
Spend the night at an ecolodge in nearby Fayoum for an incredible desert experience with breathtaking scenery – and minimal Wi-Fi and tech. There are no massive hotels at Wadi al-Hitan (it’s a protected area), but lots of camping and ecolodges to extend your stay.
When I visited the Valley of the Whales with Footloose Egypt, we camped outside under the stars and heard a presentation from an astronomer while taking turns at a telescope.
I also spotted a few fennec desert foxes during our visit. These harmless creatures often visit campsites at night looking for food.
Things to do:
Hike the Wadi El-Hitan mountain for a little uphill climbing in the sand and breathtaking views of the surrounding dunes.
Indulge in a local breakfast of fetir, honey and white cheese that’s traditional to this region.
Combine your trip to Wadi al-Hitan with a stop at nearby Fayoum. Cool off at Fayoum’s Magic Lake or catch a spectacular sunset overlooking the water. For a bit of culture, head to Fayoum village and its pottery studios.
Wadi al-Hitan history
Wadi al-Hitan was discovered in 1902 and listed in 2005 as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Today it’s part of the Wadi El-Rayan Protected Area.
But about 40 to 50 million years ago, the region looked entirely different. The Valley of the Whales was submerged by what’s now called the Tethys Sea. And it was home to an underwater valley where whales were known to congregate – the valley of the whales.
Then came years of slow but steady climate change. Wadi al-Hitan completely dried up – and its fossils lay in the dessert sands for centuries until they were slowly revealed by winds and erosion.
The fossils were discovered in 1902 by H. J. L. Beadnell of the Geological Survey of Egypt. Between 1983 and 2007, nine different expeditions discovered some 400 whale and sea cow skeletons in the valley.
Wadi al-Hitan is some 150 kilometres (93 miles) south-west of Cairo. Though this trip includes several hours in a 4WD through unpaved and bumpy desert sands.
It’s a protected area so visits are limited to prearranged guided tours along designated routes.
Tour companies offer day trips from Cairo to Wadi al-Hitan – with a pickup from your hotel in the morning, followed by a day of exploring and drive back to Cairo at night.
Many visitors and tour groups camp at nearby Fayoum and take the trip to the Valley of the Whales from there.