How to Plan the Perfect Wadi-Hopping Adventure in Oman

Oman is home to dozens of “wadis,” rocky river gorges with impossibly blue swimming holes. Here’s a guide to visiting them safely.

Wadis are akin to adventure playgrounds in Oman, offering opportunities to hike, swim, rock climb, and more.

Wadis are akin to adventure playgrounds in Oman, offering opportunities to hike, swim, rock climb, and more.

Photo by Nathalie Mohadjer

For years, when I imagined the Middle East’s natural beauty, I would picture endless stretches of sand and caravans of camels, à la One Thousand and One Nights. When a friend returned from Oman and shared photos of—yes, the desert, but also terraced mountains, blue-green swimming holes, and river gorges called wadis, my eyes widened. I was a little embarrassed that I was unaware of the geographic diversity within the Arabian peninsula.

I became even more intrigued by Oman when I edited Afar’s print feature story about the country last year, written by Sarah Thankam Mathews, who spent her childhood living there. Mathews visited a river gorge called Wadi Shab; after seeing the raw images from photographer Nathalie Mohadjer, I decided it was now close to the top of my “must visit” list. The orange rocks reminded me of Utah slot canyons, and when combined with the date palm trees and natural pools, the whole thing looked like a dreamscape.

My husband, toddler, and I finally visited Oman for 10 days in December 2023, which was one of the best family trips we have ever taken. We appreciated the kindness and generosity of the Omani people, loved starting our days with coffee roasted with cardamom, and became die-hard wadi fans. If anything, I wish we had devoted more time to exploring them. If you are considering a trip to Oman, here is a primer on these unique natural attractions and some tips on visiting them.

What is a wadi?

Strictly speaking, “wadi” is the Arabic word for “valley.” In Oman, they typically refer to rocky river gorges filled with water: natural swimming pools. They are ideal for hiking, swimming, rock climbing, rappelling, and other adventurous activities. You can visit many wadis either in day trips from Muscat or during a multi-day road trip around the country (details below on how to visit these river gorges).

Must-visit wadis in Oman

I have yet to find a comprehensive list of every wadi in Oman. Given the country’s small population relative to its size, there are likely many river gorges that see few if any visitors at all. Here are a few of the more popular ones:

Distant view of a wadi among cliffs, with a few swimmers (L); several Omani kids at Wadi Bani Khalid Oasis (R)

Wadi Bani Khalid is popular with Omani locals, in part because it is one of the most family-friendly wadis to explore.

Photos by Nathalie Mohadjer

Wadi Bani Khalid

Pin: Wadi Bani Khalid Parking Area (do not just search for “Wadi Bani Khalid”) | View on Google Maps
Location: 150 miles southeast of Muscat; 30 miles northeast of Bidiyah, the most common entrance used for Wahiba Sands Desert
Time required: 1-2 hours (the timings listed throughout this article are estimations; extend them if you prefer to explore more or have a picnic)
Difficulty level: Easy–Moderate

Located about three hours from Muscat, Wadi Bani Khalid is one of the most-visited wadis in Oman, and with good reason. It is one of the more accessible wadis for children and people with physical limitations, which cannot be said of many others on this list. The first pool is a few minutes’ walk from the parking lot; reaching it requires walking across some flat rocks and a falaj, or an ancient Omani irrigation system. Here, you will come across a small restaurant and restrooms, a rarity at wadis. Continue along a path that takes you along the whitewashed canyons, a meandering stream, and robin’s-egg-blue pools. To our delight, when we entered the warm water, we were greeted by tiny fish that gave us little kisses. (In reality, they were eating our dead skin; some specialty spa treatments also use these fish.) We chose to relax in the upper pools and our free pedicures; other visitors continued walking further to Muqal Cave, which contains one of the sources of the wadi’s water.

Aerial view of small boat at Wadi Shab crossing water topped with lily pads

The first part of a visit to Wadi Shab involves a short boat ride across a river filled with lily pads.

Photo by Nathalie Mohadjer

Wadi Shab

Pin: Wadi Shab Parking (do not just search for “Wadi Shab”) | View on Google Maps
Location: 100 miles southeast of Muscat; 30 miles northwest of Sur, a port town many road -trippers include on their itineraries
Time required: 3-4 hours
Difficulty level: Moderate. Must be a confident swimmer to explore all of the pools.

I have two competing memories of Wadi Shab. First, I remember the incredible colors: the chartreuse of the lily pads on the river we crossed by boat, the dark green leaves of the date palm trees, the rocks that ranged from ochre to beige, the impossibly turquoise water. At the cave entrance (more on that later), the water seemed to be illuminated from underneath and turned into a neon blue. My second memory of Wadi Shab is less pleasant: I recall how slippery some rocks were and how I cut open my knees and elbows after a fall. To prevent that from happening to you, please heed my packing list below.

Wadi Shab consists of a short boat ride across a river (1 Omani rial, or US$2.60, per person), a 3.5-mile canyon hike that takes up to an hour to complete, and finally, a series of natural pools. The hike starts off relatively flat, and about 20 minutes in, you’ll encounter large rocks to climb over. It is not technical but does require a bit of scrambling. There are a couple of areas where the path narrows and there is a drop on one side. I would rate the trek as moderate.

The pools are stunning in their clarity. The first of the three is the most family-friendly; in retrospect, since we were traveling with our toddler, it may have been wiser to, well, stick to the rivers and lakes we’re used to (sorry, had to). We were thankful to have rented a life vest for her in the parking lot. As we continued down the pool, the water became shallower, to the point that we were walking in ankle-deep water with river rocks underfoot. Eventually, the water level rose again, to the point where we couldn’t touch the bottom and needed to swim. This is where the rocks became more slippery. Eventually, we found ourselves at the narrow entrance to a cave that we needed to swim through. We slipped through and were greeted with another pool and a waterfall. Finally, we turned around and retraced all of our steps; somehow, four hours had elapsed.

Wadi Tiwi

Google Maps pins: Trekkers can start either at the beginning of Wadi Tiwi or at the end, which is at Mibam village. The end of this blog post offers Google Maps pins. This blog post offers additional pins, including where to stop for a public restroom before entering the wadi.
Location: 7 miles further inland compared to Wadi Shab
Time required: 4+ hours
Difficulty level: Moderate to difficult; 4WD vehicle required; must be a confident swimmer to explore all of the pools

Perhaps because it is further inland and involves chains to hold while ascending or descending steep rocks, Wadi Tiwi does not get nearly the number of visitors as Bani Khalid or Shab. Sarah Thankham Mathews, who wrote our feature story about Oman, visited Wadi Tiwi, though her trip was cut short due to a hairy drive and rain. We did not have time to visit it but met other travelers who did. They enjoyed their time there—and were also happy to have visited with guides. There are many local villagers who serve as guides, though I would recommend booking a guide in advance. (Two companies are mentioned below.)

As Mathews wrote, “Wadi Tiwi is a 22-mile-long gorge that snakes from the Hajar Mountains to the Gulf of Oman.” Visitors may choose either to park closer to the coastline and hike for miles until they arrive at the river gorge or to take the rocky road to Mibam Village. From here, there is a steep walk down to a series of picturesque pools and the waterfall.

Wadi Al Arbaeen

Google Maps pin: See the end of this blog post for Google Maps pins
Location: 80 miles southeast of Muscat; 18 miles inland from Bimmah Sinkhole
Time required: 2+ hours
Difficulty level: Ranges from easy to difficult; 4WD vehicle required

Despite being closer to Muscat than any of the other wadis on this list, Wadi Al Arbaeen (also spelled Al Arbiyyin or Al Arbeieen) receives relatively few visitors. This may be in part because of the limited signage and offroading necessary to arrive there.

If you are willing to brave the drive, you’re in for a day that could range from serene to highly adventurous. I did not personally visit, but this seems to be the wadi that keeps on giving.

Families and anyone with limited mobility may enjoy a short walk from the parking lot to swim in an emerald pool. For more adventurous visitors, there are daylong hikes to secret waterfalls and further pools. This blog post offers a helpful map and directions for some of these walks. True adrenaline junkies can even try their hand at rock climbing or cliff diving. As with Wadi Tiwi, I would recommend booking some of the more technical adventures in advance and going with a trusted guide.

Aerial view of Bimmah Sinkhole, with a few swimmers

Bimmah Sinkhole is believed to be connected to the nearby Gulf of Oman through an underground tunnel, making the water brackish.

Photo by Nathalie Mohadjer

Bimmah Sinkhole

Google Maps pin: Bimmah Sinkhole | View on Google Maps
Location: 80 miles southeast of Muscat
Time required: 1 hour
Difficulty level: Easy

This ovoid sunken pool, surrounded by layers of limestone rocks, has several origin stories. According to local legend, it was created by a falling meteor, giving it its Arabic name “Hawiyyat Najm,” or “falling star.” The reality may be less dramatic: Scientists believe it was caused by a depression in the surface level of limestone. Given the sinkhole’s proximity to the coastline, it is filled with brackish water that turns emerald green when the sun hits it at a specific angle.

Bimmah Sinkhole is an easy, family-friendly trip from Muscat. There are bathrooms on site for visitors to change into their swimwear, a children’s playground, a small park, and finally, a long staircase (with a railing) that goes down to the swimming pool. People with physical mobility issues may enjoy seeing the sinkhole from above. The pool was a delight for my family. We enjoyed another free pedicure while we explored different parts of the pool. My daughter remarked on how different the water temperature felt near the cave versus in a sunnier area. (As the name suggests, this is technically not a wadi but a sinkhole. However, it is one of the more accessible natural pools in Oman.)

Other wadis

Here are five more wadis I learned about during our trip. All are on my list for my next trip to Oman:

  1. Wadi Damm: 70 miles west of Nizwa, the historic capital of Oman. The year-round pools result in water cascading down a wall of rocks, ferns, and moss.
  2. Wadi Dayqah: Located 70 miles southeast of Muscat. It’s relatively close to Wadi Al Arbaeen as the crow flies, but the roads appear to be difficult to traverse. This collection of bright blue pools is a result of a dam that helps irrigate nearby villages.
  3. Wadi Qurai: Situated approximately halfway between Muscat and Nizwa. This requires a walk up a falaj (ancient Omani irrigation system) to a pool.
  4. Wadi Bimmah: Not to be confused with Bimmah Sinkhole, cited earlier. Also known as Snake Canyon due to its winding shape. This is a popular wadi for canyoneering and other adventure sports.
  5. Wadi Darbat: Located only 30 miles up the coast from Salalah, Oman’s southernmost large city. (It would take almost 10 hours to drive to Salalah from Muscat or require a 90-minute flight.) This wadi is known for its waterfalls as well as camels that sometimes traverse the teal waters.

Tips for visiting wadis

Oman’s wadis are surprisingly accessible (and all are free of charge to visit). However, there are a few things I wish my family and I knew before venturing out.

How to get there

Many of the wadis mentioned above are accessible on a day trip from Muscat. The best way to travel there is by rental car; we were stunned by how smooth Omani roads are and how accurate the GPS was. Venture City Oman offers private guided tours for many wadis, including most listed above. Another recommended tour operator is Twenty3Extreme.

If you plan to do a broader road trip around Oman, I would recommend renting a 4WD vehicle; though many of the above wadis are accessible in 2WD vehicles, a 4WD offers a wider berth for exploration—including spontaneous side trips.

For most wadis, the best bet is to arrive as early as possible. This will allow you to hike and swim at a leisurely pace, spend time exploring before the midday heat, and hopefully beat the crowds at the more popular ones.

What to pack

Here is the packing list I wish I had for a day trip to a wadi:

  • Loose, comfortable clothes for hiking. Please note that Oman is quite a conservative country, and women in particular should be mindful to cover their shoulders and knees in public when possible.
  • Sturdy shoes. In most cases, unless you are planning to do a more technical trek that requires hiking boots, standard sneakers/running shoes should be fine. Sandals with good traction are an excellent option for many wadis, as they can also be used for swimming. With the exception of Bimmah Sinkhole, I would not visit any of these locations in shoes without traction.
  • Swimsuits. If you are comfortable hiking wearing your swimsuit underneath your clothes, I recommend doing that so you don’t have to find a place in the wild to change once you reach a swimming area. I would recommend for women to wear a one-piece suit and to carry a pair of shorts to wear over it, if that makes you feel less conspicuous.
  • Water shoes. I really wish we had packed these—for Wadi Shab in particular. The swimming pools are lined with river rocks that, after walking for a few minutes (and carrying a toddler), start to pinch a bit. More to the point, some of the rocks we encountered were mossy and slippery, and at different points, each of us slipped, fell, and started bleeding. I don’t say this to scare anyone from visiting the wadis, but had I known what we were in for, I would have prepared better.
  • Lightweight towels. These serve two purposes: In addition to drying off after your swim, you can also use a towel to more discreetly change out of your swimsuit and back into hiking clothes.
  • Fresh underwear! This is from personal experience—it’s not that comfortable to drive back from a wadi with a wet booty.
  • Dry bag and underwater phone case. A dry bag is great to carry valuables while you swim. (Oman is quite safe and we never had a problem with leaving our backpacks while we explored the wadis.) An underwater phone case (ideally with a strap) will allow you to take some stunning photos from the swimming pools.
  • Sunscreen and a hat. The Middle Eastern sun can be hot!
  • Life vest. If you are not a strong swimmer, you may consider either bringing a life vest with you or renting one in Oman. (A life vest was available at Wadi Shab for my daughter; if you travel with a group, you should be able to access one, too.)
  • Drinking water.
  • Food/snacks. At most wadis, the rocks make for ideal picnic spots. Having food with you will allow you to spend more time exploring and less time figuring out when to leave and where to eat lunch.


It is certainly possible to visit wadis with little ones, though depending on the age of the children and your risk tolerance, it may impact how much of a river gorge you end up exploring.

For context, we had our three-year-old in tow during our wadi-hopping adventure. Given that we were there over the December holidays, we saw many other families with children enjoying the wadis. We did not bring a toddler hiking backpack with us, which in retrospect would have been helpful for some stretches where our daughter did not want to walk and my husband ended up carrying her on his shoulders. We did rent a life jacket for her at Wadi Shab, which I would strongly recommend.

Safety first

Do not attempt to visit a wadi if rain is in the forecast. In the rain, some wadis can overflow and become dangerous for visitors. Because the ground is very dry, it is often hydrophobic, meaning that instead of absorbing water, it tends to just run off. This can put visitors at risk of a flash flood.

Sarika Bansal is the editorial director of Afar Magazine and editor of the book Tread Brightly: Notes on Ethical Travel.
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