Lebanon, a country on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean that predates recorded history, boasts remarkable geographic and cultural diversity despite being smaller than Connecticut. Eighteen religious sects live in its snow-capped mountains and fertile Bekaa Valley and along its rocky coast. For more than 10 years, intrepid hikers have been able to experience much of this natural beauty and meet the communities far from urban centers along a hiking trail that runs from one end of the country to the other. This past spring, the president of the republic, General Michel Aoun, formally endorsed the trail, officially recognizing its place in Lebanon’s heritage and making now the time to make the trek.
The country’s plurality, always in a fragile balance, was ruptured in 1974 when Christian, Muslim, and Druze neighbors turned on one another in the Lebanese Civil War, a conflict that lasted 15 years. By the late 1990s, many who had fled the country during the conflict began to return, including Joseph Karam, a Lebanese-born sustainable development entrepreneur.
An avid hiker of the Appalachian Trail in the eastern United States, Karam believed that Lebanon’s extraordinary landscape and heritage were just as worthy of a long-distance trail. He was also convinced that by promoting ecotourism, such a route could heal rural communities struggling to recover from the conflict, uniting former adversaries through a shared love of the land. In 2005 Karam and a colleague submitted a proposal for funding from USAID and formed the Lebanon Mountain Trail Association (LMTA). Just two years later, the Lebanon Mountain Trail (LMT), a 293-mile highland corridor connecting well-worn shepherd and agricultural routes with ancient Phoenician and Roman footpaths, officially opened.
For Gilbert Moukhaiber, an LMTA member and ecotourism pioneer, Karam’s vision has borne fruit: “The Lebanon Mountain Trail is a message of peace saying that through the trail, we are rebuilding what the civil war tore apart.”
Made up of 27 sections (and four side trails), this national treasure runs down the backbone of the country from the northern border with Syria to the Israeli border in the south. It connects more than 70 culturally distinct mountain towns and travels through two biosphere reserves, four nature reserves, and five protected areas. Among other highlights, hikers may encounter majestic cedar trees memorialized in the Bible; venture into awe-inspiring Qadisha Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is home to the world’s earliest Christian monastic settlements; or veer off onto the Baskinta Literary Trail, a 15-mile side trail with 22 landmarks highlighting acclaimed poets and novelists from the region.
When LMTA board member Tamar Hadeshian hiked the trail for the first time nine years ago, it was a life-changing experience. “I never expected to be bombarded with such scenery [in my own country], to stay with hosts from so many different cultures and culinary traditions, and meet with cosmopolitan hikers and fellow like-minded Lebanese,” she says.
Each section was designed to start and end in a different village, giving hikers an unforgettable opportunity to experience legendary Arab hospitality and enjoy authentic regional cuisine. These homestays, which typically cost $40 to $55 per person per night, including meals, are also part of LMTA’s mission to increase economic opportunities for rural communities. Last spring alone, 220 hikers injected more than $100,000 into villages; for locals, this income is a major incentive to continue preserving and protecting their heritage.
Most sections are easily accessible from Lebanon’s coastal cities (except for a few in the south, which require a permit) and can be hiked in one day or combined into longer treks lasting a week or even a month. The LMTA’s website allows hikers to search and filter individual sections by difficulty level, trail type, and thematic interest, and it also provides detailed maps, checklists, and trail updates to help them plan and prepare.
While anyone is free to hike the mountain trail independently, steep ascents, rocky terrain, and occasional water crossings make it challenging even for seasoned hikers. Also, the LMTA frequently has to reroute trails because of unregulated development, so visitors would be wise to hire local guides through the association; the trained guides are paired with individual sections of the trail and can share their extensive knowledge of that area’s rich biodiversity and history.
For those who enjoy hiking with others, the LMTA organizes two group departures each year: a 30-day through-walk in April and a shorter trek of 15 to 18 days in October (which, this year, runs from October 11 to 27, 2019). Hikers can follow the entire trail with the group, tackle multiple portions, or simply join for a night or two at any point; reservations can be made online, with early-bird priority given to anyone committing to more than 10 consecutive days, followed by LMTA members, before opening to the general public. Two groups depart for each hike, one leaving from the north and the other from the south, and with a maximum of 18 people allowed per day in each, spots fill up fast. Each overnight costs $110, including accommodation, all meals, guides, entries to reserves and protected areas, and luggage transport.
The LMT does face threats from haphazard building, illegal dumping, logging, and quarrying. But in spite of these, it has become a world-class destination for responsible tourism that is reuniting the Lebanese people with their patrimony. Echoing sentiments from the LMTA’s “Hike It. Protect It.” campaign—which prompted General Aoun’s ensorsement—LMTA executive director Martine Btaich says, “The trail has reconciled many, including myself, with the country’s hidden beauty and [created] hope in a place where challenges are colossal. We [Lebanese] travel the world to seek mountains, fresh air, recreation, biodiversity. . . . It’s already here; we just need to value it and protect it!”