A visit to Wadi Al-Hitan – exploring fantastic whale fossils

Petrified whale skeleton in the Wadi al Hitan

The pyramids are incredibly old! 5000 years of civilisation look down on us from those Pharaonic monuments in Egypt. For our guidebook “Ägypten – Die klassische Nilreise”, we have visited them countless times. But during our most recent research trip to Egypt, we finally found time for a visit to Wadi Al-Hitan, a site where petrified whale fossils have been discovered. And if the pyramids – and other megalithic structures such as the underground Hypogeum Hal Saflieni or the megalithic temples of Malta – are very old, the whale fossils in Wadi Al-Hitan are exceedingly old!

This blog post will show you what to expect from a visit to Wadi-Al-Hitan in Egypt and how to get there.

Why visit the Wadi-Al-Hitan?

At Wadi Al-Hitan, researchers discovered fossilized whales with hind legs. This discovery proves that whales actually developed from land-based animals to ocean-living mammals. The palaeontological remains in Wadi Al-Hitan date from the Eocene, about 50 million years ago. Back then, the Thetys Ocean covered much of today’s Egypt. Along the coastline of the Tethys Ocean grew subtropical mangrove forests, corals thrived in the shallow seabed of lush lagoons. And these early types of whales presumably roamed those lagoons, close to the coast and occasionally still coming ashore!

Through the Wadi-Al-Rayan Nature Park to the Wadi Al-Hitan

Signpost to the Wadi Al-Hitan

We have rented a 4×4 with driver from the village of Tunis in the Fayoum Oasis in order to visit Wadi Al-Hitan. Today the site is in the desert within the Wadi Al Rayan Protected Area. Soon after the turn-off into the Wadi Al-Rayan Nature Park, our driver Mohammed leaves the road and speeds into the desert. Wadi Al-Hitan is about 50 km west of Tunis, and with a 4×4 you can avoid the detour on a potholed desert road. Flat sand plains eventually give way to more distinct sandy valleys and rocky mountains. Then we rejoin the road and pass a sign: UNESCO World Heritage, Wadi al-Hitan. The Wadi Al-Hitan was inscribed as a UNESCO world Heritage site in 2005.

Visiting the museum at the Wadi Al-Hitan site

Finally, we stop at a small parking lot in the middle of the desert, at the beginning of a broad valley. In the vast sandy landscape, we spot a few sandy mudbrick structures. They blend perfectly into the environment, and one of them is housing a museum.

Petrified whale bones in the Wadi Al-Hitan Museum

Two large, intact whale skeletons feature in the centre of the museum. On a first glimpse these skeletons look like normal whale backbones – except that this is actually stone rather than bone. These whales lived about 50 to 40 million years ago in the area of today’s Wadi Al-Hitan. They died naturally, apparently, were covered by earth and sand, and became petrified. During this process mineral substances oozed into the bones and gradually completely replaced the organic material. The Thetys Ocean eventually disappeared, and the area became the uninhabitable Western Desert. Only with time, erosion exposed some of these skeletons again. It was in 1905 that the British Cartographer H.J.L. Beadnell discovered the petrified whale skeletons in Wadi Al-Hitan.

Walking whales

Petrified hind limbs of the Basilosaurus Isis (an ancient whale) in the Wadi al Hitan Museum

In front of the two whale skeletons, there is a small glass showcase. The petrified bones in it are perhaps the most important find in the Wadi Al-Hitan. They are not just some other whale bones, but short hind legs. Legs? Those whales had legs?! Indeed, the whale fossils in Wadi Al-Hitan belong to the earliest suborder of whales. These whales, the archaeoceti, are long extinct. But as we now know, they were originally mammals living at least partly on land. Like crocodiles, for instance, they had short legs to move on land. But they could also use these legs to paddle in the water – similar to ducks, we imagine. The skeletons found in Wadi Al-Hitan were in the last stages of losing their hind limbs. There might be finds in the future with even bigger hind legs.

Walking to the fossilized remains

Desert stroll on a visit to Wadi Al-Hitan

From the museum building, a signposted path leads out into the yellow desert. Numbers and side-trails lead to 18 “stations”. They are marked points of interest to visitors, some with a plaque or an information panel. Most of them are the petrified remains of whale skeletons. The archaeologists have left some of the most impressive intact fossils in-situ and the huge whale backbones in the sand are quite impressive. Occasionally the fossils still perch on ledges of eroded stone.

Petrified corals in the Wadi al-Hitan

A panel calls on us to find the layer of corals in the desert rocks. And with some prodding, we manage to recognise the different layers in the landscape of erosion. And yes, there is a peculiar band of patterned stone that must be the corals. It is on this layer of corals, we learn, that most of the fossils are found. The whales were living in this region, after all, when there was a seabed with corals. Thus, when they died, they sank down and came lying on top of the corals. On the remainder of our walk, we even spot some petrified bone pieces on that coral band of stone, even apart from those bones numbered for the visitors. The walk around Wadi Al-Hitan also leads us to some nice viewpoints over the desert landscape with its peculiarly shaped rocks.

A visit to the Nature Park of Wadi Al-Rayan

The Wadi al Rayan salt lakes make a good additional stop on a visit to Wadi Al-Hitan

After our visit to Wadi Al-Hitan we take the access road back into the Nature Park of Wadi Al-Rayan. The park straddles several salt lakes in the desert. It is mostly Egyptian tourists who enjoy the nature there. Our driver Mohammed shows off his driving skills by driving up a rocky hill in the 4×4. Going up steep sandy slopes in a car feels quite scary! But then, the panorama view from the top is gorgeous.

Afterwards we have a Bedouin-style tea at a smaller lake, the so-called Magic Lake (a very nice lake, but not particularly magic…). There is also a real Bedouin tent not far from us on the lakeshore.

Magic Lake in the Wadi al Rayan Nature Park

A detour to Egypt’s only waterfall

On the way back we make a brief detour. The short access road between the Upper Salt Lake and the Lower Salt Lake is unusually good. Cars and coaches go our way. At the parking lot at the end of the road, we marvel at the tourist crowds! Obviously this is the place to go! A short walk from the parking lot leads to the viewpoints: From the Upper Salt Lake, a small stream flows into the Lower Salt Lake. Split in two arms, it forms a small waterfall. That is, by international standards. For the Egyptian visitors, it is a rare opportunity to see a waterfall at all!

How to arrange a visit to Wadi Al-Hitan

We went to Tunis Village at the banks of Lake Qarun in the Fayoum Oasis and stayed there for two nights. Tunis Village is a famous pottery village with a good tourist infrastructure. From there, it was easy to arrange the visit to Wadi Al-Hitan for 2 persons by 4×4, even on short notice.  It would even be possible to rent a normal taxi there for the day and go only to Wadi Al-Hitan on the regular access road. We paid around 70 $ for a 4×4 with driver for the whole day.

Tunis pottery store - also a good base for a visit to Wadi Al-Hitan

Tour operators in Cairo also arrange the visit to Wadi Al-Hitan as a day trip, but this adds at least two hours’ driving time each way. Prices on the Internet are around 200 $ for the trip from Cairo (4×4 with driver for one day).

Note that ticket prices are usually not included in the care hire. Entrance fee for Wadi Al-Rayan is 5 $ for foreigners. You have enter Wadi Al-Rayan in order to reach Wadi Al-Hitan, since it forms part of the Nature Park. At Wadi Al-Hitan foreigners pay an additional 10$ entrance fee (this was in January 2023).

Should you visit Wadi Al-Hitan?

We wanted to see this UNESCO site for a long time and are very glad that we finally made it. After all, it is rare to visit something that old – such as the impressive dinosaur finds in Fukui Prefecture in Japan. We were happy that there was a lot to explore in Wadi Al-Hitan as quite often these very old UNESCO sites have disappointed us a bit. For instance, in Denmark we have endeavoured to admire a scientifically important layer of ash dating to the time of the dinosaurs.

Fantastically shaped rocks in the Wadi al-Hitan

Apart from the sheer thrill of looking at something 50 million years old, we also enjoyed the landscape. The visit involves a long, rather lonesome walk in spectacular desert scenery. If you have some extra time on your Egypt trip, we would highly recommend a detour to Tunis and Wadi Al-Hitan. A lot of Egyptian tourists and expats from Cairo come on the weekend and reservations might be necessary during season.

NB: Our visit to Wadi Al-Hitan was not sponsored in any way and we paid all expenses.

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19 Comments

  1. On my next visit to Egypt I am planning to visit the Siwa Oasis, and I have seen that some of the tour operators who can customise your trip can include the Wadi Al-Hitan on the itinerary. I would be very interested to visit this museum and see the fossilized whale bones. Nature, again, is showing us how incredible it is, who knew that bones can become stone after million and million of years. I would like to explore the Wadi Al-Rayan natural park as well, and sip tea by the lake with the Bedouins.

    1. Dear Joanna, there are some tour operators who include the Wadi Al-Hitan in a bigger loop through the Western Desert. However it might be much cheaper splitting the trip in a few days in the Tunis area and do the Siwa trip via Alexandria / Marsa Matrouh

  2. The whale legs took me totally by surprise and made me open a tab and dive into a Googling rabbit hole, so cool! The desert is so vast and I’m surprised at how yellow it is, I’m not sure why but I always imagined it would be a deep orange or perhaps a light beige. I had a laugh at your commentary about the ‘Magic Lake’, looks like a nice body of water!

    1. Dear Alice, although we knew that whales at one point lived at land and went back into the water, it was so fascinating to actually see the bones and the fossils.

  3. What a fascinating place to visit and with so much ancient history! I am also surprised to read that the whales had legs all those millenia ago! It’s incredible to learn about it here. I never knew that Egypt only had one waterfall, I really learned a lot from reading about Wadi al Hitan.

  4. I saw that first picture of the skeleton laying on the sand and had to read more about Wadi Al-Hitan. And fascinating to read that there are intact skeletons of fossilized whales with hind legs. Certainly does indicate that the whales once lived on land. Fun to even find a waterfall in Egypt on this visit.

  5. I have a constant interest in investigating extinct fossils. So, I want to learn more about this location. If I ever travel to Egypt, I’d definitely stop by the museum at the Wadi Al-Hitan site. Moreover, the Magic Lake is just stunning! One such remarkable encounter!

    1. Dear Maria, Magic Lake is pretty – but not really stunnig, we think. But, by all means, do go for the fossils at Wadi al-Hitan. It is one of the most fascinating places in Egypt. And we have travelled a lot through Egypt.

  6. Happy to know that this is worth the trip. I can totally relate when you say some UNESCO sites are a bit disappointing. Being able to see these fossilized whales with hind legs is just mind-blowing. Also, I had no idea that Egypt has only 1 waterfall and seeing it is definitely worth the detour despite being a just a small stream flowing.

  7. Wow, this was such an interesting read! I have never heard of this place before even though I have visited Egypt. My kids (and our family) are so interested in fossils and we like to go to places where we can see them. The first fossil in your picture is huge!! So interesting that they were found some proof of their legs. I must say that I really enjoy your blog and all the interesting places you visit!

    1. Dear Paula, thank you so much for your kind comment. It really means a lot. As you know, we make a living from writing guidebooks and from tourguiding work. We do not use the blog as a source of income, though connecting with our readers is super-important for us.

    2. The whale fossils of Wadi Al- Hitan in Egypt are a thing of wonder and it’s great that the fossils are perched on the sand intact and declared as a UNESCO world heritage site. And the thing to be noted as an important archeological discovery that these fossils belongs to the earliest suborder of whales which had legs.
      The Wadi Al- Rayan park is very scenic with its magic lake and the view of the only waterfall in Egypt is truly mesmerizing!

  8. I have planned out trips for my customers to Egypt recently. And some of them opted for Alexandria and and a day exploring the pyramids. Probably next time I would like them to add a visit to Wadi al Hitan as well. Fossilized whales with hind legs will certainly be a great experience. Petrified remains of whales would be a great sight in the Yellow desert and the museum too looks interesting. Would love to spend two nights in Tunis Village and have a look at all the beautiful pottery creations and purchase a few as well.

  9. Whale fossils? Wow! That’s a place I definitely want to go to. Both I and my daughter are absolutely fascinated by fossils and I’m awestruck by how the bones have been petrified here in the sunny, dry desert. Thanks for the info that most of the fossils are in-situ and you do have to hike a bit in to see them all. Petrified coral fossils as rock formations? Whoa!!! Good to know that it is easy to visit here by taxi.

  10. I just can’t imagine a world where massive whales would come ashore! You’ve been to some exotic places but I think this one has really blown me away. The landscape just looks a movie set. Taking in the scene really sparks the imagination.

    Thank you for sharing another page from your travels :).

    1. Dear Lessette, Wadi al-Hitan was on our wishlist for years and we are very happy, that we finally made it there. For sure it is a highlight in Egypt – and one not many tourists know about.

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