The attractions of Jamaica are easy to sell to travelers. Crystal blue waters, soft sand and a little reggae to go with your rum cocktail as the sun dips on another perfect Caribbean day. However, venture beyond the beaches and lush banana groves and you’ll discover a side of the country that most visitors don’t see – a hiker’s paradise where incredible trails zigzag through jungles and scramble over mountain ridges, and where rushing waterfalls seem to erupt out of nowhere.
If you’re hitting the trails in the interior, it pays to hire a local guide. Trails (called ‘tracks’ in Jamaica) are often unmarked and overgrown, and advice from locals that your destination is “just a little way” may in fact mean several hours of walking. Here’s a guide to our favorite trails in Jamaica.
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Oatley Mountain Trail
Best day hike
2.4km (1.4 miles) round trip, 90 minutes, easy
Run by the Jamaica Conservation & Development Trust, the Holywell Recreation Area in the Blue Mountains above Kingston is the entry point for the beautiful Hardwar Gap. Here you’ll find 120 hectares of lush Jamaican woodland, with dozens of fern species, epiphytes, flowers and wild strawberries and raspberries. The mist-shrouded, uppermost slopes are densely covered with rare primary montane forest, dominated by pine trees, and the birdwatching is fabulous.
Well-maintained, easy hiking trails lead off in all directions through the ferny dells, cloud forest and elfin woodland. The 2.4km Oatley Mountain Trail is the best walk, and it leads to a river that’s good for bathing. Guides aren’t necessary for this hike but they can be great sources of information about the region’s flora and birds – arrange one at the staffed ranger station, just beyond the entrance. After the hike, refresh yourself at Cafe Blue near Irish Town, a short drive downhill from Holywell.
The Blue Mountains offer up some of Jamaica’s most dramatic scenery © David Neil Madden / Getty Images
Blue Mountain Peak
Best hike in Jamaica
12km (7.4 miles) round trip, 5 hours, moderate
More than two dozen walking trails cross Jamaica’s Blue Mountains, but the hike to the summit of 2256m (7402ft) Blue Mountain Peak to watch the sun rise over the island’s capital, Kingston, is undoubtedly the best in the country.
The hike starts from the village of Penlyne Castle, and many people spend the night here and set off in the dark before dawn to reach the peak in time for sunrise. Sadly, one of the most popular accommodations, Whitfield Hall, was destroyed in a fire in July 2022.
The first part of the trail – a series of steep switchbacks known as Jacob’s Ladder – is the toughest section, leading to a ranger station where you pay the US$5 park entry fee. As you climb, the vegetation becomes less tropical, until you’re hiking amid stunted trees draped with old man’s beard (lichen) and giant ferns.
In the predawn cold at the summit, the first rays of the sun wash over the densely forested mountain peaks and out to sea – on a clear day you can see as far as Cuba.
Best backcountry hike
20km (12.4 miles) round trip, 4–5 hours, moderate
Cockpit Country is Jamaica’s most rugged quarter, with jungle-clad hills intersected by deep and sheer valleys, producing a landscape that once gave shelter to people escaping slavery. Today, the area is rich in hiking opportunities.
The most popular hike is the walk along the abandoned B10 road from Kinloss (easily reached from Montego Bay) to Spring Garden, passing through Barbecue Bottom. Along the way, you’ll gain a real appreciation for Cockpit Country’s beautiful, honeycombed limestone cliffs and verdant valleys. It’s a long hike, but with gentle inclines, so the route is accessible to any moderately fit hiker. There are beautiful views and shorter hikes along the route are also possible.
It’s essential to take a trusted guide; organize one through the Southern Trelawny Environmental Agency, (STEA) based in Rock Spring. The agency works with reputable local guides, simultaneously empowering local communities and giving visitors access to this little-explored corner of Jamaica.
Climbing Dunn’s River Falls is a great way to end a hike on the One Love Trail © Jan-Schneckenhaus / iStockphoto / Getty Images
One Love Trail
Best family hike
4.7km (3.1 miles) round trip, 3 hours, easy
This hike, which is suitable for all ages and abilities, starts in an inauspicious spot – the Island Village shopping center near the cruise ship pier in Ocho Rios. The track takes its name from the large statue of Bob Marley at its entrance, and the mostly level path follows the coastline, with several opportunities to dip down to the waves and paddle in a cove before you reach the point where a small waterfall tumbles into the sea.
This is the sign to turn inland and cross the main road to follow a forested path up to massively popular Dunns River Falls, which you can climb, passing through the cascading water. This walk can get busy, so we recommend enjoying it on a day when there are no cruise ships docked at Ocho Rio. Head out in the morning before the tourist buses arrive from Montego Bay so you can enjoy having Dunn’s River Falls almost to yourself.
Best challenging hike
16km (9.9 miles), 6–10 hours, difficult
For the serious hiker, the old Troy-Windsor Trail is one of the most rewarding hikes in the Caribbean. Heavy tree cover and steep-sided hills block any expansive views, but the jagged, jungly limestone scenery is never less than enthralling, especially if you hike accompanied by a guide who can recount the history of the region’s slavery days and guerrilla warfare by Maroons (escaped slaves).
Look out for the stone walls of the old road, which can be seen along much of the route. The trail is easier to walk from south to north, starting from Troy, but a guide is essential. Do not under any circumstances attempt this hike without one.
Either go with Martell ‘Malibu’ Taylor or Miss Claudine – both live in Sherwood Content – or hire a guide with a machete from the Jamaican Caves Organisation. Take lots of water (a minimum of six liters per person) and food, a flashlight, and plenty of insect repellent – the mosquitoes here are brutal.
The pummeling power of Mayfield Falls more than justifies the hike out here © Mira / Alamy Stock Photo
Mayfield Falls River Hike
Best waterfall hike
2km (1.3 miles), 1 hour, easy
Plenty of hikes in Jamaica will have you jumping over streams in places, but the point of the walk to Mayfield Falls is to literally follow a river by wading through it until you reach your destination.
Picture this: you climb into the cool river beneath giant thickets of bamboo and scramble upstream for around 45 minutes, then swim through an underwater tunnel, jump into deep pools and sit bubbling in the froth of a natural Jacuzzi, letting the “washing machine” falls pound your shoulders. There’s no better way to cool off after a walk.
The hike is easily accessible by road from Negril, and the area around the falls has been sensitively developed, with a changing area, water-shoe rental and a restaurant.
Tips for hiking in Jamacia
It’s best to hike from January to April, when the weather is drier and less prone to storms. Wherever your walk carries you, be sure to stay on established trails. The mountainous terrain in Jamaica is too treacherous to go wandering off the track, with thick vegetation hiding sinkholes and crevasses. Natural habitats are quickly eroded too, and animals and plants are disturbed by walkers who stray from the path.
If a trail is difficult to follow, turn back. Mountain rescues take time in Jamaica and you could be lost for days. If you’re heading into the backcountry, don’t forget to pack the following items:
- hiking boots
- mosquito netting
- bug spray
- a flashlight (torch)
- plenty of drinking water