Huddled together on the uneven steps, our noses cold from the altitude but our bodies warm from the proximity of hundreds of other people, we clutched our cameras and smartphones, waiting in anticipation for the sun to creep over the distant hills. We’d done it. Exhausted after a strenuous climb, James and I – and hundreds of other people – had reached the summit of Sri Lanka’s second tallest mountain, Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada). We waited, in the still of the morning, to watch the sunrise from one of the most beautiful places in the country.
Sri Pada, meaning “sacred footprint”, is named as such by Buddhists who believe that Buddha left his footprint there when he headed towards paradise. It’s English name – Adam’s Peak – is believed to be the first place that Adam set foot on Earth after leaving Heaven. The route is a pilgrimage and has been for thousands of years; people of all ages flock to the area to complete the ascent to the monastery at the top.
I’ll be honest: hiking Adam’s Peak wasn’t easy. I’ve done overnight treks, climbed to the summits of mountains and trekked across uneven ground, but I found this hike quite tough. Mostly because it’s almost entirely made up of very steep steps – but also because we chose to start walking at 2am on only a couple of hours’ sleep.
The night before, at our hotel at dinner, we were given a short briefing by the staff on what to expect. After joking that he could arrange a minibus to cart us to the summit, he led us through the different stages of the walk, with the last part described simply as “many, many steps until the top”. Well, I think I may have misunderstood the meaning of the word “many”. It means loads and loads – so many that you think there can’t possibly be any more – until you see another 100m of concrete stairs stretch out ahead of you towards the sky.
We set off at 2am, as advised by our hotel staff and by the Lonely Planet. The ascent takes around 2.5 to 3 hours, so, with sunrise being at 6am, we would have a good hour to rest and have a snack at the summit. Leaving the hotel, we reached Dalhousie bus stand within 10 minutes, where the track begins. Just after the bus stand there is a large sign written in Sinhala with an arrow on it, guiding the way to Adam’s Peak.
And so we began. We passed through a temple, signed our names and left a small donation. I’m not sure if this is mandatory but it seemed like we should, as it contributes towards maintenance of the paths, electricity costs of having the lights illuminate the route, and members of staff being present at the overcrowded summit for safety and guidance. After passing by the huge standing Buddha statue – a gift from Myanmar – we crossed the main bridge and started the ascent.
The path begins by winding up the lower part of the mountain through a series of teashops and stalls selling souvenirs, warm hats and gloves, etc. On your right, there are the views of endless tea plantations; although we couldn’t see them in the middle of the night, we could smell the tea! Listen out and you’ll hear the trickle of waterfalls tumbling down the rocks amongst the greenery. You can take a photo on the way back.
Reaching the Makara Thorana (Main Arch), there’s a statue of a reclining Buddha on your left. Shortly after this point is the Red Bridge, which a waterfall runs underneath. Again, you can’t see it in the pitch-black, but you can hear the water. The next pointer is the Japanese temple, which is a beautiful white pagoda, and shortly after this you’ll pass a huge bell – a gift from the USA.
At this point, the stairs split in two; both lead the same way, but this is the point at which I remember the hike becoming a lot more difficult. From here to the top, it’s just steps, steps, steps. I was already quite worn out by this point and thinking, “surely it can’t be much further!” Oh, how wrong I was.
The mountain is a perfectly picturesque cone shape. On a clear day, you can see the monastery at the summit from Dalhousie; during the night, the twinkling lights that illuminate the track create a beautiful yet spooky zig-zag towards the heavens. Adam’s Peak is undoubtedly pleasing to the eye from the ground, but climbing it means that the relatively easy ascent up the bottom part of the mountain soon becomes much more strenuous as you approach the summit.
The tea shops became less common and the steps became much steeper. I kept my eyes on my toes as some of the steps are uneven or crumbling – and it also meant I didn’t notice that the trail of lights to the summit wasn’t ending any time soon. There’s a handrail to help you climb the steps; you’re supposed to keep to the right, but it makes sense to hop over the railing and overtake any slow walkers if need be.
My energy was fading at this point. Neither I nor James had eaten anything since waking up; we’d had a big, carb-heavy dinner at 7pm the night before and hadn’t felt hungry when we started walking. We had been drinking lots of water but I had felt a little nauseous for most of the climb because of lack of sleep. It isn’t high enough to get altitude sickness, but as with any ascent, the air is slightly thinner so it’s harder to breathe.
While James went to the toilet, I sat on a step to catch my breath. My calves were aching quite a bit. Neither of us have done much hiking since our last week in New Zealand, besides walking the dog back home. I used the railings to pull myself up the steps – it seemed to ease the pressure on my calves a little. After ten minutes or so we stopped for a drink of water… and then it happened. My stomach couldn’t hold it. I threw up over the side of the steps, while other hikers passed by me, probably thinking I couldn’t hack it. With his hand on my shoulder, James asked if I was going to be okay. I spewed again. “Abs, we’re going back down.”
No way. No way was I coming this far and not getting to the summit. “I’m not going back,” I said. We took the next part of the steps slowly, letting others overtake us, until we reached the last tea shop where we stopped for a cup of tea and a rotti for James. I nibbled at one of my ginger biscuits I had brought with us. That was better. Sugar. ENERGY!
At around 4:30am, we left the tea shop and took the last staircase towards the summit of the mountain. Just before you enter the monastery, there is a sign to advise you to remove your shoes and hats; we tied our boot laces together and carried them with us. I felt a sense of relief as we approached the Buddhist flags flowing in the wind, the gold fencing of the monastery. Jammed together amongst hundreds of other tourists and locals, we immediately found ourselves in a queue to enter the temple; luckily, really, because we had no idea what was going on. You aren’t allowed to take photos in the tiny temple at the top, but this is the highest point of Adam’s Peak so you have to go through it!
The experience of watching the sunrise from the top of the mountain was completely different to what I expected. I thought it would be a calming, serene experience with lots of space for you to sit where you like and take beautiful photos. In reality, there is a designated “standing” area by the steps up to the monastery; we were hundreds of people crammed together like sardines, armed with our cameras, trying our best not to get the nearby buildings in the bottom of the frame.
But crowds aside, it was somewhat magical. A sense of community washed over me as we stood waiting for that anticipated moment that the sun appears over the hills. The Chinese lady to my right was babbling away to me, I had no idea what she was saying as I don’t speak Mandarin, but we shared the feeling of accomplishment through smiles and showing each other the photos we were taking.
Before descending the same way we had come from, we headed towards Ratnapura Road. Here, we could see the unmistakeable shadow of the mountain in a perfect triangle across the landscape. Please don’t miss this. It’s such a strange sight and feels somewhat supernatural, particularly as the mist begins to roll across the hills. That sight is unlike anything I’ve seen before.
With the sun quickly rising, we began our descent at 6:45am. Most people (myself included) find that going down is harder than going up. I prefer walking down steps to walking down a slope as it hurts my toes less, but it puts an awful lot of pressure on your knees. We stopped every few staircases or so to take a photo of the stunning views ahead of us, and to rest our knees for a fraction of a second.
We descended Adam’s Peak fairly quickly but many of the elderly Sri Lankan ladies were side-stepping down the stairs; one lady was hunched over almost at a 90-degree angle as she hobbled, supported by the railing. That’s when I realised how truly important this pilgrimage is for Sri Lankan people. Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Christians all make this holy pilgrimage. Mothers were laden with bags containing gifts for Buddha, fathers were carrying their children in their arms as they slept, the elderly were being helped down the steps by their teenaged grandchildren. The hike took us 7 hours in total but for these people it would take a lot longer. I felt privileged to be a part of this experience.
We continued down the steps, past the trickling waterfalls, past the beautiful temples and past the endless fields of tea where the plantation workers were just beginning their days’ work. We wound through the souvenir shops and stepped into the bus stand, a feeling of elation in our veins as we walked the next few hundred metres to the hotel, where we enjoyed breakfast before having a long, uninterrupted nap.
Remember: When you descend the mountain, make sure you come back the way you came from – otherwise you’ll end up a long way away in Ratnapura!
As well as your food, water, and extra clothes, consider the following:
Top Tip: Pickpocketing is common at the summit where it’s crowded. Wear your pack on your front or put all your valuables on your person.
The nearest village to Adam’s Peak is Dalhousie, a tiny place in the mountains at 1000m above sea level. It’s small but has everything you need – restaurants, guesthouses, shops etc. – and all of the accommodation is within walking distance to the start of the hike.
We stayed at the White House Guesthouse – it’s recommended by Lonely Planet and has good reviews on booking.com. Our basic double room was spacious with a comfy bed and a beautiful view of Adam’s Peak. Our ensuite had a hot shower. The wifi was reasonable and the buffet dinner and helpful talk from the staff was much appreciated. It was a 10-minute walk to the start of the track. [Also, they recycle guests’ used plastic water bottles – YAY]
You can book your accommodation through the booking form below.
How to get to Dalhousie
Dalhousie is only accessible by bus, tuk tuk or car. To get to Dalhousie, first you need to reach Hatton.
From Hatton to Dalhousie:
Note: Dalhousie is pronounced Del-house.
Thanks for reading and happy hiking!
All information is true and correct based on our experience climbing Adam’s Peak on Tuesday 21 March 2017. This post contains affiliate links. If you click on them and purchase something from the linked site, I’ll earn a tiny (and I mean tiny!) commission at no extra cost to you, which contributes to running this blog.