There are few things more rewarding in life than waking up in the middle of the night, rolling out of a bed, slapping on some hiking boots, and trekking up a mountain for a sunrise.
At least, I think so.
My girlfriend, not so much. She thinks it’s more rewarding to skip the hike, sleep late into the morning, and then head to a local market for an early lunch (or late breakfast, depending on your view).
But, on a recent trip to Bali, I convinced her that it would be worth it to do a sunrise trek up Mount Batur (Gunung Batur), an active volcano that most recently erupted in 2000 and is one of the holiest sites on the island.
At 5,633 feet high at the summit, Batur isn’t the highest point on the island – that would go to Mount Agung (Gunung Agung), which erupted earlier this year – but it is likely the island’s most popular sunrise hike.
At 6 a.m., we found out why.
After traveling to 25+ countries and forcing myself up at the crack of dawn to catch the sunrise on countless beaches and mountains (not to mention New York City rooftops; hello all-night partiers), I’m confident saying the sunrise I saw on Mount Batur was the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.
Here’s what it was like:
The hike started early. The tour company picked us up at 2 a.m. and drove an hour to the base of the mountain (stopping for coffee along the way). We were far from the only ones hiking. The parking lot was full of minibuses and tour groups.
Here was our general itinerary:
- 2 a.m.: Pick up at hotel/hostel
- 3:45 a.m.: Arrive at base of the mountain
- 6 a.m.: Arrive at sunrise viewing platform near top of Mount Batur
- 7 a.m.: View volcanic steam crevasse
- 7:30 a.m.: Begin descent back to base of mountain
- 9:30 a.m.: Arrive at base of mountain and leave
- 11:15 a.m.: Return to hotel/hostel
We were put in a group of 16 with four tour guides. The hike up the mountain took about two hours in pitch black. The first hour was mostly on paved paths. The second hour was up narrow, volcanic rubble-strewn switchbacks.
The first hour of the hike goes through a forest on a paved path at a gentle incline. After about an hour, you get to a platform where the Balinese are building a temple. From there, you start the actual climb to the top.
The climb to the top goes over narrow, single-file switchbacks. It’s easy to slip on the volcanic rubble. There is a fair amount of rock scrambling that requires you to climb up small rock ledges.
It’s somewhat strenuous, but more in the panting, sweating, thighs-screaming way, rather than actually difficult to do.
There are a lot of people on the trail. As you go up, you can see a line of flashlights sprinkled along the spine of the mountain. It’s an eerie view.
The stars in the dead of night were also spectacular.
The timing was pretty spot on. After two hours of moderate trekking, we were at a platform just below the summit and the sunrise was starting. Burnt oranges and yellows peeked out from behind a blanket of clouds and mist.
Despite the fact that there were a few hundred tourists hiking up along with us, it never felt crowded. The guides took each group up different routes with different ending points. The downside of this is that only some groups got to hike to the actual summit. We ended at a hill about 500 feet or so from the top.
We had perfect conditions for an unforgettable sunrise. It had rained the night before, causing a blanket of fog and mist to cover Lake Batur below us, but the sky was remarkably clear. Some clouds in the distance caused this sunburst pattern, which I’d forgive you for thinking was photoshopped.
It was the kind of sunrise you have to take photos of and, yet, no photo or description can capture the depth of the colors and the character of the light.
That’s not to say I wasn’t going to try.
Our tour came with breakfast, which amounted to two slices of white bread, a banana, and a “volcanic-steamed egg.” I’ve seen some travel bloggers describe the egg as “the most delicious boiled eggs ever.” They were not. They tasted like every other boiled egg I’ve had.
As you get close to the top, Balinese will offer to sell you drinks (coffee, Coca cola, beer, etc) and fried bananas. Expect to pay around 50,000 IDR ($3.54) for a drink. I brought my own snacks.
From where we watched the sunrise, we could see the path up to the summit. Our guide told us our ending point provides a better vantage point for the sunrise. She might have just been trying to make us feel better, but, having injured my toes the day before, I wasn’t complaining.
In the distance, you can see Mount Agung. There are tours to hike to the top of Mount Agung for the sunrise there, but it is a little less than twice as high and takes around eight hours.
After about 20 minutes of stunning colors, the sun started to peek out from behind the horizon. Because of the cloud cover, the sun looked like a perfect orb.
As the sun came up, it took away the stunning colors, leaving behind a light blue sky. After the sun was high in the sky, the guide took us to look at volcanic steam.
As the volcano is still active, there are plenty of crevasses where steam leaks out. But I’ll be honest, I felt cheated. I read afterwards that the hikes to the summit usually include a short hike around mountain craters. The lesson: Ask the tour company which route they intend to take. Insist on the summit if that’s what you want.
While the hike up was mildly strenuous, the hike down was downright treacherous. The switchbacks are covered with volcanic rubble and rock ledges, which are very easy to slip on. I, along with the rest of my group, slipped a number of times. Best to take it slow.
About halfway down the mountain, there is a clearing I didn’t see on the way up (it was dark!) with motorbike drivers offering rides. I have a confession: I paid 30,000 IDR ($2.12) to be driven down. In my defense, the hike down was brutal on my toes, which I’d injured severely the day prior.
Tips for the hike:
Difficulty: It’s a two-hour hike to the top (three for the actual summit) and then about the same amount of time down.
The first hour is fairly easy. The second hour requires navigating over volcanic rubble and doing some light rock scrambling. If you have bad knees or ankles, this is something to be mindful of.
All that said, it’s not particularly difficult and I expect most people will have no trouble.
Shoes: I wore hiking boots, but my girlfriend opted for sneakers, as did the guides. If all you have is sneakers, you’ll be fine, but the route is slippery and uneven. I was thankful for the boots.
Clothes: The tour company kept telling us that it was going to be freezing during the hike. I wore shorts and a t-shirt and was sweating. Surprisingly, it got chillier when the sun rose and there was some wind, but I was never uncomfortable.
Use your best judgment. If you get cold in mid-60s (16 degrees Celsius), bring a hoody or a light jacket.
Snacks and Water: The tour company provided us with a bottle of water each and a breakfast box of hard-boiled egg, banana, and two slices of bread. I highly recommend bringing an extra water bottle and snacks. Though the hike isn’t long, it’s takes a fair amount of energy. You’ll be happy you brought beef jerky or almonds.
Bathrooms: There’s a bathroom at the base of the mountain and none on the mountain (except for nature’s toilet, of course). The bathroom at the base is, let’s say, a hovercraft situation.
Hiking in the dark: Be careful! Our guide gave us each flashlights, but I was kicking myself that I didn’t have a headlamp. It’s not particularly easy to scramble over rocks while holding a flashlight.
Warning: Some tourists try to hike the mountain alone and then encounter irate villagers near the mountain who sometimes harass them if they refuse a guide. The tourists have characterized this as “the mountain mafia.”
I’d encourage you to view this another way. The villagers are very poor and tourism is increasingly their main source of income. They maintain the mountain trails, ensure that people don’t get hurt, and protect the holy sites (there are a number of temples on the mountain).
Don’t be a cheapo. Just pay the ~400,000 IDR ($28) for a guide.