Edited to add that Mada'in Saleh is currently closed, maybe just for a bit, maybe for as long as two years. But some of the info here will still be useful, and the area is still worth visiting.
Mada’in Saleh has been the place I’ve wanted to visit in Saudi and we finally made it there last week. Saudi has tons of interesting archaeology but it’s nearly impossible to get decent information about seeing it, and since nearly all of it is many, many hours from Riyadh, you can’t just head off with your whole family and hope for the best. Mada’in Saleh is only marginally better in the information category, but we were able to do this one on our own.
Most people do go to Mada’in Saleh on a tour. That’s a perfectly good option with some advantages over doing it yourself, but there are also disadvantages. Since I wanted to do this on our own and it was so hard to find the information I needed for this trip, I’m going post a fairly detailed trip report in hopes it helps someone else and I'll try to get some photos up later.
We drove to Al Ula from Jeddah. It’s less than seven hours, with Yanbu a convenient stop in the middle. You can also drive through Medina which I would have preferred, but the coastal road was quicker. It’s my understanding that non-Muslims are allowed into the city so I’d have liked to see it, but maybe some other time. Not long after we left the coast, the terrain got a lot more interesting and rocky and the scenery was amazing till well past Mada’in Saleh. It’s a lot like southern Utah in many ways. The road along the coast is boring as can be since you can’t see the Red Sea, but looking out the window later was perfect. In my opinion, I think it would be better to drive instead of fly if you live in Jeddah since the trip isn’t too long and it’s so interesting.
Hotel options in Al Ula are getting more varied. There are a couple of cater to western expats but that’s not what I wanted so we took a chance on a place called al Harbi. Maybe our experiences in Ta’if made me more realistic, but this hotel was fine. No towels or supplies in the kitchen, but the beds were good and the air conditioning worked without being too noisy and the price was much lower than what we paid for worse places in Ta’if. I’d be fine with staying there again. It’s on the west side of King Fahd road a little north of the museum down an alley next to an optical shop. We ended up having to call the place since we couldn’t find it ourselves because it’s not marked.
We ran over to the museum before it closed and I really liked it. It’s small but has lots of good information. Definitely worth a stop but if you’ve already read a lot about Mada’in Saleh and its history, it won’t be too long a stop. Afterward we went exploring around Dedan and found a man from Al Ula who got us ice cream and then took us up on top of the escarpment overlooking Al Ula. That was one of the places I was hoping to go and it would have been hard to find without him showing us the way. The wadi was beautiful in the dark.
The next morning we went to Dedan first. The main thing to see there are the Liyhan Tombs. You can see them from the main road, or the road that runs along the fenced area. But I think it’s much better to go inside. Just hand over your iqama and you’re in. You can drive down to the old train station, stopping to climb up to the tombs. There are plenty of signs along the ways. The most popular spot is the Lion Tombs (search for "Lion Tumbs" on google maps), but the whole thing is fun to poke through. There’s a dirt road through the palm grove near that marked point on google maps, or you can go down to the real road. It’s at the intersection of 375 and 70. Instead of going onto 70 from 375 (if you’re going north) take the paved road off to the right and follow it to the main entrance. That road isn’t on google maps yet.
Most of Dedan’s ruins are under palm groves so the main thing to see are the tombs, but it’s possible you can find someone to show you more things (the man who took us up the escarpment told us he had a friend who could show us around, but we didn't take him up on the offer). Based on the things I’ve read from people who have done tours, they mostly go along the tombs you can see yourself, but locals told us there were other interesting things to see that we didn’t have time to find. We spent about an hour there and everyone had a good time.
Then we drove to Mada’in Saleh, about 15 minutes up the road. If you read all the tour and hotel websites about visiting Mada’in Saleh, they say you need a permit to get in. But I’d read other things that made it sound like it wasn’t necessary, and some friends of ours tried to get a permit in Riyadh a couple of months ago and we’re told they didn’t do permits there. I decided there was no way a Saudi was going to turn away someone who’d driven for hours to get to a national site like this so we didn’t bother with the permit. Also, our hotel told us we didn’t need it. And we didn’t. No one mentioned it - all we needed was my husband’s iqama and they let us in. I’m not sure what would happen if you didn’t have someone with an iqama in the car, but if you’re a resident and doing this without a tour group, I don’t think you need to worry about the permit.
The north entrance is the only one open, at the railway station. At the beginning of the 1900s the Ottomans built the Hijaz Railway along the pilgrimage route from Damascus to Makkah. It wasn’t used for very long because it was a target during WWI and then the Ottomans were no more, but the old railway stations are still there (and there are good websites where you can learn lots more). Most of the administrative buildings in Mada’in Saleh are in the old station buildings, and there’s a railway museum too. There’s also a pilgrimage route museum in the old fort that I was looking forward to, but it was closed. I have no idea when it’s open. There are plenty of other Hijaz Railway stops in the area and it would be fun to track them down, especially since they follow the old pilgrimage route and you could see historical sites too. That would be a fun trip.
Unlike Petra, Mada’in Saleh is nearly all drivable. The road loops around to all of the major sites and there are parking places and trash cans along the way, with plenty of signs and a few bathrooms. We didn’t see any food for sale, so bring your own if you want to eat there. They’ll give you a map at the entrance that isn’t entirely accurate but still is useful. After that, you just poke around as you please. We spent about four hours there. I think tour groups generally take two or three hours.
The tour groups tell you more stories (some of dubious provenance and some completely incorrect, or at least they're incorrect as reported). There are plenty of sources out there to learn about Mada'in Saleh's history, even if the practical details aren't there. And we all liked climbing around. You shouldn't climb on the tombs, obviously, but you can poke around the area and climb up to some great views. The Diwan area is particularity good for this.
Mada'in Saleh isn't as impressive or monumental as Petra in any way. But it is still a large and interesting site that's very worth visiting. Also, there are pretty much zero visitors and no tourist anything at all. It's a pleasant and quiet visit in the middle of some amazing scenery (think southern Utah with cool tombs and no one around). And visit in the winter if you can. January or February would be lovely. Mid November was still a touch hot in the afternoon. Remember that it's closed on Friday morning, as are most things in Saudi.
After Mada'in Saleh, we went to Elephant Rock (it's labled Jabal (I think, I can't remember which word they used) al Feel (Fil means "elephant" in Arabic). There are other dirt roads in that area that would be fun to explore among the rocks. We saw more people there than in all of Mada'in Saleh. And then we went back up the escarpment to take the boys and to see the wadi in the daylight. Go west at the 70/ 375 intersection, stay to the right at the circle and drive up the escarpment to the end of the road for a great view. It's fairly steep in some places but there's a good guard rail the whole time.
Also, near the town of Mu'tadil is where the Zuhayr inscription was found. I never could find an exact location so we didn't see it in person, but it's still nice to know it's there.
We dropped the boys off at the hotel and went to al Dira next (al Ula Heritage Village on google maps). I always love these restored towns even if other family members have to humor me. The buildings are made of stone for the first story which holds up a lot better. The second stories are mud brick and mostly collapsed. The beset part is the fort right in the middle of town. This was definitely one of my favorite restored towns I've seen. It also has a lot of stones from Dedan (they're about 3 km apart) on that first level and you can see Liyhan inscriptions in places. People have been living in the wadi for thousands of years, but al Dira was settled around 1300 and there are records about it from pilgrims passing through since it was a stop on the Dimashq-Makkah route.
And then we got dinner and went to bed. We left first thing the next morning, since it was Friday and most things were closed. By then, people we ready to try to get home in a day. It was about a ten hour drive with a longer stop in Buraidah.
It really was a great trip. There are still SO MANY things I want to see in the area, but it's almost impossible to get good information to know if you can even access the site or how to find it. I'd have liked to go to Taima and Tabuk, and to see more of the pilgrimage route, if only to see the old towns along the way. But I was glad to be able to do what we did and to do it on our own. My husband wasn't sure it would be worth the trip, but I'd told him that if he didn't go with me, I'd have to line up a tour that would cost $1000 (it's incredibly frustrating that there is no way for women to see these places on our own), he went along and ended up loving it. He keeps commenting that it was much better than he expected and that he loved the terrain. I'm also glad that we drove rather than flying (although it would have been nice if three of us had been able to drive instead of just one of us).
It helped a lot that we speak Arabic. There are far fewer south and SE Asian expats in al Ula than in the bigger cities. Most of the expats we talked to were Egyptian. Staying at our hotel, finding the road up the escarpment and learning about that area, and ordering at some of the places we ate required Arabic (although I bet you could do most of those without Arabic, if you're determined).
I know that you can't do this on your own if you don't have a man around to drive and check into hotels, but if you're thinking about it and have the resources, give it a try.