Abha, Saudi Arabia — Deep in the southwest corner of this stifling and mostly barren desert Kingdom lies a Shangri-La - of sorts. Jagged mountains rise up to 10,000 feet, creating nose-tingling air. Frequent rainstorms provide water for a variety of crops that sprout from the terraced landscape. Numerous juniper forests blanket the rugged terrain.
All of this leads nearly every first-time visitor to the region to marvel: ''This can't be Saudi Arabia!''
But Saudi Arabia it is. And after years of comparative isolation, the area called the Asir (''difficult country'') Province is finally developing Saudi Arabia's first recreational facility - Asir National Park.
Spearheading the development is Prince Khalid al-Faisal, governor of the province and son of the late King Faisal.
The park is a showcase accomplishment by the Saudis, encompassing 1.3 million acres. It is the result of a Saudi Arabia-United States Joint Economic Development Commission program established in 1976.
The US Park Service was called in to lay the groundwork. The Americans stayed on to supervise construction, which began in 1979, and help manage the park. Although not officially open, the park has been accepting visitors since spring of last year.
What makes the park unique, according to US Park Service management consultant Ivan Miller, is its five distinct ''life zones'' beginning with the Red Sea on its western boundary and moving up through a coastal plain, to foothills, followed by escarpment, then mountains, and finally a plateau reaching to its eastern frontier. Adds Asir Director Muhammad Melgat: ''Few parks in the world offer such a variety of ecological areas.''
The park sports a stunning five-level visitors' center which takes guests through each of Asir's zones, yet it remains unopen in part because it has not been dedicated and also because enough young Saudis cannot be found to manage the facility.
A visit to Asir's three functioning campgrounds, situated on a plateau, reveal the park's main attraction: the escarpment. Two of the sites, Sawadah and Qara'ah, hug the rim offering spectacular views of the relatively young mountains and gorges leading down to the Red Sea.
Asir's campgrounds have a made-in-America look. Blacktopped driveways and hiking paths weave through the area and each site is numbered and outfitted with picnic tables and stoves.
Hawks, ravens, eagles, vultures, and other birds - 300 species have been spotted in the park - glide about the canyon, filling it with noise, while cotton ball-shaped clouds continuously drift across the mountaintops. These mountains used to be home to the oryx, the Arabian gazelle, the ibex, and the ostrich. There are plans to reintroduce these animals to the park sometime in the future.
What bears are to national parks in the western US, baboons are to Asir. One morning at dawn a herd of baboons was seen sweeping through a campsite, laughing and grunting as they raided all the trash bins.
While park visitation figures are not available, Miller noted that attendance mushroomed last spring after Asir was featured on Saudi television and in a number of local newspapers. ''Visitors used to just come on weekends but now we have them all the time.'' Ironically, Miller pointed out that many people in the Asir Province are unaware that the park exists.
A few miles from the Sawadah campsite, a Bedouin shepherd was asked the way to the park. ''What park?'' he asked incredulously.