Featured writer: Shmuel Browns
The next time you start thinking of packing your bags and travelling, come to visit Israel, a place that packs a lot into a small country: mountains, desert, sea coast, forests and history. Israel is situated on a moving tectonic plate separated by a section of the Great African Rift and the legendary Jordan River (is chilly and cold, Hallelujah) from neighboring Jordan. As Haim Watzman writes so eloquently in his book, A Crack in the Earth: A Journey up Israel’s Rift Valley:
This rift is one of the globe’s largest features, clearly visible from space, and I live on its edge. It forms an intricate landscape that makes the human soul turn end over end in wonder…
Israel’s highest mountain is snow-peaked Mount Hermon whose ridge crosses into Lebanon in the north of the country. The Hermon has Israel’s one ski resort with downhill skiing and snow-boarding during the winter. A short descent from Jerusalem and you are in the Judean desert, the place where prophets and hermits struggled to understand what God and life are about.
Israel extends along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea with the modern city of Tel Aviv (built in 1909 on the sand) challenging New York as “the city that never sleeps”, a party town where you eat and play, surf and swim during the day and rock into the wee hours. And if that is not enough, in the southern most point of the country is Eilat, a resort town on the Red Sea with snorkeling, scuba, wind and kite surfing and more.
Within the boundaries of Israel lie the Sea of Galilee, at 209 meters below sea level, the lowest fresh-water lake in the world (in Hebrew, the Kinneret) and the Dead Sea the lowest point on earth (410 meters below sea level). Thanks to the Jewish National Fund over 240 million trees have been planted in the last 100 years and Israel is the only country that entered the 21st century with a net gain in number of trees. As the land bridge from Africa, Israel contains the remains of prehistoric humans from millions of years ago. Israel’s history goes back to the Biblical account of Abraham and Sarah leaving their home in Mesopotamia and settling here, the 12 tribes of Israel, the exodus from Egypt to return home, the Kingdoms of Israel and Judea and the conquest by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Romans, the Arabs and the Crusaders over the ages. The land of Israel is where Jesus lived and preached and you can walk in the places where he did.
Because Israel is small, it’s possible to hike the width of the country in a few days, from west to east, from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Galilee. To do it according to tradition you must perform the ritual of starting and ending the hike by immersing all or part of your body in the sea. The hike starts at Achziv on the coast, follows Nahal Kziv (a nahal or wadi is a dry stream or river bed) past the Crusader Montfort Castle, the spring at Ein Tamir and on to the Druze village of Horpish.
From there we turn south and join the Israel Trail, past Mount Meron (elevation of 1208 meters) and hike Nahal Amud. You climb to Mizpe HaYamim (570 meters above sea level) with a view to the west of the Mediterranean Sea from where you came and below the Sea of Galilee where you will end your hike. This hike takes 3 to 4 days, you sleep along the trail or can arrange accommodation at Bed & Breakfasts along the route.
Hiking throughout Israel is a national pastime – youth groups, the scouts, the army connect to the Biblical land with their feet. School grades have an annual, end of year hike. Many young people who have just finished their army service reconnect with friends by hiking together on the Israel Trail, a 945 km trail that crisscrosses Israel, from Dan in the north to Eilat in the south. There is also a Golan trail, a Jerusalem trail and the Jesus/Gospel trail. If you want to really experience and understand Israel you should take to the trails. Hiking takes you off the beaten track and besides the beauty of nature you will often come across archaeological ruins from thousands of years ago. If you don’t have a lot of experience hiking in Israel it’s recommended you hire a guide. Besides guiding you on the trail a guide can suggest what to bring, help with logistics, transportation and explain the nature, history and archaeology on the hike.
Israel is a small country which means you don’t have to travel far to start your hike. But although small in size there is incredible diversity so there are many different hiking experiences. Living in Jerusalem I know some hikes that are very close by, for example a trail that takes you to natural springs and pools that are particular to the hills of Jerusalem. A hike in Nahal Katlav in December is an opportunity to see wildflowers like crocus blooming after the first winter rains.
Jerusalem is a great base for day hikes because of its location in the hills and on the edge of the Judean desert and only a half hour drive to the northern edge of the Dead Sea. For starters I’d recommend hiking Nahal Og, with its desert landscape. You hike in a narrow canyon and climb on rung ladders that have been attached to the cliff – a really classic Israeli hike. Nearby is Wadi Qelt another desert hike that takes you to a monastery, with its ancient chapel and gardens, that was first built in the 6th century hanging on the cliff.
Although you are in the desert there are two places with natural springs, Ein Gedi and Ein Feshka. Ein Gedi is a kibbutz (collective agricultural settlement) named after a Jewish settlement from 2000 years ago. Besides the excavations of the town and a synagogue the surrounding area is a nature reserve. It is a great area to hike and you can choose various trails, from 20 minute family hikes to challenging 4-6 hour hikes, that will take you to pools and waterfalls in the middle of the desert.
A little farther south there is hiking at Mount Sodom, a salt mountain and connected to the story of Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt (a guide can show the pillar standing to this day) or try a night hike by the light of the full moon in Nahal Peratzim. Choose from all this and you can atill be back in Jerusalem in time for dinner and drinks in the evening.