Tag Archives: hike

Mount Arbel

Rising majestically above the western shore of the Sea of Galilee (in Hebrew, Kinneret) are two sheer limestone and dolomite cliffs, facing each other. The Arbel stream flows in the valley between them past Migdal (the home town of Mary Magdalene). Part of a national park and nature reserve, it’s a great place to hike.

The higher mountain is Mount Arbel, 181 meters above sea level but since the Kinneret is the lowest freshwater lake in the world at 209 meters below sea level Arbel is actually 390 meters above the valley and lake below. The second mountain, north of the stream, is Mount Nitay (98 meters above sea level) but this part of the reserve is closed to visitors to protect the flora and fauna. Looking down over the cliff it is easy to forget that you are standing on a broad plateau and not flying over the valley.

As early as the Hasmonean period there was a town Arbel that overlooked the ancient road from Galilee to the town on the Kinneret. The sage Nittai of Arbela, one of the Tanaim is recorded in Mishna Avot 1,7 where he advises “Keep far from an evil neighbor and do not associate with the wicked and do not lose belief in retribution”. Josephus mentions Arbel when he describes the battle in 37BCE between Herod and Jewish rebels who barricaded themselves in the caves in the cliff. Because the access to the caves was by extremely narrow paths, Herod had soldiers lowered over the cliff in baskets to reach the caves. In the early first century CE, Jesus of Nazareth performed miracles at the foot of the Arbel, moving between Migdal and Capernaum with his followers.

Outside the park, closer to Moshav Arbel are the remains of an ancient synagogue from the 4th century . It was first discovered in 1852 by the explorer and scholar Edward Robinson (who also recognized Herodium, Ein Gedi and Masada and after whom the arch at the the southern end of the Western Wall is named). Situated in the center of the village, it was built from large limestone blocks, in contrast to the other buildings which were of black basalt common to the region.

Drawing of Arbel synagogue by Leen Ritmeyer

The synagogue’s facade faced east which was rare for Galilean synagogues. The entranceway was cut out of a single large stone – three quarters of the frame remain in situ.  The synagogue consisted of a main hall with three rows of columns topped by Corinthian capitals in the shape of a “U” that supported a second-story gallery. The hall was lined with stone benches and the floor was about 1.5 m lower than the threshold alluding to Psalm 130 “Out of the depths have I called you O Lord”.

The building seems to have been destroyed and rebuilt in the 6th century. At this time the orientation was changed – a doorway in the northern wall, a round niche in the southern wall facing Jerusalem for the Torah scroll and a platform for Torah reading were added. This synagogue was apparently destroyed by a fire in 749CE, conceivably resulting from the devastating earthquake that destroyed Bet Shean, Zippori, Sussita and other sites.

Israel Trail Encounter

The Israel Trail or Shvil Yisrael is a national hiking trail inaugurated in 1994 that zigzags the entire country from Tel Dan in the north near the Lebanese border to the southernmost tip of Israel at the Red Sea, approximately 940 km. You may have seen sections of the trail on other hikes (the Israel Trail was created by connecting some of the existing, favorite hiking trails), for example, if you’ve visited the Small Makhtesh from the western lookout point the trail descends and crosses to the mouth of the makhtesh and then north via Maale Hatzera. You can recognize the trail by its 3 colored stripes, white (signifying the snow on Mount Hermon, north), blue and orange (like sand or south to Eilat).

I have Zvi Gilat’s excellent guidebook to the Israel Trail in Hebrew; there is one guide book, Israel National Trail by Jacob Saar, including topographical maps in English. The official website is at http://www.israelnationaltrail.com/ which includes a forum that enables you to connect with other hikers to discuss the trail.

I just got back from 8 days hiking on the southern part of the trail from the border crossing with Egypt at Taba to Shaharut in the Negev (incommunicado with the outside world, walking the desert landscape – which is why there was no blog post). Walking for a number of hours through a narrow canyon, climbing a ridge or mountain for a 360 degree view of your surroundings and watching the changing forms of the sandstone cliffs as you hike by is a different experience than driving up to a site by car.

The trail lets you experience nature throughout Israel with the opportunity to relate to the history of the country. I joined the annual Avi B’shvil Yisrael, an incredible project that brings together a third component, encounter with Israelis from throughout the country, young and old, religious and secular. There is a daily group discussion about the significance of kibbutz and an evening guest who talks about his/her experience related to kibbutz (the subject being examined this year). They also handle a lot of the logistics, you can pay 10NIS for fresh fruit, vegetables and bread to have for lunch and 10NIS for a communal dinner, the organizers ensure that there is enough water for the next day, provide a guide and arrange transportation (back to where you left your car, car pooling or a main road where you can get a bus). They are hiking the Israel Trail until Thursday, April 28, 2011 when they reach She’ar Yeshuv so if you can find the time, check out the itinerary at http://www.avi-beshvil-israel.org.il/luz.php and join them. I strongly recommend it.

The project is in memory of Avi Ofner and 72 other soldiers who died on February 4, 1997 when two IDF Sikorsky CH-53 helicopters collided in midair over She’ar Yashuv. The helicopters were hovering waiting for clearance to cross the border into Israel’s “security zone” in Lebanon.

For recommendation on some dozen other hikes, click on “Hiking” under Categories in the right hand column or https://israeltours.wordpress.com/category/hiking/

Aqueduct at Caesarea

The first aqueduct was built by Herod at the time the city of Caesarea-Maritima was founded and brought water from the Shuni spring, south of Mount Carmel, about 10KM to the northeast of the city. The water flowed on a single raised channel.

When this was not sufficient, a second “lower” aqueduct was built by the Legions of the Emperor Hadrian (2nd C CE). It brought water from Tanninim (Crocodiles) river. This section, with a tunnel of about 6KM long, was tapped into the older aqueduct, and doubled its capacity and its width. The builders used the same building materials and style, so it may be difficult to see that the pair of channels were built at different times. The aqueduct continued to supply water to Caesarea for 1200 years.

Just past the entrance to Beit Hanania you can find the northern section of the aqueduct and the second aqueduct (Hadrian) connecting to the older one (Herod). In this section there are two stone tablets that were placed into the wall by its builders, the legion of the Emperor Hadrian. The right tablet clearly shows: “IMP CAES(ar) TRIAN HADR(ianus)”. The other tablet is of the Tenth Legion (the Imperial eagle without its head standing on a wreath).

The Israel Trail winds its way beside the aquaduct, through the Arab town of Jizr a-Zarka and then south along the coast to Caesarea. On the beach closer to the Caesarea archaeological park there is another section of the aqueduct. In fact it makes a great hike with the whole family from here along the beach north to Dor or a little further to Habonim.


Hiking Nahal Dragot

Driving along the shore of the Dead Sea on our way to Masada and Ein Gedi, I usually point out the cutoff to Nahal Dragot – there are some great hikes here if you are up to the challenge. In fact, Nahal Darga as it is also called, is a kind of test for Israelis.

Nahal Dragot

From the center at Metzukei Dragot, there is an unpaved road (if you were to continue north you could go as far as Herodium), take the turn to a lookout point with a great view of the canyon, the deepest part of Nahal Darga and a hint of what awaits.


Returning to the main road and continuing westward we come to the start of the black trail. From there it is a short hike to the Murabat Caves, 3 caves, side by side on the northern cliff. It was here that letters signed Bar Kosiba were found, evidence that the mythical leader of the Bar Kochba Revolt against the Romans in 132-135CE did in fact exist.

Letter of Shimeon bar Kosiba to Yehonathan, son of Be’ayan:
Peace! My order is that whatever Elisha tells you, do to him and help him and those with him. Be well.

From here it’s about a 150 m. descent to the start of the canyon. It will take 4-6 hours (4 km) to hike this part of the narrow canyon with more than 50 meter high walls, dry waterfalls and pools of water in natural craters (note there are places you will have to swim across). At the end of the hike the wadi widens and crosses highway <90> about 1½ km from the Mezuke Dragot cutoff, estimate that to complete the hike will take a full day. There are metal D-shaped rings hammered into the rock in places to help you on the descents but it’s probably also worth having at least 20m. of rope. A guide is recommended.


Amitai in Nahal Darga, photos AdirChai Haberman-Browns, used with permission.

You should also read this article http://www.jpost.com/Travel/AroundIsrael/Article.aspx?id=135713



Katlav is the Hebrew name of a striking, red-barked evergreen shrub or small tree native to the Mediterranean region (grows as far north and west as France and Ireland), the Strawberry tree or Arbutus Andrachne. The bark is smooth and sheds during the summer, leaving a pistachio green color, which changes gradually to a beautiful orange brown. The small red berries, tasting a little like tart strawberries, ripen in November.

There is another related tree, Arbutus unedo, that also grows in this region. The leaves have a saw-tooth edge and the fruit is bumply, orange-red when ripe. The name ‘unedo’ is explained by the Roman historian, Pliny the Elder, as being derived from unum edo “I eat one”, which seems appropriate as most people find the fruit bland and mealy.

One advantage of hiring a local guide is that you get the opportunity to get inside, to be initiated into what the locals do, things that most tourists never experience. In and around Jerusalem there are some very special hikes and one in particular is Nahal Katlav in the Judean Hills, named for the abundance of strawberry trees growing there. There is also the possibility of hiking to a maayan, a natural spring that fills a pool cut into the rock, that is just the perfect solution to a hot summer day. Before we head out we will pick up some artisan bread, cheese, salads, etc. for a picnic, drive into the hills, hike to our destination and enjoy. These are outings for the whole family.

Nahal Katlav is a tributary of the Sorek river which is biblical Hebrew for a choice grapevine. Over the years, this region was known for its grapes, and today there are a number of fine boutique wineries in the Judean-Yoav region. For those interested in wine, these outings can be combined with a visit to a winery in the area. There is even a winery called Katlav.

It is very impressive to stand in the presence of an ancient tree. Near Kibbutz Tsuba are 2 very old trees, a 1200 year old olive tree and a 800 year old oak. Although I am not aware of such an old strawberry tree there is a magnificent specimen that is about 80 years old at the Jerusalem War Cemetery on Mount Scopus.

Katlav in cemetery

Masada at Sunrise

Masada is one of the most visited historical/archaeological sites in Israel, an isolated rock cliff in the Judean desert overlooking the Dead Sea.

Masada cable carAlthough there is a cable car that will take you to the top of the mountain, a tradition has grown up to climb the Snake Path, a zig-zag trail, early in the morning in order to reach the summit in time to watch the sunrise – that’s what we did. The top is only 59 meters above sea level but remember that you’re starting at about 400 meters below sea level. You should be able to climb it in 45 minutes to 1 hour. If you want to do this the best place to stay the night before is the youth hostel at the base of Masada.

I recently read an article on the Israelity website about a group of 7 seniors from the Cedar Village retirement community near Cincinnati who came to Israel to celebrate their bar/bat mitzvahs and tour Israel including climbing Masada – their average age was 85 years old, the oldest was 97!

I guided two families traveling together, a group of four adults and five children, during their time in Israel. When we reached Masada and saw the mountain some were interested in climbing the Snake path. We didn’t really have enough time so one of the Dads suggested running it. At first no one took him seriously, so Chris said he’d do it. I showed him where the path started and he was off. The rest of us took the cable car and on our way up looked for Chris. I finally saw him on the last turn of the path before the summit – his time 17 minutes! For Bernie’s description of their experience check out their blog at http://keepingupwiththemounts.blogspot.co.il/2011/11/masada.html

Masada (from Arad)

Another option is a nice hike that starts at the same but splits from the Snake Path, you walk north on the red trail following the circumvallation wall built by the Romans around the mountain. You pass the 4th siege camp (northernmost) and follow the trail west and then south. As you climb there’s a great view of the Northern Palace hanging on the cliff and the water cisterns on the western side. You can go to see the cisterns and/or climb the Roman ramp to the summit.

Hiking Nahal Yehudia

Day 2: Hiking Nahal Yehudia
After a breakfast of fruit and homemade granola we drove to Nahal Yehudia off highway <87>. The hike is listed as appropriate for good hikers who can swim as there are a couple of places where you have to climb down the rock face with the help of handholds or a ladder into a deep pool that you have to swim across. The trail is one of eleven listed in the Park’s brochure on the Yehudia Forest Reserve, including Nahal Zavitan, the Meshushim (hexagonal basalt pillars) pool and Gamla which includes the archaeological remains of the Jewish town that fought against Vespasian at the start of the Jewish Revolt in 66CE and Griffon vultures that can be seen flying overhead. There is parking, bathrooms, drinking water, a snack bar and information center (the park warden we spoke to was very helpful); the entrance fee was 20 NIS per person. Note that you must start out on the trail by noon.


The hike starts above the wadi, walking through a deserted Syrian village built on the remains of an earlier Jewish one of basalt field stones from the Roman-Byzantine period. Remains of a wall have led archaeologists to suggest that Yehudia is Soganey, one of the three fortresses (the other two are Gamla and Sele’ukya) in the Golan built by Josephus at the time of the Roman Revolt. You walk on a path strewn with basalt, by pasture land where you may see cattle grazing.


Then you walk down into the wadi to the Yehudia Falls and the first pool, good for a cool dip especially if it’s a hot day.


At this point we changed out of our hiking boots and into water sandals as there are places where you walk in the water. Continuing along the wadi you get to the first descent. U-shaped handholds have been attached to the rock to help you get down about 4 meters. This is just your warm up. The trail brings you to a cliff where you descend 9 meters by metal ladder into a pool. There is no place to stand, you step off the bottom rung of the ladder and swim across to the other side of the pool.


The challenge is what to do to keep your gear dry (and in this day and age with cell phones, cameras, car keys with electronic locks, etc. we have stuff that won’t work if it gets wet). We used the double garbage bag technique but also saw a group float their packs across on a small inflatable boat, you can rig up a rope and omega your pack across or probably safest, pack in professional waterproof bags used for kayaking.

After traversing the pool you come to another descent, this time about 4 meters with only handholds. At the bottom you have the option of swimming or walking across the pool as it isn’t that deep. Be careful as it is slippery walking on the rocks. The water can be quite cold so it’s great that there is a place in the sun to sit on some large rocks and have a snack.


Using the 2 large plastic bags that we had brought for our packs, we picked up a bunch of garbage that we carried out with us. We continued along the wadi, sometimes walking on the rocks, sometimes in the water. At the well marked junction you can leave the red trail to take the green back to the Syrian village or continue  along the wadi a bit further to one last pool and waterfall. Then we backtracked and took the green trail up out of the wadi, back to the Syrian village and the trail head. It was just the middle of November but there were already cyclamen and narcissus in bloom.

You can view a fuller set of photographs from this Golan trip on Flickr at http://www.flickr.com/photos/27944012@N06/sets/72157622790431204/