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Israel National Trail Day 11: Ras Ali to Isfiya
Welcome. To the uninitiated, this is the blog where I tell the stories of hikes around Israel. In this entry, I return to the series I call 'Israel Trail, Home for Dinner' - my ambitious attempt to hike the entire country, north to south - without spending a night away from my family.
It has been over 4 months since I hiked the last section of the Israel Trail. A few consecutive happenings - laser eye surgery, lockdown, travel to America, quarantine, another lockdown followed by two weeks of no school for my kids meant that unpaid full day excursions were off the table. Finally, after last week's storm, I got out this Monday. The first difference to the first ten sections was timing. I had been used to waking up at 3am, driving 2 hours and starting my hikes at 5am. This was a function of hiking on Israel's hottest summer days, when I was desperate to escape the hottest hours of the day and be finished hiking by noon. But today was different - with a cool day ahead, I got up at a leisurely 6.30am, drove only 1¼ hours to the entrance of Ras Ali, and got straight out on the trail. (For an interesting article about this little town, check out this blog post: https://www.israeldiaries.com/ras-ali-bedouin-success-story/) Having not gotten up north for a good few months, it was exciting to see the lush greens of the Galil around me. There were also splashes of pinks and reds from the anemones and cyclamens that were growing. This area is quite special and suprisingly untouched - unnamed wadis coming from the left and right, a few grazing cows, and not a building in sight - that is, apart from a secluded shack flying the Golani Brigade's flag. After this beautiful hour of solitude, I neared route 762, and although all my maps (garmin, amud anan & INT app) showed a direct crossing over or under the road, freshly painted trail markers brought me parallel with the road to the roundabout junction 200 metres east. This wasn't surprising, as changes are regularly made to the trail, especially in areas where crossing roads are considered too dangerous. But then, at the roundabout, the new trail markings directed me eastwards of the village of Zubaydat, as opposed to westwards, where the rest of the day's trail continued. At this point I called in the cavalry - my wife, and asked her to look in the updated 2020 Israel Trail red book and send me pictures. This was to no avail, as the map there was also not updated to reflect this change (If you own a book there is a link with updates). So as a last resort, I called the organisation responsible for the trail signs, and they said there had been an update recently as the tunnel under the road was impassable. So I stuck with the signs and passed through the town of Zubaydat, and after an interesting encounter with this guy (pictured) eventually met a point my maps deemed on the trail. Now I could see the end point of the day - the massive, looming ridge of the Carmel Mountains and the town of Isfiya. Any one who has driven past Haifa knows the ridgeline I am talking about, and it was a stark reminder of what awaited ahead of me. But after a lovely easy stroll through forests and rocky meadows (and coming across an awesome burnt-out car) I arrived squelching through the mud at Kfar Hassidim. In fact, exactly where I entered the town was a place I had visited before with my family - an outdoor homage/museum to the shtetls of europe. In fact, the street I was now on was filled with different attractions, including a thoughtful rest stop for INT hikers to refill water and have a break. As I left the town of Kfar Hassidim I made the mistake of opening the Moovit app. This showed me that I could walk for ten minutes and get one short bus ride back to my car. The temptation was real - I knew that the journey back from my intended end point would take much longer, needing multiple buses or hitchhikes, and I started convincing myself that I should just call it there and get back home nice and early. But I knew that if I left the large ascent up the Carmel for another day, or more specifically, the beginning of another day, it would be another excuse in my mind delaying my next excursion out on the Israel Trail. Also, and I will be writing about this in a seperate post - there are implications of doing the Trail in 50 sections, not the least of which is added cumulative time and petrol costs. I want to keep it at 50. So I checked the time of the bus I needed from Isfiya, ate lunch on the move, and started the gruelling ascent up Yagur Nature Reserve. This was a series of zig-zags on a non stop incline. The views got better as I went, and I powered on until I reached the outskirts of Isfiya, where the hill got even steeper. I actually ran through Isfiya, cramping my leg in the process, but I got the bus in time, and an hour later I was back at my car at the start.
Another section down, another trail explored; another 'Israel Trail, Home for Dinner'.
Israel National Trail Day 9: Kfar Kisch to Mesh'had
Looking at the elevation graph of day 9, it looked a tough one. I knew there would be three ascents: Har Tavor (Mount Tabor), a notoriously steep climb, followed by Har Debora (a little smaller) and finally Har Yona. So, waking up at 3am (as usual), I was pleasantly suprised to find a significantly shorter drive to the hike start - every day so far I have driven to the end of Route 6, the toll highway in the centre of the country, and then continued on Route 77 north-eastwards. But today I left Route 6 much earlier, taking Route 65 through the Jezreel valley to where I left the trail last week in the south-eastern Galilee. Again, the speed with which the sunrise is getting later and later suprised me, and I spent the first 30 minutes of the hike in total darkness with a headlamp, passing the town of Shibli and beginning the ascent of the looming Mount Tabor in front of me. I even had a particularly brazen red fox following me, who's eyes I kept seeing flash with the light from my headlamp. After an hour and a half of steep climbing, and a gorgeous sunrise, I reached the top, where the path turned left and skirted round the large christian franciscan compound at the top, where I could just glimpse the Church of the Transfiguration through the mist. Then, after circling most of the summit, I took the path down which wasn't so easy to follow - it didnt at all match with the gps placement on my watch or my phone, and a few INT trail markers pointing in the wrong direction definitely didn't help. But eventually I made it to the bottom of Har Tabor, on the opposite side of Shibli, and was suprised that nearly 3 hours of the hike had already passed. I was only 8km in, but I knew I had finished the hardest part of the day. Or so I thought. Har Devora actually ended up being a piece of cake. It started with a leisurely stroll through a forest that reminded me a lot of Ben Shemen Forest near my home. The path climbed gradually through the pine trees until I got to the top, where I stopped for lunch in the shade of my parent's taxes, donated in honour of the queen's silver wedding anniversary. After coming down a shoulder of Har Devora, I passed through olive groves with the occasional spring dotted here and there, but all either empty or thoroughly green and unenticing. And then I started climbing - not too steeply, but it was approaching the heat of the day, so I definitely noticed it. But I figured it would be a short uphill to Har Yona, so it wouldn't be too bad. And then the path completely dissapeared. Completely. I didn't lose it, I knew exactly where it was supposed to be, but I don't know if because of Corona or some other reason but it looked like no human or other animal had walked on it for weeks. I battled through for an hour, my legs cut to shreds and scared every step of treading on a snake I couldn't see. I eventually did see a marking, which stopped me panicking that I would have to retrace my steps, and with a lot of breaks in the hot sun I eventually made it up the hill to Har Yona. After this I had a fairly leasurely 2km through the streets, and then a shortcut through a field to Mash'had junction, 2 buses and I was back at my car. And so ended another hot August day completely alone on the Israel trail. I saw 3 hikers on Har Tavor, but I'm
pretty sure they ended their hike there, and only I am foolish enough to hike three peaks in 37 degree heat. As the Nazgûl flies, I hadn't travelled that far - but my elevation graph at the end of the day gave me exactly the sense of accomplishment I needed to do this crazy thing again next week. I have uploaded a sped-up video of the entire hike here so you can see what is in store.
10 Awesome and Accessible Walks in Israel
Israel is a country filled with ancient cities and dramatic canyons. This is part of what makes it such a special, varied country - but it also means that some of the most impressive spots are reserved for those able to traipse up and downhill in steep city streets, or hike trails and climb ladders to waterfalls. Just because you might not be up for extreme hiking doesn’t mean you need to miss out! Here are ten awesome and accessible sites that you can visit across Israel, whether with a wheelchair, a stroller, or just when you're not in the mood to run yourself ragged in the hot summer sun. The Big Juba In the northern Golan Heights, near the town of Odem, there is an easy circular path leading to the viewpoint of the ‘Big Juba’, a massive crater formed by the sudden release of volcanic gasses which collapsed the volcano that once stood there. You can see a lovely array of Golan vegetation, and if you’re lucky you might glimpse a Persian Fallow Deer, as this is one of the rare places in Israel they can be seen. Tel Dan Nature Reserve In the upper Hula Valley there is a site of exceptional natural beauty and impressive historical significance, the Tel Dan Nature Reserve. The reserve has a whole section that is wheelchair accessible including the first portion of the hiking trail that reaches a wading pool, and the path to ‘Abraham’s Gate’, a significant archaeological discovery that may be the oldest standing archway in the entire world. Gamla National Park The southern Golan Heights is home to some of the best views in Israel, and Gamla National Park is no exception. From a smooth, circular path on the edge of the canyon, you can enjoy dramatic views of the ancient Jewish settlement below, and see and hear explanations of how it was conquered by the Roman forces 2,000 years ago. As a bonus, you can continue to the Vulture Lookout, where you can see the magnificent Griffon Vulture soaring high above and in the valley below. Ma’arat Keshet Ma’arat Keshet (Rainbow Cave) in the Western Upper Galil is one of the best kept secrets in Israel. Once a cave in the side of a cliff, part of the roof of the cave collapsed, leaving a solitary arch wide enough to walk across. A ramp comes down from Park Adamit right up to the arch, and you can look down through the arch and see the tree-covered slopes of the Galil below. Bahai Gardens, Akko
Many people know about the steep stepped and terraced Baha'i Gardens cutting through the middle of Haifa, but there is actually a whole other garden enclosure a few minutes north, near the city of Akko (Acre). This flat site makes a much easier job of navigating these pristine gardens, taking in the symmetry and colours that is sure to be enjoyed by the whole family. However, many of the paths are gravel, so depending on the wheels you are riding on, it can be a little more challenging than some other sites on this list. Ein Afek Nature Reserve One of my favourite spots on this list is the Ein Afek Nature Reserve near Haifa. It is a large circular route that passes ancient buildings and cuts through wetlands where you will see lots of fish swimming, a variety of birds and even a herd of water buffalo. Then you can cross a long wooden bridge that skirts just above the water that surrounds you on all sides. Like the Bahai'i Gardens in Akko, it isn't the easiest for wheelchairs, and it definitely helps to have a stroller that can go over bumps - but for little kids, it's a great experience. Nahal Hashofet What was once a well-kept secret, is now a favourite stop off point for families travelling north. Behind the old moshav of Yokneam is a year-round river surrounded by forests, with lots of different trails for different levels of hiking. An accessible path runs down to a couple of shaded mini-waterfalls, and one of the pools is even wheelchair accessible where the wooden deck slopes seamlessly into the shallow water. Apollonia National Park If you live in Israel’s center and are just looking for a short trip, then Apollonia is the perfect place. Just north of Herzliya, you can easily travel on the smooth path towards the crusader fortress, and enjoy the beautiful views of the cliff and the sea. With the new opening hours on weekdays until 10.00pm (!!!) you can admire the sunset over the Mediteranean and enjoy the cooler evening breeze. Sometimes concerts and performances are held at night inside the park! Qumran National Park For the history buffs out there, no trip in Israel is complete without getting into some serious archaeology, and nowhere is more accessible than Qumran, the ancient Jewish settlement at the foot of the cliffs on the shore of the Dead Sea. In the small museum and movie you can hear all about the story of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and then take the circular route that passes the different rooms and caves that make this small site so special. Ben Gurion’s Tomb National Park On the way down south, there is an impressive spot that has it all - history, nature, and a spectacular view. Stop off at Midreshet Ben Gurion near Sde Boker and walk along the path, made to look like a desert canyon with Negev flora surrounding you. If you go early or late in the day, you are guaranteed to see lots of wildlife - ibexes and gazelles love this shady spot. As you reach Ben Gurion’s desert tomb, you will begin to understand just why he wanted to be buried here - the view down over the Tsin riverbed is one of the best in Israel. This list is by no means exhaustive - a full guide to accessible sites under the Israel Parks Authority is available here. Have you been on another easy walk in Israel? Comment below so other people can enjoy them too! My name is Jonny Finkel, and I am a licensed tour guide and professional photographer here in Israel. Please contact me with any questions or suggestions and I will be in touch with you very soon!
8 coolest places you never knew about in israel
We all have that inner hipster that loves to know about things that other people don't - and I'm the same! But I'll let my guard down just this once to share some of the most insane off-the-beaten-track places in Israel - that you've probably never heard of. Some of these you can easily visit, some are a little trickier and some are downright impossible - but knowing about them will mean you know something that other people don't. Just don't forget, I knew about them before they were cool. St. George's Monastery For those of you schlepping off to Petra because you think it's edgy to visit one of the most popular tourist destinations worldwide, just know that you can visit something very similar on your hoverboard just twenty minutes outside of Jerusalem. Set on a cliff edge in Wadi Qelt (Nahal Prat) and looking straight out of an Indiana Jones movie, this Greek Orthodox monastery was established over 1,500 years ago by the world's first hipsters. These monks were introverts before it was cool, and would live by themselves in caves all week, meeting only on Saturdays to share some artisanal bread with locally grown wine, and argue over whose robes were shabbiest. The Other Makhteshim Of course you've heard of Makhtesh Ramon, the giant crater in the Negev desert. And I get it. You are also channeling your inner hipster, and are right now thinking smugly to yourself: "I DO know about the other Makhteshim". Well, you'd better give up now because I'm not talking about Makhtesh HaGadol and Makhtesh HaKatan. There are actually a total of five makhteshim in Israel, and the two that you don't know about are the Arif Twins Makhteshim, located near the Egyptian border and two left turns past absolutely nowhere. Only the most hardened hikers will make it to this area of the western Negev, and it's hard to hike that far in Birkenstocks. So stick to Makhtesh HaGadol that you can drive through and have enough service to story on Instagram. Amram's Pillars If a trip to Mars is out of the question because wearing a suit is giving in to the 'man' (even a space suit), you could just go visit Amram's Pillars in the southern Negev instead. When people visit Eilat, they normally go to Timna Park and see Solomon's Pillars, but you can escape the crowds and go to a place a lot of those 'regular' people don't know about a few kilometres away. Five massive red sandstone pillars are hidden away in a valley and only accessible by a hike or with a 4x4. Just like the Egyptians in Timna, the Romans dug for copper here as well, and many shafts are still visible. I guess the Romans also found Timna way too mainstream. The Cave of the Silver Scrolls This one's for you, Jerusalemites. if you can take a break from listening to live jazz music at your favourite eatery in Mahane Yehuda (it's an off-shuk little joint with exposed brick that you've probably never heard of) you may make it to the Old Train Station, because the new one is just too... new, you know? Just behind the Old Train Station, hidden away behind the roof of the Begin Center is a tomb in which archaeologists found the oldest written bible text ever found. On two tiny silver scrolls they found had the priestly blessing inscribed, and dated to over 2,500 years old. And you thought the oldest bible text was the Dead Sea Scrolls from 500 years later? Cute. The Shivta Church-Mosque In the western Negev desert there is an ancient city that has been abandoned for 1,000 years. The city of Shivta, which is a national park, had an impressive church for the Christian community that lived here - and next to the church was a mosque. Archaeologists used to believe that the transfer of these lands from Christianity to Islam was a forceful and bloody one. But some hipster archaeologists wanted to be different and decided that these two religious buildings, right next to one another and from the same time period, must mean that in Shivta these two religions coexisted peacefully. Most archaeologists started agreeing with them, so of course they had to change their minds again - and they found a church stone with a cross repurposed in the floor of the mosque. So now they think they weren't so chummy after all. In a game of "I was (x) before it was cool", you just can't keep up with guys who dig up old crap all day. Rujum El-Hiri Everyone knows about Stonehenge in England, but did you know that Israel has it's very own version? Rujm el-Hiri, or 'Gilagal Refaim' in Hebrew, is as old as Stonhenge, but way less mainstream and at least as mysterious. Set in the lower Golan Heights, in the middle of an army firing zone, getting there isn't so easy, and once you do it really just looks like a pile of rocks. But when you fly overhead, you begin to see that it isn't just a pile of rocks at all - it's a carefully designed structure made up of concentric circles. Archaeologists can't agree on what this 5,000 year old structure was used for, but maybe the ancients just wanted to be original and make some art so deep that nobody else would understand. Timna Hidden Lake Another spot on the way down south that you've probably never heard of is the Hidden Lake near Timna. In fact, thousands of people drive right by on Route 90 and have no idea it's there, as you can only see it from the edge of a crater. It's not the oldest place in Israel - like the Egyptians and the Romans, the Israelis also mined copper here in the 1970s, and dug this quarry which flooded with groundwater. The beautiful blue-green water and the different red rocks make it one of the most stunning views in Israel. But be warned - trying to be original and going to an off-the-beaten-track location that is literally called the Hidden Lake might just be the most predictable thing you could do. Instead, maybe just go to the beach or the mall - because nobody will be expecting you to do something so conventional. Kasui Sand Dunes The south of Israel is a desert, but a rocky desert, not a sandy one, like, it doesn't look like the Sahara Desert, right? Wrong! In a very special corner of the Negev called the Uvda Valley, stands an impressive, authentic, 40 meter high sand dune. During the winter, flash floods erode the sandstone canyons in the area, and the wind brings those eroded sands to this spot. But get there soon - a major hotel chain has just opened a resort in nearby Shaharut, so it won't stay secret for too long, and your chance to go to this place before other people and rub it in their face will disappear forever. So next time someone asks if you've been anywhere cool lately, make sure you tell them about that place you visited at the end of a hike in the middle of an army firing zone that you only know about because you are so well-read. Were all these places new to you or did you know about some of them already? Comment below with what you already knew about, visited, or even about other places that should be on this list! My name is Jonny Finkel, and I am a licensed tour guide and professional photographer here in Israel. Please contact me with any questions or suggestions and I will be in touch with you very soon!