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Hermon: Hazori to Hula

Golan: Devora &  Gilbon

Golan: Nahal Meitzar

Galilee: Nahal Kziv

Galilee: Nahal Amud

Galilee: Nahal Rosh Pina

Galilee: Ramat Adamit

Coast: Dor to Caesarea

Judean Hills: Ela Valley

Judean Desert: Masada

Judean Desert: Peres

Negev: Mount Zaror

Negev: Hatira Coxcomb

Negev: Ramon Ridge

Negev: Hatzra Ascent

Negev: Nekarot Hike

Negev: Ada Canyon

Arava: Barak Canyon

Arava: Maok & Nekarot

Eilat: Israel Trail Finale

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Across the Judean Desert On Foot

Hike Arad to Masada in one day. Fascinating landscape around on the Judean Desert plateau. A one-day route for proficient hikers.

For the hikers among us, the phrase “Judean Desert” evokes images of deep canyons, steep ascents, and springs at the foot of Ha’etekim Cliff, which rises above the Dead Sea. Some people speed along its thoroughfares in jeeps, but only a few cross the desert on foot from west to east. In just one day, a good hiker setting out from Arad can cross the desert, even diagonally, and reach Masada. The optimal time to do this is between October and March.

Nahal Tabiya

We began at the riverbed of Nahal Tabiya, which descends southward from the center of Arad (see “Useful Information” for directions to the starting point). After passing several benches and planted ornamental trees, we suddenly lost sight of any sign of civilization and found ourselves walking down the Judean Desert channel.

Like seven other trails around Arad, Nahal Tabiya was recently given trail markings (in its case, blue). Arad resident Dov Punio, who joined us on our walk in the riverbed, said: “The marking of the trails was the idea of a group of hikers who live in Arad. We met with Dani Gaspar, coordinator of the Israel Trails Committee, and to my surprise, Dani immediately said, ‘No problem. Put a temporary marking on the trails and we’ll get the appropriate approvals to mark them with paint and put them on the trail map.’ Three months later, all 32 kilometers were permanently marked during a three-day period.”

We continued walking and came upon a group of children in the riverbed. They were from the environmental protection club of the Kedem Democratic School in Arad. “We go down to the wadi and study everything that there is here,” said teacher Eitan Shaked, who leads the group. “We also have nature protection activities and are always cleaning the wadi. We hauled away a tremendous amount of garbage and very heavy debris and we report every leak from Arad’s waste-treatment plant.”

A green stripe of broad clotbur (Xanthium strumarium, or lachid hanehalim in Hebrew), a plant that grows in habitats in which there are seasonal water pools, attested that the leaks are a routine matter here. Suddenly, in the middle of the riverbed, we saw a supermarket shopping cart. “These carts are stolen in large quantities, especially around Lag B’Omer [to carry wood for bonfires],” Shaked said. “We send them back up to Arad. We took one cart out of the wadi four times.”

Further on, the riverbed is a pretty and apparently protected place. The young environmental activists took us to a shady spot that is such a favorite of theirs that they call it “our home.” To everyone’s amazement, a real house had sprung up there. A local Bedouin had blocked part of a little cave with a wall of bricks, built cement steps, and added shelves and a lamp. The kids vowed to check into the matter.

Nahal Tabiya continues to wind its way several times between the hard, cracked limestone couches of the Kidud Ridge. Large bushes of white broom grow in the rock crevices, and in early winter, Day’s marjoram (Origanum dayi, or azuvit hamidbar in Hebrew) blooms here, with aromatic leaves that make a nice addition to a cup of tea.

Nahal Ye’elim

In the spot where Nahal Tabiya meets a little channel that comes from the left, just before it reaches Nahal Ye’elim (Riverbed of the Ibexes), grows a wonderful umbrella acacia (Acacia tortilis, or shita sochachanit). This is an ideal place to have breakfast. The large, beautiful tree can provide shade for a large group of hikers.

In Nahal Ye’elim, we no longer saw the layers of hard limestone of the Kidud anticline. This meant that we had moved on to the area of the large syncline of the Judean Desert, which was covered mainly in the Cenozoic era (88-65 million years ago) with sediments of bright, soft chalk. The inhabitants of this area during the Byzantine period realized that soft chalk is impermeable to water and made good use of this knowledge. After walking 200 meters, we saw to our left, behind a low wall made of rocks at the bottom of a light-colored rock cliff, an opening leading to a large water hole: the Kidud ma’agora (WHAT IS THE WORD IN ENGLISH?).

A ma’agora is a special kind of reservoir hewn in the side of the riverbed, slightly above the level of the channel. It is a large chamber, whose ceiling is the natural rock; if necessary, the hewers of the reservoir left rock columns in it to support the ceiling. The ma’agora collects floodwater from a higher point in the riverbed by means of a diversion canal.

The Kidud ma’agora is very large – about 14 meters long. A great deal of silt covers its floor, but judging from other ma’agorot, it is about 5 meters deep. As a rough estimate, its volume is more than 350 cubic meters. From the opening, we could see the edge of the deep diversion canal.

We continued walking down Nahal Ye’elim for about another 200 meters and encountered a trail marked in red on the right. We turned onto the red trail, which continued along Nahal Ye’elim, but after walking about one kilometer, we began to feel that something wasn’t quite right. We saw camels and donkeys roaming around, a tent, a little shack, and suddenly we found ourselves in a Bedouin settlement built of tin huts.

We passed among the tin huts and were greeted only with silence and intense scrutiny. We later learned there is an ongoing struggle over land in this area between the members of the tribe and the Israeli authorities. Judging from what we saw, the two-kilometer-long settlement penetrates several hundred meters into the Judean Desert Nature Reserve. In any event, the entire settlement was built illegally.

We continued to trudge through the wide channel of Nahal Ye’elim. This riverbed passes along the seam between the Tahrorim rock formation and the chalk plateau north of it. Tahrorim is a unique formation, which contains a variety of rocks in an assortment of color configurations – brown and green, pink and yellow, green and purple and black, and others. It is not completely clear how the formation came about. The leading theory is that it is made of rocks that underwent a metamorphosis – perhaps caused by absorbing hot water. The formation is situated beside bituminous rock, whose organic compounds, including petroleum, might be connected to some kind of conflagration that “baked” the rock of the Tahrorim formation.

Bulbs and a Jujube Tree

When Nahal Ye’elim makes a wide turn to the right, the trail cuts across the bend and climbs up a low ridge in order to shorten the way. From here, it crosses Nahal Ye’elim from south to north in order to ascend a nakab in the wall of hills that enclosed us from the north. Nakab is an Arabic term for a natural passage in a mountainous area that is wide enough for a camel to pass through. The word is very similar to the ancient Hebrew word nakubta.

This is where we really began to have fun. We were surrounded by a clean and beautiful desert. We followed the nakab along the periphery of the Kena’im anticline, made of hard limestone and dolomite. At the highest part, on the right side, clusters of flint stones marked an ancient Bedouin cemetery. After walking 100 meters, we were greeted by huge bulblike masses of rock more than a meter in diameter, some of them standing(OK?) at very interesting angles.

Before the nakab began to descend, we stopped and looked at the landscape. To the east is the Dead Sea with the wall of the Mountains of Moab behind it. To the north is the continuation of the Kena’im anticline. The narrow canyons of Nahal Kidud and Nahal Menahem burst out of the anticline and unite at its foot into a broad valley, which links up with Nahal Rahaf. The edge of Nahal Rahaf’s wonderful canyon, which cuts through He’etekim Cliff above the Dead Sea, can be seen easily as well.

At the foot of the nakab grows a lovely jujube tree, its fresh green hue a striking contrast to the white rocks around it. It has five large, high branches, providing shade that is a dream come true for every desert hiker.

The Yonatan Bypass Trail to Masada

We reluctantly left the jujube tree and set off to cross the beautiful valley at the foot of the Kena’im anticline. We circumvented Mt. Yonatan from the south. The chalky Mt. Yonatan is typical of the residual hills in the Judean Desert. The rocks around it eroded and it was left alone, perhaps because it is attached to the Kena’im anticline, which protected it.

We descended to Nahal Emunim, where we saw a large umbrella acacia growing about 70 meters to the right of the trail.

The trail crosses a dirt road for 4x4 vehicles, marked in green, which links the western part of Masada with the Arad-Dead Sea Highway. Now we had to climb the saddle?? at the foot of Mt. Elazar. We usually wouldn’t complain, but we had already walked 20 kilometers and so we permitted ourselves to take our time climbing up. A bit before the ascent, our red trail joined up with a trail marked in black.

The end of the ascent is a lookout point with a spectacular view of Masada. We really wanted to go up to Mt. Elazar along the ramp the Romans built during their siege of Masada and look at the mountain from the camp of the Eighth Roman Legion. However, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority does not permit hikers to walk down the steep Elazar Ascent toward the Masada Youth Hostel. The INPA considers such a steep descent too dangerous for hikers. Therefore, we continued like good boys on the red trail, along the Roman ramp, passing the steep cliff that creates the gorge separating Mt. Elazar from Masada, and ending the hike on the western side of Masada.



Useful Information: 

Length: Approx. 23 km

Difficulty: For proficient hikers only. The trail is marked and easy to follow. There are no difficult ascents.

Duration: 10-11 hours

Start: The corner of Ahva and Tzabar Streets, Arad. Take the main entrance into Arad, turn right immediately (opposite the Inbar Hotel) on Yehuda Street and drive along it up to Ahva Street. The street is built in the upper segment of the channel of Nahal Tabiya. Descend to Tzabar Street and begin to walk beside the little corner with the benches.

End: Western Masada campsite. Shmulik Shapira, director of safety for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, hopes that after the necessary funds are obtained, safety improvement works will be carried out in the coming months in the dangerous segments of the Elazar Ascent and it will again be possible to go down it to the foot of Masada and finish the hike at the Masada Youth Hostel.

Bring: Comfortable walking shoes, a hat, a sufficient quantity of water, sunscreen, and food.

Map: Southern Judean Desert and Dead Sea Trail Map, 2004 edition (No. 11, in Hebrew only).







© ERETZ Magazine 2016