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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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Rhubarb on the Rocks

Rare plants, glorious panoramas, and intriguing basalt prisms are among the treats to be found on the hike in the Western Negev Highlands.

The markings on the trails in the western Negev highlands have been freshly painted and the 2004 edition of the Negev Highlands Hiking and Trail Map has just come out. In honor of these two events, members of the ERETZ staff recently set out on a hike in the area.

We wanted to start out on the green-marked trail descending into Makhtesh Ramon, one of the fascinating depressions in the earth, caused largely by erosion, that are found mainly in the Negev and Sinai, and hardly anywhere else in the world. Accordingly, we drove westward from Mitzpe Ramon on the road that leads to Mt. Harif. We stopped the car in a small parking lot, beside kilometer marker 12. Instead of the sign that used to point to the beginning of the route, we found only a pile of earth that was blocking our way.

“We took down the sign,” Hanan Afriat, Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) ranger in the southern Negev highlands, told us apologetically. “This trail is meant for hikers only. But there are people with jeeps who won’t take ‘No’ for an answer. They drove on the trail and left terrible grooves in the ground. They would get as far as the edge of the makhtesh, where you can’t drive any further. On the way back to the road, they wouldn’t want to return via the same route, and so they’d start to plow through the area. Add to that the grooves left by vehicles chasing after smugglers and you end up with a devastated area.”

The INPA rangers not only removed the sign and blocked the trail with a pile of earth. They also developed a special device consisting of two rows of thick cables, which they drag over the ground to smooth it out a bit in order to obscure the grooves left by the jeeps. This system is put into operation in the month of October, a time when there are no annual plants on the surface. The work is done in such a way that it doesn’t harm the shrubs in the area but only “combs” them. It has to be done before the first rain, since the raindrops that fall on the smoothed ground coagulate the dust and help remove the traces.

This operation is cosmetic and doesn’t repair the damage that was done, but it does help to discourage jeep owners from entering the area. The smoothed ground gives them the feeling that they are destroying a pristine place instead of following in the tracks of their predecessors. Another way of restoring the area to a more “natural” appearance is the digging of little depressions in order to imitate the activity of the porcupines, which in summer make innumerable holes in the ground in search of crocus bulbs.

The “green” trail climbs up a shallow channel that drains the gentle northern slope of the Ramon Ridge on its way to the riverbed of Nahal Nitzana. Like many channels of its kind, it is covered densely with desert shrubs such as white wormwood and jointed anabasis.

The abundant vegetation and the remains of agricultural terraces attest to the extensive agriculture that existed here in the Byzantine period. Every shallow gorge was cultivated. The cultivation improved the condition of the soil in the channels and now they are filled with desert plants that “remember” ancient times.

The vegetation in the channels is the main means of sustenance for the herbivorous animals that inhabit this area. Gazelles and ibexes have been here from time immemorial and in 1984 the INPA reintroduced herds of onagers to the Israeli wild, in Makhtesh Ramon. The onagers are doing well, have reproduced nicely, and can now be found throughout the large expanse between Nahal Tzihur and the Barnea Plateau (beside Shivta). The Negev highlands has a “resident” herd numbering about 30 onagers. It makes do with food that nature offers, but is aided by a water trough installed by

the INPA. The channel in which we were hiking was strewn with droppings, and onager tracks could be seen in abundance. The length of a mature onager’s hoof is 6 or 7 centimeters. We also saw many tracks of young onagers, which were 4 centimeters long. Soon they will be followed by the tracks of oryxes, when the INPA reintroduces the species to its biblical home. The only animals around that don’t belong to the reserve are camels, used by smugglers bringing goods from Egypt to the southern part of Mt. Hebron.

Down into Makhtesh Ramon

Our trail met up with a trail marked in blue, which continued to our right, but we continued on the green trail to the rim of Makhtesh Ramon. When we got there, we made a little detour to the right, to a wall built beneath a long rock shelf. Shepherds used to take shelter in the chamber formed by the wall.

Here, some 200 meters above the makhtesh floor, the view is breathtaking. We could see the entire length of the makhtesh, all the way up to the Mahmal Valley, Mt. Ardon, and the Ardon Valley. We were able to make out Mitzpe Ramon, on the northern cliff of the makhtesh; we also saw Mt. Arod, a mass of black basalt rising some 230 meters from the makhtesh floor.

It was time to go down into the makhtesh. The descent gently meanders and its stones were cleared away long ago to create a passage for heavily laden camels. On the makhtesh floor, the trail turns eastward, toward basalt hills, and enters a small basalt crevice, known as the Canyon of the Prisms. The crevice’s walls reveal beautiful exposures of basalt prisms, toothed peaks, and dark split rock arrayed in little columns. The prisms incline slightly to the west, a phenomenon that seems to indicate that the prisms formed during the flow of lava. In any event, it’s a delightful place to stop for breakfast.

After exiting the Canyon of the Prisms and entering the expanses of the makhtesh, the trail meets up with a black-marked dirt road that runs beside Nahal Ramon, the riverbed that drains Makhtesh Ramon. Here we walked westward (right) for nearly 2 kilometers, until we met up with a trail marked in red, which climbs southward and leads up the southern cliff of the makhtesh.

Leaving the Makhtesh

In the segment we were exploring, the southern cliff rises some 150 meters above the makhtesh floor. Still, it’s not a bad climb, especially since it takes you past red and purple sandstone rocks from the Lower Cretaceous epoch (144 million years ago). Moreover, in winter the slope is festooned with wild rhubarb, a rare plant in Israel that grows only in the western part of Makhtesh Ramon and in the Nahal Arod area, from a height of 700 meters and up. Each plant develops up to three large leaves, whose diameter, after particularly rainy winters, can be as large as 70 centimeters – a very strange sight in the desert. In spring, the plant blossoms with red flowers. When summer begins, the leaves fall off and the plant endures the heat as a thickened root deep in the ground.

The trail first runs along on the coxcomb, which marks the peak of the vertical layers of the southern slope of the Ramon Ridge. Prior to the erosive activity that formed the makhtesh, these layers climbed up to the top of the Ramon Ridge. We were headed for Mt. Ido, situated about 1 kilometer away, and so we left the slope of the ridge. A trail with a “transparent” marking (whose two white stripes flank an unpainted space rather than the usual colored stripe) branches off from the red trail and climbs to the top of Mt. Ido (959 meters). Mt. Ido is a residual mountain, consisting of surviving rock from a plateau that underwent erosion and geological upheaval. It is composed of white limestone from the Eocene epoch, about 58 million years ago. The view is amazing. We could see the northern cliff of Makhtesh Ramon, Mt. Ramon, and Mt. Harif. To the south, we could see Mt. Arif, which contains two makhteshim, and rising behind it, Mt. Karkom, which is famous for its rock drawings. To the east, we could see Mt. Tzuri’az, Mt. Tzenifim, and all the way to Mt. Edom. To the west, we could see the Lotz Cliffs, where we were headed.

To the Lotz Cliffs

From the top of Mt. Ido, the red trail descends to Nahal Arod and crosses it, in order to reach the dirt road (marked in blue) that runs along the riverbed. We turned right on the blue road and passed a campsite. Here, too, many wild rhubarbs can be seen in winter.

Not far from the campsite, we came upon Atlantic pistachio trees. Several hundred Atlantic pistachios have survived in the Negev highlands. They are centuries old and a few of them are huge, especially the ones that grow in large channels, such as Nahal Arod and Nahal Lotz, which collect sizable amounts of water. Others grow in rock fissures. They are smaller, but no less endowed with the hardiness that enables them to continue to survive in the harsh conditions of the Negev highlands.

After a walk of nearly 2 kilometers on Nahal Arod’s blue-marked dirt road, we turned south (left) in a little channel containing a trail marked in black. The trail took us on a gentle climb to the Lotz cliffs. In addition to the large white broom bushes that prevail in the area, there are two big shrubs. One of them is bladder senna, which has large yellow flowers. The other is Rhamnus disperma, a densely tangled shrub with pointy branches. In Israel, this plant grows in the Negev highlands and in the southern part of the Judean Desert.

The trail reaches the top of the Lotz Ascent, another lovely lookout point with a view of Mt. Batur and the Hisun Valley; the high plateaus of Mt. Nes and Mt. Sagi; Mt. Haspas, with Mt. Karkom rising behind it; and Mt. Arif, in which we could see even the southern wall of the Large Makhtesh. Also visible is the canyon of Nahal Ketziya, which drains into Nahal Arod and the Barak Plateau.

From there we followed the green-marked trail leading to Nahal Eliav. The landscape was similar to the landscape in which we ascended, but the Atlantic pistachios here seemed larger.

Perhaps because the descent took less effort, it was easier for us to discern the dry stalks of the yellow asphodel and the Tulipa systola (tzvoni hamidbar – “desert tulips” – in Hebrew). We could also see the erect stems of the Ferula daninii (kelach danin – “Danin fennel” – in Hebrew), a plant known for its cuplike appearance and endemic to the western Negev highlands and the Sde Boker area.

In addition, we got a look at what is known as a fat sand rat, a creature that can be as large as 17 centimeters long. It studied us for about half a minute before fleeing into a burrow it had dug for itself in the shade of a large rock.

In the course of the hike, we had seen cut stalks of jointed anabasis, which the sand rats had not yet managed to put into their burrows for consumption in a place where they were less exposed to predators. Maybe they were waiting until we passed.

The green trail leads down Nahal Eliav, but we went off to the right and up a black-marked trail leading up a small ridge to the Nahal Lotz Ascent, which has a red-marked trail. Three hundred meters later, we reachedthe riverbed. At the meeting point with the excellent dirt road that leadsfrom the road that goes to the Arod Ascent, the vehicle was waiting topick us up. Another nice day’s outing in the Negev had come to an end.


Click for Map


Useful Information: 

Length:  22 km.

Difficulty: Relatively easy. You have to cover a height differential of some 200 meter twice going down and twice coming up.

Pickup point: Arrange to be picked up at the junction of the Arod Pass Road (marked in blue) with Nahal Lotz (marked in red). Any vehicle can reach the pickup point.

Map: Western Negev Highlands Hiking and Trail Map (No. 18 - Hebrew only)








© ERETZ Magazine 2016