Work has being completed on a new hiking trail that goes completely around Makhtesh Ramon. Hiking the entire trail will take eight days, however, the new trail also creates a number of options for shorter hikes in previously inaccessible sections of the Negev’s largest crater. Lior Shwimmer, director of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority’s guiding center at Mitzpe Ramon, tells ERETZ Magazine about the trail. by ERETZ Staff
The idea of creating a hiking trail that completely encircles Makhtesh Ramon, the Negev’s largest crater, has been around for a long time. Its main advocate has been Nadav Taubeh, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) ranger at Makhtesh Ramon. The push to finally realize the idea actually came from the field. Despite the amazing views the makhtesh offers of the biblical landscape, there only were marked hiking paths on its eastern side in the area of the Ardon Valley and En Saharonim and on its western side in the area of Mount Ramon, the ’Arod Pass, and Mount ’Iddo. There were not any paths connecting these areas for those who wished to enjoy this unique area to its fullest by spending several days hiking in it.
There also was no point of trying to take such a hike until recently. Plants to mine gypsum, plaster and clay operated between the western and eastern sides. They quarried huge pits in the makhtesh floor and their factories and heavy equipment filled the area with dust. Over the past decade, however, the plants have closed and the quarries around them have been rehabilitated. When passing through it today, it is hard to believe that this was an industrial area only a few years ago.
The factories’ closure opened the door to the opportunity to develop long range hiking trails at a time when these kind of trails are becoming popular world over
Lior Shwimmer, director of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority’s guiding center at Mitzpe Ramon, became involved because he handles requests from hikers interested in exploring the area. After a discussion on the issue in the INPA’s southern district, it was decided to take the opposite of the accepted path in this case. They would identify the interesting sites and charming spots along the proposed route first and only after that would they convene the required discussion on nature preservation, checking where it is possible to place a hiking path and where doing so would clash with the principles of protecting the untouched landscape. Hikers and hiking paths generally do not contribute to nature preservation, but the golden mean between them can be found. Furthermore, the love of the land learned by walking through the land significantly reinforces public awareness of the need to preserve nature.
The work to mark the new path is now done. It includes about 50 kilometers of new trails in addition to the existing trails that were incorporated into it. The new sections have purple trail markings. Where the trail runs along existing trails, a purple dot was added to their trail markings to indicate that two trails run along that segment. Two new campsites also were created to accommodate hikers on the new trail.
Hiking the full trail takes eight days and there are seven campsites along the trail so hikers can spend the entire time on the trail, sleeping out under the stars each night. That said, hikers are not required to follow the entire trail in order at once. The new trail actually creates interesting connections and new ring trails at different levels of difficulty and of different lengths, from a few hours to a few days.
Day One: From Mitzpe to Nizzana
Since it is a ring trail, the new trail can be hiked in either direction from many different starting points. This article describes the trail beginning at the Makhtesh Ramon Visitors Center in Mitzpe Ramon, heads west, and continues along the southern cliff before heading eastward to return to the starting point.
The trail leads west from the visitors’ center, along the cliff, past Camel Mountain, around the Negev Highlands field school, and along the cliff until the top of the Ramon Ascent. From there, after a short walk along the cliff, the trail descends to the Nahal Hammat Riverbed to reach the ancient Hammat Pool. From the pool, the trail crosses the highway to Mount Harif and continues in the channel of the Nahal Nizzana Riverbed to a new campsite created on the bank of Nahal Nizzana, the Northern Nizzana Riverbed Campsite.
Day Two: From Nizzana to the Lotz Wells
On the second day, the trail continues along the hills north of Nahal Nizzana. running along the watershed between the rivers that descend toward the Dead Sea and the Arava and those that descend towards the Mediterranean Sea. Nahal Nizzana is a fascinating example of a river that actually flows parallel to the watershed until it turns to the north and decides to be a western river instead of an eastern one.
The riverbeds in whose channels the trail has been following (Nahal Kabir and later Nahal Darban) continue westward. This area, the highest part of the Negev Highlands, is unique due to its flora, the amount of precipitation it receives, and of course human settlement. During the Bronze and Iron ages, the time of the Israelites, there area was densely inhabited. Remains from these times can be seen in the waterholes, terraces, and even ruins of buildings and caves. In addition, a wealth of rock drawings can be found on prominent rocks. They are the work of nomads and some are thousands of years old.
At Nahal Darban, the path turns towards Nahal Nizzana, crosses the highway again, and descends southward towards Karnei Rimon (The Ramon Horns). It then continues along the impressive cliff along the western edge of Makhtesh Ramon to reach Mount Ramon, the tallest mountain in the Negev at 1,037 meters above sea level. From Mount Ramon, the trail descends along a jeep track to the campsite at the Lotz Wells.
Day Three: From Lotz Wells to Mount ’Iddo
The next section is one of the most beautiful parts of this entire trail. This new hiking path leads from the Lotz Wells back to Mount Ramon, and then through a field of tumuli (ancient graves) dated to the Bronze Age reaches the edge of the makhtesh. It then turns towards the west and leads to the ’Arod lookout point. One of the new segments of the trail begins after the ’Arod Gap. It ascends along the length of the makhtesh’s southern cliff towards Mount ’Iddo, which offers an impressive view of the makhtesh and the expanses of the Nahal ’Arod and Nahal Nekarot riverbeds.
The path descends from Mount ’Iddo to the Mount ’Iddo Campsite, which is in the Nahal ’Arod Riverbed.
Day Four: From Mount ’Iddo to the Pitam Gap
This section of the trail is completely new and allows hikers to get to know one of the most impressive parts of Makhtesh Ramon. The trail first ascends via the Nahal ’Oded Riverbed through the narrow opening between Mount ’Oded and the makhtesh’s southern wall. The handsome hogbacks, which are one of the identifying signs of the outer walls of a makhtesh, already are noticeable here. On the slope of Nahal ’Oded, the trail reaches a secluded pool hidden in a shaded corner of the riverbed that is full of water for most of the year. The pool is located on the watershed between Nahal ’Oded and Nahal Nekarot.
The trail then descends along Nahal Nekarot and continues along the bases of the hogbacks to the Pitam Gap near Mount Pitam, where the next campsite is located.
Day Five: From Mount Pitam to West Nahal Nekarot
On the fifth day of the hike, the trail ascends to the most gorgeous viewpoint in the makhtesh, which is atop a hill known as Elevation Point 866. For some reason, no one bothered to name this impressive spot, which can be seen clearly from almost every part of the makhtesh’s western side. After a tough climb to the hill’s summit, the trail descends steeply on the other side via the Shen Ramon Gap, the ancient granite section of Makhtesh Ramon. The trail leads by the Ammonite Wall, a memento of the days that the Tethys Ocean covered the makhtesh and the entire Negev. The trail then descends to the west Nahal Nekarot Campsite, which is near Route 40 to Eilat.
Familiar Territory: Saharonim Valley and Ardon
The final days of the hike are through familiar territory. The trail descends along Nahal Nekarot, enters the makhtesh via the Gevanim Gap, and continues along the knife-like ridge of Mount Saharonim towards Sha’ar Ramon (The Ramon Gate). It then continues via the narrow canyon of Sha’ar Ramon to the Nekarot Gap and from there to the campsite at Be’erot.
The next day, the trail continues to Ramat Saharonim and Givat Harut (Conical Hill) before ascending and descending Mount Ardon to the Ardon campsite.
On the last day, the trail follows the Nabatean Incense Road, climbs the Mahmal Ascent (Camel Driver’s Ascent), reaches the jeep track that runs along the makhtesh’s northern cliff, and returns to Mitzpe Ramon via the sculpture garden.
The best time for the trail is from November to April. Summers are hot and hiking hours are in the early morning hours and late afternoon. Winters in the Negev Highlands can be very cold, and snow in January and February is not unusual.
For help planning the hike contact the Israel Nature and Parks Authority’s Ramon Guiding Center in Mitzpe Ramon at email@example.com or Tel. (08) 658-8832.