Relentless sunlight baked the air to 100°F. We pushed forward in the heat with determination, one foot in front of the other across the barren Negev desert, hiking the Israel National Trail.
Never waste good shade in the desert.
Over the next week I would learn to respect the importance of this golden rule. Because shade is hard to come by in the Negev, a massive desert in southern Israel. I was here to hike the Israel National Trail, or INT, with a group of international journalists, bloggers, and Israeli university students.
At 1000 kilometers (620 miles) long, walking the entire trail takes 6-8 weeks. Zig-zagging through much of the country, it’s a collection of ancient local trails that have recently been merged into one.
Inspired by the Appalachian Trail in the United States, the INT was the brainchild of journalist Avraham Tamir who hiked its US counterpart back in the 1980’s. Israel’s trail is relatively new, officially opening in 1995.
My plan was to sample 3 different sections of the trail over the course of a week. A few days in the Negev, a few days in the Jerusalem Mountains, and a few days in the North near the Golan Heights.
Israel’s National Trail is renowned for its mixture of unique desert landscapes, rich culture, and ancient history. National Geographic called it one of the World’s Best Hikes. Why? Because it has a little bit of everything — and you don’t need to be religious to appreciate it either.
I’ve never been hiking in a proper desert landscape before. So spending our first few days in the Negev was a fascinating experience for me. Covering more than half of Israel, the Negev is vast, hot, and dry. Rare flash floods produce mud that quickly dries back up, cracking under the heat of the sun. We spent the night camped under a tarp with a full moon, eating hearty Poykeh stew cooked on an open fire.
During the hike we crossed a few different makhtesh craters. These unique geological formations are created when soft sandstone is washed away by erosion, leaving behind steep walls of harder limestone. Mineral deposits in the sandstone are responsible for the colorful red, purple, blue, and orange hues found on the crater floor. This was not the kind of desert I was expecting. Rocky & varied terrain with mountains, craters, and large canyons.
Trekking through a desert in 100°F / 37°C heat is challenging, but not impossible. Like any tough hike, there’s a warm up period. Eventually you get into a rhythm, the sweat flows freely, and your body adjusts to the situation. Fully hydrating before each hike and packing enough water is crucial though — at least 3 liters per person for a day of hiking in these conditions. I quickly fell in love with the silence and vastness of the desert.
Despite the harsh conditions, life persists in the desert. Dry river-beds are the best place to find it. Trees and shrubs manage to pull up groundwater using a deep network of roots. They also provide a rare source of shade along the Israel National Trail. According to our guide Asher, you should “never waste good shade in the desert”. Always take advantage of shade when you find it! Wise advice.
On some sections of the trail, hikers must climb up crater walls. There is one in particular called the Palmah Ascent. A series of ladders, cables, and iron rungs drilled into the rock help keep you safe. This route was first opened by elite Jewish Palmah forces in the 1940’s who were seeking a way around British troops. However they were forced to climb it free-hand. An impressive feat that earned them the nickname “Crazy Jews” from Bedouin tribes.
The Negev is full of different wadis, or desert canyons. The Israel National Trail passes over them, through them, and up the canyon walls. While formed by water, it’s rare to see water flowing down them, other than the occasional winter flash-flood. During these floods, wadis can fill up quickly though. There are even waterfalls. Parts of the trail can be pretty exposed with sheer drops — steel cables are in place if you’re afraid of heights.
A popular hike along the trail is the Big Fin, a short but slightly more difficult climb up the side of a Makhtesh crater with spectacular views of the natural amphitheater below. The area used to be an ocean, and fossils of ancient sea creatures can still be found in the limestone if you search hard enough. It’s also a great excuse to stop and rest while hiking this thing under the torturous midday sun…
Caravans of camels used to travel through the Negev desert from Yemen to the port city of Gaza loaded with spices, perfumes and salt. It was an important trade route used for thousands of years. Ancient petroglyphs carved into rock patina can be found here, some up to 2500 years old. Researchers believe they are property markers for tribal families. Most depict rudimentary figures of people and animals, like the Ibex.
We stopped by the home of Salem & his family, who prepared delicious flat bread in his traditional desert tent. Plus Arabic coffee “strong like Bedouin men, bitter like life in desert, and black like marriage”. Israel’s Bedouin (or Negev Arab) communities make their living keeping livestock like sheep, goats, & camels. Tourism is increasingly important too. Salem offers accommodation for Israel National Trail hikers.
The Israeli desert hosts a few different animals, most of them nocturnal. One exception is the Nubian Ibex, a wild goat that scavenges for scrub grass during the day. Other animals include the hyrax (a large rodent), deer, fox, hyenas, wolves, and the camel. A few poisonous animals live here too, like the Israeli Mole Viper and the Deathstalker scorpion. The only animals we came across were a herd of wild Ibex and camels at a farm.
A special local community of people provide accommodation, water, dinner, or showers to hikers of the Israel National Trail. They’re called Trail Angels. Many offer these services free of charge. In the town of Sde Boker we stayed with Arthur, a long-time trail angel who generally hosts 8-10 people each hiking season. He’s also famous for catching a rare wild Arabian Leopard, in his bedroom!
After 2 days trekking in the desert, we moved North to the Valley Of Elah and the Jerusalem Mountains in the center of the country. This part of Israel is much greener and full of history. Hiking up Tel Azekah gave us a view of the valley, where legend says young David killed the Philistine giant Goliath using a sling. A trail took us down by the creek where it supposedly happened.
After 2 days around Jerusalem (which I’ll detail in a separate post), we headed North again. This time to the Jezreel Valley and Lower Galilee region. The valley is a large fertile plain used for farming wheat, sunflowers, cotton, and corn. Slightly more lush than the arid desert landscape we started from in the South. We hiked up Mount Tabor which sits in the middle of these fields, with a small church at the top run by Franciscan monks where Jesus supposedly “transfigured” and spoke with Moses.
After a night of eating some of the best food I’ve ever tasted with a Druze family, we climbed Mount Arbel for a magnificent view of Lake Kinneret, aka the Sea of Galilee. For Bible fans, this is where Jesus supposedly walked on water. Today the lake is Israel’s largest source of drinking water. A trail takes you past ancient caves carved into the side of a cliff. Once a fortress, it’s still possible to climb up and explore them.
Passing through harsh but beautiful desert landscapes, green hills and lush valleys, Jewish kibbutz farms and Arab Bedouin communities, remote wilderness and international cities is what makes walking the Israel National Trail a unique adventure. Not to mention meeting local people from varying faiths and backgrounds willing to share their homes & hospitality with us.
My favorite part? The Negev’s desert environment. It was not what I was expecting — very different than the type of mountains I’m more accustomed to. The heat, the changing landscape, and the solitude I found there have inspired me to visit other deserts.
Hiking small sections of the National Trail over the course of the week gave me a brief yet wide glimpse of this country, I’d love to return to indulge in the full six week experience. ★
Location: Israel National Trail [Map]
Guide: Asher Drimmer
Online Resources: IsraelTrail.net
Guidebook: Israel National Trail Guidebook
Useful Tips: Spring & Fall are the best times to hike, as winters can get cold in the North and summer hiking in the desert heat is dangerous. Some sections of the desert have zero water, meaning you must “cache” it (driving out to bury water bottles first). Trail Angels can help you with this. The trail itself is well marked with painted rocks.
Expereince made possible in partnership with Stand With Us. Content & opinions are entirely my own.