At the heart of Arbel National Park is a dramatic cliff that overlooks the Sea of Galilee and Ginosar Valley. The cliff has a steep 110-meter drop, at a height of 390 meters above the surrounding area, and offers some of the best views of the Sea of Galilee. From here there are vistas of the Golan Heights, Jordan Valley, and across eastern Lower Galilee. The park is home to several unique natural habitats, wildlife, and diverse plants. It encompasses heritage sites, such as the Arbel cave fortress, an ancient synagogue, and the site of a historic battle.
History of the Arbel Nature Reserve
The incredible cliff was created by geological faults that formed the Jordan Rift Valley. Arbel is mentioned in the Bible at Hosea 10:14 and in the Book of Maccabees I. An important battle took place here in 161 BC between the Jewish Maccabees and Greek-Syrian forces. During the Second Temple Period, Galilean Jews expanded the cliff’s natural caves to create dwellings. In 38 BC a battle took place on these cliffs, between partisans of Antigonus, the last Hasmonaean king of Judea, and Roman forces led by King Herod.
According to the Roman historian Josephus, Jews barricaded themselves in the caves. Herod had soldiers lowered down the cliffs to the cave openings, making the Jews easy targets. Almost 300 years later, a Jewish settlement was established nearby and remained in use until the 8th century. In the 17th century, Druze connected the caves of Mt. Arbel’s northern face and created a cave fortress called Qala'at Ibn Maan.
Prior to Israeli independence in 1948, the land was part of the Arab village of Hattin, and after the establishment of the State of Israel, Moshav Arbel was founded. The reserve was declared in 1967 to protect the Arbel Cliff and surrounding areas including Mount Nitai, the Horns of Hattin, Arbel Plateau, and Mount Savyon. It also encompasses Nabi Shu’ayb, Horvat Vradim, and the Arbel Stream.
Points of Interest in Arbel National Park and Nature Reserve
Arbel Cliff: This magnificent vertical cliff (reminiscent of the cliff in Lion King) rises 390 m above the Sea of Galilee. It is made of hard limestone and dolomite rocks.
Arbel Stream: Running for 10km through the park is Arbel Stream (Ein Hamam). On the river bed are the remains of ancient aqueducts and a water-powered flour mill.
Caves and Fortress: The breathtaking Arbel Cliff is pockmarked with caves that were formed naturally by erosion, and then enlarged by early man to use as dwellings. During the Ottoman era, Druze leader Ali Beg turned the cave system into a fortress with halls, passages, staircases, and cisterns. Visitors can descend into the cave fortress on stairs, using cables that have been installed as hand-holds to help navigate the descent.
Archaeological Remains: The park encompasses the remains of an ancient synagogue built in the 4th century AD and destroyed in the 8th century. Unlike other early structures on the Golan Heights that were built with local black basalt rock, the ancient synagogue was constructed using large limestone blocks. This is the only synagogue in the world where the ark does not face Jerusalem.
Horns of Hattin: Twin peaks of an extinct volcano overlooking the plains of Hattin. This is believed to have been the site of a famous battle where Saladin defeated the Crusaders in 1187.
Nabi Shu’ayb: This is the shrine or tomb of Shu’ayb, a 14th century Islamic and Druze prophet commonly identified as the biblical figure Jethro.
Flora and Fauna in Arbel Park
Small animals have made the karstic cliff’s crevices and caves their home. You might be able to spot rock doves, the blue rock thrush, long-legged buzzards, snake eagles, horned owls, lesser kestrels, and bats. Occasionally you can spot rock hyraxes, red foxes, golden jackals, gazelles, badgers, and mongooses. In winter the rare wallcreeper bird visits from Europe.
Several rare plants grow in the park including centaury flowers, pendulous carnations, and Scrophularia. In January you can see gorgeous blue hyacinths covering the ground and in winter and spring, the landscape is covered with a carpet of anemones, tulips, blue lupines, and pink hairy flax.
Hiking in Arbel National Park and Nature Reserve
From the main entrance of the park, there is a 2.5 km-long circular trail that takes you past the best viewpoints and the cave fortress. A more challenging route starts at the Sea of Galilee and takes you on an 8 km hike. Climb to Arbel’s summit via the fortress, and continue through the park’s main entrance, past the ancient synagogue, and down into Arbel Valley then along the stream back to the starting point. On this route, you can stop at the Carob Tree Look-Out Point, for brilliant views across the Sea of Galilee. The Arbel National Park is one of the points of interest on the Jesus Trail and it is included in the Israel National Trail.
How to Reach Arbel National Park and Nature Reserve
The park requires an entrance fee and has toilets and plenty of parking. Arbel National Park is open from 8 am to 5pm in summer and until 4pm in winter. To reach Arbel, travel north on the coastal road (Highway 2), and turn inland at route 67 which joins route 70 traveling north. Pass Yokne’am and continue to route 77 which takes you east towards the Sea of Galilee.
Just before you reach Tiberias, take a left onto route 7717 in the direction of Kfar Hattin. Turn right at the turnoff to Moshav Arbel, and just before the moshav entrance turn left and continue for 3.5km to the park entrance. If you’re using Waze enter “Arbel National Park and Nature Reserve.” Instead of driving, you can also book a private tour of the area.