National Parks in Israel

Israel has over 400 national parks and nature reserves that cover almost a quarter of the country’s surface. Some parks preserve archaeological sites, like Caesarea’s ancient Roman port city, and Masada, Herod’s mountain-top palace-fortress. Other Israel national parks are preserved for their natural beauty. National parks in Israel are spread across the country from north to south. In the south is the breathtaking Ein Gedi National Park, a desert oasis with lush vegetation and babbling brooks. Near Haifa, is the Mount Carmel National Park that covers a 40km-long mountain range famed for its wineries, villages, and forest-covered slopes. Gan HaShlosha National Park is a must-see slice of paradise, with natural spring pools where you can swim in the shadow of shady trees.

Top Nature Reserves in Israel include Akhziv National Park, with blue bays, rock pools, and sea turtle nesting sites. You can do wet hikes in several places, like Ayun Streat Nature Reserve, and Amud Stream Nature Reserve. There is a high concentration of National parks in northern Israel each with a unique character. The Hamat Tiberias National Park on the Golan has hot springs and the Kfar Nahum (Capernaum) National Park preserves an archaeological site that would have been a fishing village during Jesus’ lifetime. You can travel across the Holy Land discovering diverse, and unique national parks where you’ll see a side of Israel you never imagined existed.


Jerusalem’s New Urban Wildlife Reserve

In March of this year (2015) Jerusalem’s first urban wildlife park of its kind was opened. The establishment of the Gazelle Valley Urban Wildlife Park comes after 15 years of intensive efforts and legal battles by local activists to prevent construction of buildings on this land.The land between the Katamon neighborhood, Gazelle ValleyGivat Mordechai area and the Holyland neighborhood (by Begin Highway) had once been an area where fruit trees grew and wild animals roamed. This patch of natural countryside in the heart of the city became known as Gazelle Valley because of the herd of gazelles which grazed there. Slowly urban development encroached more and more on this island of green until real estate giants put their sights on Gazelle Valley with plans of constructing a new neighborhood of high-rise blocks. Local activists voiced their objections and together with environmental organizations like the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel they fought for the establishment of a nature reserve.It took 22 million shekels to transform the area into the natural paradise that it is today and a further 70 million is earmarked for future plans for the park. The park was financed by the municipality in conjunction with donations by the Jerusalem Foundation. The urban wildlife park covers more than 60 acres (about the size of the Old City) and has been designed with care to maintain the natural, wild habitat. The park is an oasis within the concrete jungle and is easily accessible on foot from places like the Malka Mall and Bayit V’Gan.Gazelle ValleyUnlike conventional parks Gazelle Valley has large areas where the natural grass and bush have been left untouched creating a natural environment for the herd of gazelles which now call it home. The gazelles which now live in the park are the few that survived from the original much larger herd plus others which have been brought here to repopulate the area. Already two fawns have been born in the park. The park is divided into three areas – for the gazelles, the visitors and an open buffer zone between them. The park has bike paths, two streams, five ponds, picturesque bridges leading to a man-made island, bird watching areas, picnic spots, open lawns and many birds and small animals who have made this home like porcupines, moles and hedgehogs. Visitors can join guided nature tours of the park and borrow deck chairs and binoculars to watch the gazelles.
By Petal Mashraki

The Israel National Trail

Criss-crossing the entire land of Israel, and stretching just over 1000 kilometres (around 630 miles), the Israel National Trail (‘Shvil Israel’) is the kind of experience every hiker will remember for years after. National Geographic have listed it as one of the world’s “most epic” trails and when you hike it you’ll understand why...it marries mountains with desert, coastal plains with green fields, snow-capped hills with warm waters in the Red Sea, Roman and Crusader ruins with Arab/Druze villages...basically, it’s a taste of everything the land of Israel encompasses.Rare OpportunityIt also offers the hiker something else too - a chance to understand more about the Biblical significance of the land as well as the opportunity to meet Israelis from every walk of life...not just those whose villages and towns you’ll pass through, but those who will aid you practically, as you continue on your journey. (But more of that later.)The trail itself is easily marked in colorful stripes - blue white and orange - and is the brainchild of Avraham Tamir and Ori Dvir, who love hiking and nature. Inaugurated back in 1995, first and foremost its aim is to give hikers the chance to experience Israel in its most natural settings. What’s also great the National Israel Trail is that you don’t have to complete the entire stretch. If you're not an expert hiker, or you only have a few days to spare, that’s fine - you can focus on one particular part of it or even take day trips. But for any ardent hiker, between 4-6 weeks will need to be set aside in order to complete the entire stretch.Trail AngelsOn a practical level, strong boots, snacks and a hardy water bottle are all must-haves, particularly for when you’re in remote areas of the trail. The SPNI (Society for the Protection of Nature) sells high-class topographical maps, in English, with an emphasis on the hiking trails - they are an invaluable resource!There’s also more good news - all along the route, you’ll be able to call upon the services of “Trail Angels”. These wonderful people provide hikers with a place to shower/sleep, kitchen facilities and quite often dinner, or at the very least a coffee and a chat, in their homes. Getting to meet locals in their natural habitat? It doesn’t get much more authentic than this! Some Trail Angels also partake in a water-burying scheme (in the desert areas) which really comes in handy when you’re half way through your day and parched.It’s up to you whether you want to work your way up or down the country, but since trekking in Israel’s summer can be unbearable, we suggest you begin your journey in the autumn or winter. Here’s an example of an itinerary, beginning in the south, in mid-February.Timna, the Arava and the NegevStart your journey in Eilat (on the tip of the Red Sea), and spend your last day of ‘freedom’ on the beach, enjoying views of Jordan, Egypt and Saudi. With its endless palm trees and clement waters, it’s the ideal place to enjoy some R&R.Trekking through the Eilat Mountains, and the Arava desert, pass through Timna Park - 15,000 acres set in a valley shaped like a horseshoe, surrounded by Mount Timna and some very steep cliffs. The geology is quite fascinating (our tip: look out for the Pillars of Solomon, two sandstone columns that tower above you). Heading up through the vast desert expenses, you’ll pass Kibbutz Neot Samdar (they sell excellent vegetarian produce) and arrive in Mitzpe Ramon, a small town that sits on the edge of the magnificent Ramon Crater. (It’s actually possible to hike, bike or take a jeep tour inside the crater).About 35 kilometers north, you’ll arrive at the Midreshet Ben Gurion, an intimate community that boasts scientific institutes, the burial site of David Ben Gurion (Israel’s first Prime Minister) and some striking views of Wadi Zin. Call upon Trail Angel Arthur du Mosch, who leads tours of the desert, is an expert horse-rider and actually caught a leopard in his home, many years back!Judean HillsJudean DesertHead north through the Negev to the Yatir Forest, Israel’s largest forest which, despite receiving very little rainfall, is home to some of the country’s most varied woodlands (including a unique eucalyptus with red blossoms). Enjoy some archaeology - the Yatir Ruins (associated with the Biblical city of Jatti). From there it’s into the Judean Hills. Don’t miss the breathtaking views inside the ‘British Park’ and sites such as the Luzit Caves, Kidon Ruins and Monastery of Beit Jamal. Trek through dirt tracks, pass caves and look over Highway 1, which served as a battleground in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. The trail continues through the Sharon coastal area, including Tel Aviv. The ‘White City’ (named after its Bauhaus Buildings) can be a good place to enjoy a couple of day’s rest, some good coffee and sandy beaches.Carmel and the GalileeIt’s then north to the Carmel...an incredibly lovely part of the trail, with wondrous views of the Galilee and steep ravines in which you can hike. The path runs through Kibbutz Yagur, where you’ll find more helpful Trail Angels. Dip your feet in the Nakhash Stream, sip at your water bottle and breathe in the clean air.Further north, you’ll arrive at Mount Tabor, rising up from the very flat Jezreel Valley. Green all year round, it provides magnificent observation points. (Our tip: don’t miss the caves and the Greek Orthodox/Franciscan churches).Mount Meron, the Yesha Fortress and the Upper GalileeAbout 70 kilometers north, just after the spiritual center of Safed, you’ll arrive at Mount Meron which, at 500 meters above sea level, is Israel’s largest peak. It is home to ‘Elijah’s Chair’ (a huge lectern-shaped rock which is rumored to be where the great prophet sat). Parts of the area are a protected nature reserve - and don’t miss the village of Meron either (where you’ll find the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai).Another 30 km north, you’ll arrive at the imposing Yesha Fortress - built by the British during the Mandate period. Today it’s used by the Israeli border police. Hike up the path that leads to a splendid panorama of the Hula Valley below. On your left, you will see the villages of Metula and Kiryat Shmona and, across the Valley, the Golan Heights (whose peaks might even still have snow on them).You will also find at the site a plaque that remembers the 28 men who died fighting here in the War of Independence (our tip: don’t miss the small grove nearby that has 28 trees planted in memory of the men).The last part of the trail - the Hula Valley, Upper Galilee and Naftali Ridge - will see you hiking when spring has truly arrived - with luck you will have blue skies and sunny days, and all around you will be fields carpeted with brightly-colored crocuses. On the eastern side of the Rmim Cliffs, the trail will afford you views of planted forests (after the Second Lebanon War, a reforestation project was undertaken). Don’t miss the Saadia Scenic Lookout, the Menara Cliffs and the Shepherds Spring.And by then, you’re homeward bound and you can honestly say you know the land of Israel a great deal better!
By Sarah Mann

Top Hikes Near Jerusalem

Jerusalem is built on a plateau in the Judean Hills; this ancient city is surrounded by rocky peaks; thick forests and lush valleys. It is incredible to think of all the pilgrims, armies and travelers – Jews, Christians and Muslims that made their way to the City of Gold on foot over thousands of years.With some of the spectacular hikes around Jerusalem, it is possible to experience, in a small way, the awe ancient travelers must have felt when making their way through the rugged hills towards Jerusalem. Today the precious landscape around Jerusalem is persevered in national parks and nature reserves. Here is a selection of just some of the trails you can follow in the Jerusalem area, although there are many more.Ein Karem to Derech HaGefen HikeThis unique and rather off-the-beaten-track hike takes you from Ein Karem, a quant community near Jerusalem to the well-known Derech HaGefen Café. It is a short, easy hike where you can see the Jerusalem suburbs on the horizon most of the time. The bonus of this hike trail is that you can explore the picturesque community of Ein Keram where stone houses are draped with ivy and bougainvillea and the quaint lanes have courtyard cafes and arts and crafts stores. Leave Ein Keram's main street, Rechov Ein Karem where an Israel Trail marker leads down to Madregot Gan Eden (Steps of Paradise). Pass the trail market indicating Derech Sorek and continue down Emek HaTeimanim Street leaving the Israel Trail. Continue on Emek HaTeimanim which becomes a lane and then a dirt path leading into the open countryside. Hike until you see a sign to Derech Hagefen. The last part of the hike is on a road (Derech Hagefen) and passes rural dwellings with charming gardens. End the hike with a meal or drink at the Derech Hagefen Café then retrace your steps back to Ein Keram.Nahal Refa'imHike Trail in Begin ParkMost hikers head to northern Israel when they are looking for winter hikes; but the best winter hike near Jerusalem is to Nahal Refaim which only flows in the winter. This hike is especial good after a few days of rain when the river is at its fullest. The hike trail to the river banks and back again is about 2km altogether with quite a steep climb on the way back. The hike starts in Begin Park, less than a half hour from Jerusalem. Follow the red trail markers through forests and over rocky areas. The trail crosses a road and continues on the Israel Trail taking you down a steep hill. Then cross another road and join the trail marked by green markers. At that point the trail meets the wide, rapidly-flowing river flanked by eucalyptus trees, wild flowers and other vegetation. If you want to extend the hike, then continue following the green markers or you could opt to retrace your steps.Givat HaTurmusim Hike Through Wild FlowersHikers visiting the Holy Land often imagine they will only find desert hikes in Israel but on this stunning hike route just outside Jerusalem you'll be awe-struck by the spectacular show of bright purple-blue "turmusim" or wild lupine flowers. You can see the flower-filled meadows in full bloom in February and March but the rest of the year you will still find yourself surrounded by breathtaking scenery. The brilliantly colored flowers stand out against a backdrop of dark green hills. Givat HaTurmusim (Lupine Hill) can be explored on a 6km circular route or you can simply scale the hill.Shvil HaMayanot Hike TrailOn this 3km hike trail you'll need to double-back and return to the starting point along the same route. The hike starts about 15 minutes from Jerusalem city center close to Ein Hendek on the road between Ein Keram and Moshav Even Sapir and meanders through the western slopes of the Judean Hills. Shvil HaMayanot (Trail of Springs) takes you along a chain of five natural spring pools. You'll also encounter tunnels; woodlands; olive groves and ancient ruins. At some of the springs you can see how ancient inhabitants channeled the spring water into stone-constructed pools; some of which have been restored. The route ends near the Yad Kennedy memorial. It's possible to do this hike year-round but it is best from December to April. If you want to stretch out this hike to make it longer take a detour to Handak Spring which is a tunnel spring carved into the stone and dry in the summer. If you have a flashlight you can walk into the spring tunnel.Sataf Nature TrailSataf is a site where ancient agricultural techniques, specifically terraced farming have been recreated alongside two picturesque springs – Bikura Spring and Sataf Spring. The original agricultural terraces where built 4500 years ago. Sataf is about 14km from Jerusalem and the hike trail can be accessed from the Sataf parking lot. The hike can be done year-round and has various amenities such as a café, toilets and picnic trails. Within the Sataf grounds are two hike trail options – the 1.5km-long Blue Trail that takes a circular route and the 2km-long Green Trail which passes the two springs. There are other longer routes including the 8.5km Red Trail which is considered one of the best in the Jerusalem area.
By Petal Mashraki
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