Traveling to Southern Israel

Southern Israel holds many hidden gems, and attractions well worth visiting. The Negev Desert and the Judean Desert make up most of southern Israel, covering over 50% of the country. Traveling to southern Israel is easy, with a train link to Beer Sheva, the capital of the south, tours, and regular buses that leave central Israel.

If you’re going to Eilat, at Israel’s southernmost point, it’s best to take a flight from Tel Aviv. Highlights of southern Israel include the iconic Dead Sea at the lowest point on Earth, and Masada, a plateau rock outcrop where Herod built his fortress over 2,000 years ago. On the shore of the Dead Sea is the desert oasis of Ein Gedi, where you can hike along babbling streams through lush vegetation to hidden waterfalls.

Other things to do in southern Israel include touring the city of Jericho; visiting Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered; and exploring Mamshit National Park, home to the remains of an ancient Nabatean city. Take a jeep safari through the Negev Desert and learn about the region’s flora and fauna. Timna Park is home to spectacular rock formations and archaeological remains. At the impressive Ramon crater near Mitzpe Ramon, you can go rock climbing, snappling, hiking, and stargazing. On your visit to Israel be sure to see this unique part of the country.



UNESCO Incense Route – Desert Cities in the Negev

The ancient incense route ran from Yemen, Oman, Somalia and Arabia through Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea port of Gaza, Palestine, covering 1,800 km and passing through 56 stops along the way. The stretch of this route which goes through southern Israel is 100 km long from Moa on the Jordanian border to Halutz. This ancient route through four towns in the Negev – Avdat, Halutz, Mamshit and Shivta; four fortresses – Kazra, Nekarot, Makhmal and Grafor and two caravanserais – Moa and Saharonim was deemed of outstanding universal importance by UNESCO in 2005. The remains offer evidence of the sophisticated engineering, knowledge of agriculture and irrigation used to settle this challenging environment to facilitate trade.Starting in the 3rd century BC and continuing for 700 years the Nabataean people traveled in large caravans from Petra in Jordan, across the burning desert to bring the precious incense and spices to the west. They managed to conquer the harsh desert and bring luxury goods from the Arabian Peninsula to the Hellenistic-Roman world. Their cargo included Myrrh, salt, spices, perfumes, and their most valuable item – Frankincense, which was used in large quantities by the Romans as incense, medicine, and in cosmetics. However along with trade goods came an exchanging of ideas and interaction between different nations, this is another reason the route was so valuable.Renovated Market in MamshitTowns, forts, and caravanserai were established as rest points along the route; as support for the Nabataean population who settled the rough land, and as a way to monitor, secure and defend the route. The innovative town planning involved in creating towns like Avdat is apparent in the surrounding pastoral landscape, field system, and water system with cisterns, dams, and reservoirs. This is another testimony to the power of the Nabataean culture and economy. Due to the challenging desert environment, there has been little damaging modern development on these ancient sites and fossilized landscapes. The settlements have, to a large extent, managed to retain their authenticity and integrity since being abandoned after the Arab conquest in 636AD.Thankfully all of the sites are state-owned and protected within national parks or nature reserves.In Moa on the Jordanian border, there are the ruins of an inn, storerooms, a guard post, and an aqueduct. In Mamshit are the remains of an inn, churches, a bathhouse, and parts of the ancient town’s sophisticated water system. Avdat was perhaps the largest Nabataean settlement along the incense route. Here you can see the remains of a sophisticated bathhouse and steam rooms, a fortress, burial caves, a deep well, a Nabataean shrine, and a furnace. Shivta was a much smaller settlement and here you can still see evidence of the water system, oil presses, and several churches. Halutz was the last town before the caravans headed towards their final stop in Gaza port and here you can see the ruins of a theatre and a church.
By Petal Mashraki

Watching Meteor Showers in Israel

One of the fun things my family does during August in Israel is to go out into the nearby farmlands, in the middle of the night, and watch the Perseid meteor shower. To get the best possible view of any meteor shower you need to be away from city lights, preferably in an elevated place, in a dark area and of course be in the right place at the right time.Where to See Meteor Showers in IsraelSo if you’re looking for a place away from the city lights to spot meteors in Israel then there are a few well known and popular places where groups gather each year to watch the spectacle. In 2012 about 9,000 Israelis gathered at Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev to watch the Perseid meteor shower.The 914.4m high location makes it even easier to spot the meteors which fall at a rate of one a minute. Club Ramon, in Mitzpe Ramon offers a 3 day program which includes accommodation, entertainment, walking tours and guided sky gazing to see the meteors. The city of Mitzpe Ramon even dims the lights at night to make it possible for the many visitors to get a better look at the meteor shower. If you’d rather have a company handle the logistics of getting to a good viewing spot then there are several options. Astronomy Israel offers Naked Eye and Telescopic Tours of the Night Sky from Mitzpe Ramon. The nearby Arava Desert is another great place to see meteor showers in Israel, mainly because of the intense darkness. In Eilat astronomer Eitan Schwartz takes groups 10km out of the city to a place near Be’er Ora where they can see the shower and even camp under the stars. The Golan Heights and Galilee are also elevated points where the showers can be seen well.The Most Stunning Meteor Showers in Israel From mid-January to mid-April there is no significant show of meteors but after that there are several showers worth seeing. The Lyrids Meteor Shower is in late April (April 16th-25th in 2014) and can reach 100 meteors an hour but averages about 10 – 20 an hour. The Aquarids Shower occurs in early May in Israel (April 19th to May 28th in 2014 with peak on May 5th) this shower can have up to 30 meteors an hour at its peak.Perseid Meteor Shower, this is perhaps the most visible meteor shower in Israel and up to 60 meteors can be seen an hour. The shower runs from July 17th to August 24th with the peak in 2013 on the night of August 11th. 2013 is set to be one of the best years to see the Perseids in Israel as the moon will set not long after midnight leaving a dark sky. The best time to see them is between 11:30pm and 4:30am.Delta Aquarids shower, late July to early August (July 12th to August 23 in 2013 with peak on July 27th) can best be seen after midnight. There can be up to 20 meteors an hour.The Orionids meteor shower in October peaks on October 21st and 22nd and can give a bright show.Draconids meteor shower in 2013 is set to be one of the most spectacular showings ever with up to 750 meteors an hour! The shower runs from October 6th to 10th and peaks on the 8th and 9th.Taurids peaks on November 4th and 5th and is a minor meteor shower and the Leonids gives an average showing peaking on November 16th and 17th but in 2013 will be hard to see because of the light from the full moon.Quadrantids, late December early January (January 1st-5th in 2014), there is usually not a strong showing of this shower in Israel but the shower can reach up to 40 meteors an hour. Look in the direction of the Bootes Constellation.
By Petal Mashraki

Best Desert Hikes in Israel

Israel has snow-capped mountains; rolling green meadows; lush valleys and stark desert landscapes. Israel's deserts are concentrated in the southern half of the country and include the Judean Desert, home to the Dead Sea; the Negev Desert covering about 16,000km²; more than half the total land area of the country and the Zin Desert also known as the biblical Wilderness of Zin.There are numerous hike trails in Israel's deserts with various levels of difficulty and different lengths. The deserts offer a unique look at a fascinating ecosystem with spectacular flora and fauna; picturesque waterfalls and endless awe-inspiring views. It is best not to hike in the desert alone and you should always follow the well-marked hike trails. Bring plenty of water and wear a hat when hiking in Israel's deserts. The best way to experience Israel's deserts is to follow one of these exhilarating desert hikes in Israel.Red Canyon HikeThis is one of the most breathtaking desert hikes in Israel. The Red Canyon is part of Wadi Shani which starts in the Sinai Desert in Egypt and crosses into Israel. Over the course of thousands of years, the elements have carved through the red sandstone rocks creating this natural canyon. There are a few places along the trail where you need to use metal wedges and ladders to get through the narrow canyon. The trail is at its best from November to April when the weather is slightly cooler. You can take the 5km route or the easier 2km route from the trailhead parking lot. You'll pass a few dry waterfalls and take some sharp turns in the narrow canyon which is less than 2 meters wide at some points. You'll reach a junction where there are black markers that will take you back to the starting point if you want to take the short hike. Otherwise, continue following the green markers into the Wadi. The loop trail should take about 3 hours to complete.Ein Gedi Nature ReserveA hike through the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve; an oasis in the Judean Desert, is one of the most enjoyable and greenest hikes in Israel. The reserve is home to the Arugot Stream and David Stream. There are several trails of different lengths and levels of difficulty ranging from a family-friendly 2km trail to a challenging 10km hike trail. Much of the shorter route is along wooden walkways or well-trodden paths that are not too challenging. You'll feel like you're taking a hike in northern Israel, surrounded by lush vegetation, trees, and abundant streams and waterfalls. The short Nahal David hike from the park entrance to David's Waterfall takes just 30 minutes. The rest of the hike involves tougher terrain, a twisting route through a narrow canyon, and some steep climbs. You'll also find sections where it is easier to wade through the streams than stay on the path. Continuing through the canyon you'll reach a spot where a natural opening in the rocks creates a "window" overlooking the Dead Sea.Wadi Qelt HikeThere are plenty of hikes near Jerusalem but if you want to experience the desert then Wadi Kelt (also known as Ein Prat or Nahal Kelt) is an excellent choice less than an hour from the capital. Starting at the trailhead in Ein Prat Nature Reserve parking lot the scenic route has a total length of about 9km but there are shorter versions of 1-5km. The best time to hike through Wadi Qelt is December to March. Most of the hike is through rocky terrain and there are some parts where metal handles have been hammered into the rock to help you. You'll go through a gorge with steep cliff sides and find natural pools you can swim in. Stop at Ein Prat, the biggest spring in the valley; enjoy small waterfalls; ancient aqueducts, and the 330AD hanging Faran Monastery on the southern cliffs. The highlight of this hike is at the end of the trail when you can look up at the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. George that was built precariously clinging to the cliffs. End the hike by returning the way you came or taking a shortcut along the top of the canyon where you can look down on the famous monastery on the opposite cliff.The Nekarot Horseshoe Hike Trail through the Ramon CraterMakhtesh Ramon (Ramon Crater) is a phenomenal massive crater formed by erosion. It is 40km long, 500m deep, and 2-10km wide. Enter the Makhtesh Ramon Nature Reserve for the best experience of the crater on the southern edge of the Negev Desert. This huge natural indentation in the landscape has vibrant colored rocks, a variety of plant life, and unusual geographical formations. Take the Nekarot Horseshoe Trail loop through the crater. At a little over 6km, this trail should take about 3 hours and is suitable for families. The trail takes you past the Saharonim Spring where pools of water bubble up from the ground; past families of agile ibexes on the rocks and steel white chalk cliffs. Depending on the season you may have to swim, wade or walk through water-filled canyons. See Ardon Mountain in the distance and enjoy the deafening silence of the desert.Ein Avdat National Park Hike TrailsEin Avdat is part of the Zin Wadi or the Biblical Zin Wilderness in the Negev Desert. It is home to the largest natural spring in the Negev and a stunning 2km-long hike trail. This short hike takes you from the Ein Avdat National Park entrance to the beautiful natural pools and back again. If you are looking for something a little longer then hike to the spring water pools and instead of doubling back climb to the top of the cliffs and return via Marl Wadi of Havarim. This 10km hike is for moderately fit hikers and is best followed from December to March. The highlight of both the short and long hikes is the chain of three Ein Avdat spring pools. The first pool (Ein Ma'arif) has cascading waterfalls; the second, Ein Avdat has a 15m-high waterfall and an 8m-deep pool; the final pool is beautiful Ein Mor. When you leave the pools you can take the vertical ladder up the cliff and head back to the starting point through gentle hills that have multiple shades of golden brown.
By Petal Mashraki

The Amazing Landscapes of the Judean Desert

The Judean Desert lies in between the Judean Mountains and the Dead Sea in Southeastern Israel and is sometimes referred to as the Judean Wilderness. The desert is about 85km long and 25km wide stretching from just below Jerusalem at about 1,000m above sea level past the Dead Sea at about 421m below sea level. The desert holds a wealth of incredible natural wonders; diverse, dramatic landscapes, a rich history and ancient landmarks. The Judean Desert landscape has dry river beds (wadis); canyons; rocky mountains and barren plains as well as many waterfalls and streams that create stunning green oasis. Much of the Judean Desert is in the Palestinian territories of Judea and along the western shore of the Dead Sea.Judean Desert Jeep SafarisAs driving off-road into the desert by yourself is not advisable the best way to discover the Judean Desert is to take a desert jeep safari. You can join a Judean Desert Jeep Tour from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem so that you don’t even have to find your own way to the desert. The tour starts when you are picked-up in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv and drive south descending below sea level to the Dead Sea region. At this point, you change to an off-road vehicle and enter the desert. The safari takes you by jeep across rocky hills, through dry river beds (wadis) and stops at various points of interest like the Murbaat Caves and Cliffs of Dragot. Jeep safari tours into the Judean Desert are led by experts who can tell you all about the desert flora and fauna. Tours return to the Dead Sea where you can cool off before making the return journey to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.Hiking, Sports and Activities in the Judean DesertThe Judean Desert is a popular destination for hiking, extreme sports and bird watching. All these activities should only be undertaken with a guide. Popular activities in the Judean Desert include snapping, climbing, off-road jeeping and bird watching. The weather has a huge impact on visitors to the Judean Desert – both the extreme heat of summer and flash floods in the winter.Highlights of the Judean DesertSt. George’s Monastery – This beautiful Greek Orthodox monastery in Wadi Qelt clings to vertical cliffs and is reached by a pedestrian bridge across the valley. Originally built in the Byzantine era and rebuilt in the 12th century the site is associated with Elijah and other Biblical protagonists.Wadi Qelt – Kelt Oasis or Nahal Prat lies between Jericho and Mitzpe Yeriho. Here you can see unique flora and fauna, the stunning St. George’s Monastery and the ancient Wadi Qelt Synagogue.Qumran – Qumran lies on the shore of the Dead Sea and is the closest community to the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947. Visitors can see the caves and also the excavation site of ancient remains dating back to the Hellenistic Period (134-104BC) when a community of Essenes Jews lived here isolated from the rest of society and devoted themselves to Biblical study.Caves of Murbaat – These historic caves have interesting square entrances and once held ancient treasures left by Jews who hid here during the Bar Kochva Revolt against the Romans in 132AD. Today the caves are still of interest but the findings are now on display in the Israel Museum.Cliffs of Dragot – Situated on the northern shore of the Dead Sea Metsuke Dragot or the Dragot Cliffs offer a breathtaking view across Murabat Wadi and the Dead Sea. An eco-friendly community is located on the cliffs and offers accommodation and hospitality for visitors.Ein Gedi – Ein Gedi is a kibbutz (with a hotel) as well as a natural desert oasis on the edge of the Dead Sea. Here you can follow paths to picturesque waterfalls and alongside streams flanked by lush vegetation.Arad – Arad is a modern city lying between the Negev and Judean Deserts. Arad attractions include a market and Tel Arad, an archaeological site where ancient Arad once stood.Jericho – A Biblical city considered to be one of the oldest in the world.Tours to Jericho stop at Biblical sites like Zacchaeus sycamore tree and at the archeological site of ancient Jericho.Ma’ale Adumim – This quiet Israeli West Bank city is home to hidden lush natural springs and the ruins of the Byzantine Monastery of Martyrius.Masada – This massive mesa, or rock outcrop has a flat plateau summit where you can tour the remains of Herod’s ancient fortress. There is a cable car that takes visitors to the top and the ruins are well preserved. There is also a visitor’s center and food court at the base of Masada. As this is a hard location to reach many travelers opt to take an organized tour to Masada that includes a stop at the Dead Sea.The Dead Sea – The number one attraction in the region is the sea at the lowest point on Earth. There are beaches along the shore of the hyper-saline Dead Sea (some free and others with an entrance fee) where you can soak up the sun and float in the mineral-rich water which has proven health and beauty benefits.
By Petal Mashraki

Top 9 Attractions and Activities in the Negev Desert

The magical Negev Desert in southern Israel takes up about 60% of Israel but is sparsely inhabited due to the harsh desert climate. When the State of Israel was established one of the goals set was to make the desert bloom and in many places that has been achieved.Mamshit Archeological Site, Israel. Photo credit: © Manu Grinspan. Published with permission of the Israel Nature and Parks AuthorityThe Negev also has a history dating back to the ancient trade routes and it is home to unique flora and fauna. The Negev is unlike any other area in Israel and shouldn’t be missed. The Negev Desert flows into the Judean Desert where you can also visit Masada, the Dead Sea and the Yotvata Bar Hai Nature Reserve, and Timna National Park in the Arava Desert.1. Jeep excursionsOn a Negev jeep tour, you can go deep into the desert, far off-road to places most people don’t get a chance to see. A guide will explain to you about the local fauna and flora and you will be able to race across the dunes, drive through dry desert valleys and stop to boil up a pot of coffee in the wilderness. There are “wet” jeep tours that take you to desert springs; jeep tours where you can learn about following animal tracks; night jeep tours; survival jeep tours; tours that take you to Nabataean ancient sites and jeep tours that visit Bedouin villages. Tours leave from several points in the Negev including Mitzpe Ramon and Kibbutz Sde Boker.2. Camel Riding ExcursionsIf you want to take things at a slower pace and retrace the steps of ancient camel caravans then take a camel riding excursion into the desert. The “ship of the desert” is a great way to enjoy the scenery, learn about the unique desert environment and gain an understanding of what it was like to travel across the Negev hundreds of years ago. There are a number of places where you can join a camel tour including Mamshit Camel Farm, Kfar Hanokdim, and the Negev Camel Ranch. There is no prior experience needed and camel riding tours are suitable for all ages. There are tours lasting 1-4 hours.Safari Jeep Tour.Photo credit: © Shutterstock3. Ramon CraterThe Ramon Crater or Makhtesh Ramon is a huge naturally formed crater 38km long, 450 meters deep, and 6km wide. It is best reached via the town of Mitzpe Ramon where there is a Visitors Center overlooking the crater. From here you can take hiking tours, jeep tours into the crater, and abseiling excursions where you get to climb down the side of the steep crater.4. Alpaca FarmThere is a welcoming alpaca farm in the heart of the Negev where you can learn about the creatures, pet them, feed them and even stay the night. You can also meet other animals which live on the farm like angora sheep, llamas, donkeys, horses, and camels. There are walking trails on the Alpaca Farm which meander through the untouched desert landscape. Kids can have a ride on the alpacas and you can learn about the alpaca wool production process.5. Negev Wine TastingThe ancient Nabataean civilization cultivated vineyards in the Negev thousands of years ago using a sophisticated irrigation system. The first modern-day winery in the Negev was planted by Carmel Winery in the Ramat Arad area in 1988, then other wineries and vineyards have sprouted up across the otherwise barren landscape. There are now several wineries so that it is possible to follow a Negev wine tasting route along Route #40. Wineries that welcome visitors include the Yatir Winery, Midbar Winery, Sde Boker Winery, Neot Smadar Winery, Carmel Avdat Winery, Rota Winery (where there is also a fruit farm where you can do your own fruit picking in the summer), and Kadesh Barnea Winery.Alpaca farm in the Negev Desert. Photo credit: © Shutterstock5. Sand SurfingThis unique desert experience takes you out to the Negev sand dunes in a 4X4 jeep. Once there you get to slide down the soft dunes on specially designed boards that resemble snowboards but without the footholds. The activity is suitable for those over 2 years old and you don’t need any prior experience. Sand surfing is usually combined with a jeep tour, a historical site, or a desert village for lunch.6. Kibbutz Sde BokerThis kibbutz is famed as the former home of David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel who moved here in 1953. Today Ben Gurion’s former home has been turned into a museum where the original furniture, mementos, and personal items of Ben Gurion and his wife have been preserved. Ben Gurion had a passion for Negev and the small community. He lived here until his death and over the years he welcomed many dignitaries and world leaders. While at Sde Boker you can visit the Sde Boker Winery and the Sde Boker Field School.The archeological site of Avdat, Negev Desert, Israel.Photo credit: © Shutterstock7. AvdatThis is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as it was one of the most important Nabataean, Roman and Byzantine sites settled in the 3rd century BC along the Incense Route. Here you can see the ancient remains of a Nabataean tomb, a Roman-era residential area, and the remains of a Byzantine fortress, Byzantine bathhouse, wine press, cistern, and ancient Sacred Precinct. There are also two 4th century churches nearby. Perhaps the most important ancient remains are of the Nabataean Temple of Oboda.8. HikingThere are many marked hike trails through the Negev for those of all levels of ability. The trails are color-coded to keep hikers on track. Many of the trails take you to the oasis where there are deep canyons, waterfalls, and hidden natural spring pools. Some of the most popular routes are the Mamshit Loop, passed the Nabataean city; Mt. Ardon, with a challenging climb; Zin to Ramon, a six-day trek passed mountains and springs; Wadi Shua, with hidden gems; Wadi Mamshit; Ramon’s Tooth passed beautiful rock formations and the Hemet Cistern Loop with great views of the Ramon Crater.9. Bedouin HospitalityThe Bedouin people still live in the deserts of Israel with several communities in the Negev. They have a unique and fascinating culture and there are several places in the Negev where you can be a guest in a Bedouin tent and experience their traditional hospitality. Bedouin hospitality includes traditional food, musical performances, tea, coffee, camel rides and even sleeping over in the Bedouin tent under the desert sky.Сamel riding with Bedouins in the Negev Desert.Photo by Greta Schölderle Møller on Unsplash
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