After spending a few days in the Sea of Galilee region (see our post on Tel Aviv and Northern Israel), we headed south along Highway 90 through the West Bank to Ein Gedi, located in the Judaean Desert and on the coast of the Dead Sea. From there we continued further south to the Negev Desert for some great scenery and hiking.
The Dead Sea
This just seems like one of those things you have to do while in Israel. Who wouldn’t want to try swimming in a salty brine, making sure not to get it in your eyes, nose, and in any cut you didn’t know you had? Driving to the Dead Sea required taking Highway 90 through the West Bank, under the control of the Israelis. The highway passes through Israeli checkpoints as you enter and leave the West Bank, although our Canadian passports just got us a smile and a quick wave through.
Ein Gedi and Swimming in the Dead Sea
We stayed in Ein Gedi, located right on the Dead Sea. There’s really not a lot around here, and few accommodations. We stayed at the HI Ein Gedi hostel, which was really a huge budget hotel. Unfortunately for us, the nearby public beach has been closed down, likely permanently, due to sink holes opening up in the area. Rather than spend money to use a private beach at a spa or resort, we drove 30 minutes further south to Ein Bokek. This is very much a tourist resort area, including global brands like Crowne Plaza, but it also has a free public beach where we could get our float on.
“Swimming” in the Dead Sea is an odd sensation. The water feels a bit thicker and almost a bit slimy. Even in a few inches of water, you can lay back and float easily.
We spent one night in the area, which is plenty of time to have a float and visit Masada. We got up at 4:30 am to climb to the Masada fortress to watch the sunrise. There is a cable car, but it doesn’t start running until 8:00 am. We joined a small group of intrepid hikers setting out from the park gates in the dark at 5:15 am, making the 350m vertical climb just in time for the sunrise at 6:00 am. Masada is an impressive fortress spread out over the entire mountaintop, where almost 1000 Jewish rebels committed suicide rather than surrender to the Roman Legion in 66CE. The views are definitely worth the climb, and it was great to beat all the bus groups coming in from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv later in the morning.
This was probably the first time we really started to appreciate the natural beauty of Israel. Tel Aviv, Haifa, Tiberias, and the surrounding areas were attractive in some parts, but honestly didn’t stand out in our minds after several months on the road.
The Negev Desert and Mitzpe Ramon
We left the Dead Sea and headed south inland to enter the Negev Desert. Christine was excited to ride a camel, so our first stop was the Negev Camel Ranch, where we took an hour long camel trek along the ancient incense route.
Our base for 3 nights was Mitzpe Ramon, on the edge of the Mahktesh Ramon Crater (really more of a canyon). Mitzpe Ramon, home of the most expensive hotel in Israel for some reason, is not the cheapest place to stay. However, we highly recommend Green Backpackers, a small independently run hostel just meters from the edge of the canyon.
Hiking in the Negev
There are many great hikes in the area, ranging from 1-2 to 6+ hours through and around the canyon. We were lucky that temperatures were above average for this time of year, so we hiked in 25C heat both days.
The hikes we did were to Wadi Ardon and Ein Akev. One thing we’ve realized about national parks in Israel is they always seem very expensive (typically NIS28/C$10 per person) although it’s not really clear what you get for that. Facilities are limited and roads often unpaved. So we tried to avoid doing anything in the parks whenever possible.
The Ein Akev hike in particular was great. About a 3-4 hour round trip, with a small freshwater swimming hole in the middle. It’s past the entrance to Ein Avdat, a popular walk about a 20 minute drive north of Mitzpe Ramon that requires hikers to pay the park entrance fee. But doing the Ein Akev hike, no entrance fee is necessary. Just watch out for the low flying fighter jets.
Just across the street from the Green Backpackers hostel is Camel Hill, a popular lookout over the canyon, especially at sunset. The views of the canyon were spectacular here.
Exploring Southern Israel
Anyone visiting Israel for more than the Tel Aviv nightlife or religious sites, should definitely visit the deserts in the south. The scenery is beautiful, and it’s a completely different feel to Israel than we had in the North. It’s great for an active vacation as well, with plenty of hiking options.
We didn’t bother going as far south as the Red Sea resort town of Eilat. We talked to a few people who had been there, and it sounds incredibly touristy and cheesy. Not really our cup of tea, so we skipped it.
- Like everywhere in Israel, be prepared for everything to be expensive
- The HI hostel in Ein Gedi does a surprisingly good dinner (NIS 58/person). However, the breakfast (included with the room) is sub-par. Unfortunately, there are no kitchen facilities for guests, and there are few dining options in the area
- Since the beach in Ein Gedi is no longer useable, it may be a better option to stay closer to Ein Bokek
- Make the effort to climb Masada for sunrise – it was one of the highlights of our time in Israel so far
- As with much of Israel, having a rental car is practically necessary
- We highly recommend the Negev Camel Ranch. They run 1hr camel treks every hour on the hour – just show up 30 minutes beforehand to register. Cost is reasonable at NIS 75 each
- The Green Backpackers hostel in Mitzpe Ramon is great. Say “hi” to the owner Lee for us. The main building only has 2 private rooms (one with ensuite) and two mixed dorm rooms, and there is a shared kitchen and living area