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Adventure travel in Israel: Hiking the National Trail

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Part I: The Negev Desert

Sweat was running down my forehand, my legs, my stomach, sweat was dripping down my elbow, and I felt like I was going to pass out. I was in the middle of the Negev Desert, and I had another day and a half of walking through the burning sun ahead of me, nowhere a shadow. I felt like I was going to collapse, but I kept putting one step in front of the other, trying not to tumble on one of the rocks that were covering the sandy and gravelly desert ground.makhtesh katan trail with hikersmakhtesh katan crater israelIt was around 100°F/37°C, and the sun had reached its zenith. I turned around and looked how far we had gotten yet – it seemed like we had walked forever since the minibus had dropped our group of hikers in the middle of nowhere earlier that morning. The breathtaking desertscape behind me made up for all the sweat and exhaustion, and reminded me that the strenuous hike was worthwhile.makhtesh katan negev desertIn actual fact we were not in the middle of nowhere, we were in the middle of a small crater, also known as makhtesh in Hebrew, a special kind of crater that is unique to the Negev Desert. Instead of being created by a meteor impact, a makhtesh is created through erosion. Later that day, when we would finally scramble up the rocky and steep side of the crater, I would turn around and ask myself how it was possible for nature to create a crater so round an even that it looked just like a meteor crater without being one.israel national trail negev desert1makhtesh katan crater israel negev desertThat first day in the desert was the hardest part of the entire trek. The scorching hot sun was burning on my face, the extreme heat made walking even harder, and the last part of the hike being the steep and winding trail up the crater wall. All that exhausted me so much that I fell asleep on the thin mattress on our improvised campground before dinner was served.climbing up the craterI had set off to hike segments of the Israel National Trail, a 1,000 kilometer / 620 miles long hiking trail that crosses the country from south to north, beginning at the Red Sea near the Jordanian border in the south and finishing near the Lebanese border in the north.
makhtesh katan crater wall israelFor anyone who is into multi-day trekking, anyone who finds treks like the Camino de Santiago, the Appalachian Trail in the U.S. or the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal appealing, this is a hike of epic dimensions. While the trail has already been praised by National Geographic and other reputable travel magazines, it has so far been mainly walked by Israelis who want to get to know their country in a very special and intimate way.israel national trail negev desertThe trail itself is far from being as famous as the Camino or the Lycian Way in Turkey, but it is also far from being as old as those trails, even though it passes a myriad of historically significant places. Not only does it pass places of historical and biblical significance, but it also shows off the diversity of this tiny country: from the Negev Desert in the south to the rolling hills around Jerusalem, the coastline of Tel Aviv and the mountains near the Sea Of Galilee, until finally reaching the ancient city of Dan, Israel’s northernmost settlement.negev desert hike israel national trail hikersCompared to the Camino de Santiago, which has been walked since the Middle Ages, this path is still a baby, inaugurated only 20 years ago, in 1994. Walking the entire trail takes between six and eight weeks, but we hiked only some parts of it: some of the Negev Desert in the South, the mountains around Jerusalem, and the Lower Galilee in the north of Israel. Since we only had eight days, we got only a sample of each region through which the INT passes, and in the end, we were all left with the desire to walk more of it.dani negev desert hikeFor me, it was the perfect introduction to Israel, as I started my month-long exploration of the country with the trail, and it made me appreciate my surroundings more when later on I returned to places I’d gotten to known during the trek – like the Negev. Once you’ve actually spent time out there, in the vast nothingness that is the desert, walked for hours through the barren landscape that has barely any life in it, you see it in a completely different light than if you were just driving through.negev desert hikenegev desertOn the first day, we rarely passed a tree, and other than a few dusty bushes there was no sign of life whatsoever. Often it was even hard to make out any trail at all. However, there were rocks painted with the colors that mark the National Trail in regular intervals, showing you that you were still on track when nothing else indicated that.negev desert hike israelThat night, most of us slept under the stars, and seeing the wide open desert sky above you is an unforgettable experience. Tents were optional, and why would I obstruct this magnificent view: millions of stars brightening the night sky. After a hearty dinner, for which I luckily woke up, we gathered around a campfire to get to know each other better, but the announcement of a 6am wake-up call made me crawl into my sleeping bag not long after.negev desert campfire israelThe desertscape we traversed on our second day in the Negev was quite different from the first one. We passed more trees and bushes, as we walked along dry riverbeds through which flash floods would rush during the few days the country gets rain in the winter, allowing for plants to grow in this otherwise infertile area.negev desert hike israel national trailEven though the hike felt less exhausting than on the first day (which is I believe only because our bodies got used to walking in the extreme heat), it was still very challenging. At one point, we scrambled up a mountainside so steep that we needed the help of hooks and handrails to get up there.negev desert national israel trailYet the views and the scenery always made up for the toughest parts of the hike, and I loved the sense of achievement I felt when I made it through a particularly arduous stretch of the trail. A trek like this is about the journey itself after all, not about getting to the final destination.israel national trail hikersnegev desert hike israel national trailnegev desert canyonAfter a picnic lunch in a spot where countless travelers had stopped for water and shelter for thousands of years before us, we tackled our last desert adventure: the Big Fin, or as I saw it: the very steep wall of the Big Crater, the biggest of the makhteshs in the Negev.big fin hike israelbig fin israel national trailKnowing that this would be the last big challenge of the day, I pushed through and scrambled up the rocky mountainside, braving the relentless sun and pushing my boundaries. Up on top, once again the magnificent vistas made up for the hike that tested our abilities. We had to make our way back down, and most of us were on the last sips of water in our bottles by then. Knowing that we had to ration our water supplies reminded me once again that we were far away from any settlements and that this is a really rough trek if you plan to do it by yourself.big crater israel national trailLuckily, trekkers are not completely on their own on the hike, and one extremely helpful support network are the Trail Angels – people that allow hikers to sleep in their houses, take a shower or simply replenish their water supplies.negev desert hike israel national trailnegev desert hike israel national trailInstead of spending another night under the stars, we hopped into a minibus that was waiting for us and drove to Sede Boker, where we met some of said Trail Angels. All of us were taken in by incredibly welcoming and warm families, and that first shower after two days in the desert sure felt glorious. We knew that this would be our last night in the dry Israeli desert – the next day, we would drive north to hike in the mountains around Jerusalem.moon negev desert israelContinue here with Part II of my Israel National Trail hiking adventure, plus some practical information on how to hike this Trail independently.

For more photos of my hike through the Negev Desert, check out my Flickr gallery:

[flickrslideshow acct_name=”Globetrottergirls” id=”72157648858153896″]

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Tags : israeltrekking

17 Comments

  1. I didn’t even know this trail existed, but your descriptions and photos make me want to hike it (heat and all!). Is it a trail one needs to be pretty physically prepared for?

    1. Lindsey – I didn’t know that trail existed either! That’s why I was so inclined to hike it, and now I am excited to spread the word about it. As for physical preparation: I wouldn’t say so. We had some older people in our group who complained a lot about the heat but everyone was able to do it 😀 Nobody gave up or felt like it was too much, and I would say that most people in our group weren’t experienced hikers.

  2. Looks like a pretty intense trail to hike needless to say with the heat. Definitely seems to be a place to be as other trails have a lot more tourist. The pics and views look amazing.

  3. There’s nothing like the Holy Land, Been there so many time and love it every time, my favorite places are the Dead sea, Kineret, Eilat, Jerusalem & Of course Tel Aviv.

    Thanks for sharing, i have shared this content on my social media.
    Keep up the good work.

    Shalom!

  4. This hike sounds quite hard to my standards, mainly because how hot it was. I like warmth climates but when it’s too hot I find it difficult to do intense physical activities especially when is for prolonged period of time. The best part for me would have probably been sleeping under the stars, that sounds simply awesome! 🙂

    1. It was quite hard but I love me a good challenge, Franca 🙂 And yes – the sleeping under the stars was absolutely amazing.. I hope I’ll do it soon again. It’s supposed to be very pretty in the Sahara Desert, as well 🙂

  5. Dear Globe Trotter Girls,
    My son & I live in Israel and went to Chile/Argentina in October (23 day trip to San Pedro, Torres del Paines,Perito Moreno, El Chalten). Your blog was excellent and helped us to prepare for our camping trip.
    How surprising that while we are in S America (and enjoying our trip more thanks to your information), you were in our home country Israel !!
    Hope you had a great time.

    Shalom,
    Moshe

    1. Hi Moshe, that’s awesome!! It looks like you got to see the best of Patagonia 🙂 And yes – I had a great time in Israel and I am hoping to return soon. I still have some articles coming up on my time in Israel, actually.

  6. Israel is one of the most attractive countries i want to visit, I am often not interested in travelling. this is very beautiful nation with advanced technology and security. you have shown me natural side of Israel.

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