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The 4am wake-up call was painful. What had I done? Was it really worth getting up in the middle of the night to watch the sunrise from a mountaintop? Not only did I have to crawl out of a bed at this ungodly hour, but I also had to climb up a steep mountain in the dark until I’d get to reap the benefits of this arduous undertaking. I was tempted to turn around under my warm, soft blanket and turn off the snooze function on my alarm.But what was awaiting me on top of the mountain was enticing enough for me to shed off my comfy blankets and get out of bed: Seeing the sun rise over the Dead Sea.
I arrived at the bottom of Masada, the plateau I was about to hike up via the infamous Snake Path (not named for snakes, but for the many curves), in the pitch black darkness. Only the moon and the stars were illuminating the desolate landscape around me. I was late. The sun was due to rise at 6.30am, the climb was supposed to take an hour and it was already 5.40am when I finally got out of the car and started the hike.The rock on which Masada sits is 1,300 feet (400 meters) high, and since the beginning of time it has been difficult to reach the top on foot, and even more difficult to capture.Masada means fortress in Hebrew, and that’s exactly what Judean king Herod the Great built up on the plateau between 37 and 31 BC. The fortified complex of palaces, storehouses, bathing houses and armories was supposed to be his winter residence.Thanks to its extraordinary setting and great condition of the palace ruins, Masada was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.Today, the rock is one of Israel’s most popular tourist attractions (rightly so), especially during sunrise, but when I climbed the steep slopes of the dirt path at dawn, nobody else was there. Because I was late, I walked much faster than I usually do (especially uphill!) and finally passed a couple of other hikers on my way to the top. It turned out that I wasn’t the only one here, I was just the last one who had started the hike.The path is only about 1.3 miles (2km) long, but has more than 700 stairs and covers an altitude difference of 1,150 feet (350 meters). It might not seem like a long walk, but the winding path is quite challenging.When I reached the top, I was soaked in sweat and breathing heavily, but the sun was just starting to show itself, starting to paint the sky bright red behind the Jordanian Moab Mountains on the other side of the Dead Sea – I had made it in time.I walked around the deserted plateau, looking for a good spot to watch the sunrise and settled for a part where the ancient stone walls were still pretty much intact. I sat down and began to wonder what this place must have been like thousands of years ago when Herod used Masada as his winter getaway.The story Masada is most famous for is more gruesome than glorious, however: the Siege of Masada at the of the First Jewish-Roman war which ended in the mass suicide of over 900 Jewish rebels and their families. Herod the Great had been dead for 75 years when the revolt of the Jews against the Romans began. After the fall of Jerusalem, a group of Jewish rebels fled to Masada and held out on top of the mountain for three years. Eventually, thousands of Roman troops marched against Masada with the Tenth Legion and constructed a rampart against the fortress, moved a battering ram up the ramp and breached the fortress’ wall. When the Jewish defenders realized that there was no way they could besiege the Romans, their leaders decided that they all should commit suicide rather than being killed by the Roman attackers.Because of its isolated and safe location, Masada stayed in a fairly good condition over the centuries, pretty much untouched by humans for about two millennia!It was only excavated between 1963 and 1965 – fairly recently. I was amazed to find so many mosaics, bathhouses and frescoes in good condition. Masada is the most complete and biggest Roman siege camp that still remains today.I took a couple of hours to properly explore the buildings and the palace, marveling at the mosaics and the well-restored buildings, trying to imagine life up here 2,000 years ago.While rain water was collected in big cisterns which are also still intact, it is still a hard place to live with the harsh, lifeless desert surrounding the rock.I could see why Herold chose this place as his winter residency though: These magnificent views! The breathtaking vista towards the Dead Sea in the east, and overlooking the Judean Desert towards the West.The scenery around the Masada is just spectacular.Walking around the plateau I got to take in the views in all directions, and I was almost tempted to do another hike in the Judean Desert, but I had other hiking plans already: Exploring Timna Park.The best thing about a 4am start is that you can fit in a lot in your day – and climbing Masada was only the beginning of a day filled with incredible landscapes and hikes.After a proper coffee in the coffee shop at the bottom of the Masada, we hopped into the car and followed Route 90 further south. Our final destination was Eilat for some beach time and snorkeling in the Red Sea, but on the way, we’d planned to stop in Timna Valley, a desert area known for its spectacular limestone and rock formations.We had 136 miles (220 kilometers) of a scenic drive along the Dead Sea and through the desert ahead of us. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love the desert, and I was happy to sit in the passenger seat, being able to stop anytime and snap some photos along the way.We arrived in Timna Park about two hours later, and even though it wasn’t noon yet, we were met by an extreme heat when we left the car to buy our tickets for the National Park. When we opened the doors of the air-conditioned car, it felt like we were inside an oven!Temperatures easily exceed 105 °F (42 °C) in the summer months, and we were about to set out on a hike in the hottest hours of the day, with no shade to protect us.The lady who sold us the tickets to the National Park made sure that we had enough water, advising us that there was no water anywhere in the park. Just sand, rocks, and limestone pillars.Armed with a map of the park we drove down the narrow road that led straight towards the rocks ahead of us.The valley, rich in copper, is famous for its ancient copper mines, which date back to the 5th millennium BC, and remnants of these mines can still be seen in various locations throughout the park, but what I found even more sensational was the natural beauty of the place.The massive, multi-colored rocks, ranging from orange to red to black, reminded me of the canyons and arches in my beloved Southwest of the U.S., and also of the desolate desert of Bolivia’s southwest, even though that one is located at 13,000 feet and much cooler than this place. The erosion there managed to create some strikingly similar rock formations, however.I didn’t care that it was unbearably hot, I had to explore all the formations that Timna Park is famous for.There is the mushroom, a giant red sandstone monolith that has been formed into the shape of a mushroom by sand and wind, rising high into the desert sky.After a few stops at other formations, we reached the Arches, another famous rock formation in Timna Park, and you can hike up and even through the arches, from where you have a fantastic view over the valley.I loved how moon-like this area felt; if you had put me down there and told me I was on Mars, I would’ve believed it. There was barely any life here – the bushes were dry and brown, there was no green at all.We also stopped to see the Chariots, impressive rock drawings by the Egyptians, left many thousands of years ago when the Egyptians passed through this region.The Solomon’s Pillars were the perfect way to end our 4-hour tour of the park: three massive sandstone pillars that are towering 50 meters tall above me, definitely a highlight.The night before, an Israeli singer had held a concert there, and while I was watching the crew pack up the stage, I could only imagine how staggeringly beautiful it must have been to listen to the music in this awe-inspiring setting.I wish I would’ve had the chance to take some of the longer hikes, but it was just too hot. For my next visit to Eilat (and there’s no doubt that there’ll be a next time!), I know that I’ll be visiting Timna Park in the early morning when it is less hot.So far, this was one of the most memorable days in Israel: breathtaking views, a rewarding hike, thousands of years of history and stunning landscapes.
- You can visit Masada independently if you have a car or as part of a tour if you don’t have a car.
- If you decide to hike up, start early. It gets incredibly hot in this region of Israel, especially in the summer months (up to 109°F /43°C!). The Snake Trail takes about an hour to hike, firm shoes are recommended since the path is rocky and steep, and there are many stairs. Make sure to bring enough water. If you hike up for sunrise, the cafeteria at the bottom of the rock will be open upon your return (it opens around 8am).
- You can also take a cable car up to the top, if you feel less active. Admission with cable car (two ways) is NIS76 (US$19)
- If you climb, and don’t take the cable car, admission via the Snake Path is NIS29 (US$7.32), but you can also hike up and take the cable car back down. Admission with one way cable car is NIS57 (US$14.42)
- The cable car is open from 8am till 4pm (check the website for reduced hours on Holidays before your visit).
- It is possible to visit Masada via public bus from Jerusalem, but the bus lets you off at the Masada Junction on Route 90 and you’ll have to walk to the entrance. The bus is #486, and it runs five times a day. The ticket from Jerusalem is NIS42 (US$ .
- Abraham Tours runs a Sunrise Masada Tour from Jerusalem which also includes stops at Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea. If you can’t be bothered to get up early to see the sunrise, Abraham Tours also offers a tour with a later start (7am) to Masada, Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea. Both tours are offered three times a week and cost NIS275 (US$70).
- It is not possible to visit Timna Park without a car. If you don’t have your own car, you can book a tour from Eilat. The tours are pricey though (nearly US$100), and if you are a group of three or four people, it’s cheaper to rent a car for the day. That way you’ll also be more flexible.
- It is easiest to visit Timna Park from Eilat, as it is only 17 miles (25km) north of the seaside resort. It will take you about 30 mins by car to get there.
- Allow at least four hours for your visit; the park is spacious and the main attractions are spread out. If you’re planning to go on hikes, plan in at least six hours.
- Make sure you bring enough water, sun screen and snacks. Nothing is available for purchase inside the park.
- Be prepared for extreme heat, especially between May and September. 110°F /45°C around noon are not uncommon.
- Admission to Timna Park is NIS49 (US$12.40)
The park is open from Sunday to Thursday and on Saturdays 8am to 4pm, on Fridays from 8am to 3pm; and in July and August as well as on Holidays from 8am to 1pm.