Hiking Israel's Negev Desert
By Melissa Gaskill
A wedge of stark, mountainous desert across the bottom half of Israel, the Negev resembles dramatic landscapes in Utah or West Texas. Except, of course, for robed figures tending herds of sheep, ancient ruins scattered on hilltops, and road signs warning of camels crossing. The Negev also offers hiking and mountain biking, and I’ve come with three fellow hikers to indulge. While we could do so on our own, a professional guide brings to the table details of this desert’s long, rich history and unique geology, flora and fauna, not to mention bulky equipment we couldn’t bring ourselves.
Adam Sela Challenging Experience offers custom itineraries starting in Beer Sheva, where we meet guide Avia Nurik for a short drive to Tzin Wilderness. There, we descend into a valley, following a wadi, or dry riverbed, past white cliffs and sharply-folded hills. Birds flit from salt bushes and tamarisk, and impressively-horned ibex navigate slopes. Nurik says campers sometimes glimpse wolves, leopards, hyenas, porcupine, and golden eagles.
We park and hike to En Akev, an ancient spring trickling down a fern-covered cliff into a deep pool. I stick my bare feet in, the sun warming my back, and listen to the calls of birds and the dripping water. In nearby En Avdat National Park, we hike a lush canyon, through a grove of poplars, past pools, a waterfall, and caves once occupied by Byzantine monks. At the canyon’s end, metal stairs ascend the cliff to an oasis that served travelers for centuries. The hike takes about two hours, and our guide meets us at the top.
Because staying at a kibbutz is a quintessential Israel experience, we book guest rooms at Mashabim Kibbutz, a man-made oasis in the desert (the outfitter also offers a camping option, equipment included). Next day, we travel to Maktesh Ramon, the largest of Israel’s five maktesh, canyons created by natural geologic processes, unique to the Negev. A trail descends through surreal moonscape into the 24-mile-long, 1,300-foot deep canyon, where black volcanic mounds rise like giant anthills. We take a boardwalk encircling one, called the Carpentery, its prism-shaped volcanic rocks resembling blocks of charred wood.
At our next stop, Timna Park, Scenic Heaven Trail provides a three-and-a-half-hour trek through white sands, canyons, a cavern with ancient inscriptions, and fossilized 140-million-year-old trees. We top off this amazing combination of wonders with a stop at Solomon’s Pillars, towering natural sandstone formations.
That evening, we reach Eilat, on the shores of the Red Sea, and part ways with our guide. After washing off the desert, we savor fresh seafood at Boston Restaurant on the beach. Next day, we snorkel over coral reefs in the clear, blue sea and take a camel ride followed by traditional Bedouin tea before making the four-hour drive to Tel Aviv for our overnight flight home.
For those wanting longer hikes, Sela recommends several days of 10-mile hikes from one base camp (location based on season and conditions). As Nurik noted, campers see more wildlife, along with starry skies, and experience the incredible solitude of the vast desert.
Definitely on my list for next time.
Photos: All photographs by Melissa Gaskill. From top to bottom: Geologic formations such as those in this top photograph abound in Timna Park; Camel rides explore the mountains near Eilat; A traditional Bedouin tea, prepared over an open fire, follows the camel ride.