Hiking in the Judaean Desert
The Judaean Desert is a popular destination for hiking trips and wilderness backpacking. Many trails are moderate to hard in difficulty, but the region's proximity to the Dead Sea makes it popular for short family trips as well, usually departing from the various hotels of the region or the tourist attractions it contains.
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See the page about the Judaean Desert for other travel information, such as lodging, food, etc... in the region.
The page about hiking and backpacking in Israel details all considerations that need to be made. The most prominent ones for the Judaean Desert are:
- Drinking water: Carry 5 L per person for a full day's hike, and even more on exceptionally hot days. No water taps are available on the trails or in campgrounds. Natural water sources are few and unreliable, and most are suspected of contamination.
- Flash floods: Be sure to check the weather forecast in advance, otherwise these may catch you completely by surprise.
- Army firing zones: Most of the area north of Ein Gedi are live-fire training zones, as well as some areas south of it. Review the relevant guidelines.
- Weather: Hot days and cold, windy nights rule this region. Plan your trip accordingly and wear suitable clothing.
- Nature reserves: Almost the entire region is protected. This means you should not harm nature in anyway, leave no litter and do not remove anything natural from the region, and also – use only marked trails and permitted campsites.
- The Palestinian settlements found in the northern part of the region could be hostile to Jewish travellers.
- Many plants of this region are poisonous, the most common one being the retama bush. They are only dangerous to consume, so don't get panicked if you just get scratched by some thorns; however, boiling them for tea doesn't reduce their potency, so don't consume anything you don't know. In general, plants of this region don't taste too good anyway (except for the saltbush).
The Dragot stream (נחל דרגות, literally the Stairs stream) hiking trail is somewhat of an extreme sports experience going down a steep, narrow canyon. Still, the trail is accessible to anyone in moderate shape, though some areas may require the use of a rope fitting for descents of up to about 12 meters (40 feet); no rappelling skills are required. Hiking the trail is allowed only downwards.
Travelers driving by car can reach the starting point of the trail by driving on Highway 90 towards Mitzpe Shalem. Not far north of Mitzpe Shalem you'll find a border-police checkpoint. From there a side-road goes up and west towards the resort village Matsokey Dragot (מצוקי דרגות, literally "Dragot Cliffs"). From the entrance to the village, drive along a dirt road marked with a green trail-marking for 2.5 km (1.5 miles), then turn left, where you'd park in front of a black-marked walking path that leads down into the canyon. Please note that the hike would end on Highway 90, south of the aforementioned border police checkpoint – from there you'll have to ascend by foot back to your car parked near the resort village Matsokey Dragot. If you have an additional vehichle, it can be parked near the checkpoint, which would save you the climb.
Alternatively, travelers can reach the starting point of the trail by taking a bus to Mitzpe Shalem. From the entrance to the village there is a blue-marked trail that would bring you to the top of the cliff (relatively hard hike that takes over an hour). After reaching the top, turn right to the red trail that goes for a few kilometers across the plateau and then descends into the canyon. Your hike in the stream ends on Highway 90 north of Mitzpe Shalem, where you can reach in about 30 minutes walk.
- There is no flowing water along the trail (except during floods). There are only basins in which water wells up.
- The hiking trail is part of the Israeli marked trails system, colored green . However, most of the markings in the trail have been washed out in the floods that frequent the region. Nevertheless, there is no possible way of accidentally walking off the designated path, as it simply goes down a narrow canyon.
- Be aware that the hike is a full day's walk and, therefore, it's obligatory to arrive at the starting point (inside the canyon) no later than 09:00. Park rangers sometimes enforce this regulation. The trail is not long but it gets a bit difficult at several points, making delays unavoidable. When multiple groups do the hike simultaneously, serious "traffic jams" might occur in parts where only person can pass at a time. This factor has once actually caused over a hundred hikers to be dragged into the night, during the Israeli holiday of Passover at 2013.
- The entire nearby desert plateau is a military training area. Do not hike anywhere outside the trail itself except on Saturdays, unless the trip was pre-coordinated.
- You'll have to swim across some sections of the trail. Therefore, it's not recommended to take this hike in the summer, when the stagnant water gets murky. It's better to do it in the late autumn or during winter, after the first floods have refreshed the water. Travellers can obtain this information at the Ein Gedi Field School or from the tourist information desk at the Qumran National Park.
- Ropes and via-ferrata steps exist in some points, though every year they are swept away by the floods. Depending on their current state, as well as on the character of the hikers and the amount of accumulated water in certain basins, it's sometimes possible to do the hike without bringing your own rope. You can find out about the current condition of the trail at the Ein Gedi Field School. In any case, just to be sure, it's highly recommended to bring along a rope that's fit for descending 12 m (40 foot) waterfalls; a rope length of 30 ms (100 feet) is recommended to be able to double-up the rope, so it can be pulled down after all hikers have passed each waterfall.
- The Dragot stream is a fun and unique trail. It's also very challenging and might be risky for some travellers; more than once, travellers have gotten stuck on the trail and needed to be rescued, and some cases even ended up in death or injury. Travellers who haven't previously travelled through this trail and are not experienced in travelling through the wilderness areas of the Judaean Desert should definitely have their first experience in this trail as part of a guided trip.
The Mishmar stream hiking trail (נחל משמר, literally the Guard stream, so named for an ancient hoard of jewelry and copper tools that was unearthed nearby) is most suitable for experienced hikers and involves climbing and swimming through water basins. The trail ends at the base of a cliff from which some water springs, forming a small pond during winter and spring.
Travelers arriving by car can reach the starting point by driving on Highway 90 from Ein Gedi to Masada (5-10 minutes drive from either direction). There are no bus stops nearby (the closest ones are at Ein-Gedi and Masada). From Highway 90, a dirt road departs west towards the trail, and is marked by a sign that clearly states the stream's name in both English and Hebrew. The dirt road, marked red , is passable for all vehicles and would bring you pretty close to the bottom end of the valley.
From the end of the aforementioned dirt path, the travelers begin walking on a hiking trail marked red which leads into the narrow valley. Immediately after entering the canyon part of the hike, the trail splits and you have the choice of turning right on the red-marked path which climbs upwards to the northern cliff, or the blue-marked path which is more difficult but also more rewarding − it includes sections of climbing on via-ferrata steps, and most of the year it has various water basins which you'd have to walk through (or get around them by climbing the cliffs on the sides, if you're up to the challenge). The blue and red trails come together at the end of the canyon, therefore the most recommended option is to walk inside through the blue trail (which takes much more time), then get back to your car by the red trail. On the further intersection between the two paths there is a water basin which is full most of the year, and is one of the largest basins along the hike, making it a recommended stopping point for bathing.
You can go on along the stream beyond that intersection. That would bring you to another trail intersection, with the red trail ascending northwards towards the plateau, leading to additional hiking options, while a black trail goes on inside the stream's gorge. That trail leads through an easy 10 minute hike to Ein Mishmar – a small spring in the side of the cliff. A small pond will be present there during winter and spring. The black marked trail then goes on climbing the cliffs to the south, connecting to other hiking trails which lead to Tse'elim stream, Masada and other destinations.
- To the spring by the blue marked trail, then back by the red − about 6 hours.
- To the spring by the blue marked trail, then ascend northwards on the red trail and go on towards Ein Gedi − about a day and a half. Consult a map as there are more trail intersections on the plateau.
- To the spring by the blue marked trail, then climbing southwards by the black trail and go on to Tse'elim Ascent − a full day. Consult a map.
- To the spring by the blue marked trail, then onwards by the black trail into Tse'elim stream or Masada − about 2 days. Consult a map.
Prat Stream (Wadi Kelt)
A long, flowing river in the very north of the region, the Prat stream is running with water all year long. Do not confuse it with the well-known Prath River of the old testament – this stream's name comes from another Biblical reference, in the book of Jeremiah.
There are several access points to this trail, so it is possible to hike just parts of it, or walk the whole trail (a full day's walk).
Mind that the trail is adjucent to Palestinine Authority regions and even ends in Jericho; in fact, it is one of the city's sources of water. Therefore, hiking there could be unsafe – mainly for Isralies, but foreign tourists should also take care. During the 1990s, three different groups of Israelis were attacked and murdered on this trail, so all hikers to Ein Mabu'a and below are advised to carry firearms.
- Prat Spring (Arabic Ein Pharah)
- To get to the highest point in the stream's hiking trail, drive to Almon (עלמון, also called Anatot ענתות), and from just outside the settlement, turn to a red-marked dirt trail . Go on left to a blue hiking trail descending into the creek. This part of the stream was named by the Arabs Wadi Pharah (Wadi meaning a stream or river), probably conserving the Biblical name Prat. Not far from where you enter the creek you'll see the small cave used by the hermit Kharitun, first of the Christian hermits. Inside the creek there are several ponds and water basins, until you reach Prat Spring itself, filling a small, walled pool you can enter. Notice the northern cliff of the valley – one of the most popular rock-climbing sites in Israel.
- Wadi a-Rhazell
- From Prat Spring, keep following the blue trail , then later the red one which goes on along the next part of the stream, called by the Arabs Wadi a-Rhazell. The end of this segment is crossed by the Alon Road, which links several Israeli settlements in this area of the west bank. If you wish to end your hike here, it's still highly recommended that you go on for just one kilometer to reach the Mabu'a Spring, a great place to hang out and finish your trip, from there you can ascend to the settlement Alon.
- Mabu'a Spring (Arabic Ein Phuar)
- Literally the "Flowing Spring" in Hebrew, it feeds a large, walled pool built by the British when they had mandate over Israel. You can start or finish your hike here, using the black trail linking to the settlement Alon (about 40 minutes hike). The site consists of a deep, circular pool, about 4 meters in diameter, standing in the center of an even larger square pool. They are fed by a rhythmic spring, meaning that the water alternately ebb and flow, filling the pool to a depth of several meters and then drain out and leaving only about 50cm of water. The cycle takes usually around 20-30 minutes. If you enter the deep, circular pool at the center, keep in mind that when the water drains out it may be very difficult to climb out of the suddenly-shallow pool, and you might have to wait for the water to rise again.
- Wadi a-Phuar
- That segment of the stream, running from Mabu'a spring onwards, has plenty of ponds, waterfalls and several sections in which you must walk through shallow water. It is marked by a red trail . Near its end, it ascends to the northern cliffs and continues along the course of the stream, then goes back down into the creek, where you'll find several water basins. A green trail splits off at that point, leading through a short walk to Ein Kelt, the best and largest spring of Wadi Kelt.
- Ein Kelt
- This spring feeds the last big pond in the stream, which is bigger than all the others. The creek here is a narrow, deep canyon, filled entirely with water from the spring. You can get to it from the Jewish settlement Mitzpe Jericho, following the roadsigns to Ein Kelt. These signs will lead you to a lookout over Jericho, from which a black dirt road descends the steep slope into the creek, leading to the largest pond of Ein Kelt. From there, a black walking trail leads inside the canyon into the spring of Ein Kelt. From that same pond you can also turn right to the green hiking trail , which soon intersects with a red one leading either left to Wadi a-Phuar or right to Wadi Kelt.
- Wadi Kelt
- The lowest part of the stream, which lent its name to the entire trail. The hiking trail here is still marked with red . There isn't a lot of water in this part of the stream, since most of it is channeled into a canal that carries the water to Jericho. You'll walk past the houses of the Arab family that keeps the canal intact, and later go up a hill from which you'll see the amazing sight of the monastery.
- Monastery of St. George (Deir Mar Jaris)
- A monastery of the Greek Orthodox Church, originally built in the Byzantine period and renovated several times since, with the current building dating to the 19th century. It's built inside the stream's channel, on the side of the cliffs, and is very beautiful to watch from above. Entry to the monastery is also possible during daylight, but remember to bring along some modest clothing (in addition to the swimsuit you used while hiking in the water). The decorations inside are pretty impressive, though not extraordinary. The greatest attraction inside is probably the remains of the original abbot, which were kept intact since the sixth century C.E. – or at least, so the monks believe. The monastery is only 5 km away from Jericho, and is accessible through a trail that goes south and upwards towards one of the access roads of the city that splits off from Route 1.
The Og stream (נחל אוג) is so named after the Tanner's Sumach shrub that grows here, which in turn takes its Hebrew name from the Biblical Canaanite king Og. The stream offers several hiking options, some of which contain water holes in which bathing is possible.
Family hike in a loop trail from the settlement Almog
A 3 hour loop trail in the bottom part of the stream, containing sections of via ferrata, and a few water holes during winter.
Get to Almog that's south of Almog Junction on route 1 east of Jerusalem. There are buses from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. At the end of the settlement's access road, do not turn into Almog but instead goes on to the dirt road, marked red , then immediately turn right to a blue-marked hiking trail . After about a kilometer (less than a mile), you'd encounter a black marked dirt road , on which you go left. A very short walk would lead you into the stream, where you leave the dirt path and turn left into a green-marked hiking trail going into the gorge. Do not go on the black-marked dirt road and do not turn right to go up the stream on the green-marked trail, as they both enter military training areas the require prior coordination.
Enjoy the hike in the Og stream canyon, which is only about 1.5 km (one mile) long, but takes a relatively long time due to all the climbs and via ferrata sections it contains. Shortly after exiting the canyon, you'd reach the red-marked dirt foad just south of where you'd started. Go left on the road and back towards Almog.
Lower Og Stream – an easy half-a-day hike
A five hour hike down the stream including some via ferrata sections and water holes, some of which are full during most of the year. It passes through an army firing zone and therefore requires prior coordination on all times except Saturdays. The hike begins at the Nabi Mussa road and ends in Almog.
Drive along route 1 east of Jerusalem (or west when turning from route 90 to route 1), then turn to the south near the road signs leading to Nabi Mussa. Nabi Mussa itself, which you'd see along the way, is an old, large Arabic tomb which is definitely also worth a visit. The location is frequented by Palestinians from the vicinity who can sometimes be unwelcoming to Israeli visitors. Driving further on the road, you'd pass by an Israeli army post, nicknamed "Nabi Mussa post". A few kilometers down the road from there you'd see the large Nabi Mussa road bridge. Here you'd park your car and descend into the stream below, where the hike begins. It's generally safe to leave the car there as the road doesn't lead anywhere except an IDF training area; nevertheless, if you feel unsafe to do so, you can instead leave your car at the Nabi Mussa post and walk the remaining distance in about half an hour.
By bus there's no convenient way to get to the starting point of the hike. Buses from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have a stop on the Nabi Mussa crossroads on route 1, from which you can walk along the side road to the trail's start in about one hour.
After climbing down below the bridge, begin hiking down the stream on the green-marked trail . On your way you'd see several large waterholes which are usually full even during summer. After you cross a black-marked dirt road , you'd get to the bottom part of the stream, which was described in the previous clause. It includes several seasonal water holes and via ferrata sections. At the end of the canyon, turn left on a red marked dirt road to reach Almog in about one kilometer (less than a mile).
Upper Og Stream – a moderate half-a-day hike
A six hour hike that begins with a rough ascent near Mitzpe Jericho and goes on walking on the side of a cliff near ancient hermit alcoves. It passes through an army firing zone and therefore requires prior coordination on all times except Saturdays. The hike begins at Mitzpe Jericho and ends on the Nabi Mussa road.
Get to Mitzpe Jericho on route 1 east of Jerusalem. Buses from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv stop here. From the settlement, cross to the other side of the road and walk along it to the southeast until encountering a green marked trail departing from it. The trail goes down into a small stream, then ascends to some unnamed hill that stands 200 meters (650 feet) tall, over 2.5 km walking distance (about 1.7 miles). Feel free to leave the path and go left towards the very summit, where you'd see an amazing view of the northern Dead Sea and Judaean desert streams. After enjoying the view, go back to the green-marked trail and descend on the other side of the hill. The trail meanders along the cliffs of several small streams. Looking down into them, you might find some waterholes that are fit for bathing.
After some time, the trail enters Og stream itself. It walks along the side of the cliff, with no viable option to get down into the channel. You'd enjoy a view of classic Judaean dessert cliffs, and along the way you'll find some small ancient homes of the hermits that lived here during the Byzantine period. Towards the end of the hike, the trail goes back down into the stream, and later-on encounters a seasonal waterhole. Some more walk will take you beneath a large bridge. Here you should leave the trail and go up to the road above, which is the Nabi Mussa road. Here, you could leave a car in advance, so it would wait for you at the end of the hike. If that was not possible, walk northwards along the road for about an hour, passing by the army post and the Nabi Mussa tomb (which is worth a visit) to the junction on route 1, where you can take a bus.
For hardcore hikers − the full Og stream trail
Walking the entire length of the trail will take you through everything the Judaean desert has to offer – a mountaintop offering a spectacular view, a cliff-side over a dry stream, some waterholes and via ferrata climbs. It passes through an army firing zone and therefore requires prior coordination on all times except Saturdays.
This trail simply includes both the Higher and Lower Og stream trails described above, so naturally it begins at Mitzpe Jericho and ends at Almog. Do note that there are no water taps near the Nabi Mussa bridge, which you cross at about the midpoint of the hike. The hike isn't difficult, except for the rough ascent at its start, but it's very long and therefor recommended only for hardcore hikers, who would still require a whole day to complete it. Its forbidden to spend a night anywhere on this trail since it's both a nature reserve and a part of an IDF training area, but those who do wish to enjoy a night outdoors and take their time on the hike could climb to the Nabi Mussa bridge and walk northwards towards the army post. You can sleep outside the post and even fill your water bottles there.
The Ze'elim Stream is a dry canyon that holds several impermanent water basins of various sizes, as well as the permanent Ein Nammer spring. It's conventionally divided into an Upper and a Lower part, with the lower one being the longer and more popular one, and also contains several trails. Its bottom is by the Dead Sea about midway between Ein Gedi and Masada, while the top of the Upper part is not far from Arad.
- Upper Stream's top
- The nearby town Arad is reachable by vehicle or public-transport bus. Follow the signs from the town center to Masada, walking or driving on route 3199 heading northeast. Between kilometer posts 3 and 4, a green hiking trail departs to the east of the road, walking about 4 km through another small stream and continues into the Upper Ze'elim stream.
- Lower Stream's bottom
- On the Dead Sea road (route 90), between kilometer posts 230 and 231, turn your vehicle west on a black-marked dirt road and drive 3.5 km to the bottom campground, from which several hiking trails depart. Note that there aren't any nearby bus stops (Ein Gedi and Masada are each about 10 km away on the road).
- The Upper Ze'elim campground, near the connection point of the Upper and Lower parts, can be reached by a dirt road accessible to all vehicles. From Arad, follow the signs to Masada (route 3199 northeast). Between kilometer posts 9 and 10, turn left to a black-marked dirt trail . Follow it for 3.5 km to the campground. An additional 1.5 km will take you to the stream's path itself. The road goes on for there but is only fit for 4×4 vehicles. From that point you can turn left on a green trail for the upper stream, or right on blue trail to reach the Birket Zfira water basin or the lower stream.
- As part of a backpacking trip
- Many marked trails descend from the desert highland into the Ze'elim creek, reaching from the Mishmar Stream north of it, Masada in the south or other locations. These can be connected together in a hiking trip of several days, but be sure to get a hiking map so you know where to go, and remember that most of the surrounding area is a nature reserve and therefore you're only allowed to walk on marked trails.
Lower Ze'elim Stream
This is the canyon section of the stream, where the trail walks between steep cliffs. The canyon begins just below the Birket Zfira water basin and the other end of the trail is at the campground near the lower end of the stream. This section of the Ze'elim Stream is the more popular one for hiking trips and contains several hiking options. Unlike the upper section, it's not inside any firing zone, so it's open for hiking on all times. However, the entire area is a nature reserve, and certain regulations must be observed.
Below are descriptions of several points of interest in the trail, followed by suggestions for hikes.
Gey Sla'im ("Rocky Gorge")
A deeper part of the canyon found pretty close to the lower campground, where the trail is extremely rough because of many boulders and multiple large rocks which make the hiking very difficult here. There's a bypass for this section which is generally advisable, by climbing up over the inner gorge (but not nearly all the way up the tall cliffsides). That trail is naturally longer, but still takes much less time.
Gey Bahak ("Shiny Gorge")
West of Gey Sla'im is another gorge, Gey Bahak, probably named so because of its smooth, white marlstone sides. The walk here is more challenging than the rest of the stream, though less than in Gey Sla'im. This is because several large boulders and small waterfalls would require you to climb with your hands; however, the ground here is pretty level and convenient, unlike the rough terrain of the other gorge. During winter there may be some water basins that you'd have to cross by entering them or find someway to climb around.
Hikers who choose to enter this section and not use the bypass are advised to bring a rope fit for climbs of about 7 meters, as there are two waterfalls (usually dry) that are a little hard to climb without one. Generally there's a rope set there "permanently", but it gets washed away during floods; you can ask at the Ein-Gedi Field School what's the current status. Also, an elongated water basin may require you, during winter and spring, to walk about 20 meters in waist- to chest-deep water. This may be a bit difficult if you have a large backpack which you want to keep dry.
Ein Nammer ("Leopard Spring")
A emanation of water with two ponds below it. They can be reached from the green trail west of Gey Bahak; from it, proceed west on the red trail inside the canyon (while the green one ascends to the north). The ponds are full all year long and the water are pretty clear, though it's unknown whether they're good for drinking.
There's a black trail that ascends to the north in a short, very steep climb. It meets the blue trail that continues west along the Lower Ze'elim Stream towards Birket Zfira.
Gevey Harduf ("Oleander Ponds")
Above Ein Nammer to the north is an intersection of the green and blue trails. You can follow the green one north and up out of the canyon. The trail goes on the highland, then after 1.5 km descends into a secondary canyon of the stream. Its walls are no less steep, and in this point it contains a series of large water basins. They're always full, but the depth and quality of the water changes with the seasons, and it's unknown whether they're good for drinking.
The trail here takes a steep ascent and a steep descent. If you follow the trail north, you'll encounter a blue trail 4 km after exiting the canyon. You can take it right (east) to reach the lower campground (after a medium-difficulty descent), or turn left (northwest) towards the Mishmar Stream.