This lovely hike is one of the nicest in the Judean hills, featuring Nahal Hame'ara (the Cave Stream) as its star attraction. The hike begins at Ness Harim, just outside Jerusalem, and continues on to the Beit Shemesh area, near Moshav Zanoah. The path, well marked by a red-and-white sign, has a bit of everything for the hiker: comfortable walking which becomes a bit more challenging; interesting sites; fine views of the hills; and typical Mediterranean vegetation all around. Toward spring, the blossoming wild flowers add splashes of color. And then there's Nahal Hame'ara, a three-kilometer stretch that is actually a non-threatening canyon trail that will satisfy hikers with a mild craving for adventure. The entire walk is about seven km. long, so give it the better part of a day outdoors. The route is a mild descent, as you leave the hill region for the plain. You will need two vehicles: one at the start and the other at the end. To leave the second car - if you come from Jerusalem, turn left at the first traffic light on route 38 in Beit Shemesh, to secondary route 3855 going through the town's commercial zone, and follow signs to Zanoah. Three km. from the light, go past the entrance to Zanoah for half a km., and watch for an orange tourism sign pointing left to a parking area just off the road. Turn and drive a bit further on the dirt road to the next parking area, just at the end of the path. You'll save yourself extra walking at the end. Now for the start: half a km after the Bar Giora visitors' center, on route 3866, turn left (just past a sign saying "Regional Cemetery" - but don't worry) and park at the picnic grounds. Look for an illustrative Keren Kayemet billboard that tells about the Nahal Dolev Nature Reserve. Our walk is within this large reserve, and begins here on a solid dirt road. Follow the red path markings and very soon, after 300 meters, there is a nice diversion. A path to the left, marked in black, takes you a bit up the hillside. It's more pleasant than the road and offers a view of Moshav Ness Harim. This black path is just 1.5 km long, and rejoins the red one in T-like fashion. Turn right for a few minutes and go down to a well (called Ein Hud) and a well-preserved trough, still filled with running water. Fig and other trees do well in this old orchard space. Retrace your steps (red markings, of course) and go up the hill to the ruins of Beit Itab, one of two main sites on this walk. Beit Itab was one of several Arab villages in this region before 1948. Traditional hill-area cultivation provided the population with a livelihood - rock terraces, rural irrigation channels, etc. The nearby orchard was part of it. According to an explanatory board, the village dates back to the 1830s, a decade of relatively efficient Egyptian rule during the sluggish Ottoman period. Centuries earlier, this may have been the site of a Crusader fortress. Impressive stone arches at the southwest corner of the hill support this assumption. Beit Itab was conquered in October 1948, as Israeli forces strengthened their hold over the hills west of Jerusalem. Besides a view of the ruins, the elevated location offers an all-around lookout, from the coast to the plain to the Hebron and Jerusalem mountains. Follow the red path, just left of the ruins, and proceed south in a gentle descent - and look back to enjoy the tall arches. The path becomes a bit steeper as you come down to a dirt road suitable for 4X4 vehicles. Turn right. Now here's the tricky part: our red path becomes part of this road (marked green) for about 300 meters. Then, thankfully, the red path departs to the left. A short red pole stuck in the ground, and red marking on a stone, identify the spot to resume the trail. Don't miss it! Now we follow the bed of the stream of Nahal Hame'ara all the way to the end of the path. This is a typical secondary stream in the Judean hills, draining into Nahal Zanoah, which in turn runs north until it drains into Nahal Sorek, a major stream in the hilly topography that finally goes out to the sea. When North Americans or Europeans hear the word "stream," they most likely imagine crystal clear water gushing down. This, alas, is not the case at our end of the Mediterranean, where substantial rainfall in winter is needed to justify the term "Nahal." Still, Nahal Hame'ara is proof that, over thousands of years, the water flow down the hills is sufficient to form a pocket-canyon with rather steep rocky elevations on both sides. There are boulders at the bottom to give you a sense of overcoming outdoor obstacles. Not to worry - it's still for the whole family, although older persons not used to hiking may find it harder. At the heart of this section is Me'arat Hate'omim (The Cave of the Twins), up a few meters to the right of the streambed. This very large cave (with a small entrance) is the second site on the walk. However, in winter, November to April, it is closed to the public because it is home to thousands of bats (four different sorts) hibernating at this time of year. The Nature Reserves Authority has placed a gate at the entrance, vital for the preservation of these curious creatures. During the other months, one may go into the dark cave equipped with a flashlight, to witness the extensive hollow evolved in carstic action: rainwater seeping through cracks in the rock and, over time, dissolving the hard limestone through chemical reaction. Back on the red path, you will notice that the stream becomes wider and the slopes open up in moderate grading. It's a sign you're reaching the end, as Nahal Hame'ara runs into the Zanoah basin. A decorative stone gate marks the conclusion of the path (or the beginning, if you fancy going up to Ness Harim). Starting elevation was about 650 meters, and now it's only 320 meters. The descent is over 300 meters - and much more significantly, you've enjoyed several kilometers on a select trail in the Judean Hills.


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