Israel's National Parks: Fun fitness for everyone

There are plenty of awesome places around Israel to go for a hike, elevate your heart rate and get back into shape.

Yarkon Park (photo credit: MANU GREENSPAN)
Yarkon Park
(photo credit: MANU GREENSPAN)
With Health Ministry restrictions on gyms, and with countless people working from home, not far from their refrigerator and a tasty nosh, many of us have gained more than a few unwanted kilograms. The good news is, it doesn’t need to be this way! There are plenty of awesome places around Israel to go for a hike, elevate your heart rate and get back into shape. You can go for a run in Yarkon Park or climb the stairs inside the famous stalactite cave. I’ve put together a list here of sites around the country where you can enjoy a day out in nature while also improving your fitness.
MOUNT ARBEL
(Challenging hike, including climbing on ladders)
The best time to take a hike on the challenging circular path through the Arbel National Park and Nature Reserve is just after the sun has risen, when it’s still crisp and cool outside. The path takes about 2.5 hours to complete, so make sure to bring ample water with you.
The trail begins at the highest point on the mountain, which stands 181 meters (595 feet) above sea level, next to the carob tree. This point is 400 meters above the Kinneret. Follow the black trail markers, and after just 200 meters, you will reach the spot where the descent begins. Make sure to hold on to pegs that have been inserted into the side of the mountain as you climb down. Further along in the trail, you will continue descending on natural steps that were hewn from the stone. All of this climbing will help tone your leg muscles.
Continue along the path to the foot of the cliff. When you reach a junction between the red and black paths, take the path on your left, which will lead you toward the fortress. If you want to enjoy a breathtaking view, and you don’t mind putting your lungs to work, you can climb up the 150 steps to the top of the fortress. When you’ve finished enjoying the beautiful surroundings, climb back down and continue following the trail markers.
About 300 meters later, you’ll reach a sign directing you to the shelter caves, where you’ll need to use your hands and legs to climb, while holding onto the pegs in the wall. When you reach the ladder, climb up to reach the caves. When you’re done exploring the caves, return to the path and follow the red trail markers that will lead you in a westerly direction, until you reach the place where you’ll climb up the side of the mountain while holding onto the pegs that are fixed into the rock. You can leisurely walk or casually run the rest of the way, whatever you feel like.
Price: Adults NIS 22, children NIS 9.
Pre-registration required – following Health Ministry regulations: parks.org.il.
STALACTITE CAVE
(Lots of stairs to burn lots of calories)
One of Israel’s unique natural wonders is the Stalactite Cave Nature Reserve, which was discovered by chance following a controlled explosion that took place in 1968 in the Har-Tuv Quarry in order to produce gravel for construction. The trail begins at the entrance to the site, about 500 meters above sea level. From this spot, you’ll be able to look out over the Har-Tuv Quarry, the town of Ramat Beit Shemesh, and on clear days, all the way to Ashdod and the Mediterranean Sea. Exactly 164 steps will take you down into the cave, and another 140 steps will lead you all around inside the cave.
Caves have their own ecosystem, which is characterized by lack of light. Recently, the Nature and Parks Authority decided to replace the lighting in the cave, and installed new amber-colored LEDs, which reduce the amount of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) that grow in the cave. Inside the cave, you’ll notice that there’s water dripping all over from the stalactites, and the temperature stays consistently around 23°C (73°F), with a humidity above 90% all year round.
A walk around inside the cave usually lasts around 20 minutes, after which you can climb back up the 164 steps. And if you’re the type of person who always likes to know exactly how much exercise you’ve done, you’ll be happy to see signs as you climb up telling you how many steps you’ve done so far, how many calories you’ve (probably) burned, and their value in food and drinks. (Shlomi Arma came up with the idea for these unique signs in 2004.)
The Stalactite Cave Nature Reserve is home to a wide variety of animals, including deer, jackals, foxes, rodents and birds. In the winter, the grounds are covered with beautiful flowers, including cyclamen, asphodel, daisies, Star-of-Bethlehem and bachelor’s button. The path around the reserve takes between 45 minutes and one hour to traverse.
Price: Adults NIS 28, children NIS 14.
Pre-registration required – following Health Ministry regulations: parks.org.il.
YARKON PARK
(Great for jogging and bike riding)
You can begin your hike at any point in Yarkon Park along the Yarkon River. There’s a great 28-km. (17-mile) path that runs through this huge open green park where you can go jogging or ride your bike. Most of the path runs alongside the river, so you can see all the riverside plant life, such as common reed, southern cattail, weeping willow, hairy cowpea and a variety of sedges and grasses. And if you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of some of the animals that live in the area and are active during the day, such as white-throated kingfish or great herons.
If you move real close to the riverside, you might see a pied kingfisher flapping its wings as it hovers above the water, actively flapping its wings for several minutes, as it searches for something tasty swimming just below the surface. Or you might see a Balkan pond turtle or a soft-shell turtle, which were reintroduced to the river just a few years ago (although they’re extraordinarily shy).
As you walk down the path, you’ll come upon flour mills from different periods, a pumping station that was used to irrigate the many orchards spread throughout the region, and a number of bridges that let you cross over the river in a number of spots.
If you’d like to go for a jog next to the river, I recommend starting around the gorgeous Water Lily Pool and running toward Tel Afek (aka Antipatris) where you can visit the remains of a city built by Herod the Great in the first century BCE.
Be on the lookout for the first squill plants of the season. This is a circular path that passes by a small theater and by the Cardo, which was the main road in Roman times. You’ll also see the Ottoman fortress that was built by Binar Bashi in the 16th century and the water pumping station built in the 1930s during the British Mandate period, to channel water from the Yarkon to Jerusalem.
You can splash around in a number of shallow pools as well as in a man-made lake, which has attracted a wide variety of unique flora and fauna over the years. Visitors are welcome to take off their shoes and wade in the refreshing cool water (swimming, however, is forbidden). Due to COVID-19 restrictions, visitors may enter the Yarkon Park only at the main entrances, and not from the Water Lily Pool entrance.
Price: Adults NIS 28, children NIS 14. All visits require pre-registration.
HERODION
(Many stairs)
Herodion is one of Israel’s most important historic sites. The circular path that takes you through the site requires about 45 minutes of strenuous walking. You will climb up many, many stairs to see Herod’s palace, and then continue down many, many stairs until you reach the water cisterns that were used by residents 2,000 years ago. Guests begin the visit at the nature park’s main entrance, and from there you follow the path up a steep hill to the top of Herod’s palace (which later became his tomb). This is a challenging climb, so make sure to bring plenty of water with you.
Next, you’ll continue on from the palace down into the central courtyard. From there, continue descending on the stone stairs until you reach the water cisterns (there are 75 steps just in the section with the cisterns). When you’re done investigating here, you can return to the entrance. If you’d like, you can do the tour in the opposite direction and begin with the water cisterns, then climb up to the palace. Just keep in mind that these steps are large, making this ascent quite challenging.
The Israel Nature and Parks Authority recommends that you rent (for NIS 10) the audio guide, which offers you lots of rich historical tidbits and information that make the visit much more interesting.
Price: Adults NIS 29, children NIS 15. Free for Matmon Club subscribers.
MASADA
(Walking up the winding Snake Path is lots of fun)
The starting point of Masada’s Snake Path is located at the entrance to the national park, on the eastern side of Masada, one of Israel’s most popular tourist attractions. It contains many archaeological artifacts. The discovery of the attack ramp, which is relatively well preserved, led to its declaration as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Snake Path is a 2-km. winding path that takes you all the way up to the top of Masada. It is only open from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. and it is of utter importance that visitors bring ample water with them. Tens of thousands of visitors climb the Snake Path every day, and some people who are looking for a serious workout even choose to run all the way up the path (burns 400 calories, on average).
It takes between 30 to 50 minutes to climb up to the top, depending on how quickly you walk. When you reach the top, you will be greeted with a breathtaking view of the Dead Sea, the Judean Desert and of course of all the remains of the Roman palaces, bathhouses, cisterns and the ancient synagogue.
You will not see much greenery as you walk up the trail, but you might catch a glimpse of the ibex (they’re out only in the morning), spiny mice and other rodents. Egyptian vultures, a type of raptor, build their nests in the cliffs of Masada and sometimes you can see these vultures, eagles or starlings gliding nearby. To get back down off the mountain, you can either walk back down the Snake Path (up until 8 a.m.) or take the cable car down.
Price: Entrance for adults NIS 31, children NIS 17. One-way ride on cable car: adults NIS 28, children NIS 14.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.


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