Part IV: Hills and valleys

Along the Israel trail: From the upper Dishon Valley to Hiram Junction.

The challenge of this section of the 860-km. Israel Trail begins with finding the start. Alma Bridge, which carries Route #886, over the Dishon Valley, is 7 km. to the south of Yesha Fortress. It is not served by public transport, so a taxi may be ordered from Safed or Kiryat Shmona. You can be sure you are in the right place if the bridge's nickname, "Pink Bridge," is clearly displayed on its south side. You will have to descend to make that check: it is visible from the side of the Dishon Valley that formed the termination point of the previous stage of the trail. This walk is a scenic gem. As one of the more remote sections of the Israel Trail, it has not been fouled by selfish trippers' garbage and bonfire remains. The lack of litter makes the awkward search for the opening of the walk worthwhile. However, families of shefanim (Procavia hyrox capensis) - rabbit-like creatures on the limestone rocks - indicate that there is more human interference than meets the eye. For the shafan is fairly common in mountainous areas of Israel, especially where hikers abandon leftover food. Though the Psalmist exclaims that "rocks are refuge for the shefanim" (Psalms 104:18), wildlife protection laws prohibit hunting or trapping them and thus, these small creatures have abandoned their former caution. Previously, it was difficult to follow their movements while they were alive in the wild, and only after a shafan was caught was it possible to examine its unique anatomical structure. Despite its smallness, it appears to be genetically related to the elephant. THE WALK may also be enjoyed in summer, as its steep-sided, gently sloping ascent funnels refreshingly cool breezes. Before starting out, it is a good idea to read Psalms 104 slowly, and think about the scenery in each verse. The orange, blue, and white Israel Trail route-marker signs are somewhat spread out in the first section of the walk up to Avivim Junction. Just follow the main path of the Dishon Valley and you will keep on track. On this walk, with the exception of the climb up the unforgettably beautiful Zivon Valley, you don't have to look downwards all the time to find the next trail mark. You join the trail by turning right at the bridge, maybe negotiating a little wire, and descending to the majestic Upper Dishon Valley. The first trail mark is about 400 meters down the path on top of a rusty red drainpipe section. The fast-flowing deep-cutting seasonal river has exposed the limestone layers of rock - especially on the north side of the valley. Observe the deeply jointed nature of limestone, which enables rainwater to enter and percolate to the natural groundwater reserves deep below. These supply two thirds of Israel's water. The calcium carbonate and calcium bicarbonate within the weathered limestone chemically reacts with pollutants, and naturally purifies the water. As you walk, the limestone landscape gives way to chalk hills. The path appears to be running through the chalk hills, rather than over them, forming interlocking spurs. From a distance, the hills appear to knit with one another as rivers cut around the soft rock, leaving the hard rock upstanding. On passing the remains of old water mills from the Turkish Period, the landscape begins to seem to close in on you. You are getting deeper into the hills north of Safed. As the walk proceeds over and beyond Route #8955 to South Avivim Junction, the trees become denser, and the route develops into a very pleasant, almost fairy-tale-like forest walk. The walk may be left and rejoined here. Access/Exit: On Route #8966, and then 2 km south on Route #8966 to South Avivim Junction and Bus #43 to Safed. There is parking space at this entry/exit - by a tall cedar tree. This point effectively splits the path into two sections - two and three hours respectively - each one suitable for families with children above the age of eight. Beyond the car park, the area is wooded with cedar, cypress, and Aleppo Pine. The path makes its way past the willow trees of Ein Aravot Spring, which until a few years ago, was not fenced off. Eventually, it reaches a clearing where it follows the Zivon Valley, a tributary of the Upper Dishon Valley. Stop and rest under the oak trees - you will need to gather strength to negotiate the steep, well-marked climb through one of the most scenic sections of the entire Israel Trail. As you leave, do not take the blue marked path, but leave towards the left of the clearing. You will soon spot Israel Trail markers as you ascend through the deep forest. Look out for the rare, red-barked katlav trees. While meandering through the forest, it's worth knowing that this area is more wooded today than in the times of the medieval kabbalists. In fact, Israel is the only country in the world that, thanks to Karen Kayemet Liyisrael, has more tree cover today than 100 years ago. You will find yourself making your way over an expanse of wooded limestone outcrops, much of which was softened during my early September visit with natural leaf litter. The climb is steep in places, but there are plenty of flat stretches, where you can rest and catch your breath. Eventually, the walk eases as it emerges and bears right along an open wide path. It rewards you with a shy, but assertive emerging first view of the shaded north wooded slopes of Mount Meron. That view will coax you to return and tackle it afresh as the main item of the next stage of the trail. Stop here, and avoid that sinking feeling of having to face one of Israel's highest peaks. Walking should be fun, not hard labor! You have reached the hairpin bend on Route #89, one km. to the south of Hiram Junction, near the southern entrance to Sasa. To leave the area, drivers turn left for Safed, and right for Nahariya. Walkers should proceed right to Hiram Junction, which is served by Bus #367 Nahariya-Safed Route. What you'll need You will experience: The sense of walking through, rather than over, contrasting limestone and chalk hills. Your discovery and exploration of ruined water mills from the Turkish Period. An insight into how local rocks purify the water you drink. The fragrance of the predominantly oak forest, and the rare red-barked katlav tree. Gazelles, and rabbit-like shefanim, who will scurry out out of sight as you approach. A strange, mystical feeling as the forest gradually closes in on you. The gradual appearance of the wooded slopes of the north face of Mount Meron. The details: Length - 15 km. Recommended seasons: spring, summer and fall. Level of difficulty: fairly easy, with a graded steep rise up the Zivon Valley. It becomes harder after rain causes rock surfaces to become slippery. All-terrain vehicles and mountain bikes may travel the first half, from Alma Bridge to the South Avivim Junction exit. However, the Zivon Valley ascent in the middle of the second section is suitable for walkers only. Flooding is a potential hazard, except in summer. Pay attention to the weather reports in cloudy weather. Estimated walking time: six hours, including reasonable breaks. Maps: Scale 1:50,000, Map 2, covering the Upper Galilee. Bring: Four liters of water per person, a hat, sunscreen and sturdy shoes with grips for walking. Prepare to wade during the rainy season as the path enters the valley floor several times. Assume that refreshments are unobtainable on this route. Always carry a compass, mobile phone, first aid kit, penknife and flashlight. You never know when they might come in useful! Mobile phone reception appears to be satisfactory for the length of the walk. Accommodation: Mitzpe Hayamim Hotel, Rosh Pina (no kashrut certificate), Ruth-Rimonim Hotel, Safed (kosher) 04-699-4666/5, Ron Hotel, Safed (kosher) 04-697-2590/1, Mount Meron Field School (kosher), by the road ascending to the summit of Mount Meron 04-698-0022/3. Other: JPost Travel hotel finder. Restaurants: Jascala, Gush Halav (Jish), (no kashrut certificate) 04-698-7762; Yekev Dalton, Dalton (kosher) 04- 698-7683; Bat Ya'ar, Biryia Forest, Safed 04-692-1788; Khan Restaurant at Ruth-Rimonim Hotel, Safed (kosher) 04-699-4666/5. Places to visit in the locality: Bar'am (Ancient Synagogue) 04-698- 9301, Tel Hazor (archeological site and museum) 04-693-7290, Safed (Visitors Center for tours of the city), 04-692-7485. Attractions: Agam Hai Boating Lake, Yir-on 04-686-8304 (Mar-Sept only), Bat Ya'ar Farm (horseback tours, paintball firing range, jeep tours, restaurant) 04-692-1788, Kfar Blum ("top rope" climbing activities, family kayaking in season) 04-695-0353. Further away, visit the cablecar and sea caves at Rosh Hanikra, 1-800-229-494.