Carmel mini-circuit: Caves and water source above Tirat Carmel

Israel is the only country in the world that has more trees today than it did 100 years ago, thanks to vigorous national afforestation programs.

The entrance to the Oranit Caves is both enticing and scary. (photo credit: JACOB SOLOMON)
The entrance to the Oranit Caves is both enticing and scary.
(photo credit: JACOB SOLOMON)
On the edge of Haifa’s urban sprawl, a short, easily accessible circular walk gets you away from the city bustle, leading you deep and literally inside the Carmel Mountains. The Carmel mini-circuit satisfies most hikers’ checklists: scrambles, caves to explore, steep descents, a spring for a quick dip, forests, and a pleasant pastoral stroll leading to the finish.
For those getting to know the North, one can think of its mountain ranges as a hand. The extended thumb is the narrow, elongated Carmel Range whose edge you are about to penetrate. The four fingers stretched together represent the wider expanse of the hills of the Lower Galilee, with the space in between forming the Jezreel and Kishon valleys.
Though this walk is just four kilometers long, it’s a respectable one. Progress is slow. The steep ascents and descents of the earlier part of the circuit are hard work, demanding sturdy footwear. Limestone surfaces are treacherous in wet weather.
You need to give yourself a full three hours of daylight; less than that could mean having to camp down for the night.
In 2010, Tirat Carmel faced total obliteration during the country’s worst natural disaster to date, the Carmel Forest fire. Some 11,000 people were temporarily evacuated, and international firefighting forces finally managed to prevent the inferno from engulfing the town of Tirat Carmel itself. As you progress into the walk, you’ll see evidence of forest-fire ravages and vegetative regeneration to the south.
A red-and-white marker by the east side of the city’s Shiffman High School indicates the start of the trail. The clearly-placed red markers beckon hikers steeply upward over a limestone surface. Apart from just below the cave entrance, it is just weathered enough for walking without scrambling. Although you might feel like using the finger-sized, rainwater-formed holes in the rock for a little support, don’t; you might sample the excruciating stings of the small creatures who got to those holes before you did.
It is less than a kilometer to the first summit on the Carmel, but you will likely be glad of a rest when you get there. You can look behind you for a superb vista of the Shiffman School, Tirat Carmel and the Mediterranean beyond.
The Carmel is deeply dissected, with Nahal (Wadi) Galim to the north, and Nahal Oranit to the south. For the geologically minded, these mountains are very young.
Current evidence indicates that they actually formed underwater: A series of subterranean eruptions covered the bottom of the sea with volcanic ash, which got plastered by layers of hard limestone and chalk made up of the shells of countless generations of sea crustaceans. The terrain was folded out of the water into the present Carmel range by more recent horizontal movements of converging magmatic material. Fast-flowing seasonal rivers eroded the hard limestone and relatively soft volcanic ash below into the deep valleys that you’ll see on your left and right.
The trail descends to a saddle, up again through a red-marked iron portal, and then toward the Oranit Caves at the top. A scramble on all fours will bring you to the entry holes of the blackened cave complex. Whether that color comes from the original volcanic ash, the fire-making prehistoric troglodyte inhabitants, or the more recent ravages of the 2010 fire is not clear. However, you should tread carefully and go easy with your flashlight as you explore the dark caverns, lest you disturb the hibernating bat community within.
If you retrace your steps to the iron portal, you can leave the red-marked path and descend the saddle northward, into Nahal Galim. Surprisingly the pathway is not color-marked. It is advisable to keep to the least-steep option when picking your way downward into the valley. Once down, you will cross a black-marked path. If you turn right and follow it gently uphill, you can enjoy the walk’s first stretch of shade. The territory becomes wooded with the characteristic Mediterranean oak, pine and olive trees, and even a lone sycamore that escaped the forest fires.
On the subject of forests, Israel is the only country in the world that has more trees today than it did 100 years ago, thanks to vigorous national afforestation programs.
But with the trees covering only 3% of the national area, it lags behind Greece and Portugal, which have over 10% forest cover apiece. Though forests are less profitable than farmland, they keep the soil tightly packed, preventing it from being blown and washed away. They filter air pollutants, taking in the carbon dioxide that we breathe out and turning it into oxygen. They shade parks, highways and hikers from the powerful Middle Eastern sunshine. With their transpiring moisture, they moderate the weather, making the summer less hot and the winter less cold. And forests make pleasant environments for this type of walking, as well as for picnic stops.
The black-marked path will suddenly narrow and lead downward to the water tunnel from which the Kedem Spring emerges. The cool waters are a pleasant environment for a picnic and a quick splash. You can retrace your steps along the black path and follow it downhill. The trail markers change from black to blue, leading into a gentle, cattle-populated pastoral landscape. Don’t worry about the horns on some of the cattle; they are docile bullocks (an uncastrated bull, by contrast, is kept in a field by himself). Still, it is advisable to leave them alone as you make your way to Heharuv Street, which marks the end of the walk.
The Shiffman School will be in sight, involving a short climb and descent. Alternatively you can get to the school by the street network, which within 15 minutes gets you to the city center and a wide choice of places to eat and drink, with the Nos. 45 and 47 bus connections to Hof Hacarmel.