Enjoying the desert, in the respite of winter

Take advantage of the cool temperatures to hike near the Dead Sea and at the Einot Tzukim Nature Reserve.

Light trails at Einot Tzukim Nature Reserve (photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
Light trails at Einot Tzukim Nature Reserve
(photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
Although it’s already late December and we are in the heart of winter, this is actually the best time of year to go hiking. And in my opinion, despite the risk of flooding after rain, winter is the perfect time to hike in the deserts and canyons of the South, which are burning hot and dry in the summertime.
At 400 meters below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth and therefore scorching in the summer, but absolutely lovely in December.
In addition to taking a dip in the warm, salty waters, one has a plethora of historical and archeological sites to visit there. My favorite place in the area is the northern Dead Sea, which boasts a number of secluded caves, cisterns, and sweet-water springs that some religious Jews use as ritual baths. And of course, no trip to the area is complete without a visit to Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.
One of most popular tourist attractions in the northern Dead Sea area is the Einot Tzukim Nature Reserve (also known by its Arabic name: Ein Fesh’ha). A number of springs flow under the ground here, and as a result it is full of greenery and pools in which visitors can swim.
Einot Tzukim officially became a nature reserve in 1969 and has one of the highest concentrations of natural springs in the country.
Einot Tzukim lies right on the Syrian-African Rift Valley, and the shifting of the earth might be what led to the formation of these sweet-water springs. Since the water in the pools comes from the underground springs that originate in Jerusalem, and not from rain, the pools are full all year round. These springs supply 60 million cubic meters of water a year, some of which spills into the Dead Sea.
The nature reserve is split up into three sections, two of which are open to visitors.
The first is called the Visitor Reserve, and it covers most of the site – 125 acres. The area with the pools is usually pretty crowded with kids and families swimming, and there are lifeguards on duty, picnic tables, changing rooms and shaded sitting areas. Near the pools is an archeological site discovered by Roland de Vaux, a French priest who also carried out excavations at Qumran.
The second section is called the Closed Reserve, and there is no public access to this section.
The third (and most intriguing) section is the Hidden Reserve. It is in the southern part of the site and can only be entered via coordinated tours with certified Nature and Parks Authority guides. On weekends and holidays, there are usually a number of tours each day, but I advise checking in advance so as not to miss out.
The path through the reserve is easy to walk and passes by all the important sites. If you look around as you walk, you’ll notice that there is a wide variety of foliage here. The apple of Sodom tree, for example, produces fruit, but they’re not actually apples or even fit for eating. The “fruit” does contain seeds, though, which the wind spreads around. People used to make wicks for olive-oil lamps from apple of Sodom trees, even though the trees are actually poisonous.
The reserve also contains the remains of a farm from the Roman period. There’s a two-story structure there that appears to be a typical Roman-era rural villa. It was destroyed during the Jewish revolt against the Romans and was apparently rebuilt, but it was destroyed again during the Bar Kochba revolt.
If you join the guided tour, you can continue on to the Hidden Reserve. On your way to the starting point, I recommend taking a look at the surrounding shrubbery. One of the most common plants is the Mediterranean saltbush, an herb that is naturally salty and can be used for cooking and baking. You can tear off a piece and suck or chew on it while you’re walking.
When you cross over the wooden bridge that leads to the new trail, you can look up and see dozens of birds’ nests in the tamarisk trees, built by the Dead Sea sparrows that live here all year long. Dead Sea sparrows are small birds, but they build relatively large nests from twigs. Those large nests evidently enable them to trap warm air, which keeps them warm on cold nights.
If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of one of the wild donkeys that live in the reserve.
These donkeys were brought here in the ’90s so they would eat the reeds that were killing off other shrubbery. Now the donkeys have multiplied, and there are more than 100 of them running around freely.
The best part of the outing is most definitely swimming in the pools at the end of the trail. The pools are full of water from the underground spring and surrounded by caper bushes, which can survive even under serious drought conditions and still bear fruit. When you’re finished at the swimming pool, the path continues along the road until you can see out over the Dead Sea. The water is receding, so the reserve is now an entire kilometer from the edge of the water. At this point, the guided tour ends, and you can make your way through the narrow path between the trees to reach another group of pools, which are connected by man-made canals. There are also picnic tables here and poplar trees that provide shade for hikers year-round.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.