Springtime in Binyamin

A hike off the beaten path reveals a treasure trove of little-known trails, streams and breathtaking views – all a part of a rich history.

Binyamin 521 (photo credit: Andrew Friedman)
Binyamin 521
(photo credit: Andrew Friedman)
Midway through the rainiest winter Israel has had in years, the foothills near Modi’in are starting to turn green. Two weeks before Tu Bishvat, the almond trees weren’t quite ready to bloom, but the first spring flowers were definitely starting to appear. By the end of February, the area is going to be awash in color.
Located less than an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv, the Binyamin region of the West Bank is a hidden treasure to most Israelis, but the area is rich in ancient and modern history. The area is the cradle of the Hebrew Bible – a cursory tour of the region brings up the names of the prophets Samuel and Deborah, the book of Judges, Hanukka stories of the Maccabees and more.
More recently, many of the fiercest battles of the War of Independence were fought here, and it is easy to see why: The hilly region spills down to the coastal plain that leads to the Tel Aviv area, home to 80 percent of Israel’s population. From a lookout in the Talmon settlement, the strategic value of the high ground is clear: On a clear day, one can see all the way to the Mediterranean Sea to the west; to the north, Mount Gerizim on the outskirts of Nablus is clearly visible, as are the communities of Yitzhar and Har Bracha.
Heading east from the Shilat Junction on route 446, the drive quickly crosses through an ugly industrial zone and shopping center, crosses the Green Line and begins the climb into the Samarian hills, the section of the Land of Israel Moses allotted to the tribe of Benjamin. Turning right onto Route 463 towards Talmon, the road skirts Jewish and Arab villages (in contrast to the popular image of the West Bank, not all the Jewish towns are Orthodox. Nili and Na’aleh are staunchly secular outposts and look as if they could be neighborhoods in upscale towns like Ra’anana or Rehovot).
For hikers, the area is a trove of littleknown trails, springs, running streams and breathtaking views – many of which are suitable for families with children of all ages. Perhaps the most popular is Winery Hill and Talmon Spring, located in the Talmon B neighborhood. It is a route easy enough for young hikers and interesting enough to keep older kids involved.
The Winery Hill section of the route begins in a small, dirt parking lot on the side of the main road through Talmon and continues up to an ancient olive press, standard fare for Israeli hiking trails. Far more interesting is the underground network of caves and tunnels, used by ancient communities to store wine, oil and other liquids during the hot summer. There are sturdy ladders (the deeper of the visible caves is about a three-meter drop from ground level) to descend into the caves, one of which would be easy to help a young child use.
From there, it’s flashlights, crawling and a slight echo to explore the caves. In all, there are about 30 caves and tunnels, not all of which are accessible, and the area is big enough to be interesting yet small enough that no one should get lost.
According to Chezky Betzalel, a local tour guide and member of Mishkefet, an NGO dedicated to introducing Israelis to off-the-beaten-track parts of Judea and Samaria, the north-facing caves maintain a constant daytime temperature in the summer of 16 to 18 degrees. Betzalel also says the caves are an indication that ancient residents of the area created large quantities of liquids, probably for commercial purposes, and also that the caves were likely used for protection.
“In all probability, this area was first settled by Jews after they conquered the land with Joshua,” says Betzalel. “We haven’t dated any of the artifacts that have been found here to the earlier Canaanite period, but we have dated many ceramics to the second Bronze Age. That’s particularly relevant to ancient Jewish communities because ceramics cannot become ritually impure.”
Back along the path towards the parking lot, pay attention to non-human footprints – they could signal there are wild boar in the area (stand still if you encounter one, they’re likely to be more afraid of you than the other way around).
Over the road, the path continues into the wadi towards Talmon Spring, a natural pool with water year-round.
Like the upper half of the hike, the route is short, about 20 minutes for an adult, but will take longer with kids, though there is nothing difficult about the terrain. From there, it’s an easier walk back to the car at the starting point, or you can continue down to Talmon, if you’ve left a second car there.
Neveh Tzuf Forest Continuing (by car) up the hill from Winery Hill (somewhere along the route the road becomes Route 450. Take it 10 minutes up the hill past Halamish/Neveh Tzuf, where the road curves to the right and is renamed Route 465) one comes to Neveh Tzuf forest, located between the settlement of the same name and Ateret.
The area was designated a national park by the British in the 1920s and the fort nearby was home to a British cavalry unit.
During the Mandate, the forest was a popular Sunday outing destination for British soldiers and their families, a tradition that continued on Fridays and Saturdays for Israeli families in the aftermath of the Six Day War.
Today, however, the forest is a littleknown treasure (Betzalel said it is one of the few remaining places in Israel that one can still have an Independence Day picnic in without securing a spot by 6 a.m.). On a sleepy Wednesday, the forest was populated only by a group of yeshiva boys and two Arab families out for the afternoon, but the picnic table and clean air make it an inviting family spot. ■
 Tourist maps and information for the Binyamin region can be obtained from the Binyamin Tourist Information Center, (02) 994-4019, www.gobinyamin.org.il