Woodlands, wetlands and waterfalls

There's no shortage of destinations for a summer outdoor adventure. Ten suggestions for an excursion to Israel's nature reserves and parks.

Waterfall 521 (photo credit: tourism.gov.il)
Waterfall 521
(photo credit: tourism.gov.il)
It’s no simple task to identify the top 10 nature reserves and national parks in a country with about 300 of them – each uniquely worthy in its own right. So we asked Israel Nature and Parks Authority deputy chief scientist Eliezer Frankenberg to help us choose.
We hope our list intrigues you to learn more about exciting outdoor Israeli adventures at INPA reserves. In this one small country, you’ll find natural features ranging from woodlands and forests to wetlands and rain pools, sand dunes and cliffs – and many are also important history and archeology sites.
1. Masada National Park This UNESCO World Heritage Site, located in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea, is centered around the mountain fortress where a band of first-century Jews held out for years against the mighty Roman conquerors. The episode ended tragically but is a lasting symbol of struggle against oppression. You can reach the top by cable car or by hiking up the famous Snake Path (45 minutes) or the shorter but steeper Ramp Trail created by Byzantine monks (20 minutes).
In guided or self-guided tours, you’ll see the remains of Herod the Great’s palace and the most complete Roman siege system in the world, plus giant cisterns and ancient everyday items and coins at the Yigal Yadin Museum. Down below on the western side, there’s a sound and light show every Tuesday and Thursday from March to October. Masada has a campground and is wheelchair accessible; there’s a special audio guide for the hearing impaired.
2. Mount Carmel National Park Within this park is contained the story of human civilization, from its prehistoric caves to its present-day location in an area of mixed cultures.
It was here that the prophet Elijah brought down fire from heaven, and here that the Carmelite order of Catholic monks originated. Though damaged by a massive forest fire in December, the national park still has a large variety of flora and fauna, along with wonderful panoramas, hiking trails and archaeological sites – altogether covering 21,000 acres dedicated to the protection of Mediterranean nature and landscapes. It has overnight campgrounds and rest areas, some with handicapped accessibility.
3. Ein Gedi Nature Reserve and National Park Just west of the Dead Sea in the Judean hills, Ein Gedi – biblically noted for its perfume production and cave refuge where David hid from King Saul around 1,000 BCE – has four springs and a wide variety of vegetation and mammals such as ibex, hyrax, foxes, wolves, hyenas and even spotted leopards.
Remnants of early human settlement include a temple from the Chalcolithic period 5,000 years ago, a third-century synagogue with a restored mosaic floor, and ancient irrigation systems. Three main trails, for different levels of hikers, pass waterfalls and pools, canyons and caves, while affording breathtaking views of Nahal David stream, the Dead Sea and the Mountains of Moab.
4. Machtesh Ramon (Ramon Crater) National Park Eons of erosion created a window deep into the layers of rock, making this the largest natural crater in the world. The geological attractions in Makhtesh Ramon include the “carpentry shop,” a hill where sandstone has formed prisms that appear sawed; dramatic dark, upward intrusions “frozen” into the Ardon Stream canyon walls; and a vertical rock surface on the southern side of the crater that consists of large, fossilized marine snails.
The Ramon region is Israel’s richest and most varied for plant and animal life, including species reintroduced after becoming nearly extinct. The area also has remains of human settlement going back 10,000 years. A visitors’ center and Bio Ramon zoological center offer a close-up peek at 40 types of small desert animals, hands-on activities for families, panoramic views, an educational film and an interactive model explaining the topography of this unique region. There is an overnight campground in the crater.
5. Coral Beach Nature Reserve Situated on the Red Sea south of Eilat, the Coral Beach Reserve offers divers a close-up encounter with strange and beautiful corals that create colorful underwater “gardens” navigated by a variety of brilliantly hued tropical fish, sea lilies, giant shells and more. The heart of the reserve is a coral reef running 1,200 meters along the shore, one of the most densely populated and most northern coral reefs in the world, and the only one in Israel. Guided snorkeling trips for groups are available by advance reservation. It’s also possible to get a good peek at the wonders of the reef at Eilat’s Underwater Observatory marine park and museum, without getting wet.
6. Hula Nature Reserve The Hula Valley is a major resting and “refueling” stop for migrating birds on their annual trip from Europe to Africa and back. The lake and swamps once were home to tens of thousands of aquatic birds, rare plants and fish. Shortly after the establishment of the State of Israel, pioneers drained much of the 15,000 acres to create farmland, leaving 791 acres as Israel’s first nature reserve.
Though many species that lived here before the area was drained are extinct, the Hula is one of the best places to see more than 200 migrating species, including cranes, storks, pelicans, cormorants and egrets. The reserve also shelters rare aquatic plants and water buffalo. The reserve has wheelchair-accessible paths, a “floating bridge” over the swamp and a visitors’ center providing a multimedia foray into a flying flock of migrating birds.
7. Caesarea National Park Originally a small Phoenician Mediterranean port city called Straton’s Tower, Caesarea was first settled in the third century BCE during the Hellenistic period. It is best known for the structures built beginning in 22 BCE at the behest of Herod the Great, who constructed a sophisticated port, warehouses, markets, great streets, bathhouses, temples and an amphitheater where gladiator and sports competitions were held.
Visitors can tour the ancient port, hippodrome and palace ruins, and the Travel through Time multimedia presentation that recreates the city through the ages. Two Tower of Time halls give tourists a big-screen virtual tour of the city as it was in Roman times. The national park also includes an underwater park for divers, a fishing pier built in the 1850s and an artists’ colony.
8. Gamla Nature Reserve This reserve in the central Golan Heights is home to a globally unique number of raptors for its small size, including rare species, and one of the world’s most ancient synagogues.
Dozens of pairs of Griffon vultures – the largest colony in the country – nest in Gamla’s cliffs, and vultures can be watched in flight from a cliff-edge observation station. Gamla also has Israel’s highest waterfall, at 50 meters, at the end of a path dotted by massive, table-shaped stone burial monuments put up by nomads about 4,000 years ago. A variety of hiking trails include one that takes walkers by the canyon and waterfalls of the Bazalet Stream. The remains of the ancient city of Gamla, at the foot of a steep trail, show evidence of a prosperous Jewish town in the Second Temple period, including a synagogue, aqueduct, ritual bath and ancient weaponry such as arrows and ballistae balls.
9. Avdat National Park – Incense Route This Negev UNESCO World Heritage Site encompasses the remains of one of the famed ancient Nabatean cities along the Incense Route, the road used by camel caravans to bring incense, perfumes and spices from Arabia to the Mediterranean ports.
There is nothing but a restored gateway left to attest to the long-ago Nabatean temple on Avdat’s “acropolis,” but the fabulous view from this spot takes in the Avdat highlands and the Even-Ari farm, where you can see Byzantine-era agricultural techniques demonstrated. Other attractions include the Roman bathhouse and watchtower with an inscription dating to the late third century CE, a cave-tomb with 21 burial niches, a working Byzantine-era wine press and churches from the fourth century.
10. The Hermon Stream (Banias) Nature Reserve The Banias Waterfall, probably the most impressive cascade in Israel, is the point where the Banias Spring, which emerges at the foot of Mount Hermon, finishes its rapid journey through a canyon. A stepped path near the spring climbs to the Banias Cave. Nearby, five niches carved into the cliff wall are a remnant of a temple to the god Pan, which gave the site its name (“Paneas” is pronounced “Banias” in Arabic).
In front of the cave are ruins of a Herodian temple. This area became a Christian pilgrimage destination as the place where Jesus pledged to build a church. A 45-minute loop trail passes Roman- and Crusader-period sites, while the marked trail to the waterfall takes about 90 minutes and passes a hydroelectric power station and the reconstructed, water-powered Matroof flour mill, where Druse pita with labaneh (goat cheese) is for sale.