At the top of the world, looking down on Ramon Crater

With its breathtaking landscapes, Mitzpe Ramon claims the highest air quality in Israel.

ramon crater 224 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
ramon crater 224 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
You don't need to be a hero to tackle the Israel Trail; this piece of the path is a high-quality walk in its own right. At only 14 kilometers, it makes a superb day trip. Its variety of attractions give a taste of what desert hiking is all about. But think twice before combining it with Mitzpe Ramon's assorted sites - my favorite being the Alpaca Farm. The distance is not great, but the route - especially up and down Shen Ramon - is physically demanding, and not for those who suddenly find themselves competing with the relentless, setting sun to get out of the crater. Stay on the safe side and give the trek a full seven hours. Join the trail at the circular, two-story Mitzpe Ramon (Ramon Overlook) Visitor's Center, which peers out over the crater. This desert settlement was founded in the 1950s as a military outpost, and then was used as a way station for local miners and road workers. It grew when newly arrived Moroccan immigrants were unceremoniously planted there - after being told that they were "only" an hour and half from Tel Aviv. It has since been augmented with members of the Black Hebrew community, and Russian immigrants joined in the early 1990s. The town has also developed into a unique eco-tourist destination. With its breathtaking landscapes, Mitzpe Ramon claims the highest air quality in Israel. Turn west along the paved Albert Promenade, decorated with impressive environmental sculptures along the crater's edge. Those with heads for heights must call in at the top of the "balcony" hanging right over the crater. Here the birds fly under your feet - not just over your head. At the end of the paved trail, a path continues further along the edge, leading to a small observation platform installed on the top of a rock resembling a camel. A word about the Ramon Crater: At 40 kilometers long with an average width of 5 km., it resembles an elongated heart. Too symmetrical and attractively curved for the print of a huge meteorite, it is believed to have formed out of the much gentler and drawn-out process of underground stream erosion. Flash floodwater flowing horizontally toward the Arava Valley and the Dead Sea gently scooped out the permeable rock. This turned the landscape into the world's largest mahtesh - erosion cirque. You can picture the process best by slicing a hard-boiled egg lengthways and gently urging the yellow out of its drawn-out tip. You will be climbing down the white ridge of one side and up the (rather higher) white ridge of the other side. By the way, mahtesh is the only Hebrew term for a geological feature with the distinction of a listing in the international geological lexicon. TODAY, THE Ramon Crater is 500 m. deep, the lowest point being Ein Saharonim (Saharonim Spring) - the crater's only natural water source. It sustains much of the wildlife in the crater, including onagers and ibex. The trail turns left and zig-zags its way to the crater's base. From the top, the bottom looks flat, but those who thought they might do a quick dash from one side of the crater to the other will be frustrated with its mini-mountain ranges, some of which you will be tackling first-hand. In other words, expect a fairly slow passage from one side of the crater to the other. The path narrows steadily, giving the impression that you're winding your way along a canyon. It is flanked with various crystalline igneous intrusions and impressively folded sedimentary rocks. Look out for small fossils - the hills to the northeastern edge of the mahtesh were once entirely covered by spiral ammonites, ranging from the size of snails to cartwheels - although the large ones have mainly been extracted, so expect to find only small ones left over. Perhaps the most memorable features in the crater are the very dark brown "prisms" - the strange-looking, vertical rectangular pipes on the left-hand side. Made of sand, this area is the only place in the world where you may see the igneous-heated sand that turned into liquid. In cooling, the molten mass naturally formed rectangular and hexagonal prisms - losing no space in the middle. Getting further across, you can make out recognizable trails used 2,000 years ago by the Nabateans - and with luck, you'll come across a souvenir fragment of undisturbed Nabatean potsherd. Claiming direct descent from Ishmael (Genesis 25:13), these wily traders monopolized the highly lucrative Spice Route from deep down the Arabian Peninsula to its outpost at Gaza. It was this closely guarded economic network that supplied the Roman Empire with the rich and rare herbs making otherwise plain food festive and palatable. The latter-day use of those trails includes the less profitable mining of the gray and lava black mounds that frame your way through the canyon - for ceramic clay, gypsum and glass-making sands. After some two-and-a-half hours of steady walking, the trail opens out to the shade of a lone acacia tree. Throw off your packs, follow the Beduin example and make it a rest and lunch spot. You may be sharing it with a camel or two, and their owners. The next three kilometers go fairly quickly. Much of the path is well bordered with upstanding stones and may be easily negotiated by all-terrain vehicles. But keep looking backwards. By now the sun is probably getting low enough on the horizon for the southern side of the crater to blaze into a multiplicity of live reds, oranges, yellows, grays and even purples, blues and turquoises. They reflect the crystalline minerals of igneous rocks such as basalt, as well as the layers of different clays, which change color in tune with the declining intensity of sunlight - conveying a quasi-mystical aura. THE ISRAEL Trail route makes the crater, like the humble spider's web, easier to enter than to leave. The path narrows and presents a sudden, very steep and windy push right to the top of Shen Ramon (Ramon's Tooth). It is made of magma which cooled and hardened as it intruded and penetrated though the joints of the rocks underground. Erosion stripped the overlaying sedimentary rocks, leaving the dark, almost black-colored, sharp-edged plutonic mountain that stands in sharp contrast to the creamy-colored southern wall of the crater. The ascent is arduous: It involves little scrambling, but it is lengthy, and you'll need frequent stops to avoid an exhausted finish at the summit. Before rushing ahead after a well-earned refreshment break at the top, pause to take in the surroundings. At the southern end is Mount Ramon. Pick out the two table-mountains along the southern wall - Mount Marpek (Elbow Mountain) and Mount Katum (Chopped-off Mountain). But the most unusual peaks and ridges are the igneous penetrations below you, not above. Those are the structures most resistant to the seasonal floodwater streams gradually lowering the crater and emptying the sediment. The descent starts fairly pleasantly, with a little sliding here and there, but be sure to follow the orange, blue and white Israel Trail and logos, which are well-marked in this section. You will be making a sharp turn to bridge one particularly challenging chasm. Some walkers prefer to avoid it by futilely going on straight ahead down the wadi. Don't do it. It becomes dangerous, with a forced, punishing return to where you thought you knew better. Once at the bottom, the last four kilometers go quite easily. To the left, and then the right, is the Ammonite wall. From a distance, you see what appears to be a collage of fruits and vegetables of the ancient giants, but on close viewing you'll realize it's the shells of the denizens of the subterranean depths. They appear to date from before the region was naturally folded into hills, rising from the sea in the process. Go and photograph them at short quarters if there's any push left inside you. I didn't. The trail finally comes out on Route #40. Dedicated Israel Trail walkers with camping gear should turn left for a kilometer along the main road, and then take a green-marked path for three kilometers to a small camping site and put down for the night. Otherwise, the hike comes to an end in flagging down bus #392 (there is no official stop) or some passing vehicle going north to Mitzpe Ramon.