Come on in, the water's fine

This challenging hike along the Yehudiya River rewards the intrepid with swimming breaks and magnificent scenery.

yehudiya waterfall 248 (photo credit: Jacob Solomon)
yehudiya waterfall 248
(photo credit: Jacob Solomon)
This is a demanding, circular water hike with a series of waterfalls that require some deft negotiation and a bit of swimming. It lies entirely within the Yehudiya Nature Reserve, under the auspices of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. The full round takes in all four waterfalls of the Yehudiya River, and the trek will fill up a whole day. Those arriving after 10 a.m. will be well advised to terminate the walk by taking the steep, green-marked path out of the gorge, which starts between the second and third waterfalls. Do not hike this route unless you can swim 200 meters with confidence. On arrival at the visitors' center, pay the nominal fee to the National Parks Authority. It will supply you with a detailed map of the area, and a staff member will mark your planned route on the map. The reserve closes at 5 p.m. in the summer, and an hour earlier in winter. Upon completion, tell the center that you completed the hike in safety, or it will send out search parties after dark. Cross over Route 87 and follow the red-marked path opposite, which is yours to discover for the full round. On the left are the remains of the ancient village of Yehudiya, deserted in the fourth century CE. The few standing buildings are of more recent construction, though they were built on earlier foundations. During the right season, you might find the rare Golan iris, which may only be found in the central Golan and on Mount Hermon. Photograph it, but do not pick! Ignore the green-marked path and continue for another kilometer, where the terrain rapidly changes character as it makes a sudden, steep descent into the Yehudiya gorge, which was carved out by the river of the same name. This is one of a series of fast-flowing Golan streams cutting deep gorges as they strive to geologically adjust to the low base level of Lake Kinneret, 220 meters below sea level. Stop for the first rest at the waterfall, a stark but still fairly mild sample of what's to come further downstream. By now, you will be switching from walking to scrambling. There is an ankle-twisting half-kilometer stretch, the nature of which typifies the rest of the trek. Proceed with due care. Though formidable-looking, there are no spots that are obviously dangerous as long as you look down before carefully putting one foot before the other. Follow the well-placed red sandwich markers, even when common-sense tempts a more direct route. Don't! I found to my cost that the national park trailblazers know very well what they are doing. The safer way is often counter-intuitive. Do not rush: Take frequent breaks so that your concentration and judgment for each step are at their sharpest. Now comes the tidbit of the walk. The red-marked trail stops abruptly in midair at a nine-meter metal ladder. Make sure your camera, cell phone and MP3 player are all packed into sealed watertight containers (I forgot, putting all three out of action for good). Ease your way down the metal ladder, take off your shoes and put them in a plastic bag inside your backpack. Swim some 50 meters to the end of the plunge pool. That is the only way to move forward. Rest, splash around a bit, but save up plenty of energy for the remainder of the hike. With luck, you might catch a fleeting glimpse of a huge griffon vulture, red fox, hyrax or Indian-crested porcupine. The red-marked path pushes forward, zigzagging from one side of the fast-flowing stream to the other. Though seemingly endless, it is less than two kilometers by the time it reaches a green-marked path to the right. The weary and time-bound hiker should take it. The path snakes very steeply uphill, demanding frequent rests from all but the fittest. However, it levels out in due course, meets the red path by the Yehudiya village remains and from there is a short walk back to the visitors' center. If you're continuing on the longer hike, stay on on the red-marked path along the streambed of willows and oleander. Look out for the vines clambering around the sides of the canyon. They are not wild vines, but the remains of previous abandoned cultivation. They ripen in summer, at varying times according to shade and altitude. As you walk on, you will soon come upon two waterfalls in fairly quick succession, no less spectacular than the previous few. Your descent is by yet another, somewhat shorter ladder. Swim across the pool, have another splash around, but bear in mind the official closing time of the reserve. Below the fourth and final waterfall, continue along the red-marked trail downward for a little less than a kilometer. At that point, be careful not to lose it as it takes a right, steeply heading out by a pile of rocks. This is where you part company with the Yehudiya, as it pushes on to its final destination, Lake Kinneret. Make a sharp climb up to the right-hand bank of the gorge. There it flattens out, through a sparse Tabor oak forest. An outstanding feature of this landscape is the way such trees grow out of heaps of stones that were used as burial site markers thousands of years ago. The increased humidity trapped under the stones enables the seedlings to germinate and survive the arid summer. Though farmed by the ancients, the land has long been abandoned as unsuitable for modern cultivation of crops. These hills are covered with local lava flows of basalt. While creating picturesque hexagonal formations elsewhere in the park, they are rocky and agriculturally uneconomic to work. They have long been turned over to livestock grazing. Within one kilometer, the red path strikes Route 87. Turn right, and in less than two kilometers you get back to the visitors' center. Report your safe arrival and hope that the adjoining kiosk is still open so you can grab a well-earned cold drink.n