Part III: Over the plateau and up the gorge

Along the Israel Trail: From Metzudat Yesha to the lower Dishon Valley.

This section of the Israel Trail, which begins at the orange, blue and white markings opposite the Yesha Fortress on Route #899 is well marked all the way, but only parts are traversable by mountain bikes and all-terrain vehicles. Its lack of shade makes it very challenging in the summer. Constructed as a border stronghold by the British during the Mandate, the Yesha Fortress was the focus of savage fighting in the 1948 War of Independence. This portion of the trail opens with a descent to Nebi Yesha, venerated by Muslims (but not Jews) as biblical Joshua's place of burial. Allow some time to explore the rooms under the cupolas of the tomb, and remember that over a million people in Cairo rent such places and turn them into homes. Muslims (and Jews) frequently picnic here, their presence amply registered with Arabic and Hebrew graffiti. No edibles were left by the time I got there, except some ripening, tasty sabra-fruits - the only wild-growing fruit in this area. Although this route is well marked, it follows a combination of paths, and picks its way across extensive outcrops of limestone. The limestone has been heavily weathered, creating lunar qualities underfoot. If you're not careful, the cratered surface could wreak havoc on your ankles, so tread cautiously. To negotiate you way, spot the next orange, blue, and white Israel Trail logo. If it does not appear within the next 50 meters, go back to the last one and try again - you almost certainly went off track. The trail makes its way through several acute-angle squeezer-stiles. Watch out if you are not razor thin - one of them cracked the dictation recorder in my left side pocket. Soon it opens into a wide limestone plateau facing Keren Naftali (the "horn," or high point of the Naftali Ridge), at 510 meters. Keep the numerous Israel Trail logos in view as you pick your way across, eventually going parallel to the Naftali Ravine before crossing it, emerging on the edge of the serene Keren Naftali Vineyard. Stop for a break - near to the large notice recalling the biblical spies who brought vineyard produce as samples of the Holy Land's bounty (Numbers 13:23). Now comes the short, sharp ascent of Keren Naftali. The trail turns inward after 200 meters, abandoning the longer route to the summit along the wide gently graded dirt track for all-terrain vehicles, mountain bikes, and the less fit walker. There is relatively little actual scrambling, but do take time negotiating the half-kilometer steep gradient so that you will enjoy the two rewards at the top - exploring the ruins of a Hellenist temple, and the spectacular view of the Golan, the Hula Valley, Mt. Hermon, and the Upper Galilee. The Hula Valley is a northern extremity of the Great Syrian-African Valley - a big 6,000 km. tear in the surface of the earth, separating Asia from Africa. Come in March and September and watch the twice-annual clouds of birds migrating between the steppes of Russia and tropical latitudes. View the myriads of white storks, common cranes and large white pelicans. You may also catch a glimpse of the predatory black kite and the flash of the pied kingfisher. The initially steep descent from Keren Naftali slowly turns west, with another gently sloping limestone plateau, which after about an hour reaches a narrow road. This way makes a possible entry/exit point to the walk - it very soon joins Route #886 to the east, some 400 meters to the north of the small settlement of Gishron. The next three kilometers go quickly. They take a gently descending wide dirt track that passes farmland and some forest, but then all slows down as the trail turns a sharp right, and climbs steeply up and across the extensive limestone plateau of Mount Yahmur (on which I got a fleeting view of five gazelles who preferred to go without my company). Watch carefully for those trail signs that are easy to miss, and hard to pick up again. You should eventually drop sharply to the wonderfully scenic (but mobile-phone unreceptive) floor of the Dishon Valley. Turn right at the bottom and enjoy a well-earned break under the shades of the Atlantic Pistachio and the Aleppo Pine. Sit, drink some water, and relax to peaceful strains of the gentle rustle of the wind in the trees, and the dove cooing far away. The last three kilometers of the walk takes to the floor of the slow-rising, steep-sided, picturesque gorge of the Dishon Valley. It is carved out by a rainy-season, fast-flowing stream that you may find yourself wading through. The increasingly loud low throb tells you that the walk is drawing to a close. The noise comes from the local waterworks - take the bridge over the stream and follow the paved way to Alma Bridge (marked "Pink Bridge") on Route #886, which marks the end of this section of the Israel Trail. To leave the area, take Route #886, which crosses the Dishon Valley. It is seven km. to the south of the Yesha Fortress, where this walk starts. Alma Bridge is not served by public transport, so if you do not have your private means, order a taxi from Safed or Kiryat Shmona.