Part V: Over Mount Meron

Hiking the Israel Trail: Traversing one of Israel's first established nature reserves.

This fifth section of the Israel Trail takes in the ascent and descent of Mount Meron. Demanding but comparatively well-trodden ground, there are two entry/exit points. Indeed, this walk traverses the largest, and one of the first-established nature reserves in Israel, whose height (maximum 1,208 meters) gives the moist air passing over it a chance to cool, condense, and form clouds, producing about 100 cm. of rain each year. Pick up the trail on the hairpin bend 1 km. south of Hiram Junction. Do not take the wide path to the left up the steep hill, but instead follow the orange, blue and white markings of the Israel Trail along the gentle ascent of the Zivon Valley. You will wind your way between several squeezer stiles, and might have a little wire to negotiate, but the path is basically well indicated. My progress along that section a few days before Rosh Hashana was accompanied by a strange musical combination coming from nearby: the strains of the shofar mixed with an ice-cream van's Brahms Lullaby. Only in Israel... You will arrive at the first access point in less than an hour and will quickly spot drinking water supplied on tap - for the first time on the entire Israel Trail. Next to it is the old Arab-style Hirbet el Humema dual-arched structure that probably once served as a simple inn. From here is an excellent view of the challenge of Mount Meron ahead. Rest assured that the ascent, with its steady gradient, northerly aspect, and almost continuous tree cover, will be conquered more easily than you think. Just lean slightly forward and let gravity help to push you up. You will then pass the spring of En Humema, which emerges from a man-made cave. It is not only marked by Israel Trail and local black route markings, but also by abundant charred remains of previous visitors' bonfires. It progresses though a cover of flourishing Aleppo pine trees planted to enrich the natural forest, which includes green oak, common oak, Palestinian terebinth, Judas tree, strawberry tree and hawthorn. The small planted cedars of Lebanon further on are less fortunate - most have not survived, as they are extremely sensitive to the local climate, which is just a few degrees warmer than their native Lebanon. Plenty of blackbirds abound, and if you're lucky, you will pick up the cooing of turtle-doves, and maybe spot the flash of the hoopoe and the well-camouflaged green warbler. An hour later you will be pleased, if surprised, to emerge from the tree cover into the open-air theater summit of Mount Neriah (1,123 meters) - the second highest peak on the Meron mountain range. Stop, take in the views of Lake Dalton, Gush Halav, and the Naftali Heights to the east, and further away, the Lebanese Range and the Golan Heights. THE PATH continues to the south-east, and you will be relieved when you see your first Israel Trail marking after a few hundred meters. Its largely shaded and gentle rise continues for the best part of the next hour, until you find yourself circling Mount Meron below the summit, with its series of spectacular views to the north, east and south. This section is graced with protected and rare wild flowers in season, particularly yellow crocuses in September, and Greek cyclamen in the winter. These pink, bulb-based plants were dug up and transplanted from the actual summit when the IDF converted it into an army base, but only a minority of them survived the move. Avoid the black-indicated path and move along the Israel Trail to the second access point: the parking lot near the top of Mount Meron, with its picnic tables and piped drinking water. A rude shock awaits you on finding your hard-earned elevated position shared with sightseers and the bone idle. But that is the highest you will get: The actual summit served by the adjoining well-paved road is a military area closed to the public. After a well-earned rest and a sandwich or two, refill your water bottles and follow the paved road in a southern direction for about a hundred meters, bearing right onto a blue-marked path, which in under half a kilometer merges with a green-marked path and the belated first appearance of the Israel Trail logo. You have reached the remains of Horvat Bek. When nearby Safed was decimated by an earthquake in 1837, Israel Bek established it as a Jewish farming settlement, but its tough conditions and subsequent hostility of the Turkish overlords caused its inevitable abandonment four years later. To this day, the local Arabs call the place "Hirbet Yahud" or "the Ruins of the Jews." For the next half-hour, this wide section of the trail continues to descend the broad and gently sloping southern plateau of Mount Meron, passing open farmland, vineyards and apple orchards, and slowly turns toward the east, heading towards the settlement of Meron itself. Meron has roots in the Talmudic period (first-fifth century CE), with remains of a synagogue and revered tombs, the most well-known being that of Rabbi Simon bar Yohai. Colorful, religious mass celebrations take place here every Lag Ba'omer. Modern Moshav Meron was founded in 1949. The path narrows, and care must be taken, especially in wet weather, when negotiating the potentially ankle-twisting pitted limestone surface. You will spot natural seemingly bottomless pits in this section, called sink holes, which were formed when carbon dioxide picked up by the rain chemically rotted the weaknesses in the jointed limestone rocks. Once, so the local tale goes, a shepherd dropped his flute into one. Months later, he met another shepherd from the village of Peki'in, nearly 10 km. away. The second shepherd claimed that he had found the flute in the village spring. This story may be supported by the fact that sink holes do lead to large natural networks of caves and underground streams which are characteristic of jointed limestone rock. If by now the area's mystique begins to get to you, rest assured that many felt the same way long before your visit. One huge lectern-shaped rock is reputed to be the seat of the prophet Elijah. Nearby, a large box tomb made of enormous stones is the traditional burial place of the early Mishnaic authority, Shammai, and his wife. And a short detour from there brings you to the ruins of Horbat Sheyma - an assortment of battered structures dating from the Bronze Age, though the Talmudic era (including the remains of an early synagogue), to the later Arab period. The final section of the path makes a charming descent into the wooded Meron Valley, reaching Route #866 in under half an hour. Turn left, and walk for another 15 minutes to the bus stop at Meron Junction (for Safed, Bnei Brak, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem). Just opposite, you can buy a shwarma and Coca-Cola to round off a day's work. What you'll need You will experience: A steady, shaded climb which should be invigorating if reasonably paced. Spectacular views from Mount Neriah and Mount Meron over the Naftali Range, the southern Lebanese Range and the Golan Heights. The shades and smells of natural forests including oak, strawberry tree and hawthorn, enriched with planted Aleppo pine and cedars of Lebanon. Rare wild flowers in season, including yellow crocuses, Greek cyclamen, and swordleaf hellborine. Refreshing drinking water generously supplied on tap. Bottomless sink holes - for looking down only. The details: Start: On hairpin bend on Route #89 I km. to the south of Hiram Junction, 7 km. to the north of Meron Junction. Hiram Junction is served by Bus #367 Nahariya-Safed Route. End: Meron Junction, where Routes #89 and #866 meet. Direct bus to Safed (#361), Haifa (#361), Tel Aviv (#846), Bnei Brak (#980) and Jerusalem (#982). Access/Exit Points: (1) Near Mount Meron Field School. On Route #89 3 km. to the est of Hiram Junction and 7 km. to the east of the town of Hurfesh (Bus #367); then walk or drive up the un-numbered Mount Meron ascent road, continuing for about 1 km., parking opposite the right turn to Mount Meron Field School. (2) The parking lot at the top of the Mount Meron ascending road. It is approached after continuing another 4 km. along the same rise. This road is not served by regular public transport, so a taxi may be ordered from Safed (Moniot Zefat 04-692-0568/1108) Length: 15 km. Recommended seasons: spring, summer and fall. Pay attention to the weather reports in cloudy weather. Level of difficulty: No hard sections, but the climb up Mount Meron will prove arduous if taken too quickly. Having two access points brings it within the range of all walkers, including small children, and pensioners. Except for the 3 km. stretch going south from the top of the ascending road, this stretch will not suit all-terrain vehicles, but energetic mountain bikers may join the trail at access point (1) above, so long as they are prepared to wheel/carry their bikes over the relatively short middle part of the descent. Estimated walking time: six to seven hours, including reasonable breaks. Allow one hour from the start to access point (1), two hours from point (1) to point (2), and three hours from point (2) to the end of this section of the trail. Map: Scale 1:50,000, Map 2, covering the Upper Galilee. Bring: 2 liters of water per person, a hat (for protection from sun), sunscreen, and sturdy shoes with grips for walking. Assume that refreshments, other than water, are unobtainable on this route. Always carry a compass, mobile phone, first aid kit, penknife and flashlight. You never know when they might be useful! Mobile phone reception appears to be satisfactory for the length of the walk. Water: Available on tap on the trail near Mount Meron Field School, and at the parking lot at the top of the Mount Meron ascending road. Keep 2 liters in reserve just in case. Accommodations: Ruth-Rimonim Hotel, Safed (kosher) 04-699-4666/5; Ron Hotel, Safed (kosher) 04-697-2590/1; Mount Meron Field School (kosher) 04-698-0022/3. Other: JPost Travel hotel finder. Restaurants: Hamiel, Amirim (vegetarian, no kashrut certificate) 04-698-9746; Yekev Dalton, Dalton (kosher) 04-698- 7683; Bat Ya'ar, Biryia Forest, Safed 04-692-1788; Memul Hahar, Safed (kosher) 04-692-0404. Places to visit in the locality: Peki'in (cave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, and only settlement in Israel claiming continuous Jewish presence since the Second Temple Period); Safed Visitors' Center for tours of the city, 04-692-7485; Safed Artists' Exhibition, 04-692-0087. Attractions: Amirim (jeep tours in the locality and further afield) 04-698-0434, Dalton Winery, Dalton (tour of the wine cellar and tasting) 04-698-7683, Safed Candles, Safed (shows the ancient art of candle making) 04-692-1093. Further away, visit Gadot (family white-water rafting on the Jordan River) 04-693-4622.