The Mount Ardon Circuit: An exhilarating hike

Section 41a of the Israel Trail takes you to the breathtaking depths and heights of the Ramon Crater, one of the veritable wonders of the natural world.

mount ardon 224.88 (photo credit: Jacob Solomon)
mount ardon 224.88
(photo credit: Jacob Solomon)
This is a quality walk: an ideal summer supplement to the main route of the Israel Trail. The searing summer heat effectively puts the trail's main desert sector from Arad (via Mitzpe Ramon) to Eilat out of bounds. The many difficult and remote section distances of 30 km. and over are best tackled in the spring and autumn, when the days are still long enough, without the unrelenting midday and afternoon sun. This walk has the added benefit of allowing you to see more (and, in my opinion, the best) of the Ramon Crater. It is a good testing ground for serious would-be full-length trail hikers but at the same time lies within the range of families and groups with responsible children over the age of 10. It has a little of (desert) everything: switchback ascents with unexpected (yet stunning) views; the full range of desert surfaces; a very challenging descent where each step is a decision in itself; and a marked trail navigation exercise through a veritably lunar landscape. Setting out The walk itself may be tackled comfortably in four hours. Add another two if you plan to do the whole circuit. An early six o'clock start means you should be down by 10; early enough to greet the worst of the day's heat with an ice-cold soft drink at Mitzpe Ramon. It may also fit into an afternoon session, if you can face the high but steadily declining temperatures of the first couple of hours (starting no later than 2:30 p.m.). Cover yourself well with light clothing and carry at least three liters of water per person. Don't let more than 15 minutes go by without drinking water: the air is so dry that by the time you actually feel thirsty, you are well on the way to serious dehydration. Getting there is a challenge in itself, though well worth the effort. There is no public transportation, and cars are infrequent enough to make hitchhiking out of the question. The best way is to go as a group with a minibus. Get the driver to follow Route 40 southward out of Mitzpe Ramon for nine kilometers, and turn left along an orange-marked unpaved dirt road (4x4 drive not essential), following the sign to the Be'erot campsite. Soon after that, the track comes to a junction. Turn left along the black-marked dirt road for about three kilometers until you reach a blue-marked similar route to the right. Take it for about one kilometer and a half, right up to the parking lot at the end. The hike starts here. And the hike ends here for those on the full circuit. For the shorter, three-quarter circuit, the vehicle should go back along the blue and then black routes southward until the orange-marked dirt road on the left, going eastward. Follow it for about a kilometer, taking a black route of a similar genre to the left, still going eastward. That soon emerges at a parking lot. Pick up your hikers here. The use of your own vehicle is not recommended unless you have a non-hiking driver. It is not the best place to lose your car to the local Beduin, a few of whom, I am told, await such opportunities. From the parking lot, the unpaved road becomes a narrow but well-marked footpath switchbacking its way up and out of the crater. Though steep, it is well broken up by flat stretches and minor dips, which help you get your breath back. Keep on the blue-marked path all the way to the top. There are unfenced, spine-chilling drops to the right. If you are afraid of heights, wait until you reach the wider summit plateau before taking out your camera. You are climbing out of the extreme northeast of the Ramon Crater (Maktesh Ramon) to the highest local point on its rim - Mount Ardon, 702 meters above sea level. The Ramon Crater At 40 km. long and an average width of 5 km., the Ramon Crater deep below on your right resembles an elongated heart. Too symmetrical and attractively curved for the print of a huge meteorite, it is believed to have been 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. It turned the landscape into the world's largest maktesh - erosion cirque. As a point of interest, "maktesh" is the only Hebrew term for a natural landform with the distinction of a listing in the international geological lexicon. Today, the Ramon Crater is 500m deep; the lowest point is at nearby Ein Saharonim (Saharonim Spring), the crater's only natural water source. It sustains much of the wildlife in the maktesh, including onagers and ibex. Phase two - take five After about an hour, the hike enters its second and more relaxing phase - crossing the Mount Ardon Plateau and the summit of Mount Ardon itself. This is where to picnic, chat about the experience and take photographs. The bird's-eye view into the crater gives the smaller peaks inside it the appearance of a kaleidoscope of blacks, purples, brown, reds, and yellows - all looking as though they sprang to life just for the purpose of your visit. Look for Givat Harut (Harut Hill) - far in the background. Weather and erosion sculpted it into the perfect shape of a female breast. You might also glimpse bird life, such as Egyptian and griffon vultures, and brown-necked ravens. They nest inside the limestone cliffs of the crater. Don't be afraid of the vultures; they only feed on the dead. The blue-marked path enters the third-hour phase with an abrupt turn into a highlight of the hike. After snaking its way between steep drops, it turns westward into a severe descent back into the maktesh. Though the path continues to be well charted with blue markers, the surface is decidedly loose, and one false step is likely to result in an excruciatingly painful ankle, if not worse. You will find yourself doing quasi-mathematical calculations step by step to ensure you get down safely. A party should progress downhill in single file, allowing enough space between each person to get out of the way if the loose surface suddenly turns into a mini-landslide. Make sure to drink as you descend. I neglected to do so and suffered the consequences on the way home. The best for last The last hour is in many ways the most satisfying. The blue-marked trail takes you on a tour of geological phenomena unparalleled in such a small area. Behind you are the cliffs of Mount Ardon, looking like eggshells layered into each other and then sliced across, which in fact just about summarizes these sedimentary limestone formations. As you progress deeper into the basin, the eroded limestone gives way to the underlying sandstone, which weathered into sands of different striking colors. This is the time to take 10 minutes to fill up narrow glass bottles with layers of different sands right to the top. You can seal them at home to make attractive gifts. You will also see memorable and highly photogenic rock formations. Some of the sandstone has been metamorphosed by igneous activity into the ruttled brown-and-white surface of slightly burnt meringue. Soon afterward, the blue trail draws near to piled prisms, resembling the wood shavings of a carpenter's shop. These are likely to have formed by sudden cooling after igneous rock penetrated to ground level. To the right, at the rim of the crater, are dykes - magma-created thick vertical welts. That material successfully penetrated the layers of limestone rock but cooled down before reaching the surface. This part of the hike reminds one of a lunar landscape, especially if you lose the blue markers; easy enough as they were in need of a repaint when I saw them. If that happens, keep to the left-hand side of Givat Harut (which looks a lot less interesting at close range) and you soon reach the parking lot near the acacia that marks the end of the hike. This is the usual round. But if you want to complete the full circuit, follow the black-marked dirt road to the west, where the markers change to orange. Follow them northward until they become black again, which after another good hour's fast march comes out near the parking lot beneath the foot of Mount Ardon and the start of the hike.