Our latest guest blogger is Ben Julius of TouristIsrael.com, an independent website providing information about things to do, places to visit, and events across Israel. In his post he tells us of five of the country’s natural wonders. To keep up to date with Ben make sure to follow him on Twitter and like his page on Facebook.
Israel is a country generally associated with history and religion and there’s no doubt that this is what makes this small country, barely bigger than Wales or the US State of New Jersey, such a focal point on the radar of people around the world. What people often don’t know about Israel is that despite its size, it has incredible natural diversity – 60% of the land area is desert, whilst less than two hours away, the rolling green hills of the Galilee are home to among other things, a ski resort. Amid this diversity are some magnificent natural wonders. Here are five of the best.
1. The Dead Sea
The Dead Sea is the lowest place on Earth at about 1,400 ft below sea level formed as a result of tectonic plate movements along the Jordan Rift Valley. The Dead Sea is known for its salty waters which, at almost nine times saltier than the ocean, means that people float upon entering – a surreal and unforgettable experience.
The waters of the Dead Sea are also known for their medicinal and healing properties. King Herod constructed the world’s first health resort on the shores of the Dead Sea around 2,000 years ago, and to this day visitors travel here to take advantage of this. Famously, visitors immerse themselves in the mineral rich mud which surrounds the Dead Sea, before entering and washing it off.
Just an hour from Jerusalem, the best way to start a visit to the Dead Sea is with a sunrise climb of the Masada Fortress from where you’ll see the sun rise over the sea and the Moab Mountains of Jordan, before descending and heading to the waters.
2. Makhtesh Ramon (the Ramon Crater)
The largest of only five makhteshim in the world (three are in Israel’s Negev Desert, and two in Egypt’s Sinai), Makhtesh Ramon is a unique geological landform which stands strikingly amid the desert landscape. Translated into English as ‘crater’, makhteshim are actually formed by the work of water erosion and not, as people used to believe, by falling asteroids from space.
Shaped like a heart, the Makhtesh Ramon is around 500 meters deep, 40km long, and between 2-10km in width. As well as its striking landscape, the Ramon Crater is home to a diverse array of flora and fauna, including ibex, striped hyenas, Arabian leopards, gazelles, and Asian Wild Ass’.
The Ramon Crater offers a brilliant array of hiking opportunities and bike trails. From the town of Mitzpe Ramon, on the northern edge of the Crater is an observation point, as well as the starting point for many jeep tours and other great adventures which can take place in the Crater.
3. Hula Valley
A change from yellow desert to green hills comes as you move out of the Negev in southern Israel, and into the Galilee of Northern Israel. The Hula Valley sits towards the north of the great Syrian-African Rift Valley and is today considered to be one of the world’s greatest bird watching sites.
Every year, approximately half a billion migrating birds pass through the Hula Valley, which was significantly rehabilitated in the past few decades as it was transformed from a malarial swampland, into a nature reserve. Birdwatchers travel to this area each spring and autumn from around the world to catch a glimpse of the thousands of diverse bird species who pass over on their way to more temperate climates.
4. Sea of Galilee
The Sea of Galilee has greater association as a significant place in the Bible than for its title as the world’s lowest freshwater lake, but there is no doubt that the Sea of Galilee is one of Israel’s greatest natural treasures if not only for its natural beauty, also for its significance and treasured position throughout history.
Surrounded by the striking hills of the Golan to the east, peaks such as Mount Arbel to the west, and the fertile Jordan River Valley which feeds the lake, to the north and south, the area is a haven for nature lovers. The Sea of Galilee Trail which will be completed soon, will allow walkers and bikers to circle the lake, whilst countless other trails in the area, including the Jesus Trail, make exploring the region simple. Of course, you can also head onto the lake and explore in a ‘Jesus’ boat – a boat similar to that used in Biblical times.
5. The Jerusalem Hills
There’s something magical about the Jerusalem Hills atop which sits the golden city of Jerusalem. Revered throughout history, and travelled to from far and wide by pilgrims and almost every significant historical empire, the impressive and powerful ascent to the city through the green pine forests of the Jerusalem Hills is somewhat fitting.
Whilst for many tourists, all that is seen of the Jerusalem Hills is the view from road to Jerusalem, they actually provide amazing opportunities for outdoor adventures – from mountain biking and hiking, to horseback riding and off-road driving adventures through landscapes which are home to some of the world’s most ancient agricultural and winemaking landscapes, and were the location of some of history’s most reported battles.