One of our favorite days in Israel was our daytrip from Jerusalem south to Masada, an ancient mountain fortress near the southern tip of the Dead Sea. We hiked the mountain in the morning, then spent the rest of the afternoon visiting Ein Gedi National Park and, of course, floating in the legendary lake’s salty waters.
We arrived at Masada around 9:30 in the morning … a little behind schedule because we got woefully lost in the winding, unmarked streets of Jerusalem. The first time I hiked Masada (in 1999), I started the climb around 4:30 in the morning, in order to reach the top before sunrise. It’s typical for summertime tourists to do this, not only because sunrise reveals a breathtaking view, but also because the heat after the sun is up can make the relatively short climb into a nightmare.
For whatever reason — either the added toughness of being awake before dawn, or (likely) because I was not a very tough 17-year-old, I had really exaggerated the difficulty of the hike in my memory. Ascending the switchback- and stair-laden Snake Path (about 1,000 feet elevation gain, beginning at about 1,000 feet below sea level) took only about 45 minutes.
At the plateau top of the mountain are the ruins of King Herod’s palace/fortress (built between 37-31 BC). The palace and surrounding village were later occupied by Jewish rebels and their families, the last outpost of the Jewish-Roman war which took place around the year 70. It’s incredible how much remains of the original structures, more than 2000 years after they were first built.
We spent a few hours exploring the ruins, among a good-sized crowd of other tourists from around the world (we overheard Australian English and Russian, as well as Hebrew and English). We also saw a family gathered in the mountaintop settlement’s old synagogue for a bar mitzvah — it was amazing to hear the chanting coming from within the ancient walls.
Around noon, we took the fast cable car down from the moutaintop and drove to the Dead Sea. There are many beaches where you can access the famous salty waters, and several of them are extensively developed, with spas where visitors purchase the legendary Dead Sea mud to rub on their skin for its reputed healing effects. Without much premeditation, we turned in at a sign for the public beach in Ein Gedi National Park.
Being the off season, the beach was pretty relaxed, which was nice. What I hadn’t expected, though, was the complete absence of muddy shores. Instead, we approached the water by treading carefully across red rocks, which were heavily encrusted with beautiful white salt crystals.
We had a great time floating in the briny water.
We used up the last few hours of daylight walking through Ein Gedi. The national park is a real oasis — streams and waterfalls flowing naturally through the desert, producing an incongruous burst of green on the landscape, and providing a home for native wildlife.
The animals are free to roam around the park … and they are not in the least bit bothered by their human audience.
On the drive back to Jerusalem, we stopped to try to get a last view of the Dead Sea. We attempted to stop at a small beach called Kalia, but turned around when we found out the private operators charged a fee for entry, since we hadn’t planned to stay. The surroundings were a little eerie– a collection of gutted concrete bunkers strewn around the landscape outside the gates to the private beach. I couldn’t help but see an opportunity … what if those structures could be refurbished and turned into guesthouses, right on the shore?
We were more successful just pulling off to the side of the road. Views of the sea are gorgeous and otherworldly … notice the colors of the puddles of water just out of reach of the tide.
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