Underwater Treasure: A Rare Glimpse of the Judean Desert After the Flood

Last week’s storms have turned the Judean Desert and the Negev into a flooded wonderland of rushing rivers and mighty waterfalls. Where to go and how to get there - and back in one piece.

Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

All the rivers run into the sea, but the weekend before last they flew. Nahal Rosh is a small, southern stream, nearly always dry, near Lakiya between the Lahav and Shoket junctions. I’ve passed by hundreds of times without knowing its name. It didn’t seem particularly dramatic or interesting, just a rocky riverbed on the edge of the desert, west of Route 31 to Arad.

On the weekend of December 14-15, the Rosh roared like a mighty northern European river, its brown water flowing swiftly under and alongside Route 31, sweeping up everything in its path. An abandoned red jeep lay on its side along the riverbank, and when I tried to take a picture of it, before escaping into the cafe of the Shoket Junction gas station, the wind nearly lifted me off my feet.

Winter has barely begun, and we’ve already had some major flooding. Enormous amounts of water wash across the earth, cleaning it, sweeping up everything in its path and restoring the original meaning to words that had taken on very different connotations. “Nahal” is a stream again, not just a dry wadi. “Mapal” is a mighty waterfall, crashing down from a mountaintop, not just a word on a map that for most of the year signifies a natural rock staircase, down which no one expects water to fall. Waterfalls are a rare sight in the Judean Desert and the Negev. Last week, all the waterfalls in the area turned real.

While there are those who disagree, the best time for a flood hike is after the storm, when the skies are blue, the sun is shining, the world looks so clean and the water in the streams is still flowing but one can easily distinguish the rivers from their overflowing banks.

The floods in the Judean Desert and the Negev are quick, strong and generally brief. To see them at their peak, you’ll have to bundle up and sally forth. But where? The recommendations below are for days when the weather, even if wet, is safe for driving and for walking a few hundred meters without drowning and while enjoying the views. These are among the most beautiful Israel has to offer, but to enjoy them a modicum of common sense is needed.

The director of the Kfar Etzion Field School, Yaron Rosenthal, stepped up to help. He recites the names of the streams with the best views, rapidly and with evident familiarity. Some I have seen with my own, astonished, eyes, while as to the rest I bow to his years of experience.

Wadi Qelt: This stream, whose Hebrew name is Nahal Prat, is a wonderful place to observe floods. Last winter, on my way to visit King Herod’s palaces near Jericho, I drove along the stream with the field school’s Binyamin Tropper. We encountered the most beautiful flood I’ve ever seen. Waterfalls powered down hilltops into the usually dry wadi. The safest and most convenient viewing site is the observation point for St. George’s Monastery (Deir Mar Jaris in Arabic). You can park less than 100 meters away. The sight of the desert monastery surrounded by waterfalls is breathtaking. On Route 1 east from Jerusalem, toward the Dead Sea, after the Good Samaritan Inn Mosaic Museum turn left, toward Mitzpeh Yeriho, and then left again. Continue for around five kilometers until the observation point.

Flooding in Nahal Rosh near Lakiya.
Flooding near Arad.
Flooding in Nahal Rosh near Lakiya.
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Flooding in Nahal Rosh near Lakiya.Credit: Moshe Gilad
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Flooding near Arad.Credit: Moshe Gilad
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Flooding in Nahal Rosh near Lakiya. Credit: Moshe Gilad
A rare glimpse of the Judean Desert after the flood

Nahal Og: “Everyone knows this observation point,” says Rosenthal by way of a preface, cooling my ardor. The big advantage of the site is its accessibility. On Route 1 east from Jerusalem, turn right (south) at Almog Junction, four kilometers west of Beit Ha’arava Junction. Park in the lot at the entrance to Kibbutz Almog and climb about 200 meters up the ridge. There’s a view of the eastern end of Lower Nahal Og, a long, lovely canyon riverbed. With water in it, the sight is amazing. It’s a popular observation point because it’s very near Jerusalem and avoids Route 90, which is often blocked by floodwaters.

Nahal Qumran: Qumran National Park has a great observation point for the Qumran Waterfall, one of the highest in the Judean Desert. In fact, there are four waterfalls, the highest of which is 45 meters. The easiest route to the observation point is through the national park. Follow the green-blaze trail toward the aqueduct. There are several good observation points along this trail, high up for a great view of these beautiful falls. Take Route 1 east from Jerusalem to Kalia Junction, then go south on Route 90 to Qumran National Park, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

Nahal Dragot: This stream, which has a reputation as a hiking challenge, should only be entered on non-rainy days. There are a number of high waterfalls that make for great viewing when there’s flooding, but the stream itself is off-limits then. To see the falls, go to the Dragot resort village, located on Route 90 about 15 kilometers south of Einot Tzukim Nature Reserve (Ein Feshkha). spring). From Dragot, go west on the green-blazed, well-maintained road for two kilometers until you reach a lovely observation point. It faces south, overlooking the Murbaat caves and the high waterfalls above the stream.

Ein Gedi: Continue northward on the Kibbutz Ein Gedi promenade, the fence of which hugs the cliff above Nahal Arugot, for a wonderful, inspiring view of the stream and, when the waters are high, waterfalls. On Route 90.

The Arava Highway: The streams of the Arava Desert crossing Route 90 are less dramatic than their Judean Desert counterparts, which traverse huge rocky elevations, but they are impressive nonetheless. The most notable are Nahal Tzafit and Nahal Tamar, which flow south toward the Arava Junction; Nahal Nekarot, which passes Ein Yahav; and Nahal Paran, north of Moshav Paran.

Nahal Zin: Can be viewed from the observation point near David Ben-Gurion’s grave, in Sde Boker, or from the top of Ein Maarif waterfall in Ein Avdat National Park.

Nahal Shikma: Even the southernmost part of this stream, near the Pura Nature Reserve, was flowing swiftly last week. But I was especially intrigued when a member of Kibbutz Zikim called me to say the Shikma Reservoir, south of the kibbutz, was full. That meant huge amounts of water had breached the concrete dam keeping the stream from flowing to the sea. If memory serves me right, I saw it in this state many years ago, and it’s breathtaking. To reach the dam, heading west on the road that bypasses the kibbutz, take a left before the bridge over the stream and park, then walk up the hill.

For the jeep brigade

The above sites are accessible with an ordinary car. Following are some, recommended by Rosenthal, that require an off-road vehicle.

Brekhat Tzfira: This site, northeast of Arad, is a favorite observation point for flood-lovers for one simple reason: You get a marvelous view of the high waterfall of Nahal Tze’elim, which is an impressive, majestic sight when it’s at “high tide.” On the road from Arad to the west side of Masada, turn left (north) at Kfar Nokdim, about 10 kilometers from Arad, and continue uphill for three kilometers, along a well-maintained dirt road, until you reach Tzfira Pool. Near the pool is an observation point overlooking the Tze’elim Waterfall.

Hariton Cave in Nahal Tekoa: The high rocky cliffs to the west and south of the West Bank settlement of Nokdim and to the south of the settlement of Tekoa provide the perfect backdrop to flood-generated waterfalls. On the road south from Jerusalem, head to Herodion and continue to Tekoa.

Arugot Waterfall: Rosenthal considers the Arugot observation point the “most beautiful place in Israel.” When I attempt to get directions, it quickly becomes clear that the route is very complicated and that one needs an experienced guide. The lookout is in the upper part of Nahal Arugot, far above the upper pools — the most easterly point you can reach by foot along the banks of the stream. Point your jeep south on Route 356 from Tekoa, continue south on Route 3698.

The following sites mentioned in this article are beyond the Green Line: Wadi Qelt, Nahal Og, Nahal Dragot, Nahal Qumran, Nahal Tekoa and the Arugot Waterfall.

Flooding near Herod's Palaces, adjacent to Jericho.Credit: Moshe Gilad

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