Beauty, Close to Home

A new route in the Lower Galilee which is still unknown even to veteran hikers offers breathtaking scenery in any season

I have been asked: "Where can one find the most beautiful scenery in Israel?" But as I've found beauty in almost every place I have visited on my many journeys, I find it difficult to answer this question. And so I decided I don't have to venture very far from home. For me, home has been, for 70 years, Kibbutz Beit Hashita in the Jezreel Valley, from where I look out at the Gilboa Mountains every day.

A new scenic road recently opened in the Lower Galilee, called the Issachar route, which leads from Route No. 717 near Moshav Ramat Zvi, via a small industrial area to Sde Nahum on the way down to road No. 71, the Valley Road, which links Afula and Beit She'an.

The late Oved Dror, a member of Beit Hashita who worked for the Southern Jordan River Drainage Authority, and was a man of both ideas and action, initiated the building of this road. The roadwork was undertaken by the Jewish National Fund. In the future, the route will extend at both ends: in the west from Ramat Zvi to Givat Hamoreh, and in the east to the Jordan River.

What makes this new dirt road, which can be enjoyed by car or on foot, unique is that it passes along Ramot Issachar (the Issachar heights). The Harod Valley and the Gilboa stretch to the south, while to the north, slopes lead down to the riverbed of Nahal Issachar. Further north, one follows Ramot Issachar until it disappears into Nahal Tavor below; in the east one can see the descent from the Upper Galilee to the Jordan River, Jordan Rift Valley and the Gilead Mountains.

The entire area is filled with scenery that changes from one season to another, sometimes within the span of a few days. Such vistas are rare in this country, and many people, even veteran hikers, are unfamiliar with them.

To get to the Issachar route, one should set off from the Issachar Junction to Route 71 north, pass Kibbutz Ein Harod Ihud and turn east to Moshav Ramat Zvi. Near the village's entrance you'll find a sign to the beginning of the new road: Issachar Landscape Trail. Turn right and head southward through the fields. Bordering the fields is an almond grove that is replete with splendid blossoms during January-February.

Along the way you'll see boxes on top of posts - permanent fixtures installed beside the fields, which are designed to attract owls to nest there. Who wants to nurture a nesting owl? It turns out that the Beit She'an and Jezreel Valleys are full of field mice and their like, which reproduce quickly and cause a great deal of damage to the crops.

All attempts to poison them failed, and Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu came up with the idea of waging biological warfare some years ago, via barn owls, the natural enemies of field mice. Indeed, to raise their offspring, owls need a huge amount of these and other rodents, which they skillfully hunt at night. Thus, the nesting boxes were erected, to the delight of both the birds of prey and the farmers.

The road eventually turns left at the edge of the heights, from which one can look down at "Bikat Hashita" (Hashita Valley) below, full of colorful fields of crops, water reservoirs and fish ponds. The area next to one side of the road slopes down steeply and is not traversable. During the winter it is full of greenery, but when the weather warms up in spring, the expanses dry up and turn yellow; only the Ziziphus lotus shrubs remain green. Toward the south, at some distance, the Gilboa mountain range rises.

Chiseled poetry

The route continues eastward still relatively high up, embellished by well-tended fields and dark green orchards below; strewn about are basalt rocks with history and poetry chiseled into them. Meanwhile, insects and birds accompany the traveler along the way; during the migration periods, larger birds such as storks and pelicans pass through here. One can see Kibbutz Beit Hashita and small groupings of trees nearby, which have been planted in memory of kibbutzniks' parents and have since become favorite places for individuals seeking solitude while gazing upon the scenery, or for families looking for a place to barbecue.

Another highlight en route is a place that's called Givat Hakippodan on the map, where there is a boulder inscribed with the words "The Yos and David Lookout" - named after two members of Beit Hashita. Yos Peled was a talented farmer and a mechanic with a knack for invention, who figured out ways to improve various farming tools and to cultivate crops more efficiently and thus reduce the amount of manpower in the fields. David Shoshani, also a true farmer at heart, created new strains of wheat, which produced unprecedentedly large yields.

At this point, there is a lookout from which one has a 360-degree view. To the north and northwest, one can see the rounded cap of Mount Tavor and Givat Hamoreh. To the west is Tel Jezreel. The south is dominated by the Gilboa range and to the west is part of the Beit She'an valley. To the northeast is Ramot Issachar and the impressive Kochav Hayarden - which was a Jewish village at the time of the Talmud, boasts the remains of a splendid Crusader's fortress, Belvoir, and is now a national park.From here one sees many biblical sites, especially those mentioned in the Early Prophets. At Tel Jezreel, for example, the prophet Elijah met King Ahab and delivered his dramatic monologue about Navot the Jezreelite's vineyard. The southern Gilboa is where King Saul fought the Philistines and committed suicide; in the southeast is Beit She'an, where the Philistines carried Saul's body. To the north rises the Tavor, the site where Barak gathered his fighters against Sisera.

Even closer, beyond the community of Moledet, is the Arab village of Taibeh. Many people believe, as do I, that this is where Gideon Ben Yoash, who fought the Midianites, lived. Whoever read the chapters in the Book of Judges about the battles Gideon fought will see them come alive before his or her eyes here. Another, albeit contemporary, story that comes alive here is that of the first Jewish settlement in the valley during the 1920s - not to mention certain relevant chapters in the 1948 War of Independence.

North of the "Yos and David" lookout spreads an unusual sort of plateau, divided by two streams: Nahal Issachar and Nahal Tavor. Before the War of Independence, there were more than 10 Arab villages in this area. In advance of the invasion of the (foreign) Arab armies on May 15, 1948, the villagers received an order from local Arab authorities to leave the vicinity "for three weeks in order to make way for the Iraqi and Jordanian armies, which will gallop from here to a victorious celebration in Haifa." The three villages populated by members of the Zu'abi clan, Taibeh, Tamra and Naura, did not obey the orders and remained on their lands to this day. They now belong to the Gilboa regional council.

The new Issachar scenic route continues east though both cultivated fields and observation areas. The Harod Valley gradually disappears as one heads northward toward the deepening Nahal Issachar - a dry riverbed in the main, although there are still a few trickling springs nearby which attract grazing cattle.

This area is also home to arguably the biggest and most important population of gazelles in the country. You can find all different combinations of them here: does with fawns, ruling males with their harems, or flocks of young "singles." Over the years the animals have apparently learned to live with people and even seem to be able to differentiate between a jeep - which as far as they are concerned is a hunter's vehicle, and from which they usually flee - and a tractor driven by a "harmless" person, which they ignore. Where there is prey there are also predators - wolves, jackals and foxes - but they are usually active at night and are not easily seen. There used to be many partridges in the area as well, but their population has dwindled.

One is now nearing the end of the scenic dirt route, where one takes the road down to Ein Harod. I must say, I haven't met a person whom I guided on the route, or directed to it, who did not thank me afterward. I invite everyone to enjoy the experience.

Azaria Alon is a renowned guide on the geography of Israel, one of the founders of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and a 1980 recipient of the Israel Prize.