There’s nothing like a trip to the desert in the winter to warm up the cold bones. So if that’s where you’re headed this season, and you happen to be headed there with the kids, then the Ein Gedi nature reserve is a must.
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True, there’s nothing off the beaten track about Ein Gedi. This gorgeous oasis on the eastern side of the Judean Desert – a little paradise of waterfalls, springs and pools, its beauty accentuated by the majestic black-horned ibexes prancing about in the outlying hills – is about as classic Israel as it gets, a staple of any tour to the country.
The main advantages of visiting the spot this time of year are that you can hike for hours without getting overheated, and you don’t need to start that early because even at midday, the sun beating on your head isn’t all that oppressive. The one downside is that it may be a bit too cool come December (depending on how warm-blooded you are) to enjoy the thrill of standing under a waterfall and having it gush down on you with full force. We did notice some parents stripping their kids down to underwear or diapers so they could wade in the pools beneath the falls. But since we didn’t think of bringing along towels to wipe off wet feet, that wasn’t an option for us. (Tip No. 1: Pack some towels even in the winter because you never know.)
We began our trek with the lower section of Wadi David. It’s a pretty easy, paved trail that doesn’t require any special rock-climbing skills. And if you need to take a break or just want to admire the scenery – the diverse assortment of wetlands vegetation, for example, or the feathered-leaf Acacia trees – there are wooden benches scattered along the way. We bumped into many ibexes, including a baby, roaming around the area as we made our way up the trail that ends at David’s Waterfall. Known for their great mountain-climbing skills, these indigenous wild goats seemed pretty unfazed by our presence, even stopping to pose for some close-up shots. The entire trip back and forth on this part of the trail, depending on how many stops you make along the way, should take about an hour.
With the kids a bit older now and the day still young (not to mention the fact that we’d barely dipped into our water supply at this point), we decided on a whim to venture farther. Getting around the upper section of Wadi David requires a bit of climbing and decent balancing capabilities on slippery rocks. There are rails to hold onto on some of the narrower paths along the edge of the mountain, and it’s not terribly strenuous. Still, this part of the trek may not be as suitable for very young children.
A popular stop on the trail, Dodim’s Cave, was blocked off the day we visited because of flood warnings – quite common during the winter season. So we proceeded in the other direction, following the scenic trail that passes through the Ein Gedi spring and several archeological sites, including the remains of an old flourmill.
The view below of the Dead Sea and the Moabite Mountains is absolutely breathtaking, and once we were on level ground, pretty thirsty by then as well, we stopped to take it all in and rehydrate ourselves in the process. Up on this higher level, we also caught our first sight of another animal indigenous to the region, the furry little rock hyrax. Although chubby and not especially graceful, they do a great job of balancing themselves on ultra-thin tree branches that don’t appear to budge at all under their weight.
We began our descent from the reserve on another route to make a full circle. The second, more strenuous part of our trip that began at David’s Waterfall took about two hours. Before heading back to the car, we made a detour to the site of the ancient synagogue that existed in this area in the third through sixth centuries. Along with the ruins of the mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath, it houses the spectacular remains of the synagogue’s mosaic floor, decorated with animals and inscriptions. We were unable to decipher the inscriptions ourselves, but according to the explanations provided at the site, they contain the secret formula for the special persimmon perfume used to anoint kings at the time. The entrance fee to the ancient synagogue is included in the price of the fee to the nature reserve, so it’s definitely worth taking advantage of.
Although we had filled up on sandwiches before we began our hike, by the time we were back at the car, we were hungry again and devoured what was left in the trunk. Just in case you don’t happen to bring enough food along to satisfy the big appetites you’ll inevitably have after a hike like this, snacks are sold at a kiosk in the parking lot, where picnic tables and chairs are also provided. (Eating is forbidden in the nature reserve.)
Hours: 8:00 to 16:00 daily in the winter and 8:00 to 17:00 daily in the summer
Entrance fee: NIS 27 for adults and NIS 14 for children
Getting there: Egged runs buses to Ein Gedi from the Jerusalem Central Bus Station. The trip is about an hour by car from Jerusalem and two hours from Tel Aviv.
Parking: Available on premises with no charge