The Quintessential Israeli Hike

Nahal Amud is how we imagine ourselves looking at our best. Trouble is, there are only a handful of such places left in Israel.

The happiest moment comes when you dip into the pool. After walking for more than an hour in the heavy heat of late August, we arrived at the large pool, completely shaded and full of chilly water. We took off our shoes and some clothes and stepped gingerly, slipping on the larger stones, into the cold water, then sat down and let out a sigh. For 20 minutes we just sat in the water, ignoring other hikers on the trail above us, dunking our heads in the water from time to time, looking at the fish swimming around us and giggling when they nibbled our toes.

Nahal Amud is much more than just another nature destination. It is a classic hike, a basic component in the repertoire of any nature-loving traveller in this country. Nahal Amud is the quintessential Israeli hike. It is interesting, pleasing and overcrowded in some sections during August, although it passed this test quite well last week.

Nahal Amud is more than just one more nature reserve that one pays to get into. Whether it is the prettiest or most interesting or pleasing one is debatable, but that’s not the point. The main interest is in the iconic status it has enjoyed for 50 years, as the classic, most “representative” hike in Israel.

This is how we imagine ourselves looking at our best. This is how we want to experience a hike in Israel – fig trees along a stream, small and pleasant pools of water, a not-too-difficult hike along comfortable trails; a blend of plane-trees with fruit-bearing trees, including figs, pomegranates, olives, dates and grape vines. These are five of the seven Biblical species, all fragrantly bearing fruit now, ripe and heavy on the branches. The other two species, wheat and barley, appear here at other, earlier, times of the year. Orange, lemon, plum and walnut trees can also be found here. Carobs are also present, although they are not particularly sweet. The juicy and ripe figs are much sweeter.

The main asset of this place is undoubtedly the flowing water, gathering into small, clear and cool pools along the way. Alongside are remnants of old structures, agricultural terraces, irrigation canals, testimony to older settlements scattered along the route. These are all connected by small wooden bridges and trails marked by a variety of colors. This, we like to believe, is what a hike in Israel should look like. The truth is that there are only a handful of such places left.

Photo by Moshe Gilad

The mythic hike “from sea to sea” passes through Nahal Amud. The Israel Trail also passes along a significant portion of its route. Two young people we met at one of the pools were carrying big backpacks with foam mattresses attached. They were planning to sleep on the shores of Lake Kinneret that night. This is what the most optimistic dream of an Israeli hike looks like. Safed is close by and can be seen to the northeast. Mount Meron looms to the west.

Yeshiva students in their white shirts, descending to the stream in order to dip into it and purify themselves, add an additional flavor to the site. Memories of a distant childhood hike always engulf me as I descend from the abandoned Ein al-Tina police station to the stream’s ravine.

The Ein al-Tina police station

Photo by Moshe Gilad

Among the dozens of police stations the British built in the 1930s, the logic behind this one is the most puzzling. What purpose was served by this gigantic grey concrete structure, stuck on a mountainside, surrounded by a natural forest? According to British logic, the fortified building was designed to protect the springs along the ravine, which at the time supplied water to Safed. The building, now riddled with bullets, once served the Israel Defence Forces for training purposes. The scenery seen from it is beautiful, but its strategic importance is dubious.

An extension of the trail, marked in red, drops into the deep ravine of Nahal Meron, a tributary of Nahal Amud. A small white concrete block stands at the junction of the trail marked in red with another one marked in black. One can hear water here but barely see any. The place is called Ein al-Tina in Arabic, meaning Fig Spring, a name easily understood by observing the surrounding trees.

Someone decided to change the Hebrew name, calling it Ein Yakim. Yakim, according to the brochure, was a family of priests who worked at the Second Temple, moving to the Galilee after the Temple’s destruction. Really – wouldn’t it have been better to leave it as Ein al-Tina? Or, alternatively, call it Ein Ha-Te’ena, Fig Spring in Hebrew. The battle over names, with every place having a Hebrew and Arabic one, doesn’t contribute to a better acquaintance with the countryside. It only reminds us of the never-ending conflict. We don’t need a reminder at every spring along the way.

Photo by Moshe Gilad

The aqueduct and fruit orchard

A black trail leads eastward from Ein Yakim, along the stream. To the right is an aqueduct which carries water from the spring to fruit orchards further downstream. The irrigation system here is cleverly and perfectly designed. The aqueduct carries the water to a holding pool, called “The effendi’s pool.” From there the water reaches the fruit trees. Until 1948, Arabs from Safed grew vegetables and fruit trees here. After the war these were abandoned and different vegetation overran the terraces, which had been built with so much labor. Nahal Amud, which is now a natural gem and a protected reserve, was once a prosperous agricultural area.

Some of the water reaches an old flour mill, one of 20 that used to operate along the stream. This is why the stream also has the Arabic name of Wadi Tawahin (the stream of mills). Another name previously assigned to this stretch was Wadi Lamoun (lemon stream), due to the lemon trees growing here. The designation as Nahal Amud (the stream of the pillar) was given because of the large vertical rock standing in the middle of the southernmost stretch of the ravine.

Photo by Moshe Gilad

Over the past decade, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority has started to reuse some of the agricultural terraces located within the reserve. They removed trees within the fruit orchards and refurbished the terraces, allowing the fruit trees to recover.

At the end of the orchard stands a tall observation point from where one can see the surrounding mountains, the green riverbed and the confluence of the two ravines Nahal Meron and Nahal Amud, which join right across from this observation point. A bit further downstream, Nahal Amud is joined by another tributary, Nahal Sechvi, which descends from Safed, only two kilometers away.

Along the trail, a huge eucalyptus tree collapsed, and INPA employees cut it into beautiful reddish slices. Disregarding their considerations, it would be nice to leave some fallen trees intact, as is the custom in other nature reserves around the world. This is part of nature’s cycle, and there is no point in hiding the death of a tree.

Photo by Moshe Gilad

The path to the pools

There isn’t much water in the Sechvi pools at this time of year, yet the place is magnificent. The gigantic plane-trees cast large shadows, and a wooden bridge separates the upper and lower pools. The pools are shallow but the water is clear and pleasant. Here too there is an old flour mill, in ruins.

We reached these pools by following the trail marked in blue. Part of the attraction of this route is that for much of the way back one goes upstream on the opposite bank, along the trail marked in black. Some of the most beautiful pools lie along this route and one can choose which of these to dip into. The prettiest ones are near the confluence of Nahal Amud and Nahal Meron.

From this point one can ascend 500 meters to Ein Po’em, along a trail marked in blue. After walking for 10 minutes you reach a pump house, and turning right for another 100 meters brings you to a small pool surrounded by fig trees. The Arabic name for the place is Ein Jinn (Devil’s Spring), attesting to the irregular flow of water here. From here it is best to return to the main trail and go back to EinYakim.

Moshe Gilad