Tourist Tip #119 / Makhtesh Ramon, the Geological Marvel of the Negev

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Makhtesh Ramon, the gigantic canyon that gashed through the heart of the Negev, is such a unique geological formation that no English word for “makhtesh” even exists. If we needed to make one up, we might call it a crater, but even that doesn’t truly do it justice.

As you stand on the viewing deck of the Ramon Visitors Center, right on the edge of this incredible geological wonder, or take the 20-minute cliff-edge walk to a lookout across the street from the adjacent city of Mitzpeh Ramon, the scenery will take your breath away. This valley, about 40 km long, 9 km wide and about 400m deep, created by millions of years of flowing streams, erosion and volcanic eruptions, has given us a truly unique window onto the earth’s past. As you drive or hike any of its dozens of trails, you’re likely to run into geology students examining the primordial strata.

And the history is not only geological: Experts tell us that Makhtesh Ramon was named for the ancient Romans. Indeed, the road that crossed the valley in pre-Roman and Roman times was a veritable highway, plied by caravans bearing incense from Arabia to Petra in today’s southern Jordan and across the Negev to the Mediterranean port of Gaza. In a trek along the Incense Route (now part of a UNESCO world heritage site) you can see ancient Roman milestones.

Makhtesh Ramon is only about two hours from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, but whether you bike it, hike it, walk it, rappel down into it, take a guided off-road trip into its nooks and crannies, overnight-camp it or all of the above,  you’ll feel transported into another world. Its varied climates, from high desert to tropical, have produced an incredible variety of animals, hailing from East Africa to the Mediterranean, and plants typical of regions from the snowy to the sandy.

A variety of accommodations in the city, from luxury to boutique hotels to a youth hostel, welcomes overnight guests. The Ramon Visitors Center, where fascinating exhibits tell the story of the makhtesh and Israel Nature and Parks Authority rangers give advice and directions to travelers, is due to reopen after January 31 following extensive renovations. The revamped center now has the added dimension of commemorating Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, who died in the crash of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003. Inspired by Ramon’s remarks aboard the shuttle on his last voyage, new exhibits make thought-provoking contrasts between the mysteries and magnificence of our little planet and those of outer space.

Makhtesh Ramon is located on highway 40, south of Be’er Sheva. The Ramon Visitors Center is scheduled to officially reopen on January 31. Call ahead to make sure the center has reopened on schedule for public visits after that date: 08-6588691/8; or call the Israel Nature and Parks Authority hotline at *3639.

Overlooking Makhtesh Ramon (Ramon Crater), a unique geological formation in the heart of the Negev.
Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, who died in the crash of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003. Credit: Reuters