There’s a widespread view that Gan Hashlosha National Park (Sahne) in northern Israel’s Beit She’an Valley – next to Kibbutz Nir David and a short drive from Jenin in the West Bank – is crowded, too far from Tel Aviv, and lacks any good food options anywhere nearby.
Everyone I invited to come spend a day at the park told me I was crazy. Some warned me that it would be scorching hot. Others complained that the place is full of Arabs, while others were put off by the thought that religious folks go there – or Russians, fat people, skinny people or just ordinary annoying mortals. A few people told me it was expensive and didn’t justify the cost of admission (39 shekels per person). And the more culinary-inclined said we’d surely starve to death.
Israeli friends who live in New York and were back for a visit looked at me with concern. “We’ve heard ‘terrible’ things about that place,” they said. “The people, you know.”
“But you haven’t been there,” I said defensively.
“We were there decades ago. That was enough.”
Heavenly morning, hellish afternoon
The Sahne opened as a national park in 1958, as part of the country’s 10-year anniversary celebrations. Right from the start, people said that crowding would ruin it, that all the natural beauty would disappear. But the prettiest park in Israel is still here, and it’s a marvelous place. Yes, sometimes it gets too crowded, but on the day my partner and I visited, it was very pleasant and surprising in many positive ways.
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The Sahne hosts 400,000 people each year; 300,000 of them come during the summer. The other (smarter) 100,000 visit during the rest of the year. It was a pretty safe bet that we wouldn’t find too much solitude there on a broiling hot morning in late July, but at 8:30 A.M. on a weekday, a half-hour after the park opened, the place looked great. The heat hadn’t become oppressive yet, barbecue smoke wasn’t fogging our vision and the park’s fantastic natural features were easily appreciated.
The main attraction of any visit to Sahne Park (also known as Gan Hashlosha) are two wonderful, long, blue pools. They are surrounded by dense ancient vegetation, mainly lush trees. Decades ago, with the aid of landscape architects Lipa Yahalom and Dan Tzur, Zvi Bahir, who had been the gardener at adjacent Nir David, turned the natural spring into a large park. There are fig, carob and olive trees as well as beautiful ornamental trees. The clear water and trees offering such wide shade automatically make you think of paradise.
More than two decades ago, Time Magazine did a story on the world’s 20 most beautiful parks. Amazingly, Gan Hashlosha made that distinguished list, thereby guaranteeing it an eternal spot in colorful travel brochures. The magazine’s reporter wrote that it was cool to imagine she was swimming in the waters of the original Garden of Eden.
The park’s water sources, which originate in the Ein Al Asi (or Amal) Stream, come from the northern part of the Samaria Mountains and the eastern part of Mount Gilboa. From there, the water flows east to the Jordan River. As it flows underground it reaches 28 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit), and stays at this temperature all year round, hence the park’s Arabic name – Sahne (“hot”). The Hebrew name – Gan Hashlosha (Park of the Three) – commemorates Aharon Etkin, Haim Shturman and David Mosensohn, who were killed in 1938 when their car ran over a landmine.
What we found is that our day at the Sahne could be divided into four time periods: From the 8:00 A.M. opening until 10:00 A.M. was the optimal time to enjoy the park. We had most of the place to ourselves, the pools were very pleasant and fairly empty, there was plenty of lawn space to choose from, the trash cans were unfilled and the bathrooms were clean. Then came a somewhat worrying time slot, when large groups of visitors, some arriving on buses, began streaming onto the lawn.
Around noon, we felt confident that it wouldn’t get any worse and relaxed a bit, because overall, it was still quite pleasant to be there. But from noon until 2:00 P.M., things went downhill. The heat was getting to everyone, with fatigue and the growing chaos competing with each other to see which was more depressing. From 2:00 until the 5:00 P.M. closing, there was a continuous movement of people reluctantly calling it a day.
All that beauty can make you hungry
Generally speaking, the people in the water on the day of our visit looked a lot happier than those on the banks. Frolicking and swimming in the water makes us smile with happiness, especially when the outside temperature is close to 40 C. One thing you can’t help noticing at the Sahne is that as soon as you go down the steps into the water, lots of fish show up to get a little taste of you. They’re particularly fond of legs. It tickles, it’s fun and it doesn’t hurt in any way. A little attention, even from fish, is always flattering.
In the morning, you can swim about to your heart’s content. By the afternoon, folks with inflatable pool rafts had taken over large areas of the water, forcing others to swim around them. I counted six lifeguards sitting in big huts that resembled small fortresses, watching over the pools. Every so often, they asked people not to jump, and reminded us that the water depth is four meters.
The crowding in the water was concentrated around the big waterfall and next to the reconstructed flour mill, where there is another small cascade. It’s pleasant to sit and let the water massage your shoulders. A black-and-white 1959 archival film shows that nothing has changed in that regard and back then, the same areas were also the most crowded. However, the banks in the film looked quite bare and the trees were still young and gave little shade. The overall appearance of the Sahne has greatly improved over the past 60 years.
Most visitors come to the park for a few hours but bring enough provisions and equipment to last an entire season of “Survivor.” The Sahne will make you very hungry, so it’s a good idea to come prepared. The local restaurant, which functions mainly as a sporting goods shop, has only hamburgers, fries and popsicles on offer. Hunger unites the park’s visitors: everyone seemed hungry and was taking serious measures to fix this. By the afternoon, a cloud of smoke hovered over the lawn closest to the parking lot.
But there’s an advantage to this as well: The farther you get from the parking lot, the thinner the crowds. The people schlepping packed coolers either don’t want to strain their backs or are just too lazy. Follow the southern bank a few hundred meters eastward and you’ll find areas that looks almost completely abandoned, even at the height of a hot summer day. We walked as far as the bridge to the archeological museum, where not a soul was enjoying the air-conditioning inside.
Bikinis and burkinis
It’s always tempting to look at the Sahne as a microcosm of Israeli society, the place where all the different elements meet. Everybody comes and gets undressed and eats and swims. Director Ran Tal showed this well in his 2012 documentary, “The Garden of Eden.” To the best of my recollection, in the film the Sahne doesn’t seem very crowded. The reality is different. Israel is very crowded, and so is the Sahne.
But even with the crowds, you’ll notice the quiet at the Sahne. Playing music is not allowed inside the park, and the thousands of people who were there on the day we visited (about 2,500 on the average weekday. On Saturdays they get up to 5,000 and then they close the gates) enjoyed themselves quietly and with respect for those around them. Yehuda Carmi from Nir David has been the park manager for 25 years. He says this atmosphere is due to the rules clearly listed on the park website – and their strict enforcement.
He also says that anyone who has been to Gan Hashlosha even once understands the rules and takes them to heart. It is forbidden to play music, ball games that disturb others are prohibited, grilling is only permitted in designated areas and so glass bottles are not allowed. He says the people who come to the park now are perhaps more disciplined than those who came in the past. They see the effort that goes into keeping the park clean and they pick up their trash. “Here there is a good atmosphere of coexistence, which is just the opposite of what is happening in other places in Israel,” he says.
Carmi believes that these days, there is greater respect for other people’s space. “The Sahne is an excellent example of how different groups can get along fine in one small area,” he says – at least when the crowds aren’t too large. Carmi says that when the number of visitors is under 3,000, it’s possible to get along very well. When the number starts approaching the maximum capacity, it’s a lot harder to respect other people’s space. Even so, Carmi says the large number of visitors is not damaging the park itself. The lawn is well-tended and most of it is in good condition. The intensive gardening and strict separation between the overnight campgrounds and the parts of the park used by daytime visitors makes it possible to keep the lawns watered and well-cared for.
This peaceful coexistence could also be found among the religious women, both Jewish and Arab, enjoying the water. The resemblance between them was striking. Almost all wore dark-colored garments that covered their arms and legs, and a full head cover. Many wore a traditional-modern burkini that looked like a dress with a head cover attached, made of black Lycra and decorated with a bold-colored triangle of fabric. This type of bathing suit has become a lot more common than it once was. The women sat in the shallow water in large groups, the Jewish women in one spot and the Arab women in another, surrounded by their frolicking children. In contrast, a group of Russian-speaking women all sported minimalist swimsuits that revealed plenty of pale white skin at the hottest time of the day.
By three in the afternoon, they were all quite pink. Welcome to the Beit She’an Valley.