From the highway, Israel’s huge southern desert presents seemingly endless vistas of pebbly dry creeks, brittle low hills, and expanses of talcum-fine loess soil. But a less rushed pace, some friendly advice and a good map can help you discover its hidden treasures. And it doesn’t get better than Ein Avdat, just south of Kibbutz Sde Boker, off Route 40.
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Over eons of time, the small spring and seasonal winter run-off have ground away the hard limestone crust, then more rapidly worked their way through the softer white-chalk layers below it. The result is a wondrous deep canyon that seems to have been sliced out of the planet with the precision of a cake-knife.
The entrance to the nature reserve is from the parking lot at the mouth of the canyon. A trail threads through a shock of natural greenery, fed by a perennial trickle of spring water, a rare-enough phenomenon in this parched wilderness. Occasional winter floods sometimes change the geography of the canyon floor, requiring minor re-routings of the trail. (The rangers ask visitors to suppress their individualistic urges and not blaze their own un-ecological paths through the undergrowth, and not to enter the water at any stage.)
Watch for ibex – wild goats – particularly on the easier cliffs above you to the left. On hot days they will often seek shade below the overhangs, and become almost invisible (so good is their camouflage) until they move.
An easy fifteen-minute stroll between the towering white cliffs brings you to a deep water hole, at the foot of a tiny waterfall. It’s a good place to relax, but – again – not only is swimming prohibited for environmental reasons (however tempting on a hot day), but the wet chalk rim of the pool makes it difficult to climb back out again. Play it safe and stay dry.
There is a more adventurous option than simply retracing your steps to your car. A short distance before the water hole, and on the right side of the canyon as you approach it, there is a narrow and easy-to-miss flight of steps carved out of the chalk. It takes you up to the narrow plateau above the waterfall (rein in your kids!), and then deeper into the canyon through a stand of poplars toward the modest spring at the far end.
From the plateau, the main trail cuts up the slope to your right, then climbs the towering cliff in a series of switchbacks and two steel ladders.
It’s not as intimidating as it sounds, as long as you have good footwear, no serious medical condition, and don’t freeze with fear when you stand on a chair to change a light-bulb. The view from the top is worth all the panting and wheezing.
Here’s the catch. The steps and the climb are one-way trails. You need a designated driver to take your vehicle back onto Route 40, drive about 4 kms south, and then turn off to the left (east) at the brown sign that again directs you to Ein Avdat – only this time to the panoramic view.
The remains of a small Byzantine guard tower near the edge of the cliff are testimony to the importance of every water source in the desert. Some 1,500 years ago, it was an outpost of the ancient town of Avdat, located just a few more kilometers to the south.
• Drinking water, hats and decent footwear (sports shoes or firm sandals) are essential.
• There are restrooms and drinking fountains at both ends of the trail.
• The reserve is administered by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority: there is an entrance fee.
To access the canyon, leave Route 40 at “Midreshet Sde Boker”, the research and educational complex 2 kms south of the Kibbutz Sde Boker (the village). As you reach the gate of the complex, turn right at the traffic circle. The name of the park is clearly marked. Beyond the ticket office, a good road winds down toward the canyon.
At the level of the ticket office there is (free) access to a park that includes the graves of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, and his wife Paula. It offers a great view of the Zin Valley and Ein Avdat itself. The couple lived out their last years on the kibbutz nearby, and it was Ben-Gurion’s vision of settling the desert that inspired the thriving institutions that share this campus.
Open April-October (Daylight Saving Time), 8am-5pm; November-March, 8am-4pm; closes one hour earlier on Fridays and eve of Jewish religious holidays; last entrance one hour before closing.
Entrance fee: Adults NIS 29, child NIS 15.
Tel. numbers: 08-655-5684, 08-655-441