Revel in spectacular views along Israel's epic National Trail
Hikers find community and hospitality on this amazing 620-mile walking path.
Stretching from the farming community of Dan, near the Lebanese border, all the way to the southern resort city of Eilat, the 620-mile Israel National Trail (INT) is one of the Middle East's longest footpaths. Despite being much shorter than the famous Appalachian Trail, the INT offers the same kind of allure as its American counterpart. Hikers come here seeking the chance to walk through many vastly different landscapes, to come in contact with local people and to get an unfiltered look at real life in Israel.
Avraham Tamir, a journalist and one of the founders of the INT, was inspired to pursue the idea of a national footpath during his own hike along the Appalachian Trail in the 1970s. Also, like many long-distance trails, including the Appalachian, the INT has "trail angels." This is a hiking term for local people who offer water, shelter or food to walkers and ask for little or nothing in return.
Due to its route through every major eco-system in Israel, as well as the fact that it passes many of the country's ancient historic sites, National Geographic ranked the INT with other world-famous trails including South Africa's North Drakensberg Traverse, the Continental Divide Trail and the Great Himalaya Trail.
The starkly beautiful Negev Desert. (Photo: Protasov AN/Shutterstock.com)
Hiking the entire length of the INT (called "thru-hiking" in the long-distance walking world) takes between one and two months, with experienced and fit travelers often setting a pace of around 20 miles per day. However, because of the sheer number of noteworthy sites along the way and the chance to socialize with locals and with other hikers, most people tackling the entire trail take six to eight weeks to complete it.
Both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem sit along the route. This means that even though small farms, mountains and empty desert characterize much of the journey, urban Israel is also part of the INT experience.
Despite the romantic appeal of a border-to-border trek through Israel, thru-hikers are only a tiny percentage of the people who set foot on the trail. Most people who trod on the path are day-trippers who visit the most historic sections of the INT, such as the monastery-topped slopes of Mount Tabor.
But the real appeal of an INT journey – experiencing the country's diverse scenery and rural lifestyles – can only be appreciated by thru-hikers. Canyons, the Mediterranean seashore, planted forests, wildflowers (in summer) and stunning sandstone formations mark the northern half of the hike. The trail passes through surprising landscapes such as the little-known oak and birch forest along the Tzipori Stream. Further south, hikers cross paths with Bedouin caravans and get to enjoy the starkly beautiful expanses of the Negev Desert.
Near the summit of Mount Tabor. (Photo: Igor Kokarev/Shutterstock)
As with all epic trails, timing is vital for people who want to hike the INT. Spring is the most popular time to take on the full route, because the fiery Negev Desert summer has not yet arrived, but the cold winter weather has already departed from the higher altitude sections. Autumn has similarly ideal conditions. Since the north is generally cooler and the south warmer, savvy hikers travel south to north in the spring and north to south in the fall to avoid the extremes of each region that the trail passes through.
Writer and guesthouse owner Judith Galblum Pex, who penned a book called "Walk the Land" about her thru-hike on the INT, wrote about the mix of detailed planning and carpe diem attitude that many INT hikers have. She said that some of the hikers that she encountered were not overly concerned with preparing physically, and that they were traveling slowly because "they hadn't spent time training, but were getting into shape as they went along."
"Securing water is one of the chief concerns of anyone traveling in the desert," writes Pex. In remote sections of the Negev, water is scarce, so pre-planning (stashing water or having a local contact deliver it) is necessary. People who don't do this may not be able to complete the walk.
Israel National Trail along the Mediterranean Sea. (Photo: Diana Barshaw/Wikimedia Commons)
In some of the most remote areas, the aforementioned trail angels can offer water, food, a place to sleep for the night or even a chance to shower. Most expect no compensation, though some ask hikers to lend a hand on their farm or pay a token amount to help with the cost of the food and water.
Similar to travelers of Spain's famous El Camino de Santiago, INT hikers can obtain a “passport” that can be stamped at 22 way stations along the trail. These passports prove that a hiker has completed the whole trail.
As every hiker who has crossed the INT off of their "to-walk" list will tell you, the INT provides a chance to experience the intangibles that thru-hikers seek: an unfiltered look at a land and people that can't be adequately captured in photographs.
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