Dead Sea and Masada Hiking
This is part of a series of articles on kosher travel in Israel. For the map with all places discussed and links to other pages in the series go to the main page at Israel Kosher Vacations for Tourists.
The Dead Sea Region is low and hot. Excepting for the middle of winter, plan to head out early. It easily reaches temperatures of 100 Fahrenheit / 40 Celsius in much of the year. It’s a desert with not too much habitation – it’s South of the “green line” in “Israel proper” and solely a Jewish area, but the quickest route to get there from many places is by driving west from Jerusalem through the Judean Hills. It’s well worth the trip, but highly recommended to plan your activities in advance (and go with a full tank of gas if you drive) because stops are some distance away from each other.
This is the place where the Jews who chose to fight to Romans rather than compromise held up in Herod’s fortress almost 2,000 years ago. Large cisterns were dug to hold water and donkeys traversed the “snake path” (so named by Josephus, and as named today) to bring water and supplies to the top. Numerous ruins have been uncovered including many buildings and some dyed tiles with the dye faded, but clearly visible. It is a common place for bar mitzvahs in what was, or well, is again a synagogue.
There are two paths up Masada – make sure you know which one you’re going up. There is a different road to each, and the roads do not connect. Google Maps / Waze will take you to the “snake path” which is about a 1,300 foot / 400 meter climb. It winds back and forth alternating between hilly traverses, stairs, and inclines. Near the top, railings are more common but it’s a long way down. We did this hike starting out at about 5 am, not because we wanted to see the sunrise particularly, but because it was July and by about 8 am it’s simply too hot and they close the path entirely and the gondola opens. If you’re like us and climb this path in July, no need to speak Hebrew. It was all American (and a few British) at this hour because Israelis do this in the winter months. The river of sweat on my back might have had something to do with it, and once again my now 8 year old daughter had no trouble beating me to the top (see Tannersville trip where the same thing happened at Hunter Mountain).
The other hiking path, if you can call it that, is a the Roman ramp. The Romans couldn’t take the fortress by way of the snake path, and if you climb it you’ll see why. Instead, the built a road and a ramp up the other side. It’s a rather large engineering project which now serves Jewish tourists well. Thanks, I guess, Romans. It reminds me of the passage in the Gemora Succos about the end of days when the nations of the world will be asked to defend their ill treatment of the Jews and they’ll say, “we built great roads for the Jews which they used” and the response will be, “no, you built them for yourself.”
The third way up, opening at 8am, is the gondola. Seeing the top of Masada just isn’t nearly as rewarding unless you do the 1,300 foot climb … it’s something everyone should experience once in their life. Then you arrive at the same gate that the inhabitants arrived at 2,000 years ago . . . and you find the water faucets waiting for you at the top.
The Dead Sea is another thing everyone should experience once in their life. It has among the highest salinity of any body of water in the world (it’s beat by a recently appearing lake in Ethiopia, but that lake is near boiling hot with deadly amounts of sulfur and will kill you). In your typical unsalted or even ocean water, you sink to the bottom and have to treat water to keep afloat. In the Dead Sea, it’s the opposite – you kind of bob there with the water level just beneath your shoulders and have to struggle if you want to touch the bottom. It’s loads of fun.
As of the time of this writing, it’s difficult to find a beach at the Dead Sea. Many of the public beaches are closed due to sink holes which is apparently a thing in this area. The one separate beach that is open is Ein Bokek at a hotel. It’s south of Masada, so the “wrong direction” if you’re planning to travel back North to where most of Israel’s population centers are located. We found out the hard way that Mineral Beach was closed due to sink holes but some of us really, really wanted to go in the Dead Sea and the rest of us were glad we dragged them along. We ended up at Kalia Beach which is at the intersection of routes 1 and 90 at the northern end of the Dead Sea.
A few notes about Kalia beach – first, at the intersection is a gas station. Fill up here if you need it because you won’t find another gas station along route 90 for a long, long time. We drove back on fumes, stopping at every place and being told, “no gas station here… go maybe [5/10/15/20/other random number] kilometers up the road” to not find a gas station there either making me wonder if Israelis can estimate distance. Second, Kalia beach is a bit less than an hour out of Yerushayim so if you just want to go to the Dead Sea to swim, it’s a pretty easy trip. Third, it’s a mixed beach. That being said, most but not all women were fairly covered up to protect their skin from the sun. In fact, while we didn’t go to mixed beaches on the Mediterranean, women in Israel seem to tend to be more tznious than women in the United States. Kalia beach was actually filled with Chinese tourists, many of which covered themselves head to toe and one with a face mask as well <shrug>. Fourth, Kalia beach is expensive – we heard after the trick is to say you want to go to their store and by some mineral oil and rocks that people apparently rub on their skin for some reason (we got a demo, and I can’t say I understand why you want to rub scratchy rocks on yourself). Then, you go to the beach after and the cost of the silly products is less than the cost of the beach.
There’s the Ahava factory … not much to see. Just an assembly line and gift shop. There’s Qumran where the Dead Sea scrolls were found. There’s no gas station there (as me how I know), but there is a pretty big gift shop because, you know, the Essenes put the scrolls where they’d be safe for 2,000 years so the Pharisees could profit later. My group didn’t seem to want to see past the gift shop, but I’m sure there’s other things there today, too.
There’s Ein Gedi which is one of a few Jewish settlements in the area. By day, the residents aren’t really to be found presumably all in their houses while it’s hot. There is a fresh water spring here and apparently some great hikes. If you’ve been, please elaborate more in the comments for the benefit of others.
This region of Israel is not to be missed. There is unique Jewish history here to be experienced! Even if you’re not Jewish, the hike up Masada and Dead Sea are well worth the trip. Some final pictures are below.