The Negev Desert makes up more than half of Israel’s land area and supports a fraction of the population. The largest city of Be’er Sheva is your gateway, and charming settlements and kibbutzim dot the landscape on your way to Eilat and the Red Sea. From the Mediterranean coast, dunes and sandy plains give way to plateaus, etched canyons, craggy mountains, and otherworldly craters. The Negev is a continuation of the Sinai Desert of Egypt; from Israel to the southwest, the land ripples uninterrupted towards the Sinai high ranges. To the southeast, it yields to the Arava valley, the great rift that cascades north, down to the Dead Sea, and east into Jordan. From the southern and eastern Negev, it is easy to admire the Moav and Edom mountains beyond the border.
Hiking in the Negev should be on your bucket list, even if it’s just a dream. This expanse of desert holds secrets in animal and water, stone and sun. Come wander the trails and sink into a pace of life that reflects the land: patient, colorful, and austere.
10. Enjoy the Desert Anytime of the Year
Unlike forest walks and alpine treks, which are generally only navigable in the high summer season, your next desert trek can begin at almost any time of the year. Not only Winter but also Spring, Fall, and even Summer offer unique opportunities to explore the Negev. Much of the Negev is situated at a moderate elevation, with many peaks reaching 1,000 meters above sea level. In this Negev highland, hikers enjoy summers much cooler and drier than Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. A hike here in the fall or winter also leaves room for precious summer hikes in the high country. Hikers should always wear a hat, sunscreen, and take more water than you think you will need (three to four liters per day, per person). Keep more water in your car, if you have one, should you encounter any trouble.
9. Watch the Desert Bloom
It’s a gray, stormy evening, and you think you won’t be able to hike tomorrow. You wake up, the sun is shining again, and as you set out, you notice a color you haven’t seen since your bus left Jerusalem: Green. Thanks to just a sprinkling of rain compared to other climates, the Negev can bloom overnight. Every creature thrives on his ration of water and takes advantage immediately, like the small, white-shelled snails, who are active for only a few days following a winter rain, and so must feed, mate, and lay eggs before beginning another cycle of dormancy. If you arrive in the Spring, you will be amazed by flowering displays of buckthorn, globe daisy, tulip, and Jacob’s rod.
8. A Diverse Landscape Like No Other
If your trip begins in Mitzpe Ramon, you have a vast crater and days of exploration ahead of you. Steep red mountains, wide and verdant wadis (dry riverbeds), and black volcanic mounds offer a fraction of the Negev’s climate, landscape, and ecosystems. Take the bus north to Ein Avdat, and a canyon, chalky white with vertical walls, will greet you; within you will again see the miracle of water in the desert. Head south to the Eilat Mountains, and the innumerable ranges of the Sinai will lay before you, and the glittering Red Sea beckons below.
7. Trails are Accessible for Any Traveler
Whatever way you get here, the trails are waiting. From the town of Mitzpe Ramon, trails start immediately into the crater, offering days of exploration, no car required. The latest installment in trails is the Sovev Makhtesh, a 132km, eight-day trek which passes through town and circumnavigates the canyon in question. Ein Avdat and Ein Akev, in the Zin Valley, are accessible by bus from local accommodations, and are no second to the crater. If you travel by car, you’ll be able to find exciting day hikes off paved and navigable dirt roads. For the thrifty and adventurous, it’s entirely possible to hitchhike to or from many trailheads up and down the Negev. Ask your hostel or host for the best hitching practices.
6. Humble Yourself in History
The Negev is a place to feel small. On display for every kilometer is the region’s deep geologic history. Smooth stone indicates patient erosion by rain and wind, and fossils tell a story of creatures long gone. This is a timeless landscape, ancient and steady. Man’s history, short in comparison, is visible along the old Incense Route. UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Avdat, Shivta, Mamshit and Haluza were once critical cities for protecting the trade of spices from as far as India. On hikes you may discover prehistoric pictographs, stone etchings from thousands of years ago. Man-made or of the earth, the Negev’s history will surely humble the watchful traveler.
5. Stargazing under the Dark Sky
If you’re anything like me, you can’t wait to be out in the country. Tel Aviv is shiny and all, but open sky and wide horizons is my kind of weekend buzz. Welcome to the land of dark skies, which is nearly impossible to find in Israel’s coastal region. The Negev night offers normally cloudless skies with pristine stargazing opportunities, thanks to minimal light pollution. Many settlements offer stargazing tours to give you a hand in identifying constellations. Me? I like to lay out by the Ramon Crater and simply look up.
4. Hiking is Safe
Hiking is safe in the Negev. You can even tell your mom, and tell her not to worry. Trails in Israel are some of the best marked trails by Western standards. Blazed trails will be painted with three stripes, most commonly a color flanked by two white stripes. Find them on large stones, and follow the direction they point. Know which color you are supposed to follow. While you aren’t guaranteed not to get lost, the markings make it difficult. With over 9,000 km of trails, Israel has no shortage of safe and exciting opportunities to get you out. You must stay on marked trails and should check in with the local visitors center. Let someone know where you are going.
3. Witness the Desert’s Unique Wildlife
When I first came to the Negev, I was baffled to see a dozen ibex scaling the Zin Valley at Sde Boker. This regional mascot, the Nubian ibex, with sweeping horns and deft climbing ability, may be the most memorable for passerby, but those who venture into the desert will find many more fascinating denizens of this arid land. The Aravah Valley, adjacent to the Negev, is one of the world’s major migration flyways, and sees hundreds of thousands of birds every year. The Negev plays hosts to many migratory and residential species, so when you stop for lunch in the shade of a canyon, watch the cliffs and the sky. Reptiles, insects, and arachnids such as the scorpion make up an immense population of crawling critters, as do rodents and other mammals. Meeting them takes patience and respect--keep a distance, and please do not feed anyone!
2. Hiker-Friendly and Hip Culture
I seek out hiker culture as much as I seek out trails. If one is good, the other will be a worthy equal. New Jerseyans, you may want to sit down for this: hitchhiking is common practice in the Negev (and Golan), and may be your best bet on getting back to your hostel for a drink. Picture this: A 30-something in a VW Golf leans across the seat to open the door for you, foot on the brake, his other arm elbow-deep in a bag of Bamba, and the bass is blaring. The AC is, too, so you get in. Israelis are happy to give you a lift, and will ask you as many questions as you answer. What could be a better welcome to the the area? In holdouts like Mitzpe, Ezuz, and Shitim, artists, musicians and yogis play their desert muses. While not a genetic element of trail culture, these countercultures are as delicious to dive into as a Goldstar after a long hiking day under the sun.
1. Quiet Yourself in the Desert’s Meditative Stillness
As a traveler, I ask you to be mindful of your surroundings, however unfamiliar or startling. As the sun reaches its zenith and all creatures gather their food and make their homes, the height of activity is performed with grace and attention. You can see by example how to be still and attentive here. You don’t need to have an established practice to enter stillness. Partake in a sunset vista at Camel Hill, a sunrise hike up Masada, or simply walk the quiet, dark streets of your home away from home. Stillness and peace will beckon; all you have to do is give in.
The Negev is a special place, and a destination of its own, apart from the rest of Israel. History, epic scenery, wildlife, or culture may draw you in, and the dark skies, minute details, and absolute peace will make you stay.