Israel: Adventures on the Dead Sea

A person pauses to look at the sunset over Jordan.
A calm dead sea with Jordan in the distance, the rocks colored red by the evening sun. Photo by Flickr/Pieter van Marion

We crunched over the trail for an hour without seeing another soul. Every half mile we stopped, took a few gulps of water, and gazed at the stunning blue and gold of sky and stone. Finally, passing through some brushy lowlands, we met another hiker, a cheerful young guy with a bulging backpack. The upper pools, he told us, were a half mile ahead.

Twenty minutes later we were there, a string of shimmering turquoise pools twisting through rusty sandstone like a watery necklace.

We found some shade under a cliff and sat down to eat the apples, granola bars, and hard-boiled eggs we’d snatched at breakfast. Across the pools, water poured from a gash in the rock, the exit point for a subterranean river created by winter rains back up in the Judean Desert. The biblical story about Moses striking water from stone, it occurred to me, might not be all that apocryphal.

We packed up and started back. Along the way, voices echoed somewhere above us, hikers who’d found refuge from the sun under a rocky outcropping.

An hour and a quarter later, as we neared the trail entrance, I turned back one last time to gaze at the burnt-orange bluffs. In the far distance, on a plateau high above the pools, tiny figures crept along, hikers on the edge of the Judean Desert, dark silhouettes against the sun.

Swimming in the Dead Sea

I changed into my swim trunks in the parking area and we drove the 20 miles to Ein Bokek, our guidebook’s recommendation for the best beach in the area, and parked in the public lot. The place was deserted. I slipped off my sandals, tender footed it into the sea and settled onto my back while Mardena snapped photos from the shore.

Years earlier, I’d been to Utah’s Great Salt Lake, another body of water renowned for its buoyancy. It’d been fun, but this was a different experience entirely. Here I felt weightless, nodding over the ripples like a cork. The thought that it was the Dead Sea I was bobbing around in was almost as exhilarating as the experience itself.

Otherwise, there wasn’t much to keep us in Ein Bokek. Little more than a smattering of newish hotels, the place seemed pretty soulless. The one nice surprise was the Aroma Cafe in the circular mall across the street from the beach. Mardena and I sat there nursing creamy cappuccinos while gazing at the landscaped greenery outside the mall.

Visiting Masada National Park

The next morning after breakfast, we drove 12 miles south to Masada, the historic butte-top fortress built by King Herod the Great in the first century BCE and occupied later by Jews driven from Jerusalem during the Roman destruction of the second Jewish temple in 70 CE.

I’d planned to walk up the rocky “snake path” that starts at the base of the butte and winds its way up, but by the time we got there it was closed because of the heat. As we rode up in the funicular, we passed over hikers who’d started earlier making their way doggedly to the top.

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