The room was even better than the one on the website: big, airy and contemporary, with sliding doors opening onto a huge deck that looked over the powder-blue Dead Sea and across to the amber hills of Jordan on the other side.
I slid the doors open, and Mardena and I stepped out. Man, I thought, looking around, a hundred bucks. With breakfast!
Driving to Our Hostel
I was pumped. Mardena and I had rented a car that afternoon in Jerusalem and driven two hours to the Ein Gedi Youth Hostel, three buildings built into a rocky hillside above the Israeli shoreline.
Sure, for a hostel it seemed a little pricey, but it was nicer than any hotel we’d stayed in. And the view!
We dumped our packs and headed back to reception to ask about hikes.
The desk clerk, a young guy with flowing black hair and a wild beard, told us that the best one, a three-mile trek through a canyon named Wadi Arugot, started a half mile south.
It was too late to start that day. The temperature was in the 90s and there wasn’t a lot of daylight left. We’d try it the following day.
Hiking in Wadi Arugot
Early the next morning, when I stepped out on our deck, it was already warm and muggy. The forecast was for 102 F, unseasonably hot for mid-May.
Our plan was to hike Wadi Arugot first, then drive south to Ein Bokek, an Israeli seaside resort, for a float in the Dead Sea that afternoon.
We got to Wadi Arugot at 9 AM, paid the entry fee, bought two liters of icy water to supplement what we’d brought, and started along a trail that would culminate 3 miles later in a series of “upper pools.”
The incline was mercifully gentle, with an occasional clamber over a ledge, and a dip here and there into a rocky stream bed.
Ahead, on each side of us, massive sandstone bluffs angled down into the Wadi basin, the “V” they formed backstopped in the distance by a towering wall of rock and sky.
Just below us, a stream gurgled along through boulders and bushes.
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.
Meeting Other Hikers
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.
For me, the site’s most poignant feature was the earthen ramp built by Roman armies two thousand years earlier to assault the fortress from the rear.
On the last day of their lives, realizing they’d be overrun the next morning, the Jewish inhabitants committed suicide.
The lavish Northern Palace containing Herod’s private rooms and a reception hall was, to my mind, Masada’s most impressive structure.
Clinging to the northern edge of the butte, it was also surprisingly free of people, maybe because the steep metal staircase that wound down to it from above felt like it was suspended in air.
Life in the Harsh Environment
The massive cisterns for capturing rainfall, the extensive food storage rooms, and the in-ground baths were reminders of the hard work it must have taken to support life in that harsh environment.
The tourist center at the base of Masada houses a large cafeteria with buffet meals as well as smaller items like falafel, hummus, and hamburgers.
One evening when our hostel wasn’t serving dinner, Mardena and I drove to Masada, bought meals, and brought them back to our room. Take note: during tourist season, the cafeteria can be a madhouse at lunch hour.
For outdoor adventure in Israel, it doesn’t get much better than the Dead Sea region. The region is steeped in history and color, and there are activities to satisfy everyone from tour-busers to backpackers.
If you’ll be there for more than a day, keep the Ein Gedi Youth Hostel in mind.
The rooms are attractive, the price is right, and best of all, at day’s end you can head to your deck, pull up a lounge chair, and bask in a view as pretty as a postcard.
If You Go:
Ein Gedi Youth Hostel:
The more expensive Ein Gedi Kibbutz Hotel nearby:
Masada Youth Hostel:
Information on Wadi Arugot:
Information on Masada:
Information on Ein Bokek and the Dead Sea Region:
Author Bio: Paul Michelson has contributed to Go Nomad, In Travel, In the Fray, Clevermag and a number of other travel and humor magazines. He lives in Davis, California.