Points of Interest
The small town of Mitzpe Ramon is located right on the edge of one of Israel’s most amazing natural wonders- the largest erosion crater in the world- the Ramon Crater.
This 40km long, 11km wide valley features limestone cliffs all around and soft rolling hills of sandstone on the inside.
The scenery from the town’s promenade is spectacular any time of day, any day of the year, but is especially recommended during sunset.
After sun-down you can enjoy one of the best stargazing opportunities in the world thanks to clear skies, high elevation and little light and air pollution. Just remember to dress warmly (even in the summer).
Being the most isolated community in Israel (40 km away from its nearest neighbors), the town has developed a unique atmosphere and a pace of its own. What was once the industrial quarter of the town, has transformed into an indie tourism area with galleries, organic coffee shops, restaurants, a natural-soap factory, music venues and even a dance school. Because of it’s size (only 5000 registered residents), some nights of the week seem somewhat sleepy, but during music festivals, holidays and astronomy events the atmosphere is live, hip and friendly.
Must see- if you visit Mitzpe Ramon in the fall or in the spring, do your best to get up early and catch the “cloud falls”- streams of night mist that get blown over the cliff and into the crater by the early morning breeze.
The City of Avdat
What started as just a rest stop along the spice route, developed over 2000 years ago, into a full grown city with houses, a market street, temples and later churches, wine presses (yes, in the desert) a fort and a camp for the roman legion.
Avdat is one of six Nabatean cities in Israel’s Negev desert, and was declared a UNESCO world heritage site.
This city, located on a cliff-crowned hill, dominates the surrounding valley which was once full of the fields and orchards that fed the city inhabitants.
The city of Avdat was named after a Nabatean king that was so idolized by his people that he was declared a god after his death.
The Nabatean people dominated these deserts and monopolized the trade in incense thanks to their exceptional skill in finding collecting and storing water in the desert.
Caravans of hundreds of camels crossed the desert carrying precious goods, and from their capitol, Petra, in today’s Jordan, they traveled across the Israeli Negev to the harbor city of Gaza, bringing back great wealth that financed the construction of their magnificent cities.
These cities became their weakness as they could no longer use their nomadity and the harshness of the desert for their protection. By the end of the first century, AD, the Nabatean kingdom was annexed into the Roman empire. An alternative route through the seas was found to replace the desert spice route and the rise of Christianity brought a decline to the demand of frankincense. After the Muslim conquest of this region the Nabatean cities dwindled, one by one, and were eventually abandoned.
Must see- If you’re already detouring through the city of Avdat, do not miss the underground dwellings on the slope of the hill. Quite a creative solution for living in the harsh climate of this region.
Two springs in the same canyon actually share this name. Upper Ein Akev is the smaller of the two.
This is a long shallow pool covered almost completely by the dense growth of reeds emerging from the water. Also present are Tamerisk bushes and Lillys.
The water is only exposed in one small section- enough to wash you face. The contrast between the bright white of the bare cliffs of the canyon and the lush green of the vegetation around the pool is truly striking.
Three kilometers down canyon you’ll come to a drop on the canyon floor and an impressive waterfall. Most days of the year there is only a trickle falling down into the deep pool of Lower Ein Akev. Only when a flash-flood fills the canyon, two or three times a year, does the fall reveal its full potetial, when a wide front of advancing water gets funneled down the fall and flushes through the pool.
Ein Akev pool is very deep and a great spot for resting. The water is cool if not cold, and is constantly refreshed by the continuous trickle.
Ein ZIk / Ein Shviv
Ground water emerges here, from the same source, out to two spots along the same canyon, both bearing Hebrew translations of the Arabic original name-Ein Shahabia, which means “The spring of the Spark”.
Alongside the Tamarisk and Saltbush, two unique trees grow here in lush groves: Wild Date trees and broad-leaf Poplars, both of which are not usual desert inhabitants. While the Date trees can be explained simply by the large amount of water that is available here relatively close to the surface, the presence of Poplars, a tree that belongs in cooler environments and can be found today mainly in the upper GallilIee, demands a more thorough explanation.
The most recent botanical research has proposed the following theory: Poplars, like several other plants, are, in fact, botanical relics from an age of colder climate. Back during the last ice age the Poplars grew here in large numbers and dominated the landscape. When the climate started warming up, these trees gradually disappeared from the hilltops and bare slopes, which were the least hospitable areas. As the desertification process continued the Poplars were all but extinct from this region, surviving only in shaded canyons with plenty of water- here around Ein Shviv and Ein Zik and in Ein avdat next to Ben Guryon College.
Thirsty Snake tunnels
Parts of your hike will follow a straight dirt road wide enough, for the most part, for three vehicles (at least) to park side by side. This is, in fact, the service road for a burried pipline, operated by ”KATZA” or EAPC- Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company. This pipline was built mostly in the 60s
During it’s construction, and after, many attempts were made to create other projects for storing, refining and marketing the oil that flowed through the pipeline.
One of the plans was to dig enormous strategic underground reservoirs, that would serve as an emergency “gas station” for the country.
a Budget was allocated and contractors were hired but only after a few months of digging, did a flooding experiment show that the project needed to be abandoned: Water was pumped into the tunnels that had been dug until that point, and all of the entrances were sealed off. It didn’t take long before cracks in the surrounding rock allowed the water to escape- just like any fuels would have, had the caves been filled with them.
During the first gulf war, when Iraqi rockets were being fired at Israeli cities every night, the tunnels were put to secondary use as fake bunkers for air strike training by the air force. Israeli jets flew several sorties of Bunker-Buster bombs against the entrances to the tunnels to test the penetration power in the event the IDF was forced to strike in Iraq. The war ended without an Israeli strike, but some of the damage of those practice bombings can still be seen today.
The tunnels have never been stabilized and are considered unstable, and the entrances especially have been damaged by the weather and the bombings so entering the tunnels is extremely dangerous!
As you climb up from the Zin Valley onto the plato, you’ll come across the ruins of a small village.
This is the Sharav ruin that dates back to the early Muslim period (7-8 century AD). This is one of only a handful of ruins from this period in the entire Negev.
The Muslim conquest of the Negev was not a destructive one, for the most part, and the settlement of villages and towns in the Negev shows a contentiousness in the transition from the byzantine (christian- Roman) empire to the new Muslim conquerors.
The new religion might have appealed to these isolated villagers, and they built a small humble mosque on the top of the small hill that overlooks the village. The structure indicates the direction of prayer towards Mecca.
Hidden under the waterfall of Hava canyon is one of the most precious sources of water in this area. The location of the Hava watering hole marks a geological shift along the course of one of the major drainage systems of the Ramon ridge. Starting just east of the town of Mitzpe Ramon, on the edge of the great crater, the Hava drainage has carved a wide U shaped valley through the Avdat Plato. It meanders in wide curves between table-top formations all the way to this spot where it suddenly drops down this fall and is forced into a deep cliffy canyon. This transition is brought upon because of a change in the surrounding rock and, more importantly, because of the low basin created by the Zin valley, downstream from this point.
Because of the narrow deep canyon, this watering hole is kept shaded almost throughout the day, even in mid summer. The hard layered rocks have kept this canyon very narrow, forcing the water to collect into a narrow, deep hole- thus ensuring a small surface area. Both these factors together ensure a relatively slow rate of evaporation. Add to this a relatively large tributary area, beginning from Mitzpe Ramon and the entire eastern rim of the crater and the result is a source of water that can be counted on throughout the year both in quantity and quality.
Nowadays hikers and travelers enjoy the chilling water when dipping in it, but sources of water like this are scarce in the desert. Animals and humans alike depend on them for their survival, and no traditional desert nomad would ever dream of dirtying such a precious source of drinking water by bathing in it.
The abundance of water is demonstrated even more by the presence of Fig trees growing from cracks in the wall. These seemingly out-of-place plants are taking advantage of the micro climate created within the canyon and continue to spread and grow. It is likely that the first Fig seed was brought here by birds.
The trail that leads down into the canyon is, in fact, an ancient pack trail, demonstrating the importance of the Hava watering hole and the Hava spring, just 2 km down canyon from here, throughout human history.
Over 2000 years ago, when caravans of camels, loaded with precious frankincense and Myrrh crossed this desert from Petra to Gaza, or more specifically in this place- accross the Ramon crater and up to the city of Avdat, the main route that climbed up the solid cliff, was the Mahmal ascent. At the top of this narrow trail, a guard station, this stronghold was built to protect the pass and regulate the traffic.
Soldiers were stationed here and looked after the trails, collected tax from the caravans, and prevented robbers from attacking the caravans when
they were most vulnerable:
climbing up the trail, single file, focusing most of their attention at directing the camels up the strenuous climb.
Water for the inhabitants of the stronghold came from a built cistern that is located less than a kilometer north, where rain water from the slopes could be diverted to.
From the stronghold you can see the sandy hills of the Mahmal valley- the northwest part of the Ramon crater. The dominant mountain across the valley is mt. Ardon- your destination for tonight.
To your right you can see the wide dirt road of KATZA (the pipline) as it continues through the crater. It too drops down the solid cliff, and in order to achieve that, a massive trench was blasted through the cliff to allow for the laying of the pipe. The trench is hidden from you now, but it will be visible from the bottom of the ascent.
While you’re trying to catch your breath from the steep climb, you might be comforted to know that mt. Ardon is not a mountain at all.
This is a classic case of reversed topography. The Ramon crater is all that remains from a once massive marine mountain that rose from the ocean as an Island.
The erosion mechanism that created the crater actually trimmed off the top of this mountain/island, and eventually emptied its inside.
One of the results of this is that what was once just a slope at the foothills of this mountain, perhaps even close to the level of the water, was left hanging high above the bottom of the “hole” that replaced the mountain.
Mt. Ardon seperates two valleys that make up the northestern side of the crater, and because of it’s central location it offers an amazing view down the middle of the crater.
Wadi Ardon presents some of the most beatiful examples of geological wonders that hide in the Ramon crater.
Over the past 5 million years rain water has eroded and carved its way into the ancient rocks of the Mahmal ridge. Here in wadi ardon, the seam between tilted layers of gypsum from the triasic period and the Jurasic period layers laying on top of them- limestone, sandstone and clay, has become a weakness point, where countless floods have carved this beautiful canyon. On the north side of the canyon a beautiful exposure of layered rock is exposed, with an amazing variety of colors. It is surprising how few elements actually participate in this artwork- Oxygen, Sulfur, Iron and Manganese. Different combinations of these elements create almost all of the colors exposed here: Iron-oxide, for example, contributes the red and orange shades, while a compound of Iron and Sulfur paints the very distinct green layer.In select locations, the continuous horizontal layers are broken up by what seems to be a vertical wall of rock. These are magmatic intrusions- “DIKEs”, which are the result of molten rock being injected into cracks (some tens of kilometers long) in the rock and then cooling off. This happened deep underground sometime between the Jurasic period and the early Cretaceous, some 180-140 million years ago.
The heat of the lava baked the surrounding rock on both side of the crack, and metamorphosed them, but also cooled off relatively quickly because of it’s large surface area and relative small volume, leaving behind a vertical wall of volcanic rock.
As the wadi eroded and deepened, it exposed these buried lines to the surface. Though they are only exposed in the crater, they are all pointing towards the source of magmatic material that they originate from. Connect all of these lines on a map- and they will meet. The meeting spot is outside of the crater and is just a small bump in the topography, but under the surface hides the cooled off source of what was once immense volcanic pressure.
Dated to about 2000 years ago, this caravan stop is one of the stops of the incense route from Petra to Gaza. in 2005, this ancient route and all of the sites along it were declared a world heritage site by UNESCO.
The structure is not a fortress but is fortified in a way that guarantied protection for the night to the merchants and camel drivers of the many caravans that the Nabatians used to transport good across the desert with. It also features storage rooms, sleeping quarters for distinguished visitors and a kitchen with a large oven that produced meals for a crowed of tired caravan folk.
This compound could not exist without the presence of water nearby. Ein Saharonim, a small spring, marked during most days just by the patch of vegetation to the west, was probably the main source of water for the KHAN (“rest stop” in Hebrew and Arabic).
Stops like this one were established within one day’s walk (by camel) from each other- about 34km. To the north one day of walking would take a camel to the City of Avdat, and in the other direction you would reach Moa, in the arava valley. The road was proteceted by strongholds like the one you passed at Mahmal stronghold or in Katzra- half a day’s walk to the east. In some spots milestones from the road can still be found. Most of those were placed by the Roman Legion, after the Nabatian kingdom was annexed into the Roman Empire and became the province Arabia in the year 106.