The lowest place on earth, the Dead Sea (431m below sea level) brings together breathtaking natural beauty, compelling ancient history and modern mineral spas that soothe and pamper every fibre of your body. The jagged bluffs of the Judean Desert, cleft by dry canyons that turn into raging tan-coloured torrents after a cloudburst, rise from the cobalt blue waters of the Dead Sea, heavy with salt and oily with minerals.
In oases such as Ein Gedi, year-round springs nourish vegetation so lush it’s often been compared to the Garden of Eden. Atop the bluffs lies the arid moonscape of the Judean Desert; in the valley, human beings have been hard at work for millennia, building Masada and Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found) in ancient times and, more recently creating kibbutzim (Jewish communal settlements often opened as guesthouses), luxury hotels, hiking trails and bike paths.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Dead Sea.
This reserve consists of two roughly parallel canyons, Wadi David and Wadi Arugot, each of which has its own entrance complex and ticket office. It is also home to an ancient synagogue. When you buy your ticket, you receive a colour-coded map-brochure that has invaluable details on the area’s trails (indicated using the same colours as the trail markings), how long each route takes, and the times by which you need to begin each circuit to finish by closing time. Park rangers make sure that visitors do not enter the park before it opens or stick around after closing time (they can fine violators 365NIS). The reason: desert animals such as the wolf, jackal and fox need some people-less peace and quiet to search for food and drink (the reserve has the only year-round water sources in the entire area). The last time a critically endangered Arabian leopard (Panthera pardus nimr) was spotted in the Ein Gedi area – carrying off Kibbutz Ein Gedi house pets for dinner – was in 2006. The species is now presumed to be extinct here. Eating, smoking and pets are not allowed in the reserve.
Running the length of Ein Bokek's hotel zone, this broad, clean beach – refurbished as a free, fully public amenity – is gloriously sandy. Arguably, the best Dead Sea beach in Israel, it has an attractive promenade, lifeguards (7am to 6pm, to 4pm in winter), shade shelters, open-air showers, gym equipment, changing rooms, bathrooms and night-time lighting. Facilities such as beach chairs are reserved for hotel guests.
Generally less crowded but no less lovely than Wadi David, Wadi Arugot has a couple of streamside trails, rich in vegetation, that afford hikers an excellent introduction to the oasis' geography and ecosystems. Some routes are quite challenging, especially so in the midday heat. Most people linger in the small pools rather than push themselves to the top. Hikers must leave the upper reaches of Wadi Arugot (Nahal Arugot), ie the area above the Hidden Waterfall (HaMapal HaNistar), including the Upper Pools (HaBreichot HaElyonot), by 2pm (3pm during daylight savings time) to exit the reserve by closing time. The Wadi Arugot ticket office complex, a 20- to 30-minute walk (or a five-minute drive) from the Wadi David car park, has free lockers, a small refreshment counter with ice cream and cold drinks, and a shop that sells SPNI 1:50,000-scale trail maps.
Ein Gedi Nature Reserve’s most accessible – and popular – pools and waterfalls are situated along Lower Wadi David (Nahal David Tachton), ie the area downstream from David’s Waterfall (Mapal David; one hour return). The entrance pavilion has bathrooms where you can change into your bathing suit, free lockers (ask staff for a key) and free cooled drinking water. The refreshments counter and adjacent shop sell sandwiches, ice cream, snacks and drinks, including espresso. If you don’t have an empty bottle for water, ask staff for one that’s on the way to being recycled. To get to Upper Wadi David (Nahal David Elyon), which is significantly less crowded, head up the trail that climbs the south wall of the canyon. A bit past tiny Shulamit’s Spring (Ma’ayan Shulamit) is a T-junction: go right and you’ll head down the slope to the section of Wadi David above David’s Waterfall, including Dodim Cave (Lovers’ Cave); hanging a left takes you to a Chalcolithic Temple (3000 BCE), the pools of Ein Gedi Spring (most of whose mineral water is diverted and bottled by Kibbutz Ein Gedi) and, near the base of Wadi Arugot, an archaeological site known as Tel Goren (7th to 8th century BCE). Wadi David can get crowded, especially on Jewish holidays and on days when raucous coach loads of schoolkids are around. The first 400m of the trail, to the first waterfall, are fully accessible to wheelchairs.
Situated about midway between the Wadi David and Wadi Arugot ticket offices, this 5th-century-CE synagogue sports a superb mosaic floor decorated with the 12 signs of the Zodiac and three Aramaic inscriptions, one of which calls down a curse on anyone who is quarrelsome, slanderous or larcenous. A small model of the synagogue as it looked 1600 years ago was added in 2016. Excavations are still ongoing, and the construction of a small shop is in the works.
These famous botanic gardens, near the entrance to the kibbutz, are home to about a thousand species of indigenous and exotic plants, from near-mythological biblical species such as frankincense and myrrh to the highly poisonous Sodom apple, and from gargantuan baobab trees to tiny plants that can survive with minuscule quantities of water.