For a country so complicated, Israel is small—so small you could walk the length of it. And people do.
The Shvil Israel, or Israel National Trail (INT), traces the length of the country from Kibbutz Dan, near where Israel meets the borders of Lebanon and Syria in the North, to Eilat in the South, a total of nearly a thousand kilometers (or about 620 miles). Inveterate hikers may take on the full span of the trail, generally at least a two-month enterprise, usually starting in early spring (February to May), before the harsh summer heat sets in. The INT, which National Geographic has deemed one of the world’s “holy grails of hikes,” includes countless breathtaking sights. Grand, unpeopled desert vistas in the Negev. Ancient monuments to civilizations long gone. The cragged swath of the Makhtesh Ramon, where Nubian ibexes stroll as casually as proprietors. Valleys blanketed with neon-bright wildflowers. A long stretch looking out at the sparkling Mediterranean between Tel Aviv and Haifa. Verdant hills and deep-green forests. If the season is right and the rains have cooperated, there is water in the form of rivulets, rivers, waterfalls, the Red Sea, the Sea of Galilee, and more.
Hikers who are less ambitious—or who don’t have weeks to devote to this undertaking—may choose to walk one of the trail’s twelve subsections or discover their own passages, or they may opt for single-day excursions—up to the top of Mount Tabor, for example, to look out over the Jezreel Valley to Mount Carmel and the Galilee.
Israel’s stunning wilderness may be the chief focus of the INT, but the country’s people also play an important part on this path: the route winds through functioning kibbutzim, and Arab and Druze towns, and there are opportunities to touch base in Haifa, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and other cities and towns along the way. There are so-called “trail angels”: people who live near the route and offer hikers a hand should they need it, or sometimes a place to shower or sleep, or simply a much-needed chat and a refill for their water bottles.
There are no buses that follow the INT, little cell-phone connection, no guided tours, no crowds—in fact, there are stretches of days when hikers might not see another soul. What travelers encounter along the way is spiritual on many levels; certainly the summit of Mount Carmel, for example, is sacred to Jews and Christians as well as to Muslims and followers of the Baha’i faith. But such places are so charged with natural beauty and are so transportingly magnificent that everyone who sees them must be stirred and inspired. As humans, no matter our faith or lack of faith, we have in common a capacity to be joyfully overwhelmed by the powerful presence of nature.