From the Jesus Trail to the Israel Trail

I’ve been spending the last month working on various hiking-related things in connection with the Jesus Trail – mapping out new routes for the trail network, starting to lead group hikes with the Galilee Hiking Club, and creating an English translation of the keys to Israel’s hiking maps.

Nearly all my backpacking experience has been in the Galilee, or at least in Israel. Hiking was one of the things I most wanted to do on coming back to this region, although I hadn’t done much of it the first time – a walk down the well-known Wadi Qelt in the West Bank, and a bit of the Jesus Trail, back in its early days before it was even marked. But I enjoyed being out on the trails, and learning the landscape by walking it, enough that hiking has ended up being my primary pastime on my second trip in the Middle East.

I first got started by hiking routes outlined in the Jesus Trail guidebook, which made it an easy transition, as it outlines great hikes as well as how to reach them by public transportation. Then I discovered the set of hiking maps published by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI). The 20 maps show the topography and trails over all of Israel and the Palestinian territories and are the only navigational tool you need for backpacking or navigating through the entire area – assuming you can read Hebrew. I taught myself how to read it on my first trip over here, and on this trip I got enough practice to become pretty fluent at it.

So with the maps, I’ve discovered all kinds of amazing hikes and done a good bit of off-trail exploring too, some of it pretty harrowing, like making my way down a hundred-meter cliff, hopping from boulder to boulder. I’ve camped out under eucalyptus trees with forest animals scurrying all around me and foiling my attempts at making my food inaccessible to them – I woke up one morning to find half a loaf of bread had been nibbled out through a tiny hole in the corner of the bag! And I’ve gained a kind of knowledge of the lay of the land that can only be had by both geeking out over maps (which is sometimes almost as fun as actually hiking) and then getting out on the trails, and seeing and feeling the terrain firsthand.

This kind of experience is both satisfying as someone who loves being outdoors and experiencing the land and nature, and enlightening to anyone who’s interested in the history of a place. I’ve stumbled across countless ruins, both ancient and modern, and looked over plenty of panoramas that are packed full of the sites of ancient battles, stories and legends. To people living in biblical times, the shape and content of the land would have been second nature to them, thanks to a lifetime of walking. Driving down a highway does not immerse you in the visceral experience of a landscape; slogging up a mountain, loaded down with supplies, definitely does.

While much of the Galilee today is carved up into rectangular farm plots and littered with prefabricated housing developments, there are still places where you can feel you’ve moved back in time. Mount Moreh, just south of Nazareth, is one of my favorites. Walking along its rocky peak and through orchards of crooked olive trees, you can watch the sunlight go down on the hills of Jordan across the valley and imagine any of those who came to this mountain in the past seeing the same thing: Gideon, King Saul, the Mongols, the villagers who have tended the olive trees for generations.

All the trekking I’ve done so far was what prepared me for the idea of doing a serious, long-distance hike. Israel has just the thing, the Israel National Trail. It’s a thousand-kilometer route from the northern to the southern edge of the country, and is mostly hiked by Israelis, though it seems more foreigners are getting into it as well. It’ll definitely be more difficult than week-long backpacking trips in the Galilee, due to its length, and due to the isolated desert areas in the south, where stashing supplies ahead is necessary, and long days in the hot sun require stamina, willpower and preparation. Now that I’ve spent so much time hiking here, though, I feel like I’m ready for it, and I’m sure it’s going to be a highlight of my time here and the perfect way to finish off the trip.

Because I’ve enjoyed my time hiking here so much, I wanted others to be able to have the same experience. While the Jesus Trail guidebook is great, it covers only a small part of the region. Although the SPNI talks about producing English versions of the maps, it doesn’t seem high on their list of priorities, so I decided to create a resource that I hoped would be useful for others. I created an English translation of the maps’ key, and of common terms found on the maps, plus a guide to pronunciation of place names in Hebrew. You can now download it free from the Jesus Trail website or pick it up at the Jesus Trail office in the Fauzi Azar Inn in Nazareth, or from the SPNI’s main office in Jerusalem. With this key, you can take out any of the set of 20 maps and hit the trails right away, with the ability to identify all the markings, read the names of towns and, in case of emergency, describe your location to someone over the phone.

I hope this translation gets plenty of use – as well as making my time worth it, I think it will give lots of people the little bit of extra help they need to motivate them to do tourism in an unusual way and hike independently through this region. Happy hiking!

photos by Julian Bender