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A road trip through the Israeli Desert

At the beginning of the Israeli summertime, in April 2022, my boys and I went on a family adventure, crossing the Arava desert for a family getaway to the resort city of Eilat, the southernmost point in Israel, on the shores of the Red Sea.
It was a pivotal trip for me for many reasons. It was the first time I had driven so far since getting my driving license, experiencing the barren desert roads on our first vacation since covid hit our world. It was also our first proper trip outside of the Jerusalem area that I’m writing about in my blog.
I hope you’ll enjoy the ride as much as I did!

Driving through the desert

With three little kids in the back of our family car, we survived to tell the tale of our adventure, passing through the largest crater in Israel, Makhtesh Ramon, the Aravah desert, and finally traversing the Eilat mountains to reach our destination, a family, all-inclusive, resort hotel with a water park. We visited the city, enjoyed the desert, and found some cool spots to stop at, which I’ll be recounting in forthcoming posts. But for now, I’ll tell the tale of our road trip through the Israeli desert.

Eilat via scenic forest roads in the Judean mountains

If you wish to embark on your Eilat journey by car from Jerusalem, there are two routes to choose from, each with its’ unique natural sights and experiences. The first, via route no. 90, also known as the Arava route, will take you down to the lowest point on earth, known as the Dead Sea! Mu-Ha-Ha!

Sinkholes in the Dead Sea near Ein Gedi. Photo: Shutterstock

Along this road, you’ll be able to visit some of the most amazing sites Israel has to offer, you could spend a couple of days just exploring this area, worth endless travel stories, but that will have to wait for some other time.

The scenic Jerusalem forest route 386

The second route, the one we took, is via highway no. 40, surrounded by different, yet greener scenery, at least in the first hour and a half of the drive, navigating the picturesque Jerusalem mountains and the Judean lowlands also known as the Shfela with its soft-sloping green hills and rolling fields. Alternatively, you can leave Jerusalem via route no.1, but that means taking the highway and risking getting stuck in morning traffic and missing the breathtaking mountain scenery. The southern part of this route is also traveled when coming to Eilat from Tel Aviv.

A view of the Judean foothills from Tel Marisha

We chose this route because we wanted to visit the Ramon crater and since I prefer taking the routes that in my opinion are the safest. The Arava route is notorious for its’ crazy drivers, where people perform races and whizz past you on the single-lane highway. Whereas route no.40 is calmer and safer, passing through more rural areas, although you’ll probably have your share of crazy Israeli drivers when and wherever you drive.

Driving to Eilat from Jerusalem can take about four and a half hours. With traffic, kids, and breaks, it will obviously be longer. It took us a bit over six hours, with some light traffic, and some short breaks including a picnic lunch.
We hit the road at 10 AM, proceeding along the scenic routes 386 and 375, through the picturesque forests of the Jerusalem mountains and the Judean lowlands, passing notable sights such as Sataf, Hirbet Hanoot, The Valley of Elah (Terebinths), Britannia Park and Khirbet Midras, and one of my favorite archaeological sites the area has to offer, Beit Guvrin, with its’ Roman Amphitheater and Crusader Era church that you can see from the road. Definitely a place worth visiting if you have the time.

The remains of Crusader Era church in Beit Guvrin.

Makhtesh Ramon, the largest erosion cirque in the world

Once we had reached the flatter lands of the Lachish region we connected to highways 6 and 40, which would lead us all the way down south.
We drove non-stop to Rahat Gas station where we had a short refreshment break and from there continued straight to Mitzpe Ramon, situated 860 meters (2,800 feet) above sea level, on a ridge overlooking the magnificent Makhtesh Ramon, a beautiful erosion corrie, the largest in the world. It’s a 500-meter-deep crater that stretches over 40 kilometers and is between two to ten kilometers in width.
Hundreds of millions of years ago, this land, and basically all of Israel, was submerged under the ancient Tethys ocean. As the eons wore on, the ocean eventually receded, exposing a hill, which was flattened by water and climatic forces. Over the next tens of millions of years that followed, changing river courses carved out the exquisite scenery we enjoy today. If you are interested in touring this area I would suggest starting at the Mitzpe Ramon Visitors Center

Enjoying a view of the Makhtesh Ramon canyon from Barak & Amitai observation point

A friend of ours recommended checking out the Camel Hill observation point, where you can enjoy a 360-degree view of the whole area. The hill is accessible from the town, but in order to get to the viewpoint, you’ll have to climb a short dirt road with your car, or if your car isn’t up for a bit off-road, you’ll have to climb it by foot. Normally it’s a piece of cake, but I was extremely tired, with a few more hours on the road headed my way and it was too hot and sunny for me to climb so we decided to skip it and check another lookout instead. Luckily for us, next to it was a nice shaded playground, where we decided to take our picnic lunch break and enjoy the cool breeze. I recommend leaving your car at the parking lot next to the playground and just climbing to the observation point. The dirt road might not be the best for a family car in my opinion.

beware of camels sign

Safety Tip!
Speaking of Camels! When driving in the desert, especially in the areas closer to Beer Sheeva and up to
the Makhtesh, make sure to keep an eye open for camels crossing the road. You should usually be wary
around Bedouin towns and encampments. Just keep an eye out so you won’t hit one, which might end
badly, especially at night. Camel crossing signs appear in those areas, so keep an eye out for them and
stay safe!

Always remember to travel in style. This cool top is by Punk Rave from one of my favorite shops Fantasmagoria.

After lunch, with our bellies full we set back on the road, stopping by Barak & Amitai viewpoint on top of Ma’ale Ha’Azma’ut to enjoy a nice view of the cirque. You can’t miss it, right next to the luxurious Bereshit hotel, a beautiful desert mountain road will open in front of you, where you can park your car, sit and enjoy the magnificent view.

luxury bereshit hotel overlooking ramon crater negev desert
I haven’t gotten the chance to visit the *Bereshit hotel yet, it’s totally out of my budget, but it looks like a perfect place for a romantic gateway. Just look at the amazing view.

If you wish to visit the area and are looking for affordable accommodations, the area offers an array of rentals and inns. One of them is the *Ramon Inn by Isrotel. It’s an affordable budget hotel from the same hotel chain as Bereshit. I haven’t visited the place yet, but its’ reviews and pricing look good. I am considering checking the place out on one of our future vacations to the area.

From this point, we ventured our way down the mountain into the canyon, enjoying a magnificent passage road with barren mountains and scenery varying from white, to yellowish, brownish, reddish, and even black terrain. The scenery is truly out of this world, resembling the landscape of Mars. It’s addictive, and you just can’t stop marveling at the beautiful scenery to the sounds of some good Dark Americana tunes. This area is filled with beautiful hiking trails which I recommend to any hiking or bushcraft fan. Of course, make sure to take the proper security precautions when traveling the desert.

Enjoying a Family vacation in Eilat

Trying to keep my pale look under the shade at the U splash Resort Hotel

Arriving in Eilat a bit after four in the afternoon we stayed at the U splash Resort hotel next to Kibbutz Eilot, just north of Eilat. We really enjoyed the place. It is an all-inclusive hotel designed with a Spanish Mediterranean vibe and a water park for the kids to enjoy. My frugal deal-hunting father-in-law bagged us a really good deal, so we all went together and stayed at the hotel for three days. During our stay, we enjoyed the swimming pools and the perks the hotel has to offer, some shopping, a trip to one of my favorite sites in Israel, the magnificent Timna Park with its’ unique rock formations, and an Egyptian temple to the Goddess Hathor. We also found a local brewery with exclusive beers you can only find in Eilat and Beer Sheva.

The “Solomon pillars” in Timna Park.

I’m going to write separate posts about our stay in Eilat, the beautiful Timna park, and the brewery, so make sure to subscribe to my newsletter to be notified when they are out. For now, here is a little sneak peek at the places we’ve visited.

Local brewery in Eilat, “Hamivshala”. Exclusive to Eilat and Be’er Sheva

I stumbled across a seven-thousand-year-old burial Ground

Trust me to find graves anywhere, I’m just attracted to them, or them to me, whatever it is, I found ancient graves in Eilat as well.

On our last day in Eilat, just before hitting the road back home, we stumbled upon an ancient, seven thousand-year-old burial ground. It is situated next to Nahal Shahamon, a dry river bed that flows from the Eilat mountains, through Eilat into the Red Sea. It’s also a nice trail suitable for novice hikers to travel along. We found this place using the Amud Anan trail app, which I highly recommend using when traveling in Israel. As you probably know, I can’t leave an old cemetery unvisited and we decided, no matter how boiling hot it was, we have to check it out. After our return home, I investigated the net, and what I found, was that this is a super interesting burial and cult site of old, deserving a separate post, so hint hint, make sure to subscribe to my newsletter to be notified when it’s out. 😉

You can’t get enough of those red mountains

A Road Trip Back Home through the Red Mountains

But our stay in the sunny city reached an end, we finished packing and loading our stuff into the car and headed back home. This time we hit the road on a different, more scenic route than when we arrived, the beautiful mountainous route no.12. This 71 km long road stretches along the Egyptian border through the stunning red Eilat mountains. Back in 2011, its southern part experienced a gruesome fate, when a brigade of terrorists invaded the area via the border, shooting a civilian bus and cars resulting in six dead civilians and many injured. After this event, the route got partly closed with limited driving hours. Since then, many precautions were taken by the army, including strengthening the border and placing watchtowers along the route, making it safe for traveling again. I find it to be one of the most beautiful roads in Israel. The views here are breathtaking, just check out the video to see for yourselves.

Along the road, there are several viewpoints where you can stop and marvel at the amazing views. The day we left was super windy and cloudy, not the best for visiting observation points. In some places, we couldn’t even get out of the car because of the wind. We felt as if the wind would blow our car away, turning it into an airplane. However, we managed to stop at one point to admire the view, and luckily we didn’t fly away with the wind.

A lone tree in the windy desert.

The area is filled with hiking trails, most notable being the Red Canyon, but you must be well informed when hiking in these areas, otherwise, it might end up badly. Always make sure to have plenty of water with you, a map, or some other navigation system. Be aware of signs indicating minefields or firing zones. They are hard to miss and usually marked with boulders indicating a fire training area. I haven’t noticed any minefields in the area, however, since we are next to the border, I would still keep an eye out for signs indicating this. They’ll be usually fenced off with signs saying minefield ahead.

While the southern part of route 12 has pastoral desert views and fields, the northern has a post-apocalyptic vibe to it. Here, you can’t travel off-road, since it’s a firing zone across both sides of the road and if you are lucky you might even notice some tank training. Another very important tip, before heading out on the road, go to the toilet, especially if you are with kids. Up until Shizafon junction, where the route ends and connects to route no.40, over an hour drive, you won’t have anywhere to stop, without taking a hike offroad into the bush or a firing zone.

Doesn’t it look like a Post-Epoch movie scene?

Here though, you can rest and have a nice break at Neot Smadar inn. It’s a beautiful Oasis cafe, where you can refresh yourself and have a nice meal. We only stopped here to go to the restroom and didn’t try their menu, but I really liked how the place looked, with quiet niches where you can drink a cup of coffee or have a nice meal.

The rest stop offers vegetarian and vegan dishes as well, and I even noticed some gluten-free snacks here too. There is also an assortment of condiments, olive oil, olives, spices, natural cosmetics, and craft beers all produced locally in the unique Neot Smadar kibbutz. We bought a jar of olives to add to our on-the-go meal and headed our way, driving back via the Makhtesh Ramon.

This area totally reminded Sarel and I of “The Barrens” from World of Warcraft.

Driving past the Makhtesh, our initial plan was to visit the ancient Nabatean city of Avdat, whose Byzantine church remains you can’t miss while driving, dominating the mountain view. We hoped to get there before closure so we could catch the sunset at the site. During summertime, the site is open till 5 PM, but unfortunately, we arrived five minutes late and missed the entrance. Instead, we just sat on the slopes of the hill and enjoyed some ice cream, appreciating the view, before concluding our amazing journey through the desert and heading home.

After so many years of not visiting the desert, this trip left me eager to travel and explore it again, even more. I was taken aback by it, and can’t wait to return as the days become more tolerable. Hopefully, I’ll still get to catch some nice days before the summer ends and visit more places. If not, I’ll make sure to come back in the autumn and bring you more stories about the amazing Israeli desert.

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