There's no other experience in Israel like witnessing the sunrise from the top of Masada, an ancient fortification with breathtaking views of the Dead Sea. During my last day in Israel, I climbed the 450m hill while the sun was rising to observe one of the most impressive spectacles of nature that I've ever seen.
Not far from Masada I also visited the Ein Gedi Natural Reserve, an oasis in the Judean Desert and one of Israel's main hiking spots with stunning waterfalls and landscapes, ending the day with one of my bucket list things to do in Israel: floating and getting covered in mud in the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth.
How to visit
Floating in the Dead Sea had always been on my bucket list. When I started researching how to get there from Jerusalem, I realised that there are some other interesting attractions in the nearby area that could be easily combined in a one day visit, which is why I decided to include Masada and the Ein Gedi Natural Reserve.
It's possible to reach Masada and the Dead sea by bus from Jerusalem, however, combining both of them and fitting in Ein Gedi Natural Reserve can be quite complicated and time-consuming unless you have a car. Since I only had one day left to visit all three of them, I decided to take the Masada Sunrise, Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea tour from Jerusalem.
I originally requested the regular tour that started later in the morning, as the idea of waking up at 3 am for a 1h hike in the dark didn't sound appealing. However, I was booked on the sunrise tour by mistake, which I guess was the last push that I needed to go for the sunrise visit, so I decided to keep the early morning tour. It was the best decision that I could've made.
My visit started around 4 am from the lobby of the Abraham Hostel. Waking up so early is definitely not my idea of a relaxing holiday, but I wanted to make the best out of my last day in Israel to enjoy this one-in-a-lifetime experience. The drive took about 1h30m and we reached the base of Masada right before the sunrise.
I started the ascent with the hope to be on top before the sun rose, however, I soon realised that the climb wouldn't be an easy task. The difference in altitude between the bottom of the path and the top is 350 meters. There are about 700 steps along the two kilometres of winding path.
If you're visiting after 8 am, it is possible to ascend by cable car and avoid the trekking, however, walking is the only option if you want to enjoy the beautiful sunrise from the top.
The plateau of Masada is located on the eastern fringe of the Judea Desert near the shore of the Dead Sea, between Ein Gedi and Sodom. It is a mountain block that rose and was detached from the fault escarpment. The plateau, 450 meters above the level of the Dead Sea, is approximately 650 meters long and 300 meters wide.
Masada’s remote location and its natural defences were the advantages that transformed it into a fortress during the Second Temple period.
Masada was the last bastion of Jewish freedom fighters against the Romans; its fall singled the violent destruction of the kingdom of Judea at the end of the Second Temple period. The tragic events of the last days of the rebels at Masada transformed it into both a Jewish cultural icon and a symbol of humanity’s continuous struggle for freedom from oppression.
Built by Herod, king of Judea, Masada was a palatial fortress in the style of the ancient Roman East. The camps, fortifications and assault ramp at its base constitute the most complete surviving ancient Roman siege system in the world.
When I originally booked the tour, I thought that we'd have to climb in complete darkness to see the sunrise from the top. However, you'll arrive in Masada a few minutes before the sun rises, but with enough light to walk without any difficulties.
I won't lie, walking 2km uphill at 5 am before having any breakfast made me realise how unfit I was and it proved to be even harder than I originally expected, however, the views of the sunrise as you climb were definitely worth the effort.
When I finally reached the summit, the sun and the views were at their maximum splendour, bathing the Judean Desert and the Read Sea with all tonalities of red and orange. I could only but sit and rest after the climb to enjoy the wonderful views and tranquillity from the top of Masada.
Visitors to Masada in ancient times reached the summit just as we do today, from the east. After climbing to Masada up the Snake Path, they too made their way to the southeastern entrance of the Northern Palace.
Here, they reached a planned compound, containing two buildings with an entrance square between them. Even though not much remains today of this palace, the rooms of the buildings were richly decorated, some with wall paintings.
The excavators, wondering about the purpose of these rooms, concluded that this was the main entrance square to the storerooms and the Northern Palace, containing the headquarters of the commandant of Masada.
When standing at the entrance to the “commandant’s headquarters”, we realise that from this point one could control the traffic of visitors to the palace and oversee the unloading of goods at the entrance to the storerooms.
After spending a couple of hours on the summit, which was enough time to walk around the ruins, I started my descent back to the van.
The cable car wasn't open yet by the time that I had to return, so I had to walk all the way down. It took me almost one hour to get to the top, but walking downhill is much easier and you can reach the base in about 20 minutes.
We got into the van and drove for about 20 minutes until we reached Ein Gedi Natural Reserve.
Ein Gedi Natural Reserve
Ein Gedi is a natural park located just next to the Dead Sea and the Judean Desert. Its beautiful landscapes, oasis, waterfalls and natural treasures make it stand out in a region that is predominantly deserted. The reserve is also famous because it was here where King David hid from Saul and his army.
The reserve contains vast differences in elevation over relatively short distances and as a result, one of its distinguishing features is its sheer cliffs. The reserve covers an area of 1,435 hectares and it was designated a protected nature reserve in 1971.
Two valleys run through the reserve: Wadi David in the north and Wadi Arugot in the south. Four sweet water springs flow in the reserve: David’s Spring, Arugot Spring, Shulamit and Ein Gedi springs.
The combination of the reserve’s geographical location, topographic composition, warm temperatures and lack of cold days, coupled with the abundance and quality of the water, make it possible for a variety of flora and fauna, representing different geographic regions, to survive here.
The green vegetation and creeks also make it the perfect spot for a hike even in the warmest months of the year. Accessing the park was like a breath of fresh air compared to the temperature in Masada. When we left Masada, the heat was getting unbearable, even though our visit was very early in the morning!
Ein Gedi is also one of the best places to see wildlife from the region. As soon as you access the reserve, you can spot wild animals roaming freely among the visitors.
Prominent among the larger animals in Ein Gedi are the Nubian ibex (wild goat) and the rock hyrax (coney), both of which are already mentioned in the Bible:
The ibex live in herds and are famed for their ability to climb steep hills that provide them with refuge from predators. The male, larger than the female, is bearded and bears horns that angle back. These horns continue to grow throughout the ibex's life and reach a tremendous size in adult males.
During the rutting season (September to November), males can be observed carrying out the courting ritual, trailing after the females with awkward dancing steps while extending their heads, their lips curled back and their tongues hanging out.
For many years, the Judea Desert ibex was hunted and their population dwindled until they were on the brink of extinction. One of the most impressive achievements of the nature protection movement in Israel was the rescue of the ibex population.
During the hike, I also saw multiple rock hyrax or conies. They live, in groups, in rock crannies or in thickets, and like the ibex, they are remarkable climbers. The hyrax feed on plants, some of which are poisonous.
Although they are mammals, their body temperature is not constant, changing according to the ambient temperature. Therefore, on cold mornings, they can be seen sunbathing on top of rocks before resuming activity.
But the highlights of Ein Gedi are the hiking paths and waterfalls. There are different routes that you can follow depending on how much time you want to spend in the reserve. I took the Lower Wadi David, the shorter route that took me about 1h30m to complete.
The trail passes by waterfalls and pools containing lush stream bank vegetation and culminates at David’s Waterfall. If you have a bathing suit with you (highly recommended if you’re going to the Dead Sea later!), you can even take a refreshing bath in the water springs.
The Dead Sea
The final stop of the day was the famous Dead Sea. I had wanted to visit the Dead Sea for years and had heard very mixed opinions, but personally, it didn't disappoint.
The Dead Sea is a salt lake bordered by Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan located at 430 meters below sea level, being the lowest elevated point on Earth. Its name comes from the fact that no wildlife can survive in it, as it is almost 10 times saltier than the ocean.
Sadly, this unique wonder of nature is getting smaller and smaller every year. It is believed that the sea is shrinking more than one metre every year, so it might be gone within the next few years if no action is taken by the local governments.
During my visit, we went to a private beach to enjoy the famous mud baths and of course, float in its waters. The water is so dense, that it is almost impossible to swim. As soon as you get in and lift slightly your feet from the ground, your body will be pushed by the water and you'll be floating without any effort!
Floating in the Dead Sea was definitely a very weird experience, especially the feeling of floating and being almost unable to stand up and touch the ground to get out of the water!
The water is so salty, that you can only spend a few minutes inside, as otherwise, your body will start dehydrating. You also have to be extremely careful not to touch your eyes or even your mouth, or not to splash when you're in the water. The water is so salty that you can be blinded for several minutes if you get some water in your eyes, which doesn't sound fun. I got some water in my mouth by mistake, and that was bad enough.
No visit to the Dead Sea can be complete without getting covered in mud. Due to its high concentrations of salts and minerals, it is believed to be particularly beneficial for the skin. I looked slightly disgusting, but I gave it a try and it was more fun than I expected!
After some relaxing time by the beach, it was time to head back to Jerusalem. My time in Israel was over, and I could only bring with me good memories from such a fascinating country full of history, culture and natural wonders.
Next day, I would head to the other side of the border and start my fascinating 3-day visit to Jordan to explore the ancient city of Jerash, the capital Amman, the desert of Wadi Rum and the big highlight of my trip: the lost city of Petra.
All opinions are my own.
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