Before visiting Israel, we knew about the major cities and some of the history of the country, but we were completely in the dark about the incredible adventures to be had in the South. In the Negev Desert (between Be’er Sheva and Eilat) you’ll find some of the best places to visit in the whole of Israel - we’re not kidding.
In this barren landscape, you’ll find canyons, wildlife and some of the best hiking we’ve done in the Middle East. You can also wind down at the coast and explore incredible coral reefs backed by huge sandstone mountains.
If you love an all day hike - you’ll find it here. If you want something a bit easier (but still adds in jumping into waterholes) - you’ll also find it here. If that all sounds too much, then you can lead the simple life in a luxury mud hut in blissful isolation.
So if you’re looking to change it up from churches and historic cities, head south and let the fun begin.
Best things to do in the Negev Desert
This is the hike that I was a bit nervous about before doing it because what little information there was online made it sound really scary! The reality was this was one of our favourite hikes in Israel. The canyon is incredible and will be either wet or dry depending on time of year.
You start by scaling a cliff (easier than it sounds!) up one side of the canyon before skirting round and dropping down into the canyon itself. This is where the fun begins. For us it was full of water so it was a mixture of wading and swimming using ladders and metal rungs to descend the series of pools.
The ladders and rungs looked quite intimidating at first but I found that as soon as I got on the first one and it was ok, the rest were a breeze! The canyon is beautiful and it’s such an adventure. We loved the fact there was no one else there at all and you can hike without a guide.
It’s definitely one that I will never forget and would recommend to everyone looking for a bit of adventure in the Negev Desert.
A word of caution on all wadi walks though - do not enter if there is rain forecast, even if it is just a hint. Water can come rushing through the canyons and in Wadi Baraq in particular there is nowhere to hide. People have sadly died in just this scenario.
Getting to Wadi Baraq
Wadi Baraq is a 10 minute drive south of Tsukim and is an abrupt right turn from the highway. It is well signposted, but be prepared for it to appear with no warning.
From here, you can choose how far you want to drive (you can walk the rest) as the road gets progressively worse until it is undriveable. If you have a 4x4, you’ll be able to get to within a 10 minute walk of the start of the trail. If you have a 2wd, then we recommend stopping at the car park after the camp site and taking the 20-30 minute hike.
It isn’t a boring landscape, so hiking a little more isn’t really a problem.
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Ada Canyon was our first hike in Israel and it set the tone for all the amazing walks to come. You enter the canyon at ground level straight from the car park and it is impressive from the first step. We’ve been lucky enough to do a number of canyon walks this year and none have quite the same walls as Ada Canyon - the bright yellow sandstone is full of holes, almost like honeycomb.
The canyon narrows very quickly as you enter the slot canyon proper. I actually hadn’t expected it to be as much fun as it was with tight sections that you climb up using yes you guessed it, ladders and metal rungs. It’s a fantastic way to allow people who aren’t canyoning to be able to work their way through the whole canyon with ease. It was absolutely stunning and over all too quickly. I’d say the narrow slot canyon section lasted for around 500m or so.
The remainder of the walk is up on the ridge with epic views to all the surrounding mountains. This part of the walk is very easy as it’s almost entirely flat, but if you’re hiking in hot weather it is very exposed. After around 4km you begin descending from the ridge until you hit the end of trail sign. If you don’t have two cars this is where you turn left and walk along the dirt/stony road for 3km back to your car.
Getting to Ada Canyon
Getting to Ada Canyon isn’t easy as it isn’t marked. We spent over two hours looking for it and nearly missed it altogether. Save these notes so the same doesn’t happen to you!
Drive route 40 north until you reach a sign for Wadi Paran on the left - it is about 10-15 minutes from the junction Highway 13 and should be opposite a fenced off area with some eucalyptus trees. Take the dirt road left (do not go into the firing range!) and keep following the road with the cliffs on your left. This is where we got thrown off because we were expecting to see a sign for Ada Canyon, not Wadi Paran.
The road will curve left, before opening to a road on your left. Turn in and you’ll likely see some other cars parked at the mouth of Ada Canyon.
Ein Avdat National Park
Ein Avdat National Park is a stunning area and the whole of Israel clearly agrees because we reckon we visited it with half the country!
This is a park which is best avoided on the weekends and during public holidays. Aim to arrive when it opens at 8am so you can really appreciate the stunning beauty and wildlife without the crowds.
There are several hiking trails within the park, the most popular being a short walk which takes you to the series of pools (which you used to be able to swim in but sadly not anymore) and up to the top of the canyon for amazing panoramic views. We saw so many ibex on the cliff tops in this area and also a pair of rare Griffon Vultures.
If you’re only looking to do a very short walk you can go around ten minutes or so from the car park to the pools or extend it to the full 2km up to the top of the canyon walls (this requires a car shuffle or the use of the parks shuttle service to get back to your car).
There are also many longer and more challenging hikes in the area as well as the opportunity to visit Ben Gurion’s tomb.
Ein Avdat is a national park which costs 29 shekels (approx US$8.15) to enter unless you have a parks pass. It’s worth buying the pass if you plan on visiting three or more national parks.
Getting to Ein Avdat
For the pools and walks mentioned above drive to Midreshet Ben Gurion (a small village on Highway 40). From here the road winds downhill to the entrance of the canyon - you may have to park quite a long way back.
You can also visit other areas of the park for which we’d recommend stopping by a Visitor Centre for more info.
It’s strange to think that Eilat, home to some amazing snorkelling, is part of the Negev Desert but when you get there you’ll see that it truly is a desert town. As well as snorkelling in the Red Sea, Eilat also has many great hiking opportunities in the desert including the Red and Black Canyons.
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Mitzpe Ramon is the world’s largest erosion crater at over 40km long. It’s a worthwhile addition to your Israel itinerary, although we found comparing it to America’s Grand Canyon a little of an exaggeration! This area is famous for its hiking but there are also many sites and viewpoints you can see almost straight from the car parks.
We’d recommend stopping at the coloured sand (marked as coloured sand park on Google Maps) and the Carpentry for a good overall view of the area. Look out for the blue headed lizard, Sinai agama, which we were lucky enough to see on the boardwalk here. If you literally just want to take a few photos the views are great from the Visitor Centre.
The whole area is another great place to spot Ibex and we saw a number along the roadside as well as grazing by the Visitor Centre. Your best chance to see them is early morning and late afternoon.
If you are looking for a short hike with good views we’d recommend the Wadi Ardon and Harut Hill track which you can do in around one and a half hours (just over 4km). It was almost deserted when we hiked it a couple of hours before sunset and it gives you a great feeling of being alone in the wilderness.
The trail is fairly easy with a few steep ups and downs but nothing too taxing. The views throughout are fantastic looking out over the mountains and desert landscape, although the trail itself is not as exciting as the canyon hikes on this list.
Getting to Mitzpe Ramon
Mitzpe Ramon is about 88km south of Be’er Sheva and should take about an hour to drive to. We recommend starting at the Visitor Centre and driving south to check out the other sights as they appear.
Sleep in the desert
We knew when visiting the Negev that we wanted to stay in the desert itself. And whilst it isn’t rolling sand dunes like the Sahara, the Negev has its own charm.
There are several options including the uber luxurious Arava Land but we chose to stay in the eco resort Desert Days. The accommodation is all in mud huts but with all the mod cons, including kitchens and air con. Our favourite part was the outside space which included hammocks (our fave!) and fire pits. Don’t forget the marshmallows!
There are a number of walks onsite but we didn’t think they were all that great or well signposted so we’d say spend your time at nearby Wadi Baraq and Ada Canyon instead.
Desert Days is great place to relax and unwind in the peace and serenity of the desert, we visited with our family and everyone felt the same. If you are luckier with the weather than we were you’ll no doubt be treated to some epic star gazing too.
Getting to Desert Days
Desert Days is in the tiny village of Tsukim which is an hour south of Ein Bokek and 1 hour 15 north of Eilat.
Where to stay in the Negev Desert
As above, a stay at Desert Days is an experience in itself. Each room is a mud hut, but you definitely aren’t slumming it. The rooms are well equipped and have private kitchens (inside or outside depending on the room you book), air-conditioning for those hot days, and outdoor areas, which make for atmospheric evenings.
It is the perfect place for a digital detox as there is no wi-fi in the rooms (but you can access it in the common areas if you really need to). We loved setting a fire at night or having a bbq as the sun set. If you want a glimpse of life in the desert, make a stop here.
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Are you planning a trip to the South of Israel? Where are your favourite places in the Holy Land? Let us know in the comments below!