Hiking to the Top of Israel: Mt Hermon

Mt Hermon is the highest peak in Israel, reaching 2 040m (6690ft) above sea level. It’s a perfect location for a summer hike, providing you can plan a bit in advance.

A couple of months ago, in the middle of the summer, I suddenly found myself with a completely free day for myself at short notice. With all the Corona-chaos I hadn’t had an opportunity to do any guiding for some months, and was missing being in the field. I thought it would be a great opportunity to do a hike.

I really enjoy hiking, and although you might think I do a lot of it as a tour guide, it’s actually quite unusual with the type of visitors I normally work with. Most of my clients are coming for no more than a week and they want to pack in as much as possible – so taking a few hours from the schedule for a hike is not normally an option. It does happen here and there, but also tends to be the same trails that are close to other sites of interest or perhaps have some specific historical or religious context.

So, this was an opportunity to do a hike for me. Unfortunately, the Israeli summer is not best-designed for walking outdoors. Temperatures easily hit the mid-30s (that’s the mid-90s for our American friends) even in the cooler parts of the country. And certain areas can be extremely humid. I’d have to start quite early in the morning for a hike to even be feasible. There were other restrictions – I was on my own so would need to do a circular trail (it’s quite common to walk in one direction and then hitchhike back to where you parked your car – but in Corona times I didn’t think that was sensible). Additionally, on some trails there’s no guarantee your car will be there when you return. I needed to get some advice.

So I turned to my good friend Steve of Finjan. Steve and I did the tour guide course together, and became good friends. Although he guides general visitors like I do, together with another member of our course he’s also developed a successful business specialising on off the beaten track travel in Israel, with a particular focus on hiking. I told him my criteria and he suggested that I hike the Hermon – the highest mountain in Israel, on the Syrian and Lebanese border.

I hadn’t thought of travelling that far, but he really sold it to me – particularly because it would be a lot cooler than anywhere else in the country due to the elevation, which in the peak of the summer is a major incentive. I’d been up the Hermon a few times, but never on foot, and the challenge was appealing. It’s not simple to do – you need to get permission from the army because of its proximity to the border. But Steve talked me through the process, my permission came through, and all was set.

So, a couple of days later, at 6.30am I was driving out of Tel Aviv and heading north. It was a wonderful drive, against the traffic, and just under three hours later I was driving through the Druze town of Majdal Shams on the Israel/Syrian border, and on the slopes of the Hermon. At this point, my heart began to sink. The town was enveloped in thick fog. Had I come all this way to hike in the mist? But I was there now, and I was rewarded for pushing on as I continued to ascend towards the beginning of the trail, eventually bursting through the fog to enjoy a stunningly clear view over the Golan Heights, the Hula Valley and the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. I literally shouted for joy! It really was quite remarkable.

View looking out westwards from Mt Hermon
View west towards the Hula and Bekaa Valleys in Israel and Lebanon Respectively

I arrived at the beginning of the trail and the soldier at the gate let me through thanks to the approval I’d secured. I began to climb, pausing every now and again to enjoy the beautiful scenery, the solitude and also because it was quite a steep ascent – so I need to catch my breath! The trail was well marked and in about an hour I was at the top. It was glorious, and thanks to the relatively early time of day, almost completely empty. I had the views to myself and it was a very pleasant 24C (75F), so much nicer than the relentless humidity of Israel’s centre.

The Hermon is mentioned on multiple occasions in the Bible (sometimes by its other names: Mt Snir, Siryon or Sion). It stands out from a distance and clearly commanded respect and a sense of mysticism. Indeed some (minority) opinions identify it as the real Mt Sinai or even the site of the Transfiguration of Jesus. Whether or not this is the case, both on the approach and from the top, the mountain emanates a sense of awe. It felt very special to be there.

You don’t have to hike to enjoy the views from the top – there is also a chairlift and, more recently, a cable car – neither of which require army approval. The Hermon is the only place in Israel that you can ski (at the right time of year) and these mainly serve the skiers – there’s not a huge amount to do up there in the summer other than enjoy the views. Only 7% of the Hermon is in Israeli hands (taken from Syria in 1967) – the majority of it is in Syria and a small part is in Lebanon. So the areas you can explore up there are quite restricted.

View from the peak of the Hermon Mountain
A view from the top of the trail on Mt Hermon. Amazing to be above the clouds.

Steve had suggested that I hike up and take the cable car down, but there was some rather disturbing news awaiting me at the top of the mountain – the cable car was broken… They were trying to fix it and “hopefully” it would be working soon. Fortunately, I did have a way to pass the time – there is a further trail at the top of the mountain, requiring separate army approval, that allows you to wander a bit further.

I took this trail, exploring the area of a major battle in the Yom Kippur war, and reaching the symbolic start point for the Israel Trail – a renowned hiking route that all the way from Israel’s north to its south. When I originally ascended the Hermon, I had views into Israel and Lebanon, from this side I could see deep into Syria. I wandered as far as I was allowed (the army only approved me to go on part of this trail) before enjoying a picnic lunch and venturing back cable car with fingers firmly crossed. Fortunately, they had fixed it and I was able to avoid punishing my knees by attempting to descend the way I came.

Looking out over the border between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights from Mt Hermon.
Looking out over the border between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights from Mt Hermon. The town in the bottom right of the photo is Majdal Shams which sits right on the border. To its left is Syria.

 

The symbolic beginning of the Israel Trail
This symbol marks the theoretical beginning of the Israel Trail on Mt Hermon.

By now it was around 12.30 – and it seemed a shame to already head home. I then remembered that it was berry season in the Golan, and so headed to the Bereishit orchards to do some fruit picking for the family. I left with boxes full of fresh blackberries, blueberries, plums and nectarines. Delicious.

Blackberry picking the Bereishit orchard in the Golan Heights.
Blackberry picking in the Bereishit orchards in the Golan Heights.

And there was still time, so I popped into an old favourite – the De Karina chocolate factory in Ein Zivan, for one of their famous milkshakes and to pick up some treats to take home.

A chocolate milkshake in the De Karina chocolate factory in Ein Zivan.
A chocolate milkshake at the De Karina chocolate factory in the Golan Heights. It was as good as it looks!

I got back around 4.30pm, exhausted but exhilarated. When guiding, there’s so much to think about all the time – some logistical thing, some calls you need to make, answering questions – you don’t have that much time to enjoy the places your visiting as the tourists do. This was a day where I sort of guided myself, and was able to really appreciate the scenery, the sights, sounds and smells, in a much more personal way. It was wonderful!

If you’re ever looking for a great hike in the Israeli summer, I can’t recommend the Hermon enough. Here’s what you should think about when planning your trip:
– As with any hike: bring appropriate footwear, hat, water, a trail map and particularly sunscreen – the elevation on the Hermon means the sun’s rays are much stronger. Bring enough water to hike in both directions in case of another cable car malfunction.
– Even in the summer it can be cold at the top depending on the winds and cloud cover – so have a jumper/sweater in your bag.
– Make sure to get permission from the army enough in advance – this is a lot easier to do with a tour guide.

With thanks again to Steve of Finjan!

 

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