Around the Sea of Galilee (J7-14, J20-21)
My last long-distance hike before starting out on the Israel Trail was an attempt to cover the last bit of the Jesus Trail guidebook I hadn't hiked yet - the loop route around the Sea of Galilee. It's enough distance for about 4 days of hiking, and the time of year was just right for such a hike. Mid-winter is cold throughout most of the region, but at 200m below sea level, the days were pleasant and the nights chilly but quite bearable.
The only downside was the likelihood of heavy rain. The Mediterranean winter alternates between sunny weeks with temperatures in the 60s and 70s Fahrenheit, and wet spells that involve profuse downpours of cold, constant rain. You don't want to be hiking during one of those latter periods, and even after the rain concludes, it can leave the ground muddy, saturated and sticky, not at all friendly to hiking (let alone biking).
I began the hike at Tiberias, heading counter-clockwise around the lake, with a plan to end with the grand view from the Cliffs of Arbel. I'd already hiked the trail section down the western shore of the lake, but only in summer, and now it was an entirely different landscape. What had been brown, parched fields were now green with grass and thick with wildflowers, and the summer haze had receded, giving me clear views to the Golan and to the Jordan Valley and the hills beyond it.
I'd bought a cheap tent for use on the Israel Trail, since I didn't think I'd be able to count on trees for much of it, particularly the desert. In the end, I decided not to take it along because of its weight, and planned to use only a tarp in the Negev and then a hammock as much as possible in the center and north. On this particular hike, it was nice to have the tent - although it didn't prove all that great at keeping water out - but I really should have just taken my hammock, since trees were in abundance the whole way.
The hike along the western ridge above the lake, in springtime
Compare to a similar spot along the same trail, in mid-summer
A clear day lets you look down to the Jordan Valley and its lush farmland, and the rippling
contours of the Gilead hills on the other side
Nothing on the southern end of the lake was very photogenic, so I was on the eastern shore before I
took any more photos. That's Tiberias and Mt. Arbel seen across the water, looking west
The western lakefront is completely covered in commercial beaches and a highway runs right along
them, so the trail there follows a ridge above the lake. On the eastern shore, a number of moshavs
and towns have cottages and beach development, but there's plenty of more remote walking
The eastern shore of the lake lies just underneath the Golan Heights. Above the kibbutz En Gev,
there's a prominent mountain on which a ruined Roman city sits - Susita, or Hippos. It was one of
the towns of the Decapolis, a loose league of Hellenistic cities in the region during the Roman period.
It's a tough hike up, but the views are great and the remote, high location of the ancient ruins is
very appealing. From up there, you can see over the whole lake, and eastward into the craggy
ravines of the southern Golan
Strange rocky landforms
More rough Golan wadi-scape
Cliffs and promontories above the gorges - great hiking territory
The main street (cardo) of the Roman ruins
Cows graze on the high meadows
The backdrop of the once-thriving city
Back down at the shore, I slept on an empty commercial beach, conveniently equipped with a picnic table for
dinner and breakfast
Lights of Tiberias across the lake
The first night, I slept near the town of HaOn in an agricultural field just under the looming ridge of the Golan plateau. The second night, the side trip to Susita added a good amount of time to my hike, so I only made it as far as a beach just north of En Gev.
The following day, I saw the archaeological site at Kursi (the ruins of a church dedicated to Jesus' casting of the demons into pigs), then headed up into the northeastern corner of the lake, where several major streams drain down from the Golan. This transformed it into a swampy mess, and the threat of rain made it even more demoralizing. Slogging through mud and having difficulty following the trails, I eventually ended up on a road in a downpour, and caught a hitch to Beit Tzaida (Bethsaida) junction, so I could camp in Jordan River Park and then pick up the trail from there.
The park is near the site of the biblical city of Bethsaida, one of several cities which Jesus cursed for faithlessness. I arrived to find a pleasant, eucalyptus-filled park with bathrooms, running water, and plenty of picnic tables - and, of course, not a soul in sight, given the time of year. I met a puppy hiding under a table right away upon entering the park, and after a bit of coaxing, it followed me for some time. I really hoped it would become my companion for the rest of the hike, but it ran off chasing a cat somewhere in the park and I never saw it again. After a few days of lonely hiking, even that bit of company had a strong emotional effect on me.
The ground in the park was extremely saturated and muddy - poor camping conditions for me as a temporary ground-dweller! Luckily, some of the picnic areas had gravel covering the ground, so that I could at least camp out without sinking into the mud.
The empty camping area at Jordan River Park - somewhat eerie in the off-season, as I was the only
Eucalyptus trees in evening
Looking up a wadi into the Golan Heights
Ruins at Bethsaida, a city that was mostly built of dark-hued basalt, giving its remaining structures a
Sunset by the Jordan
My camping area again came with a picnic table - nice for eating breakfast away from the cold ground
Quaker oats - a breakfast staple. The pot I used for cooking was an Arabic coffeepot, found in the Nazareth
market for 15 shekels. It served me well, though my current fancy-pants titanium pot is certainly
The one thing I like about tents now that I've converted to hammocking is the ability to unpack and
spread stuff out. This is also a downside, as my tendency to do that increases the amount of repacking
to do in the morning. And on a rainy night like this, a hammock's other benefits also show - packing a
wet, soggy tent is much less enjoyable than just wrapping up a wet tarp and a dry hammock
At the hills on the northern shore of the lake, a church dedicated to the Sermon on the Mount
And a strange statue depicting...something
The Romanesque church at Tabgha, site of the multiplication of loaves and fishes
In the end, I didn't quite complete the loop around the lake, because of time constraints (though I forget what those constraints were). From Tabgha, I hitchhiked and bused the rest of the way back to Nazareth.
The loop of the Sea can be completed clockwise or counter-clockwise. Although the Jesus Trail guidebook recommends the latter direction, I think a counter-clockwise direction, starting and ending in Tiberias, is best. This is mainly because the most epic part of the hike by far, the ascent and view from the Cliffs of Arbel, will come as the very end of the hike - saving the best for last is always a good move. In addition, if you hike in the off-season as I did (and I can't recommend doing any backpacking in Israel in the summer, least of all this far below sea-level where the heat rivals that of an oven), your long sojourn on the abandoned eastern shore will be ended in the more picturesque setting of churches and monasteries on the north shore, rather than the ugly built-up, industrialized areas to the south.
With the guidebook, camping is easy to find and the trail generally easy - though I had a lot of trouble in the northeastern corner of the lake, where a number of streams come down from the Golan and disrupt things. You can also do it with the SPNI map set, though the lake is awkwardly divided among maps 1, 2, and 3. A GPS will make things pretty easy, as you can get the track for free from the Jesus Trail Site - just figure out where you want to camp if you're not bringing a map.
All the beaches on the eastern shore have good camping if it's the off-season; otherwise you're probably not allowed to camp there and checking the guidebook is a good idea. Jordan River Park is a great option when you're in that area, and for the south end, there's a wonderful little boat rental shop on the Jordan River, just as it exits the Sea, where I and a group of other hikers were allowed to stay the night while hiking the Israel Trail. I can't recall its name, but it's right on the Israel Trail, a bit out of your way if you're circling the Sea, near Kibbutz Deganiya A - so south along the INT from where you're hiking.