Just how small is the State of Israel? Small enough for thousands of people every year to cross the entire length of the country by foot power alone. They do it via a special hiking path called the Israel National Trail (INT) or Israel Trail for short (“Shvil Yisrael” in Hebrew) that winds its way over almost 1,000 kilometers (580 miles) of terrain.
Starting in Metulla, on the northern border next to Lebanon, the trail finishes in Eilat, at Israel’s southern tip on the Red Sea. While many countries have hiking trails crossing large portions of their land, Israel is believed to be the only country in the world to offer a trail crossing its entire length without interruption.
Incredible geographical diversity
It’s been said that the Holy Land comprises a wider variety of landscapes in less space than anywhere in the world, and nothing proves that better than the Israel Trail. The INT comprises all the wonders that Israel has to offer. Crammed into its length are snow-capped mountains, desert craters, forested hills, Lake Kinneret, the Mediterranean Sea coastline with its sandy beaches and more.
“The biggest draw is the scenery,” says Gal Hart, an Israel Trail administrator. “In other counties the landscape may change every few weeks of hiking. In Israel the landscape changes radically every day or two, providing a feast for the senses.”
The trail also provides a cornucopia for history buffs, allowing hikers to walk in the footsteps of the Israelite tribes, ancient kings and religious leaders, with ample archeological discoveries to see along the way.
For many, the Israel Trail is more than just a nature hike. It’s a way to escape the rat race, slow time down and connect with Israel – its land and people — on a primal level in a single embrace. Walking at a regular pace, the average hiker can finish the entire route in one to two months. Strong hikers have been known to finish in only three weeks.
The trail has also been subdivided to allow for shorter journeys. Hundreds of hiking groups walk these smaller portions of the trail every month, until they complete the entire length over two years.
The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel recommends hiking when temperatures are most moderate, in the fall and spring. While essentially a nature route, the path frequently passes by towns, enabling easy resupply of provisions.
Though it long ago achieved legendary status, the trail is actually less than 20 years old. Like many great projects, it began with a vision. While hiking the American Appalachian Trail in 1980, Israeli journalist Avraham Tamir had an inspiration: Why not build a similar trail crossing the entire land of Israel?
When he got back home, he went straight to SPNI director Ori Devir, who fell in love with the concept. Though the trail was mostly made by joining together existing hiking routes, it still took more than 15 years to complete. In 1995 it was finally inaugurated.
“Many embark on the trail to mark the end of a special event or the beginning of a new one,” says Hart.
It’s common, for instance, for Israeli soldiers who have finished their mandatory three-year service to celebrate their discharge by hiking the trail. Newlyweds walk it for their honeymoons, married couples on their anniversaries and younger hikers to mark their bar or bat mitzvah.
Baruch Kronbain, 26, from Moshav Margaliot near Kiryat Shmonah in the north, is a social work student at Tel-Hai College. He did the trail four years ago after completing his military service.
“I hiked with two army buddies from Metulla to Mitzpe Ramon. We hiked during the winter, which is less common due to the wet weather. But the most memorable part for me was actually when we hiked and slept outside during a downpour.”
The trail is also popular with foreign tourists. Last year, former action movie star Chuck Norris, a committed Christian Zionist, hiked the entire length with his wife Tigger, who kept an extensive online blog of their journey.
Path to companionship
Camaraderie between hikers is high. Veterans of the trail are known as “shvilistim” or “people of the path.” Internet forums let old-timers and newcomers share tips, ideas and experiences.
You can hike the trail north to south or south to north. “Due to the two-way travel, it is common for travelers to meet up with hikers going in the opposite direction overnight over a campfire. This leads to many unique one-night experiences,” says Hart.
Other regions, especially the South, are ideal for solitude. For Hart, the most beautiful section was in the Negev between Mitzpe Ramon and the Arava Desert. “There you can walk for over four days through some of the most spectacular scenery and not meet a single soul.”
Angels on the trail
A few years ago, SPNI initiated the Trail Angels Program. This group of good Samaritans (most of them veterans of the INT themselves and living in proximity to its path) open their homes to the hikers, providing them with much-appreciated amenities.
Kronbain himself has been an angel for about a year. During that time he has hosted over 50 hikers, all of whom have left their imprint in a guest book he lays out.
“Angels provide hikers with lodging, hot meals, showers, Wi-Fi connectivity and use of the washing machine, all free of charge,” he says. Evenings are spent discussing the trail, or singing songs often around a campfire with a guitar. Often the angels aren’t even home when the travelers come by, and just leave their doors open with a note saying, “There’s food in the fridge. Take whatever you need!”
Interested in hiking the Israel Trail? You can contact the Israel Trails Committee at +972-3-638-8719/20 or firstname.lastname@example.org