It was our guide’s idea, but when I see the busloads of American religious groups arrive, and tours quietly circling the ponds and waterfall, I think maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t be washing our bikes in this water.
When I hear the man yelling in Hebrew, I realize we’re in trouble. He’s walking toward us rapidly and is obviously upset. My friend Kari Medig and I stand dumbfounded as he continues yelling. Still peeved when he arrives, we look to our guide, who’s ankle deep in water, scrubbing the mud from our tires and sending dirty brown water downstream. Our guide looks up in surprise.
The angry man produces a card from his wallet showing us he’s the ranger of the Banias Nature Reserve.
“He says the water is sacred,” our guide whispers to us.
Yeah, thanks for the insight.
The spring at Banias is one of three sources of the Jordan River, which in turn flows into the Sea of Galilee. Referred to as Caesarea Philippi in the New Testament, Crusaders, Muslims and Jews have battled over this water source for more than 2,000 years. We are lucky to receive only a tongue-lashing and not a fine.
Another of our guide’s not-so-great ideas was to ride the trail from the Nimrod Fortress down to Banias. It’s a technical trail over sharp rocks, roots and thorn bushes, with views into the Golan Heights and down to the Sea of Galilee. Built in 1129, the fortress stands atop a ridge on the slopes of Mount Hermon and overlooks the valley below.
There is beauty in Israel beyond the streets of Nazareth, the biblical relics of Jerusalem and the holy sites of Galilee. Its compact geography allows us to go from mountain biking in the desert to paddleboarding on the Mediterranean to everything in between in just two days.
In fact, we came to the Golan Heights straight from the airport in Tel Aviv, hoping to ski Mount Hermon. But the resort is closed – because it’s snowing: No one has snow tires in Israel, so no one can actually get up there.
So we head to the opposite end of the country – a seven-hour drive through the West Bank, stopping for a brief dip in the Dead Sea – before meeting our next guide.
He turns out to be the perfect mountain biking guide. He knows where the trails are, which ones are navigable – and where and when it’s appropriate to wash a bicycle.
He takes us to Kibbutz Samar, 25 kilometres north of Israel’s southernmost city, Eilat. Considered one of the few truly communist kibbutzim left in Israel, Samar is a desert oasis of date palms, communal living and the recently built Bike Hotel.
Here, Yaron Dari provides all-inclusive packages – meals, accommodations, shuttles and even beer are all taken care of by the energetic staff. After a Bedouin-style chicken dinner (tinfoil-wrapped chicken cooked over embers for two hours), we settle into couches in a giant tent to watch basketball on a big-screen TV before retiring to our clean, comfortable bunkies.
As the sun rises, peeking over the mountains of Jordan, Dari takes us to the Timna Valley. He has built 24 kilometres of single track in this incredible red rock valley where the Egyptians first mined copper more than 2,500 years ago.
“Don’t ride over those,” says Dari, pointing to an erratic pile of stones. “It’s an archeological site.”
There is no escaping history in Israel. In the afternoon, loaded with water and organic dates from the kibbutz, Dari takes us on what may be one of the best rides of my life, the Shaharut trail, as it descends 500 metres. I ask him how long it took to build the trail, and he only half-jokingly responds: “Five thousand years. I was giddy the first time I rode it.”
This trail was once part of the Silk Route. Created by centuries of camel caravans, loaded donkeys and people, it twists and turns through valleys and along ridges and dry riverbeds. We pass a Bedouin man riding a donkey, slowly herding his camels through the desert, giving us a more profound sense of history than any of the antiquities of Jerusalem.
A week later, after exploring more of Dari’s incredible trail systems, we head back to Mount Hermon. On the winding road that switches back and forth from the lush green of the Golan Heights to the snowy peak of Hermon, we pass Druze villages and barbed-wire fences with signs that warn: “Danger Mines.” When we arrive, the parking lot is abuzz with Orthodox Jews and Muslim teens in jeans and track pants, all of them shouting, laughing and marvelling at the snow.
We head up the two-person chairlift and from the top can see Lebanon, the Sea of Galilee and Syria. It’s a beautiful day: 5 degrees, a bluebird sky and conditions reminiscent of Canadian spring skiing. We do a couple of high traverses to get away from the dangerously out-of-control locals and discover that the snow here, tinted with sand, is really fun to ski. The chairlift riders overhead hoot and holler at our skills, and for an instant I feel like a professional skier carving dangerous lines that no one thought possible. I’m not. I’m just one of the best skiers on the hill. Which isn’t saying much.
The bottom of the ski run feels like the most dangerous place in Israel. I constantly look over my shoulder for runaway snowboards, erratically carried ski poles or careening skiers. When the lifts shut down at four o’clock, everyone loads back into their buses for the slow ride home. We join them and head to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv.
The potential for outdoor adventure in Israel is endless. The trail systems are seeing more use than ever before. And that’s because the hiking and biking are world-class. The skiing? Not so much. But it’s worth a trip to the mountaintop.
IF YOU GO
Flying to Tel Aviv is your best bet for visiting both Mount Hermon and Kibbutz Samar. El Al flies direct from Toronto to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. From there, getting around is easiest with a rental car. If you want to visit Mount Hermon, it’s about a three-hour drive from Tel Aviv. To go riding at Kibbutz Samar, it’s a 3.5-hour drive south, through the beautiful Negev Desert.
Where to Stay
HaGoshrim Kibbutz and Resort Hotel is a beautiful kibbutz with lush gardens about 30 minutes away from the Mount Hermon ski resort. With a restaurant, a sports centre and a spa, this is a great place to unwind after a day on the slopes. Rooms start around $200 a night and include breakfast. english.hagoshrim-hotel.co.il
To ride at Kibbutz Samar, staying at Samar Bike Hotel in the Kibbutz Samar is recommended. The bunkies are simple but comfortable and the intimate hospitality ensures you’ll get everything you need – including a reliable guide. Rental bikes are available if you don’t want to bring your own. Weekend packages from $385. samarbike.com
The writer travelled courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism. It did not review or approve this article.