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March 2014: The Golan Trail

Hike-and-Bikepacking the Golan Trail

The Golan Trail is a 120-kilometer route across the length of this little volcanic plateau. It begins in the foothills of Mt. Hermon, the only regularly-snowcapped mountain to be found in Israeli-held areas, but the southernmost of a range of much higher mountains that distinguish Lebanon's landscape. It continues south across the flat but rugged plains of the central Golan, gradually declining, until the steep wadis draining down to the Sea of Galilee take over and the plateau gives way to the Yarmouk river valley in the south.

I'd tried hiking the trail in 2011 just after finishing the Israel Trail, but a change of footwear to Chacos without an adjustment period left my feet in ruins, and my psychological appetite for hiking was exhausted at about the same time, so I never completed it. As it would turn out, I still haven't - my attempt to cycle the whole thing was thwarted by the majority of the trail surface turning out to be not 4x4 track, as indicated by the previously reliable SPNI topo map, but extremely jagged-rock-filled singletrack, with extensive damage from cow hoofs to boot. Plenty of hike-a-bike sessions led me to detour to roads when I figured it was necessary - anything to keep my progress above 2 miles an hour.

A four-hour ride from Jerusalem got me to Majdal Shams later than I'd have liked, so I didn't have a lot of daylight to work with on the first day. Luckily, the views started right away...

 
Mt. Hermon, tri-country border and local snow magnet, looming above Majdal Shams - northernmost
Israeli-controlled town, whose Druze population used to stand by the border fence with megaphones
to shout conversations with their friends and family on the Syrian side


 
One of the few good rain sessions of the year left a lot of the Golan trail in conditions like this

The terribly dry winter of '13-'14 happened to grant one of its few days-long rain sessions during the dates I'd originally planned for this trip, so I had to postpone right up against a trip to Turkey. I'd normally have avoided riding the trail just after such a rain (as I'd been warned to do by everyone I told about the trip) but by the time I got back it would be early-mid April and the weather might already be unbearably hot. So I was greeted with plenty of the sort of slop pictured above - but most of the terrain-related difficulties were not actually thanks to mud!

The other iffy thing about the trip: my physical conditioning. While the Golan Trail is not remarkable for its difficulty, I had scarcely touched my bike in the couple of months before heading out on this ride, and the extent of my practice had been riding to and from work on a level bike path, unloaded. Needless to say, I walked some hills.


 
Mas'ade, the second of four Druze towns in the Golan; a pool sitting in a caldera, and at lower right, the
cabins belonging to the village of Nimrod, where I volunteered at the ecolodge for a month once


 
Down Hermon's slopes to the west: oak woods, Nimrod's Castle, the Hula Valley, and Lebanese hilltops


 
Hamlet of Nimrod in its scenic hilltop surroundings


 
Conditions could have been better for photography on this trip - the first few days were foggy and overcast


 
Sometime between 2011 and 2014, someone began installing these informational signposts every few km
along the trail. They're handy enough, although tacky and excessive if you ask me. They do show distances,
which is nice, but their attempts to indicate amenities are cryptic and there's no key. Several different
symbols look like they'd probably indicate "campground," but there's no way to know which means
what...

Also, a third of the way through the trail, they abruptly stop appearing. I'm assuming that, like so many
trail-related hard infrastructure projects here, the funding ran out or someone stopped caring enough
to finish the job


 
This pond shrinks considerably by summer's end; it's more or less full now


Drawing further and further away from the mountain. Heading north on this trail would mean being
treated to mountain views for the last few days, but I was going south


 
First night of camping - my small, cozy lair with reading material and plant-identification guide at left


 
Standard Israeli camping spot: a field just outside a moshav, with scrubby trees as a backdrop and the
sound of roosters and random alarms going off all night

What with my lack of daylight hours on the first day, I overestimated my ability to cover ground and make it to a town to camp near water. I got myself turned around on a mess of intersecting 4x4 tracks as darkness fell, and finally resigned myself to a lengthy detour to asphalt, down and back up a giant hill, to get to Odem. As it happened, the gates were locked, preventing my access to a water refill. Exhausted and not feeling like waiting for a car to come by to open them, I just set up my tent in a field off the road and collapsed; I got water in the morning and continued on my way, hoping for better luck to come.


 
Snow is such a rare sight here (well, except for the brutal December 2013 snowstorm that brought
all civilization from Amman to Jerusalem to an unceremonious halt) that I couldn't get enough views of
the relatively meager strip of Hermon that was coated in it


 
I'm fairly certain this view features in at least one piece of Biblical poetry or imagery, although I couldn't
say which one


 
Sadly, the Golan's most impressive terrain tapers off relatively quickly into wooded plains rippling with,
then further south, punctured by, the odd volcanic hill. The views are less breathtaking, but at least the
riding is easier on a pair of legs that had hardly rotated pedals in two months previous to this trip


 
Spring here means a selection of wildflowers - including, sometimes, a species I can't find in the little
"Flowers of Israel" identification brochure I brought along


 
A ludicrously steep slope (I walked it and still practically wiped out) heading straight toward Syria


 
Nature-loving Israelis tend toward rapture when discussing the Golan; other than the desert, it's certainly
their broadest expanse of uninhabited land. Of course, there's no escaping the cattle wherever you go


 
And of course it's no wilderness. People have been building on it for millennia and plenty of the leftovers
are still there


 
A sample of the more rideable sections of trail


 
Old army trenches overlooking the Syrian front have been quaint relics every other time I've hiked past
 them. As of this writing (September 2014) the UN forces are pulling out of the Quneitra crossing, and
this old infrastructure may go back to its former use as chaos continues to fester in Syria's civil war


 
Now firmly in the central Golan: Plains, woods fading into grassland, hills becoming fewer


 
Another relic suddenly more relevant: a disused tank peers over the Syrian plains, keeping watch


 
The extensive minefields in the Golan are more or less all fenced off now, but here more than in other
places, you really want to to keep to the trail. As Israel's trail system developed, the Golan was one of the
first areas (after the Judean Desert and Eilat Mountains) to have a trail network marked; the danger of
hikers stumbling into mines provided the impetus


 
Second night's accommodation - the "campsite" in someone's backyard, Alonei haBashan. Rather than
roosters, the soundtrack for the night was booms from distant Syrian battles. Maybe my most eerie
night of camping, though at the time I took the noises for IDF exercises...

Night two: I arrived at Alonei haBashan, where the informational signposts described above suggested that there was some sort of campground available (or at least, that was my best guess as to what they meant). I rolled into the moshav, which was crawling with kids, and asked the first adult I met where the campground was. He showed me the way to what turned out to be not a campground, but his backyard - classic informal trail-angel hospitality.

Enough people hike through here that the locals are used to it, and a lot of them make these sorts of offers - I remember coming here while hiking the trail and having a similar experience. However, this guy had never seen anyone full-on bikepacking the route. To my surprise (given the crappy terrain) he did say a lot of people rode it, but never while carrying overnight gear. I suppose an unloaded bike (and one with suspension, which is the only kind of bike Israelis are aware that you can ride off-road) is a lot easier to haul over all the spiky volcanic rock than the rigid, loaded Troll is...


 
This volcanic plateau does not take kindly to cyclists - at least not along this ungroomed route. Terrain like
this had me walking or detouring far more often than I'd have liked


 
An extraordinarily thick fog greeted me in the morning - given that the views on these plains wouldn't
have been much anyway, I really enjoyed the otherwordly feeling of rolling through the mist


 
An unusually rideable bit of 4x4, interrupted by puddle. Enough to forget you're in a region known for
its aridity


 
More modern ruins than ancient stone fences or stone-age burial markers: reminders of the most recent
war in this land's uncountable history


 
Mist lifting, layers of plains coming into view


 
A faint syncline is enough to host a ribbon of color, for a few weeks at most


On an undistinguished dirt road, Wu Tang's odometer hit the 6-million meter mark. I celebrated by
dismounting to move through one of dozens of cattle gates the trail crosses


 
Into one of the last hopelessly rocky, cow-trodden hike-a-bike sessions before the landscape was to change...


 
The long expanse of the central Golan gives way to deep gorges: Wadi Gamla leads down past a Roman-era
fortress to the almost-hidden Sea of Galilee, the southern end of the trail's counterpart to the viewing 
pleasures of Mt. Hermon


 
Last few glimpses of plains, and the long-dead volcanoes...


 
And of the sweeping "great" plains I'd be descending from. Still got that big sky feel - at least at the right angle


 
Barbary-nut, a relative of the rarer iris species I have not yet been lucky enough to spot


 
Camp at a picnic spot, advertised by the map as having water. There were fountains but, as is the case at
least half the time, they were turned off. I wasn't the first one to be frustrated, and one of their
maintenance panels had been smashed open, but neither that perpetrator nor I apparently had the right
tools to rotate the knob within. This led to a several-mile trip to the nearest town - not the worst of fates


 
Beginning the descent.  The plains end, the gorge-streaked final push begins


 
That there is a bull. I'm scared of bulls. Luckily, this family headed away from me - but unluckily, they 
continued down the same 4x4 I needed to follow. They got a bit of a lead on me when I wiped out on some
loose gravel and had to patch myself up, then eventually headed off to a side pasture and let me through
unskewered


 
Great riding country - especially on the downgrades


 
The trip's only ford, that left me wishing I'd brought my water filter. Of course, it's not set up to stop
viruses, and I was downstream from plenty of cows, so maybe it was just as well


 
After the ford came the inevitable slog back uphill - again my unconditioned legs began to holler angrily


 
The sun was finally coming out, and the elevation had decreased quite a bit - to the point that the heat was
making the prospect of staying to enjoy the views a good deal less appealing


 
A selection of spring wildflowers; wild fennel features prominently


 
Looking upstream...


 
...looking downstream. Already that summer haze was settling in


 
Even in the haze, the Sea of Galilee never gets old


 
Nor does the sight of short-lived green grass in these parts


 
The trail continues down into this gorge, Wadi Metzar - a tributary of the Yarmouk River, which marks the
boundary with Jordan. I could see from the topo map that the climb out of Metzar was going to be more
than my legs could handle, and opted to take the ridgeline highway instead. I battled headwinds, but I'm
sure I still took the easy road


 
Back on the trail, running right up against the cliff edges...

The final kilometers of the trail did their best to make up for all the gruesome hike-a-bike I'd pushed through: a rugged 4x4 track swooping down the cliffs above the Sea of Galilee, in and out of forests, and when I was done ripping down it and had one more little hill to grind up, I ran into a picnic area with a group of friends grilling out. Inevitably, they invited me to sit and eat meat, an offer nobody needs to make twice to a tired cycle-tourist. The trifecta of trail encounters complete (after also having been invited into the home of a stranger immediately after meeting them, and crossing ways with hikers going the other direction to exchange extensive intel on trail conditions), I was free to knock out the remainder of the route.

 
A downbeat end to the trail - a final blaze on a signpost, without so much as a special sign to indicate that
this parking lot is a southbound hiker's reward for trail completion. Luckily, cyclists have a lengthy stretch
of winding, downhill highway still ahead...


 
The buzz of knobby tires rolling quickly on smooth pavement accompanied me from here...


 
...as I dropped past the last of the rugged Golan geography...


...along hairpin switchbacks down toward the Sea of Galilee.