My first outing while working for the Abraham Path was to hike from Beersheva to Masada, a route that became the Beersheva and Arad regions of the trail. The route had been drawn up before I joined the organization, so my task was to schlep through the late-summer heat, gathering GPS data, notes, and photos, in order to make my first-ever set of hiking maps. Early on, I discovered one drawback of laying out an Abraham-themed hiking trail: it turns out Abraham did not always frequent the most scenic places. Nevertheless - duty calls.

The outskirts of Lakiya, one of the dozen-plus recognized Bedouin towns in the Negev. The dusty hills are interspersed with recently-planted pine forests - mostly Aleppo pines, which don't make for a particularly interesting (or ecologically appropriate) monoculture environment. Somehow, this view reminded me of parts of the Black Hills of South Dakota

Eucalyptus, another major tree species which is now ubiquitous in Israel, thanks to human intervention. Years earlier, while tramping around every hiking trail in the lower Galilee, I decided there were few enough tree species there that I could learn them all. Since then, I've become an insufferable tree nerd.

The southern fringes of the Hebron Hills. North of here, the low mountain range of the West Bank. Southward, the open plains of the northern Negev

An unusually clear day opens the views west to Beersheva, one of the largest Israeli cities

Up in the Hebron Hills, amid the piney Yatir Forest, Byzantine ruins overlie a possible site of the biblical Jattir (or Yatir)

The Yatir Forest is totally man-made - almost all Aleppo pine, with some cypress mixed in. Thanks to 10,000 years of human habitation, concluded by the Ottoman-era construction of the Hejaz Railway to Mecca, this region has been severely deforested. Israeli efforts to reforest it have, unfortunately, often taken the easy route of planting fast-growing pines everywhere. This also happens to the place look more like Europe or the US, which may have been part of the motive - donations from abroad were apparently pretty key to the JNF's early endeavors

Orchards in the high hills

Down from the mountains to the plain of the northern Negev. Filled with dust devils and unrecognized Bedouin villages, it's not a landscape that immediately strikes most people as temping to hike in. After several passes through over the years, it still doesn't strike me that way

Tel Arad, a Canaanite city with Israelite and Hellenistic ruins on top. One interesting feature is a cultic structure built according to the same format as the Jerusalem temple, with a holy-of-holies and everything - only this one has a couple of stones in it, thought to represent Yahweh and Asherah. For me, this brought to life the biblical stories of priests and sanctuaries scattered throughout the land, high places attracting wayward Israelites, and the redaction-covered story of Yahweh's ascent from Edomite warrior spirit to king of the universe

Tel Arad allows camping on the grounds, and is stocked with pomegranate trees as an amenity for visitors

Heading out of Arad, into the south of the Judean Desert. The Negev refers to the southern part of Israel, more or less from Beersheva and Arad south; there's also the Judean Desert, straddling the Green Line. There's no clear boundary between the two deserts, but the Judean Desert is a rainshadow desert created by the West Bank mountains, while the Negev is part of the desert belt that lies at a band of latitude from North Africa through the Middle East, all the way to the American Southwest. The Judean Desert becomes wetter as it goes north and as the hills become lower between it and the sea to the west.

Apparently a species of glasswort - much like what grows in New Jersey's coastal salt marshes

The Negev and the Judean Desert both heavily feature rolling, monotonous highlands cut by deep, stunning wadis

4x4 tracks off into the distance...

...roving herds of camels, out to pasture...

...and the gaping Rift Valley, separating this land (on the African plate) from the hazy heights of Moab (on the Arabian plate, grinding its way north at centimeters per year)

An artificial oasis - the faux-Bedouin camp/resort at Kfar haNokdim. Admittedly very touristy, but nevertheless quite impressive for its creative hand-built variety of architectures

A Bedouin saying: "Rock shade is better than tree shade." In Arabic, it rhymes, as do the many other Bedouin sayings prescribing pithy solutions to life's most mundane quandaries, such as "After Orion appears, don't trust the flash floods" (that is, don't camp in streambeds during the wetter winter season, and "After the feast of the Christians [Easter], put away your second robe" [because after Easter comes the start of the scorching summer, and you want to remove layers accordingly].

Ran into a couple of Bedouin guys on their own backpacking outing, at the head of Wadi Tze'elim. As ever, they were eager to be photographed

The cliff where we met overlooked Tzefira Pool, a rare perennial water source - though not one I'd drink unfiltered

Wadi Tze'elim, one of the greatest canyons in Israel or Palestine. To the east, Jordan's much higher plateau and bigger watersheds mean canyons that dwarf this one

In the midday light, the Judean Desert appears harsh and stark. In the golden mornings and evenings, it is enchanting

Morning mist

More views of Tze'elim

And its mouth. What water can make it down the canyon and over the parched shores beyond, flows into the shrinking Dead Sea

The mountain of Masada, where a Herodian winter palace was turned into a Jewish Zealot stronghold, then a Byzantine monastery