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


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


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

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