Always a “last refuge”, the Dead Sea was where young David hid in the springs of Ein Gedi from the wrath of the angry King Saul. It was the refuge of the Essenes of Qumran as they transcribed the ancient texts which ultimately became known as the “Dead Sea Scrolls”. Some claim that another anti-establishment rebel, John the Baptist, sought refuge there and lived with the Essenes. The megalo-maniac King Herod built a secret mountain fortress by the Dead Sea in the event of a rebellion against him, and 100 years later, that same fortress, known as Masada, became the last refuge of the final remnant of the Jewish rebellion against the Romans.
If you make it there, and find a quiet spot for contemplation, you will understand why it has always been a refuge. Separated from the rest of the world by a harsh desert and forbidding cliffs, located at the lowest spot on the face of the earth, it nevertheless can sustain someone in hiding because every 10 or 2 miles, lush springs trickle out of the limestone mountains.
In order to include everything on this itinerary, you need to start out early, and it may be wise (especially if you are using public transportation) for you to arrive the evening before and stay at either the Youth Hostel of Masada (for the backpackers), the Field School of Ein Gedi (for low budget travellers), the Kibbutz Ein Gedi Guest House (for those who want a nice but modestly priced hotel) or one of the five star luxury hotels at Ein Bokek (for those who can afford it).
For our purposes, however, we will assume that you are driving out of Jerusalem. Leave Jerusalem at 6:45am in the winter, and (if you’re planning on hiking up Masada on foot) by 4:00am in the summer. Mid-day temperatures top 45 degrees Celsius (115 Fahrenheit) in the summer, so the earlier you hike, the cooler you’ll be. One other advantage of leaving so early is that the traffic will be practically non-existent, so it will take a little over an hour to get to Masada. When you arrive, if it is close to or after 8:00 drive to the indoor parking lot, buy your entrance tickets at the visitor’s center and watch the movie before ascending the mountain. The visitor’s center opens at 8:00. The first cable car ascends to the top at 8:00, as well, so needless to say, if there is anyone in your group who is not capable of hiking the steep hour long trail to the top of Masada, there is no point in leaving Jerusalem before 6:30 anyway, even in the summer.
Give yourself an hour for hiking up, an hour and a half for touring the antiquities, and an hour to hike down. For all but the most committed hikers, however, we recommend buying a ticket on top of the mountain for the cable car ride down. Regardless of the time, eat at the food court at the visitor’s centre when you’re finished, because your time and your options are limited.
From Masada, head north about 10 miles (17 kilometers) to Ein Gedi National Park. Ein Gedi means “the spring of the goat” and requires an hour long hike up a beautiful canyon (follow the little map on the brochure). You will be rewarded with gorgeous views, glimpses of the Ibex (wild mountain goats) that give the spring it’s name (as well as the curious little badger-like hyrax), and the occasional opportunity to wade in the water and stand under the waterfalls as they cascade down the canyon. Know however, that almost without exception, there will be hundreds of other people here.
Here the young warrior David confronted King Saul who had chased him into the wilderness. After reaching the largest waterfall (“David’s Waterfall”) you will head back on the other side of the canyon, unless you want to make a more serious hike of it and get to places unencumbered by the masses.
These “challenge hikes” appear on the map. Anyone can do them with enough time and water, and they are a true opportunity for desert solitude. On the other hand, if you like archaeology, save your receipt and drive the half mile south to the Ancient Synagogue of Ein Gedi.
It is also quite possible that you will look at your watch and realize that you have only two hours of daylight left, in which case, drive three miles south to the Ein Gedi Spa. Don’t get too excited about the word spa, though. It’s just a nice little pay-beach with indoor showers, lockers and sulfur pools, and if you want you can actually get a massage and other treatments, but most people don’t have the time. The Dead Sea is a world class experience. Everyone should do it once, but most people will not want to do it twice. The water looks beautiful. It is, however, a weird soup of salts and minerals whose smell and feel will leave you only after several showers.
By now it’s time to drive back to Jerusalem. If you’re interested in shopping, then 20 minutes north of Ein Gedi is the Ahava Dead Sea Cosmetics factory outlet, and if you haven’t gotten your fill of archaeology, then another 10 minutes north of that is Qumran, the site of the sect who painstakingly transcribed the texts known as The Dead Sea Scrolls. But most likely, you will just want to get back to Jerusalem for a third or fourth shower. On the way, however, you will notice the beautiful views of the Jordanian mountains to the East, the mountains of Moab, from which came Ruth of the Bible, glowing red with their reflection on the waters of the sea. Have a nice trip back. You will definitely sleep well tonight.