Now that we have established that Israel/Palestine are desert countries that can get unexpectedly cold there is only one question left to answer: Can you ski in Israel? Yes, you can — in the northernmost tip of the Golan Heights!
I went to the Golan Heights in February. I had heard too many good things about the landscape to miss it, and I had heard that the Golan Heights Hostel had underfloor heating. So what could go wrong?
I took one of the hourly buses from Tiberias to Kiryat Shimona (aka Qiryat Shemona) and after a half hour of waiting jumped onto the connection to Odem*.
Odem is a tiny settlement about an hour from Kiryat Shimona, without a store but with a couple of holiday rentals, a vineyard, and a café that’s open in warmer seasons. At 1,090 m, Odem is also the second-highest town (yes, despite a population of 118 in 2015 it’s considered a town) in Israel and Palestine.
Note: According to international law, the Golan Heights are not part of the State of Israel. They belong to Syria but have been occupied by Israel since 1967/1981. The UN controls a buffer zone between Syria and the Eastern (Israeli-occupied) part of the Golan Heights, and you might hear sporadic shelling in the area. But I did not see or hear of any actual threats to people in the Golan Heights.
The Golan Heights Hostel was recommended to me by the Tiberias Hostel; both are members of the ILH Israel Hostel Association. I emailed them only the night before to book a bed in the female dorm. The hostel is located in the former settlement store. So occasionally people would come in and ask to buy groceries. There is a total of 26 beds in three dorms and two privates. The atmosphere is very family-like with pancake parties for breakfast and the option to book a seat at the vegan dinner table.
I started my stay by heading for what is known as the yellow hike from Odem to the top of Mount Odem (about 100 m up from the settlement), to the abandoned IDF bunker (33°11’55.4″N+35°45’15.5″E) with views of Mount Hermon, and was to continue into the oldest oak forest in Israel (around 33°12’31.9″N+35°43’55.4″E). Cows and wild boars are roaming here.
However, my issue in January were the torrential rains that started pelting down on me about an hour into what was supposed to be a 3-h loop. I had just passed a pack of barking dogs and a very steep muddy decline. So turning back wasn’t an option. I soldiered on following the yellow markers until they led me back to the massive yellow gate that I have learned marks settlements throughout Israel.
The oak forest also holds reminders of the region’s volcanic past. As you walk along the paths, you might discover craters. Big Gupt (33°12’25.1″N+35°44’02.9″E) is the largest one. While the yellow route takes you past there, you can easily park your car on Route 978, just a few meters off the Odem turn-off, and walk along a paved footpath to the crater. The path around the crater and into it is not paved but — weather permitting — it is very easy to find a route through the oaks trees as they are growing with plenty of distance between one another and practically without undergrowth.
On a clear day, Israel’s highest peak is visible from Tiberias at the Sea of Galilee. Hermon is one of the major suppliers of fresh water in Israel. I was lucky enough to be in the area on one of the few days every winter that there is fresh snow in the Golan Heights. People from all over the country will flock to Mount Hermon for the day to enjoy some skiing or snowboarding. I didn’t go there myself, but I got a few lovely views from the abandoned bunker above Odem.
Please note that Mount Hermon is literally Israels northern end — some routes in and to the mountain might require military permits or entail passing through checkpoints.
The Druze are a religious minority in the Levant region. Their faith is unique but can best be described to the uninitiated as a mix of Islam, Judaism, Christianity, plus some. Throughout the Golan Heights, you will see their distinct green-red-yellow-blue-white star (and flag) adorning buildings. Druze centers are the villages/towns Mas’ade, Buqata, Ein Kinyat, and Mashdal Shams. Though not much of the original villages remains, the traditional building style lives on in pagoda-style terraces adorning the roofs.
The Druze men traditionally wear low-hanging pants (think tourist-Indian Yoga pants) and white cylindrical hats. Though, today most will wear regular Western clothes.
The traditional garb of women is a black skirt or dress and a flowing white scarf that is wrapped to cover the mouth when the women leave their home.
Built by one of legendary conqueror Saladin’s sons, Nirmod Fortress has been guarding access to the Golan Heights and Mount Hermon for 800 years. Along with a few fellow guests at the Golan Heights Hostel, I went on a day hike through Mas’ade and Ein Kinyat. The hike was supposed to take us 3 hours and leave plenty of time to explore the castle. Alas, there is no marked route, and we got lost a few times, in the forests and an orchard. So it ended up taking us closer to five hours, and we had to rush through the fortress. We climbed a small path in the back, crawled through a tunnel in one of the towers, and then loop back to the entrance via the main gate and the tarred driveway. All of this in less than an hour where I would have loved to spend two or three.
Outside the main gate, we waited for half an hour for a bus that never came. Eventually, we hitchhiked to Sa’ar Waterfall junction about 2 km down the road.
While hoping for better bus connections at this busy intersection, we had a saghlab — a milky desert with rose water, cinnamon, and coconut flakes. That was worth the detour. Plus: After another 15 minutes, we were lucky to get two guys who made space for all four of us in their car.
However, if I were to do it again, I’d probably catch bus #58, which stops right outside Nimrod, and after exploring the fortress, I’d go down to Israel’s largest waterfall in Hermon Stream Nature Reserve (aka Banias). Bus #58 also stops there, which makes it convenient to get back to Odem.
If you’re going to Golan Heights in the summer and are looking for a refreshment, check out the Hexagonal Pools in (Ha)Meshushim Nature Reserve. The name derives from the basalt pillars surrounding the pools: Erosion has shaped them into hexagons, and the scenery looks simply stunning!
Meshushim is another one for the rental car as access to the nature reserve by public transport is not available. If you do rely on buses, go to Katsrin or Had Nes and hitch a ride/catch a cab to the Reserve visitor center. From there, the pools are another 2 km to hike.