The Yam el Yam trail – walking from sea to sea across Israel
Stretching for 79km across northern Israel, the Yam el Yam trail joins the Mediterranean coast with the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret in Hebrew). For many young Israelis, walking the trail is a rite of passage, often followed while in the scouts or the army cadets.
As long-distance walks go The Yam el Yam trail is not particularly challenging, being comfortably walked in four days using overnight accommodation, or three days if you are prepared and equipped to wild camp. Apart from the first 7km, the path is waymarked throughout.
Day 1: Entering the Khziv gorge
There is a tradition that walkers carry a bottle of water from the Mediterranean and pour this into Lake Galilee. Wanting to follow this tradition, but not wanting to carry excess baggage, we filled two small shampoo bottles taken from our hotel bathroom with sea water and packed these in our backpacks.
Starting from the Mediterranean coast at Akhziv beach, a short distance north of the resort town of Nahariya, the trail heads inland through intensive banana plantations and orange groves.
Flat at first, using a mixture of dusty farm tracks and minor asphalt roads, the trail soon reaches the beginning of the Khziv gorge, which is followed for many kilometres into the mountains. As the gorge deepens, the river is followed through a narrowing canyon, passing below the impressive ruins of Montfort castle perched high above. This medieval castle, built between 1220 and 1229 as headquarters for the order of Teutonic Knights, was a crusader stronghold for only 50 years, falling to muslim Mamluks after a long siege in 1271. Various springs populate the bottom of the gorge feeding the Khziv stream, which is frequently crossed, usually by stepping stones.
Overnight in Abirim
At the end of the first day’s walking, the trail climbs steeply out of the gorge up a small side valley to reach the quiet hilltop village of Abirim. Here, a small community has built a secluded village in a woodland setting. Known for its slow and tranquil pace of life, Abirim is a popular get-away-from-it-all destination for city dwellers at weekends and a number of villagers have tapped this market by building wooden cabins to rent in the surrounding forest. When not in use during the week, these cabins make perfect stop-over accommodation for trail walkers. The cabin we had was targeted at couples looking for a romantic break, with a double-size jacuzzi, log-effect fire, ample supply of candles and a delicious home-baked chocolate cake in the shape of a heart. Wild camping is not allowed around the village, although there is an organised campsite. There is neither shop nor restaurant, although with advance notice a local lady will cook food and bring it to your cabin for both dinner and breakfast. Alternatively, there are bars and a restaurant, but no accommodation, in the Druze (Christian-Arab) village of Fassuta about 3km further along the trail. The owner of the cabin we rented in Abirim let us borrow her car (hint – bring your driving license) to make the short drive into the village for dinner, although we took advantage of the meal delivery service to have breakfast in our cabin.
Day 2: Trekking through forest, field and gorge
Setting off on day two, we passed through the agricultural part of Fassuta.
Here, in complete contrast to the industrial-scale estate and kibbutz farmland of the coastal plain, we found pocket handkerchief-size pastoral fields with grazing cattle and old groves of gnarled olive trees that looked like they might have been there since biblical times.
Hillside flocks of sheep and goats, tended by shepherd boys with barking dogs, added to this biblical illusion. Soon the trail descended again into the limestone gorge, passing more springs, some with large pools of water. My guidebook claimed that these were suitable for a refreshing swim, although a paddle would be a more accurate description. The stage ended at a car park below the slopes of mount Meron, where there is a campsite and water supply. There is also an hourly bus service to Safed, and neither wanting nor being equipped to camp, we caught the bus for a half-hour ride into town for the night.
Overnight in Safed
Safed, perched on a hilltop high above the Amud gorge, is a religious centre said to be the most religious town in Israel. It had a Jewish community for many years before the foundation of Israel and was the scene of a heroic defence against Arab league attacks in 1948, dramatically described by Leon Uris in his novel Exodus. The orthodox community is very visible, with many residents wearing traditional Jewish attire. Orthodox Jews come from all over the world to study in the town’s many torah colleges. Shabat is strictly observed, making it difficult to find a hotel room or restaurant open on Friday night or Saturday.
Day 3: Mt Meron, Israel’s second-highest mountain
From mount Meron almost to Galilee, the Yam al Yam follows the same route as the Israel National Trail, a 1015km behemoth that takes 50 days to walk from the northern tip of Israel to its southernmost point. The following morning, we returned by bus to where we had left off and followed a good path to the summit of Meron (1208m), meeting en-route our first National Trail walker. This is Israel’s second-highest mountain, but the highest one that can be climbed – the tallest, mount Hermon (2236m), is in a military zone straddling the border between Israel, Lebanon and Syria and not somewhere you would want to go. The very top is an army site bristling with antennae and military hardware, with the trail circling the summit behind high security fences to reach 1205m, just 3m short of the highest point.
Extensive views in all directions include the Lebanese border to the north and Golan Heights in the east.
On a clear day, the beginning of the trail on the Mediterranean coast can be seen in the west, although the final destination on the shores of Lake Galilee to the south is hidden behind an intermediate ridge.
Leaving the mountain, we descended through more Druze farmland and small vineyards, crossing the watershed between the Khziv, which we had followed up from the Mediterranean, and Amud stream, which empties into Lake Galilee. Descending past Meron village, we dropped into the Amud gorge and entered the river Amud National Park. Before the park was created, this was an area of small-scale industry, with a number of abandoned mills along the valley floor fed by water carrying levadas and small aqueducts. Now, with trees and creepers growing through the ruins, this is a very atmospheric place. At Sechvi pools there is a national park ranger centre, which operates a curfew system for entrants into the park. As the gorge below this point becomes narrow and rocky, making for very slow progress, walkers are not allowed beyond this point after 13.00. We arrived at 15.00, but as our plans were not to follow the gorge but rather take a side valley up to our hotel in Safed for the night, we were allowed to pass. For those camping, there is a climb up to a campsite 2.5km further along the gorge.
Day 4: The Amud gorge
On our last morning we returned to the gorge and followed a tricky path along the valley floor. There were warnings everywhere about the risk of flash flooding, with advice against passage when rain storms are forecast. The trail criss-crossed the dry stream bed many times. Pegs, ladders and occasional handrails are provided where the route climbs short distances up the gorge sides to avoid particularly difficult sections. We ignored a side track, signposted as a two-hour round-trip to the top of a nearby mountain with a view of both Galilee and Mediterranean seas and soon reached the Amud rock pillar, which gives its name to both gorge and river (amud is Hebrew for pillar). Further on we crossed a major link of Israel’s national water network. Here, a number of huge water pipes drop 200m into the gorge on one side and climb back up again on the other, using a symphonic technique to take the water supply across the gorge. We persevered to the end of the gorge, where the going improved. Now following a four-wheel drive track, we continued downhill, dropping below sea-level to reach banana plantations on the agricultural land beside Lake Galilee. Crouching to pass under a main road in a water pipe (another place not to be in a flash flood) we soon reached the lakeshore. This was a bit of an anti-climax as high springtime meltwaters had raised the level of the lake, obliterating the beach and creating a swampy foreshore between the reeds. However, we managed to find a dry bit of shore and emptied our seawater bottles into the lake. Job done!
- The best time to walk the route is in early spring (March/April) after the winter rain but while the trail is still green, or in autumn (September/October). The trail is very busy during Peseach (Passover), a week-long holiday that can occur between late March and late April. Avoid July–August when it is very hot and November–February when it can be cold and wet.
- Israel hiking map 2 (1:50,000) gives accurate coverage of the route. In Israel this can be purchased in camping shops, though it is difficult to obtain outside the country. A copy can be downloaded from https://israelhiking.osm.org.il The best path description can be downloaded from https://grabthebackpacks.com
- The start at Akhziv beach on highway 4 can be reached by Egged bus (route 31, approximately two-hourly) from Nahariya station. Alternatively, it will take 10min by taxi. Trains run from Tel Aviv to Nahariya via Haifa twice an hour.
- The route is waymarked with purple spot waymarks from the beginning of the Khziv gorge (7km from the start). From Mt Meron there are also the white/blue/orange waymarks of the Israel National Trail.
- The biggest danger is flash floods. Neither the Khziv nor Amud gorges should be entered when heavy rain is forecast.
- There are drinking water taps at about half-day intervals. There are neither shops nor restaurants directly on the route, although there are three filling stations all a short way off-route that sell snacks and cold food.
- Most Israelis either camp or have back-up vehicles to pick them up at the end of each stage. The only accommodation is in Abirim (end of stage 1) and in Safed (on a hilltop, 400m above the end of stage 3).
- At the end of the route, Egged buses (route 541, hourly) run from a bus stop opposite the entrance of Ginosar kibbutz on highway 90 to Tiberias, a large resort town on Lake Galilee, where there are many hotels, guest houses and restaurants. Regular buses connect Tiberias with Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. There are no buses during Shabat (Friday evening and Saturday until 16.00). There is a pub at Ginosar kibbutz and a resort hotel nearby.
Mike Wells has been a keen long-distance walker and cyclist for over 20 years. He has walked all the major British trails, the GR5 through the Alps from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean and has explored the Italian Dolomites' Alta Via routes. He has also walked in Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Norway and Chilean Patagonia.
Mike has cycled the C2C route across northern England as well as the Camino and Ruta de la Plata to Santiago de la Compostela. He has completed an end to end traverse of Cuba, a circumnavigation of Iceland and a trip across Lapland to the North Cape.