Hiking in Israel

Located in the Judean Desert, not far from the Dead Sea, Masada is an ancient fortification from the time of the Second Temple, situated on top of a large rock plateau. Today, it’s one of the most famous sites in Israel. I’ve been to Masada many times, but last week, my friends and I decided to go and experience it from a different angle – by hiking AROUND it. The trail that goes around the foot of Masada offers stunning views of the rock plateau and the Dead Sea and gives you a better understanding of the ancient Roman siege system. It’s challenging but very rewarding!

Trail length: About 6.5 km / 4 miles. It’s a circular trail.

Trail duration: It takes about 5-6 hours, depending on your pace, fitness level, and the number of breaks you take along the way.

Difficulty level: Challenging. The hike includes VERY steep ascents and descents, some with railings and others without. To make your hike easier, you might want to bring hiking poles.   

Best season: All year round except summer (June-September). The trail is not shaded and, therefore, is not recommended on hot days.

Water along the way: You can fill water at the beginning and end of the trail.  

View the full trail on a map here.

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The southern edge of Masada

Safety instructions and general notes

  • The hike is under your full responsibility, so please be careful.
  • Make sure you hike with good hiking shoes, have at least 2.5 liters of water, and wear a hat. You can pack some snacks for the way. Also, bring a garbage bag so you can take your trash with you.
  • Start the trail enough time before sunset so you won’t get stuck in the dark. I recommend beginning the trail before 9 AM. 
  • Most of the trail is totally exposed to the sun. So keep hydrated and come prepared with sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat! 
  • This hike is not recommended for people afraid of heights. There are many places where you need to walk on the side of a cliff.
  • The phone signal worked quite fine throughout the hike.
  • The trail starts on a bit of the Snake Trail, then goes onto a red-marked trail, continues on a green-marked trail, goes again onto a red-marked trail, and ends on a black-marked trail. 
  • This trail is part of the Masada National Park, but it is free of charge. 

How to get to the head of the trail?  

Masada is quite accessible via public transportation, so you can get there by bus. If you’re coming from Jerusalem, the earliest bus is bus number 444, which leaves the Central Bus Station at 7 AM. You need to book your tickets in advance to ensure a place on the bus. Check out my guide to booking tickets for line 444 hereThis bus takes about 1.5 hours to reach Masada from Jerusalem.

If you want to leave Jerusalem later, the next bus is line 486, which leaves the central station at 8 AM and does not require pre-reservation. However, this bus is slower than bus number 444, so it would take about 2 hours to reach Masada.

You can also easily reach the trail from Kibbutz Ein Gedi, the Ein Bokek hotels, or any other place in the Dead Sea area. Bus number 486, which I’ve already mentioned, connects all those places.

Both bus lines stop at “Masada” station, at the roundabout near the entrance to Masada National Park. The trail starts beyond the guard booth next to the roundabout. If the guard asks you where you’re going, say that you’re going to hike around Masada on the Runner’s Trail (Harats Trail) and the El’azar Ascent Trail. You are not supposed to pay any entrance fees for this trail.

If you’re coming with a car, it’s about a 1.5-hour drive from Jerusalem, and there is free parking on site.  

Where to stay near the trailhead?

If you don’t want to wake up too early for the hike, you can stay at the HI Masada Hostellocated a few steps from the start of the trail. I haven’t stayed there, but it’s part of a very popular hostel chain and got good reviews. Although it’s called a hostel, it doesn’t have dormitories – only privates.

You can also camp near Masada if you’re okay with more basic conditions. The free-of-charge Masada East Campground is located about a kilometer (0.6 miles) from the start of the trail. It’s a campground with no facilities, only a designated area for setting up your own tent. If you want drinking water, you can walk to the guard booth next to the roundabout near the entrance to Masada. There are drinking faucets behind it. But it’s only open when Masada is open. There are also restrooms near the roundabout, but they are closed when Masada closes.

Another campground is the Masada West CampsiteIt’s located to the west of Masada, so not very close to the place where we started the trail. But the campsite is not far from the circular trail, so you can start and end it near the Masada West Campsite instead of the roundabout. The Masada West Campsite has facilities, as opposed to the Masada East Campground. There are restrooms, showers, drinking fountains, lighting, electrical outlets, barbeque areas, and more. The only problem is that it’s not always open. Usually, it’s open on weekends (Thursdays to Saturdays) and public holidays. For more information, check out the official site of Masada West Campsite.

The hike around Masada

Map and elevation chart taken from Israel Hiking Map

From the guard booth to the Runners’ Trail

We arrived at Masada with bus number 444 and got off at the “Masada” station, at the roundabout. We used the restrooms located near the roundabout, on the other side of the road from the bus station. Then, we were ready to start the hike around Masada.

We approached the guard booth (1) next to the roundabout. “Where are you going?” the guard asked us. “We’re going around Masada on the Runner’s Trail. We’re not going up to Masada,” we told her. So, she let us in without any problems.  

Behind the guard booth were several water faucets, which we used to fill our bottles with drinking water. Then, we continued on the path, which was not marked in any color at the beginning. After about 180 meters, there’s a right-hand turn to the Snake Trail (2). This trail leads all the way up to Masada and is very popular, especially close to sunrise, but we only walked on it a bit, about 280 meters, until we saw the right-hand turn to the Harats Trail (Runner’s Trail) (3).

The start of the trail
The right-hand turn to the Runner's Trail and Masada in the background

The start of the Runner’s Trail

The Runners’ Trail started with a short and moderate ascent but soon became flat again. To the west, we could see the striking Masada plateau rising above us. To the east, we could see the beautiful low whiteish-yellowish marlstone hills and the Dead Sea in the distance.

Another exciting thing that we could see to the east, right next to the trail, were the remains of the low wall that the Roman army built around Masada during the siege in 73-74 CE. Starting from 66 CE, the Jews rebelled against the Romans. In 70 CE, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Second Temple. Masada was the last Jewish stronghold in the Land of Israel, and the Romans reached this place only in 73 or 74 CE. They built an impressive siege system all around Masada, including this wall and 8 siege camps, which are well-preserved due to the fact that this place is so isolated. After around 8 months, the Romans were able to break into Masada, but according to the legend, the Jewish rebels killed themselves before falling into the hands of the Romans.  

As we continued walking, we also passed by two runners who came running down from our opposite direction. It was surprising for me to see that people actually run on this trail. The trail is called the Runner’s Trail not because people run on it today but because of the Roman messenger, who ran more or less on this route when he had to transfer messages from the eastern camps to the western camps during the siege.

The low Roman siege wall
A signpost pointing to the Runner's Trail and Masada's Western Entrance

Climbing to Masada’s western entrance

After about 1.3 km from the start of the Runners’ Trail, we reached a trail junction (4). Here, we took the green-marked trail, which started ascending on a very steep route. Once in a while, we stopped to look back at the stunning view of the Dead Sea and the marl hills. Now, from above, we could also see Camp D, one of the Roman siege camps located near the trail junction we passed.

As I said, the ascent on the Runners’ Trail toward the western entrance of Masada is steep. VERY steep. In some places, there are railings that you can use to help you with the climb. I brought hiking poles, so it was less of a problem for me, but my friends struggled a bit.

After about 1.2 km, we reached a beautiful spot (5) from which we could see the western side of the Masada rock plateau with the Dead Sea in the background. If you look closely, you can also spot the rectangular holes on the lower side of Masada, which are some of the Masada’s water holes. There are 12 water holes on the western side of Masada, and in the time of King Herod, they were filled with flashflood water, which was transferred to them by a special aqueduct. The people of Masada went down to those holes to gather water and take it up to the water holes on top of Masada.

On the right side, we could also see the Roman ramp, a massive pile of dirt gathered by the Romans to create a ramp during their siege. They used this ramp to break into Masada. If you reserve a ticket in advance, you can climb up to Masada from this ramp, which is the western entrance to Masada.  

We continued a bit further, about 140 km, and then reached the bottom of the Roman ramp (6). We walked up a bit to check if the trail to the water holes was open, but it wasn’t. From what I understand, it’s supposed to open soon and then you can go up and look at the water holes more closely. Because it was closed, we retraced our steps back to the bottom of the ramp, where there was a trail junction.

A bit to the west, there’s the Kana’im Grave (7). It’s the burial place of 25 skeletons discovered on Masada during excavations in caves on the southern side of the rock plateau. Archeologists believe that those are skeletons of the rebels who were on Masada during the Roman siege. They are called “Kana’im,” which means “zealots” in Hebrew because they were very radical Jews. If they really did kill themselves, as the legend says, then they really were radical.

Not far from there, there’s also the Masada West Campsite, which I’ve mentioned earlier.  

The view of Camp D from above. can you spot it?
The western side of Masada
The Water Hole Trail from a distance. Can you spot the water holes?

The ascent to the top of Mount El’azar

From the trail junction next to the Roman ramp, we took a few steps west toward the campsite and then saw the sign pointing left to the red-marked El’azar Ascent (8). The beginning of the trail goes more or less on a flat surface through the dry wadi of the Masada Stream. In the distance, we could already see the ascent, which looked quite crazy.

We reached the ascent after about 800 meters (9). My friends looked at it and cried out: “Are we really supposed to climb up this? It’s SO steep!” And then we climbed it, and it really was very steep and full of stones. At some points, there are railings that help you pass the ascent safely.

After about 300 meters, we reached a trail junction (10) and continued on the red-marked trail all the way up to the top of Mount El’azar. When we reached the top, it was very rewarding. We could clearly see the southern edge of Masada. We could even see and hear groups of young students who stood at the southern edge and shouted out towards Mount El’azar. It’s something that people do. You can hear a great echo when you shout out from the top of Masada to Mount El’azar.

The mountain is named after El’azar Ben Yair, the last leader of the Jewish rebels on Masada. According to the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, El’azar persuaded the people of Masada to commit suicide so they would not fall into the hands of the Romans and become slaves.

This mountain was also the site of Camp H of the Romans, which was used to supervise over what was going on in Masada and around it.

The Mount El'azar ascent. Doesn't look too bad in the photo
Dead Sea starling. A common bird in the Masada area
A close-up of the students standing and shouting on the southern edge of Masada

From Mount El’azar back to the eastern entrance

After resting a bit in front of the beautiful view from the top of Mount El’azar, we continued on our way back to the eastern entrance of Masada. At first, we walked on quite a flat surface, but then we reached the edge of the mountain and had to start climbing down a very steep descent.

Now, we could see stunning views of the Dead Sea and also the beautiful view of the Snake Trail on the eastern side of Masada. From Mount El’azar’s descent, you can see why this trail was called “the Snake Trail.” It goes in a zigzag, winding like a trail all the way up to Masada. Once in a while, we could also spot the cable car that went up and down the mountain.

The descent lasted about 1.7 km but felt very long because it was really challenging. At the end, we reached the road leading up to the Masada Visitors’ Center (11), which is the eastern entrance to Masada. We didn’t go inside the visitors’ center, but if you get there before closing time, you can pop inside, buy something to drink or eat, and maybe even take the cable car up to Masada if you finish the trail really early.

We continued down the road to the roundabout, where we began our journey in the morning, and got on bus 486 back to Jerusalem.

The turn toward the descent from Mount El'azar
The view of the Snake Trail and the cable cars from the descent

Conclusion

If you’ve already been to the top of Masada and want to experience the national park from a different angle, the Runners’ Trail and El’azar Ascent are both excellent trails that can be combined into one beautiful trail around Masada. The trail offers stunning views of the rock plateau of Masada from all directions and amazing views of the Dead Sea. I really recommend it!

Recommended read >> Full guide to the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea area.

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Yours,

Lior

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