Nahal Tkoa: A hike through seasonal waterholes in the desert

Winter has started in Israel, and there has been quite a lot of rain lately. So, last Saturday, my friend suggested that we go hiking in Nahal Tkoa in the Judean Desert. Usually, it’s a dry wadi, but after rainfall, it gets filled with natural waterholes. We came a few days after massive rain, and the pools were super deep! If you come a long time after the rain, you will probably have a different – dryer – experience.

Trail length: About 11 km. It’s a circular trail.

Trail duration: Around 5-6 hours, depending on your pace and fitness level.

Difficulty level: Challenging, especially after massive rainfall. There are places where you need to climb very slanted cliffs, and, depending on your height, there are places where the water reaches beyond your chest, and you might even need to swim through.  

Best season: Winter (December-February) and Spring (March-May), when there’s more chance of rain.

Water along the way: There’s no drinking water along the way. Make sure to pack enough.

View the full trail on a map here.

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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 liters of water, and wear a hat. You can pack some snacks for the day. Also, bring a garbage bag so you can take your trash with you.
  • Make sure to start the trail enough time before sunset, so you will not get stuck in the canyon in the dark. I’d recommend beginning before 9 AM. 
  • DO NOT hike RIGHT AFTER rainfall! It could be very slippery. Instead, wait about four days after the rainfall and then go enjoy the waterholes. If there was massive rainfall, it would most likely still be a bit slippery because there would be mud, but you can pass the problematic places carefully. 
  • This hike is not recommended for people who are afraid of heights or water. There are places where you need to climb up above the waterholes, and if you come a few days after rainfall, the waterholes could be very deep.  
  • There’s no phone signal everywhere along the trail.
  • The trail starts on a green-marked trail, continues on a black-marked trail, and ends on a green-marked trail.
  • There’s a book that says that part of this trail passes through a military zone, but I didn’t see any military zone sign when hiking there. In any case, it’s okay to hike through military zones on Fridays and Saturdays. If you’re hiking on other days, you can call +972-8-9902926 to check if hiking there is okay. 

What to bring for this hike?

If you’re coming a long time after rainfall, you don’t need to bring something too special. But if you’re coming a few days after massive rain, you should be prepared for deep waterholes along the trail. So, here are some things that might help you pass this trail enjoyably:

  • A waterproof rain cover for your backpack. We didn’t come with something to protect our backpacks from the water and had to carry them above our heads so they wouldn’t get wet. With a waterproof rain cover, you can float your backpack on the water next to you while you pass the waterhole.
  • Aqua shoes or hiking sandals. I hiked with waterproof hiking shoes, but they weren’t good enough because the water leaked from the top of the boots. So, if you don’t want to get your shoes and socks wet, you can hike with good hiking sandals. Another option is to bring aqua shoes and change into them whenever you need to walk through a waterhole. But switch back to hiking shoes every time you finish a crossing! 
  • A change of clothes. When we finished the waterhole crossings and started our way back to the car, I regretted not bringing a change of clothes. There was shade all over the trail, and I was completely soaked in water and trembling from the cold. So, I recommend bringing a change of clothes and changing somewhere behind a rock. 

How to get to the head of the trail?   

The best way to get to the trail is by car because no bus goes up to Metzoke Dragot, which is more or less the trailhead. It’s about a 1.5-hour drive from Jerusalem, and you can park your car next to the Metzoke Dragot Travelers’ Village or at the Metzoke Dragot Campground. It’s better to park next to the Travelers’ Village because it’s a safer place against car break-ins. 

A car is also your only option if you’re coming on a Saturday when there’s no public transportation in Israel.

If you prefer the bus, you can take bus 486 from the Jerusalem Central Station to Metzoke Dragot Junction (צומת מצוקי דרגות). It is about a 1-hour ride. Then, you will need to walk up the steep and winding road to Metzoke Dragot, about 5 km long, or try to find a lift.

Here is the location on Google Maps:

Where to stay near the trailhead?

If you don’t want to wake up early and drive to the trailhead, you can stay at the Metzoke Dragot Travelers’ Village, just a few steps from the start of the trail. I haven’t stayed there, but my parents have been, and they enjoyed their time there. They said the view of the Dead Sea from over there is extraordinary! You can choose between cabins and tents.

If you’re okay with more basic conditions, you can camp at the Metzoke Dragot Campground, about 500 meters from the Traveler’s Village. It’s a free campground with no facilities at all. Read more about camping in Israel.

The hike in Nahal Tkoa

Map taken from Israel Hiking Map
Elevation of the trail, taken from Israel Hiking Map

From the entrance to Nahal Tkoa 

We came with a car and stopped next to the Metzoke Dragot Travelers’ Village (1), where there was a small gravel parking lot and an INPA booth. We talked to the ranger at the booth and asked him how deep the waterholes in Nahal Tkoa were, but he didn’t know.

The green-marked trail starts from this point, but we saw some cars driving on the trail, so we asked the ranger if we could do that as well, to shorten the hike. “It’s best to park here,” he told us, “Sometimes people break into cars that park beyond this point.” My friends preferred to take the risk and drove beyond the INPA booth, past the Metzoke Dragot Campground (2), until we reached a junction with a red-marked trail (3). There, we parked our car on the side of the road and started walking. It saved us about 670 meters of walking.

Then, we continued on the green-marked trail, which wasn’t too interesting. It’s a wide gravel road, and you can see beautiful desert hills in the distance. About 1 kilometer from the junction with the red-marked trail, we reached a junction with a black-marked trail (4). “We’ll come back from this point,” my friend said, “But now we’re continuing on the green trail.”

A short while after passing that junction, we could see the beautiful canyon of Nahal Darga to our left. It is the longest wadi and deepest canyon in the Judean Desert.

About 1.6 km from the junction, we reached another junction, where the green, red, and blue trails meet (5). Still, we kept walking on the green trail. After another 2.5 km, we finally reached the second junction with the black-marked trail (6). This is where we said “goodbye” to the green trail and started walking down into Nahal Tkoa.

The INPA booth next to the trailhead
Walking on the wide gravel green-marked road
The Darga Wadi from above

Passing through the waterholes of Nahal Tkoa

Nahal Tkoa is the main tributary of Nahal Draga. It starts near Bethlehem, but this trail goes through its lower section in the Judean Desert, where it eventually meets Nahal Darga. It is named after the Biblical town of Tkoa, which existed not far from Bethlehem and was important in the area.

The whole section, from the trail junction to the meeting with Nahal Darga, is only about 2.5 kilometers long. Still, it was very challenging due to all the waterholes along the way. At first, the wadi seemed wide and easy to walk through, but as we proceeded deeper into it, it became narrower and narrower. About 45 minutes from the trail junction, we reached our first waterhole. At first, the waterholes were not so deep, but as we proceeded down the wadi, they became deeper and deeper. The deepest one reached my chest. I would say the water was about 1.4 meters high.

My friends hiked this trail a few years ago in May, about two weeks after heavy rain. When they did it back then, there were only three waterholes, and they weren’t so deep, so they didn’t expect we would need to pass through so many deep waterholes. We didn’t come prepared with a rain cover for the backpacks, so one of my friends, who was the tallest, had to carry our backpacks above the water every time we passed through a waterhole. I recommend bringing a rain cover for your backpacks in any case, even if you’re not sure if there will be a lot of water.

Since we did the trail a few days after massive rainfall, there was still mud next to the waterholes, which made it harder to walk through the wadi. There were also places where we had to climb up the small cliffs that surrounded the wadi, and the climb up was very slanted without hand or leg bars. You really need to push yourself up the wall as if you’re wall climbing. Some places have hand and leg bars, but they are very scarce. So yeah, it’s a challenging trail.

This is how the wadi looks in the beginning
One of the waterholes. It gets much deeper!

From the trail junction back to our car

After 2.5 kilometers, we got out of Nahal Tkoa and reached the junction with Nahal Darga (7). The black, red, and green trails all meet at this point. We tried to find a little bit of sun and sat down for lunch. But soon after, the sun disappeared, and the shade caught its place. We were all soaked from the waterholes and trembling from the cold, so we hurriedly finished our lunch and started walking on the black trail leading out of the canyon.

About 460 meters from the trail junction, we passed by a sign that pointed left towards the Muraba’at Caves (8). Those are natural caves that were used by human beings throughout history. Archeologists found here many artifacts from the time of the Bar Kokhba revolt, which suggests that those caves were used as hiding places for the rebels.   

We were too wet and trembling and just wanted to get out of the shade, so we didn’t go to see the Muraba’at Caves. Instead, we continued on the trail, climbing up out of the wadi. The climb up is very steep, and there are railings that help you along the way. After about 800 meters, we reached the top of the canyon and the intersection with the green-marked trail (9).  

There, we turned right and walked back to our car on the same green-marked gravel road we walked on at the beginning of the day.

Where Nahal Darga meets Nahal Tkoa
Climbing up out of the wadi

Travel insurance

No matter where you travel, it’s always a good idea to consider travel insurance, especially if you’re planning to do hiking. So, if you want to hike some of Israel’s beautiful trails, including Nahal Tkoa, you might want to consider travel insurance, just to be on the safe side. World Nomads offers coverage for more than 150 activities as well as emergency medical, lost luggage, trip cancellation, and more.

Disclaimer: I receive a fee when you get a quote from World Nomads using this link. I do not represent World Nomads. This is not a recommendation to buy travel insurance.

Conclusion

Nahal Tkoa is a challenging hike in the Judean Desert, especially a few days after rainfalls, when the depressions in the wadi are full of water. This is an excellent hike for those who love water and know how to swim.

If you’re staying in the area, you can also try the Upper Nahal Darga hike.

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Yours,

Lior

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