Nimrod to the Hula Valley

In November of 2010, I spent a month volunteering at an eco-lodge in the tiny hamlet of Nimrod (consisting of 6 families) at the foot of Mt. Hermon. It's a pretty fascinating area - one of the remotest areas of Israel (see next paragraph) outside of the Negev, full of steep hills, snowy winters, apple orchards, and Druze villages. I met some interesting people up there as well, both locals and other volunteers, and it was up here that I decided to hike the Shvil in the spring.

In reference to the above phrase "areas of Israel": The Golan is disputed territory - both Israel and Syria claim it, and internationally it's not recognized to belong to Israel. Practically speaking, however, it's part of the country, in a way the West Bank is not. As with everything in this region, referring to it in any particular way carries some political slant.

This northern part of the Golan is really beautiful, and has its share of hiking trails. I did plenty of day hikes, but the longest one I took in this region was from Nimrod, down past Nimrod's Castle and Banias, into the Hula Valley where I found a lake packed with migrating birds, and had my first bike ride in 6 months.

These photos are pieced together from some different day hikes and the 3-day backpack, but they show the route in all its detail. 


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When it's clear, Nimrod has this view of Nimrod's Castle, the Hula Valley, and the hills on the other side - 
which are in Lebanon. You can clearly see three countries from that mountaintop


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The slopes of the mountain are covered in scrubby oak trees and fruit orchards


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Looking back up at Nimrod


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And walking through the land below it


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I hiked down a wadi from Nimrod, in the absence of a hiking trail. I had to scrambled over a few 
barbed-wire fences on this trek


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Beautiful farmland, and the tiny splashes of fall color that you find in the mountains here


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So many plants I don't know the names of


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Old olive trees


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A path through the claustrophobic oak woods


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The path between the Druze shrine/barbeque spot and Nimrod's Castle. Every time you see a group
 of Druze at one of their religious buildings, there's about a 1 in 2 chance they're grilling out or 
getting ready to. Given that the tenets of the religion are nominally secret, I like to think that
they mostly involve barbequeing.


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Water brings lots of dense plant life - including sycamores, familiar to me from the
 streets of Philly


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Coneys abound. Although they look like giant hamsters, their faces are almost bear-like


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The colored stripe between two white ones is the Israel Trails Committee's marking system - trails 
come in a number of colors and these marks make it easy to follow them, most of the time


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Nimrod's Castle comes into view. Named after a briefly-mentioned character in Genesis, it's 
actually medieval Muslim fort, built to hold off the crusaders. Like everything else around here, it 
was destroyed by an earthquake


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It sits on a hilltop surrounded by steep gorges, accessible only from one direction


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It was a long, narrow structure; its highest point is in the center here


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The land around does not facilitate approaching the fort...


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...unless you're a coney


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Shrubs and stubby oaks cover the rocky hills near the castle


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A few km down a trail marked with fading green stripes, you come from Nimrod's Castle to Banias 
National Park. This is the site of Caesarea Phillippi, and was a fairly large Hellenistic city. Its name
was "Panias," after Pan, the god of the countryside, and the reason for its location was the natural
spring that emerges from the Hermon foothills. It's no longer as big as it was, but still provides
much of the water that flows into the Jordan River.


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The stream allows lush vegetation to grow


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Ancient shrines carved into the cliffs


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These are the main visible remains of the Greek city that was here


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A small Druze building (with typical white dome) overlooks the park


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The waterfall at Banias National Park


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The Banias stream is one of many streams in the Golan. Snowmelt from Mt. Hermon filters 
down through the mountain provides a huge source of freshwater, making this a very 
important region (one reason why Syria wants it back so badly). This stream, along with a few others
like the Dan, are the primary sources of the Jordan River


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The area is packed with ruins from all eras


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An abandoned mosque near Banias. I don't know its history. The main population of the Golan is 
Druze (plus the Israelis that have moved in since '67), without any Christians or Muslims to speak 
of. I guess Muslims used to live here before the wars


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This sign near Banias tells about the site's history. The words "to the god Pan" have been scratched 
out, presumably by an Ultra-Orthodox who took offense


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A little way down the Dan stream, a small side trail brought me to the site of a wrecked Syrian tank 
from the '67 war


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So I maxed there for a while in the hammock


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This is notable for being the last photo I took before my lens quit working


As noted above, my lens broke right after taking this photo. Everything I took after that was using a 50mm lens Dave Landis lent me. This means all my photos were somewhat "zoomed in" and without the ability to zoom in or out, from here on out.

The pictures here are all from the first day of a 3-day hike. I ended up continuing down into the Hula Valley, hammocking in a grove of trees next to a stream that a random guy driving past recommended, and then hiking through some eucalyptus woods along a stream, before ending up on a farm road through the open Hula Valley. I found an illegal camping spot in a tiny (100m x 20m at the largest) section of nature reserve for the second night. It was quite a place to camp - eucalyptus trees, if not pruned, are really messy, and all kinds of fallen limbs made walking through the woods difficult. It felt like I was camping in a wild jungle, with large birds of prey swooping overhead, and little rodents running around. I made the mistake of leaving some food out, and I heard scuffling noises all night - then in the morning, I found that my bread, which I thought was inaccessible, had been nibbled out of the bag!

The last day was walking down a dirt path next to the upper Jordan River - not a very scenic walk, unfortunately. I finally ended up at a large nature reserve with gigantic eucalyptus trees (at the time, they were my favorite tree), and a swamp with elevated walkways for observing birds. Just to the north of it was a lake that also played host to these birds, and as it was currently the height of the migration season, I decided to check it out. They had bikes for rent, and I shelled out the 50 shekels or whatever to take one of their poorly-maintained bikes for a spin around the lake. It was amazing to be back on a bike for the first time in 6 months, and the ride around the lake was incredible as the sun went down. Hundreds of huge storks, herons, egrets, and the like were sitting on the lake, flying back and forth, and walking next to the path to feed.

This part of the world attracts so many migratory birds because it's located on the coastal strip of the Fertile Crescent; everything to the west is sea, and everything to the east is desert. So birds moving between Africa and Europe all break here on the way. The Hula Valley used to be their primary stopping location, back when it was a swamp, but in the early '50s, the swamp was drained to make way for farmland, so now only a small amount of marsh remains for the birds, and the numbers that come through have shrunk drastically.

I cannot recommend hiking much in the Hula Valley, but SPNI map #1 has lots of trails for hiking in the Golan just above it - the view of the valley from above is a lot better than from within.