Nahal Ashlim and Azgad: Desert Pools and Ladders

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Distance: 10-14kmTime: 5-6 hoursDifficulty: Advanced
Ascent: 483mWater Pump ParkingWater Pump Parking

It’s June, and desert season is officially over.

Somehow, I still find myself inexplicably drawn towards Southern Israel.  Maybe it’s because when I think of real adventure, I think of a desert trail.

In the desert, you can walk for hours, never once coming across the border of a town or city.  It is quiet there.  When a bird calls out, you hear it loud and clear, a single caw echoing through the silence.

So last week, when I had to plan an adventurous birthday hike, I knew that we were going to end up back in the desert.  We had had our eye on a particular hike near the Dead Sea: the Nahal Ashlim and Nahal Azgad loop.  This circular desert trail was supposed to be super challenging and tons of fun, with lots of rock climbing and cool pools of water to swim through.

Climbing through Nahal Ashlim.

We knew that the likelihood of deep water was slim: the pools tend to dry out by the middle of the summer.  And in early June, we weren’t sure if there was going to be any water at all.  But we figured that even without the chance to swim, it would still be an incredible adventure.

And it was.  Hiking through Nahal Ashlim and Nahal Azgad on a warm June day was wonderful.  We had to use every muscle to work our way through the challenging terrain.  And surprise: there was still some water on the trail!

I felt so happy to be back in the desert one last time before the summer.  The canyon scenery gets me every single time.

Here’s how we took this circular hike through Nahal Ashlim and Nahal Azgad:

Gotta Work for It

Usually, one begins a hike by driving up to the trailhead (if you have a car, that is).  But as we inched along in our van down an extremely bumpy road towards the start of the trail at Nahal Azgad, we felt like it might be a good idea to pull over and start walking.

The kind of boring part.

So, we found a place to park and instantly turned a 10K adventure into a 14K loop.  Still, we felt that we had made the right decision.  We emerged from the car and began our fast walk along the bumpy 4×4 road, noticing many non-car friendly spots along the way.  It took us a while walking in the heat to reach the beginning of the trail, but it was better than getting our car stuck.

Rocky Road

We descended on the green trail into the open canyon of Nahal Azgad.  It felt good to be out in the desert.  The bright blue sky contrasted against tawny layers of rock in such a way that I just wanted to take a lot of pictures.  A gentle breeze dispersed the desert heat in those early hours of the morning.

Picture perfect.

As we walked along the green trail, we climbed higher and higher.  We turned one bend and bumped into a family of ibex.  They scaled the mountain with ease in an effort to clear the path.

Then, before the last major ascent through Nahal Azgad, we decided to stop for a break and get an energy boost with some coffee and muffins. We found a spot in the shade of a giant boulder and snuggled in for a quiet breakfast in the desert. 

Climb Higher

After a rest and hydration, we began the ascent.  It was quite steep, but I made sure to keep up a steady stream of chatter to distract us from the difficulty! 

Views from above.

As we reached the very top of the mountain, we took in the gorgeous views of the surrounding area.  From where we stood, we could see several dry streambeds snaking their way through the mountains.  In the distance, the Dead Sea gleamed a bright turquoise color.

Going Down

Now that we had climbed through Azgad and into the sky, it was time to set off across the desert in search of Nahal Ashlim.  We hopped onto the red trail.  It led us down a (scarily steep) descent along hand hold rungs into the canyon below.

Kinda steep.

We walked this way for a while, climbing up and down over boulders and jagged rock.  Eventually, we reached the blue trail and the turnoff towards Nahal Ashlim.  From here, we would be descending, into a canyon that was said to be filled with pools of water.

Always an Adventure

So, did we find pools of water?  Well, first, we got to climb down a bunch of crazy cool cliffs to reach the bottom of the canyon.  These descents were challenging, scary, and tons of fun.

As soon as we got to the bottom, we found the first pool.  And, indeed, there was water inside!  But not the cool, refreshing water that you would find on a cooler day in early spring time. Instead, the water in these pools had mostly evaporated.  What was left was a shallow pool of green muck.

At the water’s edge.

No matter.  We found ways to climb around the first few pools as we proceeded through the stream bed.  Sometimes, they were easy to simply hop over.  Other times, we found ourselves scaling walls and climbing through narrow rock passageways in order to avoid the muck.

Is this Water Sanitary? (Looks Questionable to Me)

Then, we reached a deep pool full of reasonably clear water.  And there was simply no way to avoid going through.  So, despite the little swarm of bugs that had gathered right in the middle of the pool, I strapped on my water shoes and bravely plowed through.

My husband took a few more minutes to realize that there was only one way to go (through!).  But after he took the plunge, he agreed that the water wasn’t too bad.  (Actually, I found it pretty refreshing.)

Taking the plunge.

We continued on through Nahal Ashlim, never quite sure what we would find around the next bend.  What we did find were lots of beautiful photo-ops, in the form of smooth canyon walls and swirly rock.  We also ended up wading our way through several more pools, sliding in and climbing out on little ladders.  In early June, the deepest of the pools was only about waist high.  So, although we got wet and grody, our stuff stayed dry.

The Long Haul

Even though this trail was only about 10 kilometers long, it took quite a while to make our way through, mostly because of the tricky rock climbing and slow wading.  When we finally emerged from Nahal Ashlim into the open sun, it was mid-afternoon.  We were completely exhausted.

But too bad for us, because we still had to walk several kilometers back to our car.  We picked up the pace and prepared to sweat our way through the 100 degree mid-day desert heat as we hiked uphill and downhill back to the trailhead.

When we finally reached the trailhead, I collapsed into our car, tired but totally exhilarated.  Our hike through Nahal Azgad and Nahal Ashlim had been a fun, beautiful, and challenging adventure.  It’s no wonder that even in early June, I can’t stay away from Israel’s incredible desert terrain.

Inspiring scenery.

Hikers’ Notes:

Here’s what you need to know to hike this trail:

  • This hike is ideally suited to fall, winter, and spring. In the fall before the rainy season begins, expect a dry hike. In the winter and spring, expect to be swimming in some places.
  • Bring a waterproof bag to place valuables or a roll up foam mattress to float them across the pools.
  • Bring 4 liters of water, a hat, good hiking shoes, water shoes, sunscreen, and a change of clothes.
  • Most of this hike is out in the sun. Plan accordingly.
  • On a mild day in late spring, we started out early in the morning and finished up mid-day. It was hot, but we were able to manage (with plenty of water and sunscreen). The pools were low, but some were still waist high.
  • Not suitable for dogs.
  • As with all desert hikes in Israel, check for flash flood warnings before you go!
  • Interesting tidbit: Nahal Ashlim has just reopened after a chemical spill and several year cleanup.
  • Re: parking. The dirt road to the trailhead is very difficult to negotiate in some spots. We usually feel quite comfortable on 4x4 trails in our van, but did not feel safe on this one. We parked and walked from point A. I've included another parking link. If you feel your car can continue, park at Point B (next to a manned pumping station) for added safety and security.
  • To follow the trail, use the Google Earth file, trail marker gallery and trail map.
  • Trail colors: Black to red. Red to green. Green to red. Red to blue. Blue to the end. Make a left on the red trail to return to your car. Keep a close eye out for trail markers the whole time. If you lose the markers, backtrack to the last spot you saw one.

Don’t forget to read my guide to the navigational features in this post before you hit the trail.

Trail map from Amud Anan.

Questions? Have you hiked this trail through Nahal Ashlim and Azgad? Let’s hear about it in the comments!

True adventure.

Hiking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is each hiker’s responsibility to check it and navigate using a map and compass.

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