The Great Crater(HaMakhtesh HaGadol): Big Fin and Colored Sands

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Distance: 7kmTime: 3-4 hoursDifficulty: Strenuous-Advanced
Ascent: 217mTrailhead and Markers Gallery

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Here in Israel, there are three incredible craters in the Northern Negev Desert.  The first and most impressive is the Ramon Crater, known to all hikers and most visitors to the country.  But nearby, two smaller craters hold lots of fun surprises (and great hiking!): The Small Crater and The Great Crater (also known as the Yerucham Crater).

As opposed to most craters on the planet, these three holes in the earth (along with just a few others) were created by the erosion of sand or soft stone through flooding.  Inside, the variegated rock and colorful layers make it feel like you’ve embarked on a journey to another planet. 

A couple of weeks ago, we made a foray into the Great Crater, HaMakhtesh HaGadol, the second largest erosion crater on the planet.  The trail we took wasn’t too long (it takes a full day to make a complete exploration of the crater from one side to the other), but it was absolutely amazing.

The Great Crater HaMaktesh HaGadol hike
It’s a beautiful day at the HaMaktesh HaGadol.

On our hike that day, we climbed the large “fin”, a sheer mountain ridge that progresses at an impossible angle.  We climbed down the side of the crater into colored sands below.  Then, after marveling at the multicolored rock and wandering through the desert, we continued on to a desert spring just outside of the crater, Ein Yorkeam.

It was an incredible journey.

Here’s how we took a 7 kilometer challenging hike through HaMaktesh HaGadol on a cool fall morning.

It’s that Time of Morning Again

The adventure began just after sunrise on a cloudy morning.  As we left the parking lot and crossed the road towards the trailhead, the sun was peeking through the clouds.  We started to climb.

We followed the black trail up and over hills of desert rock, glowing in the early morning sunshine.  Within minutes of starting our hike, we pulled off our sweatshirts as we warmed up with exertion.  Judging from the level of challenge, this trail was already a success.

The Great Crater HaMaktesh HaGadol hike
Already awesome.

Soon after, the large fin came into view.  A sheer ridge of light and dark colored rock shot up into the sky, creating this so-called fin on the wall of the makhtesh.  We began to climb up along the ridge.

Fun on a Fin

Up we hiked, on a narrow path between the rocks.  As we ascended into the sky, the views became more and more spectacular.  In the distance, sharp desert hills were lit up in the morning sun.

The Great Crater HaMaktesh HaGadol hike
Almost there.

The wind blew in my face, cooling me off from the strain of the climb.  This was one serious uphill!  We stopped for a break, to take in the incredible views from our precarious perch in the middle of a steep mountain ridge.

Climbing into the Crater

After pushing ourselves up the fin, we reached the very top.  Then, we shimmied down a steep wall of rock to get onto more solid ground. There, we were on the rim encircling the crater, and we could begin to see out to the beautiful rock variations down below.

We had two choices: either take the green trail to the right, which would take us over the “small fin” and on a more direct route towards the Colorful Sands campground.  Or, climb down the more challenging black trail, which would take us straight down into the great crater.

The Great Crater HaMaktesh HaGadol hike
Fun climbing part 2.

We chose the black trail.  It looked far more exciting!

We followed the black trail down a wall of jagged rock, using the occasional metal rungs to help us stay steady.  The closer we got, the more the variegated rock inside the Great Crater became apparent.  It was beautiful down there.

Taking it All In

Soon, we reached the bottom: a world of colorful sand.  Before continuing on to explore the many colors, we decided to stop for a break on a little flat mountain.  We threw down our packs and pulled out a big thermos of hot coffee.

The Great Crater HaMaktesh HaGadol hike
Greeted by beauty.

As we sat there, the breeze picked up.  A few stray raindrops fell on our faces.  With hot coffee in hand, we cozied up to take in the incredible views: hills and valleys of purple, red, and yellow, a crazy cloud filled sky spread out above a vast canyon.  It was hard to believe that this little pocket of otherworldly beauty existed, only two hours from our home.

After our break, we were ready to dig deep into the world of colored sand that lay just ahead.

Colored Sands and a Lone Mountain

We continued on the trail until the Colored Sands campground.  As we approached, the voices of children filled our ears.  We arrived to see two big buses and lots and lots of schoolchildren, plastic bottles in hand, making colored sand creations to take home. 

It was one cute scene.  We passed through the main area near the parking lot, and continued deeper into colored sand hills, leaving the crowds and the voices behind.  Out here, we were free to explore off trail without fear of getting lost – all we had to do to find our way back to the trail was climb a hill and locate the parking lot by sight.

The Great Crater HaMaktesh HaGadol hike
Wandering.

We took in the shades of bright yellow and purple, picking up two-toned rocks as we passed.  We watched as we left multicolored footprints in the sand. 

In the distance, we saw a lone mountain that looked like fun.  So, we walked over and climbed to the top.

After traipsing around the area of colored sands for almost an hour, we made our way back to the trail.

Towards a Desert Spring

From the campground, we continued along the blue trail towards the last stop on the day’s itinerary: Ein Yorkeam, a spring in the desert.  The trail from colored sands to Ein Yorkeam wasn’t particularly interesting.  But as we got closer, we began to see all kinds of birds flitting from one desert rock to another.  It seemed like water was nearby.

The Great Crater HaMaktesh HaGadol hike
You’re so vain.

Soon, we reached the breakaway red trail, that took us down towards a lookout over the spring.  And yes, even in mid-November, before the winter rains, the spring was full of water!

There were thick plants and reeds growing out of the spring, a little oasis right in the middle of the desert.  Birds were everywhere.  But from our perspective up top, we couldn’t get close to the water.  So, we made our way back to the main trail, then followed it towards a black trail which took us down to the pool below.

If Ein Yorkeam was this cool in November, I’m guessing it’s a thousand times more exciting in February, after heavy rains replenish the water in the spring.  When we were there, the water didn’t look particularly appealing.  Although the pool was full, it was kind of greenish.

The Great Crater HaMaktesh HaGadol hike
The desert spring.

The birds didn’t seem to mind.  Several different kinds appeared at the watering hole, sipping the water and preening themselves nearby.

Full Circle

We stayed at the spring for a while, then headed back on the trail, towards the parking lot where we had started the morning.

It had been a great day: full of beautiful sights, new discoveries, and little adventures.  Our small trip to the Great Crater hadn’t been very long or very hard.  But it felt like an epic adventure to a place of great natural beauty.

Susannah Schild
On the edge of a crater.

Hikers’ Notes:

Here’s what you need to know to hike this trail at the Great Crater:

  • This is a circular trail.
  • This trail is well suited for cooler days in fall, winter, and spring.
  • There are two free campgrounds along this trail, the Colored Sands Campground, and Yorkeam Campground.
  • This is a challenging trail for fit hikers only.
  • As with all desert trails, make sure to check for flash flood warnings before you go.
  • Wear good hiking shoes, a hat, and sun protection to hike this trail. Bring plenty of water.
  • To follow the trail, use the trail marker gallery and trail map in the table up top.
  • Cross the road and begin the trail on the Israel Trail/ black trail. The black trail takes you up the fin and to the top of the crater. Continue to follow the black trail down towards colored sands. Explore colored sands. Follow the blue trail out of colored sands until it begins to veer left, then break off to the road up above. At the end of the road, get on the blue trail to hike towards Ein Yorkeam. The blue trail eventually turns to the green trail. Follow the green trail until you reach the turnoff on the right to the black trail. This black trail takes you to Ein Yorkeam. Return the way you came, and follow the green trail/Israel trail back towards where you parked your car.

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 at the Great Crater? Let’s hear about it in the comments!

Susannah Schild
On the climb.
The Great Crater HaMaktesh HaGadol hike
Everyone loves the Israel Trail.
The Great Crater HaMaktesh HaGadol hike
The Big Fin.
Susannah Schild
Start the day right.

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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