The easiest solution is a B&B, or tsimmer, as it’s known in these parts. And by easy, we mean expensive. But to really experience the nature that has lured you from your bourgeois urban habitat, you have to sleep in nature. Sure, it's nice if there are bathrooms nearby, maybe even atmospheric lighting and the possibility of a campfire, but it really doesn't take much to have a genuine outing with the family or with a soulmate. Scattered across southern Israel is a panoply of camping sites and khans, or inns, for hikers and other travelers. Many of them have proper infrastructure, cabins for an overnight stay, facilities for parking trailers – and of course a designated area to pitch your own tent, if that’s your thing.
In the morning, as the sun beams pleasantly from the desert sky, it’s time to head for a hike in the area and get to know the country close-up.
1. Starry night at Be’erotayim
Located very close to Sinai but very far from danger, is Khan Be’erotayim, a “desert lodge,” as it describes itself on its website. It’s one of the simplest – in the good sense of the word – of these sites in Israel’s south. You’ll find an area for tents; faucets with running water; and all around, endless expanses of desert and a star-spangled sky unspoiled by street lights. A place to visit in the area is Nitzana-Azouz, and along the Path of Peace there’s an environmental sculpture by the acclaimed artist Dani Karavan, consisting of 100 concrete columns that recall ancient churches of the kind found at Nitzana and in Shivta National Park south of Be’er Sheva.
2. Adventure at Hai Bar Yotvata
For many Israelis, Yotvata, a kibbutz located about 40 kilometers north of Eilat, is synonymous with chocolate milk, thanks to its famous dairy. But just before you cruise into Israel’s hotel city on the Red Sea, it’s worth spending a night or two of enchanting nature at the Yotvata Hai Bar Nature Reserve. The campgrounds, part of the same complex as the reserve, are comfortable and orderly. Along with the always-welcome cold drinking water, there are picnic tables, a cooking area with gas burner, sink and small refrigerator, showers and toilets, a site for group campfires, outdoor lighting and electric hookups. The overnight site has an area for private tents, igloo tents (with mattresses for the pampered) and also guest apartments. Roaming about in the adjacent nature reserve are endangered and locally extinct animals mentioned in the Bible, being bred here for possible reintroduction to the desert.
3. Wading pools at Besor
Even if you’re brave and willing to sleep outdoors, given the odd weather this year, the desert might seem a little too hot. Fortunately, there’s Eshkol (Besor) National Park, with campgrounds located at the end of the hiking route. The big attraction here is a large spring with wading pools, alongside a particularly well-equipped overnight camping area. There are toilets and hot showers, a shared field kitchen with gas burners, water faucets, a refrigerator, sinks and an open dining room, outdoor lighting and outlets for charging cellphones. You can sleep in your own tent in a designated area, or in one of the cabins that are available for an extra charge. The grounds also accommodate trailers.
4. Camping in Angel Forest
Caution – this campground is for long-distance walkers, which is actually to say long-distance pedalers. Hamalakhim Forest – “angel forest,” named for the Los Angeles Jewish community – lies about four kilometers east of Kiryat Gat. You can choose between an easy bicycle route of 5.5 kilometers, which allows for an interesting stop at an archaeological dig, or a 10-kilometer route of intermediate difficulty. The perimeter route is the most challenging. It’s a good idea to spend the night in the lovely wooded campground, where the sleeping quarters are in tents. The site offers toilets and running water.
5. Camping at Masada
At the the Masada West Campsite, run by the Nature and Parks Authority, you can sleep in a designated place in your own private tent or in one of the large, heated permanent tents that come with mattresses. There are also well-equipped rooms for up to five people. The campsite has toilets and hot showers, electric hookups and outlets for charging cellphones, cold drinking water, a field kitchen with refrigerators, gas burners for cooking, sinks for dishwashing, barbecues, campfire sites and even potjie pots. Payment for the campsite includes entrance to the Masada site, and you’ll also get a discount for the sound-and-light show.
6. Three streams near Arad
Spectacular, water-rich hiking trails await visitors to the campsite at Tel Arad National Park. The start is at Nahal Kina, a stream on whose banks lay the Way of Edom, mentioned in the Bible, which was both a military and a commercial route. The marked trail will lead you to Khirbet Uza, an ancient Judean fortress that overlooks the winding stream. From here you continue into the canyon, which ends with a 20-meter-high waterfall. To the left of that is a descent to a large, deep pool carved out by floodwaters coursing over the hard limestone. The water level is lower in the summer, but from the first flood to midsummer, wading is a pleasure.
From here, walk to the site of the convergence of three streams – Kina, Kanhan and Himar. A trail marked in green leads through a fine stepped ravine toward the northeast (Nahal Kinon) and afterward to the northwest, in a circular route back to Nahal Kina and the car park.
There are three sleepover options: accessorized cabins; a closed Canaanite structure, heated and equipped with mattresses; or your own tent in a designated area. You can also arrange in advance to bring a private trailer. Facilities include a field kitchen with refrigerators, gas burners for cooking, sinks for washing dishes, barbecue grills, electrical hookups, drinking water and outdoor lighting. A visitors center offers maps, flashlights, wood and charcoal, and even items such as tents and sleeping bags for spontaneous campers.
7. Sleeping with history at Sde Boker
Haro’a Campsite, adjacent to Kibbutz Sde Boker and situated in a shady grove of tamarisk trees, is one of the Jewish National Fund’s oldest sites, established in 1957. There’s a designated parking area for cars with an access path, water faucets, picnic tables and grills for barbecues. Options for hiking and wandering exist even for those who aren’t accustomed to climbing hills. One route is Ein Avdat National Park, the entrance to which is within walking distance, abutting Midreshet Sde Boker educational center. Ein Avdat is a spring that emerges where Zinn Stream flows out of Ramat Avdat and creates a handsome brook, waterfall and pools. Its banks are rich with vegetation that attracts diverse animals, among them rock rabbits, ibex and desert birds.
8. Five-star quarters at Mamshit
What’s the first association the word “camping” evokes? Probably clumsy attempts to put up a tent and stew that tastes like a campfire. It’s true that dirt is part of the fun, but people who want five-star quarters can get their wish at the Nabatean khan in the Mamshit (Memphis) National Park. The highly accessorized campground offers water faucets, toilets and hot showers, outdoor lighting throughout, electric hookups and plugs for charging cellphones, a kitchen with refrigerators and gas burners, sinks for dishwashing, barbecue grills, tables and benches. If you’d like to skip the tent, you can stay in a tukul, a thatched hut big enough for a family, or in the resort cabins (for extra payment).
9. Pampering at Khan Be’erot
It can get really cold in the desert at night, and for some pampered folks, the thought of sleeping without a heater and a down comforter stirs anxiety. That’s exactly the reason for Khan Be’erot, which also happens to be the perfect sleeping location for a visit to the Ramon Crater area. The Be’erot site is an excellent place for sleeping in the field in every season – in heated Bedouin tents or comfortable cabins. The campsite provides toilets and hot showers, electrical outlets, sinks and drinking water, campfire sites and permanent cooking grills, outdoor lighting and recycling facilities.