Once upon a time the Jerusalem corridor was the province of nature enthusiasts and youth movement members who wandered through the green underbrush and enjoyed the splendid isolation.
This mountainous region is reminiscent of a hand with the capital at its center and the five fingers representing the mountain ranges that rise up from the plain. The mountains have deep, winding streams that create a multi-dimensional expanse of nature.
The area, which enjoys a fair amount of precipitation, has remains of ancient villages and Byzantine fortresses, as well as vestiges of ancient agriculture. Almost anywhere you stop there are beautiful spots, orchards, and flowing springs.
The Jewish National Fund, realizing the tourist potential of the natural groves combined with historical sites and fresh air, spent a great deal of money turning dozens of miles of forest paths into scenic routes that are woven into the scenery and hidden within the woods, so as not to harm the natural texture of the vegetation and the natural habitat of the animals.
The result - a huge expanse of mountain chains, valleys, deep streams, wild scenery, and endless nature - is breathtaking, and is now open to the public.
In order to get away from the roads we joined Hilai Gross, a tour guide living in Nes Harim who knows every olive tree, cave, and spring in the Jerusalem hills. A jeep tour guide for The Israeli Touring Center, she suggested a route that takes you from Jerusalem along dirt roads within the undergrowth between the springs and the orchards.
Required equipment: shoes, flashlight, backpack, knife, an empty metal can for picking prickly pears, and work gloves. Level of difficulty: Easy to moderate.
The trail begins with a brief visit to the Bet Jimal monastery south of Biet Shemesh. This impressive structure, surrounded by pine and cypress trees, was once an agricultural school and today houses an order of nuns.
A short visit reveals an ancient renovated Byzantine church as well as a store selling wine, cheeses, and souvenirs. The beauty of the monastery, which is surrounded by gardens, stands in stark contrast to the neglected neighborhoods of Bet Shemesh.
From Bet Jimal continue south on the red trail, cross the entrance road to Beit Shemesh, and ascend to Tel Yeramot. At a height of 1,345 feet, the summit provides a nice lookout point that gives you a view of the coastal plain to the west. The red trail continues to the southeast to Hirbat Bet Natif. In 1948 the 35 members of the Haganah who were massacred in Gush Etzion passed by this destroyed village on their way to the Gush.
Among the remnants you will find endless fig trees, pomegranate trees, and prickly pear hedges. There are also several wells, as well as structures that provide dramatic photographic angles.
Now descend to the south until the Etziona junction on road 375 and continue eastward for exactly 1.2 miles to the road that ascends to the east along Nahal Tzratzar. Here you’ll be climbing through open natural groves to a height of 2,100 feet (640.08 meters), and the views at the top are spectacular. The area abounds in short-toed snake eagles that go looking for snakes for their breakfast.
The next required stop is Hirbat Hanut, situated along the ancient Roman road ascending from Gaza to Jerusalem. In the shady park is a small artificial mound. Popular legend has it that this is where Goliath is buried, and that the artificial mound was created after passersby placed a stone on his grave.
Within a nearby building are the remains of a Byzantine church with a beautiful mosaic floor decorated with animals, ships, and other symbols.
From here a path with stone steps descends to Nahal Zanoah, straight to Ein Mata. Along the stream are the remains of ancient buildings and farms rich in fig trees, almond trees, and prickly pear hedges. Ein Mata itself is a beautiful shaded area, rather noisy, that produces good water.
About three hundred yards to the west of the main spring you’ll find another small spring, hidden beneath the fig trees, which flows into a hewn aqueduct with an arched opening. You’ll need a flashlight to enter the pleasant coolness inside.
In Nahal Zanoah go down about a half mile to the west until you come to a path that rises to the north and then descends to Nahal Dolev. Continue eastward along the stream until you reach the blue trail leading to Hirbat Bet Itab, where the view is breathtaking, and you’ll see an impressive structure that served as a crusader farm.
The entire area is covered with wonderful orchards. Drive westward along the blue trail until you come to a grove of high pine trees in the midst of exposed terraces. This is the ideal place to open your picnic cooler and have a cup of coffee.
The trail continues westward along the blue trail to Bar Giora. From here the road to Jerusalem turns to the east and there is a steep descent of about two miles to Nahal Sorek. Don’t miss the turnoff to the red trail that rises to the Mount Giora nature reserve. This is the entrance to the marvelous chain of dirt paths about a half mile from Begin Park, which lead to the outskirts of Jerusalem.
The red trail climbs to the mountain’s peak, and from there it continues to the southeast through a forest full of fruit trees, until it reaches the outskirts of Mevo Betar.
The next destination, Hirbat Arash, is a charming area where you’ll find 2,500-foot high terraces with figs, pomegranates, and fruit trees. Stop here and pick the fruit, then continue along the green path that skirts Har Refaim and descends steeply to Ein Yoel, another isolated spring in the heart of an area with orchards and natural groves. Navigate carefully here because there are many unmarked fire lanes.
Leave Ein Yoel on the path that turns eastward and descends to Nahal Sorek, conspicuous for its European beauty. Along the channel wind the railroad tracks from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, and there’s a sharp descent to the depths of the stream.
When you reach the blue trail, stay on it until you get to the passage beneath the railroad tracks. At the passage turn right, then climb about a mile and a half along the black trail until you come to the red trail, which continues eastward and leads to a road to the east of a military installation.
At the outskirts of Jerusalem the entire area is covered with green forest. All of this is liable to be destroyed by Jerusalem’s “Safdie plan,” which calls for bulldozers to pulverize the forest so that tens of thousands of boxy housing units can be built.
Right before you reach Jerusalem you can descend to Ein Laban on one of the paths that goes down from Mount Aminadav or Moshav Ora. The clear waters of this spring, popular with Torah scholars, flow to a hewn pool where you can take a cool dip to get the dust off. Bon appetit, and watch out for the prickly pear thorns.
Reproduced with permission: Ynet