It’s no secret that the Golan is a tourism goldmine. From its waterfalls to military sites, fruit harvests to Druze villages, gourmet restaurants to lavender to ancient synagogues to hiking, there’s no shortage of things to do. But there is one attraction that remains relatively untapped, and few visitors know that they are treading on history millions of years in the making.
The Golan Heights is a volcanic plateau that stretches over an area of some 1,300 square kilometers, from the Sa’ar Stream at the foot of Mount Hermon in the north to the Yarmuk River at the foot of Ajloun in Jordan in the south. Its present-day landscape is a freeze frame of its most recent volcanic eruptions. It counts about 60 volcanic peaks, large and small.
Veteran geologist Dr. Doron Mor has spent many years investigating the volcanoes of the region, and published a book about them in Hebrew, titled “The Golan – Land of the Volcanoes.” It tells that in the past 500 million years, Israel has been the scene of practically continuous volcanic activity – it is how the mountains of Eilat, the Galilee and the Golan formed.
Some 1.7 million years ago, and up to the present day, the volcanoes and stretches of basalt that extend through the central and northern Golan were formed. According to Mor, the most recent known volcanic eruption in our region occurred approximately 4,000 years ago, northeast of Jabal al-Druze in Syria. But he stresses that, as we speak, undersea volcanic activity continues in the southern reaches of the Red Sea.
The volcanic history of the Golan is fraught with short and turbulent periods of eruption, with long periods of quiet between them. We may now be in the throes of such a quiet period, but Mor assumes that deep below the surface, new volcanic energy is being amassed. As he puts it, “Who knows when and how it will return and will break out.”
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“Volcanism in the Land of Israel is a recurrent phenomenon throughout its history,” Mor explains, “and especially in the last 17 million years. Therefore, it is highly reasonable to assume that the volcanic eruptions will continue to rock our region in the future as well.” Mor isn’t prepared to commit, of course, to when exactly that will happen, but there is no doubt that we have something big in store.
The region’s volcanoes are dormant – for now. The most recent eruption took place about 100,000 years ago, but the remnants are still there, in the form of its current landscape. Exploring this history makes for a breathtaking visit. To better acquaint myself with it, I took a trip along the volcanic trail in the Golan. I counted off about 10 stops; by the end of the visit, I was seeing the Golan Heights in a completely different light.
A great treasure
I started by driving up to the Avital Volcanic Park near Kibbutz Ein Zivan, and afterwards, in pretty random order from north to south, I visited the Lake Ram lake near Masadeh, the Big Juba in the Odem forest, the summit of Mount Bental, the geological route in the saddle between Mount Avital and Mount Bental, the paleomagnetic rock, Tel Fares and Tel Saki.
The Avital Volcanic Park was established in the eastern part of Mount Avital, east of Kibbutz Ein Zivan, on the site of a now-inactive quarry. The mining exposed interesting geological strata that tell much about the volcanic history of the Golan Heights. The Golan Regional Council, the Quarries Rehabilitation Fund and the Tourism Ministry established a volcanic and geological park on the site about 10 years ago.
The visit is pleasant but inadequate; since there is no building on the site, there is nowhere to screen educational videos or provide information beyond the park’s scattered signs. Compared to previous visits, my most recent one gave the sense that the volcanic park has been neglected, practically abandoned. We were the only visitors that morning; the lighting that once illuminated it in the evening was shut off long ago.
As part of the agreement between the Quarries Rehabilitation Fund and the Golan Regional Council, which funded the project’s establishment, entry to the site is free. The regional council, which maintained the site at a high cost until 2019, ultimately decided to close it down once the losses piled up. After two years of closure and an unsuccessful attempt to pass it over to private management, it was put under the purview of Ein Zivan’s tourism operations and reopened.
Dafna Meir of Golan Tourism, which is part of the regional council’s economic association, cites the business plan – the fact that it generates no income – as the key issue for the park’s condition. The park was established with consultations from prize-winning architectural landscape firm Tsurnamal-Turner, she says, “and is scientifically precise and beautiful, but there was no tourism-related planning done... The root of the problem is that various organizations are giving money to establish it, not to maintain it. We’re now trying to conduct everything more wisely.”
Meir, who managed the park from 2012 to 2017, adds, “At the moment, our approach is not to inaugurate any new sites, but to provide basic services at the existing sites, such as building bathrooms, refreshment stations and handicapped-accessible paths. We now understand that despite desires to develop, the major difficulty is maintenance.”
The Avital Volcanic Park is liable to be a good base for volcanic tourism, she says. “A large audience of families – and mainly or children – is enchanted by it. There’s a sense that we’ve received a great treasure, an immense wealth that is too hard for us to utilize. There are things here that don’t exist anywhere else in Israel, but it isn’t easy to present them to an audience.”
The volcanic route
Aside from the park, the regional council has marked a “volcanic route” that would take about four hours to drive through, and includes many of the sites I visited.
One is the Great Juba, or as it is known in Arabic “Jubat al-Kabira”: a huge volcanic pit in the middle of the Odem forest reserve. Spread through the forest are 23 jubas – crater-like pits – of various sizes. The prevailing assumption among geologists is that the pits were created through major volcanic explosions. Mor has claimed that they were formed by volcanic gas emissions from deep beneath the earth.
The Great Juba sits at the center of a lush park, with millions of small basalt stones scattered between the oak trees, demonstrating the intensity of the last eruption of Mount Odem. A paved, accessible path leads from the parking lot to the edge of the juba and then back again – a distance of some 700 meters (under half a mile). Visitors can access it from west of Route 978, three kilometers south of Odem Forest junction.
Another attraction is the geological trail, a footpath through the saddle between Mount Avital and Mount Bental, spans about a kilometer and a half (one mile), ending at the helipad southwest of the latter mountain. It passes through a large and beautiful variety of manifestations of past volcanic activity and eruptions of the Avital and Bental volcanoes.
At one point on the trail, near its intersection with Route 98, is a large, abandoned tuff quarry, with beautiful views of strata of porous tuff rock, layered scoria rocks and fascinating vegetation. While the site is mentioned in several publications on the Golan’s volcanic route, there is no signage to explain these geological treasures.
Mount Bental itself is already a tourist attraction. Visitors can explore a bunker from the Six-Day War, and its summit offers an outstanding lookout over the Golan, other volcanic mountains and Syria’s Quneitra area. The pleasant Coffee Annan café serves its fair on the peak.
The mountain, with its 1,166-meter altitude, was formed some 150,000 years ago from the same volcanic source as Mount Avital. The magma that accumulated at the mountain was unable to erupt from its top, and broke through as a shower of lava along the mountain’s western side. The mountain’s northwestern wall collapsed, forming its present-day horseshoe shape. The southern slopes, which hikers can easily spot from the valley between the two mountains, are covered in a layer of tuff that evidently came from Mount Avital when the powerful eruption began. Mount Avital, though, is closed to the public. Its summit now hosts an Israeli military base.
For the science buffs, the Golan also boasts a site that demonstrates paleomagnetism – when minerals in rocks record the geomagnetic field and the location of tectonic plates from when they were formed. Throughout the geological history of Earth, the north and south poles have changed places more than once. At the paleomagnetism site in the Golan, about two kilometers east of Ha’amir junction, on Route 959, one stone still carries the memory of the ancient, reversed magnetic pole. If you hold a compass close to the demarcated stone, it indicates south instead of north. Signage at the area explains this phenomenon.
Near the Druze towns of Masadeh and Majdal Shams is Lake Ram. Common wisdom has long held that the pool is a volcanic crater – a logical assumption, given that it looks just like one. But more complex hypotheses have been raised in recent years. Today, the prevailing theory is that the lake was formed about 150,000 years ago, when magma made contact the region’s groundwater. The contemporary structure of the pool was shaped by powerful volcanic eruptions, and a ring of tuff evidently formed around it during a short-lived series of eruptions. Residents of the nearby towns have built along the banks of the lake, as well as in its center – constructing two floating facilities, coffee shops, restaurants and inns.
Basaltic flows in the Golan have resulted in polygonal columns, forming a fascinating display of squares, pentagons, hexagons, heptagons and octagons. One particularly famous – and breathtaking – example of this phenomenon is the Hexagon Pool, east of Had Nes.
“There is a possibility here of a niche tourism unlike any other in Israel or the Middle East, of which there are very few in the entire world,” Mor, the geologist, explains excitedly. “The potential is immense. This could be an important attraction, and the Golan would like that to happen.
“Every visitor who has taken a single step with me in the Golan has said, ‘Until now, I didn’t understand what I was seeing.’ Your average person sees a mountain, but once they understand how the mountain formed and what lies inside of it, what came before and what came after, they see the world differently.”