In one of the most beautiful Hebrew songs, Dan Minster wrote that nothing happens on hot summer nights. Over the years we’ve argued whether the lyricist was being optimistic or pessimistic. What’s clear is that daytime outside is a horror now. The heat is oppressive, the humidity is awful, the sunlight is blinding.
But few people seem to opt for the simple, yet ingenious, solution: Take that day trip at night. Something could happen on hot summer nights. The temperature drops and you can breathe. You stop giving thanks to the inventor of air conditioning. A summer jaunt shortly after sundown is a refreshing novelty, and it's great if you hate crowds – fewer people venture out at night, and the darkness lets you ignore the ones who do.
Even a hundred meters seems huge, and the simplest activity seems like a journey into the unknown – a little scary but still fun. The nearby woods resemble a magnificent forest.
We can alter our habits, experience places we know in a different way, or experience something new. We can focus on details that are outshined during the day.
Many of us don't like walking in total darkness; our sense of security erodes, our risk of falling or losing our way increases. You might hear someone on a nighttime trip complain: “Why are we here? You can’t see anything anyway.”
Big mistake. We can see an infinite number of things at night, but we're not good at looking for them. We often need explanations or illustrations – or flashlights, telescopes or lamps.
Alas, little of the country still has complete darkness. In many places, especially in the center, artificial light even rules the middle of the night, something rightly called “light pollution.” To avoid it, you have to head south.
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Suddenly, it turns out that what we’ve been told for years, not to be caught in the dark when out on a hike, is completely wrong. The opposite is true – in this heat you have to seek darkness.
A lamplight trip
Small lamps create a theater of shadows in the middle of a forest. They cast their light on a small circle, highlighting the darkness in the surrounding space. Little children cast shadows of giants. Trees look like wizards and rocks look like castles. Everything shimmers like in the forest fairy tales from our childhood.
You can do a lamplight walk, great for families with children, almost everywhere in Israel. I took a particularly intriguing one, in Naharyaim at Gesher on the banks of the Jordan River in the north. A similar trip is offered by Michal and Ehud Gigi in the Odem Forest in the Golan Heights.
At night, this large oak forest becomes a land of dreams, as the trekkers' lamps sharpen your senses amid the darkness beyond. You hear more things and pick up more scents. You're quickly alerted.
Guides talk about the stars above, the forest and the animals that roam it. After an hour, the lamplight is pretty adequate; you don’t need any more than that.
A night in a fortress
Daher al-Omar, a ruler of northern Ottoman Palestine, built a fortress 300 years ago on the foundations of a ruined Crusader fortress. Western Galilee residents called it kala’at jedin – “fortress of heroes” in Arabic. The place is now called Yehiam Fortress, named after Yehiam Weitz, who was killed in 1946 while fighting in the Palmach pre-state underground militia.
The place looks like a set for a movie about knights. The stone walls are thick and high, with observation towers and slit windows, knights' halls and impressive stone arches. The fortress and its environs are worth a visit during the day, too, but the option of sleeping next to it at night is tempting.
This is the closest you'll come in Israel to sleeping in a chateau on the banks of the Loire River or in a palace in England’s Lake District. For a night, become someone from another era.
Stairs in Haifa
From the top of Haifa's Mount Carmel, at 105 Yeffe Nof St., the bay in the evening is lit up and grand. The port, the city and the boats each contribute to a stunning picture of lights – perfect for an evening walk on the series of steps that were once used as donkey trails.
The upper reaches of the Gedera Stairs currently feature an art show, some of it amusing graffiti. Further down you reach the Gamla Stairs and from there the Vilonsky and Koresh stairs, which lead to the Hadar neighborhood, Masada Street and a pleasant café. The descent then continues via the Shifra Stairs to Abbas Street, and eventually to UNESCO Square, from where in the evening the Bahai Gardens can be seen in all their glory.
The walk at night is a very special adventure. The stairs are illuminated by streetlights, but they're sparse. You better watch where you put your foot down.
Haifa looks stellar at this hour, not to mention its uniqueness, with Hebrew, Arabic and Russian heard on every stairway. A quick taxi ride took me from the Lower City to the Carmel neighborhood on Mount Carmel. It's particularly wise to enjoy the steps on the way down.
From a cliff to a beach
The Apollonia cliff in northern Herzliya, down the coast from Haifa, is one of the prettiest places in Israel to watch the sun drop into the sea. It's a fantastic blend of archaeological ruins, some of them 2,000 years old, and a view of the beach and the sea.
During the summer, the site is open (for a fee) until 10 P.M. Two hours earlier we sat on a lone bench a few meters to the north of the Crusader fortress and breathed in deep. It’s hard to find a more beautiful location, though the Roman villa 300 meters to the south is a strong contender.
We then left the garden and walked south on the promenade toward Sidna Ali Mosque. Here too there are benches for viewing the sunset, with stairs leading to the beach. You can also visit the mosque. The so-called Hermit House built by Nissim Kahlon over years in the middle of the cliff now looks abandoned.
The mosque was built in 1481 and named after Ali Ibn Alim, who according to Muslim belief was killed in 1250 while fighting the Crusaders nearby. The mosque is still in use; be dressed modestly if you want to enter.
The Sidna Ali cliff is in constant danger of collapsing, but if you descend the steps you can walk along the water, heading south. This is particularly pleasant in the evening.
A night drive on an unpaved road
Driving at night on a scenic road is inherently contradictory. You can only see the scenery during the day. At night you can see the road, at best. It’s a totally different experience, and you have to prepare for it.
You can do it in your own car; you don’t need an all-terrain vehicle. But take it slow. These (mainly unpaved) scenic roads were laid in places with little traffic, especially for such excursions. In the evening and at night, cars are few.
Examples of roads where you can experience nighttime trips are the Nahal Shikma road and the Kiryat Ata scenic road in the south, and the Harei Naftali, Switzerland Forest and Keshet Forest roads in the north.
The idea is simple. You drive for a bit, stop at the side of the road, turn off all the lights, look and listen. After a few minutes you see and hear things you didn’t see or hear at first.
On the Nahal Shikma road, for example, 3 kilometers (2 miles) after leaving the Pura Nature Reserve, you get to an abandoned railway bridge from the Ottoman period. It’s pretty during the day, but at night its rounded silhouette is imposing.
Yoav Kaveh, the author of guides on off-road driving, teaches how to do it safe. “There's no point in driving fast. It’s not fun and it’s dangerous. The pace at night has to be at least twice as slow than during the day,” he says.
“Enjoy the slowness, the dark, the calm, the air, and take a lot of breaks. You should enter the area before the sun sets completely; that will help you orient yourself. Navigating at night is more complicated. Your estimate of distances is off, and you can easily miss turns in the dark.
“You need a navigation tool or app. It’s not recommended to set out on your own, certainly not to an unknown area. At night, every small step or small rock seems large and scary. Every dip in the path looks like an abyss. Shadows of hills look like hills. A gravel road that may look boring during the day can be fascinating and sometimes challenging at night.
“The length of the trip must be considerably shorter than a day trip. If you do 40 to 50 kilometers by day, you should keep it to 15 to 20 kilometers at night. It doesn't seem like much, but it’s a lot when it’s dark.”
Walking by a stream
Marlstone (havar in Hebrew) is a white-yellowish rock that glows on moonlit nights, reminiscent of sci-fi movies with a black sky on top of a white landscape. The best place to enjoy this phenomenon is Nahal Havarim a bit south of Sde Boker in the south.
The starting point is the Nahal Havarim parking lot and the end is where the trail joins Nahal Zin on the road leading to Ein Ovdat (at the bottom of the serpentine section). The 3-kilometer route takes an hour and a half.
You head east on a path marked blue and immediately reach a cistern where the Nabateans collected floodwaters. The rest of the trail leads through a narrow and beautiful canyon. You don’t have to do the whole trail. On a night hike, the way back will look completely different.
An observatory at the Ramon Crater
It's very hard to find total darkness in Israel. An exception is the Ramon Crater in the south, where you can enjoy a sky teeming with stars. Five years ago, the area was recognized as an international “star reserve.”
This entails a commitment to save the night sky from “light pollution.” The advantages are obvious: an almost complete lack of clouds and rain, clear air and a high altitude; the adjacent town is 800 meters above sea level. The locals merely have to keep the light pollution to a minimum.
At the town of Mitzpeh Ramon and the nearby crater, several companies offer guided stargazing. Efrat Kedem from the company Bateva says this includes an introduction featuring details on how stars were born.
After that you learn about the night sky and a few constellations, and are taught how to find the North Star. The highlight is looking through telescopes brought to the center of the crater.
The crater also offers a newly opened “space garden” for stargazing. No guidance is offered, but there's no charge.
A nocturnal safari
Nighttime trips that follow various creatures, mainly scorpions, are held in several parks and reserves such as the Ramon Crater and the Eshkol Park west of Be'er Sheva. At this latter spot, there's stargazing, too.
Haim Berger, an ecologist from Sde Boker near the crater, offers a nocturnal safari that follows animals in their natural environment. This complex world features wolves, foxes, hyenas, scorpions, hares and porcupines.
“The night lets us catch visitors' attention and focus it,” Berger says. “It’s a show, and our projector lets us illuminate new and unknown aspects.”
Berger sees an animal’s eyes and immediately knows if it's predator or prey, if it's curious or indifferent. He notes the social aspects of animals’ lives and the uniqueness of the desert. It’s the closest you can get to Africa in Israel.
During the visit, conducted on jeeps, you get off several times to look for tracks and burrows. The jeeps hold six to eight passengers and the trip takes two and a half hours.