When we got in contact with Raphaela we were intrigued by the request she send us – The Golan Heights. That was certainly a new hike for us and after some research we were inspired! While Raphaela spend years ‘hating’ hiking a move to Catalonia sparked a new interest and new passion for her. After having done quite a few hikes, we are extremely excited that she was willing to share her experience of the Golan Height with us.
The Golan Heights Trail is located in Israel and covers 125km through the Golan Heights. The trail starts at the highest point of Israel, Mount Hermon and leads you through a beautiful and challenging trail to the lowest freshwater lake in the world, Sea of Galilee. The trail will reward you with fantastic views, historical sites, and welcoming villages.
Now let’s dive into the interview as we can’t wait to share this with you!
To start, would you be able to tell us a bit about yourself?
I am 33 years old, originally from Germany, but I've been living in Catalonia (Spain) since a few years. Whenever it is possible, I'm out to discover new things.
How did your passion for hiking and the outdoors start?
As a child, my parents had to force me to go hiking. Small tours through the Black Forest were answered by me with complaints. I went with them, but with childlike unwillingness. It just had to be done. But this changed in my early 20s. It started slowly when I came to Catalonia. There is a path along the coast, the GR-92, which allows you to follow the coastline from the French border down to Valencia. And that's where it all started. Since then I've been running up and down the mountains. Especially here in Catalonia, there are great routes, both on the coast and in the Pyrenees. Before the outbreak of the corona pandemic, I went hiking every weekend.
How did you discover the Golan Heights Trail and what was the reason to hike this specific trail?
I was actually researching the Shvil (in English known as Israel National Trail). The Shvil connects the land of Israel from north to south with a trail more than 1000 kilometres long. While researching this trail, I came across the Golan Heights Trail (Hebrew Shvil HaGolan שביל הגולן). It is about 130 km long and can be hiked in a week. This is a great time advantage over the Shvil. From the kilometres, the difficulty and the variety, it seemed to me a suitable trail doing for fun.
The Golan Heights are not really a tourist destination and this is a real pity because it has so much to offer. It is one of those regions that everyone knows, mostly from the news and history books, and yet no one has visited personally. My interest was stimulated. I had been to Israel twice before, so the country was no stranger to me. But the Golan Heights were something special. As soon as I saw the landscape, from the high mountains to the Sea of Galilee, the decision was quickly made that this would be the trail I would do next.
The Golan Heights Trail is not even widely known in Israel. Even in the Golan Heights themselves, other travellers, from Israel itself, asked me what kind of trail I was actually hiking.
You hiked the Golan Heights Trail in Israel; what a fantastic achievement! The trail is maybe not as well known yet, and we would love to hear how your experience was on the trail?
I completed the trail in several sections. On average, I covered 16-18 kilometres a day. Yes, you could do more, but the accommodations are more or less at this distance from each other. And I just recommend enjoying the trail and also just stopping in the small towns you pass by.
The trail begins in Odem (אודם). If you are travelling without a rental car, you can take the bus from Tel Aviv to Odem (אודם/מרכז). You have to change buses in Kiryat Shmona (קִרְיַת שְׁמוֹנָה). From there, buses go directly to Odem several times a day. The bus stop is only 200 metres from the hostel. It is recommended to spend the night before the first day in the hostel and to take a taxi to the starting point the next day. Bus and taxi will be constant companions from now on. The sections are chosen so that you either walk directly to your accommodation or to a bus stop that takes you back to your accommodation or to the next one. On two days I took a taxi back to the end point of the previous section to start again where I had left off. Other stops besides Odem are Merom Golan (מְרוֹם גּוֹלָן), Alone Habashan (אַלּוֹנֵי הַבָּשָׁן), Keshet (קשת), Bnei Yehuda (בְּנֵי יְהוּדָה) and at the end the Sea of Galilee.
The most beautiful thing about the Golan Height Trail is the diverse landscape. It is simply spectacular to walk down from the highest point in Israel to arrive at the Sea of Galilee. Everything changes within a few kilometres: The weather, the climate, the vegetation. It is simply impressive.
You start in the high mountains. The official Shvil Golan starts quite unspectacularly at a parking lot. My recommendation is to take the bus up to the ski resort from the parking lot to get to the highest accessible point on the Israeli side. When I hiked it, there was still snow up there and I wasn't prepared for that with my equipment to start walking down from this point, so my hiking route started at the parking lot. The Shvil is excellently signposted. You follow the three stripes in green, blue and white. You will not get lost on the way.
The first part of the trail back to Odem goes through high mountains, so the first part of the trail to the city of Majdal Shams is the most challenging part. From this town onwards, you leave the high mountains and Mount Hermon becomes a constant companion in the background. Landscape changes to apple orchards, pastures, lakes, forests, vineyards ... It never gets boring. And wildflowers appear over and over again: Cyclamen, iris, tulips. And I wasn't even in the Golan Heights during the main flowering season.
After Odem, the path leads across pastures and it can happen that horses look at you in surprise when you climb over the barriers. Speaking of animals, you can meet marmots, ibexes, cows and horses along the way. There are also wolves in the Golan Heights, but you shouldn't worry about them. No matter who I spoke to, including people who have hiked up and down the Golan Heights, no one could tell me about an actual encounter. Every now and then you hear a grunt from the thicket and suddenly a family of wild boars runs across the path. There is a lot going on along the trail. You will be mostly hiking alone, but sometimes this special hiking buddies will appear.
From time to time, you pass old bunkers that remind you of the area's past. There are signs at these places, a few of them also in English, informing about the Yom Kippur War and what happened at these locations. Especially on the way to Merom Golan, you pass several war monuments. Sometimes rusty tanks stand around like a memorial against the war. As if they were abandoned only yesterday. Mount Hermonit and Mount Bental have old bunkers. Some can be visit, but I'm not sure if you're officially allowed to enter all these bunkers (if not, of course, I never did, promise 😊), but the doors were all open and you could theoretically have taken a look inside. There were clear signs that the installations had already been visited by several people before me. The Golan Heights are living history.
During the trail you have to cross the highest mountain of Israel, you will come across beautiful villages and we also read the possibility of encountering some minefields. With this diversity on the trail, how did you prepare for the hike?
The best preparation, as with every longer hike, is two pairs of good walking shoes 😊. Even though the trail is very moderate and almost flat after the first day, there are always some climbs and rocky paths. The feet are put under a lot of strain. Therefore, one should have the possibility to change shoes.
At this point I have to say that I did the trip in a very special way. I hiked with light luggage and only had the essentials for one day's hiking with me. I had the rest of my luggage transported between the accommodations by taxi. That is a great convenience.
There are good maps of the Golan Heights Trail on the internet. These are of utmost importance to find your way along the trail. The only book that describes the trail is "Jesus Trail & Jerusalem - The Golan Trail: Two trails in one ultralight guide" by Jacob Saar.
For the first two days, I took some provisions with me from the supermarket in Kiryat Shmona, sufficient to eat and, above all, to drink. After that, you can always replenish your supplies along the way. In the towns, of course, there are restaurants and supermarkets. But also every kibbutz like Alone Habashan has a small supermarket with the most necessary things, so you don't have to burden your luggage unnecessarily.
Even though you prepared well for the trail, did you come across any (major) challenges that you would never have thought of beforehand?
Fortunately, I didn't have any major difficulties. I went through the planning, countless times, also with others, in order to identify weak points before the trip. Only on the last day did my feet fail and form massive blisters. Despite all the measures to prevent this 😊.
However, one thing to be aware of when hiking and travelling in Israel: Hebrew is not an easy language and especially in the Golan Heights the signs are not always in Roman letters. I can read and speak a little bit of Hebrew, but hiking in a country where the signs are not always decipherable is a challenge. Fortunately for foreigners, nearly everyone in Israel knows English. Communication has always been possible. You should write down the names of the bus stops in Hebrew in advance so that you can read the timetables, which are only displayed in Hebrew, and show them to the bus driver in case of need.
What is your best memory of the trail?
Without a doubt, the best memories are of the people I have met. Very hospitable, very helpful, very open-minded. Israelis are very nice people. I have been to Israel twice before and have not had a single bad experience. Along the way, I took wrong turns every now and then. Especially in the cities, when you don't really know where the road is going now and can´t read the street names, it can appear a little bit tricky to find the junction. But I was always helped immediately.
Once I was alone in the middle of nowhere when a car past me by and stopped. The driver spoke to me and warned me that further ahead two large dogs were running back and forth on the path alone and without a leash. Since I was travelling alone, he wouldn't let me go on without the information. Or in the wine shop in Odem, when I philosophised with the nice saleswoman about God and the world and the common, unfortunately tragic past of our countries and then toasted to a common future. It was these small gestures and sometimes brief encounters that made the journey so special.
After this amazing achievement and crossing the Golan Heights Trail off your bucket list, do you have any other trails on your bucket list which you plan to hike in the (near) future?
There are so many exciting hiking trails around the world. But there is one trail that I have had on my list for a long time. I hope to be able to hike one day the Camino de Santiago after the pandemic. Both the Spanish one from Roncesvalles and the Portuguese segment have great appeal. And I don't exclude the possibility of hiking the Shvil, with its 1000 kilometres through Israel, one day after all.
For all those inspired by your story and experience on the trail, what is the one tip you would like to give them?
Just do it. Every path begins with the first step. So take the first step and don't be discouraged. The Golan Heights are no longer the war zone from the history books. This trail is simply breathtakingly beautiful.
Lastly, when our hiking-lovers want to know more and follow your adventures, where can they find you on social media?
@abseitsderramblas (not very active, I hope to find one day the time to maintain a better profile)
Raphaela, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview with us, it was an absolute pleasure!
Do you have an amazing story about one of your trail adventures which you would like to share with the community? Please reach out to us via firstname.lastname@example.org as we would love to hear from you.
Jay & Maud