The Negev covers southern Israel in much the same way that the Chihuahuan desert blankets western Texas, but the long-robed shepherds, dusty tent camps, and Hebrew signs here would not be mistaken for a revival camp in the Lone Star State. In this corner of the Middle East, the ancient doesn't need reviving because modernity never arrived.
Hiking and camping in the dramatic landscape is almost impossible without a knowledgeable guide – "Abraham slept here!" – to point the way through the wadis (dry riverbeds), white cliffs, and sharply folded hills. The Adam Sela Challenging Experience, which offers trips starting in the Zin Valley, less than two hours south of Tel Aviv, transports travelers in mud-caked Land Rovers that face off with impressively horned ibex and keep the wolves, leopards, and hyenas at bay on the way to spring-fed pools.
In nearby Ein Avdat National Park, a trail winds through a canyon hiding a 50-foot waterfall and caves occupied by monks in the Byzantine era. The canyon edge bears marks where travelers used ropes to haul water when this oasis served as a way station for ancient travelers, including Nabatean traders plying the Perfume Road.
Farther south, Maktesh Ramon, the largest of the five geologic craters, or makhtesh, unique to the Negev sprawls across 100 squares miles of arid soil. The trail along the rim, offers stunning views of the surreal landscape leading south toward Timna Park, where rocks split the soil, and Scenic Heaven, where white sands and canyons ebb and flow between fossilized 140 million-year-old trees.
There is little to do during the day but walk and look and bathe. At night, there is only the star-salted sky and the occasionally Bedouin social. The natives are both friendly and restless. The desert, after all, is for wandering.
More information: Stores throughout the region sell delicious grapefruit sodas and the water is safe to drink. The Negev stretches about 200 miles from south of Tel Aviv to the Red Sea (both of which have fabulous beaches) and can be explored in a few days with Adam Sela.