After snaking my way up the slopes of 1,929-foot Mount Tabor, I reach a rocky footpath that weaves among the pines before opening up for sweeping views of the hills of Nazareth and Galilee below. At the summit, I ditch my pack and clamber over a centuries-old stone wall to discover a graceful limestone church commemorating the spot where it’s said Jesus spoke to Moses and Elijah. This is just one of the many surprises found along the 637-mile Israel National Trail. The INT crosses the entire country, from its northern border with Lebanon and Syria through Galilee, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem and onto the vast Negev Desert before terminating at the Red Sea port city of Eilat. Size-wise, Israel is a tad larger than New Jersey, so the entire trail can be done in just 45 to 60 days.
During my own two-week trek last November (any time except high summer is good for a visit), I cherry-picked the best of the trail. That included visiting the ruins of Shema, an ancient synagogue; bar-hopping in Tel Aviv; exploring a Roman aqueduct built by Herod the Great around 20 B.C.; and the highlight: crossing Makhtesh Ramon, a 5.5-mile-wide, 1,600-foot-deep desert crater, where I pitched my tent and fell asleep under a sea of stars.
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The INT is not solely a wilderness trail. It traverses urban zones such as Tel Aviv and Nazareth and passes very near Jerusalem and its iconic Old City. In these places, bustling markets, like Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem, are overflowing with savory seeds and nuts, exotic spices, delicate pastries and baklava, and some of the most beautiful fruit (both fresh and dried) I’ve tasted.
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Well, not quite, but the INT does cover a huge swatch of the 4,600-square-mile Negev Desert. Here, guide Dovev Peèr crests a steep uphill section with a telltale trail marker at his feet. Although it looks sparsely populated, I met trail-grizzled thru-hikers, religious pilgrims, and loads of friendly locals.