Hiking on Mars

Walking in the Red Canyon felt pretty much like being on Planet Mars. I wouldn’t normally write about hikes in Israel as I regret too much that they aren’t accessible to everyone, but this natural wonder deserves a special mention for its sheer beauty.

Israel’s border with Egypt

The Red Canyon is situated in the South of Israel, a stone’s throw from the Egyptian border and deep in the Negev desert. This is interesting in itself. A barbed wire fence runs the length of the border with large watchtowers visible on the Egyptian side. When we stopped to take a photo of the border sign, the unmarked car that was directly behind us also pulled in and a guy in military clothing asked what we were doing and where we were going. He was friendly but the message was clear: the area was under close surveillance and loitering was not encouraged.

The name gives an inkling of what to expect from the Red Canyon but the reality was more impressive and mesmerising than we expected. After descending down from the car park, the valley floor opened up into a wide and dry riverbed but the rocky cliffs on either side were still normal desert shades of camel. It was only when we rounded the next bend that the uniqueness of the canyon started to reveal itself with whole rock faces becoming lilac, pink or a rusty red in colour.

The fun then started with a series of ladders leading down between the narrow cracks of the canyon. The rocks here were a smoother swirling mix of reds and pinks like a raspberry ripple ice-cream. The ladders were challenging enough to inject a sense of adventure and exploration into the walk whilst also being accessible enough for most people including smaller kids to manage with a bit of help.

Purple and reds in the Red Canyon
Paint palate rocks

Next came a flatter, wider section where the colours changed again with swirling yellows also appearing in the rocks like splodges on an artist’s paint palate. For this part of the walk our eyes were cast downwards looking at the rocky jewels on the ground and picking up interesting pieces as we went. The ground was also becoming more purple than red with a thick layer of mauve coloured grit and sand underfoot. I wished we had our geologist friend with us to explain the science behind the different textures, patterns and colours we saw.

The path then started to narrow with rocks to clamber over and as we rounded another corner the cliff face loomed in front of us like a towering giant. Casting our eyes around the route markers started weaving us up again. With the aid of a few unexpected ladders up, we were suddenly on top of the cliffs looking down the steep valley (which I’m told is called a ‘cirque’) and the path had narrowed to almost nothing.

The narrow section of the Red Canyon
The view from the top of the cirque

I wasn’t sure if part of the cliff had recently eroded away or if this was normal, but it felt like we were teetering precariously on top of the world and a few more handrails would have been reassuring. The dramatic landscape, unlike anywhere we had been before, gave the walk a thrilling edge.

From the top, the landscape became more brown and sandy coloured again and a breeze whipped across the dunes. Looking around, it felt remote and barren with only the occasional tree eking out an existence.

This section would be very exposed in summer when temperatures in this area are frequently above 40 degrees. The walk is around two hours but I’d allow three for smaller legs and regular stops. There are no facilities at all for miles around so make sure you bring enough water and snacks for the day. It was one of the best, most dramatic and interesting walks we have done here and it is well worth a visit if you find yourself in the Negev region.

A lone tree in the purple sand

There are heaps of other things to see and do nearby and Timna Park was another highlight for us with some fantastic walking trails and many landmarks that are also accessible by car.

I have often found that different corners of Israel and Palestine have such distinct identities that they feel like they are each small countries in their own right. Here we didn’t so much find another country but a sparsely populated planet. If you are looking to get away from it all then now is a fantastic time to go while visitor numbers are still low and the temperatures are perfect.      

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