Whenever we have guests visiting Israel, there's one area we take them to see that they had never planned on:
The Golan Heights.
A popular destination among locals, this area has it all: Wild scenery, a variety of wildlife, fantastic hiking trails, historical sites that range from prehistoric to modern times (and everything in between) and great agricultural and food attractions. There's even a ski resort during winter months!
You could easily spend 2-3 days exploring the Golan Heights, or you could work a day trip of the area into a longer itinerary of northern Israel. In this post, I'd like to introduce you to this magnificent area and show you the best ways to enjoy traveling here.
Where is the Golan Heights
The Golan Heights is in the north of Israel. This is the area that's to the east and north of the Sea of Galilee -
If you look closely, you'll notice there are a couple of dotted lines there going around the area and no single solid line marks the border between Israel and Syria. I don't want to go into the politics of the region, but here's the story in a nutshell.
A quick recap of the history of the Golan Heights
The Golan, or in Arabic the Jawlan, is the mountain ridge that begins in the red area and continues further up north, into Syria. Up until 1967, that area was part of Syria and according to international law, it's still occupied Syrian territory today. Israel conquered the area during the Six Day War of 1967. In 1973, Syria attacked and took over some the territory, only to lose it back to Israel later in the same war. In 1974, a ceasefire was declared, by which Israel retained control over the area in red, but a de-militarized zone was set up, monitored by UN forces. In 1981, the Israeli government basically annexed the Golan Heights, declaring it to be Israeli territory.
There you have it, in a nutshell. I'll talk more about the implications in a minute when we talk about safety issues. For now, let me say that despite all of these events, this is, in fact, one of the most peaceful regions in Israel.
How to get to the Golan Heights
The best way to see the Golan Heights is by driving around. It's only two and a half hours away from Tel Aviv, and about an hour from Haifa or Tiberias. Definitely doable as a day trip, although most people stay the night and make a weekend of their visit, just so they can spend more time there. The Golan Heights is a great destination to add to your tour of the Upper Galilee - it can literally be a 10-minute drive between places in both regions.
There is public transportation to and within the Golan Heights but it's not very frequent. You can get a bus to Katzrin - the largest town in the area - and then take another bus for local sightseeing, or possibly hitchhike your way around. A car will be faster and more reliable. If you're not sure, read my post about renting a car while in Israel.
What's the best time to visit the Golan Heights? (Weather Considerations)
As the name implies, this area is higher than the rest of the country. Days, and especially nights, tend to be much colder here and there are usually several days of snow every winter. The higher up you go, the more snow you're likely to encounter.
On the top of Mt. Hermon you'll find the only Israeli ski resort. You could visit during winter time, just know that snow - and even the chance of snow - tends to attract families to this area. This could mean heavy traffic and exceptionally high prices to pay for accommodation.
Most winter days are just going to be cold - but free of snow.
Summer is hot and dry, with no rain. The nights are pleasantly cool but daytime temperatures can soar into the 90's and 100's (in Fahrenheit). If you plan on hiking during summer, pack plenty of water, wear a hat and use sunscreen.
Springtime is hands-down the best time to see this area. And in Israel, spring begins in February. That's when the Golan - like the rest of the country - turns green with lush vegetations. The water reservoirs are full, and you're likely to encounter gorgeous sights of herds of free-range cows as they wander down to the water sources, surrounded by the basalt rocks and green vegetation.
Is visiting the Golan Heights safe?
I hope I didn't scare you off with the introduction. Yes, this area has seen its share of war in the 20th century. As we go over the things to do and see, there will be several monuments where you can see the scars the war has left behind. For the last 40+ years though, the border with Syria has been surprisingly stable and quiet. Even in during the last decade, as civil war raged within Syria, the Golan remained mostly quiet.
I don't mean that literally, by the way. During some years, you could constantly hear the sound of artillery coming from Syria, as factions were shooting at each other. They seem to have been careful enough not to shoot at Israel's direction, for the most part. There have been a couple of isolated incidents along the years, almost certainly derived in mistakes. No one was harmed and overall, the area felt very safe. Even oddly safe. You could stand at viewpoints, looking into Syria and seeing the fire exchange there, while being safely on neutral ground.
In the past two years, the war in Syria moved away from the border area, so you're not likely to hear or see anything from that direction during your visit. And yes, I do realize just how surreal this sounds, but this is life in the Middle East. And you're still far safer traveling in the Golan Heights than in New York, London or Paris. You can read more about this in my post: How safe is Israel as a travel destination.
Watch out for the minefields
To wrap up the surrealness, one thing you do need to be aware of in the Golan Heights - yet not fear. There are old Syrian minefields in the area, dating back to the pre-1967 days. Unfortunately, without good maps detailing the location of each and every mine, there's no way to remove them. Fortunately, these fields are very well mapped, so you won't just stumble upon one.
As you drive around the Golan, there will be clearly-signposted fenced areas declared as minefields. Just be sensible and don't cross the fences into one on purpose. If you want to take cool pictures, stay on the right side of the fence and take your selfie with the sign. It's been ages since we heard of a mine blowing up - possibly because they're very old by now - so let's keep it that way.
Be aware of local wildlife
Back to "normal" warnings, watch the road as you drive, especially at night. Both wild animals and cows could be crossing the road. The area has one of the largest concentrations of large animals in Israel, especially wild boar, and wolves.
Yes, wolves. In fact, the Golan Heights is said to have the world's most dense population of wolves.
We've been fortunate enough to spot wolves twice while hiking in the region. They are usually very shy and run away as soon as they notice you, however there have been incidents where wolves got too close to campsites, and on at least one occasion, a rabid wolf wandered into a local town, biting people.
Wild boar can be as dangerous as wolves, especially if a sow feels you threaten her cubs. However, for the most part, as long as you keep your distance, they'll try to get away from you. We've seen packs of wild boar while hiking in the Golan Heights and never had any issues with them.
Other mammals in this area include foxes, jackals, weasels, and deer. Watch out for snakes as you hike, as vipers are often enjoying the warmth of the basalt rocks during the day.
Top Things To See And Do
Now that you know how to keep safe (not that hard!), let's talk about all the awesome things there are to do and see in the Golan Heights!
Natural Attractions and Hiking
The Golan Heights is a formerly-volcanic area, with plenty of extinct small volcanoes and other volcanic landforms. Add a good measure of water in the wintertime, and you get some fantastic scenery that's unlike any other place in Israel.
If you're a serious hiker, you might be interested in hiking the entire Golan Trail. While we have the Israel Trail crossing the country from north to south, it doesn't go through the Golan Heights. But if you have a week to spare, you can hike the stretch of 77 miles that is the Golan Trail. There's a detailed description of the hike here.
If you're looking for shorter excursions, you may want to consider the following.
1. The Banyas (Hermon Stream) National Park
The Hermon Stream, aka the Banyas Stream or Nahal HaBanyas, is right on the border between the Golan Heights and the Upper Galilee. One of the prettiest places in Israel, it combines a gorgeous ravine with impressive archeology from the Greek period. Don't miss out on -
- The hanging trail above the ravine.
- The Banyas Waterfall (the waterfall with the highest volume of water in Israel)
- The archeological sites, including the temple of the god Pan (who gave the place its Arabic name: Panyas, pronounced as Banyas).
If you only have an hour, you can either visit the hanging trail, all the way to the waterfall, or the archeological area on the other side of the park (two separate entrances). If you have a couple of hours, you could do both, while taking the car in between. If you have three hours or more, you can also hike along the stream, from one point to the other.
2. Nahal Meshushim (Meshushim Stream & Pool) Nature Reserve
Meshushim means hexagons in Hebrew and the name of this reserve comes from the gorgeous swimming hole surrounded by hexagonal lava rock formations.
To get there, you need to hike for about half an hour along a partially-shaded trail (bring plenty of water if coming in summertime).
3. Yehudia Forest Nature Reserve
Right across from the Meshushim Nature Reserve, you'll find the Yehudia Forest. Here, hiking will take you through volcanic gorges into the Zavitan Canyon, aka the Black Canyon of the Zavitan. This is a deep gorge with deeper dark pools at the bottom.
In the summertime, you can hike through the Yehudiya Stream in a fun and family-friendly route that takes you through the water (recommended for ages 8 and above):
4. Gamla Nature Reserve
I'm listing Gamla under the "natural attractions" section even though this park combines archeology as well. Archeological remains include bronze-age dolmens - the Israeli version of Stonehenge - and the ruins of ancient Gamla, dating back a couple of millennia.
Gamla does not disappoint when it comes to natural beauty either. You can hike, view the stream and waterfall and take some time to watch the vultures. Gamla is famous for its colony of vultures, which the Israeli Parks Authority is working hard on preserving.
5. Odem Forest (Ya'ar Odem) Nature Reserve
A lovely nature reserve where you can hike among ancient local oak trees. Absolutely gorgeous. One unique feature of the area is the maars, locally known as jooba's. These are volcanic craters that were created millions of years ago and have since filled up with trees.
If you're in the area with kids, you can experience the forest in Moshav Odem (Moshav is a settlement which closely resembles a kibbutz). That's where you'll find the Deer Forest - a commercial venture where you can spend time getting close to a local herd of friendly deer. Believe it or not, they actually have a website in English!
We've mentioned the archeological sites in the Banyas and Gamla. Let's take a look at a few other attractions for history buffs - some of them much more recent. In fact, let's see if I can arrange them in chronological order.
6. The Rehav'am Arches ancient synagogue (Um Al Kanatir)
This recently excavated site was reconstructed using advanced archeological methods where each stone was microchipped and put back in place using a computer simulation. The result is a fantastic reconstruction (using the original stones) of a lavish synagogue, dating back to the first millennium.
7. Nimrod Fortress National Park
When Mark Twain visited the area in the 19th century, he said this was the most impressive ruins he had ever seen. This fortress - dating back to the days of the crusaders - is positioned in a fantastic location, on top of a mountain overlooking the Galilee and parts of Lebanon.
Also known as Kal'at Namrud, you can visit the fortress and tour the ruins during your visit to the Golan.
8. Mount Bental Observatory
Let's move forward in time to modern days. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the Syrians and Israelis bitterly fought over the Golan in the 1960s and 1970s. A good place to see the setting, hear about the battles and even enter a real army bunker is right at the top of Mount Bental.
On top of this small extinct volcano, you'll find yourself observing over into three countries: Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Play the recording to hear all about the battles that took place right here and when you're done, head over to the military post right next to you and take a tour of the bunker.
Read more (and see more pictures!) in my post about visiting Mount Bental.
9. Rujm El Hiri (The Wheel of Giants)
Ending this list is the Golan's most ancient archeological site: Rujm El Hiri. This is the Stonehenge of Israel, a huge prehistoric monument made of more than 42,000 huge rocks (megaliths) arranged in three circles.
The monument is approximately 6,000 years old, dating back to the bronze age. No one knows what it was used for exactly but the common theory is that this was a sacred place of worship.
Food and Agricultural Visitor Centers
Colder winters make the Golan an ideal location for crops such as cherries, apples and certain types of vines. Local farmers offer produce for sale and some have visitors center which makes a lovely stop. Here are a few ideas:
This visitors center in Katzrin had some nice exhibits, including a 3D movie which explains more about the region. They also have a shop with locally-produced food items and cosmetics and a small brewery with its own beer-themed restaurant.
This winery offers a selection of activities for wine connoisseurs. You can join an hour-long wine-tasting group tour or book a private tour. They'll even take you out for a guided tour of the vineyards if you like (not included in the regular tour but offered as an option).
Their website is in Hebrew but you could use Google to translate the content to the language of your choice.
Olive oil tours
Olive oil is just as important locally as wine - if not more so. Eretz Gshur is a local olive oil producer that has a visitors center. You can see the displays, watch the oil being pressed (in season) and buy their produce at the local shop.
Again, the website is in Hebrew so Google Translate.
Fruit picking is fairly popular in Israel and readily available in the Golan Heights from May until the end of July. Cherries, berries, apples, and peaches are all up for grabs (literally!) depending on the exact season. Katif Odem and Meshek Levy are two places where you can pick your fruit fresh off the tree.
Where to stay in the Golan Heights?
The Golan Heights is just under 700 square miles or 1,800 square kilometers, so not a huge area. If you travel by car, you can do this as a day trip from the Galilee without a problem. We often drive to the Golan and back on the same day, and that's from the Tel Aviv area. Just keep in mind that you'll be driving through significant switchbacks between the valley and the Golan. Unless you know the route well, you may be more comfortable driving during daylight.
If you want to spend a couple of days exploring the Golan, then staying there makes more sense. There are plenty of places to stay all over the Golan. We've stayed at Kibbutz Ortal several times, as we have family there.
I can recommend the place wholeheartedly but if you want to shop around, here's a link to all available accommodation in the Golan Heights that's available via Booking.
Finally, here's the map
We've put all of the places mentioned here in a single map, to help you figure out the best itinerary for your own trip -
And as always, if you have any questions or comments - just leave me a comment!