Nothing can describe Eilat’s enchanting Red Canyon better than its popular name. Technically part of upper Nahal Shani and known as Guy Shani in the textbooks, the superb little gorge was forged through a deep, rich red sandstone rock. Its colors are especially exquisite when sunlight hits the canyon walls.
Tour guides and guidebooks consider the Red Canyon a “family trip.” But the truth is, this hike is a real challenge. There are any number of places where you climb down the rock wall using rungs (that seem awfully far apart, if you are fairly short, or out of shape) and ladders that you descend for what seems forever. Scary though it can be, you can’t help but be excited when you reach the end.
Eilat and the area around them boast several free natural attractions, and the Red Canyon is definitely one of the most exciting. For any of you brave souls planning to take this hike, drive west from Eilat in the direction of Yoseftal hospital, then continue on Route 12 towards the Uvda Valley.
Near the end of your ride you will see the Egyptian border on your left – look for one of their guard posts, flying the Egyptian flag. About 10 minutes past the turnoff for Ein Netafim, a sign leads to the Red Canyon and a dirt road takes you a long way to a large parking lot.
At the end of the 20th century Israel’s two major nature organizations found themselves in dispute over the future of the Red Canyon. What was called, at the time, the Nature Reserves Authority (today the Nature Reserves and National Parks Authority) wanted to preserve the beauty of the Canyon by charging admission, beefing up supervision over the trail (hopefully preventing graffiti on the splendid rocks) and building an entrance booth, bathrooms, and a kiosk which would replace the venders who tended to hang around there during the season.
But the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, worried that construction would change the Canyon’s raw natural character, claimed that a kiosk would only increase litter at the site. Instead, the SPNI suggested that rangers be increased. They offered personnel from the SPNI Eilat Field School to help keep things clean and said that there is simply no need to close off the canyon, still part of one of those rare areas where you can walk and walk and not see any signs of civilization.
The SPNI won and so we were delighted to find, when taking this hike last week, that the Red Canyon is still almost wholly natural. There are no buildings anywhere around and you can’t see the highway from the parking lot or the trail, giving you a delicious sense of being in the wilderness. It is always open, there is no fee, but you must be out of the canyon way before it gets dark.
At the beginning of the trail you walk on silt, bordered by steep walls of conglomerate left here from when tremendous rivers flowed through the region. Over time these alluvial deposits hardened and rivers that streamed through here at a much later time cut through the conglomerate to form the channel.
Sand partridges often accompany hikers – at least part of the way. Well camouflaged by their color, sand partridges get their Hebrew name koreh because they tend to call out (from the root kara) over and over. The sand partridge is a vegetarian, and picks seeds and little flowers out of the sand.
It is only a short walk to Nahal Shani’s main, twisting riverbed. Flowers growing in the wadi range from white broom with delicate blossoms in winter and early spring, to saltbush.
Desert foliage suffers from heat, lack of water and brackish ground, for there is little rain to wash away salt in the soil. Saltbush (or silvery orache) adapts itself to the climate by excreting excess salt onto its leaves. A greenish-grey plant about a meter and a half high, saltbush gets its color from tiny hairs on its leaf which protects it from strong rays.
Saltbush leaves are tasty and mentioned in Job as food for the haggard and hungry men who roamed the wastelands. “In the brush they gathered salt herbs. . .” Job 30:4. You can eat the leaves right off the bush or cook them at home: we have had them in omelets and vegetarian meatballs while Bedouin add them as seasoning to flour before baking pita.
Soon the riverbed begins a steep descent to the Canyon, a red sandstone gorge less than 300 meters long and only two-to four meters wide. By the end of the canyon, you will have descended several dozen meters.
Some of the canyon’s sandstone rock is truly ancient – hundreds of million years old and covered with later conglomerate. Huge limestone boulders, swept here during floods, have stuck in the gorge and created steps.
The sides of the gorge are composed of gorgeous rock formations in stunning colors; conglomerate on top of the sandstone adds extra height to the sides of the canyon.
Of course, the most exciting part of this little canyon walk is a look at the fabulous colors in the stone. Dominating other rocks combined with oxidized minerals is an incredible red color, which changes along the canyon and with the time of the day.
Immediately upon leaving the narrow part of the canyon a trail climbs up the southern wall (on the right) and returns to the parking lot. Hikers taking this exciting trail – be careful! for it runs along the edge. Get too close and the crumbly rocks on the top may fall on the head of someone below you in the canyon.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.