When Mohammed’s disciples were sent into the world to spread the Prophet’s message, they often met at the eastern crossroads known as Horshat Tal. According to legend, on one occasion 10 disciples stopped at Horshat Tal on their way from Mecca to Syria, and tied their horses to stakes they had brought with them from Mount Tavor (Tabor). The next day the sticks took root and began to blossom, eventually to create the magnificent Tavor oak forest that provides today’s Horshat Tal National Park with much of its wondrous beauty.
The park’s setting east of Kiryat Shmona, between the Galilean mountains and the Golan Heights, is truly breathtaking and provides a view of the Mount Hermon range. Within the park are 3 1/2 kilometers (2 miles) of sweet flowing water from the Dan River and splendidly well-kept and shaded lawns. Grounds have been leveled so that the entire park is accessible by wheelchair, stroller and walker.
Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?
Yet back in 1959, a fierce battle raged between those forces who wanted to develop the area and others who insisted to preserve it in its natural state. In the end, Horshat Tal’s fate was decided by Joseph Weitz, at the time director of Land and Forestry for the Jewish National Fund. Drawing a line in the ground with his cane, he decreed that everything to its north would become a national park; the area south of the line, a nature reserve.
In the first years of the State’s existence, nobody had either the time or the money to worry about preserving our natural heritage – or about anything, really, but economic development, immigrant absorption and survival. But Israel has always been blessed with the right people at the right time. Thus in the mid-1950s archaeologist, soldier, politician Yigael Yadin took advantage of a fund, provided by the United States, that was to be used only for a specific purpose. With the fund, Yadin created the Association for the Improvement of Israel’s Landscape – and Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek followed with the Department for the Improvement of Israel’s Landscapes and the Development of Historic Sites that functioned inside the Prime Minister’s Office.
As time passed, and with the help of some extraordinary personalities with drive and ambition, the Knesset legislated two official Authorities to deal with our natural heritage: The National Parks Authority and the Nature Reserves Authority. Both began operating in 1964.
The two authorities merged in April of 1998. Today, as the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), they work together to preserve, protect and develop this country’s 81 national parks and 400 nature reserves.
Many of the INPA’s attractions are eminently suitable for hot weather visitors. Here are six of the best:
1. Horshat Tal National Park (completely wheelchair accessible)
Several hundred ancient trees, dozens of meters tall and incredibly wide, now grace the park’s landscape. Two gigantic trunks belong to an extremely old Tavor oak. Tradition holds that the trunk split into two during one of the severe earthquakes that befell Israel during the eighth century. Note how each trunk rejuvenated, closing off its open wounds and becoming a separate, independent entity.
Located northeast of Kiryat Shmona and east of Hamezudot Junction.
2. Nahal Snir Nature Reserve (offers wheelchair accessible trails)
The longest of the three tributaries that feed the Jordan River, Nahal Snir features an unpredictable flow that creates some of the most fabulous scenery in Israel’s north. Nature lovers who walk along the Snir and within its flow enjoy swirling rapids, fiercely rushing streams, masses of thick foliage, brilliant blossoms and quiet spots for contemplation.
Located northeast of Kiryat Shmona and east of Hamezudot Junction.
3. Majrase Nature Reserve (wheelchair accessible trails)
It is at this exact spot that the Golan’s rivers flow into Lake Kinneret. This is a great family site for a water walk. Nature lovers slosh along slowly in the water, passing rich and varied flora on the banks: willows, oleanders and Abraham’s balms. Easy to spot as well are soft-shelled turtles, stream crabs and dragonflies.
Located off Road 92, exit at Ma’ale Gamla Junction. Special hours: July and August 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
4. Beit Alpha Synagogue National Park (air conditioned and wheelchair accessible)
Founded at the end of the century, and discovered during development of a modern kibbutz, the Beit Alpha Synagogue was decorated with a spectacular mosaic floor depicting biblical scenes and the zodiac. Visitors get a first-hand look at the synagogue remains, while watching a lively audio visual presentation about daily life in the ancient village and learning how the mosaic was created.
The park is located on the grounds of Kibbutz Hefziba, off route 996.
5. Ein Afek Nature Reserve (wheelchair accessible trails)
Considering the scarcity of water in this country, it is hard to believe that until the modern era, portions of the Galilee were completely covered by swampland. In at least one part of the Galilee, where the Na’aman River constantly overflowed and turned the ground into marsh, the waters were put to good use. Collected in dams and channeled towards a mill, they turned the poles that rotated the stones that ground the grain.
Remains from those lush, wet swamps today are now protected in the beautiful nature reserve of Ein Afek. Visitors stroll through Ein Afek’s 660 dunams (165 acres) to enjoy a plethora of pools and springs, flora, fauna, and a fortified mill nearly a thousand years old. With sharp eyes it is possible to get a glimpse of water buffalo, one of seven brought from the Hula Nature Reserve to En Afek in 1991.
Located 2 kilometers east of Kurdani Junction, off Highway 4 (the Acre-Haifa road).
6. Eilat’s Coral Beach Nature Reserve (wheelchair accessibility to bridge over the water)
Israel’s portion of the Red Sea’s 4,500 kilometer coral reef is the most northerly in the world. Stretching from the Gulf of Eilat to the Egyptian border at Taba, it parallels the Eilat shoreline.
Most of it can be perused at no cost and at your leisure. But the part richest in marine life is located within the Coral Beach Nature Reserve where visitors have a wonderful time weaving near and around a plethora of fascinating underwater creatures. It is not necessary to be an expert swimmer or diver in order to see the fish up close; non-swimmers can simply rent a life jacket and float.
Special hours: July-August Saturday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Fridays 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Note: Regular summer hours at the parks and reserves are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday-Thursday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Fridays; entrance until one hour before closing.
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.