Being the Americans that we are, we never thought it possible visit more than one national park in a given week. America is just too darn big for that kind of nonsense. Israel is just a little bigger than the state of New Jersey, so visiting 7 National Parks in 7 days is quite easy. In fact, there are 69 national parks in Israel to choose from! Here is how we managed to visit 7 national parks in 7 days.
What is the Israeli National Park Pass?
The Israeli National Park pass allows you discounted access to the parks of your choice. You can get a 3, 6 or unlimited park pass, but do the math carefully as they are only good for two weeks from the first park you visit. So even if you get the unlimited park pass, you aren't likely to visit all the parks in two weeks. If you pushed yourself really hard you could probably visit about 30 of them, but you would have to plan it really well and double up on several of the days. And that just doesn't sound like fun.
We opted for the 6 park pass after our visit to Masada where the very unhelpful woman at the ticket counter didn't tell us anything about anything.
How Are Israeli National Parks Different from American National Parks?
After touring around Israel for about a month and visiting 7 national parks, we've noticed some striking differences between parks here and parks in the United States. The main point of difference is that the focus of Israeli National Parks isn't always nature. Normally when I think of a national park, I think of a defining physical feature - The Grand Canyon or Yosemite's El Capitan. Iconic images of a physical landscape come to mind. Here in Israel the defining feature of the national parks we visited tended to be history.
This isn't a surprise. Everything in Israel ranges from the really old to the downright ancient or prehistoric. You've got Islamic mosques built on top of Crusader temples that were built on Roman ruins that were built upon societies we've never even heard of before. Some of the parks are large like Masada, but others like the Tiberias Hot Springs are little more than a roadside attraction.
Israeli National Park #1: Masada
Masada may be the most natural of all the Israeli parks we visited mainly because it's situated on the top of a formidable cliff top in the middle of the Judean desert.
If it's not 100+ degrees you may opt to walk yourself up to the top, but know that there is a ton to see once at the top, so like us, you may want to take the cable car. Note: there is a fee for both the cable car and to walk up.
Over 2,000 years ago King Herod decided to build a palace/fortress and chose Masada as the perfect location. Once at the top you can see why. Tough as hell to get to and commanding views for miles and miles in all directions. It was kitted out with cisterns, baths, fountains and gardens. It must have been an impressive sight when it was in full swing, especially after crossing the desert to get there.
One of the great features of Masada is and was how they got so much water to such a formidable place. Some great engineering is how! They channeled two or more streams from nearby mountains and fed it into giant cisterns dug into Masada. Then of course anybody coming into the city brought water as well, and it was added to the cistern at the entrances.
The history of Masada is too great for this post, so sign up for our email list and we'll notify you when we expand on this.
Israeli National Park #2: Avdat National Park
Avdat National Park. As is common in Israel, this national park is tucked away behind a McDonald's. I'm telling you - every inch of this region is littered with history and ancient artifacts. It's not uncommon to walk out of a Roman bathhouse and into a gas station.
Further up the road a bit you can see (and walk through!) caves cut into the limestone cliff face that was used in turns for ceremonial burial, food storage and housing. You can see why. It remained cool on a blisteringly hot day. But further up the hill sits the sprawling ancient city of Avdat, which was a big part of the immense and ancient Incense Route that ran from India through the Arabian Peninsula to Egypt and Gaza over 2300 years ago.
It must have been a relief to come upon Avdat after a long journey through the desert. Long abandoned are the wine and olive oil operations that flourished here for centuries. We came to visit Avdat from the Negev Camel Ranch, which is close to another ancient city on the Incense Route.
Israeli National Park #3: Beit Guvrin
Beit Guvrin National Park may be more along the lines of what you would expect if you are used to a typical American national park. It's bigger, it has trails to hike about in, picnic areas and a load of natural and historic things to do. It was refreshing having come from the Negev Desert to this lush region of Israel. There are trees and scrubby grasses! The topography really resembled parts of California with low rolling hills.
Highlights of the Beit Guvrin National Park must be the caves. These were cut from limestone and are all over the park. Now before you go thinking that living in a cave wouldn't be attractive, you better think again. These are vast networks that were usually built below their houses and stores and were used to hold goods and water and everything else. They even dug caves to attract and keep pigeons and doves for their eggs and meat. It's estimated that there were roughly 8,500 holes carved out expressly for this purpose!
You can also tour the bell caves which are just really gorgeous limestone quarries that now house echoes and bats. There is also a big mosaic in a newly built facility funded by an American family that isn't as spectacular, but it depicts a story that is key to the formation of Israel as a nation, so it's obvious why the money was spent to preserve it. There is even a video that starts out with some history but quickly goes into song and dance (literally) about how the Jews are the chosen people and Israel the chosen land.
Israeli National Park #4: Zippori National Park
The Zippori National Park can be summed up in one word: mosaics. This was our first experience with a national park that has mosaics, or any site in Israel that has preserved mosaics. We were blown away instantly with the first example. It was so detailed that it looked like a fine rug. We marveled and took pictures. And then we went into the Nile House, which really blew us away.
The one mosaic that depicted the importance of the Nile was huge and stunning. The mosaic artist used 180 tiles per square foot of work, which given the size of the floor must have meant thousands and thousands of tiles. The artist was really talented and it must have taken forever. It's really worth the visit alone. But if you don't like mosaic tile work, the Zippori national park may not be for you.
Israeli National Park #5: Achziv National Park
Achziv National Park is a good example of an Israeli National Park. It's got history as it's highlight, although we saw no signs telling us about it. It's got loads of picnic benches and it's got a pool. Or so we thought when we arrived. It turns out that the "pool" is no less than the Mediterranean Sea!
The water was shallow and a few banks of rocks offshore kept the flow to a minimum, which meant it was a few degrees warmer and nearly waveless. There were very few people here, so we basically had the beach to ourselves. From almost any vantage point you can see the Sulam mountain range which marks the border of Lebanon and Israel. Just off shore are the islands that make up the Rosh Hanikra Marine Reserve. It would appear that much of what this national park has to offer is under the water.
This is a very peaceful park. There are showers for when you are done with your swim and basking in the sun.
Israeli National Park #6: Hamat Tiberias National Park
The Hamat Tiberias National Park has a few things going for it - a wicked awesome example of mosaic that is well preserved and covered and it's right across the street from the Sea of Galilee. Don't let anybody fool you into thinking that a notable feature of Tiberias National Park is the hot spring because you can't access it. There is a little river that runs along the footpath that is steaming hot and smells like sulfur, but you cannot access the hot springs here.
The 18th C Turkish Hamam is dark, damp and unsatisfying. It really looked to me like it had become a storage room for signs and other national park miscellanea. I personally don't think it's worth the admission fee. The mosaic is nice, but there are better examples of mosaic work at Avdat. I felt like I was at a rodeside attraction in Florida and expected gators waiting for a feeding.
Israeli National Park #7: Caesarea National Park
Some would say we saved the best Israeli National Park for last. Again we find ourselves at a palace fortress city port complex from the will and mind of King Herod. And again we find ourselves looking down the barrel of over 2,000 years of building, flourishing, sacking, destroying that is so common here in Israel.
Here is the tldr version of the history of Caesarea. Ready?
25 BCE Roman>300 CE Byzantine>600 Muslim>1100's Crusaders>1250 Louis IX of France>1600's Ottoman>1800's Bosnian Immigrants>1922 British Mandate>1947 Israeli.
Caesarea National Park has all the wonders of ancient Rome - an amphitheatre, Roman baths, and in the center of it all, a Hippodrome. This is really just a racetrack, but apparently people loved it. You can see why as well - it's situated directly on the sea.
And no Israeli National park is complete without....MOSAICS! While the mosaics are pretty great at the main complex, do yourself a favor and drive up the shore about 5 minutes and find the Bird House Mosaics - they are right off the side of the road and they are amazing.
Caesarea is quite the complex. It has something for everybody - underwater ruins, restaurants, paddleboarding, Roman ruins, mosaics, you name it. If you only have time for one national park in Israel (and can't get to Masada) this is it. Just make sure to bring some sunscreen because there is very little shade.
If you are looking for something to do in Israel, we hope that you find this brief overview of 7 of their national parks helpful. We never thought that we could see so many mosaics or ruins in such a short amount of time. So if you enjoy baking in the sun, being terrified by heights or trying to find yourself at the tail end of 3,000+ years of history, come to Israel, and visit a few of their national parks!