The alarm pierced the silence at the ungodly hour of 5:00am. My leg muscles were sore from our hike up to David’s Waterfall the day before in Ein Gedi National Park. And I had a headache, no doubt due to a mild case of dehydration from staying in the Dead Sea a bit too long the day prior in 42 degree heat. Did I really want to do this hike?
I forced myself out of bed and armed with a camera and a water bottle, I left the hotel and started towards the guard’s station. Just feet away from the guard I realized I had forgotten two very important things: money and food. In my morning stupor I had failed to remember the 29 NIS entrance fee as well as the bag of nuts I had specifically set aside for the hike. Surprisingly, the guard let me go in just by giving him my room number at the hotel and so I began the two kilometers of “up” to the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The trek began in a dark shade of blue and a sliver of a moon. As I slowly zigzagged my way up to Masada, the increasing light continuously altered the colors of the rock, from shadow to beiges to shades of red, which looked increasingly distinctive against a bluer and bluer sky.
The higher I climbed the easier it became to imagine King Herod’s vision for an ancient fortress by the sea with the Jordanian Mountain Range in the background. Only today the Dead Sea is much smaller than in Herod’s time, having receded quite a distance from the base of the Masada plateau. Apparently the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth, recedes one meter annually.
I must admit that I was pleased for the railing that starts about halfway up the Snake Path. The sky became brighter and brighter as the sun crept up behind the Jordanian Mountains and I wondered if I would make it to the top in time for the sunrise.
I ended up enjoying the sun showing itself from behind the mountains only a few zigzags short of the summit. The bonus to climbing the east face of a treeless mountain in the wee hours is you will not miss the sunrise; instead, you will simply enjoy it wherever you are at the time. And so there were several of us sprinkled up the side of Masada at various stages of the hike.
With an empty stomach, achy muscles and a headache, I felt a sense of accomplishment on my last step. I had arrived. After basking in my pride for a few minutes (and catching my breath) I filled up my water bottle and took in my surroundings. The views in every direction were stunning!
Herod’s palatial fortress of Masada covers three levels carved into the desert mountain. Much of the original structure remains, but all over the ruins, you can see a black line meandering along the stone walls, which marks where the buildings have been reconstructed.
Learning about how fresh water would be collected from nearby springs and then carried up to the fortress to be stored in massive cisterns was mind-boggling. I had just hiked up with a water bottle, and I was exhausted!
Walking through the ruins, you can see where 3 months worth of dried fruit, nuts and seeds were stockpiled. You can see the remnants of a columbarium, which likely housed carrier pigeons for communicating with people nearby. You can take a peek into one of the saunas, with original mosaics and paintings still visible.
Whether you opt for the Snake Path hike up to Masada or the gondola ride, visiting these ruins of King Herod’s fortress is a wonderful way to spend a morning. By the time I left at about 8:30am, the dry air was considerably hotter than on the ascent. The desert doesn’t offer up much shade, so there aren’t many places for a respite.
- The guard’s station opens at 5am and closes around 10am, depending on the heat.
- There is a free water station in front of Masada’s hostel (inside the gate) as well as at the top of the Snake Path.
- It costs 29NIS ($8US) to use the Snake Path and they approximate the climb to be 90 minutes and descend to be 30 minutes.
- The gondola starts running at 8am and costs 54NIS ($15US) for one way and 76NIS ($20US) for round trip.
- If you are planning to visit Masada, especially early in the morning, be sure to book ahead at the Masada Hostel. The other lodging options are 15 minutes south in neighboring Ein Bokek with no public transportation to Masada in the early morning. There are also some expensive options to the north in En Gedi, again with limited public transportation and none on Saturdays. We recommend renting a car from either Tel Aviv or Jerusalem and take the opportunity to explore this entire area, including En Gedi, various Dead Sea beaches, Masada, and if you like a more touristy locations replete with your choice of restaurants, bars and big beach front hotels, Ein Bokek. The other option is hiring a taxi for a day from Ein Bokek.