Sink to New Lows While You Float on the World’s Saltiest Sea
DRIVE THROUGH THE NEGEV DESERT TO EIN BOKEK, ISRAEL
The absolute highlight of our recent family trip to Israel has to be the surreal feeling of floating atop the Dead Sea. Slippery, sort of slimy, slightly oily and extremely salty – getting in the water here is an amazing experience. You should definitely put it on your wandering wish list. Beautiful pale green water gently laps against yellow-orange beaches crusted with crystallized white salt formations. You have to see it to believe it. Take a road trip through the beautiful Negev Desert to get there.
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REASONS TO TAKE A ROAD TRIP IN ISRAEL
Israel is a small country in the Middle East. It is fairly easy to get around on modern and well-marked roads. Our family of five drove from Haifa in the north of Israel to Ein Bokek on the Dead Sea in under three hours. We watched out our car windows as the humid and tropical beach towns of Israel’s Mediterranean coast soon evolved into an arid and desolate desert moving south from the large cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The Negev, as the desert is called here, holds a beauty of its own. And I appreciated it. From the comfort of our air-conditioned rental car come July. Down here, the desert is decidedly hot much of the year, but especially so in summer. On a drive through the Negev, tiny towns and settlements become fewer and farther between.
DRIVE DOWN BELOW SEA LEVEL
Our road trip took us south on Highway 6, circumnavigating Tel Aviv until we turned east on Route 31 towards the Dead Sea. Once you pass the town of Arad, the road winds you through a curvy pass dropping almost 800 meters in elevation (2600 feet) to the valley floor and the Dead Sea. Markers cut into the rock wall designate the changes as you descend. The road here feels steep and the curves dangerous. So we are told. We strain to see camels that we are warned to look out for. (And don’t worry I’ve added our exact route map below.)
FIRST DEAD SEA SIGHTING
Soon enough, we get our first glimpse of the Dead Sea ahead in the distance. A diffused blue body of water low on the hazy horizon past the bleached and bright, but rocky landscape. We pull over at a vista and brave the heat. In July, stepping outside your car is like opening the door of a baking oven. And while it may be a dry heat, it is intense. A blast to the system. We snap a few pics and jump straight back in the car.
THE LOWEST POINT ON EARTH
Our descent complete, we pass the small outpost of Neve Zohar and continue on to the Israeli Dead Sea resort town of Ein Bokek. We are now at the lowest place on earth. ON EARTH. The land at the edge of the Dead Sea sits at around 430 meters below sea level. That is -1400 feet. Currently. Below sea level. That is crazy to process.
And that number is getting lower every year. The Dead Sea is receding. At a rate of nearly a meter a year. So when you see it next, you could be lower than we were. Over the years – dams, irrigation and political border arrangements have lessened the historical sources that used to replenish this hypersaline landlocked body of water. It is getting smaller. You should see it. While you still can. The water shimmers a brilliant pale aqua blue-green near shore.
ENJOY THE BENEFITS OF STAYING AT A RESORT
While there are many public access points to step in this super salty sea, I would recommend you splurge a little and select a resort for your Dead Sea stay. Why? Easy and safe approaches to the sea for one. Clean water, beach showers, fresh towels, lifeguards, shaded loungers and proximity to a refreshing swimming pool are further reasons to consider.
As water levels in the Dead Sea recede, there are several areas around the perimeter that are prone to sinkholes and not safe for walking or swimming. You’ll see giant signs where you should skip. Stay safe and step in the Dead Sea only at approved public beaches.
We stayed at the Crown Plaza Dead Sea in Ein Bokek, one of the main resort areas on the Israeli side. The Crown Plaza wasn’t fancy, but the rooms were clean, well appointed and every room afforded a view of the sea. Ours even had a balcony – although, with the heat, we didn’t use it much. We opted to add the breakfast buffet which offered an amazing array of local dishes and something for every taste. While the beach here is open to the public, if you want access to the pool and spa areas, you need to purchase a day pass.
(Note: I was not compensated for our stay at the Crown Plaza, but offer it as my personal recommendation.)
SLIP INTO THE SALTY SEA
Time for a dip. So. What does it actually feel like? To step into the saltiest body of water in the world? Seriously? Surreal. For real. It’s hard to explain. First off. Read the rules. (I’ve shared them below.) Explain them to your kids. They are not a joke. You do not want this water in your eyes. Or your mouth. Or other private parts. And don’t shave. Anywhere. Slightly overrun bikini line? Let that ride sistah. You will thank me for it. And besides, it’s mostly old retirees here on the beach in Ein Bokek. They’ve all come for the health benefits of the mineral-rich waters and atmosphere in the desert. They don’t care about your hair. Down there. Or anywhere.
The water itself is almost oily. Or slippery. You can feel it on your skin. Not like a wet feeling, but a slightly slimy feeling. It’s strange. But cool. And I don’t mean the temperature. The water itself was 37° C (98.6° F). For a little bit, it’s even enjoyable and serene. But soon, you’ll want to rinse off and minimize the slick.
THE SALT IS SERIOUS
With a salinity over 9 times that of a normal ocean, the Dead Sea is seriously salty. Have a scratch or wound or mosquito bite while you are here seeing the Dead Sea? Take care and put a little Vaseline over it to protect it from all the salt. You’ve heard the saying of putting “salt in a wound?” It must have originated from the Dead Sea. People have been coming here for thousands of years. This area was a resort in the time of King Herod. That’s a long time. Over two thousand years people. And probably before that. While the Crown Plaza may not have graced the shores of Ein Bokek in that era, these therapeutic waters did.
FLOAT LIKE A BUTTERFLY, STING LIKE A BEE
I will admit, we were all a wee bit nervous about our first entry into the Dead Sea. We’d heard the rumors and wanted to exit alive. Or at least without too much pain. We stepped slowly down the shaded gangway on the beach at the Crown Plaza and sat down in the slippery warm water. At 33.7% salinity, it is darn near impossible to sink in the Dead Sea. It is comical to try. Put your feet down. They pop up. I felt like an apple in a grade school Halloween party bucket, all my bits bobbing above the surface. Even in 1 meter of water. Bizarre. Funny, actually. Try not to smile. Just try NOT to get that water in your mouth while smiling.
Bring a water bottle of fresh water with you. There are water fountains, hoses and showers, but they are back up on the beach. We were happy to have one water bottle with us in the water to rinse our mouth and eyes when an inevitable splash happened. And even if you are careful, they happen. In your eyes, it does sting.
SALT CRYSTALS ARE COOL
The beach here starts like sand you have seen before. Then quickly turns to a crystalized salt landscape that is as beautiful as it is hard on your feet. Wear water shoes. I was wishing I’d brought my Salt-Water sandals. Seems the perfect place for them. Right? Even flip-flops are better than nothing, although they might float right off your feet. Scoop your hand along the seabed and find it full of straight salt. I loved mining for the crystallized spheres of salt as they sparkled in the sun.
RULES FOR A SAFE DEAD SEA SOAK
These are especially important to share with your kids and will make it much more enjoyable for you all. Remember – this isn’t really a swim. It’s more of a bob and float. For a bit.
- Do not dive or jump in.
- Do not immerse head.
- Use gangways (when available) for entering the water.
- First, sit down then recline backward.
- Do not splash water on yourself or others.
- Do not swallow sea water. If you do swallow sea water, get help immediately from the lifeguard or medic.
- Drink plenty of drinking water. Especially after. Stay hydrated.
It is recommended to spend a maximum of 30 minutes in the water, up to two times a day.
SLATHER ON SOME DEAD SEA MUD
So I’ve done a “mud run” before. But intentionally applying mud is something else entirely. In some places along the Dead Sea, natural springs feed into the water and create a rich mineral filled mud that has been touted as a cure-all for millennia. You can’t come here and not try it. At the Crown Plaza Dead Sea, there is no natural source for some of this mega mud. So – you might have to buy some. When in Ein Bokek I say. My wee lass and I sourced some from the hotel spa in a special pouch.
We got up early to try and beat some of the day’s forecasted heat, it was a perfect time for our mud spa treatment. It was also less crowded. Fewer people watching as we slathered ourselves in a substantial layer of the dark rich mud. Difficult to suppress giggles and wonderment while we wiped the wet and gooey substance all over our bodies. We would have proven entertaining to watch, I’m sure.
Let the mud soak in until dry. This takes about 20-25 minutes depending on the layering. It can feel a little stingy at first but seemed to subside after a bit. (Again, cover any scratches with Vaseline or petroleum jelly before if you have spots that might cause concern.) When the surface of your mud-baby-self starts to crack and your skin looks like the bottom of the Bonneville Salt flats, it’s time to rinse off. We used the slippery, oily Dead Sea itself to dissolve the mineral-rich mud. Then step out and shower off. With fresh water. My skin felt super! That’s Danish for…. super.
SEE THE FORTRESS AT MASADA
Once your salinated soaking has been satiated, there is more to see on your Dead Sea road trip. Driving north about 30 minutes from Ein Bokek is Masada National Park. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2001, Masada is worth seeing, even in the heat. Built by King Herod himself around 30BCE, Masada is an ancient fortification high atop the cliffs above the Dead Sea. After a brief video highlighting the historical significance of Masada, you step inside a cable car for a 3-minute journey to the top.
Here you will see the ruins and reconstructions of Herod’s palace as well as the fortress walls. Built when Judea was part of the Roman empire, Masada would later become a refuge for rebels during the Jewish rebellion against Rome. Having destroyed their temple in Jerusalem (the remains of which are the iconic Western Wall you can still see today), the Jews held out at Masada. Surrounded by the Roman Legion, the rebels decided that death by each other’s hands would be better than a lifetime as slaves in the Roman Empire. And while the history may have been a horrible one, for many modern visitors, this is a place of pilgrimage and a symbol of Jewish heroism defines Israel’s national identity today. Personally – I was just impressed by how these structures were built so high above the sea. Again, in July, it was about 42°C (108°F), so we didn’t last long lingering in all the history.
TICKETS (entrance fee and cable car in both directions):
Adult | NIS 74
Child | NIS 42 (under 18)
Students | NIS 63
Sunday – Thursday and Saturday – 8 am – 5 pm
Fridays and the eve of holidays – 8 am – 4 pm
Sunday – Thursday and Saturday – 8 am – 4 pm
Fridays and the eve of holidays – 8 am – 3 pm
On the eve of holidays, 8 am – 1 pm
On the eve of Yom Kippur, 8 am – 12 noon (closed on Yom Kippur.)
NOTE : Last entry to park is one hour before closing time.
You can save money and make more of your experience by ascending or descending on foot via the Snake Trail up the mountain. This is very popular to see the sunrise over the Dead Sea. Note that in high heat, like we experienced in July, the Snake Trail was closed to climbing after 09:00, and for descending at 10:00. Check the website for up to date restrictions, if you want to hike it.
PAST MASADA TO EIN GEDI NATURE PRESERVE
Back in the car, we made our way north towards Ein Gedi. Here a nature preserve affords an oasis in the desert with hikes along a natural creek bed to waterfalls. In slightly cooler months, this sounds like something we would have loved to do. But on our trip, we settled for sightings of Nubian Ibex beside the road.
BEYOND EIN GEDI INTO WEST BANK PALESTINE
Once you pass Ein Gedi and continue north on Route 90 as it follows the Dead Sea back to Jerusalem, you are now in the area known as the West Bank. There are no signs, but you will encounter an inspection station where armed Israeli guards may stop you. No cars were being stopped heading our direction when we passed, but we did have to stop before entering Jerusalem. The road here affords good vantage points for spotting the giant sinkholes pockmarking the landscape, as well as the evident recession of the Dead Sea. And if you’re lucky? You might spot…CAMELS! Who doesn’t want to see camels?
GOOD THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT THE DEAD SEA
FACTS ABOUT THE DEAD SEA
- The land at the edge of the Dead Sea is -430 m below sea level (-1400 feet) making it the lowest place on earth.
- The Dead Sea is 304 meters (997 feet) deep.
- There are 135 km (84 miles) of Dead Sea shoreline.
- The Dead Sea is shrinking at a rate of 1 meter/year.
- The Dead Sea has 33.7 % salinity compared to 3.8 % in the Mediterranean and 3.4% in the Pacific Ocean.
- Life is unsustainable with those levels of salt, which is why it is called the Dead Sea.
- The Dead Sea is bordered by Israel, Palestinian West Bank and Jordan.
Average temperatures for Ein Bokek, Israel
NOTE: Average temperatures are just that, historical averages. When we visited in the middle of July it was 44° C (111° F) with water temperatures of 37° C (98.6° F). That is the same temperature inside your body. Any hotter and we would have technically had a fever. My son said it felt like were simultaneously being boiled and baked. It was hot. HOT.
DRIVING IN ISRAEL
We rented a car for our travels in Israel at the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. It is fairly easy to do and roads are simple to navigate. Signs for destinations are displayed in three languages – Hebrew, Arabic and English. Israeli drivers at rush hour are little less easy to navigate and staying in lanes apparently not that important here. Take care and stay aware. Some roads do require a toll, and can be paid by cash or card. As license plates are photographed at entrance and exit of these roads and can be invoiced later, check with your rental car agency about how to handle toll roads. Route 6 in Israel is a toll road.
OUR ISRAEL ROAD TRIP ROUTE
For those who need a visual of where in the world I’ve been talking about – here is our exact route. Our return route took us north to the impressive fortress at Masada National Park and by Ein Gedi Nature Preserve. We followed the Dead Sea to the top and then east past Jerusalem and back to Tel Aviv. Route 90 along the Dead Sea past Ein Gedi does take you through the Israeli occupied territory of the Palestinian West Bank. As I mentioned, there are checkpoints with armed Israeli guards, but we always felt safe. Unsettling? Perhaps. But never scary.
WHERE TO STAY
When visiting the Dead Sea in Israel, look for accommodations in the resort towns of Ein Bokek or Ein Gedi. Smaller hotels, apartment rentals and camping can be found in Neve Zohar. Beyond these outposts, there isn’t much out there. We liked Ein Bokek because it had several hotels to choose from and lots of restaurants. The Crown Plaza worked perfectly for us, although our family of five doesn’t fit into standard hotel rooms and we had to take two. For one night, it worked and we luckily had rooms next door to each other.
WHERE TO EAT IN EIN BOKEK
Within walking distance, we found a fun family run restaurant called Taj Mahal which served delicious Middle Eastern Cuisine in a large Bedouin-like tent. There is no A/C, but several large fans outside to keep the keep the area cooler.
SHOULD YOU SEE THE DEAD SEA
I have a confession to make. I almost didn’t do the Dead Sea. It’s true. I wanted to. We were planning on it. But having already spent 10 days around Israel in extremely hot and humid temperatures, I just didn’t think I could process the heat down in the Israeli desert known as the Negev. When researching what to see and do on our travels to Israel, seeing the Dead Sea was definitely at the top of our collective family wish list. But when the forecast called for 44°C/111°F (and then hit those numbers) I just didn’t think I could handle it. I’ve been conditioned by mild Scandinavian summers and just truly don’t enjoy those temperatures.
But my daughter persisted and my fear of missing out prevailed and we booked one night. I’m so grateful that we did as it was truly the highlight of our trip and our whole family’s favorite thing about Israel. One night was plenty and just about perfect.
Have you been? What did you think? Thinking of planning a trip? Pin these for later.