Nahal Shikma Ariel Sharon Scenic Route

Cyclists near Tel Nagila. Photo: Yaakov Shkolnik
Cyclists near Tel Nagila. Photo: Yaakov Shkolnik

The Nahal Shikma Scenic Route starts out among the slopes of the Judean Foothills and crosses the Coastal Plain on its way to the coast at Zikim.

  • How to get there

    Drive along the highway from Kiryat Gat to Kama Junction (Route no. 40) and turn westward at the post marking kilometer 215, and then follow the signs to Pura Nature Reserve. This turn can be made only when approaching from the north (i.e., from the direction of Kiryat Gat), and it will lead you into a large open space where the Nahal Shikma Trail has its starting point.

    Note: Even though substantial portions of it have already been surfaced, the western part of the trail, from Route no. 232, is negotiable at present only by four-wheel drive vehicles. We will keep readers informed of any future changes in the condition of the trail.

    The Nahal Shikma Scenic Route starts out among the slopes of the Judean Foothills and crosses the Coastal Plain on its way to the coast at Zikim. The trail has recently been newly signposted, and explanations have been added to help hikers find their way more easily – so this a good time to visit and get to know the sites scattered along its length.

    The Nahal Shikma (“Sycamore Stream”) Trail is a scenic route that starts out adjacent to the Pura Nature Reserve, turns westward and finishes up beside Kibbutz Carmiya, on the road that leads to Zikim. At some points along its 45 kilometers the trail draws away from the streambed slightly, while at others it sticks to it closely. The route bears the name of Israel’s eleventh prime minister Ariel Sharon (1928-2014).
  • Geographic location-

    Northern Negev
  • Area-

    south
  • Target audience-

    All
  • Track type-

    Driving
  • Difficulty-

    Easy
  • Season-

    All
  • Duration-

    3-5 hours
  • Features-

    Flowers, views and landscapes, picnic facilities, history and art, part of the Israel National Trail
  • Interest-

    Hiking and Walking Tracks

Before setting out we recommend that you call KKL-JNF’s Forest Hotline (Kav LaYaar) at 1-800-350-550 for any updates, such as closures due to extreme weather and any information that may be relevant to your route.

About Nahal Shikma

Nahal Shikma starts out on the edge of the desert, in the southern Judean Foothills near Kibbutz Lahav, and spills into the sea in the southern Coastal Plain, near Kibbutz Zikim. It is a seasonal stream that flows only during the rainy season, apart from short stretches near Tel Nagila and Tel Hasi that are fed by spring water, and it takes its name from the numerous sycamore trees that grow in its Coastal Plain section. Its main tributary, Nahal Adorayim, drains the slopes of the Hebron Hills.

Nahal Shikma passes through a wide variety of landscapes that include springs, archeological sites and different types of rock formations. Extensive areas along its banks are farmed, while others are home to nature reserves, planted forests and grazing land.

This streambed is especially important because it constitutes a continuous ecological corridor that forms the backbone of the open areas around it, which provide habitats for a wealth of plants and wildlife. This is a fascinating spot where the natural world and civilization of the desert fringes meet up with those of Israel’s Mediterranean region.

From the Pura Nature Reserve to Tel Nagila

This section of the route is suitable for all types of vehicle.
In the large parking lot adjacent to the Pura Nature Reserve, in the shade of the tall eucalyptus trees, is Avi’s Shmura 215 mobile canteen, where cyclists can receive a copy of the pamphlet put out by KKL-JNF about the cycling trails of the Shikma area.

Pura Nature Reserve lies on the far side of the eucalyptus trees, with a large explanatory sign standing at the entrance. This reserve is actually no more than a small low hill that constitutes an island of natural vegetation amid the surrounding farmland. In February the hill is clothed in anemones and speckled with a multitude of other flowering plants, and in later months, too, visitors can enjoy the sight of blooms characteristic of the desert fringes, such as the wonderful pink sun-rose (Helianthemum vesicarium) and strigose bugloss (Anchusa strigosa), whose flowers range in color from cream to deep blue, and whose stem can be as much as a meter in height. The exceptionally fortunate may be lucky enough to come across a specimen of the rare herbaceous periwinkle (Vinca herbacea), whose bright blue flowers have five petals each.

The nature reserve is crossed by a footpath that forms part of the Israel National Trail. After about 600 meters it meets up with the Nahal Shikma Trail, and offers a way back to our vehicles.

After driving westwards for about 900 meters we come to a dam that blocks the Nahal Pura stream, which is one of the tributaries of Nahal Shikma. After a winter of decent rainfall, an attractive pool accumulates behind the dam. About 100 meters beyond the dam is a small recreation area shaded by conifers.

A footpath about two kilometers in length, indicated both by green markings and by Israel Trail markings, leads to the Turkish Bridge over Nahal Pura, on the way to Tel Nagila. Part of the route leads through a planted forest. Walkers will need to return to their vehicles the way they came, but the Turkish Bridge and Tel Nagila are also accessible by car, as described below.

From Pura Reservoir we travel along the scenic route for about 1.3 kilometers before stopping to park. If we go down to Nahal Pura on our right we will see the remains of an old stone bridge built by the Ottoman Turks during the First World War as part of their railway route to Beersheba and Sinai. The railway line was built very quickly, but the Turks were forced to cease construction in the area of Qasaimeh after their great defeat in Sinai, which obliged them to withdraw their forces and redeploy them along the Gaza-Beersheba line.

After continuing along the Nahal Shikma Trail for another 1.1 kilometers we arrive at Be'er Nagila, an old well beside Nahal Shikma, below the embankment that still indicates the route of the Turkish railway. Be'er Nagila is not the well’s official name; it has acquired it because of its proximity to Tel Nagila. Towards the end of the Ottoman era, and to a greater extent during the time of the British Mandate, the authorities were in the habit of digging wells as a focal point for local Bedouin where, among other things, they could meet up with officials of the regime. Be'er Nagila, which was dug and constructed during the Mandatory period, was one such well, though it is possible that in this case the British merely deepened and improved a more ancient waterhole at the site. Recently the well has been covered with concrete and a grating.

About 200 meters from the well, in one of the groves KKL-JNF has planted along the streambed, is an additional recreation area, which, like others along the riverbank, consists only of seats constructed from thick eucalyptus logs, unaccompanied by tables. These attractive and original seats, which were designed by landscape architect Tal Lotem, lend the recreation areas a romantic aspect.

We leave the well and continue for another 1.2 kilometers until we arrive at Tel Nagila looming high above Nahal Shikma, which descends here to groundwater level, as we can observe from the abundant reeds growing in the streambed. This water slaked the thirst of those who lived at the site in ancient times. The tel is easily identified by a single tamarisk growing on its summit, and it provides a wonderful view of the surrounding area. Settlement at the tel reached its height during the Middle Canaanite Period (around 3,500 years ago). During Israel’s War of Independence the site became a command post and played a role in the defenses against the invading Egyptians.

From Tel Nagila to Route no. 232

From Tel Nagila we continue westwards and draw away slightly from Nahal Shikma in order to meet up with the gully of Nahal Sad, about 900 meters to the west of Tel Nagila. Among the brown loess hills the river has carved out a gleaming white canyon that descends to a depth of ten meters in some places. We follow the Israel Trail (white, orange and blue markings) for several hundred meters as it passes along the eastern bank of the river, before making our way back by the same route.

About a kilometer further on we come to a crossroads. The trail to the right (red markings) leads to Tel Hasi, which rears above the point at which Nahal Adorayim meets Nahal Shikma. This is the spot where, in 1890, Flinders Petrie laid the foundations of modern archeological excavation in the Land of Israel and the surrounding region by his painstaking examination of the tel and his careful dating of each of its layers with the help of pottery found at the site. This section of the route is planned for future inclusion in the Nahal Shikma Trail.

Now we find ourselves traveling among the curvy loess hills of Ruhama. Our next stop, right under a high-tension pole, is a vantage point that overlooks the beautiful landscape of the Ruhama Badlands Reserve. Badlands are areas between hills that are scored with innumerable channels as a result of soil erosion, like the landscape now before us.

Loess is a type of desert dust that has settled in this area after being transported by the wind. In some places the loess soil layer in the Ruhama area is over ten meters thick. Badlands are found in steppes and prairies characterized by soft rock whose permeability is low. Rainwater flows swiftly over such terrain, and, as natural vegetation in these regions is sparse, it cuts numerous channels through the soil.

Pale brown loess soils are suitable for farming. The average annual rainfall in this area is sufficient to permit the growing of wheat, but drought years are not infrequent: this is the boundary between sown land and the desert.

Further along our route we pass by two junctions. At the first we can turn towards Route no. 334 and meet up with it south of Ruhama (red trail markings). From the second junction we can also turn aside from the scenic route and make our way towards the KKL-JNF watchtower and the Jamma ruins (Khirbat al-Jamma), once the site of an Arab village built on the foundations of a Byzantine community. All that remains of the Byzantine era at Jamma today are the remains of buildings and of a monastery with a mosaic floor. This part of the trail has not been upgraded. In summer it is usually passable even in a private car, but we cannot promise that this will always be the case.

Our next stop is the Marshan ruins (Khirbat al-Marshan), about six kilometers from the turnoff to the Jamma ruins. This prominent hill is situated on the border between the Judean Foothills and the Negev Coastal Plain, between the Loess badlands and the calcareous chalk ranges and reddish hamra soil. Because of this, the hill provides an excellent view westward, and the recreation area at the site offers four eucalyptus-wood seats that invite the visitor to sit and enjoy the view.

The hillsides are studded with eucalyptus trees and the remains of huts. At the end of the 19th century fellahin began to lease areas of land from the Bedouin of the Western Negev in exchange for a portion of the harvest yielded by the rented plot. The Ottoman regime and, later, the British Mandatory authorities, encouraged settlement in the area. The fellahin settled on the remains of sites dating back to Byzantine times and built little villages there. They lived in huts made from clay bricks, like those whose remains can still be seen on the surrounding hills.

According to the Palestinian Exploration Fund (PEF) map published by the British in 1880, however, there was no settlement at the Marshan ruins at the time. The archeological survey reveals only the foundations of buildings at the site, together with a mosaic floor and cisterns from the Byzantine era.

From the Marshan ruins the scenic route runs along the left (southern) bank of Nahal Shikma as far as Route no. 232. Here we must heed the warning on the map signboard at the start of the route: “Please observe the law when crossing the road.” Indeed we shall.

From Route no. 232 to Route no. 34

From this point on the route is negotiable by four wheel drive vehicles. Although most of it is of good quality, there are obstacles here and there that currently prevent the passage of private cars.

The Nahal Shikma Trail crosses over to the right-hand bank of the Shikma Stream before reverting to the left bank. At this point a trail from the Ivim Recreational Area, which is near Sderot, arrives from the left. This trail offers another way to access the Shikma Scenic Route.

We turn right and drive between cultivated fields and small areas of forest planted by KKL-JNF. 1.3 kilometers from the turnoff to Ivim we come to the Or HaNer Recreation Area in a shady copse of trees. There are seven picnic tables.

Some 700 meters beyond the recreation area the Nahal Shikma Trail arrives at the access road to Kibbutz Or HaNer. Here we turn right on to the road, and after about 30 meters we turn left to continue along the scenic route. Our trail crosses the Nahal Brir stream and turns left. To our right, at the top of a low hill, are the ruins of the village of Simsim. Today the area forms part of the Gvaram Nature Reserve.

The trail turns left beside a large sycamore tree, one of the many in the area that give Nahal Shikma its name. We continue for almost three kilometers through farmland on one side and calcareous chalk hills on the other until we reach another recreation area equipped with eucalyptus-wood seats, which we shall refer to as the Calcareous Ridge Recreation Area. Shortly afterwards we come across a sign explaining how the calcareous rocks were formed.

The scenic route continues on its way among the fields and calcareous chalk hills for another 2.5 kilometers or so and passes under both the Route no. 34 bridge and the new railway bridge to Sderot.

From Route no. 34 to Route no. 4

After crossing Route no. 34 the trail leads us across a large plain covered in layers of silt deposited by the Shikma Stream. The entire valley is, of course, farmed. We pass by Kibbutz Erez and arrive at our next stop, Deir Suneid, which played an important strategic role in the First World War. At the time the Ottoman Turks were engaged in building a railway to their compounds in the Gaza sector. The line ran through Wadi Sarar (today’s Nahal Soreq), and descended to the village of Deir Suneid before reaching Beit Hanun. From Deir Suneid an additional line led to the Turkish base at Al-Huj (to the west of Kibbutz Dorot). When the British occupied Palestine, they made use of the Turkish railway, but diverted its route from Deir Suneid northwards towards Lod. About 100 meters north of our present position we can see the remains of the railway station, which functioned from 1920 onwards on the Kantara-Haifa line. A large British military training base was situated next to the station.

During the War of Independence Israeli units blew up the bridge across Nahal Shikma, and the railway station ceased to function. After the Six-Day War the bridge was rebuilt and Israeli freight trains crossed it on their way to Sinai. This activity came to an end in 1973.

The railway bridge that crosses the river here offers a good view of the surrounding area. Slightly further downstream, near Route no. 4, we can see the remains of a bridge from the Mamluk era (13th to 16th century CE).

We continue along the scenic route until it meets up with Route no. 4. Just before we reach the road, a dirt trail turns off northwards, and after about 1.5 kilometers it brings us to a memorial erected by the British on the common grave of 192 members of the Egyptian Labour Corps who died in the service of the British army while building the railway line.

From Route no. 4 to the Zikim road (Route no. 3411)

After crossing Route no. 4 the scenic route turns left immediately and runs parallel to Route no. 4 before making its way along the right-hand bank of Nahal Holot. Across the gully we can see the sand dunes beside Moshav Netiv HaAsara. KKL-JNF has surfaced significant sections of the trail as part of its security-road paving project in the Gaza Periphery.

Around 2.5 kilometers from Route no. 4, before the little bridge over Nahal Oved, a very short dirt road turns off to the left. About 300 meters further on we come to a spot where we can cross Nahal Shikma on foot and climb a magnificent dune. During the period of the British Mandate some of the dunes south of the stream were declared part of the Beit Lahya Forest Nature Reserve. They are planted with eucalyptus trees.

From the top of the tall dune there is an excellent view of the expanse of dunes that stretches all the way to Ashkelon. If we come here in February we can enjoy seeing the impressive flowering of the desert broom (Retama raetam), the bush that dominates the sand dunes. In February crown anemones (Anemone coronaria) and Palestine iris (Iris palaestina) bloom near the spot where we crossed the stream.

We continue along the scenic route for another 1.8 kilometers or so until we arrive at the parking lot of the Carmia Nature Reserve, which conserves the flora and fauna of the coastal sand dunes. Here we find thickets of winter thorn (Faidherbia albida) interspersed with the remains of abandoned orchards, irrigation channels and scattered ruins – all evidence of the area’s agricultural past. Inside the nature reserve we find numerous plant species characteristic of the sand dune habitat, together with other varieties unique to the Israeli coastal dunes, such as Tel-Aviv garlic (Allium tel-avivense), Ballota philistaea (a type of horehound), Palestine lupin (Lupinus palaestinus), Echinops philistaeus (a type of globe thistle), desert campion (Silene villosa) and Jaffa groundsel (Senecio joppensis).

Before us lie almost four more kilometers of traveling before we meet up with the Zikim road (Route no. 3411). En route we pass by the Shikma Reservoir, which we cannot visit for safety reasons. It is worth mentioning however, because it is a pioneer of its kind, as it was Israel’s first valley reservoir (i.e., a reservoir created by damming a riverbed or stream). This reservoir stores the floodwater that surges down Nahal Shikma, for later injection into the Zikim dunes to boost the coastal aquifer. Nahal Shikma drains an area of some 750 square kilometers, and during flooding vast quantities of water flow through it. Despite the pumping, in wintertime enough water remains at the bottom of the reservoir to attract waterfowl such as mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos), Eurasian coots (Fulica atra) and various species of heron and kingfisher.

Our excursion ends on Route no. 3411. If we don’t feel like going home yet we can turn left and hang out on Zikim beach for a while.