With all the traveling I've done I've finally come to the conclusion that I don't necessarily like all the super-touristy destinations, mainly because they are SO CROWDED. But whenever you end up going to Jerusalem-area, you hear about hiking Masada and Ein Gedi, because it's both beautiful and a classic.
Located right next to the Dead Sea, Masada used to be (in the way olden days) a fortress of some kind. Now, overlooking the Dead Sea, it is considered a classic hike to do at sunrise. Ein Gedi, a nature preserve right near Masada and the Dead Sea, is also known for being pretty, green (a rarity in the desert), and filled with streams to cool off.
Because our day off during MEET was on Saturdays, we decided that we'd get some rest on Friday night, wake up at 3am (Sally's idea, not mine), drive an hour-ish to Masada, hike up (budget about 1.5 hours), see sunrise, and continue on to Ein Gedi or some other hike for a morning / afternoon adventure before it gets too hot and be back in time for a nap before dinner.
As it turns out, the sunrise is gorgeous and worth it. You can see the hills of Jordan on the other side of the Dead Sea, slowly becoming illuminated by the rising run. If we had left at 3am, we could have made it back to MEET before class started at 9am with time to spare. Instead, it was Saturday, so we sat at the top eating grapes and playing with the birds for a while after sunrise.
If you want to see all the pretty (artsy) pictures from our Masada hike, see them on my Flickr.
Afterwards, we tried to go find food, and ended up meeting a tour group of German-Russian elderly women who were visiting the area. They were eating at a relatively expensive restaurant in the middle of the desert, so we opted to eat cheap sandwiches at a nearby campground and take naps on their couches outside.
Afterwards, we went to the Ein Gedi reserve, right next to Masada and the Dead Sea. The entrance fee is a bit steep (30 shekels or so), but it's worth it. Ein Gedi is an oasis in the middle of the desert, with nice walking / hiking trails leading through canyons and small streams. Unfortunately, I have no pictures from this part of our trip since I didn't carry my heavy camera with me, but the walk itself was absolutely gorgeous. The contrast between desert and oasis is rather striking, with you walking in the heat and sun along a canyon, when you turn a corner to see a lush green patch of vegetation about 10 square meters. If you get lucky, you see ibexes (like goats) running through the patches of oasis.
We hiked to Wadi David ("David's Waterfall"), but decided that there were too many people and that we were fit enough to go even higher. We went all the way to the "higher trails" of Ein Gedi Spring and Dodim's Cave. The heat was incredible, and I was very tired so lagging a bit behind the group. Sally and Kyle went on ahead to Dodim's Cave and found a gorgeous spring we could sit in to cool off - the water was cool, and there was a small waterfall flowing onto us as we waded. We could see the valley below us if we got close enough to the edge of the spring - the perfect view to relax in.
Sufficiently cooled off, Sally, Alex, and Kyle decided that they would try for the upper trail of Ein Gedi, while Jamie and I (too tired from the heat and lack of sleep to feel comfortable hiking in the raw sun of the afternoon) would walk back down and meet the others with the car on the other side of the park. Unfortunately for Team Hikers, the upper trail was closed and they had to take an alternate route, but Jamie and I took our time retracing our steps and meandering over to the car.
When we got back to the hotel in Jerusalem, we were all a bit tan, a bit tired, and very happy with our collection of views from an adventure day well spent. Even though Masada / Ein Gedi is a tourist attraction, it's worth the visit.