Before I even start, I should probably tell you one teeny tiny very important thing. This is not a success story. This is a story of failure. Which is why I figured it would be a good article to write for any non-hikers like me who somehow find themselves on a bus at 3am barreling through the Israeli desert towards Masada and the Snake Path- aka the toughest hike I have tried (keyword here: tried) to do in my life. But, before I scare you away, don’t panic too much because it’s not all bad. After all, a Masada sunrise is involved and, as you’ll find out, that’s still a pretty beautiful thing to see.
So before I get to my failure, let’s take it back to the beginning. In November of 2018 my friend Taylor of Taylor’s Tracks and I were invited to explore Israel and Jordan with a local Israeli company called Abraham Tours who offer everything from city exploring to multi-day trips and adventure activities. Upon planning the trip, neither one of us had any huge requests. We asked to see the best of the area in the time we had and left itinerary planning up to the Abraham team. After all, they are the experts.
Which is how we found ourselves setting an alarm for the wee hours in the morning to board a bus that would take us to Masada: one of the most well-known places in Israel, to hike up the Snake Path in order to see the famous Masada Sunrise.
What and Where is Masada?
For those who don’t know, Masada is a mountain top fortress on the edge of the Judean Fortress, close to the Dead Sea. Masada was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001 and it is one of the most popular tourism spots in Israel, especially for sunrise.
Masada has plenty of history, though what is written by the Jewish Roman historian, Josephus (from whom almost all written information of Masada comes from) hasn’t always aligned with what has been found during archaeological excavations. One of the best-known stories told by Josephus is the mass suicide that took place at Masada. According to his story, the Jewish resistance at Masada set supplies and food ablaze and committed suicide rather than be taken prisoner by the attacking Roman forces. However, archaeologists have claimed that there is no sign that Masada’s defenders committed mass suicide. Either way, it’s an interesting story and a fascinating place that is steeped in history.
Today, Masada is visited by many local Israelis and tourists alike. There is a cable car to go up and down the hill, however, it doesn’t run until 8am. So those who want to be at Masada for sunrise need to hike up the Snake Path which winds its way 2km up the eastern side of the mountain, gaining 300m (980 feet) in elevation. There is also a second trail called the Roman Ramp which is steep, but shorter and has less of an elevation gain. The Roman Ramp is located on the west side of the mountain.
To visit Masada, you will need to pay for entry. Ticket price depends on how you choose to visit Masada. The most expensive option is to take the cable car while the cheapest option is to hike. Which is what we did.
Hiking Up the Snake Path at Masada
In case you didn’t figure out by the title. I am not an avid hiker. This doesn’t mean that I don’t hike at all- I do and have in places like Vietnam, Banff, some spots in Europe (like the 1300 crumbling steps to the fort in Kotor, Montenegro), as well as the Monastery Hike in Petra. But I’m not a hiking enthusiast and I’m definitely not the most in shape and fit person out there.
Before heading to Masada, I literally had no idea what to expect but as I paid for my ticket and glanced up at the black mountain in front of me- barely visible against the navy blue sky- I didn’t think it looked too bad. After all, it was a winding trail (makes sense since it’s called the snake path) up the hill. From the bottom, it didn’t look too steep and I eagerly made my way towards the trailhead, convinced that I’d make it to the top in time to see a spectacular sunrise over the hills, desert, and the Dead Sea.
At least I can say that I started positively.
While the first chunk, a gradually inclining rocky path, was ok, my thoughts quickly changed as the hill became steeper, the path gave way to stairs, and it also got a whole lot dustier. I kept pace with some of our group for a while before I started to drop behind. I wasn’t surprised that I did, I stopped a couple of times for breaks to catch my breath but I was ok. So I thought.
As I continued up the path it got more and more difficult for me. My legs started to burn and I was puffy trying to catch my breath. Then I started coughing, no doubt due to the dust, which then actually turned into wheezing.
Recognizing that my lungs were struggling as much as I was I reached into my backpack to grab my inhaler (I’m an asthmatic) when I realized I made a really, really, really bad mistake. I left my inhaler behind. I forgot to switch it from my purse into my day bag.
Worried, I forced myself to take a longer break, drink some water, then continued on. All too soon I needed another break and then another; my coughing was becoming more regular and my laboured breathing and wheezing was getting worse. I probably sounded like I was dying which was a) gross and b) meant I got some pretty worried looks from those who hiked past me as my breath rattled through my lungs.
Of course, at this time, it was already getting brighter. The sun was very close to breaking the horizon and I was only about three quarters up the mountain. Part of me wanted to push myself, after all I had come so far. The smarter part of me recognized that my wheezing breaths were pretty damn unhealthy sounding, I was out of water, and while I may only have a quarter of the way to go- it was a long and steep quarter. There was no way in hell I was ever going to make it to the top for sunrise.
So, I quit.
Yes, I quit. And, as much as I was angry at myself for quitting, in the end, I made the best choice for me. Both in terms of my health (I ended up having to take my inhaler every day for the remaining 1.5 weeks of the trip and going on an even stronger one when I got home to totally clear my lungs and get them back to normal) and in terms of getting to enjoy something: the sunrise. Even though I didn’t make it to the top, I was still pretty darn high up and got to enjoy a beautiful Masada sunrise.
I found a spot on the rocks to lean against with enough room for people to continue to pass by me and concentrated on slowing down my breathing, and enjoyed watching the rocky, dusty landscape in front of me light up in the warm light of the sun. Even though I wasn’t at the top, my view sure was pretty and watching the sunrise in Masada was a relaxing distraction for me as I tried to coax my heavy lungs back to life.
While it was technically a self-guided tour, we still had a schedule to follow so I didn’t even consider trying to continue onwards after I watched the sunrise. Partly because I didn’t think I was currently in the shape to do so and partly because I knew that those in my group who had made it to the top would be heading back down to make it on the bus in time.
Going down wasn’t easy either though. It was pretty slippery at places and sometimes the steeper steps were a bit rough on the knees. But I took my time and, amazingly, made it without falling- or hacking out a lung.
Tips for Hiking the Masada Snake Path from Someone Who Failed
Looking back, I think my failure amounted to a couple of different things. Firstly, as indicated, I’m not exactly fit or in shape but while that is enough to slow me down I don’t want to use it as an excuse for my failure, especially when I’ve completed and succeeded at doing other big hikes before.
Another obvious reason was my asthma acting up which I only have myself to blame for. I stupidly did not pack my medication when I knew I would probably need it. It comes with me for a reason. Forgetting it was pretty idiotic.
Another stupid thing: I didn’t have enough water. I had a 1-litre water bottle but when I’m hiking in the heat and dust, that’s not enough. I’ve already drank that much sitting on my couch at home writing this article. Thinking it would be enough for me for this hike was, once again, poor planning on my part.
Finally, I think a big part of it was the rush. Taking into consideration my fitness level and asthma, I am slower than most people, which I do recognize. Thinking that I could make it to the top for sunrise in the hour given when fitter, more athletic people normally take about 50 minutes to an hour to do the hike was pretty dumb. I think I pushed myself harder than I should have and maybe would have been successful if I slowed down and gave myself more time.
To be fair, I didn’t exactly have a say on the timing. This was a self-guided tour where the bus dropped everyone off at a certain time; an hour before sunrise. That being said, the ticketing booth also only opened an hour before sunrise for hikers. I guess the overall consensus is only fit, avid hikers, want to hike the Masada Snake Path sunrise. Which, for slower people like me, kind of sucks.
Do I Regret Not Making it to the Top?
Yes, and no. I’m still frustrated by the fact that I quit. I’m not a quitter. I’m known to be stubborn and determined. So, in some ways, I hate that I gave up. Though I do recognize that I absolutely made the right decision for how I was feeling at the time.
Not making it to the top also lead to a little bit of FOMO so I was glad to hear from Taylor, who did go all the way up, that I didn’t miss much. Yes, there were ruins but no, they weren’t very exciting. She let me look through her photos and I did feel a tiny bit better after seeing them; I’ve seen way cooler ruins in my travels.
While I did fail at hiking the Masada Snake trail, I did succeed at something else that most in our group missed. I actually watched the sunrise and it was beautiful. One of the conversations in the bus after was how most people had missed the actual sunrise because they were too busy and focused on trying to make it to the top. Being a sunrise tour, I think that’s a little disappointing so I’m glad that I at least had that experience.
Would I recommend the Masada Snake Trail Hike?
Well, maybe. If you are relatively fit or a regular hiker, then probably yes. If you’re not, I might suggest waiting until later in the morning and taking the cable car (Abraham tours has another, later Masada tour where this is an option). While it doesn’t start running early enough to get you to the top for sunrise, it does start early enough to beat the heat and get some nice lighting.