When we found out we were coming to Israel, floating in the Dead Sea was near the top of our “must-do” list. Looking at the Google map of Israel, it looked like we would have to drive south from Jerusalem around the West Bank, then head east to Ein Gedi and Masada in order to visit the Dead Sea. While doing my final research on our second Jerusalem weekend, I discovered that the main highways in Jerusalem that continue through the West Bank are actually under the jurisdiction and maintenance of the State of Israel, and so are not officially part of the West Bank. Typically, rental cars from Israel are not allowed into the West Bank, but since the main highways are still a part of Israel, we were able to cut across the West Bank, heading east from Jerusalem to visit Kalia Beach, one of the closest beaches to Jerusalem.
It is amazing how immediately the landscape changes when leaving Jerusalem. On the west side of the Mount of Olives, Mt. Scopus, and the other mountains to the east of Jerusalem, there are many trees and flowers. Once we drove over those mountains and headed down to the lowest point on earth, the landscape changed to bare mountains and rocks. As we drove, markers along the side of the highway let us know we were heading down- first to sea level, and then all the way down to 300m below sea level!
This arid desert is part of the West Bank, and may have been where Jesus went in the wilderness to fast for 40 days before beginning his ministry. I can imagine, now, that would have been hard to find food and water in this area, even if He wanted to! Jericho is just north of highway 1, and the Jordanian border is right in the center of the lake. We could see the country of Jordan from the beach!
We took Highway 1 east to Highway 90, and headed south following the shore of the lake. The turn-off for Kalia beach was fairly well-marked. What I read online was fairly true- there were more local Palestinians and tourists that drove over from Jerusalem vs. tour buses and huge crowds. I appreciated that! After paying the reasonable entry fee, we changed into swimming attire and headed down to the beach. Since the Dead Sea has been shrinking in recent years, the trek down to the beach was a little long, but not too bad. Up by the ticket booth were snack shops and, of course, cosmetics shops selling the famous Dead Sea mud and minerals. I could tell many visitors to the beach just came for a nice day out with their families, and there were BBQ supplies for those wanting to stay awhile.
The Dead Sea is 35% salt, which makes it one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world. It is so salty that nothing can live in it, hence the name “Dead Sea.” The water and mud are full of minerals and are supposed to be wonderful for the skin. Intact skin, that is.
Unfortunately for our rambunctious boys, who almost always have little scrapes, that meant that getting into the water hurt. Badly. Landon had a fine enough time playing in the mud without actually floating in the sea. Owen, on the other hand, did not have a fun time at all. A few days earlier, Landon had accidentally cut Owen’s fingertip with scissors, and so he had a big open slice on one of his fingers. Being only 17 months old, he refused to keep a band-aid on his finger. He usually bit off the band-aids and then cry when taking the band-aid off disturbed the wound. Never fear! I came prepared with waterproof band-aids to keep his finger safe and allow him to enjoy the beach. He would not keep them on, though, and was so miffed that we would not let him touch the mud with that hand, and then when we let our guard down a little and he barely touched the mud, he would yowl and scream bloody murder until we rinsed off his finger in the fresh water shower. Between Austin and I, we took many trips to the shower during our short visit to the lake.
For the health and safety of all, there were many rules for swimming in the sea. No splashing, no swimming on your stomach, stay within the designated swimming area and no putting your face in. Landon prefers to put his face in and swim around, and does not like floating on his back. Couple those preferences with the cut that he had, and he preferred to just dig around in the mud near the shore. There were a few other English speaking kids playing in the mud too, so they had fun together. I had read that we should wear water shoes because of sharp salt crystals, but Austin got completely stuck in the mud with his Keens on, so we decided to risk the salt crystals to save our shoes. The one downside to Kalia beach was that there was not a great entry/exit point. Getting into the water involved half sliding down a muddy embankment, and getting out was even harder!
Floating in the Dead Sea was completely surreal. As a former competitive swimmer, I’m used to the buoyancy that normal water provides, and this was much different. The reason there is a rule about not turning onto your stomach is that people who are not strong swimmers have drowned because your bottom floats more than the rest of you and it can force your head underwater. I tried it a few times and it was a weird feeling! On my back, I was able to lift all four limbs WAY out of the water. The water had a very soft, slippery feeling as well, from all the minerals and mud. Austin commented that he could have floated there all day. Maybe next time, without a toddler with a finger wound! Trip Advisor reviews complained that the water was dirty, but it is clearly just from the black mud getting kicked up by all the swimmers, so that did not bother me.
Of course, while we were there we had to coat ourselves with Dead Sea mud. The packaged stuff is really expensive, and this was basically a free spa treatment. Landon loved the excuse to get completely dirty, but the fresh water showers beach side had more than enough water pressure to get all the mud and minerals off. There are paid shower rooms and free toilets near the entrance, and free changing huts at the top of the hill heading down to the beach. It was not too hot when we visited, but I can imagine with the dry, desert climate and heat it could get toasty in the summer. Make sure to pack sunscreen, water and sun protection. There is no point in attempting to bring a stroller down to the beach area. It’s really messy and muddy, and there are beach chairs for resting and umbrellas for shade. We stopped at the shops just inside the entrance for some ice cream and mud products. Austin bought some dates from the local kibbutz. He said they were not as good as other dates he had in Israel. So heads up on the sub-par dates!
The Dead Sea is an awesome natural wonder! We are so glad we visited, even with cranky kids. For those not wanting to drive over from Jerusalem, or without a car, there are so many day-trip tour options to the Dead Sea and Masada. I would definitely include it in any length itinerary in the Holy Land!