Taking a hike in the Holy Land on the Jesus Trail

Israel's Jesus Trail, which winds through valleys and over hilltops near the Sea of Galilee, hits several spots of biblical importance and provides a taste of life in modern-day Israel as well.

Evan Bryant
The Horns of Hattin, located roughly halfway between Nazareth and Capernaum on the Jesus Trail, has been identified as a possible site for Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, near Arbel, Israel. It was also the site of a decisive battle in which the Muslim warrior Saladin vanquished the Crusaders.

For Christian pilgrims in hiking boots, Israel’s 36-mile Jesus Trail offers glimpses of the kind of biblical scenery the master Christian may have seen as he made the rounds in verdant Galilee.

But that is not the sole purpose of the trail, say its founders, who designed it to thread through Arab villages, an Israeli eco-tourist goat farm, and an Orthodox kibbutz with kosher automated milking machines for their cows.

“When Jesus walked this land, I believe he also looked for interaction,” says Maoz Inon, a young Israeli entrepreneur. “He didn’t only care about the nature.”

The double attraction of grassy knolls studded with stunning views, as well as authentic interactions with the locals, has drawn enough hikers to buy all 4,000 copies of the photo-illustrated guidebook and map made by cofounder David Landis and his wife, Anna Dintaman. As the trail heads into its fourth season, Mr. Inon and Mr. Landis have unveiled a second edition of the guidebook, reflecting growing interest in their project, as well as perhaps a rise in evangelical interest in Israel – something the Ministry of Tourism is also trying to tap with a trail of its own.

A map in the pages of Deuteronomy

The Jesus Trail starts in Jesus’s hometown of Nazareth, a predominantly Arab town where church spires rise above the palm trees, and falafel stands offer nourishment to Arab locals and hungry travelers alike. Turning at the corner with the best baklava joint in town, head up the cobble-stoned street past the Church of the Annunciation into the maze of the Old City. With a little persistence, you’ll find the faded red door of Inon’s Fauzi Azar Inn, which serves as the trailhead.

Push open the little door – be sure to duck – and usher yourself into a cavernous Ottoman-era courtyard whose arches reach up to the night sky. Follow the hippie-style hostel sign upstairs and feel free to join in the family-style turkey dinner (put your tip in the tiny Tupperware container). Sit around the red-and-white checkered tablecloth and chat with Brits, Australians, and Germans who are touring Christian sites in Galilee.

You may also meet volunteer Linda Hallel, who came here to walk in Jesus’s footsteps four years ago, before Inon and Landis had implemented their plan. When she got disoriented, she opened her Bible.

“I’m one of those people who won’t take a map because I want to have an adventure,” says Ms. Hallel, who camped out alone as she wove her way through the Jewish and Arab villages that lie between Nazareth and Capernaum.

Soon Inon recruited her to guide hikers until they got the Jesus Trail blazes painted. Her favorite hiker was 84-years-old the first time he came from Texas to hike it. He’s been back every year since. She has also walked with people who have left the church, including a former pastor, but have come to Israel to try to rediscover their faith.

Walking in Jesus's footsteps

From the first urban miles of the route, the Jesus Trail heads to Cana, where Jesus’s ministry began. Just after a church that commemorates his turning of water into wine at a wedding, the trail hangs a right and heads uphill past colorful clotheslines and Arab children yelling “Ahlan!” – Hello!

Once up on the wooded ridge, the observant hiker will begin seeing cairns with an elaborate yellow mosaic in the shape of an old ship anchor. That’s a marker for the Gospel Trail, a Ministry of Tourism project launched a year ago as part of a new focus on faith-based tourism.

Both projects run from Nazareth to Capernaum and target Christians – who make up roughly 60 percent of annual tourism in Israel – aiming to leverage their considerable economic influence to boost the rural Galilee area.

The Gospel Trail was launched in November 2011, and was expected to bring an additional 200,000 pilgrims to the area and “attract new businesses and entrepreneurs” to serve the hikers. But the main route of the Gospel Trail favors natural areas over the more urban areas, where most of the Christian churches are based. That poses logistical problems for hikers and has drawn criticism.

“If you cannot experience the miracles like in Cana, it’s really pointless,” says Avi Yankelevitch, whose family runs the Yarok Az eco-lodge and organic goat farm in Ilaniya, which both trails pass through. His guests, who come from as far away as Elko, Nev.; Sweden; and India – some even dressing in ancient clothes and bringing donkeys to carry their luggage – sometimes show up after dark because the Gospel Trail has such a long stretch with no readily accessible accommodations.

But Uri Sharon, who promoted the Gospel Trail during his two years on the ministry’s religious tourism desk, says part of the rationale was offering a “modular” trail that could be adapted to the interests of both travelers from Catholic or Orthodox traditions, which share the same background as most of the churches, as well as the growing number of evangelical tourists, who are less drawn to incense-filled sanctuaries.

Expanding the religious experiences

“The idea is really to expand the kind of religious experiences that we can offer the pilgrim,” says Mr. Sharon. “What’s so nice about the Gospel Trail is that can be a strong spiritual experience for all Christian denominations … [enabling them] to find their own narrative, their own interpretation.”

From Ilaniya to Capernaum (Kfar Nahum), the trails follow nearly identical paths, going past Kibbutz Lavi, a collective farm run by religious Jews who have rabbi-approved automated milking machines so that they don’t break the rule of resting on the Sabbath. Just as the cow smell begins to fade, hikers approach the Horns of Hattin, where in 1187 Crusaders were defeated by the Muslim warrior Saladin, effectively ending the Second Crusades.

Then the trail dips down into the valleys, crisscrossing through Arab villages before climbing Mt. Arbel. The view from there is rivaled only by the sublimity of the food at Israel’s Kitchen, located at the base of the mountain, where crusty bread, lamb stews, and the local special – St. Peter’s fish – refuel hikers and motorists alike.

The last segment of the trail leads down the Arbel cliffs to Tabgha on the shores of the Galilee, where Jesus fed the multitudes with loaves and fishes. They may not have been as tasty as those from Israel’s Kitchen, but such miracles have proved profound enough to draw people back more than 2,000 years later.

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