The Dead Sea is almost 1400 feet below sea level, the lowest place on earth. There is no outlet for the water, which flows into the Dead Sea, technically a lake, from the Sea of Galilee (also technically a lake) via the Jordan River. Water leaves the Dead Sea only by evaporation, leaving minerals behind in high concentration. Because of the extremely low elevation, the barometric pressure is higher than anywhere else on earth, there’s a greater concentration of oxygen in the air, greater filtration of ultraviolet sun rays, and the air is practically free of pollen and other allergens.
The Dead Sea has been known for its healing properties for thousands of years, and even today, the unique climactic and mineral properties are used in therapies for conditions such as psoriasis, arthritis and cystic fibrosis.
In the 1950s, Israel built a pipeline to divert water from the Sea of Galilee to the Negev Desert, over 80 miles to the south. They also built a dam to control the outflow of water from the Sea of Galilee. For several decades now, very little water has flowed in the southern section of the Jordan River, from the Sea of Galilee into the Dead Sea and over this time it has receded dramatically. In an effort to save the Dead Sea, plans are in the works to pipe in water from the Red Sea, although that comes with its own set of environmental concerns.
Israel began developing a resort area along the southern shore of the lake in the 1960s. That part of the lake has always been far shallower than the northern part and the effects of receding are very apparent. Hotels that once overlooked the water are now almost a mile away.
Despite less convenient access to the water from some of the hotels, the unique quality of the water, mud and atmosphere remain as worthy reasons for a visit. The Dead Sea is only an hour-drive from Jerusalem, making an easy day trip. Better yet, spend a couple of nights there. It’s perfectly located as a base for visiting sites like Masada, Qumran and Ein Gedi.
In Jordan, the Dead Sea resorts are on the north end of the lake, which is much deeper than the south, so the receding isn’t detectable by the casual observer. Amman is about an hour-drive from Jordan’s Dead Sea hotels, so a day trip is quite possible. Ideally though, spend a night or two, at least. In between mud baths and floating in the silky water, you can visit sites nearby – Mt. Nebo, Madaba, Bethany Beyond the Jordan and Lot’s Cave.
The major Dead Sea hotels in Israel and Jordan all have excellent spa facilities, if you prefer to have mud applied to your body by professional hands.
Now I want to plug my favorite thing about the Dead Sea. Everyone talks about floating on the water and playing in the mud, which is very fun and feels great, for sure, but the quality of the air adds a whole other dimension to the Dead Sea experience. It’s intoxicating, maybe literally. The extra oxygen, plus relatively high levels of bromine and magnesium, induce a state of serene clarity, in my experience. Spend as much time there as possible and enjoy the atmosphere, there’s nothing like it anywhere else on earth and it will energize you for the rest of your trip.
For information about crossing between Israel and Jordan, see this post.