The Dead Sea, a non-coastal salt lake in southwestern Asia, sandwiched between Israel and Jordan with portions in the West Bank, goes by many monikers: Sea of Death, Salt Sea, and Sea of Lot. What makes this hyper-saline natural marvel so special is that it’s the absolute lowest body of water on the surface of the Earth, with the bottommost elevation on land. The Dead Sea, where the water is about 10 times saltier than ocean water, is unlike any other destination in the world. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know before visiting.
How the Dead Sea Was Formed
Millions of years ago, a saltwater lagoon was linked to the Mediterranean Sea. The faults of the African and Arabian tectonic plates shifted, the earth between the Dead Sea and Mediterranean rose, and the ocean’s water supply was cut off leaving the Dead Sea isolated. Freshwater springs and aquifers feed the sea (which, is actually a lake because it’s landlocked), but since there is no outflow, the water simply accumulates in the Dead Sea and then evaporates in the sunken hot desert, leaving salt behind.
What You Will See at the Sea
Let’s start with what you won’t see. No birds, fish, or plants can survive in the inhospitable cobalt-blue waters of the Dead Sea, which exists 1,412 feet below sea level.
At the water’s edge, crystalized sodium chloride makes the rocks and sand shimmer. It’s here, between the hills of Judea and the Jordan mountains, that people come to float and enjoy the mineral properties of the water. You’ll see bodies extended out on the surface of the water as if lounging on a pool floatation device. It’s nearly impossible to dive and, in fact, keeping your head out of the water is a good idea because the salt will most definitely irritate your eyes. If you have even the slightest of cuts, like a paper cut, you’ll feel the sting in the Dead Sea.
When floating, you’ll see reddish-brown sandstone mesas and the mountains of Jordan as they stretch in the distance across the glassy water.
You’ll notice a lack of water sports—there are no motorized vehicles, boats, or rolling waves. This adds to the moon-like ethereal landscape and, ultimately, makes for a peaceful and quiet atmosphere.
Consider the Weather
Since the weather is generally warm and sunny year round, any time is a great time to visit, but keep in mind that summer temperatures can soar to more than 110 degrees Fahrenheit and winter temperatures can drop to the high 60s F. The area enjoys an average of 330 sun-filled days per year. A lack of precipitation—less than 4 inches per year—and a dry desert environment create the ideal outdoor soaking environment. You'll dry off quickly when exiting the water.
If you visit during the summer, when temperatures are at their hottest, you’re likely to have the place more to yourself. Conversely, visiting in the winter will mean that you’ll be enjoying the Dead Sea along with others.
Experience a Spa Escape
A popular destination for locals and tourists, the Dead Sea is well known as a natural spa escape. It’s a common practice to cover your body in silky dark brown mineral-rich mud, lay out in the sun, and then wash the mud off in the oil-like dense water. Many of the hotels offer spa treatments utilizing the surrounding mud and salt and resort swimming pools are often filled with the salt water from the sea.
People with persistent skin ailments, like psoriasis and eczema, routinely visit the Dead Sea to heal. The bone-dry climate mixed with the oxygen-rich atmosphere and mineral-heavy water are said to have extraordinary restorative properties. The salt is harvested and shipped all over the world to be used in beauty treatments and products.
Know Before You Go
Much of the Jordan River has been diverted for human use, shrinking the sea’s borders at an alarming rate and increasing the salt deposits. The surface level is dropping at an average of 3 feet per year. Each year, the Dead Sea changes in measurable ways, including the presence of sink holes. If this is a destination you hope to experience, visit sooner rather than later.
Tips for Visiting
- Take photographs before entering the water as the saline can damage your camera and create a film over the lens.
- Be sure to wear a swimsuit that you don’t care about too much. The high salt content, as well as the mud, is likely to degrade your suit and create discoloration.
- Bring a towel along to dry your hands before touching your face—if salt gets into your eyes, it will burn.
- Any cuts or sensitive areas on your skin will sting in the water. If you do have a cut, be sure to wrap it with a waterproof bandage before entering. Along the same lines, do not shave right before entering as you’ll experience a burning sensation.
- Bring along water shoes because the salt deposits along the shore may be sharp.
- Do not jump or splash—this might be a difficult concept if you’re traveling with children—as you could cut your skin on salt shards and get water in your eyes.
- Be sure stay hydrated with fresh water since you'll be out in the hot sun.
- And, of course, the longer you float in the water the more your skin will dry out, so plan accordingly.
Other Things To Do
If on the Israel side, there are other things to do in the Dead Sea area that you should consider. Masada, a UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site, perched on a plateau overlooking the Dead Sea in the Judaean Desert, is a top natural attraction. Built by King Herod the Great to be used as a palace and then later occupied by Jewish patriots as a last stand against the Roman army, Masada is quite a site to study.
Visit the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve for hiking, wildlife viewing, botanic garden exploration, and a view of David Waterfall.
See Mount Sodom where pillars of limestone and clay-capped salt stand tall. One of these rugged columns is known as “Lot’s Wife,” a biblical figure who was turned into salt when she looked back at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. You can explore this mountain made of salt via jeep tour or by hiking.
In 1947, the first of seven ancient Hebrew scrolls, called The Dead Sea Scrolls, was found in the Judaean Desert’s Qumran Caves by a local Bedouin boy. These religious documents, now held at the Israel Museum’s The Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, hold historical and linguistic importance, so be sure to stop by the museum to see them if you plan to be in Jerusalem.
How to Get There
Flights from the United States to Israel land in Tel Aviv, a city worth exploring for its markets, beaches, dining, nightlife, and urban feel. From Tel Aviv, you can drive two hours and reach the Dead Sea. You can either rent a car and go on your own, book a tour with a reputable agency, or take a taxi.
You may also want to go from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and then on to the Dead Sea. Buses are also available from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea.
In Israel, visitors usually choose to stay in either Ein Bokek or Ein Gedi, where the major hotels and resorts are located. You can also opt to fly to Amman, Jordan’s capital city, and stay on the eastern shore, especially if you’re planning to visit Petra and Wadi Rum.