We spent a week hiking in the Rhodope Mountains in southern Bulgaria. The longer walks in particular, through pristine forests on trails that see very few hikers, were exceptional.
Day 1 – Sredoc to Canyon of Waterfalls return: From Plovdiv we were driven first to our hotel at Mountain Lake to drop off luggage and check in, and then on to the trailhead.
The Canyon of Waterfalls trail is an easy hike on a well formed path starting outside the farm community of Sredoc and heading up the Elenska River. The trail first follows the river up-stream.
It becomes steeper and more slippery as it ascends but there are bridges where it crosses back and forth across the river, and around the top of a series of waterfalls.
The trail ends at a ‘peak’ and although it’s not the highest point in the area, the views are very fine indeed.
About half way back down it began to rain, so we’d been lucky to catch the views before the weather closed in. It was chilly too, but our hotel at Mountain Lake had a nice sauna and steam room in which to luxuriate.
This is a popular day walk because you can drive to the start, the trail is well marked and there are picnic spots along the way. An easy introduction to walking here.
Total walk distance: 7.5km
Day 2: Shroka Laka – Gela – Lednitsata Cave – Shroka Laka: The village of Shroka Laka sits in a high valley surrounded by densely forested mountains. Our day’s walk started here and we climbed up and up. Here’s the view looking back to the village once we reached the first ridge.
We continued on up through the pine forest and fields which have given over to wildflowers.
The day was warm and the sun was bright. The trail disappeared in the greenery.
But Guru Maps is a wonderful tool and eventually the trail became discernible again.
We saw a deer and the three of us stood watching each other for a while, until Julie tentatively reached for her camera and the deer took off, leaving us with only a blurry shot of its rapidly disappearing behind.
As we descended back to meet the road, we saw a water trough. Over the course of the walk we saw many of these. Even in the most remote places, you find them, usually complete with a cup signifying they are for humans, not stock.
And then the last three kilometres were on the road completing our circuit back into Shroka Laka.
Total walk distance: 24km.
Day 3: Yagodina to Eagle’s Eye circuit: Today’s walk was an ascent and descent of Saint Iliya Peak, beginning in the village of Yagodina, or in our case, a little hotel in the countryside looking toward Yagodina.
From the hotel we walked to the village, and picked up the trail which climbs up through open fields for a kilometre or so. The fields were colourful with some pretty wildflowers.
The trail entered dense forest and we climbed even more steeply on a rocky path. Humidity was approaching 100%, or at least that’s how it felt. It was all worth it when we cleared the tree line – stupendous views over the Rhodope Mountains as far as the border with Greece.
And after a further vicious climb – you know, that last bit, after you think you’ve reached the top and it turns out to be a false peak – we reached the true peak and from there we descended a little to a viewing platform erected by a local hiking group. The Eagle’s Eye platform gets quite a few visitors as there’s a rough 4WD track which comes in from the back of the mountain to a radio tower a short walk away. That seems like cheating, but hey, everyone should see this view!
From the platform you can see straight down into the Buynovo Gorge, the second longest gorge in Bulgaria. Definitely not for anyone with a fear of heights.
From the lookout we could see our hotel in the valley almost directly below, and next to the lookout we could see the start of a path heading down. Guru Maps showed this track zigzagging down to a spot which we guessed would be quite near our hotel. Rather than backtrack the way we came, we decided to head straight down.
It was a good call. A well formed, straight forward track took us right to the hotel car park – from whence we scuttled inside just before the heavens opened. It absolutely poured down and thunder echoed around the valleys for hours, but we were warm and dry.
Total walk distance: 8km.
Day 4: Yagodina to Trigrad: This was a stunning walk. The rain cleared overnight and in the early morning, mists rose out of the valleys all around.
As the day warmed up, the mists burned off and we set off through the valley.
Again, there were more wildflowers.
The open country became forested and then turned more rocky as we climbed.
When we finally reached the top, the view down into Trigrad Gorge was amazing. It is the third longest gorge in Bulgaria, with cliffs that rise to a height of 350 metres and in places it is less than a hundred metres wide.
And then we climbed down to the bottom. Here is the same view, looking up. That ridge in the background is the one from which we took the previous picture.
We reached the road at the outskirts of Trigrad, but headed away from the village first on a detour to visit the Devil’s Throat Cave. Even though it meant walking along the road, it was absolutely stunning.
After about 2km, we reached the entrance to the Devil’s Throat Cave, so named because it is said to resemble a devil’s head. A river flows into the cave and over a 42 metre waterfall, the highest underground waterfall in the Balkans, then runs through a cavern for about 110 metres before disappearing further underground.
The sound of the rushing waster echoes along the length of the cave, giving it the name ‘the Rumbling Hall’.
Where all the water goes, no-one is sure. All attempts to trace the water by throwing objects in, dye-ing the water etc have failed. In 1970, an expedition was undertaken with two experienced cave divers entering the system, but they never returned and their bodies were never recovered. Their tragic deaths led to a stop on any further attempts.
Visitors can enter the cave system from a place near to where the water disappears and follow the Hall to the waterfall at the other end, then climb a zillion ladders and steps to exit at the cave entrance. There’s actually not a lot to see down there. There are no stalactites, stalagmites or interesting rock formations – just a long, muddy, dark cave – so here’s a photo of the river as it enters the cave system.
After visiting the cave we walked back up the gorge and through very sleepy Trigrad to our hotel on the other side of the village.
Total walk distance: 18.5km.
Day 5: Arkan Han to Chaira Laka return: This was another stunning walk. From the Arkan Han Hotel outside Trigrad we set off through the fields.
We entered the forest and began to ascend to Trigrad Cliffs.
The track narrowed to little more than a dirt path through dense pines and we tried to remember the advice in our walking notes about what to do if confronted by a bear. All we remembered was ‘don’t try to climb a tree’. We weren’t sure if this is because (a) it’s futile – bears are good climbers, or (b) it’s futile – bears are patient and sooner or later you have to come down.
The path levelled off across the top of the cliffs, then began to descend and intersected with a forestry road which we followed down. The road passed through what was described as a natural arch. Nature looked to have had a bit of assistance, we thought.
Alas, at the bottom, a watercourse crosses the road and with recent rain, was well above the road level. We were only about a kilometre from the lakes, and we could have sloshed across, but this is an out-and-back walk and we didn’t relish walking another 13km in wet boots (yes, total wusses, we know).
So we perched on the edge of the water and ate our lunch, then turned around to head back. Up through the forest, we saw no bears but once back in the open country, we kept encountering clouds of butterflies.
We did not see a single person all day, until we reached the edge of Trigrad village and met this charming local gent. Conversation was limited, due to our lack of Bulgarian, but he seemed a happy fellow.
Total walk distance: 23km.
Day 6: Arkan Han to Vodni Pad return: We were being picked up to return to Plovdiv at 1pm so we only had time for a short walk. It turned out to be a lovely one.
The weather was brilliant and as we crossed the river at the beginning of the walk, some locals were fly fishing. There are trout in the rivers here and it’s regarded as very good eating.
It was an easy, gentle stroll following a dirt road and small creek through the ridiculously green countryside.
We reached the village of Vodni Pad, close to the border with Greece. There didn’t seem to be anyone there, but it did look like quite a lot of work was being done to spruce up the village houses.
Then back to Arkan Han for our return to Plovdiv.
Total walk distance: 9km.
Wrap up: We really, really enjoyed this walk. The pristine forests of the Rhodope Mountains were totally captivating. Despite being high season, we only saw other people on the paths which are accessible by motor vehicle (Canyon of Waterfalls and at the Eagle’s Eye lookout) and one group near Yagodina. We would absolutely recommend hiking here. It’s a little-known gem.