Everybody who likes wild adventures, usually looks into some wild place, far from the civilization, to a natural area as less as possible touched by humans. And while there are many mountain areas on the Earth now turned into parks, adventurers would prefer something different. So, let’s look into a mountain system in Southeast Europe, a place with endless forests, summits, deep valleys and gorges, and some scattered settlements with a unique culture. This is the Rhodope Mountains, a paradise where you can not only hike or bike, but also can experience what is to be “in the middle of nowhere”.
Basic facts about the Rhodope Mountains
The Rhodope Mountains is a mountain sub-system, a part of the larger Rila-Rhodope system, which is the highest mountain area in the Balkan Peninsula. Its main ridge is between Maritsa (Evros) River and the Aegean Sea, and it branches into a complicated network of many sub-ridges. The highest point of Rhodope is Mt. Golyam Perelik (2191 m). As you can see, it is not the highest mountain in the region, and not the height is what makes this area attractive and challenging, but there is something else- the terrain, covered by some of the wildest forests in Europe.
So, let’s look at the terrain of the Rhodope Mountains. It is a labyrinth of valleys and ridges. Usually, the ridges are rounded, with wide summits, but the valleys are steep. In other words- the deeper the valleys are, the steeper their slopes are.
And all this is covered mainly by forests and some meadows. The forests below 1000 m altitude are deciduous, but above this height they are coniferous. Between 1000 and 1400 m the coniferous forests consist mainly of pines, and above 1400 m firs and spruces dominate. As a result, the higher parts of the Rhodope Mountains are covered by the southernmost taiga (boreal) forests in Europe.
Structure of the mountain system
Let’s open the map of the Rhodope Mountains (by Google Earth or better by a topo map like THIS). You can see the borders of the mountain system- on the north and east, this is Maritsa (Evros) River and the Upper Thracian Plain around it. On the west-southwest, it is Mesta (Nestos) River, and on the south- the Aegean Sea. More than two-thirds of the Rhodope is located in Bulgaria (where it is called “Rodopi”), and the rest (called “Rhodopes”) is in Greece.
The Rhodope’s main ridge starts from Rila Mountain in the northwest, runs southeastward until it reaches the border between Bulgaria and Greece. Then it proceeds on the border, finally turns right into Greece, and descends near the mouth of Evros River. The whole mountain system is divided into Western Rhodope, Middle Rhodope, and Eastern Rhodope. You can see Vacha (Въча) River, which divides Western from Middle Rhodope, then you can see the area of Kardzhali City, which divides Middle from Eastern Rhodope. Finally, you can notice that the Western and Middle Rhodope are higher than the Eastern, which is divided by the Arda River.
The western part of Rhodope is divided into several subranges- Alabak, Veliytsa-Videnitsa, Batashka Planina (Batak Mountain), and Dabrash. Alabak (Алабак) is separated from the main ridge of the Rhodope, but its features make it a part of it, rather than a part of Rila. Veliytsa-Videnitsa (Велийшко-Виденишки дял) is the basic range, the „backbone” of the Western Rhodope. It is a significant part of the main Rhodope ridge, but its boundaries are a bit unclear. Its most significant sub-branch is Devin Mountain (Девинска планина).
Dabrash (Дъбраш) is a large left branch of Veliytsa-Videnitsa, reaching 1937 m at Mt. Beslet. And Batashka Planina (Баташка планина) is the highest part of the Western Rhodope, with the highest peak Mt. Golyama Syutkya (2186 m), and several lesser sub-branches, of which the largest one is Karkaria (Каркария).
In general, most of the Western Rhodope is relatively flattened. Yes, there are several deep gorges, like Chepinska River, Vacha river, and Dospat river in its lower section, but the rest consists of rolling soft ridges. Most of the Western Rhodope is covered by boreal taiga forest, consisting of fir, spruce, and pine. There are also large flat areas with meadows.
The main „backbone” of the Middle Rhodope is Perelik-Prespa Mountain (Переликско-Преспански дял), where the highest point of the mountain system Golyam Perelik is located. It is segmented in several sections- Chamlia (Чамлия), Mursalitsa (Мурсалица), Bukova Planina (Букова планина), Prespa (Преспа), and Novakovski Balkan (Новаковски балкан).
However, the main ridge of Rhodope Mountains proceeds on the Greek-Bulgarian border by another „backbone”- Arda Range (Ардински дял), which have a large subrange, called Yellow Range (Жълти дял). On the north, another significant ridge proceeds to the Upper Thracian Plain- this is Chernatitsa (Чернатица), with Mt. Golyam Persenk (2091 m) as its highest point. Then, there are many smaller ridges on the left and the right of the main ridge. Of them, the most significant one is Dobrostan (Добростан).
In contrast to the Western Rhodope, this part of the mountain is more rugged, with more deep gorges and canyons, as well as more karst areas, as the most spectacular place is Trigrad. Again, the higher parts of the Middle Rhodope is covered by boreal taiga forest, while the lower parts- by deciduous forests with some subtropical mix in Greece.
In general, the Eastern Rhodope is the much lower part of the mountain system. It is divided in the middle into two main ridges by Arda River. The northern one consists of Chukata (Чуката) and Gorata (Гората) ranges. And the southern one- of Gyumyurdzhinski Snezhnik (Гюмюрджински Снежник), Maglenik (Мъгленик) and Peperuda (Пеперуда) in Greece.
Due to its lower average altitude, there are almost no coniferous forests, but the Eastern Rhodope is covered mainly by deciduous forests with some subtropical elements, and pastures. There are a lot of wild valleys, some small gorges, and some plains. Finally, the mountain ridges gradually turn into low hills and disappear in the Maritsa (Evros) River Plain.
All these features suppose a lot of hiking and biking opportunities. And yes, exploring the stunning nature of the Rhodope Mountains is a great experience. But there is more- this part of the Balkan Peninsula has a mysterious history, and today- unique culture.
History and culture of Rhodope
The region of Rhodope Mountains has been inhabited since ancient times. The oldest known people who have lived in the mountains were Thracians (but there are traces of unknown people who were there before Thracians too). They left a lot of remains in the mountains, especially in the Eastern Rhodope. Of them, the most significant archaeological sites are Perperikon and Gluhite Kamani (Deaf Stones).
Then, Greeks and Romans have been here, and even today you can see Roman roads crossing the mountains. In Medieval times the Rhodope was inhabited by Slavic and Bulgar people, and later the region was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, who forced the locals to convert from Orthodox Christianity into Islam. As a result, there are a lot of Muslim Bulgarians, called Pomaks, as well as local Turks, mainly in the Eastern Rhodope.
The Rhodope today
Today, there are several larger cities- Velingrad in the Western Rhodope, Smolyan in the Middle Rhodope, and Kardzhali in the Eastern Rhodope. Then, there are some scattered smaller towns, villages, and smaller settlements, mainly in the East. Some of them, such as Shiroka Laka and several others present unique local architectural style. At the same time, many villages are abandoned today, and nature gradually conquers their remains.
But in general, the whole mountain system is very sparsely populated. There are large areas with no settlements, especially in the Western Rhodope, where you can walk for days without meeting a single human being.
So, this is how the Rhodope Mountains look like. It’s time to explore this beautiful mountain land. You can do it by bus, or by car, and you can visit most of the towns, villages and some small mountain resorts there. But to feel and taste the nature and the whole environment, you would want to do it by hiking, or by bicycle.
Hiking and biking trails
First, when I say “trails”, I don’t mean specially arranged paths or alleys, with signs, relax stations or other facilities like in the park. No, everything in Rhodope is wild! And the trails are just ideas of routes that connect the most interesting points in the mountain system, passing through the most beautiful areas between these points.
Almost all the trails in Rhodope are proper for hiking and biking (only in some sections you have to bring your bike in hands for a while). So, let’s open the map again.
The main northern ridge trail
Biking: 7 days
Hiking: 15-20 days
This trail is a part of a longer route coming from Rila Mountain. Its Rhodope part starts from Yundola (Юндола), a nice mountain resort in the pass between the Rila and the Rhodope range of Alabak. It goes on the road between Velingrad and Bansko, and at Avramovo (Аврамово) pass it enters the large labyrinth of Rhodope Mountains.
Through the Western Rhodope
First, the trail crosses Veliytsa subrange, through coniferous forests, meadows and small villages, inhabited mainly by Muslim Pomaks. You can meet them and see their way of life. Then it crosses Chepinska River at Karatepe (a small settlement) and proceeds in a higher area where Veliytsa-Videnitsa and Batashka Planina ranges join.
From this point, the trail enters a wild and uninhabited place (at least with not constant settlements). This is Beglika (Беглика), a fairy-tale deep forests, meadows, curving streams and several dam lakes. On the way, you can stop (and sleep) in Chatama (Чатъма) and meet the people from Bikearea- adventurous explorers who organize exciting tours and camps, not only in Rhodope but in many other wild parts on the Earth.
Then, the trail crosses Videnitsa and reaches a different part of the Rhodope- Trigrad (Триград) area. Suddenly it „sinks” in deep canyons with caves and underground rivers- Trigrad, Yagodina, and Buinovo. It passes by more meadows and small lakes, called Chairi, then another village with local mountain culture, and enters the highest part of Rhodope- Perelik (Перелик).
Through the Middle Rhodope
The summit of Perelik is too high for forests, so it is mainly covered by grassland and coniferous bush. The trail passes by the largest mountain resort in the area- Pamporovo (Пампорово), and Rozhen (Рожен) Pass. From here, it proceeds on Prespa (Преспа) subrange, turns northeastward and starts gradually descending.
Through the Eastern Rhodope
The trail leaves the boreal coniferous taiga and reaches lower places in the Eastern Rhodope. Now the landscape is different- rolling hills with deciduous forests and pastures, and more villages with mainly Muslim population. Here are the ranges of Chukata (Чуката) and Gorata (Гората), and here you can see some of the most important ancient sites in Bulgaria- Perperikon (Перперикон), Gluhite Kamani (Глухите камъни), and finally- Mezek (Мезек)- the last point of the trail.
This main trail is the best way to taste „from everything a bit” of Rhodope Mountains. All other trails that I mention here, are shorter and in general join or leave from the main trail.
Biking: 2 days
Hiking: 4-5 days
This is a shorter trail, starting again from Yundola. Its first part is the same as the main Rhodope trail, through the Veliytsa sub-range, but from Medeni Polyani village it leaves the main route and proceeds southward. Soon after this village, it enters Dabrash (Дъбраш) Range and follows its ridge.
The higher parts of Dabrash are covered by wild boreal taiga forest, and the highest peak of Dabrash is Beslet (Беслет)- 1926 m. And the lower parts are softer, with many small villages on their slopes and pastures. Some of the villages like Pletena and Kovachevitsa are very picturesque and really worth to visit. Finally, the trail reaches the southernmost villages of Dabrash, near the border with Greece- Slashten, Tuhovishta, and Godeshevo. And if Bulgaria enters the Schengen zone, you can proceed into Greece without any problem to the villages of Delta and Potamoi.
Batashka Planina trail
Biking: 2 days
Hiking: 4-5 days
This is a very beautiful trail, following the ridge of Batashka Planina. It starts from Krichim, a nice town in the entrance of Vacha River gorge, and starts ascending quickly through deep deciduous forests. The trail passes through the picturesque Zhrebichko (Жребичко) village and proceeds to ascend further. Gradually, the forests change into pines, and the trail enters the area of Ravnogor (Равногор)– a unique place, covered by large grasslands and the beautiful Ravnogor village. Here you can enjoy stunning views to Vacha River gorge from above, as well as the spacious panorama to the village, and the grasslands around it.
Then, the trail enters the higher part of Batashka Planina and its boreal taiga forests. It crosses Kurtludzha Pass and reaches Mt. Batashki Snezhnik (Баташки Снежник)- 2082 m. What follows next is a wide summit with a sequence of high peaks, covered by forests and meadows. Here you can proceed following the main ridge and reach the highest peak Golyama Syutkya, or proceed south of it, into the wildest forests of the Rhodope, to the dam lakes of Beglika and Shiroka Polyana. Finally, you can descend to Dospat (Доспат), a small town near Dospat Dam Lake, or you can join there the main Rhodope trail.
Biking: 2-3 days
Hiking: 6-8 days
Chernatitsa (Чернатица) is the most „civilized” and popular range in the Rhodope because it is the closest part of the mountain to Plovdiv. That’s why this trail is also popular. Its first part has several versions. You can start from Perushtitsa (Перущица), Parvenets (Първенец), Markovo (Марково), Kuklen (Куклен), or Asenovgrad (Асеновград). All of these places are very close to Plovdiv and easily reachable. If you start from Markovo, Kuklen or Asenovgrad, you will reach one of the main ridges of Chernatitsa and Zdravets Chalet (Хижа Здравец)- a popular resort for the Plovdiv people. Then this version proceeds through pine forests which gradually turn into boreal taiga forests at Byala Cherkva, then to Modar (Модър)- 1992 m.
The other version from Perushtitsa or Parvenec ascends on the other sub-ridge of Chernatitsa, called Varhovrah (Върховръх), and also reach Modar. From here the trail follows the main ridge or Chernatitsa, passing by Malak Persenk and Golyam Persenk peaks (both over 2000 m high), and the rocky phenomenon Wonderful Bridges- a natural bridge and a tunnel in the forest. Then, the trail proceeds south-southeastward to Pamporovo resort and finally descends to Smolyan (Смолян), the second-largest city in the Rhodope Mountains.
Biking: 2 days
Hiking: 4 days
This trail explores the main ridge of Prespa and its sub-range Dobrostan. It starts from Asenovgrad, a small city rich with history. From there, you can ascend directly to the summit area of Dobrostan, or first go to Bachovo and visit the famous Bachkovo Monastery (Бачковски манастир). Then you can ascend steeply to the summit of Dobrostan, passing through the spectacular Red Wall natural reserve. But have in mind that if you go biking, during the ascent of Dobrostan is almost impossible to ride your bike, you have to bring it until you reach the summit.
The summit of Dobrostan is a karst plateau, covered mainly by grassland. From there the trail follows the summit to Novakovski Balkan and Sini Vrah (Сини връх), where you can visit one of the most mysterious sites in Rhodope- the ancient shrine remains of Belintash (Белинташ). Then, the trail turns southward and gradually ascends to the grasslands of Svoboda and Prespa. Finally, it enters the boreal taiga forest zone and reaches Smolyan.
Biking: 5-6 days
Hiking: 14-16 days
As its name suggests, this route follows the border between Bulgaria and Greece, from the area where the main ridge of Rhodope Mountains separates from the northern ridge and the first main trail. It is in the area of Musayata (Мусаята) Peak. And because this is a border zone, you’d better obtain a permit from the Border Police in Smolyan (without such a permit, your hike would be illegal and you risk some penalties, even arrest)- at least until Bulgaria becomes a part of Schengen.
But if you arrange your necessary „red paper”, you can enjoy one of the most beautiful and mysterious parts of the Rhodope Mountains. The trail follows the main ridge of the mountain system, starting from Smolyan or the villages of Mugla (Мугла), or Kiselchovo (Киселчово). Then it passes on the Ardinski Dyal (Arda Range), Gyumyurdzhinski Snezhnik, Maglenik, and finally, depending on your „red paper” situation, you can enter Greece and on Peperuda Range to reach Alexandroupoli (Αλεξανδρούπολη) or Feres (Φέρες). Or you can enter Bulgaria and reach Ivailovgrad (Ивайловград), then proceed to Svilengrad (Свиленград), visiting Gluhite Kamani and Mezek.
These trails are only the main ideas on how to explore the best of the Rhodope Mountains. Of course, you can choose many other versions of these routes, or completely different routes. But no matter what’s your choice, you would need some hiking and biking tips to prepare and have in mind.
Rhodope hiking and biking tips
In general, Rhodope is a somewhat “easy” mountain area to explore, on foot, or by bike. But if you want to have a better, and safer experience, you should consider the things below.
The Rhodope Mountains are not the same at every season. Summer is the best time to hike or bike. The weather is cool and very pleasant. But you should bring your raincoat, and better check the weather forecast. There are heavy rainstorms with thunders and lightning which can be dangerous. If you are caught by such a storm “in the middle of nowhere”, first, try to find the nearest shelter, but if there isn’t any nearby, search lower places in the forest, stay away of open grassland or meadows areas, especially if there are lonely trees beside you. Also, better disconnect your electronic devices and put your metal-made bike far from you.
Autumn is a good season, very beautiful in the deciduous and mixed forests. Also, there are no thunderstorms. But the weather can be cold, sometimes rainy, and in the highest summits even snowy. Spring is like autumn, but there is thick and wet old snow in the higher areas, especially in the shadowy northern slopes that make hiking difficult, and biking even more difficult, almost impossible. But the spring season is great for the lower parts of the Rhodope.
Finally, winter is snowy. Very snowy. In the high parts of Rhodope, in February the snow can reach 1,5 – 2 m thickness, so you can lose the paths and the roads under the snow. Of course, you can’t ride a bicycle (except for the public roads, if they are cleaned from the snow). And if you want to hike, your speed would be slower than in summer, especially on the off the beaten paths.
Accommodation in Rhodope can be difficult in some parts of the mountains. There are tourist chalets, but only in Chernatitsa, Perelik, and Prespa ranges (there used to be more, but now some of the chalets are closed and abandoned). In the rest of the mountain system, you can find small hotels, bungalows and guesthouses in the villages (but not in every village), and some mountain resorts.
But there are still large mountain areas completely wild, without any accommodation options. For these areas, you can just camp, so bring your tent, especially if you go hiking. Fortunately, camping is allowed almost everywhere, and these “empty” areas (mainly in Batashka Planina, Dabrash, and the border zones) are so wild that nobody would look for you there. Of course, don’t leave traces from your camping!
Public transportation in the Rhodope Mountains is not very developed. There are public buses to all the cities and towns, but not to every village. So, if you go hiking, plan your starting and ending point accordingly.
If you want to travel on the main Rhodope trail, there is a picturesque way to reach your starting point at Avramovo (Аврамово). You can reach it by a unique narrow-gauge train from Septemvri (you can easily reach Septemvri from Sofia or Plovdiv by normal train), and Avramovo is the highest railway station in the Balkan Peninsula.
There are buses to and from the other starting and ending points- Dospad, Smolyan, the towns and villages south of Plovdiv, Krichim, Asenovgrad, Svilengrad, and Ivailovgrad. If you want to go to biking, you can rent a bike from Sofia or Plovdiv for several days and transport it by bus and train to a nearby point (you have to pay some tax for that, somewhere between 5 and 10 BGN), then just ride to the main starting point of your trail.
More biking tips
Have in mind that most of the roads in Rhodope are dirt roads. When the weather is rainy, or just snow is melting in spring, these roads become muddy, with a lot of muddy puddles. Also, there are woodcutting clearings in some places, and heavy trucks make the dirt roads even worse, with excavated tracks. In such sections, biking can be very difficult. If you are hiking, you can just pass beside the road, but if you ride a bicycle, most probably you would need to bring it.
Food and water
First, if you go hiking or biking in such wild places, you have to bring your own food. Fortunately, you don’t need to bring too much, because every trail reaches some villages or even a town, where you can reload your things to eat. About water, you are lucky too. There are drinking fountains everywhere (many of them made like small monuments, with places for rest), and you can even drink directly from the small streams near their sources. Also, if you hike in late July and August, you can enjoy a lot of wild fruits- strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries.
But if you pass a village, look for a restaurant with local Rhodope food. Yes, the mountain system people have their own local food, and it is delicious. Among the local meals, I would mention Smilyanski bob (a kind of beans), Patatnik (made by potatoes), Rhodope klin (a kind of pastry), the cornmeal made Kachamak, and a kind of pancake, called Kolak. But the most attractive Rhodope food is Cheverme- roasted mutton or goat on a skewer.
So, if your long hiking or biking day ends in a village with a local restaurant, try some of these foods, with a cold beer (or if its too cold, wine or Bulgarian brandy „rakia”)- the pleasure of such a dinner is unforgettable!
Finally, you have to think about your safety. But it is easy, Rhodope is a quite safe mountain region. Crimes are close to zero (if there are any exceptions, they come from people who are not local). In fact, you probably would not see even one human being in some days of your hiking.
The things that you have to be aware of are more natural than human-caused. As I mentioned above, be cautious about thunderstorms, and deep snows in winter. Also, prepare well your GPS, because Rhodope is a place where you can easily get lost in the endless forests. Some dirt roads and paths gradually end in deep grass, bush, or fallen trees in the middle of nowhere.
Be aware of steep slopes, especially near the gorges. If you lose your path on a steep slope and try to proceed, you can easily get trapped in a dangerously steep place where you can fall into an abyss. It happened several times with me, and only God saved me from falling. So, learn well the topography of the area.
Safety from animals
Concerning the animals, there are wolves, wild pigs, and bears. But they are not the most dangerous. In fact, they all are afraid of people. You just have to be careful to not get them surprised, because in such a situation they may attack you. So, if you enter a wild forest area, make some noise. If there are any animals, they will hear you in advance and will go away before you even notice their presence.
But two animals may be more dangerous. The first one is some poisonous snakes. They are active in summer and usually hide in stony places, mixed with grass, dry sticks, and bush. If you have to pass such places, use your hiking poles or other sticks, and hit the ground in front of you. And the other animals is the shepherd or guard dogs. If you see a flock of cows, sheep, or other domestic animals, be careful and try to find the shepherd, who can control his dogs.
Dive into the wild
So, this is Rhodope, one of the wildest and most exotic mountain areas in Europe, a place where you appear in another world, far from civilization. Summit after summit, valley after valley, endless deep forests, and fresh meadows. And somewhere, hidden in a gorge, or on a green pasture, a small village where you probably can hear the local Rhodope folk music with its epic bagpipes. A dream that you would not forget and would desire to repeat again and again.
Get more inspiration from the video below!
Take a look at some travel books about Bulgaria:
Disclaimer: Journey Beyond the Horizon is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon and affiliated sites at no additional cost to you.