Hiking Rila Mountain, Bulgaria, the highest mountain in Easterh Europe

Hiking Rila Mountain, the highest mountain in Eastern Europe

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A large part of Eastern Europe is low land, spreading east to the Ural, and southeast to the Caucasus. But there are a lot of mountains in its west, especially in its most mountainous part- the Balkans. These mountains are lower than the Alps, much smaller in area, and scattered around forming a maze. Three of these mountains almost reach 3 km in height. And one of them is the highest. This is Rila Mountain in Bulgaria- a magnificent wild giant, tempting for a hike. Let’s “attack” this giant and enjoy its splendid forests, alpine grasslands, rugged peaks, deep valleys, and all the fantastic views that can be seen everywhere!

About Rila Mountain

The Balkan Peninsula has a very diverse terrain. There are a lot of mountains, plains, valleys, and rivers. The mountains are small in area, but a lot in number. And Rila Mountain is one of these mountains, located in Bulgaria. Its highest peak is Mt. Musala (2925 m/9596 ft), which is the highest point in the whole of Eastern Europe (if the Caucasus is considered as a part of Asia).

So, Rila (Рила) is a small mountain, compared to the Alps or the Himalayas. It can be circumambulated by car for 3-4 hours. But if you want to cross it in the middle, this is a different story. The mountain is steep and rugged, with alpine and plateau-like formations on the summits. No paved roads are crossing the mountain, and you can do it only by several days of trekking. And if you do it, you will remain deeply impressed by the wild beauty of this mountain.

Mt. Malyovitsa, Northwest Rila
Mt. Malyovitsa, Northwest Rila

Rila division

The Rila is divided into four sub-ranges, separated by deep alpine gorges. Every sub-range has its unique features, so let’s zoom the map and look at the mountain closely.

Northeast Rila

Northeastern Rila is the most rugged and alpine sub-range, with the highest peak Golyam Kupen (2731 m). It features sharp alpine peaks, inaccessible without alpine climbing gear, and extremely steep abyss-like slopes to the valley of Rila River. One of the peaks Malyovitsa (2729 m) is the most popular place for mountaineers training before they go to attack Everest or other high mountains on the Earth.

There are also several points in this sub-range that make it a place of high interest:

  • Sapareva Banya. This is a small town on the northern foot of the mountain, well-known for its extremely hot natural mineral water, with the temperature reaching 103°C.
  • Skakavitsa Falls. High above Sapareva Banya, you can see the highest waterfall in the Rila, and one of the highest in the Balkans, with 70 m height.
  • Seven Rila Lakes. A famous cluster of alpine lakes, attracting tourists from all over the world. In fact, there are almost 200 glacial lakes in the Rila, but these seven are some of the most beautiful and most popular.
  • Rila Monastery. This is the largest Christian Orthodox monastery in the Balkans, located on 1130 m in the deep valley of Rila River, presenting a lot of history, Christian secrets, and culture.
One of the Seven Rila Lakes
One of the Seven Rila Lakes

East Rila

This is the sub-range where the highest peak Musala is located. Musala is another popular destination for hikers, and it is best accessible from one of the largest winter resorts in the Balkans- Borovets. There is a meteorological station on the peak. With its high prominence (Musala is the 6th highest peak by prominence in mainland Europe), you can enjoy breathtaking panoramic views in every direction, reaching as far as Greece, Northern Macedonia, and Serbia.

Eastern Rila is not so rugged like its Northwestern neighbor (although Musala and some other peaks present some alpine formations), and the rest of the sub-range features large tundra-type of grasslands. On the east, it gradually descends to the lower mountain system of the Rhodope– one of the largest mountain ranges in the Balkans.

Central Rila

Central Rila is the wildest and least visited sub-range. Its highest peak is Cherna Polyana (2716 m). Since it is located in the middle of the mountain, almost no paved roads are reaching it, with exception of its extreme southeast periphery. On the east, it is bordered by the alpine valley of Beli Iskar- one of the deepest valleys in the Balkans. However, this valley is closed for crossing, since it is turned into a water-supplying zone.

If you look at the map, you can see the sharp ridge west of Beli Iskar Valley. This is Skakavets Ridge, the most inaccessible area in Bulgaria. There are almost no trails, not even small paths on the ridge. Partially this is because of the neighboring restricted water-supplying zone, but also because of its remoteness from the roads and the settlements. In Central Rila, you can see one of the largest glacial lakes in the Balkans- Smradlivo Lake, with its stunningly beautiful landscape.

Southwest Rila

This is the lowest sub-range of Rila. But it doesn’t mean that it is not beautiful and interesting. Yes, there are almost no alpine formations, but there you can find one of the oldest and wildest alpine forests in Southeast Europe- Parangalitsa.

Southwest Rila descends to Predela, a saddle serving as the Rila’s southern border. On the other side of Predela begins another high mountain range- Pirin, with its highest peak Vihren (2914 m), the third-highest peak in the Balkans. The Pirin is more alpine and more rugged than the Rila, and while you walk on the trails of Southwest Rila, you can enjoy breathtaking views to the neighboring Pirin.

Mt. Musala, the highest peak in East Europe
Mt. Musala, the highest peak in Rila and East Europe

The nature of Rila

The Rila has clear altitude zones. The lowest zone is from 300 to around 1000 m altitude. This is the foot of the mountain, covered by deciduous forests and some agricultural areas, and this is where most of the settlements (towns and villages) are located.

Above it, the deciduous forest gradually changes into alpine coniferous forests, consisting of fir, pine, and spruce, mixed with meadows in some places. Most of this zone is steep, and this is where most of the hiking trails begin. It is located between 1000 and 1800 m altitude.

The alpine zones

Proceeding upward, there is the next zone. The high trees of the forest start to mix with low bush-like pines (btw, these dwarf alpine pines are one of the biggest challenges for hikers in Rila and Pirin mountains). Around 2000 m altitude the high coniferous trees gradually disappear, and the zone between 2000 and 2200 m is covered by a thick forest of dwarf pines in many places.

Then, above 2200 m the dwarf pines begin to mix with grasslands. The higher the altitude, the rare and lower the dwarf pines become. And around 2600 m altitude they disappear. Only grass and rocks remain until the highest peaks of the mountain.

Dwarf pine forests in Rila
Dwarf pine forests in Rila

All of this creates a very interesting image of Rila’s nature. Yes, it is exciting to watch how nature changes while you ascend and descend from the mountain. So, let’s stop talking geographical facts, let’s go hiking in the Rila!

Our Rila hike stories

Our first attack on Rila Mountain was many years ago. And our target was Mt. Musala. No wonder since it is the highest peak of the mountain and in the Balkans.

Hiking Mt. Musala

Musala was (and always is) easily reachable from Borovets, so we could do it for one day. We arrived by car in Borovets and took the gondola lift to the high zones of the mountain. The gondola, starting at 1315 altitude brought us to 2369 m at Yastrebets Lodge for 25 min. Then we started hiking on the classical trail to the highest peak of Rila.

The trail passed by the glacial Musala lakes. They are seven in number, and the highest one, called Ledeno Lake (“Ice Lake”) is the highest lake in the Balkans, covered by ice most of the time of the year. Due to its popularity, the trail was crowded with people, and although the views around were breathtaking, the feeling was not so adventurous. Finally, after a 3,5 hours hike, we arrived at the peak, enjoying the whole fantastic panorama around us. But we didn’t want to back on the same crowded trail, so we chose a different route.

The alternative route back

Our alternative route had to pass on the eastern summit of Irechek, and then to descend to the valley of Maritsa River. It was much more difficult, and soon the crowds disappeared. We were alone, following a narrow path that climbed upward and downward on rugged terrain. Soon we reached another glacial lake- Sarigol Lake. We tried its crystal clear water- it was drinkable and tasteless.

From the lake, we had to descend to the Maritsa River. But there was no path anymore, so we had to perform “kleking”- a slang term, used by Rila and Pirin hikers, which means getting through the thick “jungle” of dwarf pines (in Bulgarian, dwarf pine is called “клек”, pronounced like “klek”). Believe me, this is a nervous test for everybody who is stuck in the middle of such a “jungle”, unless you feel excitingly challenged by such an adventure. Finally, we reached Maritsa River and walked 4 hours (of which the last hour was in the dark) back to the car, watching how the dwarf pines gradually mixed with high coniferous forest and disappeared.

The meteorological station on Mt. Musala's summit
The meteorological station on Mt. Musala’s summit

Hiking Seven Rila Lakes and Rila Monastery

There was another exciting route, this time in Northwest Rila. The mountain is linked with the neighboring Verila (a much lower and smaller mountain, but with significant importance, because the main watershed between the Black and Mediterranean seas passes on it, as on the main ranges of Rila) at Klisura Saddle. This time I was alone and started hiking from Klisura. My main goal was Seven Rila Lakes Lodge, and I hiked the whole trail to the lodge for about 7 hours, ascending from 1025 to 2191 m altitude.

I spent one night in the lodge and met several new friends, some of them foreigners (I still have good contact with some of them, many years later). On the second day, we proceeded together to the summit of Northwest Rila at 2650 m, passing by all of the Seven Lakes, and descend steeply to the Rila Monastery (1147 m altitude). I would never forget the fantastic views of the mountain valleys and peaks, as well as the appealing beauty of the natural zones, from the lowest to the highest.

But the most exciting and extreme route we performed was just recently. It was a route crossing the whole Rila Mountain, from Sapareva Banya to the town of Yakoruda, on the boundary between Rila and Rhodope mountains.

Crossing Rila hike

It was our longest hiking trip- a 3-days journey crossing the mountain. We arrived by car to Panichishte- a mountain resort near Sapareva Banya. From there, we took the seat lift to Rilski Ezera (Rila Lakes) Lodge and started hiking. Soon we reached the summit of Northwest Rila and proceeded on the trail to Mt. Malyovitsa.

On the dangerous alpine area

From here, we entered a fantastic area with some of the sharpest and most rugged alpine peaks in the Balkans. We tried to follow the summit, but it was impossible without climbing gear, it was extremely dangerous, so we back to the normal trail, and the only point we could reach for the first day was a small shelter, called “BAK”, used mainly by the climbers attacking the peaks nearby.

We were alone in “BAK”, only with the wild goats which came to visit us late at night and early morning. On the next day, we passed another extremely difficult section of the route, visiting Strashnoto Lake (Fearful Lake), located under a Matterhorn-shaped peak, and several other inaccessible by normal hikers peaks, including Mt. Golyam Kupen. Then we descent from Northwest Rila to the saddle, separating it from Central Rila, called Kobilino Branishte.

The 1200 m deep abyss above Rila River
The 1200 m deep abyss above Rila River

Through the Central Rila

Kobilino Branishte is a wild, desolate, and remote place. There are only two small wooden buildings on it, one of which is a shelter for passing hikers. From here, we ascent on the Central Rila, reaching Mt. Vodnia Chal, then gradually descent to Ribni Ezera (Fish Lakes) Lodge, located deep in the heart of Rila. It was a difficult hike, more than 10 hours long. Finally, we had a nice dinner at the lodge, meeting some new friends there.

On the third day, we left Ribni Ezera- the lodge and the lakes, and ascent to the main summit of Central Rila. This time our trail was easier, passing through relatively plain mountain tundra, and after 6 hours hike we reached Granchar Lodge, on the boundary between Central and East Rila, and from there we descended to the forest zone, and the paved road at Treshtenik resort, where a car was waiting for us.

Besides these trips, we have made many other shorter hikes, some of which quite extreme, including a heavy “kleking” in Central Rila, where we passed 2 km for more than 4 hours. And we still plan to “conquer” the mountain, getting the best and the most beautiful of what it can offer to us.

Now, let’s see some useful hiking tips and information about Rila Mountain, to be better prepared for hike and adventures. And first- how to reach the Rila.

How to reach the Rila

As I mentioned above, Rila is easily reachable. If you come from Sofia, you have plenty of options to reach the starting points of your hiking routes. There are a lot of buses traveling from Sofia to Dupnitsa and Blagoevgrad, on the western side of the mountain, as well as to Klisura, Samokov, Borovets, and Kostenets, on the northern side.

By bus from Sofia

If you want to attack the Rila from the west, you have to go to Serdika or Zapad (West) bus stations in Sofia. Another option is the Central Bus station, from where you can find a lot of buses to Blagoevgrad. And if you want to travel to Samokov, go to Yug (South) Bus station. Then, from Samokov, you can easily reach Borovets by another minibus (traveling every 30 min).

There is also a bus penetrating deeply into the mountain- to Rila Monastery. It leaves from Ovcha Kupel Bus station at 10:20 am. The same bus back to Sofia from Rila Monastery at 3:00 pm.

Approaching Rila Mountain from Sofia
Approaching Rila Mountain from Sofia

By bus from Plovdiv

And if you come from Plovdiv, again, there are two buses every day traveling from Plovdiv to Blagoevgrad. They pass through Kostenets, Borovets, Samokov, Klisura, Sapareva Banya, and Dupnitsa- all of these places are good starting points for hiking. Another bus travels from Plovdiv to the southern side of Rila- through Velingrad, Yundola, Yakoruda, Razlog, and Predela. It starts from Yug (South) Bus station.

By train

This is another way to reach the Rila, although more limited. From Sofia, you can travel to Dupnitsa and Blagoevgrad by train, and to Kostenets in Plovdiv direction. From Plovdiv, you can take the train to Sofia and stop in Kostenets too.

But there is a much more attractive train reaching the Rila. It starts from Septemvri (a train station on the railway between Sofia and Plovdiv), and travels to Bansko and Dobrinishte, on the foot of Pirin Mountain. This train is smaller and slower than normal trains. It is a narrow-gauge train (“tesnolineika” in Bulgarian), and it passes the highest railway station in the Balkans- Avramovo Station, on the boundary between Rila and Rhodope, at 1267 m altitude.

By car

You can easily reach the Rila by car, and you can even penetrate a bit inside the mountain- to Rila Monastery or even beyond it- to Kirilova Polyana, where the paved road becomes a dirt road. You can also reach places like Parangalitsa, Panichishte, Malyovitsa Alpine School, Treshtenik, Belmeken Sport Base, and Semkovo Resort. The only problem is that you can only do circle routes (starting from your car and back again to your car), and it is inconvenient to cross the mountain unless someone else helps you with another car on the other side.

Lifts

Lifts can be useful if you want to ascend or descend quickly between the high and the low zones of the mountain when you are in hurry, or just tired. There are three places where you can short-cut the trails by lifts. The first place is Borovets, from where you can attack Mt. Musala by the gondola lift to Yastrebets. Several other bench lifts are ascending to a certain height in the mountain, but not all of them work throughout the whole year.

The other two places are Pionerska-Rilski Ezera, leading to the Seven Rila Lakes from a point above Sapareva Banya, and the gondola lift Kartala-Ravnets, in Southwest Rila. Prices are between 10 and 15 BGN, and the working time is longer during the high season (winter).

Strashnoto Lake in Northwest Rila
Strashnoto Lake in Northwest Rila

Traveling inside the mountain

If you want to penetrate further deep in the Rila, you can use SUV 4×4 vehicle, and you can approach places like Tiha Rila (about 1 hour walking before Ribni Ezera), Mechit Lodge in Northwest Rila, and Granchar Lodge, from Belmeken, as well as some other points on some dirt roads. But again, large areas of the mountain are inaccessible by any vehicle, even by motorcycle (since the Rila is a National Park, motorcycles are forbidden on the walking trails).

But you can cycle on some of the trails, mainly in Southwest and East Rila. It is exciting to ride a mountain bike on the grasslands. However, many trails are inaccessible even by bike- they are too steep, rocky, bumpy, and even dangerous. So, for mountain bikers, the options in the Rila are limited. Everything else is accessible only on foot, or some trails- only with alpine climbing gear and skills.

The water-supply forbidden area

This is an area, located on the valleys of Beli Iskar and Levi Iskar rivers. Most of the water in the capital Sofia is supplied from this area. That’s why it is completely restricted for visiting. If you open the map of Rila, you can see a road crossing the mountain in the middle, from Beli Iskar village to Treshtenik and Yakoruda. Don’t go on this road! If you travel on it from Beli Iskar, you will soon reach a check-point. The policemen will let you back.

And if you try to do it from the other side, from Granchar Lodge, you will see nobody in the area, but there are cameras installed in various places. Then the next thing you can expect is a band of strong boys with guns and uniforms. In the best case, you can exit from the situation just by them letting you back, and in the worst case you will be in jail (or, who knows, they have guns anyway…).

Beli Iskar Valley- the forbidden zone
Beli Iskar Valley- the forbidden zone

Summer and winter trails, trail markers

As it is in most of the high mountains in the world, the main trails in the Rila are marked. You can see their markers- a sign with a white, a color (green, red, blue, sometimes yellow), and again a white line. The sign can be seen all along the trail, so you would not get lost.

In the Rila, you can also often see metal pillars. They mark the winter versions of the trails. If there is no snow, you don’t need to follow them, since sometimes they are installed on grass, or among dwarf pines. However, in some cases even in summer, they are safer.

Dangerous trails and paths

There are also trails without markers. Be careful with them! They can lead you to dangerous places, like abysses, precipices or they can just mislead you in the middle of nowhere. You can often see small cairns beside them, but it still doesn’t mean safety. Some of these dangerous trails are even shown in the maps.

An example is the summit trail in Northwest Rila between Malyovitsa and Golyam Kupen. If you are not a professional climber, don’t go on this trail! It will lead you to the top of a kilometer deep abyss, or on rock edges or walls, impassable by normal hiking. Probably the main danger is that you can be tempted to try a little further, a bit more, to cross a risky passage successfully, finally to reach a place where you can’t proceed further. Then you try to turn back and cross the same risky passage from the other side, but this time it could be more difficult, if not impossible…

“Kleking”

If you lost a trail (it is unlikely to happen if you walk on a marked trail), and if you are somewhere between 2000 and 2300 m altitude, you can easily get lost in a dwarf pine forest. And if you know your right direction, you probably can cross this forest by “kleking” (as I already shared above). But be ready for something not so pleasant, and very challenging! In the best case, you can expect to pass 1 km for around 3 hours, and in the worst case- be ready to sleep in the “klek jungle” in the night!

"Kleking" in Rila
“Kleking” in Rila

Staying at night

Of course, everybody would like to spend the night better, not stuck in dwarf pines. So, let’s see what options you have. This can be important, because if you want to make a longer hike, especially if you want to cross Rila Mountain, you will need to spend at least one night there, probably more. So, here are the options:

Hotels and guesthouses

This is the most comfortable, and the most expensive option. But it is not available everywhere. You can sleep in a hotel in the towns and resorts on the foot of Rila. There are some hotels inside the mountain too- on the road to Rila Monastery, to Kirilova Polyana, in the resorts of Semkovo and Treshtenik, on the way to Parangalitsa, around Panichishte, and Belmeken.

Prices can vary throughout the year, depending on the season. You can find splurge, expensive hotels, especially in the resorts, as well as small budget guesthouses. Again, if you are going to hike the Rila on the summits, these places for the night staying can be only starting and ending points- there are no hotels and guesthouses above 2000 m altitude. However, there are lodges.

Check your accommodation in Rila Mountain!

Lodges

The lodges („хижи” in Bulgarian) are quite popular in Bulgaria, not only in the Rila but in all other major mountains in the country. And there are many lodges in the Rila, built in good strategic locations. Among the most strategic lodges are Ribni Ezera (Fish Lakes), Granchar, Zavrachitsa, and Makedonia.

Lodges are cheaper, with more basic conditions, more like hostels in the mountain. Most of them are old, so you should not expect any luxury. And most of their rooms are arranged with double-layer beds, for 8, 10, or more people in a room. Some rooms of the lodges are arranged in separate bungalows. Toilets are usually shared. There is a canteen in every lodge, so they offer some meals. And prices in most of them are 15 BGN for adults and 5 BGN for children.

Ribni Ezera Lodge
Ribni Ezera Lodge

Shelters (shelter huts)

Shelters are other places to sleep, again built on strategic locations on the trails. They are smaller, in fact, they are just small huts with several beds, a simple table, sometimes with a stove and a simple toilet, and always with a first aid kit.

These huts are free for use. They are built by the tourist organizations in Bulgaria, to help hikers in need. Those who built them just trust your conscience that you will spend the night, and you will leave everything clean and undamaged on the next morning.

Kobilino Branishte shelter, between Northwest and Central Rila
Kobilino Branishte shelter, between Northwest and Central Rila

Camping

Bringing your tent (especially if it is lightweight) is always convenient because it gives you independence. However, there are enough lodges and shelters in the Rila, so you don’t need a tent for most of the routes. In our 3-days trekking, I brought a tent, but we didn’t use it, as a result, it only added to the weight of my backpack. Anyway, there are still some exceptions for some less-visited parts of the mountain, where you would need it.

But there is always a chance to be late (or too tired) for the nearest lodge or shelter, so a tent could help you to spend the night. However, Rila is a National Park, and according to the regulations, camping is allowed “only in officially arranged places”. The problem is that there is no map to show where these places are, and in general, the situation remains unclear.

So, according to many hikers’ opinions and experiences, you can bring your tent. Just establish it far from the lodges, far from trails (at least not exactly where people walk), and far from crowded popular destinations like Seven Rila Lakes. Establish it in the evening, and fold it in the morning (anyway, there is no problem to wait until the dew condenses on the tent dries up in the sun). Some lodges allow tents nearby but require hikers to pay 6 BGN or something.

Camping among the dwarf pines
Camping among dwarf pines

Seasons

The Rila is a high mountain, with clearly defined altitude zones and seasons. Summer is cool, especially in the high areas, and sunshine is strong. But at night, the temperature still can drop to 6-8°C. The biggest problem in summer is thunderstorms. They can be a serious danger, especially if you are on a high summit without any tree around. So, watch the weather forecast, and if a thunderstorm comes, try to descend as more as possible, far from the summit.

Autumn is cold, grasslands become yellow, and the first snow can come in October on the highest peaks. At night the temperature often drops below 0°C, but at least there are no thunderstorms (or they are extremely rare).

Winter is very cold, with a lot of snow. At the end of February, it can reach 1,5 to 2 m depth. There are many areas with danger of avalanches. That’s why winter trails are designed- they pass mostly on summits, as far as possible from avalanche impacts. Apart from this, walking in deep snow is much slower, winter storms are possible too, so don’t go hiking in the high zones of Rila without proper preparation.

Hiking East Rila in winter
Hiking East Rila in winter

Finally, spring comes late and slowly. On the highest summits and more shadowed places, snow can remains until June, even July. There are several “eternal spots” of snow, remaining until the next winter.

Rila impression

This is Rila Mountain, a wild and magnificent place. It is not vast and endless like Tibet, the Andes, or the Rocky Mountains, and it is not as high as the Alps and the Himalayas. There are no glaciers or too high altitude areas, no danger of altitude sickness. But it remains a challenging mountain offering a lot of° adventures and memorable experience.

Get more impressions from the video below:

Take a look at some travel books about Bulgaria:

    

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Let's go hiking Rila Mountain, Bulgaria- the highest mountain in Eastern Europe | Rila Mountain guide, experience and tips Let's go hiking Rila Mountain, Bulgaria- the highest mountain in Eastern Europe | Rila Mountain guide, experience and tips

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