One of the things I was most excited about doing in Bulgaria was hiking. Logistically, hiking in the Rila Mountains made the most sense, considering the other Bulgarian cities we wanted to visit were nearby (Plovdiv and Sofia). The Rila Mountains are the tallest mountain range in Bulgaria and have tons of hiking opportunities such as the 7 Lakes, Mt. Malyovitsa, Mt. Musala, and Scary Lake, just to name a few. With these hikes in mind, we started researching towns in which to stay as well as more information about the hikes.
Planning this portion of our trip to Bulgaria was the trickiest, as not a whole lot of information about the hikes and the region is available online. So to fill that gap, here is some of the information that we found that I wish would have been available to us when we were planning our trip.
Picking a Base City
Although there are day trip options for hiking in the Rila Mountains from Sofia and Plovdiv, these tours typically leave extremely early in the morning and arrive back in town after dinner. If you want to get the full mountain experience, and want to hike for more than one day, you should definitely stay in a mountain town closer to the trailheads.
After much research, we chose Govedartsi as our base. It is located close to the start of the Mt. Malyovitsa and Scary Lake trails, 11 km from one of the trailheads for the 7 Lakes hike, and about 15 km from Borovets where you can catch a ski lift to the trailhead for the Mt. Musala hike.
If you’re an experienced hiker you might also consider a multi-day hike where you stay overnight in one of the many huts located along the trails. If you will have a car, obviously you have a little more freedom in picking your base city; perhaps you will want to stay in a bigger town that’s not as centrally located, such as Samokov, as the non-hiking amenities are much greater.
Getting There and Around
In retrospect, renting a car for our mountain adventures would have probably made the most financial and logistical sense. There are no trains connecting the Rila Mountains with major cities, the bus schedules are difficult to find online, and buses can be infrequent. Without wheels of our own, we had to book a private transfer from Plovdiv to Govedartsi.
Once in Govedartsi, we still had the problem of not being able to reach the trailheads. Luckily the hotel in which we were staying, Guest Rooms Kalina, drove us to the 7 Lakes trailhead one day and the Mt. Musala trailhead the next (for a fee, of course). They also picked us up at the end of the day, but that required setting a meeting time that sometimes didn’t allow us to finish the hikes. Having our own car would have relieved some of this pressure and allowed us to hike at our own pace.
I should note that even if you do have a car, some of the roads to the trailheads (such as the road from Govedartsi to Vada Hut, where the 7 Lakes trail starts) are rough and require an off-road vehicle.
Hiking the Trails
We had really no idea what to expect on the actual trails in terms of difficulty, how long the trails would take, or what kinds of resources were available along the trails. Despite the fact that the Rila Mountain area is a national park, the national park’s website has absolutely no information about hiking in the park. Therefore, here are some tips that we learned along the way that will hopefully be helpful to others considering hiking in the Rila Mountains.
Start early: Many of the hikes in the area are 7-8 hour hikes, meaning you want to get started by 9 or 10am in order to finish before the sun sets.
Wear layers: Remember that in most cases you’ll be hiking to higher elevations where the temperature is cooler. Also, the weather can change quickly in the mountains- one minute the clouds are out and you need a sweatshirt, the next minute the sun comes out and you need to strip down to your bikini (Kidding, of course. But we actually did see someone wearing a bikini on the Mt. Musala trail).
Bring lots of water and food: We had a major mishap when we did the 7 Lakes hike. We only packed a small snack, thinking that the huts would have food and water (which I read online that some did). However, the only food we saw the whole day was raspberries along the trail, and when we asked the man at the Fish Lake hut if he had water, he pointed us toward a stream of water flowing into the lake outside. The only hut that we found that sold bottled water was Lovna Hut, which is at the bottom of the mountain along the 7 Lakes trail. Also, pretty much no English is spoken by any of the hut workers, so be sure to bring along your best pantomiming skills. I should mention, however, that the situation along the Mt. Musala trail is completely opposite that of the 7 Lakes trail: there are stations selling snacks, drinks, and water at the top of Yastrebets ski lift, and even some restaurants, too. Still, make sure to bring plenty of water because the hut along the Mt. Musala trail, about an hour below the peak, had no water even though they had tea, hot chocolate, and soda.
Wear good hiking shoes: If I described all the poor footwear choices that we observed while hiking, you wouldn’t believe me. At the very least, wear some thick-soled tennis shoes. Our waterproof Keen hiking shoes came in handy for crossing some streams and for supporting our ankles on the rocky trails. The Mt. Musala trail is particularly rocky; I would recommend sturdy hiking boots for this hike.
Use a map: Before arriving in the mountains, I was concerned because I couldn’t find any good hiking maps online. However, the trails are, for the most part, very well-marked. As the owner of our hotel said, it is impossible to get lost on the 7 Lakes trail. The other hike we did was to the top of Mt. Musala, which was also a well-marked and obvious route. Despite the good markings on most trails, to me, hiking without a map feels like being naked. Our hotel gave us a really good map which we used from time to time. If you’re planning on doing some serious hiking your best bet is to buy a map online or buy one in Bulgaria when you get here.
If there is one thing we learned after hiking in the Rila Mountains to the 7 Lakes and Mt. Musala, it would be that it is not as difficult as other online reports suggest. You just need to pick a good base and stay in a hotel that offers transfer services to get you on your way. From there, Bulgaria’s top national park will take care of the rest.
Are you planning to travel in Bulgaria? We did not find Bulgaria to be an easy country to explore for those who want to go off-the-beaten-track, so use our tips in the previous link to get around safely and easily!
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