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The highlights of hiking in Bulgaria’s Rhodope mountains

The highlights of hiking in Bulgaria’s Rhodope mountains

This mountain range stretches across the south-west corner of Bulgaria, its karst limestone gorges and caves, ancient forests and traditional trails creating an adventurer’s arcadia. It’s the longest range in Bulgaria, covering a vast 18,000km2, although it also stretches into Greece. Which, if you’re new to hiking in Bulgaria, will give you an idea of the climate, with temperatures going into the high twenties and sometimes above, in summer, although there’s plenty of forest shade for perfect hiking weather. Hiking in the Rhodope Mountains (and cycling too) is not short on landscape highs, such as the 300m-high ​​Trigrad Gorge, the giant underground waterfall in Devil’s Throat Cave and the rocky phenomenon that makes up the Chudnite Mostove, aka the Wonderful Bridges. Here are some of our Rhodopean rambling highlights.

Rambling in the Rhodopes is a journey into traditional mountain life in Bulgaria.

Shiroka Laka

This is a mountain village preserved in time, as it’s a designated architectural and folk reserve, thanks to its traditional Rhodopean houses built into the banks of the River Shirokolashka. These are two storey wooden and stone masterpieces, and the people who built them were considered master builders of their time, dating back to the 17th century and contributors to a wider Bulgarian Revival Period. The National School of Folk Arts was established in Shiroka Laka in 1972 and it still remains the heart of mountain folk traditions. On both our Rhodope Mountains Explorer tour and our walking and spa holiday, you stay in a hotel in Shiroka Laka, and take on trails to the likes of Gela, a small village in Oreshika Valley, and then onto Lednitsata Cave, through typical beech forests and karst limestone landscapes. 

Eagle’s Eye platform

One of several traditional mountain villages that you stay in while hiking in the Rhodope Mountains is Yagodina. Walk from here to Eagle’s Eye platform, or Orlovo Oko, as it’s known locally. This is a steel construction rising 670m above Buynovsko Gorge and its winding river, and also within what feels like touching distance of Mount St. Ilia (1,560m). As well as taking in the Rhodopes, you can also see into Greece in the distance, with skies where golden eagles are also known to soar. 

Panoramic view from Mount St. Ilia, taking in the spectacular viewpoint at Eagle’s Eye.

Yagodina cave

Another of Yagodina’s landmarks is its vast cave, one of many in the Rhodope Mountains but definitely one of its most magnificent. It is located south-west from the village at the end of Buynovsko Gorge and is, in fact, a whole karst cave system that’s 10.5km in length and covers three floors. You can walk through just over one kilometre inside it, taking in the illuminated natural spectacle of stalactites and stalagmites, abysses and tunnels. 

Smolyan lakes

Although they have gone from twenty to seven lakes over time, sprinkled across the Cherna River Valley, this is still a stunning waterscape near the town of Smolyan. Overlooked by Mount Snezhanka (1,926m), the largest lakes are Keryanov and Camp, which are closer to the town. But you need to trek higher for the most beautiful ones, such as Trevistoto (1,540m), which translates as grassy because of its peaty environs where reeds and grasses grow in summer. 

Near the lake, there is also a ski lift up to Mount Snezhanka. The largest of all is Bistroto Lake, which translates as clear, and its clarity does make it tempting to swim, but these lakes are highly protected and swimming is not allowed. The highest of the lakes is Matnoto at an elevation of 1,590m, and just 200m away from Bistroto, following a trail through ancient forest, with a group of trees called Eurydice’s Throne, and one called Orpheus’ Lyre, all paying homage to the region’s revered residents. The high cliffs that tower over Matnoto Lake are called Orpheus’ Rocks. 

Trevistoto Lake, just one of many in the Smolyan region of the Rhodope Mountains.

Devil’s Throat cave

On your walk from Yagodina to Trigrad, another traditional mountain village located in another eponymous gorge, you can visit Devil’s Throat Cave, or Diavolsko Garlo in Bulgarian. It’s so called because local people thought that the cave’s entrance resembles a devil’s head and, as well as that, with a massive waterfall rushing through it, it sounds as if the devil is clearing his throat, or certainly making himself heard. This is a place of many legends, the most popular of which is that Orpheus used this cavern to descend to the mythical underworld of Hades, in search of his perished love Eurydice. This is just another example of Bulgaria’s hidden secrets, in a country that feels like a tardis of trekking treats. 

Canyon of Waterfalls

Follow a 15km trail of waterfalls fed by the Elenska River which has created a forested gorge where over forty waterfalls tumble. The highest of these is named after the mountain’ master, Orpheus, and falls from a height of 68m. The waterfalls are connected by this stunning trail which, in the shade of a generous blanket of coniferous forest, takes you across a series of metal and wooden bridges with views down the river and falls. You also emerge from the forest trail to get panoramic views across the Rhodopes. 

This 15km Canyon of Waterfall trail in the Rhodope Mountains is just one of many water-filled wonders in the mountains.

Plovdiv

This is the nearest city to the Rhodope Mountains and, as there is an airport and train station, we recommend starting your journey here. Plovdiv is a cultural revelation, so much so that it was European City of Culture in 2019, although Plovdiv has been winning cultural laurels for much longer, as it dates back to 4,000BC. It’s like a mini Rome in some ways, a city of seven hills with a stunning Roman amphitheatre in the Old Town, cobblestone streets and ancient buildings. 

The Wonderful Bridges

The Wonderful Bridges are called Chudnite Mostove in Bulgarian, and they are a collection of natural arches that form bridges in the karst limestone landscape of the Erkyupriya Valley. At an elevation of 1,450m, this colossal collection was once one huge cave, but natural erosion and collapse meant that it has now formed these wonders. The largest bridge is about 15m wide, almost 100m long and has three arches, which is a lot of bridge. Bulgaria doesn’t do things in a small way, as even the small one is 60m long and 50m high. 

Chudnite Mostove or Wonderful Bridges, a collection of natural arches in the Rhodopes.

The tradition of mountain spas in the Rhodope Mountains

We endeavour to add a traditional thermal spa into our Bulgaria walking holidays when possible because, with over 700 natural hot springs here, it’s rude not to really. Particularly in the Rhodope Mountains. On our aforementioned walking and spa adventure in the heart of the Rhodope Mountains, for example, you can swap the Rhodopes for robes and mountains for minerals at the end of the day in places like Devin, which is known as the spa capital of Bulgaria. 

Rhodope culture

One of the joys of hiking in the Rhodope Mountains is discovering the relatively unknown Rhodepean culture, many aspects of which are still unchanged in this well protected mountain environment. Much of the architecture, for example, dates back to the Bulgarian Revival period between 1762 and 1878. You still see villages full of two-storey white stone and timber houses, with bay windows overlooking the mountains and many boasting intricate interior woodwork. There are unexpected quirks too, such as the kaba gaida, which is a form of bagpipe which plays an important part in Rhodopean cultural heritage. 

On your Bulgarian bike. As well as our hiking holidays, you can also go cycling in the Rhodope Mountains.

Food in the Rhodope Mountains 

Food is, not surprisingly, fine mountain fare, with a wide array of tomatoes or peppers, as well as wild fruits, such as raspberries and blueberries. Patatnik is a popular potato omelette that will set you up for a day on the hills, or to reward you at the end of a trek, agneshko cheverme is local lamb, slow roasted on an open fire. Warm yourself up on a walk with local mursalski or mountain tea, made with ironwort and said to be a cure-all for any aches and pains. 

Best time to go hiking in the Rhodope Mountains

Our Rhodope Mountains holidays are open between May and October during which time sunshine is plentiful. Depending on location and altitude, temperatures do vary but, during these months, daily averages are 20-25C. Spring and autumn are pleasant in the Rhodopes with cold nights and occasional rain. However, even in summer temperatures have been known to drop to single figures at high elevations. 

There is no shortage of cultural events to seek out while hiking in the Rhodope Mountains. These include the International Bagpipe Festival during the first weekend of August in the small village of Gela, in the heart of the mountains, which players from around the world attend to harmonise across the hills. Or the Rozhen National Folklore Fair in mid-July for a serious hit of traditional music and dance, choirs and customs, all with a Rhodopean backdrop. The hills really are alive with the sound of music for this event. For more details, see our blog on the best time to go to Bulgaria

The bagpipes, or kaba gaida in Bulgarian, play an important part in Rhodopean cultural heritage.

For more insights into Bulgaria and the Balkans region, we have a collection of guides that highlight the cultural and natural makeup of these exquisite European countries, some of which are still new to the hiking map. We summarise them all in our blog, Bigging up our Balkan holidays, we take a deeper dive in our blog on the Peaks of the Balkans Trail, and we get up close and personal with our own destination expert and Bulgarian guru, Katya Panchenkova. You can see all of our Bulgaria holidays here, and please do not hesitate to contact our Bulgarian experts for more details.