Hidden Treasures of the Northwest Rila Mountain Range

Rila National Park in Bulgaria ranks among the most popular and sought-after destinations for hiking and trekking enthusiasts. Its ideal location 80 kilometres south of Sofia makes Rila a relatively accessible place with pleasant continental climate that both recreation tourists and sports buffs can enjoy.

The best time

The best time to venture out into the untamed hills and rocks, where an entire day can go by without you meeting more than just a handful of people, is late April and early May or September and October. We started our six-day-long trip along the mountain massif in September, as we wanted to experience some of the local folk customs. Before our demanding trip, we visited the largest Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria, the picturesque Rila Monastir. This place seemed like a suitable starting point for our trek. Next time, we will perhaps choose a less demanding route, starting from the northern part of the mountain range; this one, on the contrary, was not short on adventure.

In the morning, we began our 8-hour ascent through a 15-kilometre-long route with a total elevation of almost 1400 metres. This demanding climb, in combination with a heavy backpack, made for a decent challenge! Initially, the route led through a forest and presented us with many challenges. What delighted us the most were the fallen full-grown trees that we encountered near the start of our journey that we had to climb under and over, sometimes with our backpacks, sometimes without them. Around the 5-kilometre mark, above the summit of the Baucher mountain (2152 metres), we came across a breathtaking view of the surrounding natural beauty. With something like that, you can easily forget about the obstacles and everything that weighs you down!

The trail, which changed colours almost as often as a chameleon, always led uphill, and soon our strength dwindled, so we took breaks more often, including those to eat. As we had not packed a hiking stove with us, the Adventure Menu meals with ration heaters proved very useful. We continued our ascent to the highest mountain ridges, passing herders of sheep, cattle and horses along the way and crossing paths with at least a handful of couples heading down the hill who reassured us that it will take “just two hours” to reach our destination. However, time is funny here in the mountains. Nevertheless, we soon came up over the ridge and arrived at a plateau, where we were enthralled by the tranquillity and all-embracing silence. All we could hear and see were the hum of the wind, the burbling of streams, abandoned herds of cattle and horses and green plains. The experience was perfectly idyllic.

We had been walking through the plateau for about two hours when we arrived at Ivan Vazov Hut. Though the reviews of this place describe it as a very cosy place, we believe the reputation is not entirely deserved. Regardless of this, since we were tired after having a late dinner, we went to our bunks and fell asleep. A “dormitory” or “dorm bed” type of shared accommodation is available in every hut, and it is always better than sleeping in a tent if the temperature drops close to 0 °C at night, which is very common at this time of the year. Ivan Vazov Hut is the highest hut in the entire Rila mountain range. It is a comfortable place to get a meal, spend the night, refill your bottles with spring water and continue your hike.

As far as navigation is concerned, we recommend that you combine the map (the locals claim it is not a good map, but it is the only official map you can get) with the recommendations of other travellers. The colour coding may be confusing at times, but you can get used to it, and with a bit of intuitive prediction of where the trail leads, you will not get lost. Distances are marked in hours, which is more suitable than kilometres in the rough mountain terrain. Moreover, the time estimates are fairly accurate, and you can rely on them.

Our second destination was the Seven Rila Lakes area where the glacier lakes form a cascade one below the other at 2100 to 2500 metres above sea level and create a beautiful scenery perfect for capturing photos or just enjoying the view. Each lake has a name associated with its characteristic features – the Tear, the Eye, the Kidney, the Twin, the Trefoil, the Fish Lake and the Lower Lake. Owing to the fact that the Seven Rila Lakes area is a well-known tourist attraction (we would compare it to the Sněžka mountain), the number of visitors is increasing rapidly, especially on weekends, but if you are able to filter out the crowds of noisier tourists, you can still enjoy an atmosphere similar to the one in the remote parts of the mountain range. Both travellers and backpackers must take into account the mountain climate, so the view may be hazy sometimes, or everything will be covered in clouds for a couple of hours, and the lakes in all their beauty may be only visible for a couple of minutes.

Thankfully, we were able to get at least one picture. The lakes usually freeze in October, and the ice does not melt until June. Near the lakes, you can find a modest accommodation in Seven Lakes Hut or the more modern Rila Lakes Hut building located around an hour’s walk from the lakes, which, based on our own experience, we definitely do not recommend. In most huts, we had no trouble getting a meal at any time of the day. Here, we had trouble even finding someone who had the keys. Cases like this are why it is a good idea to carry some food in your backpack and also a tent as the last resort.

The next day, we moved away from the busy area and returned to the oasis of peace in the middle of mysterious Bulgarian forests full of streams, lush vegetation and animals about 1600 meters above sea level. Our path led across the Lovna camp and mountain hut into the higher Vada mountain hut from which we planned to go to the Malyovitsa mountain the next day. Both Lovna Hut and the entire camp function as a community site where you can literally recharge your energy in the relaxed atmosphere. It is a perfect place to get some rest on your journey, especially on weekdays outside the peak season. The pleasant route from Lovna to Vada leads through a forest path across several narrow rivers you can cross by stepping stones, logs or footbridges. The change in vertical metres and the long, steep descent indicated that there will be a lot of climbing in store for us the next day.

The best accommodation that we experienced on this entire trip awaited us at Vada Hut. The hut is run by a married couple blessed with genuine Bulgarian hospitality and culinary genius. A couple of leva is all it takes for you to regain all the burned calories with traditional dishes from the Bulgarian mountains such as shopak salad, bob chorba bean soup, kyufte meatballs, fried bread dipped in egg served with sirene cheese and jam or sour cream and homemade preserve.

The ascent from Vada to the Malyovitsa mountain and a mountain hut of the same name was not only one of the more demanding but also one of the most beautiful treks. As the birds started singing their morning songs, we packed our equipment and started our walk through the national park along steep forest paths across deserted and untamed terrain towards the birthplace of Bulgarian rock climbing and mountaineering. The Maljovica region offers mountaineers and climbers many wall rocks and peaks of various difficulty levels, but the scenery will also be appreciated by the “non-climbing” travellers. You can use the local mountain hut as a starting point for trips to surrounding peaks, the most appealing of which is the Malyovitsa (2729 metres) that is accessible right up to the top. A trip up there and back with a light trail backpack makes for an ideal day-long hike. The Malyovitsa Hut has one major advantage – as the only mountain hut in this area, it offers an actual hot shower! Everyone is sure to appreciate that after having to wash themselves in icy spring water for a couple of days.

Our last stop was the Skakavitsa Waterfall, where we headed from the Lovna camp. The trip took about two hours of walking mostly through forests. It was a bit crowded under the cableway to the Seven Rila Lakes, as the tourists usually take a jeep ride to the top, but after less than a kilometre, we were again walking through dense and quiet Bulgarian forest. Along the way, we came across a “caravan” of horses and mules carrying heavy loads – after all, that is the most common local way of transporting supplies to mountain huts.

You can find the highest waterfall in the Rila mountain range, falling 70 meters from 2000 meters above sea level, by foot with just a 20-minute walk from a hut of the same name located in the Skakavitsa Nature Reserve. This place is ideal for relaxation and meditation. However, the base of the waterfall can be reached by climbing huge boulders and rocks only by the more athletic visitors, but it can be observed from a distance from the glacial cirque.

The landscape of the Rila National Park is variegated. Each of our hikes presented a different experience, with diverse terrain and surroundings. Thanks to its diversity, the north-western part of the mountain massif is suitable for travellers of various inclinations.