Hiking the Samaria Gorge – An Absolute Must

This past May our family visited Greece. As part of our trip we visited the beautiful island of Crete and stayed in two cities, Chania and Heraklion. All of our research and recommendations from friends told us that hiking the Samaria Gorge in Crete was an absolute must. The Samaria Gorge is a National park located in the Lefka Ori(White Mountains) in the South Western part of the island. The Samaria Gorge is the second longest gorge in Europe offering a spectacularly scenic hike that begins at 1230 meters (4035 ft) above sea level and descends for 16 km (almost 10 miles) bringing you to the exit of the park at 170 meters above sea level (557 ft). From the exit of the park you continue walking for about 2 km (1.24 miles) before you reach the beach city of Agia Roumeli on the Libyan sea.

Our Chania hotel, Porto Veneziano, recommended using Elafonissos Travel to book our Samaria Gorge day expedition. The hotel provided us with free lunches. Elafonissos Travel picked us up at our hotel at 6 a.m. in a shuttle bus that took us to a more central location in the city where we transferred to the standard tour bus. We took the 25-mile bus trip from the port city of Chania to the entrance of the Samaria Gorge in the village of Xyloskalo. During the bus ride our tour guide provided background and appropriate safety warnings. He informed us of rest stops (with bathrooms) within the park and gave us recommended guidelines for timing our hike. Once inside the park we would be left on our own to hike at our own pace. The bus stopped at a cafe located just before the entrance of the park that allowed people to buy food and use the restrooms.

After our 20-minute rest stop we continued to the entrance of the park at Xyloskalo. Xyloskalo means “wooden steps” or staircase and was given this name by the locals because of the original wooden steps they built to access the gorge. We started our hike at approximately 8:00 a.m. with cool temperatures in the fifties (Fahrenheit). The hiking trail is marked with signs in kilometers. The first 3.7 kilometers (2.3 miles) of the hike had us going down a steep zigzag path that quickly descended from 1230 to 580 meters (from 4025 to 1902 feet).

 

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Zig-zag path down the mountain to reach the gorge

Although the path today is made of stone with wooden rails, it is considered the most dangerous part of the hike with most accidents happening in the first two kilometers. We also hit some congestion in this area because it is narrow and all the passengers of the bus were trying to get through. Once we got past this area the congestion of people dissipated. The path became less steep when we reached the valley in about 4 kilometers (2.49 miles). This brought us to the first rest stop, the ancient village of Agios Nikolaus. By then we had removed layers of clothing because it was much warmer than when we had started at the top.

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The hike from Agios Nikolaus to the settlement of Samaria is 3.7 kilometers long (2.3 miles) and becomes easier to navigate with opportunities to refill your water bottle in the two springs you pass. At a certain point we reached a wooden bridge that diverted us from the main path and took us to the remains of the village of Samaria.

Samaria was settled in the 14thcentury and was inhabited until 1962 when the gorge was turned into a National Park and its inhabitants were asked to leave. The inhabitants of Samaria were wood loggers and endured many hardships. During the winter months their access to the sea through the gorge was closed off due to high river waters. The locals had to hike through a dangerous mountain trail to reach Agia Roumeli. Today, the settlement of Samaria is a great place for hikers to rest.

We enjoyed our hotel-packed lunches, used the restrooms, and refilled our water bottles. After our break we crossed the wooden bridge once again to pick up our trail from Samaria to Christos. Up until then most of our walk had been in shade or partial shade. Within a half hour of walking we reached the riverbed with more sun exposure. This is the beginning of the actual gorge with its spectacular view. Along the way we read warning signs of “falling rock”, apparently a real threat during high winds and heavy rains and thankfully not on the day we were there. I cannot emphasize how beautiful the views were.

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My husband and children taking the lead
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That’s me bringing up the rear!

A word of caution to all photographers out there, there were parts of the walk where you needed to put your camera away, so that you could focus on your footing. The hike, although mostly flat at this point, was extremely rocky and in some areas we were stepping on slippery stones to cross the river.

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Along the way we saw a local with two donkeys that are used to transport injured people.

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By the kilometer 11 (6.8 miles) of the hike we reached Christos, the last of the rest stops. Soon after continuing our walk we arrived at the “Gates” the narrowest portion of the gorge with a width of only 4 meters and a soaring height of almost 1,000 feet.

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After we passed the “Gates” we continued for 2 more kilometers (1.86 miles) to the exit gate of the park where we handed in our tickets.

 

Right outside the gate was a small cafe where we rested again before embarking on the final stage of our walk to the seaside village.

 

The exit of the park is located in the “old” village of Agia Roumeli, which was destroyed by floods in 1950’s. We continued on to the new village of Agia Roumeli located by the Libyan sea. This final part of the walk was fairly flat and very warm with no shade. A quick shuttle was available to complete the last 2 km (1.24 miles) of the trek but we decided to continue walking. It was a welcoming sight to see the beach town. There were many beachfront restaurants to pick from.

We walked towards one end of the beach and by 1:00 p.m. we sat down to enjoy some cold refreshing beer and food. We also changed into bathing suits and flip-flops. The owner of our restaurant was shocked with how quickly we had completed the hike. It turns out we finished in 5 hours when most people take 7-8 hours. Our college-aged children were extremely motivated to finish the hike and reach the beaches of Agia Roumeli so they kept us going at a very fast pace. Our tour guide met us in town at a predetermined place and time to hand out ferry tickets for the return home. At 5:15 p.m. we boarded the ferry that took us from Agia Roumeli to Sougia on the southern coast of Crete. In Sougia we hopped on our original tour bus and were driven back to Chania. Our family together with a few other passengers did a quick transfer to the smaller shuttle that brought us into the old town of Chania where our hotel was located. We were back at the hotel by 8 p.m.

 

My husband and I absolutely loved the hike. It was a challenging hike but we were rewarded with beautiful scenery and a great sense of accomplishment. Like my friends that told me not to miss this trip, I would highly recommend it others. You need to be in good shape and have adequate equipment and clothes. Not being expert hikers, we thought initially that a 12-mile downhill walk would not be bad at all. Well now we know that downhill hiking is more challenging than uphill hiking. Some members of the family could have been better prepared with better equipment such as better shoes (hiking boots preferably) and comfortable backpacks. The tour guide offered us hiking sticks for rent at the beginning of the walk but we passed on the offer. The hiking sticks may have come in handy in some parts of the walk. The option to hike the gorge uphill beginning in Agia Roumeli is available but keep in mind that the majority of hikers are coming downhill so you are fighting the flow of people. Some folks choose to hike uphill for just a small portion and then return to Agia Ruomeli. The hike is not recommended for elderly people, people with heart conditions, people with knee problems, or pregnant women. The temperatures are always much cooler at the top than at the bottom so it is recommended to wear layers. Although you can do the hike completely on your own, using the travel company was extremely helpful.

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Home stretch – from the exit of the national park of Samaria Gorge to the seaside town of Agia Roumeli

We enjoyed hiking the Samaria Gorge so much that when we arrived in Santorini we decided to do the 6-mile hike between the cities of Fira and Oia along the caldera cliff. Another absolute must!

Good Background information:

https://www.west-crete.com/samaria-gorge-walk.htm

https://www.katherinebelarmino.com/2015/06/samaria-gorge-hike-crete-greece.html

The bus tour company that our hotel recommended:

https://www.elafonissostravel.com/excursions/excursion-to-samaria

 

 

 

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