Jaw-dropping Samaria Gorge on Crete is extremely popular with hikers and non-hikers alike, and it is very easy to understand why.
The 15 kilometer (10 mile) long walk takes you through a stunning UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and some of the most unique scenery to be found in the entirety of Greece.
The second-largest gorge in Europe
Samaria Gorge can be found near the city of Chania on the island of Crete, and visitors can get to it just by taking a pleasant hour-long bus ride. Private cars are not convenient at all for this journey as the hike is long and ends very far away from the starting point.
The gorge was formed by a small river which runs between the White Mountains and Mount Volakias. Although there are many gorges on Crete, Samaria Gorge is by far the largest, and is known for being the second-largest gorge in Europe.
The village of Samaria used to be located inside of the gorge, but was finally abandoned by the last remaining inhabitants in 1962 to make way for the Samaria Gorge Park. The village and the gorge take their names from the village’s ancient church, Óssia María.
A notable feature of the gorge on Crete is that it is home to a number of native species, including the Cretan kri-kri goat. Almost all of the kri-kri goats who live outside of captivity call Samaria Gorge their home, making the area a very special one for animal conservationists.
The kri-kri was so endangered in 1960 that there was a total population of below 200 at the time. This low number of individuals may have been due to its being the only meat available to mountain-based guerrilla fighters during the German occupation in World War II.
The kri-kri’s status was one reasons why Samaria Gorge became a national park in 1962.
Unfortunately, the kri-kri is still under threat today, with a total population of only around 2,000 individuals. However, you may be able to spot one of the incredibly rare goats on your hike of the Samaria!
Hiking Samaria Gorge
The head of the Gorge is at Xyloskalo, a small village which offers some options for food and drink before brave walkers take on the long and strenuous day ahead. There is an entrance fee to the gorge of €5 ($6), and from then on hikers have their day cut out for them.
The gorge is only open to hike through during the warmer spring and summer months. This is partly because it becomes dangerous and difficult to navigate when it rains, so it is important for visitors to keep an eye on the weather forecast when planning a hike.
The walking path ends at a quaint village named Agia Roumeli, nestled between the gorge and the Libyan Sea. Following such a long excursion, people will often opt to spend a night in Agia Roumeli itself or even one of the villages of Sougia or Hora Sfakion, which are just a short boat ride away. Alternatively, hikers can make their way back to Chania by coach.
One of the most showstopping parts of hiking Samaria Gorge is a stretch of the trail referred to as “the Gates.” This aptly-named part of the impressive hike denotes a slightly claustrophobic but impressive area where the sides of the gorge close in, leaving a gap of only four meters (13 feet) for hikers to slip through. This creates a lasting effect on those who navigate it, particularly as the gorge walls also reach straight up to 300 meters (980 feet) along this stretch.
The hike will often take people from five to seven hours, unless they opt to do it “the lazy way”; a modified, shorter hike from the village of Agia Roumeli to the Gates and back.
Local tourist operators provide organized tours to the Gorge. These include bus transportation from popular hotels to the entrance of the gorge, and a bus connection that will be waiting for hikers after they disembark the ferry in the nearby villages of Sougia or Hora Sfakion.
These organized tours are often hailed as the best way to experience Samaria Gorge on Crete, as they allow visitors to sit back and have the technicalities of their hike planned with just the click of a button. Tour guides will also help keep everyone who hikes the gorge safe, trailing behind the last hikers on the trail to make sure everyone makes it to Agia Roumeli.
Regular route can become very crowded in Summer
A local man who has hiked the gorge on several occasions, Tony Cross, shared his first-hand experience with Greek Reporter.
Cross recommends a more unorthodox approach to hiking the beautiful trail. His cohort begins their walk in Agia Roumeli and ends it in Xyloskalo, due to how crowded the normal route can become during summer.
“Keen and experienced walkers will enjoy the gorge so much more if they arrange to walk up it instead of down.
“It’s much more difficult to organise a walk up the gorge and you have to do all the organising yourself, but you’ll enjoy the majestic splendour of the gorge much more when you’re the only ones in it and you have the time and space in which to stop and absorb the views,” says Cross, describing the magical experience of hiking the gorge in relative peace.
In order to do so, hikers must plan their trip meticulously. Thankfully, Cross has outlined just how to make the trip as painless as possible!
“You’ll need to drive to either Chora Sfakion or Sougia, leave you car there and catch the ferry to Agia Roumelli at the base of the gorge.
“You should plan to rise early on the morning of your hike,” he recommends.
“The gorge opens at 6am but it’s a 30 minute walk from Agia Roumelli to the official entrance of the gorge, you’ll want to have a good breakfast in Agia Roumelli as well — there are one or two tavernas open that early in the morning,” Cross says, warning that travelers should avoid hiking in the afternoon as the sun and heat become unbearable later in the day.
“You can expect to arrive at the top in the early afternoon and a cold drink and/or ice-cream in the cafe at the top is very welcoming! From the top of the gorge there is an easy 4.5 km (2.8 mile) walk across the relatively flat Omalos Plateau to the Neos Omalos Hotel, which you should book in advance,” continues the expert hiker.
The next day, those who choose to take the more challenging — but also perhaps more scenic — route will need to either take a taxi to their cars in Sougia (although Cross warns this might be a bit expensive), or spend a second day in a row hiking.
“A more interesting option would be to walk across the Omalos Plateau to the head of the Agia Irini Gorge and walk down this equally spectacular gorge to Sougia. You’re pretty much guaranteed to be the only walkers in this very pretty gorge,” Cross divulges.
However you decide to plan getting to and from Samaria Gorge, it is truly an experience that is not to be missed.