The massive Rila Mountains in southwestern Bulgaria are not only the highest between the Alps and the Caucasus, but also a prime destination for hiking in Bulgaria. Covered in part by the Rila National Park, Rila is a magnificent collection of jagged peaks, maiden forests and endless pastures topped by Musala, the 2,925-metre highest summit of the Balkans.
With an ancient Thracian name that likely means “well-watered mountain”, it can’t be a coincidence that water is one of the wonders of Rila. The mountains are abundant in glacial lakes, waterfalls and hot mineral springs and the depths of Rila give birth to some of the Balkans’ longest rivers.
From the iconic cirque of the Seven Rila Lakes to the Alpine ridges of Malyovitsa, kashkaval tourist presents 8 amazing hikes in Rila, the highest mountains of Bulgaria and the Balkans.
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1. The Magnificent Seven: the Seven Rila Lakes
When you’ve seen the Seven Rila Lakes, you’ll have no doubts as to why they’re perhaps the most famous natural site in Bulgaria. They’re a group of seven glacial lakes above the treeline, each with a characteristic shape and an unforgettable name like The Kidney, The Tear or the Eye. When viewed all together from the Lake Peak above them, the Seven Rila Lakes (Седемте рилски езера, Sedemte rilski ezera) make up one of the Balkans’ iconic panoramas.
In late summer, the followers of esoteric spiritual teacher Peter Deunov gather on the shores of the lakes. They’re all dressed in white and form huge dancing circles, quite the sight to behold. On a regular summer weekend, though, you’re more likely to encounter lots and lots of casual tourists, so better go during the week or off-season if you’re prepared.
You can get to the Seven Rila Lakes from Sapareva Banya near Dupnitsa, where a paved road to the trail and the chairlift starts. Accommodation and food are available at both the new (“Rila Lakes”) and the old (“Seven Lakes”) hut. A full tour of the Seven Rila Lakes is likely to take you some three or four hours there and back. A daytrip from Sofia is possible if you schedule your time well.
2. Top of the Balkans: Musala
At 2,925 metres, Mount Musala is Rila’s highest summit, which makes it the highest point of Bulgaria, the Balkans and all of Europe between the Alps and the Caucasus. It’s also Europe’s 7th most prominent peak and the coldest place in the Balkans, covered by snow for more than half of the year.
For such a high and extreme location, Musala (Мусала) can actually be a less challenging hike than other Bulgarian summits. It stands above one of Bulgaria’s most popular ski resorts, Borovets, so the cabin lift to Yastrebets can comfortably take you to 2,369 m, where you can start your hike. You can get to the top in only three hours, passing by Musala Hut and the Icy Lake Shelter. Both of these are good places for a short break and some refreshments.
Sure, the final hour of climbing Mount Musala is somewhat demanding and possibly vertigo-inducing, but it’s worth it because of the gorgeous views towards the lakes below. And when you get to the summit of the Balkans, you can kindly ask the meteorologists in the weather station for a cup of steaming tea!
3. Amphitheatre of thunder: the Scary Lake
The Scary Lake… sounds just fine and dandy, right! Surrounded almost entirely by the sharp and bare summits of the Big, Middle and Little Kupen, the Scary Lake (Страшното езеро, Strashnoto ezero) is not Rila’s highest or deepest, but it’s deservedly among the most notorious. It takes its name from the dreadful sounds of mountain thunderstorms that regularly hit the area, amplified by the amphitheatrical surroundings.
If you happen to end up in a storm by the Scary Lake at 2,465 m above sea level, then at least there’s cover. The small Scary Lake Shelter, right on the shores of the lake, is actually a comfortable place to spend the night if you’re feeling adventurous. Bring some food and drink and you can marvel at the clear starry night if you’re lucky!
The Scary Lake is easiest to get to from the Malyovitsa ski centre. A self-guided hike takes about three hours either through Yonchevo Lake or through the Malyovitsa Hut; you can take one of the routes there and the other one back to vary your trek.
4. High-mountain hospitality: Ivan Vazov Hut
Ivan Vazov Hut, located in the Pazardere high-mountain pasture 2,300 metres above sea level, is not just one of Rila’s highest mountain huts, but also one of the best managed in recent years. It’s one of a select few private-run huts in the Bulgarian mountains and the owners are young, enthusiastic and full of energy.
Ivan Vazov Hut (хижа “Иван Вазов”, hizha „Ivan Vazov“) features an amazing panorama towards the Kalinite ridge towering above it. If you embark on a rewarding two-hour walk in that direction, you’d be surprised to discover the Balkans’ highest reservoir and highest paved road, almost on the very top!
Ivan Vazov Hut is best accessible from the Seven Rila Lakes chairlift, some three hours away along basically all seven lakes. You can also get there from the Rila Monastery in four and a half hours, but the views are less spectacular from that side.
5. Royal rumble: Skakavitsa
Skakavitsa is Rila’s highest waterfall and in late spring, its rumbling waters are almost deafening! Located some 1,950 metres up in the mountains, Skakavitsa (Скакавица) is surrounded by pine forests and the slopes of Mount Kabul in northwestern Rila. Just half an hour away is the Skakavitsa Hut, where you can stay the night, enjoy a basic meal and… see a semi-domesticated fox, if you’re as lucky as me!
Further down the Skakavitsa River, you’ll discover lots of smaller (but still pretty impressive) waterfalls along a well-marked trail. You can start your hike from Panichishte, which is on the same mountain road from Sapareva Banya as the Seven Rila Lakes. The trek to the waterfall is generally easier than the tour of the lakes. And you can in fact do both hikes together if you have the time because the Rila Lakes Hut and the Skakavitsa Hut are about an hour from each other through the forest.
6. Stinking rich with vistas: the Fish Lakes and the Smelly Lake
Do I smell something fishy? Not really, it’s just a few of Rila’s most scenic (and vastly underestimated) glacial lakes! And before you ask: yes, the Fish Lakes do have fish, and no, the Smelly Lake isn’t actually smelly.
Instead, at nearly a kilometre in length, the Smelly Lake (Смрадливото езеро, Smradlivoto ezero) is the largest glacial lake in the Balkans. It’s part of the group of five Smelly Lakes, just about an hour from the twin Fish Lakes (Рибните езера, Ribnite ezera). The Fish Lakes are spectacularly situated next to each other under a high ridge, with the Fish Lakes Hut in between.
You can reach the area on a relatively straightforward but long hike from the Rila Monoastery that takes some five and a half hours one way. So you should either stay at the hut and go back or include the lakes in a longer tour of Rila, which is well worth it!
7. Rila’s Matterhorn: Malyovitsa
If Musala deserves to be called Rila’s Mont Blanc because of its height and snow cover, then Malyovitsa’s staggering pyramidal shape means it ought to be Rila’s Matterhorn. With its 2,729 metres, it’s not among Rila’s highest summits, but its Alpine appearance from the river valley below has made it a symbol of Bulgarian mountaineering.
Because of its steep slopes and the terraced approach to the peak, Malyovitsa is a relatively tough climb, but it’s incredibly enjoyable and fun at the same time. From the Malyovitsa ski resort past the hut of the same name, you should reckon with about three and a half hours to the top. And with glacial lakes and bare rock walls all around, you won’t be bored for a second!
If you’re attempting Malyovitsa in winter or spring, crampons for added boot traction might be a good idea for the highest sections and the exposed alternative routes.
8. Serenity away from the trails: the Urdini Lakes
There are some famous trails in Rila, there are some off-the-beaten-path hikes… and there are the Urdini Lakes. A spectacular group of six lakes away from any of the marked routes in Rila, the Urdini Lakes (Урдини езера, Urdini ezera) are located in a valley of their own that is visited by more shepherds than hikers. The lack of any manned accommodation in the valley may be one of the reasons for this, so just bring a tent and you can have these serene high-mountain lakes all to yourself!
The upper part of the valley is dominated by the imposing Mount Damga and in the lower parts the Urdina River winds down through thick coniferous forests. The lakes themselves are no less picturesque than the famed Seven Rila Lakes – and they have quirky names like The Drowning Man, The Triangle and the Big and Small Bowl to boot!
The Urdini Lakes are accessible either via Malyovitsa, Ivan Vazov Hut or the Seven Rila Lakes. Be aware that although the trail is quite prominent and not hard to follow, it’s not marked with paint as is common in the Bulgarian mountains. So a guided tour is recommended if you’re not confident in your wayfinding skills!