Winter arrives early in Bulgaria’s highest mountains, turning the alpine landscapes into a wonderland of snow and ice. You might think the end of autumn also signals the conclusion of the hiking season in the Balkans — but that’s far from the truth. Rila, Pirin, the Rhodopes and the Balkan Mountains are especially alluring in their winter coating, and one of the most rewarding ways to experience this is on a guided snowshoeing tour with Top Guides Bulgaria.
I’m a seasoned summer hiker with dozens of treks in Bulgaria and abroad, but I only started venturing to our highest peaks in winter a couple of years ago. I had never tried snowshoeing, so in late December I booked a day trip with Top Guides to add a new skill to my trekking portfolio. I had a delightful day up on the slopes of Rila, battling the wind, basking in the winter sun and practicing my snowshoeing technique.
The target of our outing was to explore the gentle Parangalitsa part of Rila, accessible via the Kartala ski area. That day, Rila’s smooth, rolling ridges were covered by deep fresh snow, which provided perfect conditions for my first snowshoeing trek. Individual spruce trees dotted the high-mountain valleys in the Parangalitsa biosphere reserve below, but the peaks above stood barren, snow-white and obscured by low-lying clouds, at least early on.
This section of Rila lies very close to the major town of Blagoevgrad, so you can be stretching your legs in front of the Kartala gondola lift after a two-hour drive from Sofia. A peaceful early-morning lift ride elevated us above the snowline and 15 minutes later, we were learning how to put on our snowshoes next to the Kartala upper station, 2250 m above sea level. The wind was blowing strong and the sky was beginning to clear up from the night’s snowfall, filling us with excitement at the high chance of gorgeous alpine vistas. The wind chill brought the temperature down to about -15°C, so wearing winter mountaineering shoes and dressing in layers was a must and putting on a ski mask was more than a good idea.
Our party of six was led by two knowledgeable and attentive mountain guides who equipped us with trusty TSL snowshoes and trekking poles. Each group member was assisted in properly putting on their snowshoes and we were given a concise briefing before we commenced our trek. So if you’re a complete snowshoeing beginner, a guided winter walking tour like this is the perfect opportunity to get into a new hobby. And if you’re a skilful snowshoer, Top Guides Bulgaria offer more challenging snowshoeing activities too, including multi-day trips and tougher summit ascents.
Our high-altitude day hike lasted around five hours and covered nine kilometres. This was a solid effort for first-time snowshoers, but didn’t leave us completely knackered at the end. With our first steps in snowshoes, we ascended 150 metres to the nearby Ismailitsa Peak (2409 m). From the get-go, it was noticeably easier to walk with snowshoes on in these conditions. The danger of sinking to your knees in the deep fresh snow is minimized significantly, even if you’re breaking trail.
On Ismailitsa, the wind was unforgiving, but the summits of gentle giants Big Bear Peak (Голям Мечи връх, Golyam Mechi vrah) and Little Bear Peak (Малък Мечи връх, Malak Mechi vrah) were now visible in the east. To the south, the marble ridge of the neighbouring Pirin was beginning to reveal its epic walls ever so slightly under the clouds.
To practice walking downhill and uphill with snowshoes on, we descended a few hundred metres down a river valley in the rough direction of Chakalitsa Hut. From this angle, we were able to catch a glimpse of Blagoevgrad and marvel at the snowless lowlands of southwest Bulgaria far below. We crossed a thawing stream and headed up over a steep ridge back towards the upper gondola lift station, where we finished our hike.
Throughout the snowshoeing tour, our guides educated us on winter hiking best practices as well as the geography, history and toponymy of this part of Rila. Our group was all Bulgarian-speaking, but Top Guides team members are experienced at leading English-speaking groups too.
All in all, this winter hike in the high reaches of Rila was an incredible opportunity for me to get into snowshoeing. Booking a mountain guide or joining a guided group are the most convenient and stress-free ways to enjoy the Bulgarian mountains in winter, saving you the trouble of organizing your transport and accommodation, planning your route or much less worrying about avalanches or blizzards. So I’d fully recommend choosing Top Guides Bulgaria for your next Balkan winter adventure!