Travel Destinations

Monday, June 29, 2015

Everything You Need to Know About Hiking Samaria Gorge

Wood Walkway Samaria Gorge Hike Crete Greece

If there is one thing you do when visiting the Greek island of Crete, you must hike Samaria Gorge.  There are certain epic hikes throughout the world, and the hike through Samaria Gorge National Park is one of them.  What makes Samaria Gorge epic?  At 16 kilometers, Samaria Gorge is one of the longest gorges in Europe (some sources say the longest, others the second longest), is located in Crete’s only national park, and provides stunning views all day long.

Xyloskalo Trailhead Samaria Gorge Hike Crete Greece

The Samaria Gorge hike starts at the Xyloskalo trailhead at an altitude of 1,250 meters in the midst of the White Mountains (Lefka Ori).  From the top, we saw sheer mountain slopes still covered with patches of snow.  At our feet was a steep trail winding its way down the mountain into the depths of the gorge.  The Samaria Gorge trail starts with a precipitous hike downhill along a switchback path sometimes bordered by a wooden handrail.  If you have any sort of knee problems, take your time and hold on.  This part of the trail lasts for almost two kilometers.

Trail Mule Samaria Gorge Hike Crete Greece

On the way down we passed men walking two mules down the trail.  Everyday mules pick their way along the trail in case any hikers have an accident and are unable to walk out of the gorge on their own. 

Dragon Arum Samaria Gorge Hike Crete Greece

Along the trail are informative signs about what can be seen along the way, including flora, fauna, and structures.  Some of the flowers that can be seen growing on the plateaus are peonies, dragon arum, marjoram, anemones, white asphodels, yellow phlomis, and irises.  Dragon arum flowers look like something from the Jurassic period, large and deep reddish-purple.  They have an unpleasant odor that is somehow attractive to insect pollinators.

Mountainside Samaria Gorge Hike Crete Greece

What I loved about hiking through Samaria Gorge is that there wasn’t just natural beauty, there were also little churches and remnants of villages along the way.  Be sure to take a peek into the open churches.  Many hikers kept on walking without a second glance. 

St. Nicolas's Chapel (Ayios Nikolaos) Samaria Gorge Hike Crete Greece

The first church we encountered was St. Nicolas’s Chapel (Ayios Nikolaos).  Nearby is a plateau covered in perennial flowers, which wasn’t always so peaceful.  At this spot, in the late 1700s, there was an uprising against the Turks who were pursuing thousands of women and children hiding in the gorge.

Samaria Settlement Chapel Samaria Gorge Hike Crete Greece

Samaria Gorge has been inhabited since the beginning of time.  There are remnants of Byzantine churches and Venetian castles.  At the halfway point is the remains of a more modern settlement.  Until 1962, families lived in the tiny village of Samaria in the shade of the soaring walls of the gorge.  After the area was converted into a national park, all human inhabitants of Samaria Gorge were relocated.  The buildings have been converted to house the forest outpost, medical center, and lodgings for researchers.  Samaria Gorge was converted into a national park in part to protect the Cretan wild goat (also known as agrimi and kri-kri), which is the largest wild mammal of Crete and has been around since prehistoric times.

The Gates Samaria Gorge Hike Crete Greece

After taking a lunch break at the Samaria settlement, we continued on to where our surroundings really began to look like a gorge.  At the “Gates” the sheer walls of the gorge soar upwards towards the skies and the floor narrows and widens while the trail crisscrosses the river multiple times.  Sometimes crossings are made by hopping from stone to stone and other times by traversing wood bridges.  I have no idea how many times we crossed the river, but Romeo is convinced it was 100 times.

River Crossing Samaria Gorge Hike Crete Greece

The Samaria Gorge portion of the hike ends at kilometer 14 where hikers can sit at a cafĂ©, surrounded by a few cats of Greece, and enjoy a fresh squeezed orange juice, a soft-serve ice cream cone, or a cold glass of Greek beer.  After refueling, there are two more kilometers to the coast and the town of Agia Roumeli.

Agia Roumeli Libyan Sea Samaria Gorge Hike Crete Greece

If you’ve got enough time before the ferry leaves, switch out your hiking shoes for flip flops and head to the crystal clear blue waters of the Libyan Sea.  Soaking your feet in the water is the best feeling after a long hike, though beware the pebbly shore gets hot and the rocks can hurt your feet as you walk into the water.  I just viewed it as an extreme form of reflexology.  Once in it felt great.

Giglios Agia Roumelia Samaria Gorge Hike Crete Greece

There are a number of open-air restaurants along the beach that provide sea views and cold beers, the perfect end to a perfect day of hiking one of the most beautiful hikes in the world.

When to Hike Samaria Gorge

Lizard on the Plateau Samaria Gorge Hike Crete Greece

Samaria Gorge can only be hiked in the warm months of the year.  The entrance is open May 1 through October 30.

Hiking Logistics

Samaria Gorge Trail Samaria Gorge Hike Crete Greece

It takes a long time to hike Samaria Gorge.  It took us seven hours to hike the 16 kilometers from the Xyloskalo trailhead to Agia Roumeli.  This included stopping to snap hundreds of photos of Samaria Gorge, taking short rest and snack breaks, eating lunch at the abandoned Samaria settlement, and relaxing for an ice cream break at the end of the gorge trail before continuing the remaining two kilometers to Agia Roumeli.  We could have walked faster, but it wasn’t necessary as we still had two and a half hours for cooling off in the sea and having a beer before catching the ferry.

Climbing Rocks Samaria Gorge Hike Crete Greece

You have to be physically fit to hike Samaria Gorge.  The most difficult part of the hike is the first couple kilometers that are extremely steep.  If you have knee problems, the steep descent may be too difficult.  If you are able to handle the steep hike down and have the stamina to walk for 16 kilometers, then this is actually the easiest extreme hike ever.  I can count on one hand the number of times we had to walk uphill, and I’m using the term uphill liberally.  Even though it was 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the afternoon, we barely broke a sweat since most of the hike is shaded and the running water of the river cools the air.  While the first night my knees and hips hurt, the next day the only thing that hurt was a faint burn in my abdominal muscles, which I realized was from balancing on the rocks when crossing the river.  When have you ever done an activity that wasn’t formal exercise that worked your core?  You do need to have some sense of balance as you will be rock hopping across the river innumerable times.

How to Get to Samaria Gorge

Samaria Gorge River Samaria Gorge Hike Crete Greece

While everywhere else you’ll want to go on the island of Crete is accessible by car, you won’t want to go to Samaria Gorge by car if you’re planning on hiking.  If you are planning to hike the entire trail, there are two ways to get to Samaria Gorge.  The first is to take public transportation, and the second is to join a Samaria Gorge excursion.

Samaria Gorge and River Samaria Gorge Hike Crete Greece

We highly recommend staying in Chania if hiking Samaria Gorge.  Chania is the closest city to the Samaria Gorge trailhead which means your drive before and after the hike will be the shortest, as opposed to starting from Rethimno or Iraklion.  It also means you’ll get there earlier than hikers coming from other cities and will therefore have a less crowded hiking trail and more time to hike.

Samaria Gorge Walls Samaria Gorge Hike Crete Greece

While it costs a little more money, we preferred joining a Samaria Gorge tour.  We stayed at the gorgeous Porto Veneziano in Chania and all we had to do was tell them we wanted to hike Samaria Gorge and they contacted Elafonissos Travel and set everything up for us.  For 22 euros (plus an additional 5 euros to enter Samaria Gorge National Park and 8.50 euros for the Samaria Gorge ferry) a shuttle picked us up from our hotel’s front door at 6:00 a.m. and took us to the tour bus meeting point.  We then relaxed on the bus ride to the Xyloskalo entrance and started hiking by 8:00 a.m.  Ours was the second bus of the day to arrive.  

Samaria Gorge Walls and Rocks Samaria Gorge Hike Crete Greece

Just because this is a tour does not mean you’ll be walking with a large group of people.  The group disperses pretty quickly based on everyone’s speed and there were many times during the hike that we didn’t see anyone else on the trail.  Joining a Samaria Gorge tour means all the logistics are taken care of by someone else and all you have to do is enjoy the hike.  The tour guide purchases your park entrance and your ferry ticket, plus he starts the hike an hour later to make sure everyone is doing okay along the trail.

Samaria Gorge Hike Samaria Gorge Hike Crete Greece

If you prefer to save a few euros and get to Samaria Gorge on your own, you can take a public bus to Samaria Gorge.  You’ll catch the public bus from Chania to Omalos (check the KTEL website for up-to-date schedules and rates), hike the gorge, catch the ferry from Agia Roumeli to Chora Sfakion (check the Anendyk ferry website for schedules and rates), and then take the public bus from Chora Sfakion back to Chania.  Note you will be on the same ferry as those who join the Samaria Gorge tours, so setting out on your own won’t get you home quicker.

River and Snow Capped Mountain Samaria Gorge Hike Crete Greece

It is also possible to hike just a portion of Samaria Gorge, which some would call Samaria Gorge the easy way.  If only hiking part of Samaria Gorge, you will take a ferry to Agia Roumeli and hike in from the opposite direction of those hiking the entire gorge.  Hiking the gorge in this way will definitely introduce you to the beauty of the gorge, but we think you’ll be missing out by not doing the entire hike.

What to Bring for the Samaria Gorge Hike

Agia Roumelia Church Samaria Gorge Hike Crete Greece

As with any long hike, you need to be prepared.  Wear good sturdy hiking shoes, a hat to block the sun, and sunscreen.  Rome wore shorts and a t-shirt and I wore shorts and a tank top and we were comfortable the entire hike.  It was a little chilly when we got out of the bus, but we warmed up quickly when we started walking, so I’m glad I didn’t bring a jacket that I would have had to carry.  If you have slight knee or hip problems, you may want to bring trekking poles.  Our tour company also provided poles to rent. 

Porto Veneziano Packed Lunch Samaria Gorge Hike Crete Greece

Bring a backpack to carry your water and snacks (I use a hydration pack).  One of the great things about this hike is that you don’t have to bring a ton of water.  As long as you have a bottle with you, you can refill it along the way.  Approximately every kilometer or so there are spigots along the trail with constantly running water fresh from the mountain stream.  There is no food along the trail so you’ll need to bring food to keep fueled.  Our hotel packed us lunches (for free!) that included water, juice, fruit, and sandwiches.  It was the perfect amount of food for the hike.

Town of Loutro from the Ferry Samaria Gorge Hike Crete Greece

After a long hike there is nothing better than being able to take off your hiking shoes.  I thought about bringing my flip flops, but didn’t want the extra weight in my backpack.  I said to Rome that if the shops in Agia Roumeli were smart they would sell flip flops and bathing suits.  Sure enough, when we got into town, we found a shop selling those very things.  I bought a cute pair of blue and white Hellas flip flops as a souvenir and threw my shoes into a plastic sack.  So, you can bring your own flip flops, or buy a pair in town.

Red Anemones Samaria Gorge Hike Crete Greece

If you are visiting Crete and like hiking even a little bit, you must add Samaria Gorge to your travel itinerary.  It is sure to be a highlight of your world travels and is without a doubt an epic hike.

Thank you to Porto Veneziano Hotel and AutoClub Car Rental for hosting our travels through Crete and making this post possible.  As always, all opinions are my own.  This article contains affiliate links.  If you purchase through them, it costs you nothing extra and we earn a small commission which goes towards running this website and bringing you more travel stories.
Travel the World: The Samaria Gorge hike on the island of Crete in Greece is an epic European hike for the bucket list.

Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.