Hiking 260km on The Five Mountains Trail E4 in Bulgaria
The year of 2020 did not seem very promising for any travel adventures But as they say, Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Even though some international trips had to be cancelled, by having a Bulgarian citizenship I knew that I could go on a hiking adventure and explore the beauties of the Bulgarian mountains. Luckily out of the 12 Trans-European hiking paths, there are 3 of them that are passing through Bulgaria. The E3, E4 and E8. The E4 section in Bulgaria, also called the five mountains, is 260km long and as the name suggests it crosses through 5 different mountains. Starting from the capital Sofia, through the mountains of Vitosha, Verila, Rila, Pirin and then Slavyanka.
Ending at the border with Greece. And because the trail passes through the Rila and Pirin mountains, the highest mountains on the Balkans, the E4 is characterized as the most alpine trail in the country. That definitely seemed like an adventure I didn’t want to miss out on, and at the same time, it was also a chance to get to know the country I grew up in.
Only that the mountains, with their unpredictable nature, had some surprises planned along the way to spice things up... The thunders began to strike, therefore I'm trying to quickly get down. But... more on that later, For now let’s start from the very beginning. Before I could even start hiking, first I had to buy a gas canister as soon as the stores opened.
- Aah, only for that gas bottle? - Eh... From the ring road at the outskirts of Sofia, I headed up to the Dragalevtsi neighbourhood, where the trail officially begins at the ibex water fountain. Soon after that the trail climbed up away from the city, entering into Vitosha natural park, which is the oldest national park in the country. With its proximity to the capital, Vitosha mountain is the most visited mountain in the country, but because I had a late start, the trails were almost empty.
For a change of scenery, I continued on the trail under a no longer working chairlift, on the lush green and more direct trail. - Look. Above the tree line it became more apparent that there were indeed a lot of visitors, but by this time, most of the people were now on their way down. After Vitosha’s highest peak, the trail became quickly void of any people, and it’s also where the first blisters began to appear.
On the southern slopes of Vitosha, the next mountain of Verila was now lying ahead. The shelter Smilyo should now be near by. Arriving at the shelter, the water source had already dried up by the end of August, so I continued along towards the next shelter. Here, a big hiking group had already arrived, so I set up camp and I joined them for dinner. Only later did I realize that I had set up camp way too close to the party.
Well, lesson learned for next time. On day 2 I had to go through Verila mountain, which is the lowest mountain on the entire hike. So that meant easy walking in the forest through the mellow rolling hills. However there was one unique characteristic about Verila.
It’s name originates from the ancient Thracians, which means “The Waterless mountain”. so here I had to fill up on water, because there were no other water sources for the next 24 kilometres. And here for the first time I met a group of young hikers that were also doing the E4.
We enjoyed the juicy cherry plums from the trees, but soon after that they stopped for a break, and I continued ahead. Get out of here! Go away! I am running low on water, and there is 1 hour left to the village. Reaching the village of Klisura, the end of Verila, because I grew up at the nearby town of Samokov my dad came to pick me up with a fresh surprise, and I enjoyed a restful night at my parents home. Back in the village of Klisura, I was now entering into Rila mountain, the highest mountain in Easter Europe. But before I got into the higher parts, I had to cross the forests and fields of the lower Lakatishka Rila. And here for the first time, I had a closer glimpse of the alpine terrain that was lying ahead.
I have to go. This does not belong here. And now, entering into the forest trails. Now we are talking, welcome to the mountains. Finally I was entering the more exciting parts of the mountain, and I was nearing the famous area of the 7 Rila lakes.
Even though I had a tent with me, one big advantage for hiking in Bulgaria was the amount of huts spread out through the mountains, providing food and a shelter for the night, which can be especially useful when the forecast does not seem promising. I thought I could enjoy the views outside with a classic bean soup, but it quickly started pouring and I was forced to finish eating inside. Until the weather cleared up for the sunset, and I had a cold spa session for the feet. The forecast for this day was for rain and thunderstorms late in the afternoon, so if I wanted to reach my destination, while being safe hiking high on the ridge, I had to leave early in the morning. And even though I’m normally not an early riser, these views early in the morning are so much worth it. Walking on top of the ridge, the fog or the clouds were constantly rolling in and out, providing short moments with views, and then surrounding you back again.
Right after going over Malyovitsa peak I had a choice to make to stay on E4 on the marked trail down towards the hut, or I could take the alternative high route and stay on top of the ridge. It's straight up from here. I thought I still had plenty of time before the storm, so I decided to take the high route.
However the storm rolled in earlier than expected and caught me off-guard right before the exposed Orlovets peak without any places to hide. Orlovets peak... Serious rain is pouring down. The thunders began to strike, therefore I'm trying to quickly get down to the shelter. This is the mountain, it is just that the rain came earlier than expected.
At least the shelter is nearby. Much better on the grass. And here is the shelter. Seems like the storm has almost passed.
I am checking out the forecast to know if I should go, or if I should wait a bit more in here. Temporarily, the weather has cleared up, but the forecast is for more rain later on, so I will try to get to the shelter at the Scary Lake. And I will decide there, what I should do. From here I had to descend down through this field of rocks, in order to get back down to the E4. And after adventuring, again back on the E4.
So much better on the marked trail. Even though my original plan was to get further that day, I decided to get to the shelter at Strashoto lake - meaning the Scary lake, and to spend the night there. Some more rain came in, so I was thankful to be at the shelter, protected from the elements at the heart of the mountain. - Hi. - Hello. Hello guys! - Just here we catched the storm.
- Oh shit! - Yeah. - We survived. - Yeah, we survived. The storm had passed, and because I didn’t reach as far as I had planned the previous day, I now had a longer day ahead of me.
Vitosha mountain from where the trail had started was now away in the distance, and I continued further, hiking deeper into Rila mountain Coming to Vodni Chal peak, I was now entering into Central Rila, and I continued towards the Ribni lakes hut. If you have seen my John Muir Trail video, you know how much I enjoy going for a dip into the alpine lakes. So passing by the Ribno lake, it was no exception. From this place on the trail stays high on the ridge, so I had to stock up on water for the rest of the day.
According to the guidebook the following section on the ridgeline is the most technical terrain in Rila on the E4. simply because of the amount of rock and scree that the trail goes through. Even in the summer you could see your breath.. The feet and legs were already getting tired, but I had only one more peak to climb, before reaching the final destination for the night.
Towards Angel's peak, the trail goes straight up. And finally the last descend towards the Macedonia Hut. For breakfast - blueberries.
From here I was now entering into southwest section of Rila, where the trail was mostly above tree line, though without any technical terrain. Скакауец! (*Grasshoppers!) Probably my least favourite thing about the E4 were these juniper shrubs, with their hard and sharp branches, scraping the shin-bones as you go through them. The high peaks of Rila were now behind, and ahead was the Pirin mountain with its majestic main ridgeline.
This was the last peak for this mountain that is above 2000 meters. And from here it was all downhill towards the valley dividing Rila and Pirin, so I switched the trekking poles into descending mode, to make it easier on the knees. Bulgarian mountain jungle. Looks like this part of the mountain doesn't get many visitors, because I did not see a single hiker in both directions. From the Predela hut, there was a 3 km road walk on the main road to Bansko resort, until reaching up on this sign, and then a little bit of more road walking on a quiet road, before entering into Pirin National Park. After the long descent yesterday to the valley, today was mostly ascending up through the forest towards the Yavorov hut and then to higher parts of the mountain.
While coming from the back side of the hut, the dogs were busy protecting, on the other side - the cats... Well, they were just being cats... Usually the stage for this day ends here at the Yavorov hut, but because I still have time I decided to continue towards the Koncheto shelter, and to spend the night there. Because I was planning on spending the night at the shelter on the ridge, I had to camel up and stock up on water for the night and the next morning. Getting above treeline and on top of the ridge, I was now greeted by the beauty of Pirin. Here is the shelter.
High up on the ridgeline, the Koncheto shelter was recently renovated with a solar panel, electricity and 3 floors with room for hikers. Truly a unique shelter, really well-built. And from a completely empty shelter at the start of the night, soon after a few other groups of hikers joined in, - My name is Plamen. - Lyubo. to an almost totally full shelter. From here, together with Plamen, a fellow hiker with similar passions we started hiking together towards the famous ridge named Koncheto - meaning the little Horse.
- Here it is. By spending the night up high at the shelter we arrived early at the narrow ridge, with steep, vertical cliffs on both of its sides. You better be holding the rope in here. Koncheto, nice one! After crossing Koncheto, it was time to continue towards Vihren, which is the highest peak in the Pirin mountain.
Happy Vihren summit! There was a long day ahead of me, so on the top of Vihren, we said our goodbyes, - It was my pleasure. - That we hiked Vihren. and I continued descending towards the Vihren hut. After a classic bean soup and a short break at the hut, I had to start going up again to get back up to the main ridge. Approaching the ridgeline, the trail was again going through some rocky terrain, and even though walking through them was still slow, it was much better with the dry rocks and the sunny weather. From here the trail follows the ridgeline through multiple peaks, before reaching the Mazgovishka pass at the end of the ridge.
I can't wait to get to Tevno lake, and hopefully swimming is allowed. I reached Tevno lake, the final destination for that day, where for preservation reasons it was not allowed to swim in the lake - Is it forbidden to swim in the lake? - Yes, it's forbidden. So the dip in the lake had to be compromised for an outdoor shower. From Tevno lake the trail then continues to a mountain pass, which is the last place on the trail that is above 2600m. After going over the pass, and descending down the old glacial cirque, the trail then transitions to high mountain pastures.
Here the cows were the maintainers of the land and were mowing the grass low. - Bravo. Lower down the trail a shepherd helped us with directions, - Slowly, slowly. and I met one couple, Tsetso and Andy, that were also doing the E4. - See you over at the hut. - See you. - Bye.
Down in the valley the trail now enters into old forests with living trees that have been growing for multiple centuries. The trail is really overgrown in here. Getting out of the forest, ahead was the last climb for the day, traversing on the left side of Oreliak Peak. The high peaks of northern Pirin were now away in the distance, and ahead opened up views to southern Pirin as well as Slavyanka mountain, the 5th mountain, and where the E4 section in Bulgaria ends. I tied the shoes one last time and headed out for the last day of hiking on the trail.
Today there is a long day ahead. the longest day of the entire hike is today. The plan for this day was to start early and combine two stages of the trail into one day, but from the multiple days of hiking the legs and the body were in good shape for the longer day. In southern Pirin the entire section is on dirt roads which made for easy walking and worry-free navigation. And after descending through the forests, ahead was now Slavyanka, the final mountain on the E4 trail.
Down at the saddle between Pirin and Slayanka, is where the stage for that day usually ends, but I now had a long climb to the highest peak in the Slavyanka mountain. No more dirt roads, from here it's a nice forest trail. and mаy the climbing begin.
And after climbing though the forest and coming up to the ridge, ahead was now the Bulgaria and Greece border, as well as the final peaks for the E4. - Passport please. - Passport, yes. There you go. - Welcome to Greece. - Thank you. Greece...
Bulgaria. Already hiking alongside the border, the trail officially ends on top of Gotsev peak, the highest peak of the Slavyanka mountain. Here it is Gotsev Peak. That was it.
The E4 ends in here. Truly an abundance of mountain beauties in our mountains.