Hiking Musala: The highest mountain in the Balkans

With the snows of winter now receding across the Balkans, thoughts turn from snow sports to hiking. Craig Turp travels to the Bulgarian resort of Borovets to climb Musala, the highest mountain in the Balkans.

Given that the vast majority of Bulgarians were born with their walking boots on, it should come as no surprise to discover that hiking is one of the country’s most popular spring and summer activities. On any given weekend Bulgaria’s mountain resorts are crowded with eager walkers ready to scale another peak. None is more popular than Musala, at 2925 metres the highest mountain in both Bulgaria and the entire Balkan peninsula (it’s seven metres higher than Mt Olympus in Greece).

Musala can be scaled in a long return day trip from the ski resort of Borovets, although only if the first part of the climb is done on the Yastrabets gondola lift. The round trip from the top of the gondola to Musala peak takes around five hours for the reasonably fit. If you intend climbing up the whole way from Borovets, you will need to stay overnight at one of the mountain refuges.

First and foremost, note that outside of the ski season the gondola is closed on Monday and Tuesday. From Wednesday to Sunday it operates from 08:30 to 18:00. Do not miss the last gondola down: it is a long walk home if you do. It’s also worth keeping an eye on the weather: the gondola (constructed in the late 1980s) is rather dated and has a low wind threshold. Anything more than a stiff breeze and it will close.

You may want to avoid the weekend altogether. Saturdays and Sundays are very busy, with queues at the gondola long during the morning. The hiking path itself can get very busy: in fact, too busy for comfort, as thousands of people attempt to climb up to the top of the mountain. Many will be neither physically up to it nor in possession of a decent pair of walking shoes. Expect to find the route littered with casualties, often stopped in the most thoughtless and inconvenient places.

My advice? Come during the week (when the gondola is running of course: Wednesday to Friday). If you do come at the weekend, make sure you are at the gondola early (no later than 08:15). Note that tickets (which cost six euros for the round-trip) have to be bought from a separate queue: you can save lots of time by purchasing these the day before.

The gondola takes around 25 minutes to climb from Borovets (at 1300 metres) up to the Yastrabets summit at 2369 metres. At the top station there’s a cabin (with accommodation) serving snacks and drinks.

The first part of the hike crosses the Markudjik ski slopes

From here, the first part of the hike is a gentle walk across the Markudjik ski slopes (in winter these are among the most snow-sure in the region). In no more than 45 minutes you will arrive at the Musala cabin at 2389 metres. Overlooking one of the many so-called ice lakes in the Rila range the original single-storey cabin was built in the 1920s, then greatly extended in the 1960s. Basic accommodation is available. The ruins next door are the remains of another, stone cabin built in the 1930s but destroyed some time ago in a fire. The huge abandoned hotel on the shore of the lake was built in the late 1980s to serve both skiers in winter and walkers in summer. It has never opened.

From here, the climb gets considerably tougher. There’s little vegetation at this altitude and the grass soon gives way to stones. These get larger as the climb goes on and anyone not wearing decent footwear will be wishing they had decided to spend their Sunday doing something else.

Looking down at the Everest Pyramid

Your next stop (a further one and a half hours away) will be the so-called Everest Pyramid at 2720 metres, originally built as part of a Bulgarian Everest expedition in the 1980s. It offers basic food and accommodation (15 leva per person), although note that there are very few spaces. It has electricity courtesy of solar panels and serves sweet tea for a bargain 1 leva. As with everywhere on the mountain, you are asked to take all rubbish with you.

Onwards and upwards, the last part of the climb is the toughest. There are two routes, the so-called Summer and Winter trails.

Most people head for the more winding summer route: steep but accessible. The winter route follows the ridge to the summit and is far more challenging, requiring the use of chains at various stages. Regardless of which route you take, you will hit the top of the mountain in just under an hour. The entire walk from the top of the gondola to the summit of Musala should take around three hours (depending on your pace, and how long you spend at the two intermediate cabins).

The Rila lakes

There’s a weather station at the top, and a hatch in the wall serves tea but little else: there is no food, so bring your own. A wide plateau offers ample opportunity for picnics, although if you’ve come at the weekend the summit gets very crowded, very quickly, as half of Bulgaria turns up. Queues form as groups of climbers wait patiently in line to take photos of the summit stone.

Were we any different? No.

You should allow just under two hours to make the trip back to the gondola station. Remember: the last lift down departs at 18:00.

I first visited Borovets on a skiing holiday in January 1989, and stayed at the enormous Rila hotel, which back then pretty much was Borovets. The equally enormous Samokov hotel next door was nearing completion, but the only other accommodation in the resort was offered by the twin Ela and Moura hotels, the little Yagoda chalets and the Yastrabets hotel.

Since then, things have moved on, but not  —  thankfully  —  as chaotically as they have in the now over-developed resort of Bansko. There is a decent range of places to stay, from apartment complexes to the Rila, today a plush affair complete with swimming pool. (In fact, most of the larger hotels and even some of the apartment complexes in Borovets have swimming pools, all of which are open to the public). We stayed at the Ice Angels hotel, the entrance of which is quite literally on the ski slopes, and just a few metres from a chair lift. It’s five minutes walk from the gondola.

Our stay in mid-July cost 68 euros for two nights in a large, comfortable room with breakfast and access to the small spa centre and plunge pool included. Our only complaint was that breakfast was not served until around 08:15: useless if you want to take the first gondola up the mountain.