The Samaria gorge
The Samaria Gorge, Europe´s longest gorge, is a national park and a major tourist attraction of Crete. The gorge is in the prefecture of Chania in southwest Crete. It was created by a small river running between the White Mountains (Lefka Ori) and Mt. Volakas. According to Greek mythology, one of the Titans living on Crete slashed the land with his knife to create the gorge while Cretan-born Zeus, placed his throne on top of Mt. Gygilos and raced his chariot on the nearby mountain plain of Angathoti.
Although this area has been relatively isolated, remnants of ancient settlements exist. The Sanctuary and Oracle of Apollo are believed to be located under the church of Aghios Nikolaos and in the vicinity of Afentis Christos. The more recent Samaria settlement which was abandoned when the gorge was proclaimed to be a National Park can also be explored. Nearby is the church that was dedicated to Saint Maria of Egypt after whom the gorge and settlement were named.
The 18 km hike through the Samaria Gorge begins at Xyloskalo on the Omalos plateau 1200 m. high. To the south is a majestic view of Mt. Gygilos with its lunar landscape. Sheer cliffs and mighty peaks surround the fertile highland plain of Omalos where ancient olive trees still grow.
A well-maintained path drops down to the bottom of the gorge through a fragrant forest of pine and cypress trees. Along the way, there are many species of flora, some of which are endemic to Crete and found only in this gorge. Wild herbs that grow profusely in the nooks and crannies of the cliffs, release their fragrance with only the slightest touch.
Farther along, the narrowest point in the gorge is reached. Known as "Portes" or "The Gates", it is the most photographed part of the gorge because steep cliffs rise dramatically to a height of over 300m with a very narrow passage of only 3.5m wide.
The southern boundary of the National Park ends just north of Agia Roumeli. There are kiosks selling refreshments, souvenirs and local products. From here, it is a short walk to Agia Roumeli where it is possible to enjoy a refreshing swim before catching the ferry to Hora Sfakion.
- Visits to the National Park are allowed from May 1st to October 15th. From October 16th to October 31st, the operation of the National Park is managed and regulated in accordance to decisions issued by the Local Prefecture of Chania; in plain English, that means that they will decide if the Gorge is open for visitors or not, depending on the weather conditions.
- Visiting hours for the Park are from 07.00 to 15.00. From 15.00 till the sunset, visitors are allowed to walk a distance of only 2 km within the Park, either from Xyloskalo or from Agia Roumeli.
- Within the- National Park, is strictly prohibited:
- to camp,
- to stay overnight,
- to light fires,
- to swim in the streams of the Gorge.
- In general, you are kindly requested to obey all the Park's regulations (and use your common sense).
Cost per person - public bus
|Bus fare (Chania to Omalos):||6.90 €|
|Entrance fee in the gorge:||5.00 €|
|Ferry from Agia Roumeli to Chora Sfakion:||7.50 €|
|Bus fare (Chora Sfakion to Chania):||7.60 €|
|Total cost:||27.00 €|
To the above you also have to add the cost of going from Lefka apartments to the main bus station in Chania. If you use the local bus this is 1.10€ per person, one way. If you take a taxi this would be about 6-7€.
Cost per person - organized excursion
|Bus fare (Lefka apts to Omalos & back):||22.00 €|
|Entrance fee in the gorge:||5.00 €|
|Ferry from Agia Roumeli to Chora Sfakion:||7.50 €|
|Total cost:||34.50 €|
How to do the Samaria gorge
Using public transport
- The walk through is a one-way venture as you start from an altitude of about 1200m above sea level going down to zero. For this reason you have to use the public bus from Chania .
- Private cars are not an option at all, since they would have to be left at the entrance of the gorge, at Xyloskalo (unless you want to walk 16 Km back!).
- There are daily buses to the head of the Gorge (Xyloskalo) from the main bus station in Chania. The buses write on the front OMALOS and depart at 06:15, 07:30 & 08:30 (bus fare, 6.90€). After one hour, you arrive at Xyloskalo, where you can have meals and drinks. The entrance fee is 5€.
- The length of the Gorge is 16km (10mi), and you need 5-6 hours to walk through it. There is plenty of drinking water all along the Gorge. Tennis shoes or walking boots are recommended.
- At the end of the Gorge is Agia Roumeli village, where you can find restaurants and enjoy a swim. From there you will take the boat to Chora Sfakion, since Agia Roumeli has no road access at all. The duration of the trip is one hour and the ticket costs 7.50€. The small ferries belong to ANENDYK Maritime and you can find all the information regarding timetables and prices on their site. Tickets can only be bought at the exit, in Agia Roumeli.
- From Chora Sfakion, you will take the bus back to Chania. The duration of the trip is 2 hours. The bus always waits for the boat to arrive before it departs and the bus fare is 7.60€. You can buy the tickets on the bus or these can be reserved at the bus station in Chania.
Joining an organised excursion
- It's convenient to buy an organised excursion at Lefka apartments. This costs 24€ per person and includes the tour guide & bus transfer from Lefka apartments to the Gorge and back.
- Boat tickets & the entrance fees (a total of 12.50€) are extra and have to be paid on the spot.
- The entire trip takes about 12-14 hours and costs 36.50€ per person.
- You will be picked up from Lefka early in the morning (5-6 o´clock) and will be brought back in the evening.
- You don't have to follow the rest of the group.
When should you go to the Samaria gorge
Mid-April to Mid-June is best for exploring the Lefka Ori and its gorges, including Samaria. Wildflowers are profuse and the temperature is cooler. It is also the best time to visit coastal Crete to avoid the crowds and the heat of summer.
The only way to enjoy the beauty of the gorge is to walk through its entire length, sometime between May and October when passage is permitted. Rest assured that the five or so hours that you spend in this gorge will award you with incredible views. Don't do the so called "lazy way", which starts from Agia Roumeli and goes up to the "Gates". Since the "Gates" are actually at the end of the gorge, you don't even get inside the gorge.
Clothing requirements are seasonal. The hike requires hiking boots or trainers, a water bottle and a comfortable back pack as you must carry all your food (there is no food available inside the National Park) and water requirements. There are numerous springs, but you are advised to carry a bottle of water, which you can refill on the way. A supply of plasters in case of blisters and a jumper for the early morning (it can be cold at 1200m) are also recommended. Also, don't forget your sun cream and a hat, especially for the last part of the walk which has very little shade (feels like desert actually!)
You can walk the gorge, take pictures, have fun, but there are some things you are not allowed to do:
- spending the night inside the gorge,
- lighting a fire or smoking,
- hunting, swimming, and fouling the area,
- cutting plants, flowers or branches,
- make any kind of noise,
- the destruction of birds' nests or eggs,
- drinking alcoholic beverages.
Samaria is not easy stroll at all
Samaria is not an easy stroll. If you are not used in hiking and you don' t have any serious health problems you will walk it successfully but be ready for sore legs for the next couple of days. A proper pair of shoes is essential as well as a hat. The most tiring part are the last 3 km as you exit the national park, it's noon or early afternoon (too hot) and there is no shadow. However there is a great beach in Agia Roumeli where you can cool-off before you take the ferry.
On average,walking is about 4 hours although some may need a little longer, especially if you take a long time covering the first 2 km which are very steep and require a little bit of experience and strong knees to walk at a good pace. Add to this time to rest, to look at the scenery, take photographs and you can count about 6 or 7 hours to cover the entire distance.
There are children that happily walk the whole length of the gorge but they have to be the exception. Most young children have no problems walking but will not hold the distance. You might end up having to carry them which is nobody's idea of fun on such a long walk. Taking children younger than 8 or 9 is not recommended. From that age onwards they generally have far less problems than their parents but they tend to walk a little too quickly, jump about ...and fall. Make sure you have them in sight most of the time (or at least ensure that you know if they are in front of you or behind!) and try to get them to slow down when they get carried away.
The walk is long and can be arduous but it is not a difficult walk. Still, every day people get into trouble or end up having an experience which is far from pleasant. The most common factors are:
- People who never do any exercise and suddenly want their body to walk 16 uneven km without protesting.
- Bad shoes creating blisters and / or foot-ache.
- Problems with the heat (in summer).
- Knee problems that develop during the steep descent at the beginning of the walk and have no time to get better once that original strain is over.
What source of terrain should I expect?
Stones, stones and more stones is what you get in the Samaria gorge! The terrain is stony most of the time but it varies.
At the beginning the path is paved with uneven stones, then at times it is more like a forest path with some earth.
Once you reach the river bed you walk mainly on pebbles (tiring on the sole of the feet). You also have to cross the river at least a dozen times, sometimes on small wooden bridges but more often by stepping on rocks. These have been placed at strategic intervals but still require some surefootedness.
The only easy path is once you leave the southern end of the National Park: it is flat and there are no stones, no shade either so that the last 3 km can be really really hot in summer.
Trekking the Gorge is a really wonderful experience. if you don't want to turn it into a nightmare:
- You must be relatively fit to cover the distance.
- A proper pair of shoes is essential as well as a hat and sun cream.
- Take a water bottle which you can refill on the way
- Go slow during the first 2 km of the walk. The path is very steep, the stones worn smooth and slippery and this is where most accidents happen.
- Drink plenty water.
- Avoid stopping for a rest just below high cliffs: there is always a risk of stones falling, especially if it has rained recently or if it is windy. The risk of a stone falling on you is minimal (although it has happened before) but there is no point in increasing it.
- Do not shout or whistle loudly, it is unpleasant for others and increases the risk of stones falling.
- The village of Samaria, situated roughly at the halfway point is the place where most people will take a longer rest. Avoid resting for more than half an hour (especially if you are not used to this sort of walk) because your muscles will start to stiffen up and you will find it hard to get going again.
- Always look at where you are going. When you want to look around (and you will, you can't avoid it!) first stop and then look. It takes only a split second of inattention to trip on a stone, fall down and hurt yourself.
The White Mountains - Lefka Ori
Although mountains run from east to west across the island of Crete, the most rugged and beautiful are the Lefka Ori (White Mountains), which lie in the region of Chania. They encapsulate the essence of Crete, proud and fiercely independent, like the Cretans themselves who exploited this brutal terrain to launch their resistance against the Turks. 58 peaks over 2000 m. in altitude are found here. The land is dissected by dramatic gorges that form small, fertile valleys and isolated plains high in the mountains and give rise to some of the most spectacular views that are framed against the Libyan Sea to the south and the Sea of Crete to the north.
The White Mountains are comprised of three groups of mountains that are loosely identified as the eastern, central and western ranges. Of the many peaks, Pachnes (2453m) is the highest and the 2nd highest in Crete being only 3m lower than Mt. Psiloritis (although people in Chania strongly disagree on these numbers). According to a very interesting "story", mountaineers of Western Crete have been carrying rocks up to the Pachnes peak to increase its elevation to that of the highest peak in Crete. However, if the story is true, their work has not yet been recognized.
The 111 peaks over 1500 m. high make the White Mountains an inveterate paradise for hikers; there are many interesting day hikes to nearby peaks. Mt. Gygilos (2080m) in the western range is one of the more popular destinations. Many people make arrangements to stay at the Kallergi refuge that is about an hour and a half from Omalos. A more strenuous hike is found in the "European Trail" from Omalos to Anapolis which passes through the eastern range.
The Lefka Ori is one of the two remaining habitats to the Cretan wild goat or Kri-Kri (Capra aegagrus cretica) that lives in secluded hollows on the mountainside. The Kri-Kri are usually seen in the afternoon but their shyness makes it unlikely to glimpse one. Unfortunately, there are only about 2000 animals remaining on the entire island and they face an insecure future.
Other endemic animal species include the Cretan badger, the Cretan marten, the Cretan spiny mouse, and the Cretan weasel. Only the fortunate will see some the the rarest birds of Europe such as the griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus) and the lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus). Bonelli's eagle (Hieraaetus fasciatus) and the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) are sometimes sighted here as well.