One thing every visitor to Crete should do is a hike into – or through – the Samaria Gorge. Not only do you get to see the most amazing scenery. If you cross the gorge hiking, you’ve also walked the longest canyon in Greece, the second-longest in Europe, and the third-longest in the entire world.
All in one go.
And although you certainly won’t walk alone, it’s still a one-of-a-kind experience – no matter if you do it the hard way or opt for the easy one.
The King of the Road
You might think that as you are driving in narrow serpentines at a height of about 1,800 meters, you better have both your hands on the wheel. Well, tell that the driver that’s maneuvering a bus packed to the brim with keen hikers to the entrance to the Samaria Gorge. Because he uses just one hand. Or none. He seems to be very popular since he’s incessantly talking on the phone. And don’t think he’s using one of those stupid earsets. Nope, he’s doing it the traditional way pressing the phone with his left hand to his ear. The right hand is for driving. Sometimes. Because not only does he receive phone calls, no, he also has to ring others. And how is he supposed to do that with only one hand? Think, people, think!
Actually, this free-handed driving makes the trip to the world’s third-longest gorge an extra thrill. Man, you cannot imagine how it feels as you are racing towards the brink of a serpentine while the person in charge is dialing a phone number. As he looks up and realizes that there is not much tether, he quickly stirs the wheel to the left and we are saved. Until the next bend. At an altitude of about 1,800 meters.
My heart is racing faster than our bus.
I’ve dedicated an entire post to my encounters with bus drivers around the world and today’s driver makes it definitely to this hall of
Good Morning, Sunshine
Short before 6 a. m., more and more people in hiking gear are assembling on Chania’s main square. That’s the pick-up point for the hike through the longest gorge in Greece. Understandably, people are tired. They didn’t have breakfast yet. Hence, they get a coffee to go and possibly a piece of pastry. It’s six in the morning, remember?
Then comes the bus. Dimitri, our guide for the day, hops off and calls out names into the dawn. The participants whose names he mentioned can get on the bus. But they have to pass the driver which is like an allegory of passing Cerberus on your way to hell.
As they greet him Good Morning, he just looks at them in disgust. Has it really come to this, is he thinking, do I really have to make a living by chauffeuring this worthless bunch across our beautiful island? He’s not happy. Hence, he isn’t friendly. Oh wait, he just muttered something. Was it a good morning, by any chance? Nope, he just grunted No coffee on the bus. Which is ironic since he’s slurping coffee from a transparent to-go cup. Also, the lady with the small box is denied access. The writing on the box gives the content away as pizza. No food on the bus. Those people will cross the 16 kilometers of the gorge hungry. The driver’s tone doesn’t allow any objection.
No Gratitude For Gratuities
I totally understand that he doesn’t want people to eat or drink on the bus. But he denies them access when they are carrying food in closed containers.
I really don’t understand what made some people give this grouch a tip at the end of the hellish drive. Maybe it was more of a votive offering for having survived.
Well, he obviously is surprised by these loving gestures, too, since he doesn’t say anything as the cash is coming in. He doesn’t even look at them. No acknowledgment whatsoever.
However, the grouch brought us to the entrance to the famous gorge, and that’s all that matters for now.
The Samaria Gorge is in the southwest of Crete west of the Lefka Ori mountains. Mother nature built it probably about two million years ago using tectonic movements. Water from 22 springs as well as simple rain eroded the rock and dug what nowadays is the gorge.
With a total length of about 17 kilometers, the Samaria Gorge is one of the longest canyons in Europe. It is surpassed in length only by the Verdon Gorge in France which is 20 kilometers long and, of course, the Tara Gorge in Montenegro with its 78 kilometers. Starting at a height of over 1200 meters, the Samaria Gorge leads almost from the middle of the island to the Libyan Sea.
The canyon is one of Crete’s most important touristy activities. As a matter of fact, during the high season, up to 4,000 ambitious hikers cross the ravine. Just to be clear: Every day! The gorge is bordered by walls up to 600 meters high. In the narrowest section to the end, it is only three to four meters wide.
The Samaria Gorge has been protected as a national park since 1962 and was depopulated in 1965. There is a remarkable number of different trees like Cretan maple, pines, oak and plane trees, and cypresses. The long isolation of the gorge favored the occurrence of non less than 14 endemic plant species. Also, the canyon is the last refuge for the Cretan wild goats called Kri-Kri. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot some of Europe’s largest birds of prey, namely griffon vultures and bearded vultures, circling above the ravine. No wonder the valley has been a UNESCO biosphere reserve since 1981.
Walking Through History
While tourists cherish the Samaria Gorge for its nature and outstanding hiking options, for Cretans, the region is of great historical value. In the uprising of the Greeks against Ottoman rule in the 19th century, the canyon was of tremendous strategic importance. It served as the perfect hiding place and base for rebels. Despite repeated attempts, it could never be taken.
The rugged gorge is so inaccessible and impassable that during WWII, the German troops were not able to track down the partisans who were hiding there. Also, the Greek government consisting of King George II and Prime Minister Emmanouil Tsouderos escaped the Germans through the narrow canyon to the south coast and from there to Egypt end of May 1941.
A Walk In The Park
Today, hikers from all over the world cross the Samaria Gorge. Despite its seclusion, there is a certain infrastructure. At the entrance and exit of the gorge are eateries and even accommodations.
However, there are no snack bars or kiosks in the valley. Yet, you don’t have necessarily to schlepp liters of water. Just bring your water bottle that you can fill at several springs with the cleanest and freshest drinking water along the route.
Mind you, there is no reception for mobile phones in large areas of the gorge. Only in the deserted village of Samaria – about halfway along the route – is there a telephone connection and a heliport.
The Samaria Gorge can usually only be entered from May 1st to October 31st between 06:00 and 15:00. Depending on the weather, the start of the new season may be delayed due to heavy rain in spring. But even in summer, the Samaria Gorge can be closed if the weather conditions are bad and there is a risk of landslides. Please inform yourself about the prevailing weather and possible closures before your trip.
The hike through the gorge is chargeable. Exiting the gorge is documented to ensure no one is left behind.
The Full Tour
Usually, organized day tours start in the early morning. After the pick-up of all participants, the bus takes you along the Lefka Ori mountains all the way up to the Omalos plateau. Normally, there is a short coffee break during the ride where you can also stock up on snacks and water.
The buses get to the main entrance Xyloskalo- which translates to wooden stairs in English – around 8 a. m. Here you have a last opportunity to stock up on refreshments. Keep in mind that depending on your pace, you will reach the exit of the gorge in Agia Roumeli around 1 or 2 p. m. To beat the hiking crowds, should get to Xyloskalo early. They open at 7 a. m. At that hour, it’s still pleasantly quiet and you have the gorge almost to yourself. In this case, you have to take the first public bus or come here by car before the tour buses arrive.
Howsoever, since people walk at different speeds, take breaks, and pictures, the initially large groups dissolve once you start hiking.
The entrance fee to the national park is 5 €uros. Getting your ticket online in advance is highly recommended as the lines at the ticket counter can get extremely long especially around 8 a. m. with the arrival of the organized tours. Also, store your ticket thoroughly since you have to show it again as you exit the gorge.
Keep in mind that you can start your hike at the upper entrance only until 1 p. m.
Walk This Way
Although crossing the Samaria Gorge is an absolute must-do activity in Crete, it’s far from being an easy Sunday stroll. It can be strenuous and should not be underestimated since the path leads through the washed-out river bed. You need to mind your step at any time.
Nevertheless, as this part of the route grants amazing views of the Lefka Ori mountains, avoid looking around while getting down the stairs. If you need a short break, step aside and let the hikers behind you pass.
The church of Agios Nikolaos from the 14th century is a good place for a first stop. From here, the hike is much easier. After about one or one and a half hours, you should reach the old Samaria settlement. Here is the park’s administration, a first aid station, bathrooms, and sources of drinking water.
Shortly after the Christos resting area, you’ll finally get to the famous iron gate which is the narrowest part of the Samaria Gorge. Here, the gap between the hundred-meter-high cliffs is only three meters wide.
From here you’ll need approximately one more hour to get to the village of Agia Roumeli. Don’t miss out on a refreshing glass of freshly squeezed orange juice at the bar right behind the park’s lower checkpoint.
You should foresee for the entire hike about five to six hours just for the hike and leave at least two hours for a fortifying lunch, a relaxing sunbath, and a refreshing dip before taking the ferry either to Chora Sfakion or the port of Sougia.
The Easy Way
Hiking through the Samaria Gorge was high on my Cretan to-do list, too. Yet, since I broke my leg hiking through a secluded gorge on the island of Gran Canaria just the year before, I was hesitant. I read a thousand reviews to decide beforehand if it wasn’t too hard, and whether I was not only physically but also mentally ready for this. Obviously, the situation should be different as there would be people who could call for help in case something happened. But the idea that something might actually happen made me shiver. Most of all, the idea that there is no phone connection in parts of the gorge freaked me out since that had been the major problem in the Canarian barranco.
Also, although my foot had healed, I still have all those screws and other metal stuff in my ankle. I didn’t want to be the one that would cause trouble.
But I wanted to go so badly!
I was torn.
Therefore, I was very happy that there is an alternative for visitors like me who want to experience the beauty of the canyon without getting themselves or others into trouble. Tour companies call this tour The Samaria Gorge the Lazy Way or – which I find less rude – the Easy Way. If you’re hesitant to walk for five hours across rocks doesn’t necessarily mean that you are lazy, there can be another 562 valid reasons.
If you are choosing to take it easy, you need to get to the exit of the canyon on the outskirts of the village of Agia Roumeli. Since there is no road connection, you need to get there by ferry from Chora Sfakion or Sougia.
Once you get to Agia Roumeli, you first walk about three kilometers to the exit of the canyon. From there, it’s about two kilometers to the so-called Iron Gate, the canyon’s most famous spot. Looking around and snapping pix, this should take maybe one hour. From there, you can keep hiking farther into the canyon if you like, obviously. I actually went a bit beyond the Christos resting area.
From the exit, the hike is actually mostly flat and really easy. Yes, there are a couple of rocky spots and some shaky wooden bridges over the creek but nothing much to worry about. However, you should refrain from sandals or flip-flops and wear at least good sneakers instead, better yet sturdy hiking boots.
However, if even this walk is hard for you, there is a shuttle bus that takes people from the village to the gorge and back for 2 €uros each way.
Also, you should start your hike in the opposite direction in the morning since later, you might be an obstacle for those arriving from the entrance in Xyloskalo.
The entrance fee to the national park is 5 €uros even if you just meander into the canyon from the southern entrance. Nevertheless, make sure to keep your ticket since you have to show it again as you exit the gorge. At the lower southern entrance – that I mostly call the exit in this post – you can access the canyon until 3 p. m.
What to Bring With You
As I said, the Samaria Gorge is a protected national park with almost no infrastructure. Therefore, you have to bring everything you might need with you – and leave nothing behind, obviously.
The minimum you should bring with you are
- sturdy hiking boots with a good profile
- possibly hiking poles
- a sun hat
- sunscreen with high SPF
- plenty of water or a drinking bottle that you can refill at the springs
- high-protein snacks
- a towel and swimwear for a visit to the beach in Agia Roumeli
How to Get There
If you want to hike through the entire gorge, you need to get to the main entrance Xyloskalo on the Omalos plateau by rental car, public bus, or with a tour company.
From Chania, public buses go to the village of Omalos and then to Xyloskalo in about one hour. Morning departure times are at 5 a. m. and 7.45 a. m. and a single trip costs around € 7 Euros. The bus leaves you right at the entrance to the gorge. Since itineraries are subject to change, make sure to check out the bus timetables and routes beforehand either at the KTEL bus station or on their website.
If you prefer to explore the Samaria Gorge the easy way, you need to get to the village of Agia Roumely by ferry and take it from there. If that’s too hard for you, you can get to the gorge by shuttle bus. It goes about every ten minutes and costs only 2 €uros per trip.
Ferries go to Agia Roumeli from Sougia which is the port closest to Chania. Those coming from Rethymno or Heraklion better hop on a boat in Chora Sfakion. While the trip from Sougia to Agia Roumeli cost me 13 €uros, I got a discount on the return trip so it was only 11 €uros.
You can check the departure times of the ferry companies on their respective websites Anendyk and NEN Kritis.
Since there is no road connection to Agia Roumeli, everybody needs to go back by ferry. Therefore, make sure that it is included in your tour package respectively to get your ticket on time since the last ferries tend to be packed. Also, if you begin your descent at Xyloskalo around noon, you might get to Agia Roumeli too late for the last ferry which leaves around 5.30 p. m.
In this case, you have to stay there overnight*:
The Samaria Gorge is open for hikers only from May to October due to the weather conditions. However, those can change in the Lefka Ori mountains quite quickly and drastically at basically any time of the year. If the crossing is too dangerous, the gorge will be temporarily closed. Therefore, you might want to confirm beforehand if you can go or not. You can comfortably do so on the park’s website.
If you have pre-booked a guided tour, you’ll be informed accordingly.
A hike through the Samaria Gorge is one of the most popular Crete excursions so various companies are offering day trips that start in Chania, Rethymno, and Heraklion. If you don’t mind hiking in the company of others, an organized tour is actually your best option – whether you are doing the entire hike or just the easy option.
The cost of a guided tour including the pick-up from your hotel and an English-speaking guide is not much higher than a self-organized day trip and it saves you the hassle of juggling the timetables of buses’n’ferries. Also, in the unlikely event that something goes wrong, you can leave the organization to your guide.
Therefore, here are some pre-organized tours to choose from*:
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