The highest peak of the Balkans
DATE: 1. and 2. 7. 2019
Starting point: Sitnyakvo – 1790 m
Highest point day 1: 2500m
Musala hut: 2389m
Highest point day 2: Musala peak – 2925m
Altitude difference walked altogether: 1256m
Musala peak was fueling our imagination for the whole winter. Since our friend J started talking about it and we were discussing options of traveling to Bulgaria together, hiking Musala was the top wish.
We left Slovenia early Saturday morning, at the end of June. After 15 hours of driving, of which 3 were spent waiting at the Serbian / Bulgarian border, we arrived at Sapareva Banya. Cozy little town close to Rila mountains. We spent a day there, researching, making plans and trying to buy a map of the Rila. After lots of searching, we found it in a souvenir shop close to the swimming pools. It cost 5 leva, which is about 2,5 eur and I think it is the best map you can get on the spot, of the Rila mountains. And also a link to a hiking guide you can order via book depository.
On Monday we drove to Borovets, a small winter resort that was now mostly empty. There were some mountain bikers and hikers, otherwise, the place looked more or less deserted.
HERE you can find an online map of Borovets ski and bike resort, with hiking trails and peaks.
Options and routes leading towards Musala from Borovets.
If you want to do a one day hike and the easiest approach, take Yastrebets gondola and from the upper station, you have approximately 4,5 to 5,5 hours to reach the top. On the way, you pass Musala hut and Ice lake hut. Yastrebets gondola works from Wednesday to Sunday.
Another option is the Sitnyakovo express chair lift that works on Mondays and Tuesdays. It takes you up to 1790 m and from there you can choose between a longer upper route (we did this one) and a shorter lower route, both leading to Musala hut. Depending on the path this will take you around 3,5 to 5 hours. From the hut, there is another 2 to 2,5 hours to reach the top.
The third option is to walk from the valley, which adds a few hours of hiking mostly through the forests.
DAY 1. Adapting to new circumstances
We started late, which I don’t like. Thankfully grumpiness melted away as soon as we hit the trail. We packed our camping things, spent an hour looking for someone from the reception, so we could leave early and then drove from Sapareva Banya to Borovets. Arriving there we had a hard time finding working ATM, we needed Bulgarian currency to pay for the mountain huts. Our plan was to hike to the Ice lake hut and then ascent Musala for the sunrise. I think we started walking from Sitnyakovo at around 12 o’clock.
We chose the route climbing up to Slatkate vode and passing under two peaks to a 2500m high ridge and then descending to Musala hut. The signs and marks were frequent at the beginning. Signs are mostly written in Bulgarian so good luck if you can not read it. Although I am sure there already exists an app who can do it for you. If not, here is an idea for software developers… yu are welcome 😉 Thankfully I was born in ex Yugoslavia and had to learn Cyrillic, so we managed. The marks are mostly in the color of the trail you are taking or the usual red and white stripe. On some crossroads, there are no signs or marks though so it is wise to take a map. And also know how to read it of course.
The path is easy with the exception of climbing through and under mountain pines on sometimes extremely narrow trail. Coming out of the forest and ascending gives you a great view of the plain below with big Iskar lake shining far away.
I have read on the internet that July and August are the main and very busy hiking seasons in Bulgaria. It was also advised to reserve places in the huts in advance. We didn’t reserve, I was kind of sure we will get space so early on in the season. Walking up I was wondering where are all those people I was reading about. We met one hiker only on the way to Musala hut. Not complaining of course, but after seeing almost all guesthouses and hotels in Borovets closed and no one on the trails, it got me thinking if the huts are even opened. Google said so, but has Google actually been here?
Sitting on the ridge above Musala hut, we enjoyed a long break, a great view, and a late lunch.
The descent was quick and we planned to stop for a few minutes at the lake by the hut. We were there met with a group of Romanian hikers with a worried guide. After a few moments of misunderstanding, we finally understood the situation. The big new Musala mountain hut that they are building is closed and as was apparent not yet finished. The two old wooden buildings were in really bad shape, they looked deserted and frankly destroyed. Poor Romanian guide has supposedly reserved places for his group there via a phone call and was told that the ht is open and working. He was asking us if we are sure if Ice lake hut is open. Of course, I was not. All info I got was on the internet and it looked like the Bulgarian website of their mountain huts wasn’t regularly refreshed. Except for the leader and maybe a few other persons, the group looked quite content and was happily munching away. They explained that the first floors of the two wooden huts are in better shape than the downstairs and that it is possible to sleep there. Their guide showed us the empty rooms upstairs. It looked like a bivouac, deserted and not cleaned for years, but the windows were ok and the beds and blankets were usable albeit dirty. We had the linen sleeping bags with us so it was manageable. We were playing with a thought to go and check if Ice lake hut is open but by then it was already late and we wouldn’t want to walk two hours up and then return. Sunny kid was thrilled of a new adventure of sleeping in a deserted hut that looked like a dumpster downstairs. So we decided to go with the flow and stayed. We spent a nice evening walking around the few lower lakes, ate lots of sweets, watched the sunset and made a plan to start hiking at 4 in the morning to see the sunrise from high up.
DAY 2. Musala sunrise glory
The phone alarm went off with its sing-song at 4 o’clock in the morning. We had everything ready from the evening before and were on the trail at 4:15.
I had some difficulties finding the way across the wetland around the lake since it was still pitch dark. I made a mistake not checking it a day before. After a quarter of an hour of hopping across streams and puddles, we left the lake behind and the path started climbing up among the rocks. The signs and marks here were frequent and easy to follow. We were mostly walking quietly observing the line of the day waking up behind us. Walking in the dark, being focused on the beam of light on the path in front of you is a unique experience. For me the closest to meditation. Walk, breathe, observe. No time exists. We soon reached another lake and made a break for a protein bar breakfast. The contrast between the sky and the land was getting stronger.
The orange line across the sky and water of the lakes shining quietly below us. Day waking up. Observing and living. Fully. Continuing up we soon met the so-called winter path, marked with high steel yellow/black poles. We could turn our headlamps off at that point since there was already enough light to walk and the poles are easy to follow. The path is rocky but not difficult.
When we reached the Ice lake hut the sky slowly started turning orange and the sun quietly announced it is just around the corner. We sped up, ascending higher and higher on the winding path with a view on the icy lake below and the mountains around. Sunrise caught us about 15 minutes below the top. We take the time to enjoy it, sitting on the rocks above the path.
It was getting windier, the higher we were and I was happy I took gloves and hats and windproof jackets. The last push up and we were standing on the highest point of the Balkan peninsula. The view was beautiful indeed. But the peak itself has absolutely too many deserted buildings and unused steel and garbage lying around to please any mountain and nature lover.
The view is stunning. You can see across all the Rila mountains, down to a deep gorge and towards the Seven Rila lakes that were the next in our itinerary. Looking at the sea of mountains around and the easiness with which it would be possible to sleep in a tent here, I regretted immediately that we became equipped for a hut to hut trek instead of ready to sleep outside. Will know this for the next time. We took some photos, found a stamp for Sunny kid diary and then descended a bit to a less windy part, for a real breakfast. We saw a family of chamois close by and quietly observed them.
It was still very early when we arrived back down to the Ice lake hut which was by the way open. There is no electricity, no running water, and no toilette to be found. But enough rocks around, that can be used to squat behind. I liked this hut. It smelled of incense inside and it looked homely even though it was pitch dark inside. We had some Nescafe and tea that the lady housekeeper made with hot water from the stove. The menu said she also cooks two simple meals. Sunny kid went to see the common bedroom and said that it was nice, with blankets and with windows above on the roof.
The descent was slow. We stopped and explored all the lakes on the way. To make it a bit different we also used the winter path instead of the one we ascended on. We met the Romanian group and some other hikers on the way. The winter path follows a little stream all the way down the valley. We passed under Yastrebets and then crossed the stream and made a little ascent to Sitnyakovo, from where around 4 o’clock in the afternoon the chair lift took us back to Borovets. Definitely tired. And definitely full of new experiences.
Big thanks to PODIUM SLOVENIJA for keeping Sunny kid hydrated with Nalgene bottle, warm and dry in her Craft T-shirt and fabulously cute in her Buff. 🙂
BEFORE YOU GO THOUGHTS AND TIPS
Hiking Musala with kids is definitely possible and a great family adventure.
Take two days, sleep in a hut and enjoy the early morning vibe and sunrise glory.
Carry sleeping bags just in case. If you are a more adventurous type and used of outdoor sleeping, bring a mountaineering camp and enjoy your freedom.
Carry food and small camp stove if you plan to stay longer in the mountains.
As we were told upon returning to Borovets the main season starts after 15.7. which probably means the huts are more likely open after that.
On the way to Musala, there are enough possibilities to find drinking water.
Do not go without a map. There are also some apps where you can download the area and use it offline. I used E walk but still prefer an original printed map.
Good news, Bulgaria is cheap compared to most European countries.
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GREAT JOURNEYS AND SAFE HIKES TO ALL!!!!