Discover Samaria Gorge
Samaria National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in the White Mountains of Crete, draws tens of thousands of visitors per year to hike the spectacular gorge at its center. While it's not the only gorge in the area, Samaria Gorge is by far the biggest—in fact, it's Europe's second-largest canyon overall.
The 10-mile trail starts at the top of the gorge, taking visitors past towering cliffs, sweeping views, and uniquely Cretan flora and fauna, eventually ending at the Libyan Sea in the town of Agia Roumeli. At its narrowest (and most dramatic) point, known as "the Gates," the gorge is only 13 feet wide—and nearly a thousand feet high.
When to Go
You can only hike Samaria Gorge during late spring and summer, which coincides with peak tourist season. The trail is normally open from May 1st through October 30th, depending on weather.
Spring is the best time to arrive. The wildflowers are in bloom and temperatures are cooler than the midsummer months. Be aware of weather conditions before setting out, and know that the gorge is closed for safety reasons on rainy days—you'll be waylaid if you show up during a summer rainstorm.
Getting There & Away
If coming from Chania, you have three choices to arrive at the trailhead located at the end of the road 2.5 miles south of the village of Omalos. As you'll find out, getting to and from the Samaria Gorge is a complicated undertaking—joining an organized excursion is your best bet. After the 25-mile bus ride, you'll be standing high above Samaria Gorge.
The end of the hike is at the coastal village of Agia Roumeli. No road connects here. The only way out is by hiking or, more practically speaking, by ferry to the south coast port of Chora Sfakia (one-hour), where buses will meet you for the hour-and-a-half return to Chania.
The ferries, which operate three to six times daily depending on the season, typically stop at Loutro, a fishing village tucked in a cove with tavernas and hotels. Confirm when the last ferry leaves so you can plan accordingly.
The easiest way to hike the gorge is to sign up for an arranged excursion. This way, all the logistics are taken care of, leaving you free to simply show up and enjoy the hike. It allows you to arrive at the Xyloskalo trailhead before the first public bus, so you can get a head-start on the hordes. An excursion doesn’t mean you’ll end up in a large group, either, as everyone hikes at their own speed. Guides also take care of purchasing your park entrance and ferry ticket and typically follows the last hiker, making sure the entire group navigates the trail—which is not always clearly marked—without issue.
The hike begins at the trailhead and park entrance booth beside Xyloskalo restaurant, at an elevation of 4,035 feet, beneath the austere limestone peak of Gingilos. The trail ends by the shores of the Libyan Sea in the coastal village of Agia Roumeli. Between the two points are 10 miles of descending trail, gradually decreasing in gradient as it goes.
After admiring the mountain views atop the trailhead, you’ll descend a steep switchback built in Ottoman times and bordered in the steepest parts by a handrail. You'll pass the tiny Agios Nikolaos chapel. The hairpin turns last for almost two-miles, at which point your knees will be thankful because the gradient eases and the valley merges into the gorge proper.
The trail now goes over the river, which is usually reduced to a stream by early summer months. It’s a good place to rest and enjoy a snack. A short way down you’ll reach the abandoned settlement of Samaria, whose inhabitants were relocated after the park’s creation in 1962. Today the stone structures serve as a medical clinic and lodgings for researchers.
You’ve now reached the half-way point. Beyond, the valley takes on massive proportions but soon narrows dramatically into a passageway known as the "Gates of Samaria." Barely eight feet separate the canyon walls on either side—walls that soar upward some 1,000 feet.
At Km 14 (yellow markers are posted every kilometer, and rest stops are numbered along the route) you’ll exit the gorge and arrive at the outlying buildings of “old” Agia Roumeli, located up-valley from the coast about a mile. Your arrival is announced by a café serving fresh orange juice, chilled beers, and ice-cream. Anyone feeling exhausted can catch a minibus to the ferry dock from here.
If you choose to continue down, look on your right for the ruined hilltop castle, which is accessible by a side-trail. Then continue the mile to the coastal hamlet of "new" Agia Roumeli, which most hikers reach around midafternoon covered in sweat and dust. Relax a bit on the black-sand beach and soothe your weary feet in the warm and crystal-clear waters—this is one of the best places to do so in Greece. There’s a free shower, tavernas serving food and beer, plus a few simple places to stay.
Although as many as 2,000 people may hike the gorge on any one day, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the trail is crowded. People arrive throughout the morning and quickly disperse once they hit the trail.
You need to be physically fit to hike the whole gorge, as the first few kilometers descend steeply and can take a toll on the knees. If you’re not in the best shape, or only want to hike a short distance, you can take the ferry to Agia Roumeli and hike two miles up the final portion of the trail on an easy gradient.
To beat the crowds, arrive in Omalos the day before and overnight at one of the tavernas. Begin your hike the next morning when the gates open around dawn. Alternately you can start out around noon when the last hikers will be well ahead of you, but you may need to overnight in Agia Roumeli before catching the ferry next day.
The trail is open only during daylight hours—if you enter the park after 2 pm, you will be permitted only to hike the upper portion.
Experienced hikers with plenty of stamina can do the entire trail in as little as three hours, but that's rushing it. Many hikers take eight hours or longer, and most hikers should allow at least 5.
You’ll criss-cross over the river at least a dozen times, sometimes by rock-hopping and sometimes by rustic bridges. Speaking of which, pay constant attention to what’s underfoot—uneven stones and dense roots can trip you up. Also, stay on the marked trail; it’s prohibited to do otherwise.
Wildlife, Native Plants, and Sights Along the Trail
Samaria is home to 14 endemic animal species, including the rare kri-kri: a cliff-climbing species of ibex (wild goat) whose last stronghold is the White Mountains of Crete. You can also expect to see quails, turtle-doves, and partridges; with luck, you may spot a golden eagle or the endangered Bonelli eagle.
Enjoy the flora, like the Cretan white peony, pink rockrose, plum-purple Dragon arum, and other endemic plants. The upper reaches abound with tall cypress, Cretan maples, and Kermes oak; lower sections feature plane trees and Calabrian pine (except for the last two miles, most of the hike is shaded).
Other interesting scenery includes disused windmills, deserted farmhouses, ruined castles, and secret WWII shelters (used by rebels). Informative signs point out the geographical features of the area.
What to Wear & Bring
It pays dividends to come with the right gear. First, wear appropriate hiking shoes, ideally with ankle protection (normal sneakers won’t cut it). Make sure that they're already worn in—this is no place to discover your new hiking boots give you blisters.
You’ll want a hat and sunscreen, too. The temperature at the start of the hike can be cool in the early morning, so bring a lightweight fleece jacket. Once hiking, you’ll be glad to be wearing shorts and a quick-dry synthetic T-shirt, the easier to let your sweat evaporate.
Bring a backpack to carry snacks, water, etc. Ideally, this will have a built-in hydration pack, but you can refill bottles at spigots along the trail with mountain stream water. If you have hip or knee issues, trekking poles can help (you can rent them once there).
Don’t forget swimwear for a dip in the sea at the end of the trek. You might also want to pack flip-flops for the beach, although these can be purchased at shops in Agia Roumeli.
We recommend staying in Chania—the closest city to the trailhead—before hiking the gorge. The drive takes about 90 minutes and will put you at Xyloskalo before the hikers coming from Heraklion or elsewhere.
Keep your entrance ticket to display as you exit the park. The wardens tally them to ensure that everyone has exited safely before nightfall.
Bring toilet paper—there are basic rest stops along the trail, but you can’t rely on TP being available. Flush toilets are available in the village of Samaria.
There are trash bins on the trail, so use them as needed. Take only photographs, leave only footprints.
If your energy fails or you otherwise need assistance, don’t worry. Drivers with mules patrol the trail and offer help. Also, warden posts equipped with radios are located on the trail, and there’s usually a doctor in the old village of Samaria.