We spent a blissful couple of days hiking in Kazbegi. The mountains and valleys around this small mountain town offer access to some of Georgia’s most beautiful trails. Read my travel story below, or click here to find my practical information and tips about these hikes in Kazbegi.
The Caucasus: it is one of those geographic denominations that immediately conjures up a sense of adventure and exoticism. The borders of the mountain range are not strictly defined and its history is rich. The Caucasus is very much connected to Europe: it is from here that Joseph Stalin hailed. But at the same time it seems far removed: the mountain range forms the final border where European soil begins to mix with that of Central Asia. Its highest peak, Mt Elbrus, is higher than the Mont Blanc.
A volatile history
The Caucasus mountains stretch all the way into Azerbaijan and form a physical border that shields Georgia from its northern neighbour Russia – although this segregation is more a mental one nowadays than a material one, as the 2008 war over South Ossetia and Abkhazia painfully demonstrated to the Georgians. This Russo-Georgian war was a battle over Russia-backed separatist regions in the north of Georgia. Russian forces temporarily occupied several larger cities in Georgia. It displaced almost two hundred thousand Georgians from their homes. Forget the geo-political issues that loom over these mountains and look at them with the eyes of a hiker, and you will have found paradise. Hiking in Kazbegi should be high on your bucket list if you have a love for mountains and unspoilt nature.
Hiking in Kazbegi – Gergeti Trinity Church and glacier
The small mountain town of Kazbegi, also known as Stepantsminda, is an excellent base for a few days of tramping around the mountains and valleys of the Caucasus. It is easily accessible at only three to four hours from the capital Tbilisi. Once you are settled there is a multitude of trails waiting for you to explore. The town has a number of hotels and guest houses; a handful of hole-in-the-wall bakeries that churn out fresh khachapuri (delicious white bread rolls filled with mountain cheese) all day long; and a river full of boulders that separates Kazbegi from its neighbour village Gergeti. And there are the mountains. Hovering high above the town sits the Gergeti Holy Trinity Church. It is perched on a summit of 2170 meters with snowcapped Mount Kazbeg sitting behind it.
It is a seductive sight and so after we arrive in Kazbegi we can’t wait to start our trek up there the next morning. Setting out from Gergeti the road ascends immediately. We slowly make our way up past dilapidated houses of which we are not sure if someone is still living in them. A dog barks behind a picket fence and a rooster announces the start of a new day. The village makes way for a pine tree forest, after which the trail steeply rises along the mountain walls. Loose gravel makes up part of the trail so we are challenged with the typical “two steps forward, one step back” exercise. Looking back we see Kazbegi and its river shine in the early morning sunlight already quite far below us.
Gergeti Trinity Church
As we move around the mountain’s shoulder and ascend to its summit, the Holy Trinity Church comes into view again. Vast green fields where cows and horses are grazing provide a life-size picture frame. The mountain peaks of the range opposite Kazbegi form a dramatically fitting backdrop.
A number of priests sporting long grey beards and dressed in black robes guard the church grounds. I find it hard to tell if they are immersed in prayer or if they have just fallen asleep in their chairs. Others are walking around the interior of the church, lighting ochre-colored bee wax candles that lit the typically orthodox portraits of saints long gone, their miters covered in layers of gold leaf. It is an incredible idea that people built this church here in this isolated location in the 14th century. Its lonely position makes it a nice symbol for the solitary hiker who makes his or her way into the mountains beyond.
Hiking beyond Gergeti Trinity Church
A trail runs up on a steep hill. It is the start of a number of hours hiking up to the Gergeti Glacier. Now that the morning grows older Mount Kazbeg becomes shrouded in clouds. An hour into our hike further up we sit down on a large boulder to rest for a while. We eat the churchkhela that we bought in town the other day. This string of dried fruits and nuts dipped in grape juice syrup is known as ‘the Georgian snickers’ and it serves its purpose of energising two weary walkers as well as – if not better than – its commercial counterpart.
It is not until 2:30 PM that we finally spot the massive ice walls of the glacier. I feel a chilly wind blowing up here and the landscape is barren, although parts of the grassland are still covered with fields of sturdy mountain flowers. The view on the glacier is magnificent. We decide to just admire it from afar rather than to encounter it up-close because we want to make it back to Kazbegi before nightfall.
The way back is actually surprisingly quick – must be because we are going mostly down now instead of climbing up. The last stretch from the church to the town is nearly too much for our weary legs. We seem to have picked the wrong trail. It is steep and leads past sharp rocks and an unfriendly looking abyss. Even here, the thousands of wildflowers add a friendly touch to the treacherous terrain. When we finally stride into Kazbegi it is time for a hearty mountain meal of khinkali (large Georgian dumplings) and some early shut-eye as the next hiking adventure awaits in the morning.
Hiking in Kazbegi – Truso Valley trail
Our second hike to takes us through a valley rather than over mountains. For our calves which are still a bit sore from yesterday’s ups-and-downs this is a welcome change. The Truso Valley lies just south of the South Ossetian border. A river intersects the vast green space and it is surrounded by mountains. The hike starts in a gorge, the river roaring quite far below. We can hardly hear each other speak because of the loud rumbling of the water over the river’s boulders. A pleasantly cool breeze rises from the water and keeps the air fresh. From time to time we see small cavities carved in the mountain sides. Inside these compact holes people have installed tiny altars to honour orthodox saints like St. George, the country’s patron saint who according to legend slayed a man-eating dragon.
Luckily there are no dragons to slay in these mountains – the biggest breathing hazard here would be the wild mountain dogs that can be quite territorial.
Arriving in the beautiful Truso Valley
After about an hour we descend from the gorge until we walk level to the river. This is where we see the valley spread out in front of us. The river flows more gently now, the landscape widens and reveals green fields dotted with yellow flowers. A range of South Ossetian snow-capped mountains in the background frame the scene.
Hiking here is simple and straightforward: we just follow the river into the valley through fields of yellow and purple wildflowers. We pass a few abandoned settlements guarded by mountain dogs. During the war in 2008, when the Russians occupied South-Ossetia, the few Ossetians who lived in this valley decided to seek safety somewhere else. The majority has not returned. Today only a handful of people inhabit the valley in the summer months. It is sad to see the crumbling farm houses and watchtowers knowing the reason for their eerie stillness, but the quiet does add to the secluded character of this valley.
The area is as peculiar as it is gorgeous. In some places the air smells of sulphur, the river turns orange and red, and in other places there are tiny lakes where deep blue water bubbles from the ground as if it is boiling.
Hiking up Zakagori Fortress
After a few hours of steady walking we arrive at the turning point of today’s hike: the Zakagori fortress. The trail lingers on beyond a military checkpoint that is guarded by two soldiers who are smoking cigarettes while lazily leaning on their army truck. It is not possible to continue to walk beyond this point. What is possible however, is to hike steeply up the mountain just before the checkpoint, to the ruins of the fortress from where the breath-taking climb is rewarded with an equally breath-taking view over the valley with its river and mountains.
The valley is like a secret world from a fantasy movie, sealed off from the outside world and only accessible through a secret door, perhaps one inside a rabbit hole or in a wardrobe closet. After coming down from the fortress we walk the same way back.ear the end of our hike when we are back in the gorge we experience the vagaries of mountain weather when within just three minutes the blue skies turn black and burst with hail and lightning. We hardly have enough time to pull our raincoats from our bags. The hail storm was like an announcement of our transition from the fairy tale valley world back into the real world – although in this region of Georgia, even the real world is still pretty magical.
Hiking in Kazbegi – Juta Valley trail and the Chaukhi Pass
For our last day of hiking in this region we decide to visit the Juta Valley. A dusty road brings us past a few farms and then onto the mountain road into Juta village. We drive past a deep drop with an angrily churning river below – and no guardrails, so our day starts with an appropriate dose of adrenaline. Juta is a tiny village with more wooden bee hives than houses.
A rocky path leads up into the valley and within half an hour we stand in awe of a vista of rugged mountain peaks paired with lavish green fields where wild horses roam.
Hiking in Juta Valley
Just like yesterday we follow the river into the valley. Its natural beauty is truly spectacular and unspoilt. The river water is so clear, the wildflowers so abundant, and the mountain air so clean and the scene in its totality is so peaceful… we came here to walk, but I wouldn’t mind just sitting down here and enjoying the views for the rest of the day. Then again, the walking trail is inviting so we move on, past snowy fields and across a frozen part of the river, until we reach a mountain lake where we see other hikers take a rest in the grass or a swim in the cold water.
Going up the Chaukhi Pass
We decide to push on towards the Chaukhi Pass. Until here the trail had been quite level and very easy to follow, but once we start climbing it becomes steep and treacherous with loose slates of schist rocks. Yellow and white rhododendrons are blooming. We are tricked by the path with a number of false peaks and snowy fields but once on top we are rewarded with a magnificent view over the mountain range and the valley below.
When it is time to head back to Juta we experience some confusion as it is suddenly not so clear anymore where the path is that brought us here. All the surrounding green hills look similar and there is no clearly defined trail. Luckily we spot a pile of stones which indicates the easiest way down. It is the way down that will lead us back to Juta and then to Kazbegi, and eventually out of this addictive land of magical mountain peaks. It might as well lead us straight into rehab – to cure us of our newly acquired Caucasus mountain high.
Want to know more about hiking in Kazbegi and traveling in Georgia?
Check out the other articles I wrote about our time in Georgia:
I also found this resource very useful for lots of information about hiking in Kazbegi: https://www.caucasus-trekking.com/