Samaria Gorge, Europe’s deepest, beckons the adventurous hiker with fabulous scenery, thousands of years of history and legendary Greek hospitality.

I love hiking in Crete, Europe’s southernmost island; it’s a great place to view Greece at its wildest and most beautiful. Happily for we hikers, Crete’s rugged White Mountains, which for centuries helped the Cretans repel invaders, have been preserved and protected from resort development. Crete boasts some of the most striking wilderness areas in Greece, or for that matter in all of the Mediterranean.

The adventure begins at the Samaria Gorge Trailhead.
The adventure begins at the Samaria Gorge Trailhead.

A fine—indeed awesome—introduction to the beauties of the Cretan countryside is the trek through Samaria Gorge. It’s a hike that will satisfy the beginner, whet the appetite of the experienced mountaineer. The whole trail through the gorge is well maintained and clearly marked. It’s an 11-mile hike one way with a 4,000-foot elevation loss.

Samaria Gorge, Europe’s deepest and longest gorge, is a great gash in the White Mountains of Crete. The rim of the gorge, where you begin your hike, is 4,000 feet above the village of Ayia Roumeli on the Libyan Sea, where you end your hike.

The gorge is protected by Samaria National Park, which was set aside by the Greek government in 1962. The massive walls of the gorge and the towering pines and bold cypresses are the most dramatic features of the national park, but there are other, more subtle beauties. A sturdy, chaparral-like ecosystem of juniper, myrtle and thyme thrives in the White Mountains. White cyclamen, pink rock rose and golden dandelions splash color on the mountainsides.

Riding the thermals along the gorge walls are great birds, including the hawk, golden eagle and the endangered bearded vulture. I was lucky enough to glimpse an elusive agrimi, the Cretan ibex, an agile, goat-like creature with large, bow-like horns. The agrimi is a wild, proud, defiant symbol of Crete.

And what a proud history the Crete–and in particular, Samaria Gorge, has had. The gorge was the scene of many a battle between the freedom-loving Greeks and the Turks, who occupied Crete from 1669 to 1898 but were never able to subdue the fierce mountain people of Samaria. Freedom fighter Yannis Daskaloyannis successfully defended the gorge during a 1770 rebellion but later lost his life when the Turks skinned him alive in Heraklion, the island’s capital. During World War II, Cretan guerrillas offered stiff resistance to the invading Germans. Samaria Gorge became one of the major escape routes to the south for retreating Allied troops.

Logistics for the Samaria Gorge trek are both complex and easy; complex because arrangements involve two bus rides and one boat ride, easy because tour operators offer package deals. These mini-tours, sometimes guided sometimes not, make all the transportation arrangements and depart from the island’s two largest cities, Heraklion and Hania. Check out Diana’s Travel, which books Samaria Gorge Tours. Crete Travel also offers one of these Samaria Gorge hiking tour packages.

If its solitude you’re after, visit Samaria Gorge on a day when the tour buses don’t run. The gorge is dreadfully overcrowded in the height of summer. If you want to meet visitors from all over the world (and not many Americans), sign up for a tour.

You can hike Samaria Gorge from April to October. The exact dates for hiking depend on the winter rains, which fill the gorge at its narrowest parts and make it impassable. Dependable bus and ferry service is only possible when the gorge is open.

Most Samaria-bound buses leave from the city of Hania on the northwest coast of the island. The buses leave early, 5-6 a.m., head south across the Omalos Plain and make a breakfast stop. Sleepy hikers can wake up with a Cretan breakfast that includes strong Greek coffee, fresh orange juice and some thick creamy yogurt topped with island honey.

The hike begins at an overlook in the shadow of 6,450-foot Mt. Gingilos. It’s a precipitous descent down wooden staircases and steep trail, dropping 3,250 feet in less than two miles. Once down in the bottom of Samaria Gorge, it’s easy walking. The pine and cypress shaded path meanders to the small chapel of Agios Nikolaos. Springs bubble up in convenient spots–welcome refreshment on what can be in summer a very hot hike.

About halfway along, you enter the old hamlet of Samaria (abandoned when the national park was formed). Say hello to the park ranger on duty here. Shady Samaria is a popular picnic and rest stop.

The trail continues descending to the Church of Ossia Maria (The Bones of Mary), built in 1379 by the Venetians. Samaria is a contraction of Ossia Maria; with the passage of time Ossia Maria was shortened into Sia Maria, then Sa Maria, and finally pronounced as one word. As for Maria herself, she was an Egyptian courtesan who, repenting of her ways, lived out here days as an ascetic in the desert. Maria has been beatified but not granted sainthood.

"The Gates," or narrows of Crete's Samaria Gorge.
“The Gates,” or narrows of Crete’s Samaria Gorge.
Descending further, the trail reaches the famous Sideroportes, “Iron gates,” where the gorge is at its narrowest (about 9 feet across). This narrow passage, where the Tarraios River becomes a raging torrent in winter, is the main reason why Samaria Gorge is closed during the rainy season.

The path emerges on a sandy plain at the mouth of the gorge. Here you’ll find food and refreshment at the village of Ayia Roumeli on the Libyan Sea. While waiting for the ferry, you can take a dip at the nice beach here.

The scenic, one-hour ferry ride along the spectacular south shore of Crete brings you to the port of Hora Spakion. Here you’ll board a bus and cross the island back to the population centers on the north coast of the island.

Hiking the Samaria Gorge takes a very long day, but one you’ll never forget.

Hike On,
The Trailmaster
John McKinney