Hiking in and around Heraklion is a treat for the soul. The geographical diversity in Crete is just wild, as it’s one of the rare places on Earth, featuring glorious ocean coastlines, juxtaposed by its incredible mountainous heart. Any outdoor lover would be in heaven. In winter, you can enjoy a cool breeze on the beach whilst gazing at spectacular snow-capped mountains. The year-round perfect weather also makes Crete a go-to destination for walking and hiking activities. It’s almost like transporting into another world as you venture into the heartlands of Crete’s wilderness. Picture this: A rugged coastline with azure waters and fresh sea air, rocky crags, and glorious dappled green groves. And from there start walking into the heart of the mountains.
Crete is an actual paradise for walkers, hikers, trekkers, and anyone who loves to tour the great outdoors. A lot of trails are family-friendly. Though there’s always something special out there waiting for the more brave souls. Hardcore hikers can get off the beaten track and travel to whole areas that are practically unknown. Deep gorges carved into the mountains, fabulous views, and untouched flora and fauna.
Nothing gets my heart pumping for a trip like the word ‘hiking’. As an intrepid wanderer, nature lover, and mountain conqueror, I love nothing more than soaking up the outdoors on a hiking or climbing trip. As the sun rose early on a trip day in early summer, I was ready to hit the trails.
Walks in the West – Hiking in Samaria Gorge
One of the top famous hikes in Crete is Samaria Gorge, a heaven for any walker of any level. Offering everything nature can give in the way of mountains, trees, and rivers. I couldn’t wait to arrive. My morning alarm was set to a less than snoozy 6 am. I quickly got dressed and had a large hearty Cretan breakfast ready for the big day. My chauffeur collected me promptly at 7:am, just as the sun broke through the horizon with a golden glow. It would take me 3 hours in the car to get to Xyloskalo from Heraklion, so I could take a cheeky nap on the drive.
Prepped with sunscreen, sunglasses, and an appropriate outfit consisting of hiking sandals and yoga shorts. I was ready to hit the trail.
The track starts a diverse range of plants and natural flora at the end of the tunnel caught my interest. Enamoured by the magical 1,000ft walls that made up the famous ‘Gates’ of Samaria Gorge. Each rock so huge and roughly hewn as though giants had bulldozed through the mountain to make a path to the sea. It’s a place that makes you feel the glory of nature! I felt no larger than a pin gazing up at the towering cliffs of mineral rock. Running my hands over the walls that have been smoothed over as people constantly touch them whilst making their way through the gorge.
My steps began to heat up even though the track is mostly downhill. But I was rewarded with a refreshing respite every time the well-maintained path made of smooth planks ran over little rocky streams and rivulets. Trickling with the clearest river water I’ve ever seen. It was a pretty hot day, so it was blissful to let the cool water run over my toes whilst I took stock of my striking surroundings. It’s a pretty long haul hike averaging 6 hours, but there are a few freshwater springs along the way (around every 45 mins) where you can fill up your water bottle, which means you don’t have to carry too much weight! The path is well maintained for the most part, with little built-up bridges along open sections framing unbelievable views. I could marvel at the Lefka Ori (White Mountains) that rose majestically all around me as I padded on through the gorge – being careful of some of the stones which can get slippy.
After 6 hours of enduring pure, uncharted beauty that filled my mind with joy, I reached the end of my trip to Samaria Gorge. As is often the case in Crete, and much of Greece for that matter, a great hike ends with a beautiful reward, and the last 3km stretch ends at the beach of Agia Roumeli. Here, I wasted not a single second getting out of my hiking gear on the pebbly beach. Diving straight into the water was calling to me like an ice-cream van on a blistering day. Much to my sudden regret, the water was freezing! But after a few seconds, my skin got used to the drastic temperature change and I drifted languidly like a starfish on the surface of the water. Feeling every bit alive and free in this grand walking paradise. Taking note of the time, I made the last ferry to civilization at Sfakia at 17:30, ready to meet the sweet air-conditioned drive with my chauffeur.
Hiking Time – 6 hours
Level – Easy. Though the track is mostly downhill with lots of rocks which can be slippery.
Don’t Forget the essentials!
- Hiking footwear – as Samaria Gorge is mostly downhill it can be heavy on the knees and feet, so make sure your gear is comfortable.
A similar natural wonder to Samaria Gorge is the Richtis Gorge, a protected reserve in the east of Crete close to Sitia. A short 1.5 hour drive from Heraklion past sea coves and stunning coastal vistas. Richtis Gorge is less popular which means fewer people, and it’s one of the most unspoiled and beautiful natural treasures in all of Crete. There is so much greenery and the gorge teams with life, including sweet little lizards. The spectacular moss-covered waterfall makes for a refreshing blast of cool water on your back after hiking to the halfway point. ‘Richtis’ actually means waterfall, and it’s no surprise why this gorge was named after it. Whenever I think back to my favourite walking and hiking trips around the world, it’s always the ones that end in an exhilarating plunge pool or a secret beach!
Guided Hiking in Crete – Scaling the Via Ferrata
There are only certain types of people that put hiking in the same sentence as the word holiday, but I am one of them. A hiking holiday in Crete in early summer is a dream come true. Next on my adventure bucket list was climbing the Via Ferrata or ‘the iron road’, in the Asterousia Mountains. The route starts just over an hour’s travel out of Heraklion, at Kapetiana village. From here, it’s an adrenaline-packed high impact climb across the south face of Mountain Kofinas. The route gets its name from the addition of a steel cable rail that’s fixed to the rock. You attach yourself to the cable, and can dance across the rocky cliffs like a ballerina and be perfectly safe.
The stunning Via Ferrata is the only one in Crete, and if I thought I got lucky with the views as I scaled along the cliff face of Mount Kofinas, it was nothing until I reached the very top. I’d started early to avoid the midday sun, so I was blessed with an endless hazy morning view out across the south coast and the Mediterranean.
A little adrenaline rush is just what you need on a long, warm summer day in Crete. The way across the mountain is relatively easy, but I found my heart pumping with delight every time I reached a particularly steep outcrop. I tightened up the laces in my hiking boots, double-checked my carabiners, and headed across the death-defying drop below. Wiping the sweat from my brow with my t-shirt as I safely made it to the other side. As I sat atop the stone buttress at the final precipice with the valley depths stretching out below my feet, I felt completely on top of the world.
This has to be my favorite place to hike in all Crete due to the bonus of climbing. The route is so well maintained with the steel cable ensuring the safety of everyone.
Hiking / Climbing Time – 3 hours
Level – Moderate – suitable for most people, but climbing experience is advised.
Trekking in the Ancient Eleftherna
True to my nature craving sensibilities, in just a few days, another walk was on the horizon. Albeit a rather tame adventure for the day. Ancient Eleftherna is a circular walk that starts and ends in the charming pottery village of Margarites. The area is steeped in history stretching back to the Byzantine era and contains the little that is left of the ancient city.
I began at the entrance of the ancient city of Ancient Eleftherna -built between 970 – 820 B.C. The area used to be a thriving city between the Hellenistic and Roman periods. After admiring the ruins of the old Byzantine tower, my curious feet set off at a brisk pace along the dry rocky path. I was looking to discover the Roman reservoirs and old aqueducts that supplied the ancient city with fresh water. The route features the old ruins of the city and a quaint Hellenistic bridge that dates back to 330-67 BC. Which was built from the rocks around the land. I stopped here for a quick snack in the shade of huge plane trees and old oaks, surrounded by the airy sounds of songbirds and inquisitive insects. So caught in the moment that I almost left my shirt behind when I got up to leave and was cheerily chased by a lovely Cretan family who had been hot on my trail since the start.
The final part of the old path is a cluster of carob trees (a delicious cocoa bean alternative!) and before long, I reached the end and I was back in the pottery village of Margarites. I’d made the trail in quick time, and this was the sole reason why – I couldn’t wait to get to Margarites and indulge in a local pottery class. My sights were set on a charming clay pot hot air balloon that I had seen in one of the shops on the way in. I was so excited to discover my inner crafting prowess. Sadly, pottery making is much harder than it looks. My creation resembled less of a perfectly rounded hot air balloon floating in the sky than a fully deflated one hanging from a tree. Nevertheless, the kind owner at Ea Ceramic Studio would glaze and fire it in the hot kiln and I was set to come back to pick it up in a few days. I settled for taking a selfie in front of the colorful walls. All decked from top to bottom with incredible pottery creations made by the pottery masters – people much more skilled than I. It was certainly a highlight of my trip.
Hiking Time – 5 – 6 hours return trip.
Level – Easy, some uneven terrain.
Conquering Mount Giouchtas / AKA Mount Juktas
During a whistle-stop tour of the beautiful village of Archanes, it felt unreasonable not to hike the sacred Mount Giouchtas (also spelled – yiuktas, or yioukhtas!) The outline of the mountain famously depicts the “sleeping profile of Zeus”. I turned my head this way and that as I took in the marvellous vista on the gentle walk towards the mountains from the village, but the Greek God of Thunder escaped my eye. This was perhaps because a single sneaky cloud chose to hover right above what should have been the tip of his nose.
The terrain was moderate as I headed up the mountain. With glorious sweeping views over the Messara plains and the northern coast rising gently with each step. I adored making the discovery of new fauna among the chalk-white boulders, adding them to my treasured botanical photo gallery as I went. My guide pointed out phrygana, maquis and the plethora of olive and wine groves that crisscrossed the plains like a giant game of tic-tac-toe. At the peak of Mount Giouchtas is a small sanctuary known as Psili Korfi, the site is fenced off but you can admire it from afar. If you are a fan of Geocaching, you’ll be excited to know there is one hidden here! The village of Archanes was once the site of a major Minoan settlement, but excavations can never be fully realised due to the village being built on top. I took in the impressive view from the top, the tiny colorfull houses in Archanes looking like an ant village below. As I watched native eagles swoop in and out of the sky, I felt I could have been one of them up in the vivid blue sky.
Hiking Time – 4 hours – return route from Archanes.
Level – Moderate