Samaria gorge: river deep, mountain high

Even if you’ve never heard of the Samaria gorge before: as soon as you’re planning a trip to Crete, you will. After all, it’s one of Europe’s largest ravines. The great length, the impressive views, the breathtaking rock formations, the narrow lanes and the rewarding final stopping place: it all adds up to an unforgettable gorge hike.

If you were a giant, you’d constantly have to watch your step if you were walking around on Crete. The largest of the Greek islands has a spectacular number of gorges and ravines and the most famous one is located in the dazzling White Mountains or ‘Lefka Ori’, in the southwest of the island: the Samaria Gorge. The 16 km long gorge, formed by the forces of nature, is the most popular place for hiking on the island.

Follow the river

The gorge was formed about 14 million years ago. The shifting of tectonic plates caused a crack in the limestone and marble rocks and the gorge got even bigger due to river erosion: the Tarraios river runs through the entire length of the gorge. In springtime, you may get your feet wet while hiking through the gorge, but during the summer the river is narrowed down to a small stream. Perfect for a strenuous but fascinating walk!  The whole trail takes you from the high plateau of Omalos, 1200 meters above sea level, to the shores of the Libyan Sea, 18 km farther south.   

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  • The steep stairway

The Samaria gorge trail immediately sets off to a challenging start: a steep stone stairway that seems to be cut from the rocks, takes you straight down into the ravine. Our guide tells us to be alert and careful: most accidents happen on the stairs because the stones are slippery and worn from the average of 6.000 shoes that step over it each day…  The wooden railing comes in handy! The landscape is gorgeous from top to bottom: there’s the forests of pine trees, cypress trees and fig trees, the views of the Lefka Ori mountain range, the valleys and ravine sights.

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People got killed here after being hit by a falling rock.

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The gorge-ous White Mountains range!

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  • The river valley 

After the descent, the track continues on the Tarraios river shore. Along the way, wooden and stone bridges take you from one side of the river to the other. In summertime, you can walk straight in the riverbed.

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One of the many river crossings
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You’ll pass a lot of these smaller river crossings along the way
  • The Samaria settlement

The gorge is named after an old village that used to be right in the gorge, on the Tarraios riverbank. In 1962, after the gorge was declared a national park, the inhabitants were forced to move out. You can still see leftovers of the Samaria settlement, located in the middle of the 16 km track.

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The dried up river and remains of the Samaria settlement
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Some of the houses are now being used by park staff.

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Leftovers from a church a bit further down the gorge
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Donkeys near the Samaria village, ‘on call’ for rescue operations
  • The Kri Kri goats

These cute guys below are a big reason why the Samaria gorge was declared a National Park: the Kri Kri goat is, among other rare fauna & flora that flourish in this area, an endangered species. The best place to spot the goats is near the houses of the abandoned Samaria settlement.

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  • The Iron Gate

As you’re walking through the Samaria gorge, the deep passage keeps getting thinner and thinner and the walls are getting higher and higher until suddenly you’re standing in a 500 meter high gateway, with both cliff sides only 4 meters apart…  Welcome to the Iron Gate or (Sideroportes in Greek), the narrowest point of the gorge. It’s a popular photography spot: people like to stretch out both arms, nearly touching both sides of the gorge at the same time. Don’t forget to look up while you’re standing in the dried up riverbank: the seemingly non-stop cliffs, the balancing trees lurking down on you and the blue strip of sky adding a surreal touch of lightness and color make it very easy to understand how powerful nature can be.

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Getting closer to the narrowest point

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There it is: the iron gate
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The marble and limestone walls
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The view when looking up
  • The reward: hello ocean

After the iron gate, it’s all about reaching the end of the trail because it’s hot, it’s dry, it’s unshaded and it’s time to cool down. Honestly, what’s better during a demanding hike than the promise of a swim in cool, pristine waters? The Samaria gorge trail conveniently ends right at the shores of the beautiful Libyan Sea. The coastal village of Agia Roumeli has a stone beachside, perfect for a quick dive before taking the ferry and the returning to the hotel. The town is buzzing with tourists when we arrive, but being only reachable by foot or by boat and home to only +- 100 people, this must be a completely different place after the last boat has left and all the day-trippers have gone…

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Seeking refreshment in the Libyan Sea
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Waiting for the ferry, that takes us to Chora Sfakion where the bus is waiting.
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Another gorge along the way (Aradena gorge)

Good to know

– The easiest way to get to the Samaria Gorge if you’re staying in a hotel further north of the island, is by booking an organized bus tour (starting in the city of Chania). The bus ride is included when you book a tour. After the gorge hike, you go to Chania (Chora Sfakion) by berry and from there, a bus takes you back to the hotel.

  • It’s best to start the walk early in the morning: less crowds, less heat. If you take the first tourist bus available, you’ll arrive at the park at 7.30 am.

  • Tackling the gorge ain’t that easy! We were of the youngest in the group and were convinced we would be first at the exit when in fact, we turned out to be last… It took us 5,5 hours to do the whole walk. The average is 3 (if you’re very, very fit) to 6 hours (if you like taking photos).

  • The gorge is opened for tourists from May to October, but it’s better to just check beforehand: it depends on the weather.

  • You can do the track the other way around as well, starting at Agia Roumeli and walking to the high plateau of Omalos.

  • The entrance price to the National Park is 5 euro.

  • The gorge is 16 km long, but the actual walk is 18 km, if you include the distance down from the plateau of Omalos to the gorge and the distance from the gorge to the village of Agia Roumeli.