Crete gazes at the Mediterranean Sea. Do the same!
White Mountains’ National Park is the only national park in Crete. It centres around the Samariá gorge, at an altitude of 1,200m and continues down to Ayia Rouméli, on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Along with the surrounding slopes and a number of smaller gorges branching off from it, Samaria Gorge forms the whole of the area designated as a national park, a status that offers protection to over 450 species of plant and animal, 70 of which are endemic to Crete. In the prefecture of Chania (also written “Hania”), the Samaria gorge is the longest in Europe (total length 16km), and one of the most impressive gorges in Greece. It starts from Xylóskalo, at an altitude of 1,230m. The width of the gorge is 150m at its widest point and 3m at its narrowest.
A word of advice: Visitors can descend into the gorge and walk for about 6 to 8 hours. Even though the path runs downhill it requires strong, comfortable footwear and some degree of physical fitness. But it’s well worth the effort. At the end of the path, swimming, taverna lunches and picnics under a canopy of trees within full view of the Mediterranean Sea all await you.
• Here is a brief hiking map:
As you walk downhill, you will come across the church of St. Nikolas, built on the ruins of an ancient temple. Half way down the gorge lies the old village of Samaria; its few houses are now used by the park wardens. Quench your thirst with mountain water running from the gorge’s springs. Keep walking. At some point you will reach Pórtes (also called “Iron Gates”), the three narrowest passages of the gorge. The steep cliffs here tower as high as 500m above sea level. This route also goes past Venetian castles and ruins of prehistoric settlements as well as remnants of many other historical periods. As you are walking, you might feel as if someone else is watching you: the presence of the wild Cretan goats, known as “kri kri”, will definitely make this route particularly exciting!
• The hike ends at Ayia Rouméli, where you can catch the ferry to Hóra Sfakion.
• Ayia Rouméli
Ayia Rouméli is a small coastal village that you reach after walking through the Samaria Gorge. From here a frequent boat service will take you directly to Loutró and Hóra Sfakion. The ancient Greek site of Tára, is on the left (east) hill as you exit the gorge. Many of the finds from Tára are housed in the Archaeological Museum of Chania. Tára flourished during Greek, Roman and Byzantine times. In Ayia Roumeli you can also visit the Byzantine churches of Panayia, Ayia Triada, and Ayios Pavlos, a Turkish castle and an exceptionally beautiful beach.
Nearby beaches: To the east of Ayia Rouméli discover the beaches of Mármara (at the exit of the Arádaina gorge), the wild beaches of Lýkos and Finikas, and the charming village of Loutró.
You can make a short or even a longer stop here on your way back to the point where your hiking adventure in the Samaria gorge began. The village can be reached by boat from Hóra Sfakion and Ayia Rouméli or on foot from Anopolis, Hóra Sfakion, and Ayia Rouméli. (Hiking tip: The footpaths appear deceptively short, especially in the heat of the summer. In addition, they may also be dangerous for inexperienced hikers. If you are not a hiking expert, take the boat from Hóra Sfakion; the trip lasts about 20 minutes.)
What can you do here?
• Well, first of all, you can just enjoy the laid-back atmosphere of the place.
• If you feel bored, daily boats will take you to the beaches of “Sweetwater” (where fresh water pours into the sea) and “Mármara”.
• There are footpaths leading to “Pervolákia” and “Timios Stavros” beaches, and a rather strenuous hike will take you to the beautiful village of Anópoli, high on the cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
• Rent a boat to explore the area around Loutró.
• Dive to explore the crystal-clear waters and the amazing seabed of the Mediterranean Sea.
• Take a boat and go on a day trip to the island of Gávdos, the most southern tip of Europe—the dolphins will show you the way.
• Embark on a sailing adventure to discover inaccessible beaches—you might find a completely deserted one you can have all to yourself!
Gorge practicalities: The National Park that houses the gorge is open from May to October; in the first and last few weeks of that period it may close if there’s a danger of flash floods.
There are excursions to the Samaria gorge from the most cities and resorts on the island. You can even trek through the gorge under your own steam. Choose the city of Hania as your base. From here buses will take you to Xylóskalo. You can reach Ayia Roumeli on foot (at the exit of the Samaria gorge); there are several footpaths leading there. Frequent boat services (4 to 5 times a day) from Hóra Sfakion will also take you to Ayia Rouméli and Loutró. This small fishing village can also be reached on foot from Anópoli, Sfakia or Ayia Rouméli.
For more info see the Samaria National Park website.