A UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves site, the White Mountains offer an incredible opportunity for the hiker in both winter and summer. Generally regarded for its fantastic hiking, the White Mountains provide an ideal habitat for bird lovers and nature enthusiasts looking for species of large birds like Eagles and Vultures, the Golden Eagle and the Red-Billed Chough.
One of only two freshwater lakes on the entire island, Lake Agia is a manmade lake in the Northwest of Crete. Initially built as a water supply for the island, no-one anticipated the ecosystem that would one day flourish here. Today, this tranquil setting is home to over 200 different varieties of birds. Species that can be found here include Ducks, Geese, Wood Sandpiper, Swallow, Black-winged stilt, Reed Warbler, Pelican and Little Crake to name just a few.
Located approximately 6 km northwest of Paleochora near a small village called Azogires, the Cave of the Holy Fathers is an impressive cave system with a moving spiritual history. Over 20 meters high and more than 100 meters long the cave is accessed by ascending through its mouth which is approximately 10 by 5 meters. Once inside there are steel ladders leading you down into the cave which houses a number of wondrous dripstone formations. The Cave of the Holy Fathers has still not been fully investigated and it is relatively difficult terrain – a flashlight and sturdy hiking shoes are an absolute necessity. Any questions can be directed to the friendly locals at the nearby Alfa Cafe and Information Center.
A delightful surprise to walk or drive through, many visitors to western Crete remember the Topolia gorge not from hiking it but rather from driving along the winding road that cuts through it (and part of a mountain where a tunnel was dug to allow the road continue). Known to locals as the ‘Gorge of Caves’ because of the many that are found along its route, this majestic gorge is located just south of Kissamos and is rich with vegetation. Its path begins just after the village of Topolia and extends for approximately 1.5 km. One of its most impressive features is the shadows that fall onto its rock faces mid-afternoon – a stunning sight to behold.
West of Samaria this gorge can be accessed from the same pathway as Klados gorge, beginning in Linosseli. Breathtaking views of its steep rock walls, climbers will be delighted its nature and wildlife. Dangerous in spots and not for the novice. Beware of loose rocks and plan well.
If you want to see a city’s soul go to the market (also known as Dimotiki Agora). Hania’s Municipal market or ‘Agora’ is a bustling, lively center where tourists can rub shoulders with locals while meandering through the 76 small shops, restaurants, bakeries and stalls selling their fresh local products. A variety of bakeries and small restaurants serve up some of the freshest fare in the city. The restaurants may not be fancy but if it’s genuine Cretan cuisine you’re after, this is one of the best places to find it.
Just east of Samaria is the very narrow, verdant Eligia gorge with its steep drop and abundant foliage. The path to its entrance begins at the Katsiveli mountain shelter. It is more walkable than either Tripiti or Klados, marked with small piles of rocks along the way, but there are a number of secondary paths that can lead visitors to become easily lost so a guide is recommended. At the end of the gorge the isolated village of Agia Roumeli with its pebble beach and breathtaking views of the Libyan sea is approximately a one hour hike away. Agia Roumeli is only accessible by boat or on foot and well worth the hike
Just west of its more famous sister, Samaria, the Klados gorge awaits. Offering up breathtaking scenery with its imposing jagged rockface and waterfalls, the Klados gorge is a remote and little traveled terrain. Its northern entrance begins from the Linosseli pass west of the Gigilos peak and is marked only by a few piles of rocks. This path, as with others along much of its route, is often blocked by bushes which only contribute to the danger by hiding its steep drops. Just before the entrance there is a very dangerous spot with loose gravel on a steep slope. Navigating the Klados gorge does require descending by rope in various areas. There are cascading waterfalls along the way and at the end a gorgeous beach called Tripiti.
Compared to many of its sister’s, the Sirikari gorge (also known as Polyrinia gorge) is an easy alternative for those looking to get out into nature but not suffer too much the next day. A protected habitat, the gorge descends into a beautiful river bed with abundant, flowering vegetation. From the village of Sirikari the pathway ascends to the ancient settlement of Polyrinia with its glorious view of the bay of Kissamos. Altogether the hike is approximately three hours (and 11 km long). Visitors should beware however, that along the pathway there are areas not well marked by signposts and it can become easy to get turned around.
Just over an hour’s drive southwest of the city of Hania is the gorge of Agia Irini. Easily accessible from the village of Agia Irini the entire hike is approximately three hours and stretches out over 7.5km. At its most narrow point it closes in at just 10 meters while its walls climb to a height of 500 meters. Most of the pathway is easily navigated and the trail itself well cared for although there are both uphill and downhill areas and along the riverbed visitors have to traverse the rocky terrain. There are a couple of picnic spots along the way and washroom facilities. Lush vegetation, flowering herbs and gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains and abundant pine and cypress trees await travelers here. At the end of the pathway there is a main road that leads to the charming village of Sougia.
Just less than 20 km west of Sfakia lies the Aradena gorge which begins on the softer southern hills of the White Mountains and ends at the cobalt coloured waters of the Libyan Sea. Pictures of the gorge’s dramatic sloping edges falling into the sea are unforgettable and it is easily one of the most picturesque in the Hania region. The gorge is approximately 7km long and takes approximately 3 to 4 hours to hike. There is an area where hikers must descend a metal ladder attached to the cliff, although there is an alternate route with a handrail. The descent itself is difficult but manageable but hikers should be forewarned about falling stones. At the end of the hike there are paths to Marmara, Loutro and Sfakia.
Also known to many Greeks as the ‘deepest cave’ Gourgouthakas is located in an area of the White Mountains (Ta Lefka Ori) known as Atzinolakos. Sitting at an altitude of 1500 meters it is 1208 meters in depth and 900 meters in length making it one of the deepest caves in the entire world. Initially discovered in the early nineties, Greek speleologists were the first to investigate the cave; a couple short years later a team of climbers triumphantly conquered it. The area around Gourgouthakas Cave is extremely beautiful and worth exploring on its own. Only those who are the most qualified and experienced climbers should consider this expedition.
Set amongst a stunning backdrop of mountains Lake Kournas is the only natural freshwater lake in all of Crete and covers an area of approximately 579,000 square meters and is only 22.5 meters at its deepest point. Home to different species including Herons, Cormorants, Ducks, and Warblers. As one of only two freshwater lakes on the island, Lake Kournas is a wonderful spot to take a rented kayak and while away the day atop its calm waters. On site visitors can rent a pedal boat or canoe to travel around the area.
To reach the Lissos Gorge visitors can take a small boat from neighbouring Sougia (about 20 minutes), or can arrive by foot which is about a 2 hour walk. The entrance begins at the harbour of Sougia and a good deal of the pathway is uphill. The entrance begins at the harbour of Sougia and a good deal of the pathway is uphill. There is beautiful vegetation throughout the gorge and towards the end of the path a gorgeous pine forest offering up a view of Lissos below. At the bottom of the hill lies ancient Lissos including the temple which can be explored on foot. (See Lissos in the archaeology section).
Found close to the city of Hania, the Theriso gorge is approximately 6km long and can also be visited by car. Easily navigated with a well laid pathway this is a good opportunity for people with families to take to the outdoors and do some hiking. The Theriso gorge sits amongst the foothills of the White Mountains; a small stream runs through part of the gorge and adds to the abundant plant life which makes for fantastic natural scenery and an abundance of greenery everywhere.
Easily one of the most beautiful gorges in all of Crete, the Imbros gorge is often overlooked by hikers who choose Samaria instead, but this gorge is impressive in its own right. Again regarded specifically as a hiking site, the Imbros Gorge is a fantastic natural habitat for a variety of birds including the Raven, the Griffon Vulture, the Falcon and the Alpine Swift.
Located in the small, aptly named village of Rokka this gorge is a big departure from Samaria and some of the other’s with rougher terrain but it is just as beautiful and has just as much flora and fauna to keep visitors preoccupied. Nearly vertical rock faces loom overhead and at less than 5 meters wide and 200 meters deep the gorge is extremely imposing. A remarkable view of Kissamos awaits hikers who reach the plateau and the steep hill known as Trouli above the village is the site of the ancient Venetian castle (see archaeology section).
Once a sacred spot of Minoan worship the cave of Agia Sofia is now famous for its mammoth stalactites and stalagmites. A steep climb up the stone staircase and into the mouth of the cave visitors will first see a small chapel where they may light a candle or offer a prayer. Once inside it is fairly easy to make one’s way around (although the back of the cave is too slippery and dark to explore). Some of the stalagmites and stalactites are up to five or six meters in length with unique, almost otherworldly formations.