Hiking the Seven Rila Lakes with October Icicles

Our time in Bulgaria was coming to an end and I hadn’t done any hiking! After three weeks in Romania and three weeks in Bulgaria, I was desperate to get my boots back on and feel the earth under my feet.

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The Rila Mountains

Visiting Bulgaria

We were on week three in Bulgaria and had spent time north of Varna exploring the weird things in the desert, seeing The Wonderful Rocks and watching dolphins.

We’d then travelled south of Varna towards Greece, visiting the black coast, discovering castles on big mountains, visiting ancient walled cities and of course chilling out in freezing cold Sofia BUT I just wanted one hike.

Bulgaria has some spectacular mountain ranges to it’s west and I wanted to see them ALL!

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Icicles

But which one?

We had no idea which mountain range to tackle, let alone how to get there or buy a map and plot a route and I just couldn’t be bothered to research it myself.

Shocking I know! Sorry but it was at the end of my first eleven week backpacking experience with the kids and I was still tired (and feeling lazy).

So instead I booked a small, organised tour and made the kids get up at 5:40 am lol.

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Winter furs

We are not a morning family

For those of you who know us personally you will know that we are definitely NOT a morning family. Our kids have always loved their sleep, as do we, so we set the dreaded alarm and woke up to its horrifying noise.

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Rila mountains

Which tour?

We chose to go with Traventuria, a Bulgarian cased company and although I really wanted to complete a two day hike nobody else did lol. The only reason for this was the weather – or so they’d have me believe! It was seriously cold.

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Our kids hiking

Although this company have a number of self-guided hikes that you can do too, we felt it would be easier to do a guided hike and so we chose the Seven Lakes in the Rila Mountains.

As it turns out we could have done either as the hike wasn’t overly difficult but it was beneficial for us to have a guide and he was lovely.

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The ski lodge

What was the cost?

Price for GUIDED tour: The price starts from €39/person (days with Special Offer); Other days cost: 1 pers: €138; 2 pers: €79 pp; 3 pers: €58 pp; 4-7 pers: €49 pp.
Price for SELF-GUIDED tour: €120 per group of 1-4 persons; €160 per group of 5-8 persons.

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Rila mountains

The price included: Return transfer from Sofia to Panichishte resort; English-speaking guide (for the guided option); Detailed route notes and a map of Rila (for the self-guided option)

We decided to pay for ski-lift passes to take us up to the ski chalet which cost an extra €9/€5 adult/child. This meant the total price was:

Hike price €195.00
Ski lift price €45.00
Total price €240.00

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Rila mountains

The hike details

This whole-day excursion is designed for people who would like to be transferred from Sofia to hike among The Seven Rila Lakes.

Transfer time: 3.30hrs (total)
Walking time: 4-5 hrs (moderate difficulty)
Best period: mid June-mid September

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Rila mountains

What and where are the Seven Rila’s?

Seven Rila’s are a group of glacial lakes situated between 2100 and 2500 metres above sea level surrounded by the rugged peaks and deep valleys of Suhi Chal, Otovishki and Haramiya.

They are situated in the northwestern Rila Mountains located in the Dangskiya region and are the most visited lakes in Bulgaria. This gives you a clue as to how popular they can be!

Each of the seven lakes carries a name associated with its most characteristic feature which I’ll detail below. The Lakes are also associated with a Bulgarian religion which see the mountains and water as a spiritual place. It’s not hard to see why!

 

Dano what?

Rila’s Seven Lakes are a place of religious significance to the Danovists, a movement also known as the “White Brotherhood” – a reference to spiritual pureness rather than racial purity.

Formed at the beginning of the 20th century, Danovism was created by Petar Danov and I guess for that reason could be called a cult rather than a religion (although my opinion remains that all religions are cults).

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Our boy Zach admiring the view

Danov, the son of an Orthodox priest, combined Eastern Orthodoxy and Paganism with practices of yoga, meditation and nature-worship.  It fast became popular with its simple and positive message however was banned during the era of communism.

After the fall of Communism followers renewed the practice of gathering on August 19th, the date chosen by Danov as the beginning of the New Year. Dressed in white, thousands of devotees dance a panreuthmic sun-worshipping dance arranged in concentric circles at the lakes’ shores.

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Trek horses for tourists

Our guide

Our guide was a delightful, Bulgarian man called Ventsi and we met him at 6:55am (holy moly) at the back of the cathedral in Sofia.

The van journey was broken up with one stop-off about an hour in to a service station where we bought some vegan protein bars. Bulgaria astounded me with its availability of vegan food, it really wasn’t the country I was expecting and veganism was made simple.

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Alexander Nevski Cathedral

It was FREEZING!

The organised hikes run between June and November and offer groups of up to eight people. We are already five and because it was one of the last hikes of the year, we were joined by two other females making our group size seven.

We completed the hike in the second week of October and we were freezing. It might have said 4*c but it felt more like -4*c.

We were pretty fortunate to complete and see all seven lakes because of the low cloud coverage that kept rolling through the valleys.

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The temp

To use the ski lifts or not?

You have the option not to use the ski lifts but you’ll have an extra 3km to hike and it’s all UP. We chose the easy option and rode the ski chairs. Given the temperature it was worth the extra money.

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Rila

The ski lift is a NEW edition to the mountain and in 2009 there was much hostility and resistance towards it from Bulgarian hikers who thought it would make the mountains too commercially accessible. They might have been right as the mountains are now turning into swamps.

It’s thought that the tenfold increase in tourists visiting the mountains is causing the damaging change whilst the off road vehicles, also using it, destroy delicate ground vegetation adding to its demise.

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The ski chairs with the hiking route below it

Low cloud

When we arrived in the bottom car park the cloud was already densely covering the tops of the trees and as our chairs rose above the trees we could turn around to see the immense cloud coverage below us.

I LOVE clouds.

You might remember how I got VERY excited in Madeira when we hiked above and below the clouds between Pico Ruivo and Aeeriro? (opens in new link) Well this time was no different.

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Cloud coverage

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Cloud

Starting from The Rilski Ezera Hut

The chairlifts drop you off at the Rilski Ezera Hut and as the hike can be circular, you have a choice of where to start. As it was busy that morning we opted to start with the quieter route and headed off to The Lower Lake first.

The hut, or ski chalet, can be booked through booking.com and I think it offers meals and wifi too.

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The chalet

The Lower Lake

The lowest lake is appropriately called Lower Lake (Dolnoto Ezero), which feeds the Dzherman River. The lakes are all connected by narrow streams, waterfalls and cascades which you can either cross or see whilst hiking the area.

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The lower lake

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Our guide admiring the lower lake

The Fish Lake

Fish lake (Ribno Ezero) is the shallowest of the lakes and has a bed of reeds just under its surface which gives an eerie quality to its appearance.

The Seven Lakes Shelter is on the banks of Fish Lake and gives some brilliant reflections. It’s only from above the lake, looking down, that you realise how shallow it is.

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Fish lake

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Fish Lake

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Rila fish lake

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Rila fish lake

The Trefoil

Farther up the trail is the Three-leafed Lake (Trilistnika) categorised by its irregular shape and low shores. From about this point onwards we started to see icicles forming on the bushes and the higher we climbed the more ice there was. The temperature was already cold but the wind became a bigger factor as we were no longer protect as much by the valley sides.

The lakes freeze around October and melt in June and can freeze to a depth of two meters thick. During the summer months the lakes are fed from the melting snow-drifts on the mountains.

The ice is about as a fresh as you’ll find and makes a great snack lol!

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Tre lake

Tre Lake in the distance with one half of The Twin closest

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Eating fresh icicles

The Twins

Next comes The Twins’ Lake (Bliznaka). Wide at both ends and narrow in the middle the lake resembles an hourglass.

During dry years, the lake becomes two smaller lakes and this is the source of its name.

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The twins

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The twins

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Icicles on a bush near The twins

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The twins

The Kidney

Named for its kidney shape, the Kidney Lake (Babreka) has a surface area of 85 hectares and has steep rocky banks. We stopped at this lake on our way down from The Eye and The Tear for a spot of lunch and watched quietly as the clouds engulfed us.

I managed to get a great photo of some hikers emerging from the clouds onto the opposite bank of the lake in front of us.

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The Kidney from above at The Tear

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The kidney’s shores

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The kidney engulfed in clouds

The option to hike some more

We made The Kidney in pretty good time and had the option of hiking further to The Eye and The Tear before lunch. Of course we said YES! This part of the hike was, for me, the hardest. I was SO cold (having just returned from SE Asia we had no appropriate hiking clothes and were walking in flimsy trousers and basic coats) and it was definitely the steepest part of the walk. However the higher you hike the better the view!

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Hiking up

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Rich and our instructor walking into the cloud

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Climbing up towards The Eye

The Eye

Next is Eye Lake (Okoto), the deepest of the seven at 37.5 meters. It is oval and during the summer months, an intense blue when the sun shines.  Sadly no sunshine for us that day and because of that no ariel shot of The Eye as the clouds were too dense.

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Finally reaching The Eye and admiring the view before the clouds

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The Eye: From this

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The Eye: To this

Waiting at The Tear for the clouds to clear

The highest of the lakes is Tear Lake (Salzata), which gained its name for its tear shape and crystal-clear water. It is 2,535 meters high, directly beneath the Otovishki Peak.

I waited so patiently in the freezing clouds waiting for them to roll on by and I was rewarded, finally, with a glimpse of The Tear Lake.

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The Tear

The summit

Reaching the summit was a relief and a little bit of a an anticlimax in terms of photography. I had visions of getting a panoramic that showed at least six lakes but the weather had different ideas.

It was so cloudy that we couldn’t even have our photos taken on the board platform. So we started our descent and ate lunch at The Kidney.

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The Summit

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Icicles overlooking The Kidney

The hike down

The hike down is always much easier than the hike up and this time we had a different path to look forward to. The scenery is just as beautiful regardless of which path you choose though.

What I really liked about our hike guide was that he gave us freedom to roam. I was able to deviate from the path and admire the view over the sides of the peaks we were straddling. The visibility was limited but the view remained spectacular.

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The hike down

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The view over one of the peaks

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The view over the valley edge

and then just like that we were back at the ski lodge

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The ski lodge

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Ski hut

Return on the chair lift

The return journey on the chair lift was just as fun as on the way up because visibility was even worse! It was all very exciting and the kids were shouting out ‘echo’ and making animal noises into the mist that clung around us lol.

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Chair lift down

Stalls in the car park

On our return to the mini bus we noticed a number of wooden stalls selling locally made jams & pickles, locally sourced honey and a massive boiling vat of water and freshly boiling corn on the cobs. Just what the kids were after and they tasted so sweet too!

If you’re passing, we can recommend the jams and the corn.

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The kids hiking up

Video

 

Top Tips

  1. This walk can be done alone but it’s always fun to book a local guide who can tell you about the history and culture of Bulgaria and the mountains. We recommend Traventuria!
  2. Even in May there is still snow underfoot. Wear lots of layers and certainly have a waterproof layer that will keep you dry. Consider taking hats and gloves if you go later than September.
  3. I recommend wearing walking boots. The ground is often sodden wet and the ascent of the last two lakes is steep and the path prone to movement.
  4. Definitely take some food  and water, I’d recommend hot soup! We ate at The Kidney but there’s loads of lovely places to stop.
  5. The lakes can get very busy. The earlier you can get there the better.
  6. Walking poles are good but definitely not essential. It’s not that hard a walk.
  7. Stop off for jams and freshly cooked corn on the cobs on the way back down.

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What its like to hike the Seven Rila Lakes in October with icicles forming

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