Greece is known for many things, its history, culture, food, beaches and islands but nowhere do you hear about its vast mountains ranges. Greece has the second highest mountain in all the Balkans after Rila in Bulgaria. Mt. Olympus or Mytikas, standing at 2911m tall, looks over the beautiful town of Litochoro which is nestled in the mountain’s foothills. Litochoro has many hotels to stay in as well as B&B’s, but located 10-12km outside of the city is Hostel Summit Zero where I chose to stay…though I’m not sure id recommend it.
When I decided to go to Litochoro I saw that they had a few buses per day from Thessalniki and after missing the first two buses due to them being sold out, I decided to hitch hike. Standing on the roadside for 1 hour in the blistering heat I was relieved to get a ride from a German couple headed to Litochoro. We chatted for a hour or so as we made our way into the city. Standing before us stood Mytikas, barely visible through the cloud coverage, Greece’s highest mountain. They dropped me off in the main square of Litochoro and drove away and as I gained my bearings I realized that my hostel was in another town…a suburb of Litochoro called Gritsa. Figuring hitching would be as easy as it was to get to Litochoro, I tried my luck once again only to find very few cars headed my way, so I started walking towards my hostel. After 2km, I came across a Greek military base with guards and soldiers in training. I stopped to take a photo of a young officer in full garb only to be yelled at for doing so. I quickly walked to the fence, showed him the photo then deleted it altogether. Thankfully that did the trick. He then retreated to his post and I continued on my way. 1 1/2 hours later I arrived at my hostel!!!!! I checked in and asked if I could possibly camp in the garden for a discounted rate. Peri, the hostel owner, told me there is no camping in the garden. (Later two Spaniards had set up camp right next to hostel though”not in the garden” and it was fine). So I paid the 15 Euro, unpacked my stuff and ended up spending two nights at the hostel to figure out which route I wanted to take to summit Mt. Olympus.
After talking with Peri, he recommended a route that he said is very beautiful and would bring me to a refuge on the plateau sitting at 2700m where I could camp for FREE. I certainly considered this as a option but after seeing that it would either require a car to drive me halfway up the mountain or hiking on roads sides, I bowed out. I eventually decided on taking the E4, a very famous European hiking trail, starting at its westernmost point in Portugal and ending in Greece and Cyprus. It spans over 10,000km across beautiful European landscapes.
The E4 in Litochoro starts just outside the town. You will see signs for it on telephone posts (don’t follow signs for Mt. Olympus…the route you will follow will take you via road). Eventually you will pass a cemetery and you will see the entrance to Greece’s first national park, Olympus National park. As you make your way down the path you will see a split in the path: one that moves very abruptly to the left and the other a normal walkway to the right. Take the left branch. It will be marked as the E4. The E4 takes you through the gorge on a spectacular route up and down over and over like Sisyphus the king of Ephyra. In 2012, a large avalanche changed the the shape of the mountain side thus affecting the trail’s route. You will see remains of the avalanche including lots of trees and boulders scattered through the valley.
I started my journey leaving the hostel at 6am. There were no buses running that early but I knew if I was going to get to my goal for the day (which was Refuge A at 2100m up the mountain) I needed an early start. As I made my way down the coastal highway the sun made its appearance, just breaking over the ocean’s horizon putting on magnificent display of colors through some massive clouds. Stopping to take photos of the sunrise became an regular occurrence, but well worth the delay in my journey.
I arrived in Litochoro slightly before 8 am, when only a couple bakeries were open. Knowing that I would require more provisions than that, I sought out a supermarket and waited for them to open just after 8:30am, grabbed what I needed (fruits, energy bars, bread, meat, cheese) and hit the road.
I left Litochoro headed north along a road. After 400m I felt like something wasn’t right. I was headed away from the gorge, so I stopped and asked where the E4 started. The man I’d asked looked confused so I then asked “which way to Mt Olympus?” He directed me down the way I had been going then he said to make a left in 500m, then pass a stadium and then I would see the path. This turned into a big delay in my hike as I continued for another 30 min and was still headed away from the gorge. I eventually started waving cars down and the third one that didn’t swerve out of my way stopped. Running up to the car I tried to think what on earth am I going to say, should I ask for a ride? Do I ask for directions? When I approached the car it became apparent that I was not going to be able to do either because sitting behind the wheel was a sweet old Greek man and his wife, neither of whom spoke any English. I did my best, pulling out a picture of a map on my phone and some other piece of shit map the hostel provided and I was able to make it understood that I was looking for the E4 and he just pointed me back the way I came. He then said “Litochoro” and made a weird noise and made a hand gesture like he was clapping and praising god all at the same time then made a zig zag gesture. Shit….I understood what he was saying: I needed to head back to the square in Litochoro where there was a water fountain (insert weird sound and clapping / praising god gesture here) and head up a zig zagging road.
After 45min, I made my way back into town, headed back to the square with water fountain and headed west of the city slowly ascending through the outskirts of the city while noting the E4 signs on the posts and keeping right at every intersection. Passing the cemetery on your left you will come to a tavern and you will see the entrance to the park. At 10:06am, I passed two tents set up right before the entrance of the park next to a tavern…clearly a better option than the hostel 15km from the start of the trail that I chose (more details on that later). I made my way up a very easy trail for roughly 400m then the path split. It became very apparent which trail was the E4 and which was just a touristy walk through the gorge. Slowly but steadily, the altitude increased as did my distance from the tourists and their loud, screaming kids. The gorge has a natural spring that flows out of the mountain providing you with several drinking / bathing options. The water is great to drink as long as there hasn’t been a large rainfall before. If it’s rained, then the water will be silty and hard to drink. Venturing off the beaten path will provide you with somesmall to semi large waterfalls if you know where to look, I personally jumped at any chance of running water to refill my bottle and body. It was hot!
Along this route there a few things to see a cave that has the spring of Dionysus and a Monastery both worth stopping at taking a rest and refill on water. I asked every person I saw hiking down how much further it was to Prionia (the starting point for most hikers is just under 18km up the mountain on the sealed road to Litochoro) I would get a different answer from each person, which made it hard to figure out where I was on the trail. Finally I made it to the last water fill up station which I knew was 1 1/4 hr away from Refuge A at 2100m. I checked my water level and had over 1 Liter remaining so I chose to dump out half of that. No need to carry extra weight. Shortly thereafter I could see the refuge hanging off the edge of the cliff. Nine hours, 2100m of elevation and over 26km later and I had made it to Refuge A.
I entered the log cabin and was greeted by a multi-lingual lady who asked if I needed a bed. I said I had a tent and she charged me 4.20 Euro for camping. I settled in to my tent and enjoyed a celebratory beer that I’d carried up with me (everything on the trail is expensive since it comes up on donkeys). Since it was a bit warm, I waited until 8:30pm after the sun had gone down to eat my meal. I was famished. There weren’t too many traditional Greek dishes to choose from, so I ended up with pasta for 6 Euro. I scarfed that down and enjoyed a cold beer for another 2 Euro. My goal was to go to bed to get an early start but the stars were so amazing, I stayed up and gazed into the infinite universe trying to shoot the stars without much luck, unfortunately.
At 6:30 Am I was awoken by some Czech people sitting right next to my tent having breakfast before they made their summit. I stuck my head out of the tent and just mean mugged them. To put this in perspective, there were ample places to eat breakfast including in the damn dining hall, but they chose to eat next to the only tent in the whole place. I asked them what they thought was inside the tent. Supplies? Did you think people just set up tents here for no reason at all? She said she was sorry, she had no idea that someone was inside and that her group (who had taken the bus half way up the mountain) was also sorry. I was not happy to say the least but I digress…I have a mountain to climb, and I did not take a bus halfway up. I packed a light pack for the 800m+ accent to the peak.
Remembering that the lady at the front desk had told me it was 3 hours to the top, I packed up my camera, 1 liter of water and 3 bananas that I still had from Litochoro and started the last push for the top. It was a steep and exposed hike so it was hot and there was no where to hide for shade. Watching the line slowly move towards the top like a bunch of lemmings, I started to realize that making it to the actual summit maybe hard with so many people on the mountain. Once I made it to the first summit, Skala, I could see the groups of people thinning out and heading back down the mountain making feel much better about my situation. After taking in the views from Skala I started to make my way over to Mytikas for the real challenge. Rated a Class 3 hike, it requires scrambling on a 60-70 degree slope. There are two parts with cables because of the steepness and lack of hand holds and you can even see a few spots where if you had a harness, ropes and carabineers you could latch into the rocks. Siga, siga (Greek) or in English “slowly, slowly” I headed up the steep rock wall behind the same Czech group that had woken me up early and I summitted at roughly 10:30AM. I ended up taking photos of them with my came-ra and sendi-ng them to them. Hopefully they learned a few of the hiking rules people should know before hiking any trail…like the person coming up always has the right away and that where there is a tent there are people sleeping so respect them for fuck’s sake. I would recommend this hike to anyone that likes tougher hikes with rewarding views, but it’s not for the faint of heart.
Don’t Stay at Summit Zero Hostel, stay in Litochoro or camp near or in Olympia park there are several spots to be had. Its not worth the price there is nothing around the hostel, only one restaurant and one mini market and its only a beach your really getting for the price. A hotel can be had for not much more and its where you would want to start your hike not 10-12km away.
Bring provisionals, things are very expensive on the mountain since they have to be carried by mule, they tend to over charge for everything for example one apple is 1 Euro.
Camp its cheaper and a better experience as long as a group of Czechs don’t eat breakfast directly next to your tent. You can camp for free at the Refuge on the plateau and the stars on a clear night are something to be seen.
Don’t take a bus, taxi or rent a car to drive halfway up the mountain the most beautiful part of the hike is the beginning through the valley. I had a couple dogs follow me through that part and also back down. I was rewarded with several stunning views hiking the gorge and wouldn’t miss that part, several waterfalls and changing scenery as you go up in altitude.
Take out what you bring in trash, TP (disgusting….right? Now imagine cleaning up somebody else’s.) water bottles, and whatever else you carried. Lastly have fun, enjoy the scenery and respect the mountain as it has claimed several lives, both skilled climbers and not.
Check out some of my other photos here or stefanbw on Instagram.