Hiking in Greece: Samaria Gorge on Crete

The second longest gorge in Europe can be found on the charming Greek island of Crete!

Crete is well-known for being the largest of the Greek islands, and for being the epicenter of the ancient Minoan civilization. Many people, however, don’t know that Crete is home to the Samaria Gorge – the second longest gorge (canyon) in all of Europe after the Verdon Gorge in France. Located within Samaria National Park, the 16 kilometer (10 mile) hiking trail of the Samaria Gorge takes visitors through a breathtaking UNESCO Biosphere Reserve – and contains some of the most stunning scenery in all of Greece!

Towering mountain walls with white rocks in the foreground
The towering cliff walls of the Samaria Gorge on Crete.

So if you’re planning a trip to Crete and looking for inspiration for things to do, or you’re thinking about visiting Samaria National Park and wondering what to expect, here is a guide to how I spent my day hiking the Samaria Gorge. Hopefully it gives you some ideas and tips to help you have the best hiking experience!

Preparing for your visit

Getting to/from the Samaria Gorge

One of the most important things to consider is that hiking the full Samaria Gorge trail is one-way: while a road leads to the start of the Samaria Gorge Trailhead, there is no road at the Samaria Gorge exit. Therefore, most people take a bus to the start of the trail (a one hour drive via the KTEL public bus service from the nearby city of Chania, where I was staying while on Crete). At the end of the hike, you will need to take a ferry boat to a neighboring village via Anendyk Maritime (ferry ride takes about one hour), and then catch a bus back to Chania (again with KTEL; return drive is about 1.5 hours).

So all totaled that’s 3.5 hours of travel time to/from the gorge (and a total travel cost of about 30 Euros). Add to this the approximate 6 hours it takes to hike the Samaria Gorge trail, and you’re looking at a 10 hour excursion. So plan a full day for this hiking adventure!

As mentioned, the drive from Chania to the Samaria Gorge Trailhead takes about one hour. While the Samaria Gorge is only 42 kilometers / 26 miles from Chania, the road twists and turns through the Cretan countryside:

Google map image of Crete showing driving route from Chania to the Samaria Gorge
Driving to the Samaria Gorge from Chania will take approximately one hour. Map data © 2021 Google.

About halfway along the road to the gorge, you’ll pass through Lakkoi – a small village in the foothills of the Lefka Ori (White Mountains). Lakkoi has been noteworthy in the history of Crete as a center of rebellion and revolution against Greek invaders and conquerors. Most prominently, the people of Lakkoi fought for Greek freedom against the Ottoman Empire during the Greek War of Independence (1821-1829) and the Great Cretan Revolution (Cretan revolt of 1866-1869), and later against Nazi Germany during the Battle of Crete (May 1941).

Landscape view of the Cretan countryside with green trees in the foreground and beige mountains in the background with a white-blue sky
View of the Cretan village Lakkoi, with the church Aigos Antonios (Saint Anthony) in the center of the picture. The Lefka Ori (White Mountains) are in the background.

As you drive through the village of Omalos and approach the Samaria Gorge, you will also have magnificent views of the Lefka Ori (White Mountains). This mountain range actually has about 50 gorges, but the most famous is the Samaria Gorge!

Snow-capped mountain range in background with green forest in foreground
View of the Lefka Ori (White Mountains). The mountain range is easily visible along the drive to the Samaria Gorge.

Once at the Samaria Gorge trailhead, the Samaria National Park entrance fee is 5 Euros.

For information on the ferry boat and return trip to Chania after hiking the Samaria Gorge, jump to the last section of this post: Ferry Boat to Hora Sfakion and Returning to Chania.

What to Wear and Bring

Considering that it takes about 6 hours to hike the Samaria Gorge, most people start their hike very early in the morning when it can be a little cool. So you’ll likely want to start off in a light jacket or long-sleeved shirt, and then as the day progresses and warms up shed a layer.

Bring snacks, water, and a really sturdy pair of hiking boots. The hiking trail is overall quite rocky and rugged. And don’t forget your camera!

Trail Map and Trail Rest Areas

Surprisingly, there are almost no trail maps of the Samaria Gorge online. And while Google Maps tends to fully capture most hiking trails (as with my previous post about the Haleakala Crater on Maui), it has very little of the Samaria Gorge trail.

So click here for a list of the rest areas along the Samaria Gorge trail – complete with distances – that can help you form a trail map.

The Samaria Gorge Trail

The Samaria Gorge hiking trail covers a total distance of about 16 kilometers / 10 miles. Of that, approximately 13 kilometers / 8 miles are within Samaria National Park. After exiting the park there are an additional 3 kilometers / 2 miles to walk to get to the closest village (Agia Roumeli).

Most people start the hike at the trailhead in Xyloskalo – which is at an altitude of about 1,250 meters (about 4,000 feet) – and end at the seaside village of Agia Roumeli. So the hiking trail is all downhill and descends all of that elevation.

For most, the hike will take 5-7 hours to complete – depending on how many stops you take and how long you rest at each stop. You could probably speed through the gorge in 3-5 hours, but you’d miss out on the true Samaria Gorge experience. I would recommend stopping two or three times along the trail for snacks and lunch, and leisurely enjoying the beautiful scenery.

Having hiked the Samaria Gorge, I found that the trail really consists of four parts:

You can click on one of the trail section links above to jump to a specific portion of this post, or keep reading to learn about them all!

Samaria Gorge Trail – Section 1: Xyloskalo to Agios Nikolaos

The hike starts at Xyloskalo, which is Greek for “staircase.” There are phenomenal panoramic views of the gorge from here, as you are at an elevation of about 1,250 meters (4,000 feet):

Mountain gorge with blue sky
View of the Samaria Gorge at Xyloskalo.
Mountain gorge with green trees and a white-blue sky
View looking into the Samaria Gorge from the trailhead at Xyloskalo.

The trailhead and start of the hike is the most difficult section of the hike, as the trail here quickly and steeply descends into the gorge. There are also lots of loose rocks, and many are worn down to the point of being smooth and slippery due to vast number of visitors hiking the trail – so be sure to watch your footing!

Rocky hiking trail in a forest
The early portion of the Samaria Gorge trail is rugged and rocky, steeply descending into the gorge.

On some of the steeper sections of the trail around curves, a wooden railing offers a measure of protection from steep drop-offs:

Rocky hiking trail in a forest with a wooden railing
Wooden railing along the Samaria Gorge trail.

After about 4 kilometers / 2.5 miles from the trailhead, you reach the Agios Nikolaos (Saint Nicholas) rest area. It is one of the bigger rest stops along the trail. There is a very small chapel here, supposedly built on the site of an ancient shrine to Apollo:

Hiker in front of a wooden sign with green forest trees in the backgroun
A hiker rests at the Agios Nikolaos (Saint Nicholas) rest area on the Samaria Gorge trail.
Samaria Gorge Trail – Section 2: Agios Nikolaos to Samaria

After departing the Agios Nikolaos rest area, the views along the trail are less obscured by the forestry and begin to open up. The trail also crosses a (dry) riverbed several times:

Hikers traversing a rocky and dry riverbed
Hikers cross a dry riverbed on the Samaria Gorge trail.

By the time you approach the rest area at Samaria, the trail begins to look very different from the earlier portion of the hike, and it’s almost like you’ve started a completely different hike!

Large beige boulders in a mountainous gorge
View along the Samaria Gorge trail from Agios Nikolaos to Samaria.

After about 7 kilometers / 4.5 miles from the trailhead (and approximately halfway along the Samaria Gorge tail), you reach the Samaria rest area – the biggest rest stop on the trail. Samaria was an inhabited village until 1962, at which point the Samaria National Park was created and its inhabitants were relocated.

Within Samaria village was the ancient Byzantine church of Ousia Maria (Saint Mary). It is believed that the name Samaria is derived from this ancient church: Ousia Maria was colloquially contracted to Sia’Maria, which was eventually shorted to just Sa’Maria – hence the Samaria we know today.

The ruins of the abandoned village of Samaria are still visible today:

Stone ruins of a village surrounded by a green forest
Ruins of the abandoned village of Samaria, whose inhabitants were forced to leave in 1962 to create the Samaria National Park.

The rest area at Samaria is one of the best places to see Cretan goats called kri-kri. In fact, preserving the endangered kri-kri was one of the main reasons the Samaria National Park was created in 1962! These goats aren’t shy, and in fact are quite friendly – and will gladly accept a snack from hikers!

Brown Cretan goat (kri-kri) being hand-fed by a hiker
A hiker feeds a friendly Cretan goat (called a kri-kri).
Samaria Gorge Trail – Section 3: Samaria to Christos and the Iron Gates

After the Samaria rest area, the hiking trail takes you through the entrenched river of the gorge – with the rocky gorge walls forming vertical cliffs that tower over you:

Steep and rocky mountain cliffs
The walls of the Samaria gorge form steep vertical cliffs that tower over hikers.

You will also start to see a number of danger signs warning hikers to beware of falling rocks. In a process known as frost weathering, water seeps into cracks in rocks and freezes. Interestingly, water is an unusual liquid in that water expands when it freezes – increasingly its volume by about 9%. This expansion fractures and splits apart rocks, and can cause large chunks to break off the gorge walls. The danger from falling rocks due to frost weathering is one of the reasons the Samaria Gorge trail is closed during the winter and colder months of the spring and fall!

Danger sign warning of falling rocks and telling hikers to walk quickly
One of several signs along the Samaria Gorge trail warning hikers to beware of falling rocks from the towering walls of the gorge.

This section of the trail also provides many opportunities to study geology, particularly sedimentology, stratigraphy, and structural geology. The below picture of the mountainous walls of the Samaria Gorge show a structural geology phenomena known as kink-band folds. According to the principle of original horizontality, layers of sediment are deposited horizontally under the action of gravity – forming layers of sedimentary rock called strata. Under enough stress, pressure, and temperature gradients, the typically horizontal strata can become bent and curved during permanent deformation – as shown in the center of this image:

Kink-band folds on a beige rocky mountain wall
Kink-band folds (curved strata in the center of the image) on a gorge wall along the Samaria Gorge trail.

Shortly after the Christos rest area is the most famous part of the Samaria Gorge – the Portes (Greek for “Doors” or “Gates”). In recent times this section of the gorge has become known as the Iron Gates, although it is unknown why the word “Iron” was added.

It is quite majestic to walk through this section of the trail, where the gorge walls tower 100 meters / 330 feet over you (in some places rising to a height of 300 meters / 980 feet!), but the gorge width narrows to just 3 meters / 10 feet. It is something that you truly need to experience in person, as a picture doesn’t capture the awesomeness of the Iron Gates!

Towering mountain walls with white rocks in the foreground
The Portes (Iron Gates) of the Samaria Gorge.
Samaria Gorge Trail – Section 4: Christos/Iron Gates to Agia Roumeli

After the impressive Portes (Iron Gates), it’s a short 2 kilometers / 1.25 miles to the exit of Samaria National Park. It’s a very pretty and scenic end to the Samaria Gorge trail:

flowing river with tall mountain cliffs on the left and pink flowers on the right
Hiking along the riverbed on the Samaria Gorge trail.

You can also take this time to spot the many unique and beautiful flora of the Samaria Gorge. Here is a picture of Cretan ebony (binomial name: Ebenus cretica) growing on the cliffs of the gorge:

Pink flowers growing on a rocky mountainside
Cretan ebony growing on the side of the Samaria Gorge trail.

As the trail ends and you exit the Samaria National Park, there are still almost 3 kilometers / 2 miles more to walk to get to the closest village, Agia Roumeli. There are occasional shuttle busses that run from the park exit to Agia Roumeli should you not want to walk any farther.

After a very long hike, Agia Roumeli is a great place to relax, enjoy a meal at one of the many tavernas, and take a refreshing swim in the Libyan Sea! You’ll see many fellow hikers resting here before boarding the ferry boat.

People relaxing on the shore of a beach with blue-green ocean water
After hiking the Samaria Gorge, many visitors relax in the village of Agia Roumeli and enjoy a swim in the Libyan Sea.

Ferry Boat to Hora Sfakion and Returning to Chania

The ferry boat from Agia Roumeli can take you to several other villages: Hora Sfakion, Sougia, or Palaiochora. From any of these villages you can catch a bus back to Chania. They’re all about 70 kilometers / 44 miles from Chania – a drive that will take about an hour and a half. I chose to take the ferry to Hora Sfakion, which takes one hour to get to by boat:

Mediterranean/Greek white houses on a mountainside viewed from a ferry boat on water
Approaching Hora Sfakion on the ferry boat from Agia Roumeli.

After returning to Chania, be sure to enjoy some time on the beach and soak up a breathtaking Chania sunset – you deserve it!

Golden sunset over coastline and ocean
Sun setting off the coast of Chania, Greece.

Samaria Gorge Trail Map and Trail Rest Areas

  • Trailhead starts at Xyloskalo
  • 1st rest area at Neroutsiko
    • 1.7 kilometers / 1 mile from trailhead
    • This rest area has drinking water and bathrooms
  • 2nd rest area at Riza Sikias
    • 1.1 kilometers / 0.7 miles from previous rest area (Neroutsiko)
    • 2.8 kilometers / 1.75 miles from trailhead
    • This rest area has drinking water and bathrooms
  • 3rd rest area at Agios Nikolaos
    • 0.9 kilometers / 0.5 miles from previous rest area (Riza Sikias)
    • 3.7 kilometers / 2.3 miles from trailhead
  • 4th rest area at Vrysi
    • 0.9 kilometers / 0.5 miles from previous rest area (Agios Nikolaos)
    • 4.6 kilometers / 3 miles from trailhead
    • This rest area has drinking water only
  • 5th rest area at Prinari
    • 1.3 kilometers / 0.8 miles from previous rest area (Vrysi)
    • 5.9 kilometers / 3.7 miles from trailhead
    • This rest area has drinking water only
  • 6th rest area at Samaria
    • 1.2 kilometers / 0.75 miles from previous rest area (Prinari)
    • 7.1 kilometers / 4.4 miles from trailhead
  • 7th rest area at Perdika
    • 1.1 kilometers / 0.7 miles from previous rest area (Samaria)
    • 8.2 kilometers / 5.1 miles from trailhead
    • This rest area has drinking water only
  • 8th rest area at (Christos)
    • 2.2 kilometers / 1.4 miles from previous rest area (Perdika)
    • 10.4 kilometers / 6.5 miles from trailhead
    • This rest area has drinking water and bathrooms
    • The famous Portes (Gates/Iron Gates) are shortly after the Christos rest area
  • Park exit in 2.8 kilometers / 1.75 miles
    • 13.2 kilometers / 8.2 miles from trailhead
  • Agia Roumeli in 2.7 kilometers / 1.7 miles
    • 15.9 kilometers / 10 miles from trailhead

Have you gone hiking in Greece? Have you been to Samaria Gorge on Crete? Let me know in the comments below!

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