Hiking in Crimea
Last update: April 2014 (lots of new info)
Few places on Earth have so many diverse hiking and biking opportunities in such a small territory as Crimea. A multitude of micro-climates and ecosystems and an abundance of roads, trails, and historical objects makes Crimea a very interesting place. Despite its small size — a mountainous area just 150 km long and 50 km wide — there are enough trails and sights of various kinds that one could easily spend 3 months exploring by foot and still not see all there is to see.
The northern two-thirds of the Crimean peninsula is flat and monotonous; only the shoreline offers some variation. This article will focus only on the Crimean Mountains.
Maps of Crimea
Maps of Crimea and topographical maps of the Crimean mountains can be obtained in bookstores in major cities throughout Ukraine. The greatest variety of maps — all in Russian, of course — can be found in bookstores and outdoor stands in Crimean towns. The most authoritative map set is the "Crimean Mountain Atlas" (Атлас горного Крыма), available as a paperback book with a blue cover. The Atlas shows trails and springs but still contains many inaccuracies despite steady improvement since 2006.
Trail quality and marking
As with the Carpathians and many other forested areas of the former Soviet Union, the Crimean Mountains are crisscrossed by forest roads formerly used for logging. These roads may be in good shape or hopelessly overgrown or eroded. Only a fraction are shown on maps. Without a GPS device and prior knowledge of trails it is quite easy to get lost in the mountains. Fog and bad weather make this even more likely.
Many hiking routes make use of old logging roads, while others are specifically for hikers. Graded trails are extremely rare, so expect some very steep sections without any switchbacks ("серпантины" in Russian).
Some trails have markings on them of different ages — sometimes dating back to Soviet times. I personally find the numbering system almost worthless (wherever it is applied). Trail signs are rare, and markings tend to disappear right when you need them the most!
How to even begin planning a hike??
Basically, hiking in Crimea requires systematic study of possible routes, exchanging information with experienced hikers, and amassing a personal collection of maps, routes, GPS tracks, and data on water sources and public transportation. The author has done this work and taken at least 20-30 hikes in Crimea of varying length — from one day to one week. The longest was a nearly 300-km route across the highest ridges of the Crimean Mountains which I christened the "Crimean Divide Trail." I know of no other foreigners (aside from Russians, who aren't really foreigners in Crimea) with any substantial knowledge of the Crimean Mountains.
Today the situation is steadily improving thanks to open-source maps. My recommendation is to get a spare battery pack and hike with a smartphone with GPS capabilities. Download a GPS app and open-source topo maps (e.g. Open Cyling/Topo) for the area, or at least the non-topo MapsWithMe. These open-source maps now show most of the actual trails and springs of the Crimean Mountains, thanks to the efforts of numerous enthusiasts.
So, purchase the Crimean Mountain Atlas (to see topography and protected areas) and get a GPS device with open source maps, and you're good to go!
Where to begin your trip
The most popular starting points for hikers are Simferopol and Bakhchisaray, both connected by train to major cities of Ukraine (Lviv, Kiev, Kharkov, Donetsk). Other towns with train access (Sevastopol and Feodosiya, for example) are a bit less popular with hikers because the mountains are further away. The South Shore is not accessible by train, so backpackers usually begin on the north side of the mountains and work their way to the south, then take a bus back to the train station and head home. A common practice is to end a longer hike with a day or two on one of the wilder beaches to enjoy the water and sun.
If you're not sure where you plan to end your trip and get on the train, and you're going to be hiking in southwest Crimea, buy a return ticket from Sevastopol. That way you can get on at any stop between Sevastopol and Simferopol. Train tickets are best bought at least a week or two in advance during summer months.
UPDATE: APRIL 2014
Note that as of 2014 this is all up on the air following the de-facto accession of Crimea to Russia. We don't know what the train connections will be like, nor how easy it will be to hike in the mountains. What is clear, however, is that foreign visitors will need a Russian visa (depending on their country's visa policy with Russia).
POPULAR HIKING DESTINATIONS
HOW TO GET THERE
(main access points)
|Grand Canyon (400-800 m)||Sokolinoe (bus from Bakhchisaray or Simferopol)||There is a small entrance fee, but you will have to wait for the ranger to find you.|
|Ay-Petri Plateau and Ay-Petri Mt. (1234 m)||1. from Yalta by minibus from the bus station, 2. by aerial tram from Miskhor to the south (take bus there from Yalta or Sevastopol), 3. from Sokolinoe or Grand Canyon area to the north (no buses, but cars drive up to the pass)||Long lines at aerial tram in summer (up to 2-3 hours!)|
|Babugan Plateau and Roman Kosh Mt. (1545 m) (officially closed to public)||by foot from Gurzuf (take bus there from Yalta or Alushta)||1200 m elevation gain from Gurzuf. Some routes may involve avoiding forest rangers (since area is off limits).|
|Chatyr-Dag Plateau and Eklizi-Burun Mt. (1527 m)||1. Angarskyy pass (road from Simferopol to Alushta and Yalta, by trolleybus or minibus), 2. Perevalnoe village (same road, but nearer to Simferopol)||800 m elevation gain|
|Demerdzhi Plateau, North Demerdzhi Mt. (1356 m) and South Demerdzhi Mt. (1239 m), Valley of the Ghosts||1. Angarskyy pass (road from Simferopol to Alushta and Yalta), 2. Perevalnoe village, 3. Luchistoe village (bus from Alushta)|
|Karabi Plateau, Kara-Tau Mt. (1220 m), Tay-Koba Mt. (1259 m)||1. Golovankovka or Krasnoselovka villages (bus from Simferopol to Belogorsk, then by minibus), 2. Generalskoe village (bus from Alushta)||Most remote mountains of Crimea|
When to hike in Crimea
The high tourist season in Crimea is July and August, and tons of backpackers hit the trails during the May holidays (first 10 days of May). I actually recommend avoiding these periods because. July and August tend to be really hot, and there may even be fire closures. The May holidays are nice in terms of weather, but forest rangers are very active in extorting money from groups of hikers trespassing on nature reserves (now nearly half the area of the Crimean Mountains).
My favorite months to hike are April-June and September-October. Colder months of the year can be suitable for specific routes if you keep an eye on the weather forecast. Even in January there are days with fine weather when you can enjoy snow-free areas along the South Shore such as the Novyy Svet area or Aya Cape between Balaklava and Foros.
Weather in Crimea
The South Shore of Crimea (from Balaklava to Sudak) has a near-Mediterranean climate, with most precipitation falling in the colder months of the year. Summers are sunny and dry, and temperatures moderated by breezes from the Black Sea. The rest of the peninsula has a moderate continental climate with more extreme temperatures. The mountain plateaus above 800 m. (the so-called "yayla") have a climate of their own that is quite unpredictable. The weather may change many times during the day, and hail is common in the summer, blizzards in the winter, and strong gusts of wind at all times of year.
Generally speaking, the western half of the Crimean Mountains (from Foros to a bit beyond Alushta) are well-watered, while those to the east of Alushta are drier, and those east of Sudak drier still. The flat part of Crimea to the north of Simferopol is semi-arid grassland and irrigated farmland. The greenest areas of Crimea are the mountain slopes around Yalta and particularly the mountains directly south of Simferopol and Bakhchisaray. The mountain plateaus actually receive the most precipitation (up to 1000 mm a year), but have much less forest cover due to the limestone bedrock (water seeps out of the soil into the bedrock) and so can seem hotter and drier when the sun is out.
Snow is possible in Crimea from November to April, but usually only the mountains have stable snow cover (January-February or December-March obove 600-800 m). The high plateaus often hold patches of snow into early May. Crimea in the wintertime can be quite cold, down to -15 C or so in the mountains.
Summer temperatures sometimes get as high as 35-40 C, and the heat can be intolerable in exposed places if there is no wind. Often, however, summer temperatures are somewhat lower than in steppe areas of Ukraine because of the moderating influence of the nearby Black Sea. In the warm months, when the sun is out and there is no wind, it can be unbearably hot along the South Shore.
Fog is frequent in the mountains, except for July and August (see picture above).
With their near-Mediterranean climate and non-technical routes, the Crimean Mountains beg to be hiked in a lightweight style. In fact, this is where the author first developed his ultralight backpacking skills before creating popular Russian language backpacking site Legkohod.com. Since then (2008) the lightweight trend has reached Ukraine, and equipment in stores has been getting lighter and lighter (but still lags far behind what can be purchased from small cottage companies in the U.S.). Backpacking gear can be bought in Simferopol and Sevastopol and probably in Bachchisaray, Yalta, Alushta, and Feodosiya. If you need addresses, write me.
Water in the Crimean Mountains
Bottled water can be bought in any town at roadside stores and kiosks, and on the Ay-Petri Plateau in the tourist area. There are scattered springs in the mountains, but not nearly as many as in the Carpathians. These springs are indicated with varying degrees of accuracy on printed topographical maps, and local hikers and rangers know where they are, too. On newer downloadable open-source electronic maps (as of 2014) most springs are indicated. If you are planning on spending more than a day on the mountain plateaus during the summer, bring lots and lots of water with you, since many springs dry up. In the winter snow ice can be melted.
Livestock grazing is not practiced in protected areas of the Crimean Mountains, so stream water is considered safe to drink upstream of populated areas, for example, in Crimea's "Grand Canyon" (Bol'shoy Kanyon). Or you can use a water filter; however, portable filters are not generally available for sale in Ukraine. In the summertime smaller mountain streams dry up, especially in the drier mountains east of Alushta.
Beware of ticks!
Ticks are quite common in Crimean woodlands and can theoretically carry tick-borne encephalitis (or so say the warning signs, but one learns to disregard them in Ukraine). It is recommended to wear a hat and have as little exposed skin as possible and to check yourself for ticks every two hours. Don't freak out about encephalitis, though; a small percentage of ticks carry it, and it is medically treatable.
As is so often the case in Ukraine, rules for visiting Crimea's wilderness areas are unduly harsh but poorly enforced. Mainly this applies to the Crimean Nature Reserve. However, in recent years more and more mountain areas have acquired "nature reserve" status that effectively bans human visitation, except for paid jeep tours (!) and government officials (!!).
There are signs of a growing, but still weak, grass-roots movements to establish reasonable hiking access rights to the Crimean Mountains. For now, the rules and risks keep some hikers away, other groups of hikers are unaware and end up paying unofficial fines, and shrewder and more experienced hikers manage to visit restricted areas without experiencing significant problems. But there is always the fear of running into rangers...
The Crimean Nature Reserve is located to the northeast of Yalta and includes the highest point on the peninsula, Roman Kosh (1545), and a beautiful 77 km long automobile road through forests and mountain pastures. This area is completely off-limits to the public except for commercial jeep tours organized by park staff (!!), special visits for studying the ecology which must be approved by the reserve's headquarters in Alushta, and government officials. They do not grant access to regular hikers! Nonetheless, stalwart backpackers continue to visit this region, and forest rangers only patrol a certain section of the road (and only till 6:00 p.m., supposedly) and are lax in enforcing the rules. Backpackers trade know-how on visiting this area and avoiding rangers at the Crimea mountain rescue service forum (in Russian; but the section has since been shut down as to not support illegal activity).
Camping is formally allowed only in official campsites (called "turstoyanki" or турстоянки). An exhaustive list of these locations can be found in Russian here. In most cases they are shown on topographical maps — as "Т/С". Camping in unauthorized locations is also common, though formally forbidden. Open fires are allowed only at authorized campsites.
The author practices wild camping observing leave-no-trace principles for a number of reasons:
- convenience of route planning
- no noisy campsite neighbors (many Ukrainians and Russians camp in large groups which incessantly chop wood and sit at large fires)
- solitude and aesthetic enjoyment
- lower risk of theft of equipment by local thieves during the night
- lower risk of problems with forest rangers
The author's vision for hiking in the Crimean Mountains
I do not view the current status of mountain reserves in Crimea as pursuing the common good. Rather, it is a corrupt and ineffective Soviet-style system that favors the privileged and punishes independent initiative. It is ridiculous that the highest peaks (now even Chatyr-Dag!) should be off-limits to hikers but are patrolled by rangers on jeeps. A new form of management should be developed that encourages people to get out and enjoy nature as much as possible while preserving mountain forest environments as habitats, watersheds, and timberlands. I envision a "Crimean National Park" encompassing most of the Crimean Mountains, with a large network of freely accessible trails including three long-distance paths running from west to east — one along the South Shore of Crimea, another along the highest ridges (the "Crimean Divide Trail"), and a third through the interior ranges that would pass by many cave cities.
There is apparently a tax for visiting mountain forest areas — 2 hryvnias per person per day. However, it is up to the forest ranger to find you and make you pay it. Or you can pay the fee when you register with the Mountain Rescue Service and they will stamp your itinerary sheet (see below) so that you don't have to pay the fee a second time.
There is a minor "resort fee" for visitors to seaside resorts (official info in Russian), but I haven't heard anything about people paying it. There are sometimes small fees at places of interest (some "cave cities," waterfalls, Ay-Petri Mt., etc.). Thankfully, even if you pay all the fees that you're technically supposed to, they don't add up to much at all!
Registering your itinerary with the Mountain Rescue Service
Hikers are supposed to register trip itineraries. This procedure is easy in principle (the Rescue Service is only loosely tied to the government and is quite innovative) and simply involves filling out a paper stating how many people are in your group and where you plan to be each day, and the name and home address of hike participants. No passport information, visa numbers, etc. You turn this paper in at any of the Mountain Rescue Service posts (see list at end of page) and get an "approved" stamp. These posts are in locations that most hikers pass through anyways, so you can drop by the post right after you get off the train in Simferopol, Bakhchisaray, or other locations. Unfortunately, some trains get in early in the morning before the offices open, making it a waste of time to wait for the office to open. If you run into forest rangers and other official nature supervisors, they may ask you for an authorized itinerary («есть у Вас маршрутный лист?»). A small fee (1 or 2 hryvnias per person, depending on where you register — 2007) is charged for registration. You are supposed to call at the end of the trip to confirm your completion of the itinerary.
The itinerary form can also be downloaded and sent be e-mail. In this case you would need to bring the completed form in person, tell them the registration number you received by e-mail, pay the fee, and get a stamp. There is a special post 200 meters from the Simferopol train station especially for itinerary registration that operates from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. all days of the week. Supposedly the procedure is quick.
Talk about complicated! What other countries require this kind of authorization?! It's little wonder that few hikers in Crimea perform this complicated procedure! It dates back to the Soviet Union, where all significant activity was supposed to happen through official institutions and there was little room for individual initiative.
Interaction with forest rangers
I don't expect many foreign hikers will master the art of dealing with forest rangers, but I'll tell you about it anyway. Crimean forest rangers rarely go by the book. They are more likely to let local Crimean hikers hike without permits and registered itineraries than hikers from other regions of Ukraine or from Russia. If they ask for a route itinerary you can usually talk your way out of it (i.e. "I didn't know how to get one," "we're just out for a day-hike," etc.). Their main concern in the dry season may actually be fire danger, so you can preemptively create trust by stating you don't smoke and have no plans to light fires or use stoves ("we don't even have matches with us," etc.). Sometimes you can ask a ranger "does this path go to X" (some peak in a restricted area) and he will answer, "I didn't see you." This means that he sheds himself of responsibility for allowing you to visit a restricted area. Rangers will be most intent on extracting bribes during high season (May holidays and summer months), and only on particular routes. A favorite checkpoint is the "Besedka vetrov" lookout point on the closed road from Yalta to Alushta through the Crimean Nature Reserve. Here they stand watch with binoculars and catch groups entering and leaving the reserve. You can generally continue your route if you pay an unofficial fine.
It's no surprise that this type of situation breeds paranoia, and some hikers become totally disillusioned with Crimea. As one Russian backpacker remarked after a week-long trek, "you feel like a guerrilla fighter."
Crimean Mountain Rescue Service
The Crimean Mountain Rescue Service (site in Russian), or "KCC" (Контрольно-спасательная служба) is a semi-governmental body of rescuers that does a lot of things besides get inexperienced hikers out of trouble. Each rescue post (listed below) is also a sort of mountain refuge with beds available for a low price (15-50 UAH per night). It is best to call first about bed availability. KCC workers are an enterprising lot; they lead commercial adventure tours through Crimea (hiking, mountain biking, spelunking, etc.) and run a website with a great forum (in Russian) where you can get answers to any questions you have about routes, places to camp, formalities, safety, etc.
As of 2010 or 2011 the KCC structure has been abolished! I do not know the fate of the following institutions:
(remember to dial 8 before calling long distance)
|Bakhchisaray||ul. Karla Marksa, 31 (near the Khan's palace)||(06554) 4-77-22||Yes! Beds in rustic cabin|
|Yalta||ul. Pirogovskaya, 10a||(0654) 32-87-15||none|
|Feodosiya||ul. Fed'ko, 32a||(06562) 7-15-73||Probably none|
|Sudak||ul. Primorskaya, 48a|| (06566) 9-43-80, cell:
|beds sometimes available|
|Sevastopol||ul. Suvorova, 20||(0692) 54-33-97||None|
|Alushta||ul. Lenina, 8a||(06560) 3-50-10||none|
|Simferopol||ul. Zoyi Zhil'tsovoy, 24||(0652) 25-31-58, cell:
|Karabi plateau||Weather station||?||Yes! Quite a few beds available, but with minimal facilities|
|Ay-Petri||Okhotnichye village, Bakhchisarayskoe shosse, 9 (at the top of the road from Yalta right after the switchbacks end)|| (0654) 34-42-72, cells:
|Yes! Quite a few beds available in a variety of room sizes; good facilities with showers!|
|Kizil-Koba||Pereval'noe village, Krasnaya cave||8-067-740-48-83||?|