Rila Mountains - Seven Lakes Circuit

Getting There

It was another scorcher of a day in southern Bulgaria as we prepared to head on to Sofia. It seemed time to leave Blagoevgrad and the very friendly staff of the Hotel Fenix, as we were getting to know the local bus station too well. All went as could be expected, a smooth and very inexpensive bus trip to Bulgaria's capital, a quick rip-off by one of the notorious local taxi drivers (I actually turned on my GPS to follow his path as he slowly homed in on our hostel in a series of concentric circles - so brazen as to almost be admirable), and finally settling into our comfortable room and turning on the air conditioner. Despite changing to Plan B, we had not abandoned our intention to do a serious walk up in the Rila Mountains. Our new plan was for a 2-day hike up to the famous Sedemte Ezera (Seven Lakes) area and back along a long high spur from the spine of the mountains - the distances were such that it wouldn't matter if they were again seriously underestimated and, in this heat wave, the higher starting elevation would make for more pleasant walking.

After a pleasant evening exploring Sofia, we had our confidence in the city restored by the two young women in the optician's who went to great lengths to reframe my broken reading glasses as we waited. The one advantage of travelling independently is that you see life as it is, the good and the bad, and don't just move about in your own cultural bubble.

Statue of Sofia in Sofia

We set off early the following morning, catching the modern metro to the southern bus station (never again a taxi in Sofia!) and then the local 7am bus to the town of Samokov, followed by a minibus to the mountain resort of Malyovitsa (setting a new record of 23 people in a 14 seater-bus on the way - the fair Nello had 2 young children sitting on her lap, which was good grandma-therapy for her). After a coffee at the hotel, we were on the track by 9.30am.

Day 1 - Malyovitsa to Sedemte Ezera Hut (the low road) (11 km - 910m ascent - 400m descent)     

At 1700m, the air was pleasantly cooler than down on the plains. From the hotel at Komplex Malyovitsa, we headed briefly down the asphalt road whence we had been driven up, before dropping into the dense conifer forest on a narrow earth footpath. We were following the red and white markers and they led us steeply down into the depths of the valley to cross the Malyovitsa River on a low log bridge.

The foaming rapids of the Malyovitsa River

Malyovitsa (2729m)

Here the track widened joined the Tsar's Path, a gravel road that wound its way around and gently down the end of the broad Kalbura Spur running down from the spine of the Rila Mountains - the first of several that we would cross in the first part of this walk. The Rila forest was a lovely place to be at this time of the morning, cool, shady and alive with the songs of unseen birds.

Deep in the forest of the Malyovitsa Valley

We continued along the road on a gradual descent, crossing another rushing stream, before turning off it to follow a narrow footpath that climbed over the end of Zeleni Rid spur, which would be our route down tomorrow, to cross yet another stream. A pattern for this first part of the walk was emerging, when suddenly the footpath spat us out onto an asphalt road leading up to Hizha Vada, an old mountain hut.

Crossing the grassy flats of Yavarova Polyana

The white-washed walls of Hizha Vada

We ambled up the road for a few hundred metres to find the unexpected sight of a soft drink stall set up by an enterprising family. It was a good spot to load up on sugar levels, as the next part of the walk involved a steep 30 minute zig-zagging climb up from the Prav Iskar River to reach the saddle of Saparevska Vada, where villagers had built an irrigation channel in the 19th century to run water down the long spur.

Bridge across the Prav Iskar

19th century irrigation channel

A grassy clearing in the conifer forest


The route then descended, fortunately not for long, as we hate giving up hard-earned metres of climbing. We emerged onto a grassy clearing in the forest, covered in the orange, yellow, pink, white and blue of wildflowers in bloom, but the path did not linger here, turning once again into the cool shade of the conifer forest.

This time the route climbed up gently beside the Dzherman River, as it tumbled over rocks and fallen tree trunks. The two-log bridge that crossed it had been wrecked by a previous flood, leaving one and a half angled logs and no cable for a hand-grip - a bit of a tricky crossing. We decided to have lunch and contemplate it. The outcome was to slide over the most secure log on our backsides, effective but not very elegant.

Track beneath the firs

Nello shimmying across the broken Dzherman River bridge

Hizha Lovna in its herb-field setting

We then followed the track up to Hizha Lovna, a mountain hut set at the end of a pretty grass-covered meadow. It also marked the start of the real climb - no more sidling across spurs, we had reached the route up to the higher realms of the Rila Mountains. The track at first climbed rapidly in a series of zig-zags to reach a junction in the forest. Here we turned left to follow the green and white markers that led to the Sedemte Ezera.

Deep shade - steep slope

The green track did not muck about, taking the direct approach straight up to the ridge with barely a hint of zig or zag. At times, cool wafts of air made it easier, at other times warm wafts bearing the rich resinous scent of the surrounding conifer forest drifted by. It was a hot and slow climb, but gradually the gradient began to ease as we reached the higher part of the ridge.

The glade of Dva Smarcha

Soon the track reached a small clearing named Dva Smarcha for two old spruce that grew there. From the amount of pig-rooting on the ground, a few wild boar also liked this area. Dwarf pines started to appear and soon became the predominant vegetation as the path wound through dense thickets of them. With the disappearance of the tall conifers, the mountains suddenly became visible, snow-streaked and sharp-cliffed above a large bowl of dwarf pines.

Dzherman River cascades

Crossing the dwarf pine covered flats

The imposing facade of Hizha Rilski Ezera

It was good to feel a cool breeze at our backs as we pushed across this high basin. A myriad of streams babbled their way down through the pines to join the rushing upper reaches of the Dzherman River. We had entered the realm of Sedemte Ezera, the seven lakes, and the first lake, Dolnoto Ezero, lay just across to our left.

Fording a stream in the marshy flats

Otovishki Vrah (2696m)

As we climbed the steep tier leading up to the second lake, the views expanded behind, a panorama of the first lake in its broad basin of pine thickets and streams, overlooked by the large and modern chalet, Hizha Rilski Ezera, a white monolith on the ridge behind. We crossed the rocky rim to be greeted by the sight of the hut we planned to stay at, Hizha Sedemte Ezera, older, humbler, having seen better days, but with views to die for - overlooking the waters of Ribnoto Ezero, the second lake, and its backing cirque of rocky and snow-streaked mountains.

Looking down on the dwarf pine flats and Dolnoto Ezero (lake no. 1)

Our lake - Ribnoto Ezero - with views from the hut towards the spine of the Rila Mountains

View across Ribnoto Ezero to Hizha Sedemte Ezera (where we stayed)

A group of five Englishmen were there enjoying a drink in the afternoon warmth - we joined them for a pleasant chat before they headed on to Hizha Ivan Vazov, over the other side of the range. This left just us and the caretaker in a 90-bed hut and no common language, but he was a happy soul and his whistling plus the smell of the fresh bread he was baking made the hut feel less empty.

... and an almost full moon rises in the east

Evening falls mistily over the Rila Mountains .....

.... the sky turns pastel pink and blue ....

While we talking to the Englishmen, high cloud had slowly rolled in from the west, obscuring the sun and making us wonder whether a change in the weather was on the way. However, it cleared again around sunset, leaving the sky tinged with pink as a full-moon rose over the mountains to the east.

After our dinner it was an early night - we still had five more lakes to visit and each one would be higher than the previous one!

Day 2 -Sedemte Ezera Hut to Malyovitsa (the high road) (14.5 km - 680m ascent - 1190m descent)     

After a bit of linguistic confusion, we got our omelets for breakfast, but missed out on a packed lunch. opting instead to buy some of the "comfort food" from the little shop at the hut. It would be heavy on the carbs, but with a big climb at the start of the day, that was in fact a positive. When we were ready and said goodbye to our host, he insisted that we walk around the eastern end of Ribnoto Ezera and not the usual west shore route. This was so that we could pass by the Danovisti Fountain at the end of the lake.

Early morning reflections on Ribotno Ezero

The Danovisti are a curious sect, part orthodox, part back to nature paganism and every year in August, they come to this part of the Rila Mountains to commune with nature and take in the cosmic energy, a part of which involves meditational dance in the alpine meadows. Their sacred fountain was indeed worth visiting, with its curious symbols in pale blue (we had seen other curious markings in this colour on the way up and now we knew their origin). We emptied our water bottles and refilled them from the fountain - who knows, any extra energy source would help with the climb to come.

The curious symbology of the Danovisti

Marshland at the head of Ribotno

Lake no. 3 - Trilistnikovo Ezero

View back over lake no. 2 - Ribotno Ezero

With that we crossed the stream under a cloudless blue sky and began the climb up past the remaining five lakes. As we walked, a high-pitched howl floated across from the far side of the valley, followed by another and then a third - we have heard this sound in the movies and it seemed unmistakable - a wolf? They are known in this area. Any further calls were drowned out by the sound of rushing water as we reached the next lake and its outlet. Trilistnikovo Ezero had been hiding just behind the rise in its cliff-backed bowl only 30m higher up.

We pushed on, ascending another 30m onto the next tier, where we were greeted by the spectacular view of Bliznaka Ezero. This was a larger lake overshadowed by the dark pyramid of Haramiyata and backed by the rocky ramparts of the main range.

The outflow of Bliznaka Ezero backed by the pyramid of Haramiyata and the main range

Lake no. 4 - Bliznaka Ezero

On we pressed, this time ascending steeply 40m up to the next tier to emerge at the level of Babreka Ezero, a kidney-shaped lake backed by steep snow drifts that lead up to sheer rock walls. The setting of these lakes, which formed a lower cluster, was spectacular.

Meltwaters rushing down from the snowdrift

Nello climbing up from Babreka Ezero (lake no. 5)

The remaining two lakes were much higher and the steep part of the climb was about to begin - zig-zagging our way upwards on a rocky trail, the views over the lower lakes changed in perspective, until we finally reached a high bowl at 2440m, where Okoto Ezero lay in its icy splendour, still partly frozen over and with the odd iceberg floating in its waters.

Reflections in Okoto Ezero (lake no. 6)

At 2440m, Okoto Ezero still had ice floes on its surface

One last steep climb up a rocky scree brought us to the site of highest and smallest of the seven lakes, Salzata Ezero, its surface almost completely frozen at 2535m, a small gem in this vaste alpine setting.

Finally lake no. 7 - ice-bound Salzata Ezero in its bowl near the top of the Rila Mountains

Looking across a drift to the dark cone of Haramiyata

We made the short detour to the top of Ezerniya Vrah, a rocky outcrop and the only place from where you can view all seven lakes, though not in the same field, as Salzata lay behind. To the east lay the broad grassy spine of the Rila Mountains and to the west we could see our route ahead - still climbing up past the precipitous cliffs of the Chanakgyolski Cirque and on to the rounded saddle beyond. It was not a long climb, and not difficult, but one section of the track was blocked by a big snow drift forcing us to cross below it only a metre or two from the 300m drop-off into the depths of the cirque - my exposure metre spiked, but fortunately it was only a very short section.

View from Ezerniya Vrah of the lower six lakes of the Sedemte Ezera

View westwards towards the summits of Otovishki Vrah and Seymenski Kamak

A gap in the cliffs of the Chanakgyolski Cirque

We were now on the Razdela Saddle, a broad rounded grassland on the main spine of the Rila Mountains - views of the jagged peaks beyond began to emerge above the grassy horizon, while ahead a mob of horses grazed beneath the large snowdrift on the side of Damga Peak.

On the Razdela Saddle

Ivan Vazov hut - a tiny dot below 2664m Malak Kalin

It was idyllic. I wandered over to the southern slope of the saddle to have a look down the green valley towards Ivan Vazov mountain hut (where we would have stayed under Plan A) while the fair Nello made friends with a couple of the horses.

The horses of Razdela

Then we headed out along the long spur of Zeleni Rid. The first section was narrow, sharp topped and lined by cliffs to the north - the views in every direction from this open ridge-line were superb. On either side we looked down on even more glacial lakes, behind us the familiar features of the Seven Lakes Cirque were disappearing and beyond the distant valleys shimmered in the hazy heat, making us glad to be this high with a pleasant cool breeze.

View across the saddle towards the main Rila range - with 2729m Malyovitsa on the right

Bulgarian mountain horses

To the south the magnificent profile of the main Rila range stretched out - the grassy ridges of Dodov Vrah, the bluff face of Malyovitsa and the jagged silhouette of Iglata and its neighbouring peaks. Reaching the high point of Zeleni Rid, we stopped for a while just to take it all in, before heading on past a rocky outcrop where white marble boulders had been positioned, apparently by the Danovisti as they walked up to the Seven Lakes for their spring gathering. A small heart-shaped water source lined with marble confirmed this theory.

The glacial lake Panitsama Ezera beneath the cliffs of 2669m Damga

Walking along the open tops of Zeleni Rid

Danovisti marble blocks

The jagged skyline of the Rila Mountains - with the peaks of Kamilata, Iglata and Orlovets

A Danovisti water source

From here the big descent of the spur began, as we wandered in meditational mode (a la Danivisti) slowly down the broad grassy meadow lining its back, mountains to the right, valley dead ahead beyond the curved green horizon of the spur.

Kire Chuguno shelter

The wide open spaces of Zeleni Rid

Looking out over the hazy sun-baked plain

Back into the pine trees ..

The descent took us out of the flower-speckled meadow and through a region of juniper thickets and dwarf pine before finally entering the conifer forest. The air was noticably warming up and was thick with the rich scent of pine resin as the path took us steeply down the end of the spur, now becoming quite narrow, before finally joining up with our outward path of yesterday.

... and down the long forested spur

Farewell to Malyovitsa

If you do the track in reverse, the Zeledni Rid becomes an 1100m climb - no wonder the locals call it Chernata Maka (the Black Agony). However, for us, from here it was but a matter of retracing our steps, stopping at both the Urdina Reka and Malyovitsa River to sit and enjoy the sound of water rushing down out of the mountains and the coolness of the air dragged down with it. After such a pleasant walk, this track had one little sting in the tail - a steep, hot and sweaty 120m climb back up through the forest to our hotel at Malyovitsa.

I found my feet settling in to the rhythm of a 4-word ditty going through my head "ice - cold - zagorka - beer, ice - cold - zagorka - beer ....." as we climbed steadily in automaton mode. It worked - the road and the hotel appeared and our walk was over. Our reward was an ice cold Zagorka beer - a perfect end to a wonderful walk in the Rila Mountains. It was also the end of our time here and, after our three walking adventures, one thing was clear, we love Bulgaria.