A group of glacial lakes situated in the northwestern Rila Mountains in Bulgaria, situated between 2,100 and 2,500 meters elevation above sea level, The Seven Rila Lakes are a popular day hike for Bulgarians as well as travelers coming to the country to visit. With spectacular views as well as the Rila Monastery to consider, there’s plenty of reasons to go…although planning your time of year can be crucial since the weather is subject to rapid changes.
Each lake carries a name associated with its most characteristic feature. The highest one is called Salzata (“The Tear”) due to its clear waters that allow visibility in depth. The next one in height carries the name Okoto (“The Eye”) after its almost perfectly oval form. Babreka (“The Kidney”) is the lake with the steepest shores. Bliznaka (“The Twin”) is the largest one by area. Trilistnika (“The Trefoil”) has an irregular shape and low shores. The shallowest lake is Ribnoto Ezero (“The Fish Lake”) and the lowest one is Dolnoto Ezero (“The Lower Lake”), where the waters that flow out of the other lakes are gathered to form the Dzherman River.
June, July and August make up the primary hiking months, right in the prime of summer. The rest of the time the elevations, rising from 7,000 to around 8,200 feet, mean that snow and freezing temperatures are a possibility just about every night of the week, and the storms are legendary throughout Bulgaria for coming up on you completely unannounced. Clear skies one minute, pitch black and whirling winds 15 minutes later.
It’s a bit of a hike if you want to see the whole circuit; 4 to 6 hours is the general time it takes if you want to walk the entire trail to see all seven of the lakes, and it’s not for the faint of heart. There are a few stark, steep passages where you are nearly climbing ladder-like up clefts in the rocks, and that combined with the altitude can make for a difficult climb. The views, however, are well worth it.
Getting up to the start of the trail is fairly easy. You can either hike the 10 kilometers up to the beginning of the main trail, or you can take the Pionerska chair lift, which takes people up from the base parking area all the way up to the top of the first plateau…which from there leads up to the rest of the lakes themselves.
One you hit the top of the chair lift, there’s a bit of a climb up to the next level of plateau, and then from there another bit of a hike before you reach the first of the lakes. But the views are spectacular, the landscape is untainted, undeveloped, and you can see for literal miles in all directions the higher you go.
And it’s not just the tourists that the mountains cater to. The plateau around the lower lakes is holy ground for the White Brotherhood, or Danovites, who show up once a year to celebrate their New Year. The celebration takes place near Kidney Lake and consists of ritual rhythmic unison while dancing in a large circle along lines of white stones that are set permanently to map out their location. For the Danovites, the Rila Mountains are a holy place where thousands of devotees gather every year to greet the dawn.
And while the vast majority of people choose to hike their way up the paths, you can always rent a horse for the day and ride up with the local guides and their pack horses.
By the time you get back down to the bottom of the trail where you started off, at the top of the chair lift, there’s a restaurant with plenty of beer on tap, wash rooms and places to sit down and relax and just enjoy a bit of a break before the final lift back down to the parking area.
As far as accommodations go, you can either sleep at one of the resorts in Panichishte and Sapareva Banya, or you can day-trip it with a rental car out of Sofia. There’s also plenty of guided tours out of Sofia which include transportation and a guide, so there’s always that option if you desire (I went with Bulgarian friends, so was spoiled in that regard; I also lived in Sofia for 2.5 years and made it up regularly).
Great day hike if you can handle the altitude and a good six hour hike. Four hours if you are in top condition and a regular hiker. Don’t forget to wear your hiking boots (no sandals/etc.), pants, and bring along a raincoat or a windbreaker of some kind, because the winds can get nippy really fast and the rain can literally be on you in 15 to 20 minutes. Sunblock and a bottle of water or two are also recommended.