Hiking the Piatra Craiului Mountain Range in Transylvania
By Szidonia Lorincz
The Piatra Craiului Mountain range in Transylvania is one of the most spectacular hiking destinations in the Southern Carpathians. Hiking the whole range is a test of strength, stamina, and sheer focus. Completing the full journey requires a certain fitness level.
However, if you embark on this journey, it will be one of the most incredible adventures of your life.
The hike can be done in one day if you are fit. However, for a lighter, more comfortable experience, I would recommend breaking the hike down into two days.
You can take shelter for a night in one of the mountain refuges along the ridge, but make sure to have your own camping equipment as well in case the shelters are occupied.
Getting to Brasov and the Piatra Craiului National Park
The best way to approach the Piatra Craiului National Park is through Brasov. Brasov is very well connected to the rest of the country, due to its fame of Dracula and its beautiful surroundings.
As of recent they even opened an international airport. The flights there are still limited, so check ahead of time if you can fly in directly. The city itself deserves a couple of days of your time as it boasts a unique historic center, many cafés, restaurants and castles all around.
If you are coming from Bucharest, the most convenient option is to rent a car. You can be in Brasov in about 2,5-3 hours and then another 40 minutes from Brasov to Zarnesti. There is a fairly good railway connection that can take you from the Bucharest Airport to Gara de Nord (North Station) and then to Brasov.
In Brasov, you can catch another train to Zarnesti. Once there, you will need to get a taxi for the 10-15 minute ride to the entrance to the national park. Make sure to check your train connections on the official website to leave enough time for the hike. I would recommend spending the night in Zarnesti and getting an early start the next day.
Routes and Preparation
There are various routes of varying difficulty you can do in and around the Piatra Craiului mountain range. Several entrance points can take you up the mountain, and they do differ in their levels of difficulty, so do your research before settling for one.
It is a good idea to plan for a loop so that you arrive back to your car or accommodation and don’t have to walk too much on the asphalt once you’re back in the valley.
Assess your capabilities and reach for what you know you can do. There are no water sources up in the mountain so make sure to bring enough to last you the day.
A good pair of hiking shoes with a strong grip is a must and hiking poles can definitely help in certain parts of the hike, although will not be usable throughout.
Using gloves with a rubber palm can aid you greatly during the scrambling sections. Bring layers of clothes as even in the height of the summer months you might encounter cloudy days. It gets pretty chilly on the top when the sun is hiding.
My Experience Hiking the Piatra Craiului Mountain Range
It is advisable to hike in groups in the mountains of Transylvania, since the bear population is ever growing. I usually go hiking with an experienced local hiking group, called CSEKE. They are passionate about the mountains of the area, know the routes really well and do various hikes around almost every weekend. I find this an excellent solution for myself as a solo female traveler and I have made some really good friends through hiking groups.
Early Start to the Adventure
I met up with my group on their way to Brasov at 5AM on a warm August morning. They were able to pick me up from the village I was staying at on the way, which was very convenient for me. I love an early morning start to an adventure, so I wasn’t particularly phased by the starting time. I did doze off in the car during the two-hour journey. I woke up just in time to see an incredible sunrise above the mysterious dawn mist in the valley of the Olt River.
We arrived at the entrance of the Piatra Craiului National Park at 7 AM and proceeded to buy our entrance tickets. The fee for the entrance is nominal, it only costs 5 Ron (1 Euro), but due to a machine malfunction, we ended up paying 10 Ron (2 Euros) each. The excitement was palpable in the air and we were quickly awoken by the crisp mountain air.
All the hikers, about 15 of us, congregated at the entrance of our chosen trail. The route would take us from the southwest side of the range up to the ridge and then back down on the northwestern side, in a perfect loop. We began from the entrance at Cabana Plaiul Foii, on the western side of the mountain range.
We took a longer route toward the south to begin with, following the Spirlea Valley going into La Lanturi (The Chains) hiking trail, headed to the La Om Peak first. Then we made our way back to the Cabana by hitting four consecutive peaks, ending at Ascutit Peak before ascending on the Braul Ciroanga trail.
The beginning of the hike took us through a pleasant forest path with a constant inclination. Cows were grazing all around us and the rising sun illuminated the surrounding peaks. For the first 90 minutes, it felt like any other hike and we enjoyed a lovely conversation and breakfast on the way. As soon as we got to a clearing for a rest stop, we could really see what lay ahead.
The peaks of Piatra Craiului towered over us like giants looking down at ants in the valley. It filled me with exhilaration, excitement, and a hint of intimidation at the same time. The leader of our hike warned us, that once we start off on our path to the peaks, we will be scrambling more than walking. He advised us to pack up our walking sticks at this point.
We weren’t at the rock walls yet, but we were already going up steep hills and climbing up rock faces 3-4 meters high. Eventually, the forest completely cleared up and we were faced head-on with our mission for the day. Incredibly tall rock walls towered over us everywhere the eyes could see. Below us, the valley was already like a slim, twisting snake making its way through the woods.
Climbing to the Top
Once we got close to the rocky terrain, it was easier to break the path down into sections and just deal with the 20-30 meters right ahead of us. The terrain was incredibly varied and it made use of all our muscles and senses. Some of us were quietly in our minds and concentrating on each step, while others were cracking jokes to elevate the mood. Every now and then we would arrive at an exposed piece of rock and we needed to climb around trying not to look at the huge drops below. There was no margin for error. Oftentimes there were chains fastened that we could hold onto, giving us some sense of security.
Up on the Ridge
After a good 3 and a half hours of scrambling, climbing and breathtaking views, we finally arrived at the ridge. Part of me wanted to believe that the hardest part was over, yet we were still only 5 hours into a 14-hour hike.
I was eager to know what lay ahead, though. The walk on the ridge took us to 4 peaks: La Om (2238 m), Timbalul Mic (2231 m), Timbalul Mare (2157 m), and Ascutit Peak (2150 m).
The views were incredible every time we got a glimpse through the mist. Part of me was grateful for the presence of clouds. On many occasions, walking on the ridge meant that we had about 40 centimeters of path under our feet with a nearly vertical drop of hundreds of meters to each side.
I had a rush of vertigo every time I could see all the way to the valley, even though I am not particularly afraid of heights.
When the path took a drop, I had to get down on my bottom and help myself along with my hands. It was adventure at its finest.
Passing each peak filled us with an incredible sense of achievement and the camaraderie and joyfulness of the group only grew as we progressed. As we sat down for lunch on the last peak, a huge, black shepherd dog approached us out of nowhere.
He popped himself right in the center of the group and patiently waited for his share of the food. Despite his size and their reputation, this dog was friendly and gentle. We also encountered some mountain goats performing hair-raising stunts on the tops of some very exposed rocks. A curious individual even approached us to take a closer look. It is easy to understand how they have virtually no natural predators in this environment.
Starting Our Descent
The clouds continued to roll in and clear up periodically, offering us breathtaking views along the way. Being at the height of August, I was grateful for the protection we got from the clouds. Whenever they completely cleared, we could feel the full force of the sun beating down on us. After a hearty lunch and a bit of rest, we headed on for our descent. At 15:00 PM in the afternoon, we had to think about getting back to the valley and out of the forest before the bears woke up for their evening patrol.
We tried to guess how long it would take for us to get to the valley. Some of us estimated 2-3 hours, others 4. However, when we got to the beginning of our downward trail, we were faced with a grim fact. The sign said something along these lines: Route of Descent; Difficulty: extreme; time 5,5-6 hours. We were already nearing the end of our energy levels, but grappling with the thought of doing another 5-6 hours downhill just didn’t sit right. Still, there was no other way, but down. So, we started our descent.
The descent was a lot more challenging than the way up. First of all, as I mentioned earlier, we were already exhausted from the 4-hour climb up and the 5 hours spent on the ridge. But going down, you are a lot more exposed to the elements. You are trying to support yourself with your arms twisted behind you and your feet blindly feeling for solid ground.
Your mind and muscles are exhausted and you are constantly reminded just how far away you still are from the finish. It took an increased amount of energy and strength out of each of us to perform this feat. But it brought our lively group even closer together. Jokes were cracking left and right and we couldn’t really think about our predicament when we were laughing at some silly joke.
It took us another good 4 hours, but in the end, we all arrived in the valley safe and sound. We walked through the forest singing and making as much noise as we could to alert bears to our presence. I can’t even describe the feeling of turning around and looking back at the majestic mountain bathing in the last rays of sunshine.
Learnings From the Hike and Recommendations
Completing this challenge was a huge learning experience. I felt grateful and humbled by this rocky giant. The day made me weary, physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. Still, writing these lines I feel that I can’t wait to be back. I might choose an alternative route, and I will definitely plan for two days instead of one, but the mountain possesses a special spirit that will draw you in if you allow it.
Szidonia Lorinczis a professional travel and adventure photographer born in Transylvania. She travels the world full-time, looking for adventures and stories to be told through her images and words.