The Seven Rila Lakes – A cold and very challenging Bulgarian winter hike
In November 2021, my best friend and I decided to visit the beautiful country of Bulgaria. We knew Bulgaria isn’t really a place for winter vacation (unless you like skiing and snowboarding), but wanted to check out a specific destination: The Seven Rila Lakes!
This beautiful group of glacier lakes in the northwestern part of the Rila Mountains is a popular spot for tourists. The hike around the seven lakes is considered the most visited in the country, beautifully winding alongside them.
The lakes are named according to their shape: Dolnoto Ezero (lower lake), Ribnoto Ezero (fish lake), Trilistnika (the trefoil), Bliznaka (the twin), Babreka (the kidney), Okoto (the eye), and Salzata (the tear).
Getting from Sofia to the Seven Rila Lakes
After getting home quite late the night before, we had a hard time waking up the morning of our intended hike. Eventually, we managed to get some life back into our bodies, grabbed a quick breakfast and headed out. With a clear sunny sky and no wind, the weather seemed perfect. The temperature felt around 0 °C as we walked from the hotel lobby towards the parking lot.
“It’s going to be a long day” I said while turning on the engine. Marvin entered “Seven Rila Lakes” into the GPS and told me it would only take us an hour and a half to get there. The first 60 minutes were super relaxed but felt a bit boring. While streets were well-maintained, there was not really anything to see.
Things started to change when we reached Saparewa Banja, a small city located at the northern part of the Rila mountain range. Suddenly, well-maintained streets mostly leading straight ahead turned into not so well-maintained serpentine roads leading up a steep incline. We proceeded to gain altitude as we slowly drove up and noticed the temperature dropped rapidly. Sunny clear skies now changed into foggy skies and green grassy areas into snow-covered dirty grounds.
Ultimately, we reached the Seven Rila Lakes Lift-Bottom Station. This place was obviously the place to be, given the designated parking structure. Once we parked our car, we noticed there were only 3 buildings: A souvenir shop, a so-called tearoom, and the lift station, which should provide us with a quick and easy way up to where the trails begun (at least in theory).
Whereas the tearoom and souvenir shop were open, the lift was out of service. While Marvin and I walked around, trying to find a solution for our problem, we spotted two Swiss travelers: a woman and her daughter, doing the same thing. They didn’t know what to do either, as they had gotten there about 10 minutes before we did.
Lifts are not operational during gap season
Then, a man came up to us and told us in broken English that the lift wasn’t running because it was gap season. That’s when there is no more proper snow for skiing or snowboarding, and nobody really intends to hike due to the harsh weather. He said he could take us to a restaurant at the beginning of the trails up on the mountain for 15 Euros each.
At this point, we obviously accepted. After all, we had gotten out of bed and driven all the way out here to stop now and skip the entire experience. After we agreed, we were told to wait inside the tearoom for a “few minutes.” We gladly walked inside to escape the cold and waited. After 45 minutes we asked our driver when we would leave and received “soon” as an answer. Another 15 minutes later, a group of 4 Spanish girls joined us inside the tearoom. They seemed to have had a pre-booking for the transfer and the driver just waited for them to get us all up there in one trip.
An adventurous jeep ride
After waiting an hour, we all sat in the car and our driver started his journey up even bumpier and steeper roads. More incline, more snow, more people feeling sick. One of the Spanish girls asked if we could stop since she didn’t feel well. She was then told stopping was not possible due to the snowy and icy ground. If the driver had stopped, so his words, he could not get the car moving on a steep hill anymore. It turned out this potential situation can also occur while driving. Halfway into our trip, the jeep got stuck on a steep and icy incline. Multiple tries to get the car going failed.
Our driver asked us the leave the car, so he could slowly roll backwards down the hill, collect everybody, and drive us back to the lift station. “If you want, you can also continue walking, restaurant is up this hill” he said while getting back in the car.
At this point, it was only our Swiss travel friends and us continuing the journey, as the Spanish girls decided to return to the original departure point. As we moved on, not only the steep and icy hill gave us a hard time, also the winds got stronger. By the time we reached the mountain hut / restaurant, we already felt like we were done with our adventure. The fact we hadn’t even started our actual hike demotivated us. Should we even move on?
Hiking the Seven Rila Lakes in harsh weather stretched me to my limits
Negative 8 °C, strong winds, snow-covered and icy grounds. What could go wrong? After warming up inside the restaurant for a few minutes, we made our way back out into the cold. Determined to go through with this, we walked around the building and spotted a sign directing us towards the hiking trail. Although we were obviously able to read the sign and to understand the geographic orientation of our surroundings, we barely identified the hiking trail. Only a tiny bridge in the distance indicated the way.
After the first few steps on the actual trail, Marvin and I looked at each other. Although no words were said, it was an immediate connection between two people admitting this trip was a mistake. At the same time, neither of us wanted to return without really trying, so we continued.
The higher we got, the less covered we were from the wind by surrounding mountains. About 40 minutes into the hike, we spotted the first lake, Dolnoto Lake. We briefly looked at it and moved on. It took us only 15 more minutes until we reached the second lake, Ribnoto Lake. However, we did not only reach the second lake. Especially in a retrospective view, we also reached the most uncomfortable point of the hike.
Snow turned into hails stones
The trail was barely visible, and the winds were almost unbearable. The wind was too strong for snowflakes to form, so actual (very small) hailstones resulted from the harsh weather condition. At this point, Marvin decided to head back to the restaurant. I, on the other side, was determined to finish this trip, no matter what. I spent the final 30 minutes holding the hood of my yellow jacket down my face, covering as much as possible from above while a scarf covered my mouth and my nose from below.
Walking was only possible in baby steps at this point. One step at a time while always facing down. Partly climbing over some small rocks was particularly dangerous in combination with the icy surfaces. Slipping and sliding down in the snow represented a constant danger, especially since there was no phone service that could be utilized to navigate help towards my current location. Eventually, I made it all the way to the official destination, a waypoint located in between Babreka Lake and Okoto Lake.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t spot all the lakes due to the weather conditions. As I was about to return, I saw more clouds and fog coming in. I tried to make my way back as soon (but also as safe) as possible. Once I met my friend Marvin back at the restaurant, we talked to one of the waiters to let us know how to make our way back down.
“I will call the jeep” was the answer to our question. And instantly I felt we would spend a lot more time in that restaurant than we wanted. We waited another hour and 15 minutes until the jeep reached the front yard of the restaurant. I still appreciated we had a ride back to our car. We reached the parking lot safely, bought a souvenir, and drove back to our hotel in Sofia (which had a Spa area we immediately used upon our return).
Ready for the cold?
I am certain the Seven Rila Lakes trail is amazing during spring, summer, or perhaps even early fall. However, I highly recommend going there during winter unless it is for winter sport purposes. Id you still plan to see the Seven Rila Lakes during winter, there are a few things to consider.
First, choose your location wisely. Although Sofia is not too far away and serves as an ideal starting point, the overall journey could be a bit too overwhelming. A total of 3 hours in the car should not be underestimated when going on an intense hike the same day. The best compromise for staying close to the hiking trail is either in Saparewa Banja (Rila Terraces or House Demika) or a designated hotel area located halfway between Saparewa Banja and the lift station (Hotel Benida, Villa Ema, or Hotel Magnoliya).
Both locations allow easier access to essentials (grocery stores or gas stations) when compared to staying in one of the very few accommodations inside the mountain. Along the way up to the lift station, there were multiple “side tracks” that may be accessible by a proper 4-wheel jeep. If you want to bring your adventure to a next level, you could even drive up all the way to the mountain hut / restaurant located at the entrance of the hiking area.
For rental car purposes, I highly recommend Billiger Mietwagen, which has always done a good job offering me awesome deals all over the world. Last but not least, bring the right clothes. If you are unsure if you have something that keeps you warm, now is the time to invest. As mentioned above, the strong winds shooting small hailstones into my face was the most unexpected situation of all.
Just in case, bring water-proof hiking boots (yes, boots, not normal shoes!), water-proof hiking pants, multiple layers of clothes for your upper body (I recommend thermal underwear, a breathable long sleeve and a thin but water-proof and wind-resistant jacket), a hat and, if possible, snow goggles. You got it all together? Great, let’s go on a real adventure!
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Thomas Später, PhD, is an experienced backpacking traveler that specializes in adventurous trips around the globe. He has traveled to remote and exotic places, such as Namibia or Mongolia and focuses on landscape and wildlife photography to share the beauty of our planet with others. In 2021, Thomas published a (German) book about Overpopulation and Over-consumption (Die Überbevölkerung). With his awareness of current global issues, he uses his travels to support particularly local hotels and restaurants to raise awareness for the nature and culture of his destinations. Follow Thomas´ adventures on Instagram as well as on his website, World In Frames.