Peaks of the Balkans: how to plan a cross-border trek

Descending through the forest from the Albania–Montenegro border pass, an unassailable stillness pervades, punctuated only by the sound of cowbells rising from the valley below. Sheep come into view, dozens of white specks grazing high pastures filled with young grass and wildflowers, all in the protective shadow of jagged granite uplift.

Smoke rises from makeshift metal chimneys jutting from the rooftops of simple wooden shacks and stone homes. Shepherds arrived for the summer with their animals only a week ago, on the heels of the last of the melting snowpack. They will be here for only three months until the seasons change and paths are again blocked with snow.

Shepherds in Cerem, Albania

Shepherds keep an eye on their grazing flock in Cerem, Albania. Image by Audrey Scott and Daniel Noll / Lonely Planet

When most people think of Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro, it’s unlikely these are the images they envision. For decades, the Accursed Mountains – the highland areas between these three nations – were closed to visitors due to a combination of conflict and isolationist policies. No longer. Today, you can hike seamlessly across borders and throughout former no man’s lands on the Peaks of the Balkans trek, admiring mountainscapes and staying with local families in villages along the way.

Choosing a trekking itinerary

One of the benefits of a circular trekking route like the Peaks of the Balkans is that there are multiple entry points. This means you can hop on and off the trail at various locations if you wish to take a rest day, explore historical sites or avoid the less thrilling paved road segments.

Although the options can feel overwhelming, this flexibility allows customisation of your route to suit your trekking experience, time and budget.

Peaks of the Balkans, standard route

Drelaj, Kosovo mountain trek.

Places to make you feel small: Drelaj, Kosovo, will do the trick. Image by Audrey Scott and Daniel Noll / Lonely Planet

This 192km circuit will take you through the mountains of northern Albania, eastern Kosovo and southern Montenegro. The official route offers a diversity of landscapes and cultural experiences, but it does include a few asphalt road segments. Depending on your time and budget, you can arrange transfers to avoid these segments and opt instead for off-road forest trails.

This route is estimated to take 10 days, but a buffer of a couple of days is suggested to accommodate unexpected bad weather and rest days.

Modifications and add-ons

Mt Hajla, Kosovo

Mt Hajla is an easy and worthwhile detour from the standard PoB route. Image by Audrey Scott and Daniel Noll / Lonely Planet

There are endless modifications you can make to the standard Peaks of the Balkans route if you want to summit nearby peaks, maximise the region’s mountain vistas and access more remote areas. Here are a few of our recommendations.

  • Lake Koman Ferry (Albania): If you begin (or end) your trek via Valbona and Shkodra, Albania, you can take the passenger ferry across Lake Koman. For just 500 lek (€4) you’ll enjoy one of the most beautiful and relatively undiscovered boat rides in the world.
  • Valbona to Çerem (Albania): Skip the standard route and go instead via Qafa Perslopit and Stanet e Derzhanes. This route requires a challenging 1200m climb, but the views of Valbona’s granite peaks and the walk through valleys filled with shepherd's huts makes it worth the extra effort.
  • Mt Gjeravica (Kosovo): An alternative trail from the shepherd village of Dobërdol, Albania to the top of Mt Gjeravica, the highest peak in Kosovo (2656m). Descend past turquoise glacier lakes on the way to the village of Gropa Erenikut, Kosovo.
  • Mt Hajla (Kosovo): Mt Hajla may not look like much from below, but it has surprising views from the top into Kosovo and Montenegro. This is a short side trip between the villages of Reka e Allages and Drelaj, Kosovo, both of which are on the standard Peaks of the Balkans trail.
  • Vermosh–Mt Grebenit–Lëpushë–Mt Talijanka–Grbaja Valley (Albania and Montenegro): This spectacular two-day detour begins near Plav, Montenegro, and delivers some of the best landscapes in the entire region. The descent from Mt Talijanka includes staggering views of the granite peaks of the Karanfil Mountains on the border of Albania and Montenegro.

Cultural connection: family homestays

The network of family homestays and shepherd huts in villages along the trekking routes provides cultural and historical context for the Accursed Mountains. This is a region steeped in tradition and blood feuds, yet known for its hospitality. Spending each night with a different family allows you to experience that firsthand. Staying with families also allows trekkers to contribute directly to the local community and economy.

How to find family homestays

A homestay in Theth, Albania.

A typical homestay in Theth, Albania. Image by Audrey Scott and Daniel Noll / Lonely Planet

The official Peaks of the Balkans map lists the villages with family homestays and their corresponding phone numbers so arrangements can be made in advance. Not all homestays are well marked, so you may have to ask around the village to actually find them.

What to expect

Family homestays offer a bed, usually in a room that sleeps six to eight people. Sheets and blankets are provided, but it’s recommended to pack a sleep sack and travel towel to be on the safe side.

Expect three hearty meals – dinner, breakfast and a packed lunch. Most of the fresh, homemade food served comes straight from the farm where you are staying. If you are veggie, vegan or eat gluten free, don’t fear. Homestay families can provide alternatives.

Homestay costs

Expect to pay around €20 to €25 per person per night at a family homestay.

Practicalities

Peaks of the Balkans border marker

Make sure you acquire all necessary permits before you start your trek. Image by Audrey Scott and Daniel Noll / Lonely Planet

Cross-border permits: A cross-border permit is required from each country that you will be crossing into or out of during your trek. These can be secured independently from authorities in each country, but the process is bureaucratic so you may want to engage a trekking agency for this. The cost is approximately €40 for two people (€60 for more than three people). Paperwork should be submitted at least 10 days before starting the trek.

Trekking guide: If you plan to hike the complete Peaks of the Balkans route or a similar cross-border trek in this region, it’s recommended to hire a trekking guide. Technically speaking, the trails are marked, but the quality and frequency of the markings varies widely from country to country. Additionally, the remote locations make it easy to lose one’s way as you won’t often run into other people to ask directly. You can arrange for a guide through a trekking agency.

Transport: Some public transport service exists along the more populated segments of the route, including Valbona, Theth and Plav, but it is quite limited in most areas. If you coordinate your trek with an agency or guide, they can help arrange all necessary transfers and transportation in advance. Otherwise, ask your homestay family for transport options.

Places from this story

Related content