Spanning 800 sq km in the expanses of Bulgaria’s Rodopi Mountains, Rila National Park is the Balkans’ top destination for outdoor adventures and snow sports. It is also a conservation reserve for some of Europe’s rarest wildlife. Thanks to the park’s efforts to keep Rila’s spectacular nature clean and sustainable, these two worlds can exist next to each other.
The forests, lakes and mountains in Rila are clean and unspoiled because they are fiercely protected by the park's management. Hiking and mountain-climbing are supported with an EU grant to help develop sustainable tourism in Rila National Park. But swimming, hunting and fishing are forbidden almost everywhere, and camping is very carefully controlled.
Within Rila National Park are hiking trails of all lengths and difficulties. The best-known route is the Seven Rila Lakes, which begins in the village of Panichishte with a climb (or chair-lift) through thick pine forest. Above the forest is a wild plateau with seven glacial lakes. The hike takes you to each of them, from Dolnoto ezero ("The Lower Lake", at 2100m) until you are perched on a precipice above the highest lake, Salzata ("The Tear"). At an altitude of over 2500m (8200ft) this platform looks down over all seven lakes, and gives a stupefying 360-degree view of the whole of Rila Park. With a descent past the lakes again and back through the forest to Panichishte, this hike takes all day.
The other popular all-day hike is to the top of Musala. At an altitude of over 2900m (almost 10,000ft), Musala is the highest mountain between the Alps and the Caucasus. Starting in Borovets ski resort with a ride on the Yastrebets chair-lift, the climb to the peak is a steep ascent over jagged boulders. While reaching Musala’s summit is a serious feat, you don’t need to be a professional: if you are fit and dressed for the cold you will be up to the challenge. It takes about six hours to get from the chair-lift to the top and back to Yastrebets.
Read more: How to be sustainable on your hiking trip
The mountains beside Musala at Borovets, outside the town of Samokov (50km from Panichishte) are now Bulgaria’s plushest outdoor adventure resort. Borovets has slopes and trails for all types of snow sports. There is also a host of après-ski bars; but Bulgarian activists concerned with Rila’s nature have made sure that all visitors to the resort are now given leaflets in their huts and chalets, with strict guidelines on how to behave in the park.
Next to the ski slopes, the pine forests of Rila National Park are home to 48 species of mammal, including brown bears, grey wolves and wild boar, as well as nearly 100 species of birds, among them the protected little owl and capercaillie. That these species are protected is also thanks to the park’s management, which arranges for scientists and students to research Rila’s habitats, and for conservationists to keep them healthy. People who come to the park to ski or hike are encouraged to learn about the wildlife around them: if you go to the visitor centre in Panichishte you will see maps and videos about Rila’s biodiversity.
A 10km hike from Panichishte (or about an hour’s drive from Borovets and Musala) is the spa town of Sapareva Banya. With indoor and outdoor natural mineral pools that are open all year round, filled by some of the hottest mineral springs in the world, the spas soothe the legs and backs that have been battered by hiking Musala and the Seven Lakes. The restaurants in Sapareva Banya serve local Rodopi dishes, most of which are vegetarian. After a day taking on Rila National Park, your body will crave nothing more than a huge plate of panagyurski eggs, and a glass of organic Bulgarian wine or rakia (local brandy).