Hiking in Romania's Apuseni and Retezat Mountains
Keen to explore the mountains of Romania, Mick Borroff set off for a fortnight of hiking, caving and scrambling. Spending a week in each area, Mick discovered the best that the Apuseni and Retezat Mountains have to offer.
Having enjoyed a great couple of weeks hut-to-hut touring in the lovely Pirin Mountains in Bulgaria a few years ago, I was keen to visit the Balkans again. Romania became the obvious destination when some friends returned full of enthusiasm from a visit to the Fagaras mountains in Romania. This coincided with a native Romanian joining my mountaineering club, The Yorkshire Ramblers' Club. We swiftly organised a club trip to explore two very different areas of Romania and created a fortnight of hiking, caving and scrambling.
Week 1: Padis Plateau in the Apuseni Mountains
We spent the first part of our trip on the Padis Plateau in the Apuseni Mountains. Also called the Bihor or Bihar Mountains, this karst (limestone) region in the Western Carpathians has rolling forested hills studded with caves and potholes. The settlements in this natural park are traditional villages and their flocks of sheep are taken onto the hills for summer grazing under the ever-watchful eyes of the shepherds and their dogs.
The elevation of the Padis Plateau is in the range of 1300–1500m. It is famous for its karst landforms: caves, springs, sinkholes, poljes, dolines and river-cut gorges. These geological landforms were the focus of our explorations over the week as we made day hikes from a comfortable base in wooden cabins in the Padis hamlet at the roadhead. Paths were generally well-signed and waymarked with coloured symbols. Here are some of our walking routes exploring the Padis Plateau.
Padis – Cheile Somesului Cald
We decided to start with a varied route to the north of Padis and include a caving through-trip. We headed through predominantly spruce fir woods to Cabana Varasoia, then across open grassland to reach the entrance of Radesei Cave via a steep path with fixed chains. After putting on our head-torches, we descended into darkness to a system of ledges above the stream aided with more chains. After a couple of hundred metres, this led down a twisting ‘ladder’ of jammed tree trunks into a narrow sunlit gorge.
This led to the start of the main Somesului Cald gorge. We tried to descend further, but the way was soon obstructed by a deep pool. No one wanted to get their boots soaked on the first day out! The main path had been hit by a severe storm in 2017, felling countless spruce firs that had not yet been cleared and the path was officially closed. However, we followed the tracks of others who had forced an energetic way over and under fallen trees that resembled an assault course. Progress was tortuous. We persevered, eventually arriving at the crossing point downstream in the gorge. The north bank had not suffered much in the storm and we quickly climbed back through beech woods and returned to the downstream cave entrance, where we met a Romanian party who were impressed by our efforts. We returned up through the cave and back to Padis by the same route for a well-earned beer before dinner.
Padis – Poiana Ponor – Lumea Pierduta
We set off from our cabins down a muddy track past several summer huts selling various local fruit cordials and distilled liquors. The route descended steeply into Poiana Ponor, a large grassy depression (a polje). This was fed by a substantial river emerging from the Ponor spring, which we followed until it disappeared into a sinkhole to join the Ponorului cave system. Here a large party of Romanians were practicing single rope techniques (abseiling and prussiking) on the cliffs above as part of a week-long caving course. We stopped for coffee at the Cabana Cetatile Ponorului, a mountain hut run by the Romanian Speleological Association, and then headed up a forest track leading to the climb up to Lumea Pierduta. Lumea Pierduta, or 'the Lost World' is a dense area of mainly beech woods with several impressive cave entrances hidden deep in the trees. Thankfully the caves are linked by a well waymarked path, which eventually led us back to Padis.
Cabana Scarita – Groapa de la Barsa – Piatra Galbenei – Cetatile Ponorului
The jewel in the crown of the Padis Plateau is undoubtedly the Pestera Cetatile Ponorului. This is the greatest karst phenomenon in Romania: three enormous linked dolines (sinkholes) to a depth of 120m with a huge cave portal at the foot of their cliffs. The portal leads to a large underground river that is linked to another big cave entrance and can be viewed from several exposed balconies above. These features completely dwarf anything you might see in the limestone areas in the UK, such as the Yorkshire Dales or the Mendips.
We drove to Cabana Scarita and walked up into the beech and spruce woods of the Groapa de la Barsa, visiting several cave entrances on the way. A couple of these were glacier caves with massive ice plugs, including Ghetarul Focul Viu. Known as 'the Living Fire ice cave', the cave is named for the unusual lighting effect
created when the sun comes down a shaft above. After marvelling at these glacial caves, we climbed up to the
viewpoint of Piatra Galbenei (1234m) and had lunch looking out at the verdant treescape that stretched from the Galbenei gorge in the south to Padis in the north.
Suitably refreshed, we headed down to the Cetatile Ponorului dolines and cautious peered over the impressive cliffs at the first viewpoint. Traversing the rim, we joined the path down a steep, loose and muddy slope. Aided by various fixed chains, we reached the doline floor next to a large cave entrance. We donned our head-torches and descended to a river on its journey to the Galbeni gorge. There was too much water to proceed upstream to the next cave entrance. Returning to daylight the same way, we took the path up the scree slope into the second and bigger doline. We were blown away by the sheer size of the 70m high cave entrance, set at the foot of the surrounding cliffs of this massive depression.
After trying to do justice to this scene with our cameras, we climbed back out by another chain assisted path. On our way back to the car, we stopped at one of the Glavoi campsite café-shacks for a delicious snack of fruit teas, pancakes, and langos (a kind of waffle) with cheese and cream.
Glavoi – Cetatile Ponorului – Cheile Galbenei
Having seen the river in the Cetatile Ponorului caves, we were keen to visit the Galbenei gorge to see it reappear in daylight and make the famous chain-assisted traverse above the river. We parked at the Glavoi campsite and walked around the northern path around the viewpoints, over the Ponorului dolines and up to the impressive Bortig pothole. From there, we descended through beechwoods to the substantial rising at the head of the Galbenei gorge.
The beautiful path climbed above multiple waterfalls and cascades before heading down to the river, where we traversed the left wall of the canyon using a series of stemples and chains. Mid-way through lunch, the rain started. We climbed through a short section of cave and back to the river for a final aided section up to a car park and a long slippery climb up through wet meadows. The rain finally eased off as we reached a wooded ridge and headed back to our car, parked conveniently by one of the refreshment café-shacks.
Padis – Pestera Padis – Pietrele Boghii – Sesul Padis
On our last day in Padis, we took a morning walk across the grassy meadows west of Padis. After travelling up through beeches to the superb viewpoint of Pietrele Boghii, we had lunch perched on the edge of the wild and deep Boga valley. We descended to a grassy area where we encountered an area of peat bogs – a type of high altitude wetland that accumulates acidic peat over a long period of time – before heading back across the grassland to our cars.
Padis – Varful Biserica Motului
Back in Padis in the early afternoon, most people wanted a touch more exercise. Overlooking the hamlet is a cross-topped hill, Varful Biserica Motului. On the way, we passed several flocks of sheep and visited a small cabin where a friendly old lady was making cheese. She invited us in to taste samples of fresh curds – made that day and still warm – and a more mature example taken from muslin cloths hanging in the dairy. Delicious! The inside of her summer cabin was basic, with blackened pots and pans lining the shelves and a small stove in the corner. We said our goodbyes and walked up grassy slopes to the summit of Varful Biserica Motului. From the summit shelter filled with icons of St George and the Dragon, we took our final view over the Padis Plateau.
Travel from Padis to the Retezat
From Padis and the Apuseni Mountains, we headed south to the Retezat Mountains. En route, we visited the moated medieval Corvin Castle in Hunedoara, one of the greatest fortresses in Romania. To break out journey, we stayed overnight in the city of Deva.
Week 2: Retezat Mountains
We spent the second part of our trip in the Retezat Mountains. This is a region in the western part of the Southern Carpathians (sometimes called the Transylvanian Alps). Higher than in the mountains in the Apunseni, the mountains here rise to around 2200–2500m and are covered by lichen-covered granite boulder-fields.
With pristine glacial tarns in the valleys, grassy alpine meadows used for summer grazing by sheep and cows, and zones of spruce fir forest and dwarf pines higher up, the Retezat is an unspoilt National Park. The walking here was more challenging than at Padis, reminiscent of Scotland’s rocky ridges and the Pirin Mountains in Bulgaria.
The Retezat features a main ridge stretching east to west that hosts the two highest peaks: Varful Peleaga (2509m) and Varful Pelusa (2508m), and a series of ridges and valleys extending north from this main ridge. From our base at Cabana Pietrele (1480m), we had a choice of routes to access sections of the main ridge using either valley or secondary ridge paths. This involved 1100–1300m of ascent each day.
We reached our base at Cabana Pietriele after a two-hour hike from the roadhead at Carnic. Situated beside the Stanisoari river, the sleeping arrangements were basic – small two-bed communist-era huts – and the main hut offered a good but limited menu of food and drink. The Cabana generator ran from 8pm to 10pm in the evening for lighting and so we could charge mobile phones.
With camping nearby and an adjacent villa, Pietrele was busy all week with good-natured hikers and backpackers of all ages from Romania, Hungary and the Czech Republic. We were the only English visitors that week. All paths were well signed and waymarked. Fortunately, the weather was good, with just one afternoon thunderstorm when we already were safely down in the valley. Note that the forecasting apps that we consulted were completely unreliable for Retezat weather. Thunderstorms were predicted everyday bar one, which was the only day we had a storm!
As well as abundant wildflowers, we saw plenty of wildlife during our stay in Retezat. We saw marmots (introduced to the Retezat in 1973 from the Austrian Alps), chamois, black squirrels, an eagle, several kestrels, lots of frogs, plenty of butterflies and just one horned viper.
Cabana Pietrele – Varful Retezat
We decided to climb the Park’s eponymous summit first by its long north ridge with many boulder fields. We were first into breakfast at 7am to get an early start and set off in sunshine. The steep forest climb turned out to be the theme of the Retezat week and was necessary every day to get from the hut to the tree line around 1800–1900m. The trees gave way to a lovely alpine landscape with good views towards Varful Retezat, with juniper and dwarf mountain pines, gentians, and butterflies.
The boulder-fields along the ridge required concentration as we traversed the north and south summits of Varful Lolaia to Varful Retezat at 2482m. The view across to the main ridge was inspiring as we identified the various summits from the map. We descended south to the Saua Retezat col and down to the clear waters of Lacul Stanisoara. After spotting a herd of seven chamois, we headed back down the valley path to the hut.
Cabana Pietrele – Varful Mare
The most eastern peak we could reasonably access was Varful Mare. Rising to 2463m, this was our objective for the second day. Another early start saw us in the spruce fir forest going up and down moraine remnants now deeply dissected by rivers draining the Pietrele, Rea and Galesului valleys. Gaining the latter, we progressed up the valley to Lacul Gales, a sizeable glacial tarn. A steep climb up to the Saua Varful Mare col led to a rocky scramble up the south ridge to the Varful Mare summit and another spectacular view. Our eyes were drawn to the jagged crest of the Portile Inchise (Closed Gates) ridge linking the col below us to Varful Pelusa, the second highest peak in the Retezat. The map indicated a difficult path up the peak and we watched two hikers appear and disappear as they scrambled along the route. We returned by our ascent route, spotting some marmots above the lake and admired a flock of 35 rams in superb condition after their rich grazing in the alpine pastures. Near the end, we crossed the stream for a small diversion to visit the small Taul dintre Brazi tarn to complete another varied and enjoyable day.
Cabana Pietrele – Varful Peleaga
Another benefit of being first into the dining area was that we got the last of the hut’s bread that morning and were able to make sandwiches for our lunch. The hut was supplied from Carnic using an outsized tractor to transport, but the hut guardian assured us he had plenty of beer!
Our intention for the day
was to climb Varful Peleaga (2409m), the highest summit in the Retezat and the third highest in Romania. Our route took us up Valea Pietrele past Cabana Gentiana, a picturesque small wooden mountain hut owned by the Romanian Mountain Club. At Bordul Tomii, a house-sized boulder with an overhang near Lacul Pietrele, we met a friendly Romanian and his dogs tending a herd of cows for the summer. He was sporting a fine black domed hat and a traditional wide leather belt.
At the Curmatura Bacurei col, we met a lady with a Siamese cat. The Dobermann dog accompanying a fell runner coming down the slope above thought all its birthdays had come at once, but the lady was too quick, scooping the cat up out of harm’s way and putting it back into her rucksack! After this unusual entertainment, we traversed the next peak, Varful Custura Bacurei, and summited Varful Peleaga, stopping for lunch to enjoy the fine view over the Bacura lakes to the south. The mist came and went, but it was a dry descent down the Valea Rea (Bad Valley) back to the Pietrele.
Cabana Pietrele - Varful Bacura I + II
The unvisited western section of the main ridge was next. We ascended by our previous descent route up the Stanisoari valley and along the ridge, traversing Varful Bacura I (2433m) before its lower rocky sister. The skies began to darken to the north as we descended into Valea Pietrele and an unforecast thunderstorm started peppering Lacul Pietrele with massive water drops. Fortunately, we were close to the Bordul Tomii stone we visited previously and took shelter, discussing spark gaps and previous close encounters with lightening. After one violent detonation somewhere up on the ridge, the storm abated. We saw plenty of frogs by the path as we continued down, taking advantage of the wet vegetation. At the Cabana Gentiana, we met the herder wisely enjoying a beer with the hut guardian and chatted to the pair before descending to Pietrele.
Cabana Pietrele - Varful Pelusa - Portile Inchise ridge
Previously seen from Varful Mare, we kept the last section of the main ridge for our final day on the hill. We ascended Valea Rea under blue skies, passing a sizable flock of sheep and their two shepherds to reach the Saua Peleaga col. From there, we turned east to climb Varful Pelusa (2408m) and stop for lunch. The thin mist patches blowing in and out of the ridgeline added visual interest. At the summit, there was a plaque dating 4th August 1968 that commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Romanian Miners Union.
The less experienced members of our party viewed the next section along the 600m long Portile Inchise ridge with some trepidation. We descended a cabled section before tackling a long ascending Grade 1 scramble. While exposed sections required care, we all enjoyed the airy route. At the Saua Varful Mare col, we saw an eagle soaring above us. We dropped into the Galesului valley, pausing to watch the antics of three marmots before reaching Lacul Gales for a breather. Our day finished with the now familiar routine of descending through the dwarf pines and spruce fir forest back to the Cabane for a celebratory beer and our final dinner.
Cabana Pietrele - Carnic
We walked back down to Carnic and drove to Sarmizegetusa to visit the partly excavated ruins of Ulpia Triana, a sizable city that was the former Roman capital of Dacia. After wandering around the large amphitheatre, gladiator school, temples, and forum in 35°C temperatures, we retired for a late lunch in some shade and began our return to the UK.
Reflections on our trip to Romania
The concept of visiting two contrasting upland areas of Romania worked well and allowed us to visit towns and cities like Arad and Deva as part of this trip in July 2018. Both Apuseni and Retezat had enough variety for a full week’s activity from each of our fixed bases, making them excellent choices for a fortnight’s combined holiday.
The Padis Plateau guarded many of its secrets under a cloak of trees, and the karst features we visited were world class. There were plenty of 'must-do' exceptional days out: the Cetatile Ponorului dolines, the Cheile Galbenei gorge and the Cheile Somesului Cald gorge with its dramatic start with a through trip of Pestera Radesei cave.
The Retezat Mountains were similarly a great place to visit. With it's glaciated granite landscape sprinkled liberally with pristine tarns and lakes, the area has many similarities with more familiar mountain landscapes like the Pyrenees, including the Aigüestortes National Park and Andorra.
Romania is still a comparatively inexpensive place to visit, with a variety of flight options from the UK. English is widely spoken, especially by the younger generation, and everyone was friendly and helpful. Our accommodation was modern in Padis and basic but adequate in the Retezat. We ate well – the food provided was plentiful and appetising. The fruit tea and local beers were excellent! Many locals travelled with supplies of their home-made ţuică spirit and often pressed generous measures on us to taste it. Most claimed that it was made by their grandmother to a secret family recipe. Taken in moderation, it was usually excellent – so get out there and try it for yourself!
When we went on our trip in 2018, The Mountains of Romania by James Roberts (Cicerone, 2005) was the only English language hiking guidebook available. That guidebook focused exclusively on backpacking through hikes and was thus only of limited usefulness for planning our day walks. Luckily, Cicerone have just published a new guidebook The Mountains of Romania by Janneke Klop, a bang-up-to date guidebook offering a mix of multi-day treks and day hikes.
Dimap: Padis Karst Area of Bihor Mountains, 1:30,000
Muntii Nostri: MN17 Bihorului Platoul Padis, 1:55,000 and 1;25,000 (with trail descriptions)
Muntii Nostri: MN06 Retezat, 1:50,000 (with trail descriptions)
Bel-Alpine: Retezat Mountains, 1:50,000
Avenza maps: Zona Padis din Muntii Bihor
Muntii Nostri: Bihor-Padis and Retezat maps: an excellent and recently updated free app and accompanying route sharing website covering the mountain areas of Romania with over 900 hiking and cycling routes with accompanying English text and downloadable GPX files etc.
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