What: on and off-trail backpacking in snowy mountains.
Where: northeastern Turkey.
When: May 10-17, 2011 (8 days).
Distance: about 96 miles.
Highlights: beautiful snow-covered peaks, tiny villages, a dramatic river valley, tea plantations, friendly people.
The Kaçkar: Trekking in Turkey’s Black Sea Mountains, by Kate Clow.
Why we went
We were inspired to travel to Turkey to walk the Lycian Way. The time needed to complete the route did not justify the travel distance from home, so we added the Saint Paul Trail to our itinerary. Kate Clow is the godmother of both of those routes.
Clow had also written a guide to hiking in the Kaçkar Mountains and we were intrigued by that opportunity. Hiking in the Kaçkars would be a completely different experience from the other two trails and offered us the opportunity to explore another part of the country. Internal travel in Turkey was inexpensive and easy to arrange, so we extended our trip in order to spend a week in the Kaçkars.
I thoroughly enjoyed this hike. Turkish hospitality as described in the Lycian Way trip report was a major factor in my positive experience.
Because our hike occurred before the snow had melted or the seasonal mountain villages were occupied, it is unlikely that our experience will be similar to other hikers.
Our hike in the Kaçkar Mountains was magical. The final day, in which we walked out of the mountains from Çamlıhemşin to the coastal city of Ardeşen, was the most memorable day I have spent hiking in my life. It demonstrates the spontaneous magic that can occur by going to random places and not limiting oneself to popular destinations. On this day we decided to walk back to the coast rather than taking a bus, simply because we had enough time and the weather was fine. It was not part of our planned itinerary. The whole day was spent on a road, which is not what we or other hikers normally think of as a desirable routing. But the combination of perfect weather, fantastic scenery, unwavering hospitality, and the sense of completion I felt by literally walking from the mountains to the sea — all of these things coalesced to create a truly euphoric day. It was our final day of hiking in Turkey and it could not have been more satisfying.
I am deeply saddened by the shift toward autocracy and diminution of human rights that is underway in Turkey. This is a loss for me, as I would love to go back and spend more time hiking other Turkish long distance trails. More importantly, it is a tragic situation for the people we met on our journey. I especially think of the mayor of the tiny village above Çamlıhemşin with whom we drank tea on our final morning. He sent us home with a hand-written letter. Translated, its message was this: All of the people of the world get along, drink tea and eat bread together; Christians and Muslims, French, Germans, Americans and Turks. But selfish, power-hungry dictators are a huge problem and are ruining it for everybody.
This portion of our trip to Turkey was very different than the the other two walks. Going into the late winter high mountains was a bit of an adventure and it felt like we were extending ourselves. In retrospect, I understand that we were quite isolated in that nobody knew where we were and crossing the high passes left us to fend for ourselves.
The landscapes were quite beautiful and the walking engaging. I enjoyed looking out over the big landscapes and feeling like we were really in the mountains. Things changed so fast from walking up the lush green springtime valley with its rushing river and fabulous bridges to crossing the high passes following the tracks of a wolf. This portion of our trip was a memorable experience.
Would I recommend it to others? Under similar conditions that we had, only if you have a reasonable amount of experience with route finding, map reading abilities, and the appropriate skills to safely cross big snowy mountain passes. Otherwise, go later in the season when most of the snow is gone and there will be other people around. It would still be a rewarding trip in an inteersting set of mountains..
Notes for Potential Hikers
Our Lycian Way trip report includes general information about hiking in Turkey.
The Kaçkar Mountains are located in northeastern Turkey just inland from the Black Sea and are part of the larger Pontic Mountain Range. The highest peak in the region is 3937 meter Kaçkar Dagi.
We added this leg to our itinerary late in our planning process and so had limited time to organize our route. We timed our trip to Turkey to optimize for spring weather on the Lycian Way, and as a result would end up in the Kaçkars well before the snow had melted. We did not know exactly what to expect and we were prepared to backtrack if our intended route proved impossible. We ended up having a terrific time and were very pleased with our experience. While snow did prevent us from getting into the highest reaches of the Kaçkar, plenty of interesting and beautiful places were accessible.
These mountains were a very different habitat from southwestern Turkey where we had just spent the previous four weeks, and the contrast added favorably to the trip. We were happy we were not there in the mid-June through September high season, when the Kaçkar are heavily used by both pastoralists and trekking groups. We enjoyed being in the mountains with no grazing animals, wheeled traffic, or crowded campsites.
The Kaçkar are not a wilderness. Yaylas are seasonally inhabited villages used by pastoralists and are scattered throughout the range. Power lines reach deep into the mountains. A network of dirt roads links the yaylas and only the highest, most rocky passes do not have roads crossing them. The meadows all host grazing animals during the summer season. The lower slopes are densely forested and support tea plantations. While the Kaçkar are not wild feeling like the Sierra Nevada, we found them a beautiful range of mountains worth visiting.
We had not anticipated that the scenery in the lower elevations would also be lovely. Our natural inclination is to “go high”, but in this case we were lucky that the snowy conditions forced us onto a route that also included fantastic walking through one of Europe’s only low elevation temperate rainforests.
We flew to Trabzon from Antalya. There we caught the Prenscale coastal bus to Pazar and then the local dolmus bus to Çamlıhemşin. Buses ran frequently and reservations were not necessary. Taxis are also available in the larger towns. In the summer, the dolmus buses apparently serve the higher villages. There are additional southern access points to the Kaçkars that are detailed in the guidebook.
Starting late in the afternoon, we started walking up the fine cobblestone road from Çamlıhemşin to a tiny yayla below Catköy; there was minimal traffic along this beautiful road as it followed the Firtinia Deresi upriver. Near Catköy the road turned to dirt and we continued on up to Hisarcik where the mountain trails began. We looped into the mountains, crossed several snow-covered passes and descended into mostly deserted yaylas. Eventually we emerged back onto the paved road in the Firtinia Deresi gorge near Şenyuva.
We walked back to Çamlıhemşin, taking an alternate footpath on the other side of the river for part of the journey. Once in Çamlıhemşin, we took an evening walk up into the tea plantations east of town to explore and look for birds.
The next morning, we went back up into the hills past where we went the previous evening, again looking for birds and vistas. We were kindly invited to tea by the local mayor of one of the villages. He spoke spoke no English, but we had a dictionary and we thoroughly enjoyed spending some time with him. Having a bit of extra time and with glorious weather, we decided to walk back to the coast instead of taking a bus. The walking was along the paved road, but until we were near the coastal city of Ardeşen, traffic was negligible. The scenery was fine, the cultural artifacts interesting, and the people we met were friendly; we had a surprisingly good time on this segment.
On our last morning, we spent a few hours walking along the coast from Ardeşen back to Pazar; from there we took a bus to the Trabzon airport.
We used the 2008 edition of Clow’s guidebook to plan our trip. There is a network of routes in the mountain range, and we mapped a loop hike that mostly avoided the highest snowbound passes and peaks.
The guidebook was generally useful as a planning and navigation aid. It provided estimated timings between various locations and gave a sense of what services might be found in towns and villages. Its specific route descriptions were used only as a framework as we often found better options on the ground; do not take the book too literally. The region did not have waymarked trails, but we found some scattered signs that provided a bit of on-the-ground assistance in wayfinding.
The map provided with the 2008 guidebook was useful for general orientation, and, given the nature of the terrain, we found it adequate for most large-scale navigation tasks. The contour intervals were 100 meters, the map lacked a scale, and some newer roads and other cultural features were not shown. The place names in the map did not always exactly match place names on the ground or in OpenStreetMap. We do not know if the newer edition of the book is improved.
To supplement the guidebook and its map, we used an iPhone with topo maps and gpx files preloaded into Gaia GPS. Many of the routes and tractor tracks we followed were mapped in OpenStreetMap.
There are small guest houses in the yaylas, but these were not yet open when we were there. During the summer there would be people around, either trekkers, shepherds, or people around the yaylas; however, when we were there the mountains were completely unoccupied and ours were the only human tracks in the snow. There are commercial guide services that operate during the tourist season.
In the low altitude forested areas, travel is mostly on roads of some sort and cross-country hiking looked to us to be extremely difficult or impossible. At higher altitudes above timber line the landscapes are open enough to allow cross-country travel. During the summer, hikers will likely never be very far from other people, either trekkers, shepherds, or residents of the yaylas, so it would take some doing to get seriously lost.
We found the walking to be generally very pleasurable other than a bit more rain than we might have wished. The routes we followed were strenuous in only a few places although we gained and lost quite a bit of altitude. The lower slopes are steep and heavily forested and are functionally impassible to off-trail travel. While we were there, runoff made some stream crossings a real problem, with water levels high, cold, and fast in many places. Fortunately, there were enough bridges to allow us passage over most of these, but we did have to wade a few times. We don’t know what the water conditions might be like later in the season.
We crossed lots of deep and steep snowfields but did not do any technical rock or snow climbing. Given our lack of ice axes and crampons we were fortunate the snow was not icy and was soft enough for us to kick steps to cross the steeper sections. At higher altitudes, the roads were also snow covered, so travel was a lot slower than we had planned. In the higher mountains below the snowline, much of the walking was on unpaved roads or rough tractor tracks, although we had sections of cross-country travel as well.
We gained something over 8700 meters on our walk. We reached altitudes between 2600 and 2900 meters on three occasions.
Food and Water
Water was not an issue: Developed public springs were found in all inhabited places and surface water was available everywhere else.
In the mountains, food was easily available in Çamlıhemşin. There was a shop near Çatköy, and in Elevit Yalasi (sometimes mapped as Yaylakoy) we were able to get tea and cakes. In Yukari Ambarlik (sometimes mapped as Ayder) meals were available in the pensions. Be aware that many shops are small and have a very limited selection of items for sale, at least when we were there. We did not carry a stove and ate mostly bread, cheese, nuts, dried fruit, crackers, yogurt, and chocolate. Occasionally we added olives, canned stuffed grape leaves or tuna.
We camped every night. High in the mountains, dry campsites were sometimes difficult to find due to the snowy conditions. We preferred not to camp on the cold snow and snow free areas were often quite soggy with runoff. One night, we camped on the covered porch of an unoccupied building.
We spent our final night outside of Ardeşen on a beach under a highway bridge over the Firtinia Deresi where it dumped into the Black Sea. Although this seems like a weird campsite, it was actually quite nice. We had a fine sunset over the Black Sea and views inland of the snow covered Kaçkars. We also got to watch a dozen Red-footed Falcons hunting over the river at dusk.
It was still spring in the higher mountains and along with the snow on the ground, we had some unsettled weather, including light rain or snow on five days, but the periods of precipitation were never very long. It was overcast or foggy on several days as well, but in the mountains, the misty weather was quite beautiful. We had a perfect day during our walk out of the mountains to the coast.
At altitude, it was frequently cold.
As we were so early in the season, we met no other hiking parties while walking in the mountains. The higher altitude yaylas were completely uninhabited. In the high mountains, we saw no human footprints in the snow, although we did find two sets of wolf tracks. Occasionally, we would run across someone tending animals in the low elevation backcountry, otherwise all the people we met were in the vicinity of towns and villages. Obviously, later in the season when the mountain yaylas are inhabited and the trekking parties are about, there may be a lot more people around.
We saw 78 species of birds on the Kaçkar walk. Some of these overlapped with birds seen in southwest Turkey, but we did see a few fine high mountain specialties including Caspian Snowcock, Caucasian Grouse, and Twite.