SAMARIA GORGE, CRETE
Samaria Gorge, Crete, is the longest gorge in Europe and one of the most important natural sights in Greece.
Samaria Gorge is the most renowned natural formation in Crete and Greece. The gorge, which has a total length of 16 kilometers, is the longest gorge in Europe. Samaria Gorge, for the ones in the know, is truly the natural sight of a lifetime!
Samaria Gorge is located in southwest Crete, in Sfakia region, which is full of wild nature. Its distance from Chania city is about 45 kilometers.
One of the most impressive things about Samaria Gorge, is its varying width: the gorge’s maximum width is a characteristic 150 meters, and its minimum width is only 3 meters, in the “Iron Gates” location. The height of the gorge’s sides is between 300 and 600 meters.
Samaria Gorge, Crete - Before the hike
Although Samaria Gorge is very long, it is pretty accessible. Almost anyone can cross it, provided there are not any major health problems, especially the ones that have to do with the ability to walk.
Before starting descending Samaria Gorge, you should have a good pair of hiking shoes, a hat and sunscreen for the sun, and some water – there are also freshwater springs inside the gorge. It is advisable to make the hike with a group and not on your own. Also, keep in mind that the gorge is closed between November and April, as the winter storms may create dangerous torrents inside the gorge.
The direction of the hike through Samaria Gorge is from its highest point, called Xyloskalo, towards its lowest point, the coastal village of Agia Roumeli. The total hiking time through the gorge is about 5-6 hours, depending on how fast you walk.
The easiest way to get to Xyloskalo is by one of the specialised tour buses. These buses leave you early in the morning in Xyloskalo, and they pick you up in Chora Sfakion in the evening, as there is no road leading to Agia Roumeli. You get from Agia Roumeli to Chora Sfakion by boat - there are frequent routes in the summer. You can also descend the gorge as part of a specialized tour that also provides an experienced guide to help you and your group during the hike.
Hiking through Samaria Gorge, Crete
Xyloskalo, the higher point of Samaria Gorge, is in an altitude of 1.200 meters and is the entrance to the gorge. The word Xyloskalo means “wooden stair” in Greek and this is exactly what it is. The hike starts by descending a steep slope, through a staircase made from wood. Some of the steps are in fact roots of the trees.
When going down Xyloskalo, it is hard not to get impressed by the imposing Samaria gorge that unfolds in front of your eyes: the gorge is like a giant snake moving through the high White Mountains (or “Lefka Ori”) of Crete. In front of us, Mount Gigilos, one of the best - and most difficult - places in Crete for climbing, rises as we go lower and lower inside the gorge.
As we keep going inside Samaria Gorge, we notice the one-of-a-kind flora, and the unique geology of the area. A small river accompanies us along the way. This river is the one that formed the gorge, year after year, century after century. The river is only a small stream in the summer. During winter, however, it becomes a dangerous torrent after heavy rain, which sweeps everything before it.
The small river disappears just before we reach Samaria village. The village, which lent its name to the gorge, is a fine example of the traditional Cretan architecture. Samaria village was abandoned in 1962, when the gorge and its surroundings were officially declared a national park. Today, some of the old houses of the village are used by the guards of the national park.
Close to the village there is the church of St. Maria, or “Osia Maria” in Greek. The name “Osia Maria” slowly changed to the one-word “Samaria”, the present-day name of the village and the gorge.
Apart from the flora and the geology, Samaria Gorge is renowned for its fauna, too. The most known of its inhabitants is possibly the Kri-Kri, the characteristic wild goat of Crete. A rare species, Kri-Kri has found inside the gorge the ideal place, lacking any kind of human development, to freely live and reproduce. If you are lucky, you might see a Kri-Kri or more around Samaria village, climbing on the rocky slopes of the gorge.
After Samaria village, we slowly get towards the “Iron Gates”, or “Sidiroportes” in Greek. This is the narrowest point of the gorge - only about 3 meters wide. The Iron Gates also mark the end of the Samaria Gorge natural park. Here your entrance tickets are again checked by the natural park guards, in order to make sure that nobody stays inside the gorge after the sun sets.
After exiting the Iron Gates, there is no shade from the gorge’s slopes any more, and you must take care to protect yourself from the sun for the last 3 kilometers of the hike, which finally lead you to the picturesque village of Agia Roumeli that marks the end of the hike. Agia Roumeli is the best place to rest, swim and eat, before taking the boat to Chora Sfakion and returning by bus to Chania city.
The rich history of Samaria Gorge, Crete
Samaria Gorge has always been a symbol of the Cretan people - and especially the people in Sfakia region - for their need for independence from the various occupation forces that in the course of history set foot on the island.
It is impressive that, through the centuries, not one of the conquerors of Crete managed to control Samaria Gorge, which was always a “zone of freedom” for the locals. That is mostly true during the prolonged period of the Ottoman occupation, when every attempt by the Ottoman Empire to subjugate Samaria Gorge and the surrounding area led to heavy losses from the part of the Ottoman soldiers.
Unfortunately, the free spirit and the martial virtues of the locals could not prevent the area - and other parts of Crete - from deforestation, during the years of the Venetians. At that distant time in history, most of the trees in the area where cut in order to build ships and buildings, depriving Samaria Gorge from a big part of its fauna.
Samaria Gorge, Crete, with its impressive size, geological formations, flora and fauna, is a true “museum of nature”, a natural sight unique in Europe, that every visitor should see and experience at least once. Samaria Gorge is the most imposing gorge in Crete and Greece.