Before coming to Bulgaria, we looked up a couple of things to do and one of the most highly rated attractions was the Seven Rila Lakes. We didn’t book anything and when we arrived, we were dismayed to discover that the majority of Rila Lake tours are held in the summer, usually after May.
The only exception is snowshoe tours, though having now done one, I understand why this is a summer thing.
The planned tour and our slight modification
The Seven Rila Lakes are only accessible by cable car. Typically tours will drive you to the cable car station and you pay to get up to the Rila Chalet at the top, where you can comfortably hike the rest of the way all around the lakes. It’s possible to do it alone, especially if you’re an experienced hiker. You can take a bus to either Separeva Banya or Dupnitsa, but then you still need to get to the chair lift, which costs 18 lev round trip person. And take your own route the rest of way around the lakes.
Because this is so complicated, many people just opt for guided tours. The only one we found with any availability was one that included a stop in the spa town Separeva Banya. The spa looked like your average spa, though they do pump natural spring water into it. But we didn’t come prepared with bathing suits, so we weren’t really interested.
In fact, we were so unprepared that we were desperately trying to contact a tour company that would arrange this the night before during dinner. We got in touch with Azimut Tours and via WhatsApp, we got them to agree to a last minute snowshoe trip to the lakes, even at a reduced price since we wanted to skip the spa. Though let me tell you, my legs could use a super hot bath after all that snow hiking.
The tour includes the ride there, an experience mountain guide and the ski poles and snowshoes. It does not include the cost of the ski lift (or entrance to the spa, which is about 10-15 lev).
A day in the Rila Mountains
Our guide, Nada, picked us up promptly at our apartment at 8:30 am. Being two women, and being done with shady male cab drivers in Sofia, we were super excited about having a female guide. And she was wonderful. She drove carefully up the steep hairpin turns of the mountain, and she was extremely helpful in getting us up this treacherous snowy mountain without injury, because… the ski lift wasn’t working due to high winds.
The only other option to get up the mountain is to walk up. The ski lift normally takes 20-35 minutes depending on what speed they have it set at. So walking the same distance uphill takes at least an hour and a half or two hours. It took us three. That was just to get to the chalet where our hike was supposed to start. This is 2135 meters (7000 feet) above sea level.
The great thing about hiking up is that the views are stunning, and you’re not on a terrifying ski lift in high winds. But you’re hiking uphill with poles and snow shoes, so it’s exhausting. When you’re going uphill, you can clip up a little heel on the snow shoe which makes it easier. Let me tell you, snowshoeing is fantastic. It was a blast even if some of it was very steep and precarious. I’m the clumsiest person on the universe and I managed not to sprain and ankle, so pretty much anyone can do this.
For the first part of the hike, we were sweating buckets. It was a warm day on the mountain so we dropped all our coats and hats. My best friend was hiking in a tank top halfway up this snowy mountain. It also helps that the first part of the hike was in the woods so we were shielded from the wind by the tall trees. But then we emerged onto the slope that skiers would normally be speeding down if there had been anyone on this mountain besides the three of us. And up on the slope, with nothing to shield you from the wind, you feel it. Since I was in jeans, I was pretty much frozen from the waist down. Every once in a while a gust paralyzes you and you have to hang on to the poles for dear life until it passes. And it whistles in your ears like a motherfucker. But the whole time, you have the beautiful snowy view of the alpine peaks around you and Vitosha Mountain beneath you (the one you can see towering over Sofia).
We hiked exhausted to the chalet, like we were gonna find Luke Skywalker there and he was gonna tell us the force was bullshit. We finally stumbled in to recharge and eat something. Our guide, Nada, gave us some Bulgarian chocolate bars. And we had picked up snacks along the way, so we had amazing Bulgarian cheese bread, washed down with a hot coffee from the restaurant.
Then we continued to the viewpoint where you can see the first three lakes under the drag lift that skiers take. That part of the slope isn’t manicured like the ski slopes, and it is steep. If I had sprained my ankle it would have been going up and down that part. The views were incredible even halfway up that part once the chalet was beneath us. But we could see plumes of snow on the other side of the ridge where avalanches were forming. So as scared as I had been for a shaky ski lift, I was definitely more scared about a slab of snow sliding off the mountain and burying me alive at this point. But our guide was confident that no ice would fall on our side of the mountain.
However, what did start to fall was freezing rain. I, of course, was in jeans and Converse. And the rain was going to make everything slippery on the way down so we went back. My bag, which isn’t too waterproof, was soaked. My camera was soaked. And all I wanted was to get on earth that wasn’t slanted.
The snowmobile rescue
With the daunting hike back down in this terrible weather awaiting us, we asked someone in the Rila Chalet if they could shuttle us on snowmobiles down the mountain. Thankfully, they agreed to do it for 30 lev each. My friend and I were taken first, and he went back for our guide. There was a full rainbow arched over the mountain as we sped down to safety. I’ve never been on a snowmobile, but this was the most terrifying and wonderful experience of my life. Well worth the 30 lev. This guy put my arms around his waist and barreled down the mountain like a psycho. My stomach was lurching every 30 seconds, but I had giant cartoonish smile on my face the entire time. I didn’t dare take my phone out to film any of the ride while we lurched around trees and down hills, all three of us leaning in the same direction simultaneously to guide the snowmobile.
When the guide came down, she told us she was terrified the whole time and that it was dangerous to be going that fast. I had a blast and I survived so I don’t even care. He wanted her to tell us that he’s in the Guinness Book of World Records for having run the longest distance barefoot in 1993. What a character. God bless him and that mountain.
So what about the Seven Rila Lakes?
We sort of saw one of them on the way up to the viewpoint, but the thing about the Seven Rila Lakes in winter is that they’re covered in snow. The only thing you can really see are plateaus of snow between the mountains. And this is precisely why the tours are seasonal. That being said, the lines for the ski lift look insane in the summer. And the actual hike is full of people. It was kind of perfect to be able to see it by ourselves. But if you don’t want to let a little thing like not seeing the lakes stop you from doing your thing, then what you can expect is a wonderful snowy hike through Bulgaria’s highest mountain. Or a beautiful ski lift ride on a good day. It was certainly an experience I’ll never forget.
- Take water.
- Take snacks.
- Bring sunglasses to shield your eyes from the bright sun reflecting off the mountains.
- Bring something to use as toilet paper, which is not available in the chalet and certainly not in the snow.
- Snow and rain-proof everything. Even if it’s just with plastic bag.
- Don’t wear Converse, even if they’re high tops.
- Don’t wear jeans. Wear windbreaker pants.
- Bring plenty of cash in case you need to pay for an emergency snowmobile rescue.
- Show no fear. The mountain can sense fear.