Castle ruins. Blooming wildflowers. Goulash. All three are common in Eastern Europe during spring, and trekking the high ranges that criss-cross many of the region’s 25 countries is the best way to experience at least two of the three. Mid-to-late spring is an optimal time to get over there because the tourist flocks that swarm Europe during the summer months are still bundled up around the fireplace back home. From cities in Poland to Montenegro, these urban destinations offer easy access to stellar spring trekking as early as April. Just don’t forget some crampons and trekking poles — you’ll likely encounter snow and ice in some areas this time of year, especially if you’re summiting a peak.
1. Krakow, Poland
Access: The Polish High Tatras
The Polish High Tatras are stunning any time of year, but spring offers the bonus of budding flora and far fewer hikers. The range runs along the border between Poland and Slovakia. Krakow is the nearest major city and airport, and from there you’ll take a bus to the mountain town of Zakopane. The ride takes two and a half hours and shouldn’t cost you more than $5. The High Tatras are covered in trails, with routed options from in and around Zakopane ranging from quick day hikes to treks pushing 30 kilometers and longer.
Routes and trails:
There are hundreds of trails to choose from. These three are popular and well-marked, and each is doable in a day.
Rysy Peak — Rysy draws thousands of peak baggers from across the globe each year, most of whom come during the summer months. At 8,199 feet, it is the highest peak in the Tatras and in all of Poland. After warming up with a casual stroll through the woods the hike gets real steep, real fast. You’ll encounter chains along much of the trail to help with stability on the way up and down, though their use is optional. That said, the hike is very doable for most in decent physical condition as the 3.1-mile hike only takes about four hours. Start at Czarny Staw and work your way up until you hit the summit, keeping an eye out for deer and other wildlife along the way.
Gąsienicowa Coomb — This hike of roughly six miles is doable in a half day if you hurry. It’s an out-and-back that ends at Hala Gasienicowa, a gorgeous site which overlooks the Tatras peaks. The trailhead is in Kuznie, a tiny village just outside of Zakopane, and the path up is clearly marked. During open sections of the hike, you can see the towering peak of Giewont in the distance.
Swinica — This quick hike is the toughest trail hour you’ll put in this year. It’s roughly one mile of thin and highly exposed trail with a fair amount of bouldering necessary, with incredible 360-degree mountain views from start to finish. Get on the trail at Zawrat, follow the red trail, and don’t be embarrassed to use to chains along the way to keep yourself secure.
2. Sofia, Bulgaria
Access: Vitosha, Rila Mountains
Bulgaria’s capital sits right at the base of Vitosha, an imposing mountain that offers ample trekking right near the city center. Sofia is also about two hours from the Rila Mountains, home to trails for hikers of all ability levels. Warm up for your trek with a walking tour of the city center, then put on those hiking boots and get out of the city. To access the Rila Mountains, head from Sofia to the town of Dupnitsa, which is doable by bus if you don’t rent a car.
Routes and trails:
Vitosha — Late spring, from the end of April onwards, is the best time to summit Vitosha because the trail is fully accessible and the weather in Sofia sits pleasantly in the 60s and 70s. Plus, hot tea and cold beer await at the summit, courtesy of a teahouse in the permanent weather station situated there. Look for trail signs to Cherni Vrah, the mountain’s high point, accessed from a chairlift coming up the Sofia suburb of Dragalevtsi. The hike from the top of the lift to the summit takes about 1.5 hours. There are many other trails on the mountain, including to Kamen Del to overlook the city below and to the Boyana Waterfall.
Seven Rila Lakes — You can guess what awaits you on this hike. The Seven Rila Lakes trailhead is just outside of the village of Sapareva Banya, about 20 minutes from Dupnitsa, accessed via a paved road. The hike up to the lakes and back takes about four hours.
Mt. Musala — At 9,600 feet, Mt. Musala is Rila’s highest peak and a popular day hike from Dupnitsa. A chairlift at the Borovets ski area takes you most of the way up, and the remaining hike takes about three hours each way.
3. Brasov, Romania
Access: Carpathian Mountains
The Carpathian Mountains take up roughly one-third of Romania, making the city of Brasov the most ideal city to base yourself in for Eastern European trekking. The city is colorful during spring, as flowers bloom in the parks and alongside the cobbled streets of old town. Brasov also has a lively cafe and pub culture ideal for celebrating a good hike.
Routes and trails:
Piatra Craiului National Park — This should be your first outing and can even be the only outing if you’re up for a multi-day backpacking trip. The park is home to over 70 trails, and you can access most of them by starting at either the Zarnesti or Pestera trailheads. Follow the red dot trail to bag La Om, the park’s highest summit at just over 7,300 feet.
Ciucas Peak — This 6,410-foot peak takes about eight hours round trip from the trailhead at Muntele Rosu, which is just over an hour by car from Brasov. You’ll see the grass-covered spires of the peak guiding you in from the trailhead.
Iezer-Papusa — To access the Iezer-Papusa mountains, head out of Brasov towards the village of Leresti. Here you’ll find the trailhead for Red Peak, which leads you across a vast ridgeline towards the summit.
4. Podgorica, Montenegro
Access: Durmitor National Park, Lovcen National Park
In Montenegro, you can summit a peak and chill on the Adriatic coast in the same day. Podgorica, the country’s capital, offers quick access to Durmitor National Park, about two hours away, and while you’re likely to encounter snow on the park’s peaks, the lower elevation trails are accessible and closer to the coast. Hiking season typically begins in late March.
Tara River Canyon — The world’s second deepest canyon — behind only the Grand Canyon — is located inside Durmitor National Park and known locally as the “Tear of Europe.” The trek in from the town of Zabljak, located inside the park, is about 6.2 miles each way and leads you right up to the edge.
The Ladder of Cattaro — Closer to the coast, get ready to switchback your way from the town of Cetinje to the bayside town of Kotor. More than 70 switchbacks lead you up and down a former military trail that passes the ruins of old forts and monasteries as it winds you through the mountains.