Home Kosovo Hiking the Epic Peaks of the Balkans in Kosovo

Hiking the Epic Peaks of the Balkans in Kosovo

by David
Peaks of the Balkans

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More and more hiking is becoming my favourite activity to do when I travel. That change is thanks to experiences like the one I had when hiking the Peaks of the Balkans in Kosovo. Not only is hiking a great opportunity for some much needed exercise, it has a way of showing off places I simply wouldn’t get to see otherwise. And hiking in the Balkans in destinations like Kosovo has the added benefit of taking you places that relatively few other travellers get to see. No wonder then 

Now, while this hiking trip didn’t take me right around the entire Peaks of the Balkans route, it did at least show me why it’s so special. If you enjoy wonderful mountain scenery, rustic countryside and serene quiet, then this is a hike for you. What’s cool is that you can tailor this multi-day hike to your travel plans like we did and still get loads out of the experience. Here’s what it’s like hiking the Kosovo parts of the Peaks of the Balkans trail.

 

The Peaks of the Balkans Trail

Trail Rugova Mountains

Because it’s not one of Europe’s better-known hiking routes, it’d probably help if I first introduce you to the Peaks of the Balkans hiking trail. This underrated route takes hikers through the Dinaric Alps of the Balkans in a circuit through Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro. A full loop of the trail covers 192km and is typically traversed in 10 to 12 days. That means that if you want to include the full hike in your travel plans, you really need to set aside the time.

Trails of the Peaks of the Balkans often run through remote and even uninhabited regions among the ominously-named Accursed Mountains. Modest villages, mountain huts and lodges are often the only signs of civilization you’ll come across some days. As such, this is definitely not an overland hike to undertake lightly and you’ll definitely want to come prepared. But even if you only do a small section of the full route like we did, you’re sure to find it incredibly rewarding and memorable.

 

The Trails in Kosovo

Hiking in the Balkans

Across the different sections of the Peaks of the Balkans route, there are four that run at least partially through western Kosovo, two of which that don’t cross any borders. The four stages are:

  • Doberdol (Albania) – Milishevc
  • Milishevc – Reka E Allagёs
  • Reka E Allagёs –Drelaj – Kucishtё
  • Kucishtё – Babino Polje (Montenegro)

 

Traditionally, when hikers do the full route they have their paperwork ready to cross the unmanned international borders. By doing that in advance, they’re able to complete a full loop without having any passport problems. But you also don’t have to worry about international borders and passport checks if you don’t leave Kosovo which is what we did. With only a few spare days in our itinerary, we decided to just stick to the trails within Kosovo.

Accursed Mountains in Kosovo

Of course, to avoid any international crossings we had to get creative with our itinerary. Before we set out from Peja, the nearest city to the trails, we paid a visit to the Rugova Valley Tourist Information Centre. A helpful staff member provided us with suggestions on how we could make the most of our time in the region without leaving Kosovo. Essentially, we would cover as much of the interesting Peaks of the Balkans trails in Kosovo as possible, and then take an unofficial linking track to connect it all up.

Over three days we hiked parts of three different stages of the Peaks of the Balkans, with our own little changes and inclusions along the way.

 

Hiking in the Rugova Valley

Hiking Hajla Kosovo

To start our hiking trip, we decided to ease our way in with a return hike from the village of Drelaj up to Mt Hajla and back. This hike worked with our chosen accommodation for the first night and would let us explore Kosovo’s Rugova Valley a little. With our Rugova Valley hike we covered a 7km section of the Reka e Allagёs to Drelaj to Kucishtё route and actually did it twice, since it was a return trip.

Along the way we travelled from gentle farmland and forest to open plains and right up to the peak of Mt Hajla at 2,403 metres elevation. We also got to see one of the region’s remote villages and even sit down with a local family. The experience of hiking around Rugova Canyon was an absolute blast and makes for an excellent day hike if you only have one day in the area. The formal Peaks of the Balkans doesn’t actually include Hajla but I believe some guided tours do include it.

 

Hiking from Kucishtё

Liqeni i Kuçishtёs

After our hike to Mt Hajla and back, it was time to undertake the toughest hike of our trip. The goal was to take the trail out of Kucishtё, stop shy of the Montenegro border and then re-join the Peaks of the Balkans trail at Milishevc. Taking this approach we’d be covering the first 6km of the Kucishtё to Babino Polje trail, before venturing off on our own.

As we were starting the day in Drelaj however, we paid for our guesthouse owner to drive us over to Kucishtё that morning so we could start fresh from there. Upon arriving in Kucishtё, alongside the German tour group we’d had dinner with the night before, we set out onto forest trails.

The most prominent landmarks on the early stages of this route are two beautiful glacial lakes, Liqeni i Kuçishtёs and Liqeni i Drelajve. Liqeni i Kuçishtёs is the larger of the two, perfectly clear and backed by an imposing ridgeline. It may well be one of the most beautiful places in the mountains, although Liqeni i Drelajve is quite scenic as well.

Leaving the lakes, you’ll continue to climb until you leave the forest behind and step up into the mountains. Navigating up here can be a bit tricky as the signposting isn’t always clear, but the Jelenak pass is where you want to get to.  It’s there at 2272 metres that you’ll enjoy views out to Montenegro. Sitting among a field of wild flowers, it was the perfect spot for lunch, before forging our own path.

 

Cutting Our Own Path Cross Country

Hiking in Kosovo

Heading down from the Jelenak Pass, it wasn’t long before we arrived at some signposts. In one direction was the main trail leading to the border of Montenegro, and off to the side our small track east. The sign pointed to both Milishevc and Lojza, the name of our intended accommodation for the evening.

Having seen various other hikers around earlier that day, it was strange to be off on our own now. The trail here was faint but quite easy as we skirted around the sides of the highest mountains in the area. Unfortunately, after a while, we lost the trail completely. Using our navigation apps we were confident we knew which direction to head though, so we pressed on for quite a while without a clear trail.

We did re-find the trail again after an hour or so, and left the open fields for forest. A trail marker further along tricked us into a detour that took us down into a valley unnecessarily, but it didn’t lead to much of a delay. And so it was after a full days hike that we arrived at Lojza and stumbled into the owner of our guesthouse for the evening.

 

Leaving from Milishevc Back to Peja

After an evening of possibly too much homemade raki, we set out to try and find out way back to Peja. From Lojza it was a short walk up hill to Milishevc, where we could then re-join the established Peaks of the Balkans trail. The hike would take us along the first 9km of the Milishevc to Reka E Allagёs section, ending at the roadside Rugova Camp.

Whether it was due to our foggy minds or a missed trail marker, we had a little trouble actually finding the proper start of the trail. Instead, we relied again on our GPS app to venture off the dirt road at roughly the right spot. A steep climb straight up the hillside quickly took it out of us, but we knew that was the worst of it. Upon reaching the top of the climb at the Lumbardhi ridge, we met with highland meadows and a small reservoir for the local cattle.

Then came the descent, a whopping 1200 metres of it. From mountain pastures the trail quickly passed down into forest and our sweeping views were lost to endless greenery. While it had kindly refrained from raining on us during the hike, latent water on the track meant for plenty of mud the deeper we got into the forest. Hours of descending through constant thick forest ultimately brought us to the welcome sight of the Rugova Camp restaurant.

Having clambered down to the Rugova Camp, we had two options for getting back to Peja that didn’t involve walking. We could either wait an hour or more for the bus or hitchhike. We ended up hitchhiking back to Peja, which was a fun little adventure all on its own.

 

Accommodation on Peaks of the Balkans

The route for Peaks of the Balkans passes through quite remote areas at times, meaning your accommodation options can be quite limited.  That may not be the case in popular places like Theth and Valbonia in Albania, but it certainly is in Kosovo. While there are some options around Reka E Allagёs and Kucishtё, we only found one option in each place we stayed.

For out night in Drelaj between climbing Mount Hajla and heading off for Kucishtё we stayed at the Shqiponja Guesthouse. It’s quite a large guesthouse and relatively contemporary, with hot water and a big family table. Over near Milishevc we stayed at Guesthouse Lojza, a cosy family-run log cabin that’s great value. They even had a freshwater fountain with ice cold beer in it for when you arrive. At both places we arrived without a booking, which can be risky if large groups are going through. Both have Facebook pages which you can try to reach them through.

 

Travel Tips for Visiting Here

Given that the Peaks of the Balkans and Kosovo in general are a bit off the beaten track, it may help if I provide some personal advice for visiting. This is definitely a place where you need to come prepared, so be sure to pack proper hiking gear. We stocked up on snacks and food in Peja which worked out great for our on the trails, and bought pack lunches from our overnight accommodation. 

As for getting to this corner of Kosovo, Peja is definitely the easiest starting point. From the city’s bus station, there is a private minibus service up into Rugova Canyon, stopping along the road at Rugova Camp, Drelaj and Kucishtё. The 2019 timetable had two departures a day, with a 7am and 3pm bus up, 8:30am and 4:30pm bus back, and two extra summer services. Alternatively, you can take a taxi into Rugova Canyon and hitchhike your way out like we did.

Navigation while up in the mountains is another thing to think about. Google Maps is pretty useless up here, with many places just not showing up at all.  We used OsmAnd and Backcountry to find our way around, which worked pretty well, even if we did get a little lost at one point. Try and find GPX files like these for the proper sections as that will at least give you a guide of where things are.

 


Have you heard of or even walked the Peaks of the Balkans hiking trail before? Does the idea of spending 10-12 days trekking through the Balkans appeal to you? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Hiking the Peaks of the Balkans in Kosovo, via @travelsewhere

Hiking the Peaks of the Balkans in Kosovo, via @travelsewhere Hiking the Peaks of the Balkans in Kosovo, via @travelsewhere

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1 comment

Rob + Ann @TravelLatte June 17, 2021 - 12:49 am

Have to admit, “The hills are alive…” went through my mind a few times while looking through your gorgeous photos! These are beautiful hikes, in an area we are completely unfamiliar with. We’d surely get lost a few times…do you know if there are guided groups in the area? Sounds like a popular area for hiking, so…maybe?

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