Pirin National Park
Pirin National Park covers a mountaine range composed of limestone rocks with a granite nucleus, which is noted for its variety in flora and high scenic beauty.
It encompasses the larger part of the Pirin Mountains in the southwest of Bulgaria.
The huge relief diversity of the park is the reason for the variety of plant species on its territory. About 1300 species of higher plant species can be observed within the park, which constitute more than 30% of all higher plants on the territory of Bulgaria. Besides this, about 300 moss species and a large amount of algae have been determined. The park is a home to 18 local endemic species, 15 Bulgarian and many Balkan endemic and a large quantity of preserved species, such as the Edelweiss, a symbol of Pirin.
Three plant belts are differentiated within the Pirin National Park, a forest one, a subalpine one and an alpine one, which is due to the relatively high location of the entire park.
Map of Pirin National ParkLoad map
Visit June 2021
With a 2.63 score, Pirin National Park only comes sixth among Bulgaria’s ten WHS, which in itself already aren’t known for receiving high praise (except for the excellent Rila monastery). Most of the reviewers agreed on it being “unremarkable”, wondered about a ski resort in the buffer zone and contemplated that they could see this scenery everywhere in the Alps. All seem to have explored Pirin from the town of Bansko and its nearby Vihren hut. For my visit in late June 2021, I tried another location to see whether this would improve the experience. I choose to start at Bezbog hut, with access to Bezbog Lake and the trail to Popovo Lake.
For Bezbog, you have to take the chairlift from Gotse Delchev hut (be warned that there is also a town called Gotse Delchev, but that lies 30km away). The hut is reached via a paved mountain road some 10km outside of Dobrinishte, the neighbour town of Bansko. The chairlift is operational 365 days a year from 8.30 am to 4 pm. A return ticket costs 20 Lev (10 EUR). To reach Bezbog hut at 2227m altitude, you have to change to another chairlift halfway. The journey takes half an hour in total and you climb 742m. Leaving the chairlift at the two higher stations requires a small jump, but fortunately they employ strong Bulgarian men who catch the clumsy tourists and beforehand explain with hand signals what you have to do. I don’t think females work here – I noticed that the control room of the middle station is plastered with pin-ups of naked women!
The Bezbog hut is located on Lake Bezbog, one of the many glacial lakes of Pirin. It is a pretty and clear lake surrounded by snow-capped peaks. Several hiking trails start from here. I had planned to do the yellow route, to Popovo Lake. This should take 1 hour and 20 minutes one way. Along the way, the many colorful flowers stand out. I enjoyed the bright blue gentian and purple-yellow crocuses.
Another thing you can't overlook is the snow. Other reviewers already mentioned that in April, May and early June there still is snow around. Now, in the third week of June, things are fine directly around the lake. But the higher you get on the path, the harder it gets. Streams of meltwater run down from the slopes and turn the soil soggy. Patches of snow need to be evaded.
It may be a short hike, but it is certainly not easy under these circumstances. I at least wanted to reach the ridge above Bezbog Lake; as it supposedly has good views on other glacial lakes in the area. On the last stretch, however, I encountered a significant obstacle: a rim of snow, about 15 meters wide over the entire length of the ridge. I doubted for a while whether I should cross it, but the curiosity about what lies on the other side was too strong. I clambered through the snow on all fours. I was happy with my sturdy new hiking boots, but I could have used gloves here too!
A sandy walking path on the top of the ridge lead me to the lookout point towards Popovo Lake. It lies in a spectacular cirque (#newconnection!) and I found it unbelievable how much snow was still present. I could see the hiking trail meandering towards it: not a long way, but I’d have to cross at least one more snowfield. As it would require quite some energy to get back down in one piece, I turned around after enjoying the rugged mountain landscape here for a while. But not before checking out some moving beings in the snow in the distance to my right. First one, then three, then five wild goats walked across.
Eventually I made my way back to the start without physical damage. The double chairlift ride dropped me at the Gotse Delchev hut, where I had started the day and parked the car. Next to it lies a restaurant where they serve tasty fresh trout and that’s where I ended my satisfying visit. As I did not go to the Vihren area, I cannot directly compare the two. But I suspect Bezbog is the more pristine of the two, at least you’re not distracted by damage done by ski slopes. I even think that a visit to Bezbog hut and lake alone are worthwhile for those who cannot do one of the hikes.
“Bulgaria? Why do you go to Bulgaria to hike in a region that looks exactly like the Alps here in Austria?” This was the question my Austrian friends asked me when I showed them my photos of Pirin National Park. Of course, the answer is clear, at least for members of this community: it is a World Heritage Site. But in fact, the similarities are undeniable.
Pirin National Park encompasses the northern part of the Pirin Mountains. Most of the inscribed area is above an altitude of 2000 metres, including Vihren, the highest peak at 2914 metres. The national park is best accessed at the town of Bansko on the north-eastern side. And it is here that you can see the biggest threat to the WHS and the national park, the ski area. A large, wedge-shaped area of the WHS has been cleared for ski slopes and more than a dozen ski lifts. In 2010, this area (and a smaller one a little further south) was removed from the core zone and declared a buffer zone. A ski area as the buffer zone? Strange idea. When you drive from Bansko to the Banderitsa Hut, you will pass this area. In summer, it looks really desolate and bare. Surprisingly, the WHC accepted this boundary modification, especially in view of the discussion with Vienna or Liverpool, to name just two examples. But since then, there have been several requests from the WHC not to expand the ski area and its facilities.
The core zone of the WHS begins at the Banderitsa Hut at an altitude of 1810 metres. About 500 metres from the hut, a wooden stairway leads to Baikushevata Mura, a 1300-year-old pine tree. It is only a short walk, perfect if you don't want to hike or the weather is too bad. After another two kilometres you reach the Vihren Hut (at 1972 m). A special feature of the Pirin National Park are the more than one hundred glacial lakes. From the Vihren hut you have various options for short or longer hikes. With each alternative you will see at least one, but more likely several of these small lakes. The website of the Bansko Tourist Information offers some suggestions. The hiking routes are described in detail and the trails are marked, although not as extensively as in the Alps. But you can hardly get lost, the way back downhill actually always leads back to the Vihren hut.
I decided to do a combination of the Intermediate Walks 2 and 3. After a few minutes, after crossing a wooden bridge, I already reached the first glacial lake, Okoto Lake. And after about an hour, always along the course of the stream, I came to Banderishko Lake (2190 m). Further uphill are Zhabeshkoto Lake (2322 m) and Dalgato Lake (2310 m). The photo shows the view back to Banderishko Lake. Actually, I wanted to go up further to the Kremenski Lakes, but there was a thunderstorm warning for the afternoon, so I turned back. On the way back, I made a detour to Murotovo Lake. All in all, my hike from the Vihren Hut and back took about 4.5 hours.
I stayed overnight in Bansko. The town is also an example of an ugly ski resort in summer. During the ski season, the restaurants, bars and shops are certainly crowded and busy. But in summer, many of them were closed and the streets were almost deserted. There is also an old town centre, not particularly pretty, but at least it was livelier there. And I had the best meal of my Bulgaria trip there: a poached trout.
Pirin National Park is one of Bulgaria's better World Heritage Sites. I visited the World Heritage sites in western Bulgaria in September 2018 prior to our WH meetup. I enjoyed my mountain hike. The high mountain peaks offer a magnificent scenery and the many glacial lakes make for variety.
Getting there and parking
You can start your hike in Bansko, but I would not recommend that. Better you take the gondola. It takes about an hour to walk from the upper gondola lift station (Banderishka poliana) to the Banderitsa Hut, and another 30 minutes to the Vihren Hut. In summer (July - September), there is a bus shuttle from Bansko to Vihren hut.
By car: there is a parking lot at the Banderitsa hut. There is little space for parking at the Vihren Hut, but there are some spots along the road where you can park. I was early enough to find a place for my rental car about 200 metres from the Vihren Hut.
Who could have known that a skiing region would still be snow covered in Mid-April? Apparently everyone but me and two Spaniards, because we were the only ones hiking in Pirin National Park that day.
The trails were covered by snow and hard to find. It was quite a strenuous effort just getting to Vihren hut which normally would be the start pointing for a proper exploration of the park. And it took me 30min just figuring out where the trail actually started. On the upside it was a pleasure hiking in the snow covered landscape for myself.
I get Solivagant’s comment about the OUV of the site. If this is inscribed, every second mountain valley in Switzerland should be on the list. But well, it was a nice contrast to the sunny coast in Greece.
Bansko is well connected by bus. As stated in my Philippi review you can also travel onwards to Kavala in Greece. The train connection sounds fantastic, but is very time consuming. Also the schedule didn’t work out for me. Bansko in general is fairly pleasurable as skiing resort towns go.
To get into the National Park from Bansko you can take the cable car. It seems it also operates during summer months for hikers. You will be in the park, but in the ominous buffer zone due to the area being developed for skiing. From there you can hike on to the huts. Banderitsa is the first hut and Vihren the next one. Both are in the core zone as far as I could tell. From Vihren you have multiple options to hike on. Unless you arrive during snow season.
When to Go
If you want to hike, April is still too early. I would wait till May or June. Solivagant seems to imply that even June is too early.
Although I initially visited Pirin National Park WHS in summer 2010, I went back there for skiing at the Bansko ski resort, located within the Pirin NP, in January.
Both times I took the narrow gorge train from Septemvri to Bansko and took bus back to Sofia. The scenery from the train was quite pleasant both in summer and in winter.
As it turns out, the ski resort is located within the buffer zone of the WHS; however, if you look at the map of the WHS, you see that the buffer zone is almost surrounded by the core zone, which means that it appears as if the ski resort is protected by the core zone of the WHS, oddly enough.
This photo shows part of the pistes in the buffer zone to the left and the core zone to the right.
Read more from Tsunami here.
If you are visiting Pirin, I doubt that any of the readers of this blog is interested in the 300 species of mosses and algae from this site.
Instead of just driving around, an alternative is to visit Baikousheva Mura, the oldest or second oldest tree in Bulgaria, dating to over 1300 years old. This also makes it one of the older trees in Europe. It was named after the forest ranger that found it and its a Bosnian pine tree. You can Google to get images of this giant.
To get there, you first get to Banska, a huge ski resort that detracts from this WHS. Then you need a car rental or taxi and head up the road up the mountain. I suspect there is only one road up. The destination is Banderitsa Chalet which is 16km up the mountain and its an apres ski tavern. Banska is at about 900m ASL and Banderitsa is above 1900m ASL. I was there in early May and by 1500m, there was still a lot of snow on the ground. Fortunately, the roads were clear all the way until Banderitsa.
Once you get there, the path to the tree is behind the chalet and its supposed to only be a ten minute hike up the hill. Unfortunately the snow was still deep and we only had street shoes. Having come all this way, we made our way up sometimes knee deep. It took twenty minutes and destroyed our shoes!
Once you come close, there are wooden steps up to the tree so that visitors do not damage the ground and the huge root system. This tree is huge! It has a height of 26m, 7.8m in circumference. Not close to the American Redwoods but big enough for a lot of photo-ops. At this elevation, the mountains were also pretty with snow caps. Great way to tick this site off.
This is a site where the journey reaching it is more exciting than the destination. I travelled from Septemvri to Bansko on the slow narrow gauge railway that winds its way into the Pirin Mountains. The secenery and views visible from the train were well worth the 4 hour journey.
Bansko is essentially a ski resort, but in summer hosts a few hikers. From the top of the cable car there a number of trails up to viewpoints in the mountains.
Gotse Delchev is more laid back, and hikes to the Yulen Reserve begin in the town.
Buses link Gotse Delchev and Bansko with Blagoevgrad and Sofia.
“Natural WHS” seem to me occur in 2 categories – sites with a visible “Wow factor” in the form of some (near) “world unique” geological or wildlife sight which makes them worth undergoing a long journey to see (eg Grand Canyon or Bwindi), and those which, for reasons of remoteness, government action or luck have largely escaped the depredations of man and remain in a reasonably pristine state to demonstrate what some particular ecological niche or climatic zone once looked like. Usually in these latter cases the botanists or zoologists are still able to conjure up some relatively unknown species which is endemic to the area in order to back its “unique importance” (or am I guilty of “speciesism” in regarding a site containing “Gorilla gorilla” as more justifying WHS inscription than one containing “Pinus heldreichii”!!). In my opinion such sites are really only worth picking up if you are in the area and just want to experience some interesting countryside. If Pirin’s inscription has a justification it is of this second category!
It contains attractive, if unremarkable, mountain scenery which will provide a pleasant escape from civilisation and interesting hiking opportunities. As such it is clearly worth preserving. But there are already means of recognising and protecting such sites- The UNESCO Biosphere Reserve program is one and many of the “Natural” WHS are also listed under that scheme (http://www.unesco.org/mab/BR-WH.htm). Pirin is one of those on both lists – but only the “heart” of its WHS site is a Biosphere reserve. Given that WHS inscription is supposed to represent the “highest” level of recognition a place can be given I find this rather surprising.
Pirin was inscribed as early as 1983. The document showing the reasons for inscription is only in French but refers to the number of endemic species of plants – Bulgarian and Balkan. There is an “extremely rich flora which doesn’t exist anywhere else” with a wide mixture of species from various parts of Europe. I am no botanic expert but, apart from the species referred to (which differ at each site) , much of the argument seems remarkably similar to the that given for Dormitor (which in world terms is not that far away) when it was accepted 3 years earlier – Limestone karst, endemic species, glaciation etc etc.
I certainly didn’t find anything particularly special to photograph scenery wise so my photo, I am afraid, is merely a “family snapshot” of a pleasant day in the mountains! It is pleasant hiking country but, in the great scheme of things, not that special. In early June there was still snow around.
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