The gorge of Samaria is situated in the National park of Samaria, in the White Mountains (Levka Ori) in West Crete. The highest mountain over the gorge is Mount Gingilos (2080 m).
The gorge of Samaria is 16 km long (this refers to the distance between the settlement of Omalos and the village of Agia Roumeli), starting at an altitude of 1250m and taking you all the way down to the shores of the Libyan sea in Agia Roumeli. The walk through the National Park of Samaria is 13 km (but you will have to walk the extra 3 km to Agia Roumeli.
The very narrow passage near the end of the gorge is often called the "Iron Gates". None of the former inhabitants of Samaria knows why the place suddenly got this name. They were always known as "Portes" which means "doors" or "gates", but certainly no "Iron" anywhere!
Inhabited for thousands of years, the gorge of Samaria has played an important role as a place to flee from the oppression of foreign invaders. Its geographical location, in the middle of the White Mountains as well as the ease with which it could be defended made it the ideal place for this purpose.
The Samaria gorge contains a wide variety of species of trees, shrubs, flowers and other plants, some of which are unique to the area. The vegetation consists largely of tall cypresses, many of them centuries old.
If you get there with your own car you will be forced to get back to Omalos to retrieve your car so it is not such a good solution.
Alternatively there are public buses going to Omalos every morning (only when the gorge is open). Once in Agia Roumeli you take one of the boats returning to Hora Sfakion (or Sougia and Paleohora if you prefer although there is no connecting bus to Hania) and take an evening KTEL bus back to Hania.
If you are not alone, you can share a taxi to Omalos. The cost from Hania is no more than Euro 40 for up to 4 persons.
The most common way to "do" the gorge is to book an organized tour. This can be done from most places on the North coast (some come from as far as Agios Nicolaos, which I wouldn't recommend because it entails an almost 24 hour round trip!). You will be picked up from and returned to your hotel. The buses are air-conditioned (generally not the case with public buses) and you have the benefit of a guide. This does not mean that you need to walk in a group: everyone walks at their own pace and meets at a prearranged time and place in Agia Roumeli. These tours are not very expensive.
You have to pay an entrance fee of Euro 5.00 to enter the park (free to children under 15, half price to students).
The path is maintained and is substantially better than "normal" paths in Crete. There are guards along the way (in radio contact with each other) who will help you in case of trouble or injury. There is also a doctor stationed in the abandoned village of Samaria. There are well-maintained springs on the way so that you do not have to carry too much water. There are toilets in places and plenty of rubbish bins. You find surprisingly little litter, considering the amount of people passing through every day.
You also get a set of rules, aimed at protecting the park and making the experience safe and pleasant for everyone.
The gorge is open only during the day time and if you want to start walking in the afternoon you will only be allowed in up to a certain point: the guards want to make sure that everybody who walks in also gets out before nightfall. This is the reason why they ask you to present your ticket on the way out as it (supposedly) enables them to know if there is anyone still in the park at night.
When To Hike
The problem with Samaria is the crowds. It has become one of the" musts" if you go to Crete and there are up to 3000 visitors a day. If you have the bad luck to pick one of those days, the atmosphere will be really spoilt. Starting at dawn (before the tourist coaches arrive) will give you a bit of a head start. It is possible to find good (and cheap) accommodation in Omalos.
The first buses arrive at around 7.30 am and from then on it is an uninterrupted stream of buses until about 11.00 am.
You can also start walking after 12.00, there won't be many people but you will most probably need to spend the night in Agia Roumeli because the last boat out will have left when you get there.
As far as the times of the year are concerned, the best time is in the spring: the weather is still cool and the vegetation is at its best. The worst time is in the middle of the summer during a heatwave. Give it a miss and come again at a better time.
The starting point of the walk through the gorge of Samaria is at Xyloskala, which is also the entrance point into the National Park. The name Xyloskala means "wooden staircase" (or ladder) and originates in the fact that in the past, the inhabitants of the gorge had built a sort of staircase out of pieces of wood and tree-trunks in order to get in and out of the gorge. This is because the entrance of the gorge is a very steep drop which would otherwise have had to be climbed.
Today, there is a stone path winding down steeply for the first 2 km, with a wooden parapet to prevent accidents. You still need to step very carefully because due to the amount of visitors many of the stones are worn smooth and are slippery. In my experience most accidents tend to happen on these first two km. This part of the walk is also pretty taxing on the knees.
The altitude at Xyloskala is 1250 m and most of the walk is in the shade so that the heat is not an issue at the beginning. In fact, if you get there early in the morning you might even feel quite cold.
After about 1,7 km (the 13 km through the National Park are marked by milestones every km) you arrive at the first rest place and spring, Neroutsiko, in the shade of large plane trees.
From then on the walk down becomes a little less steep and eventually you reach the bottom of the valley. Still walking in the shade you will cross the riverbed (there probably won't be any water) two or three time until you arrive at another tributary (with a fair bit of water). A few minutes walk further on is the rest place of Agios Nicholaos, with water, toilets and a guard post. This is a very ancient place where there was a temple of Apollo. The cypresses standing there are slightly over 2000 (!) years old. You have now been walking about 4 km.
From Agios Nicholaos to Samaria (3,5 km), you will cross the river several times and pass two springs where you can refill your water bottle. This is an easy part of the walk, in the shade and the path is pretty smooth. After climbing up a little and walking a while above the river, you go down into the riverbed again and after a few hundred meters walking in pebbles you reach the village of Samaria, across the wooden bridge on your left.
Samaria is the main resting place for most walkers, with shade, benches, water, a guard post and (generally) a doctor in attendance. If you are experiencing any problems do not hesitate to go and see the doctor, there won't be another one and it is free.
Take a walk around the ruined village. If you walk quietly, you are very likely to see quite a few "kri-kri" at the edge of the village, especially young ones. They get quite used to people and are not at all shy.
My advice is that you do not stop for more than half an hour, unless you are a practiced hiker, because otherwise your legs might start seizing up and you will find walking again difficult.
The village of Samaria was inhabited until 1962, at which point the National Park was created and people where forced to leave. It had been inhabited for thousands of years by wood-loggers (there are some remains of sawmills in the gorge) and was also a place where the partisans fighting the Turkish invaders could retreat. During the winter Agia Roumeli is not accessible through the gorge because there is far too much water in the river. There was only a difficult mountain path leading from Samaria to the sea. So when you sit in the (probably crowded) village of Samaria, have a thought for what life must have been for these people.
To carry on with the walk you need to cross the bridge again and turn left. Less than half an hour later the walk takes you into the riverbed again. This is the beginning of the gorge proper. At the point where you walk down into the riverbed you will see a sign warning you about stones falling. The danger of stones falling (from as high as 500 m!) is very real, especially when a high wind blows in the mountains or if it has been raining recently.
For the next hour (or two depending on how fast you walk) you walk mainly in the riverbed (it can be tiring on your feet if the sole of your shoes is thin), crossing the river on stones or make shift bridges a number of times. The cliffs tower above you. This is without doubt the most impressive part of the walk.
At km 11 you arrive at the shaded clearing of Christos, where you will find the last spring. A few minutes on you get to the "Gates", this very famous and very narrow part of the gorge. It must be one of the most photographed place in Crete! You will often have hold-ups passing this narrow part, especially if you get there around midday because people also come from Agia Roumeli to see it.
Once through the Iron Gates the gorge widens considerably and after another 2 km you reach the guard post (where you must surrender your ticket stub) and are out of the National Park and in the old village of Agia Roumeli. It was destroyed by a flood in the 50's and consists mainly of ruined houses.
From then on, the path is very easy: flat and no stones but also no shade. If you get there in the summer at noon you will often encounter very hot conditions. But soon you see the sea in ahead of you and get to the new village of Agia Roumeli and the cooling sea.