Kaloyan Peychev/ March 28, 2020

View from Vihren peak (2914m)
View from Vihren peak (2914m), highest in Pirin mountain

General information about Bulgaria

Bulgaria is a mountainous country with altitudes reaching up to 2925m above sea level. Eight of more than 40 mountains are higher than 2000m. The variety of landscapes make Bulgaria’s mountains suitable for hiking and trail running all year round.

The climate can be challenging because the country is situated between two climatic zones. The continental climatic zone is to the North and the mediterranean – to the South. From December till the end of April at altitudes above 2000m there is usually a lot of snow. Therefore there are plenty of trails and roads to enjoy below the highest mountains while they are still white and cold.

Where to go to and when?

Of course, when the snow is stable and hard-packed you can still enjoy running. In such conditions it is vital to know the routes and dangers of the winter mountains. The air is much better up there than in the city parks.

mountain trail running in winter
Winter trail running in Vitosha – Sofia’s home mountain

Summer in opposite is a very suitable season for roaming the highest mountains. The climate in Rila, Pirin, Central Balkan and Western Rhodopes is cool while at lower altitudes it gets really hot. The warmest months are July, August and September. Therefore the summer is considered the high season. Depending on your current physical condition and the weather there are endless possibilities for trail running suitable for everyone’s needs. 

Spring and autumn are transitional seasons and are very often not attractive for mountain tourism because of the weather. Indeed the weather may be changing a lot, but the nature is so beautiful – colorful in autumn or green in spring. If you don’t enjoy crowds on the trails these are definitely the seasons you should look for. Remember – there is no bad weather, just bad equipment.

The terrain that bulgarian mountains offer is very random. From unpaved rural roads that go deep into the forests to narrow trails and ridges that cross the mountain tops. Literally there is something for everybody throughout the year – no matter what you are looking for! In combination with the delicious Bulgarian food and the mineral water springs in many of the villages around the mountains every trip can have its unique overprint.

mountain trail running in Central Rila
Ribni ezera, one great place in Central Rila

National parks and cultural sights

There are three national parks in Bulgaria – Rila, Pirin and Central Balkan.

Rila is the highest mountain in Bulgaria and on the whole Balkan Peninsula. Musala peak is 2925m high and it is one of the main goals for many mountaineers every year. Rila means “the water mountain” and offers sights and walks along more than 140 glacial lakes. The most famous of them are The Seven Rila Lakes. If you choose the normal way in summer you should expect a lot of other people there. The reason is simple – the area is very beautiful, but with a little bit more information you can avoid the crowds and still enjoy the views to the lakes. Especially if you are a trail runner!

The second highest mountain in Bulgaria is mount Vihren (2914m), situated the Pirin National Park. The park is also part of the UNESCO world heritage since 1983. It is often considered the most beautiful mountain in Bulgaria and this beauty is connected a lot with the rough terrain. A large part of the trails are rocky and without much vegetation – a pure rock labyrinth. The park is also home to many rare animals and botanical species. The oldest pine tree in Bulgaria grows here for more than 1300 years now!

Central Balkan National park is part of the longest mountain chain in the country. The Balkan mountains are more than 500km in length and they also give the name of the Balkan peninsula. The central part of the mountain is also the highest and it is fascinating with its grassy meadows as well as stunning forests below. Being elongated in East-West direction, it acts like a natural climate border in the country. This is often connected with very severe winds and storms so you should carefully plan every trip there!

Central Balkan National park
Vezhen peak (2198m), Central Balkan National park

The European long-distance paths E3, E4 and E8 in Bulgaria

The European long-distance trails 1300km of pure mountain trail running
The Bulgarian parts of the European long-distance trails

Three of the European long-distance walking paths cross Bulgaria – E3, E4 and E8 (see map above). They have a total length of 1300 km and around 45000 m D+.

E3 is the longest marked route in Bulgaria – around 600 kilometers. It usually takes 18-22 days to hike and can be a challenge for the trail runners to complete in 10 days. Hut to hut trip can be organised for most of the route, but having some support is highly recommended. The fastest known time belongs to the bulgarian Bozhidar Antonov who ran the route in 4 days 8 hours 27 minutes in 2018!

The E4 in Bulgaria follows the highest mountains and crosses a total of five. It is 250km long and it is relatively steep – 13500m D+. E4 is usually hiked in two weeks but well prepared runners can do it in 5-7 days. The best months to try the route are July, August and September. The fastest known time was set in 2019 by Kaloyan Peychev in 2 days 3 hours and 8 minutes. See details in Fastest Known Time website.

The E8 route starts from Borovets – the oldest ski resort in Bulgaria and crosses part of Rila and the whole Rhodopes in 420 kilometers. It is less steep than E4 and can be completed by runners in 8-10 days. The beauty of this route is in the variety of the terrain it goes through. Starting with the highest peak Musala (2925m), it finishes near sea level close to the border with Greece. The last part, through the Eastern Rhodopes is not so popular as Rila and Western Rhodopes.

Why to consider a trail running instead of hiking trip?

Probably one of the first questions when you see a trail running itinerary is Should I do this or Am I suitable to do trail running in mountainous areas? You can find more information about this in this article.

Guided or self-guided trail running trip?

It can be difficult to decide whether you need a guide on your trips. You can read about the pros and cons in this article.

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