This was the main reason why we visited Georgia – its glorious and untouched mountains. Georgia as a country consists mainly of mountains and hills and the most famous and accessible mountains lie some 3 hours north of the capital.
Where to stay and for how long
There are two main tourist hubs in the Kazbegi mountains; Gudauri which lies 2hrs north of Tbilisi and Stepantsminda which lies 1hr further north bordering Russia. We opted for Stepantsminda; mainly because accommodation is cheaper and it was closer to the places we wanted to visit. We also visited Gudauri and I am so glad we did not stay here. I believe this place is popular only in Winter for skiing and in summer it felt like a ghost town. On the other hand in Stepantsminda there are a few shops, restaurants and cafes and more people around.
The length of your stay depends on the type of activities and the places you wish to visit. Most guides online will tell you that a day is enough. Most people visit for the day joining day tours from Tbilisi. However if you like mountains and activities hiking, trekking, paragliding etc. you may wish to spend a minimum of 3 nights here. We stayed for 4 nights and it was just the right time to do the activities we had in mind at the right pace.
Good to know before you decide to stay in Stepantsminda
This is not the classic European style mountain resort. If you want to go up a mountain you have to climb as there are no cable cars. Cable cars are available in nearby Gudauri which is more popular in winter for skiing. The kind of tourism hosted in Stepantsminda is mainly russian and some tourists from the middle east. Most people come here for mountain climbing and there are other mountain related sports you can do such as quad biking, horse riding, paragliding, rafting etc. Another important thing to mention is that electricity does not seem to be very stable. There was a general power cut in the village following a storm and apparently this is something that happens often.
- The road conditions are good in the main road from Tbilisi to Stepantsminda; however once you decide to exit the main road you will end up in unpaved roads most of the time. Not even the most popular trekking routes in the nearby valleys have paved roads.
- Along the way you will be greeted by large herds of cows in the middle of the road. Watch out as they sometimes appear from behind trees or parked cars and they are not afraid of vehicles, so you must stop and find a way to go around them.
- Another issue when driving in this area of Georgia may be the queue of trailer trucks who are waiting to go to Russia, as this is the main road leading to the border. These queues are kilometres long and start from Pasanauri. Unfortunately there are no appropriate stops for these trailer trucks and they just stop on the side of the road, which in certain areas becomes a single laned highway.
There is a range of accommodation to choose from; mainly apartments, bed & breakfasts and homestays, a couple of quite luxurious hotels as well as cottages. I receive a lot of messages asking for accommodation suggestions so I am mentioning the name of the accommodation we stayed at (not because I have any collaboration with them). We opted to stay in a very basic cottage; Kazbegi cottages. Each unit comprises of a small bedroom (which sleeps up to 3 adults) and a bathroom with a shared outdoor area with fantastic views. We love having outdoor areas wherever possible, especially for our daughter to be able to spend her time when we are at the accommodation. It is good value for money, however the services may be quite lacking in certain aspects – leaking water, broken bathroom fixtures, missing sound insulation (we were not able to sleep at night when it was raining), etc. However overall we did not expect any luxury for the money we paid; so it was fine.
Places to visit in Kazbegi National Park
In my previous post with the first guide on travelling to Georgia, as well as further up, I explained how road conditions are not optimal. Apart from non asphalted roads away from the highways, we also had some difficulties with navigation. We usually use a Garmin GPS when travelling. We have several maps from around the world and we never had any major issues. However unfortunately we were not able to find Georgia Garmin Maps, so we resorted for Google offline maps for the first time. Until we got used to the new navigation we had some issues and missed the road to get to this monastery, which lies in the outskirts of Tbilisi. We tried other exits on the highway to make it back to the monastery, without any luck. Anyway I recommend trying to visit this sixth-century Orthodox monastery, since apart from being so old and survived the test of time practically intact, it also lies in a very picturesque setting ontop of Jvari mount overlooking the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers.
Location: 20km north of Tbilisi
Your next stop on the way to the mountains might be this fortress. This time we couldn’t miss it as the fortress is on the side of the road and ontop of a hill along Lake Zhinvali. This fortress was once home to a Feudal lord which ruled the area in the 13th century.
Location: 60km north of Tbilisi
Aragvi river of two colours
Just before you enter Pasanuri there is a viewpoint you can stop at where two rivers with different colours meet. In my opinion it is nothing spectacular, but worth stopping for a couple of minutes. There are a lot of places along the Aragvi river where you do rafting as well.
Location: 90km north of Tbilisi
As mentioned above, Gudauri is the main skiing resort in the area. There are several luxurious hotels and accommodation can be quite expensive. However this ski resort is still worth a stop and you can decide to spend half a day here. We visited in summer and the central area of the resort, seemed like a ghost town with most of the places closed. On the other hand you may wish to stop for a picnic and enjoy the views over the surrounding mountains. Some of the lifts are open in summer so you may wish to take the lift up and explore a different area. There are also several companies which offer paragliding, however if you intend to do this activity make sure to you opt for a company which is certified. We booked this activity, however it has been cancelled since a couple of days before our trip there was an accident. Apparently accidents are quite common since there are a lot of warm and cold currents in the valleys between the mountains.
Locations: 125km north of Tbilisi, 30km south of Stepantsminda
Gergeti and the Trinity Church
The Gergeti Trinity Church is without a doubt one of the most iconic spots in the Caucasus mountains and it is located a short drive up from Stepantsminda. The road to get there is asphalted and this makes the place very popular and crowded. A lot of people also take day trips from Tbilisi and stop here, so if you go later during the day you may encounter large groups of tourists who are visiting by coach. My suggestion is to get here as early as possible mainly to avoid the crowds and also to have better visibility over the surrounding mountains. We were there in August and the weather during our visit the weather took a pattern; very clear blue skies in the morning with excellent visibility, turning cloudier later on along the day, ending with a storm in the afternoon.
Truso Valley and Abano Mineral Lakes
This is one of the most beautiful places I have been to in my life. Why? It is remote, untouched and I have never seen such a large amount of wild flowers and colourful insects! We have walked just a part of the valley until Abano mineral lakes (as we have done the trek with our 4 year old daughter), but the trek can be extended up to the border with Russia. More information on the full trek can be found here. The road conditions at the start of this valley are not optimal; the road is not asphalted, it is very narrow overlooking a very deep gorge and I would not suggest trying to get here on your own by car unless you have a 4×4 vehicle. You can book a tour/driver from Stepantsminda for this valley if you do not wish to drive. The attractions along this valley are numerous and include:
- Truso Gorge – this is where the trek starts and you will be accompanied by the rumbling waters of the Terek river.
- The Travertines – there are several travertine formations in the area and they are formed by the large amount of minerals found in the water
- Abano Lakes – this is one of the most curious natural phenomena I have seen in my life! These small lakes are fed by underground water which is toxic and full of carbon dioxide and that is why it looks like it is boiling. A volume of 2.5 million litres of water feeds the lakes everyday which flow into the river.
- Other attractions further in Truso Valley: Abano Monastery, Ketrisi Travertines and abandoned village, Zakagori Fortress
Location: 18km south of Stepantsminda
Juta Valley and Chaukhi Lakes
This is another must do trek if you are staying in Stepantsminda. Again the road is not asphalted, but the conditions are easier then when driving along Truso valley. The trail starts from Juta village and you can park your car here. The first part of the trek is uphill and quite steep, but following the first kilometre the trail gets flat and easier to walk. Again this trek can be as long or as short as you want and can be extended as a multi day trek to reach Roshka Pass. We only made it to Chaukhi lake. The attractions along this valley include:
- Fifth Season Mountain Hut – this mountain hut lies on one of the most picturesque spots of the valley; it offers accommodation and a small restaurant where you can stop for a quick lunch or coffee. You may even wish to spend the night here if you are doing longer treks.
- Chaukhi Lake and waterfall – a small mountain lake and waterfall
Location: 20km south east of Stepantsminda
Here are a couple of other places to visit near Stepantsminda:
- Gveleti Lake and Waterfall
- Dariali Monastery
- Pansheti Swimming Pools