The Dilijan national park in the north-east of the country is without a doubt the most popular hiking resort in Armenia.
Three days in, with an ankle, a knee and now increasingly a leg in pain, I wondered if I hadn’t taken on more than I could handle.
It was day three out of four on a trail in the Dilijan national park in Armenia and the night was starting to fall. The golden and orange hues of the forest around me were turning brown and then black as the sun set further, and the darkness pushed in between the cracks in the trees until I couldn’t see through the growth even if I wanted to. I didn’t want to – maybe it’s the bear I’d spotted the summer before on another hike, maybe my overactive imagination, maybe all the murder podcasts I’d been binging for days, but suddenly I found myself a little afraid of the dark.
In a movie, this would be a good moment for a freeze-frame. Record scratch: Hi, my name is Elina, and I’m sure you’re wondering how I ended up in this situation.
If you’ve read any of my previous hiking coverage, you wouldn’t wonder, though. I have a tendency to get myself into small trouble and then blow it out of proportion for a good laugh.
Dilijan is no exception. Although these four days would turn out to be even more traumatic than an average hiking trip. My body had been falling apart through little pains. I’d been as exhausted as after weeks of hiking, slumped at a rest stop on the top of the mountain earlier that day convinced that if I took another step I would die. I’d escaped from snappy, horse-sized mountain dogs protecting their herds – and one time, when one was trotting straight towards me, I’d confused his blood-thirsty brain with baby talk and got him to wag his tail instead of tearing out my throat.
As I was trotting down the pitch-black path and crossing streams I could barely see, I still had no clue the weather was about to turn its back on me too: the next day, I’d get stuck into a hail storm turned into thunder and lightning and have to wait it out in a nearby cave. I’d end up cutting the last day short and instead of visiting one last monastery, I would take the straightest way back into town for Doritos and a hot shower. (The hot water was out in my guest house when I arrived.)
Still, any hiker will tell you that a hike without a bit of misadventure is no hike at all. And at least Dilijan treats its visitors with gorgeous views to soothe the weary traveller.
Dilijan is synonymous with hiking in Armenia. Locals sometimes call this area Armenian Alps, with the town of Dilijan being “Little Switzerland” – and although I have to admit I fail to see quite the same magnificence, eye still feasts on Dilijan’s mountains, forests and lakes.
The trail in the national park is a part of the Transcaucasian Trail, a long-distance hike currently being cleared with volunteer forces, that is planned to one day connect Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan (well, the two latter might have some sorting out to do before that can happen). The thrill of Armenian nature might be relatively unknown but it hasn’t gone completely unnoticed: The Transcaucasian Trail was named as one Time’s greatest places to travel in 2019.
When I arrived in Armenia at the end of October, the hiking season was ending, and guest houses were empty except for me. The first day hikes I’d taken had been marked with drizzle and spooky mist. I’d watched rain roll into a valley from the shelter of an old Armenian church, shivering in the wind and a feeling like something was watching me creeping on my neck.
In Dilijan, I’d been surprised with sunshine that reflected off the autumn colours and made it seem like the whole world was painted yellow like sunflowers. Curious cows would choose me as their leader ad follow me for a few minutes until bored, and farmers would smile and nod when I walked on by. The lakes I passed were crisp and clear, with the treeline doubled in the water as clearly as in a mirror, and when I dived back into the shelter of the trees, golden rays of sunlight would filter through the colourful foliage and dribble over the soft layer of leaves already covering the trail.
Late autumn might be one of the best times to hike in the Dilijan national park, not only because of the turning colours but because you’ll be one of the only people on the trail. I’m a huge fan of hiking in more remote areas, and Dilijan is a rather small region to get very far from civilisation, so I was worried how much I was going to enjoy the hike. However, the trail seems to keep a good balance between remote and civilised: between accommodations, I often felt like I was in the forest all by myself, but the wide, well-marked paths and farmlands I passed would make a more inexperienced hiker feel safe on the trail, too. I never saw any other hikers during my four-day hike.
Which, under normal conditions, would be super; but when you’re alone in a dark forest and scared that anything from Armenian Ted Bundy to an exceptionally bothered rabbit might attack you, not so hot.
When I finally spotted the warm glow of electric lights shining through the darkness, I basically cheered out loud. I mean, I’m Finnish so not really, but I did so in my mind. The hotel was bleak and huge, like a haunted mansion in a Charles Dickens novel. The name of the hotel was “monastery stay”, and maybe that was giving me the wrong image, but I could imagine the building as an old habitat for monks, wandering through the airy hallways in their mysterious capes and dusty books.
My muddy shoes echoed through the empty hallways. The receptionist, walking me to my room, didn’t turn on the lights. He could only speak Armenian (and I suspected, as many people in the Caucasus do, Russian), and when I asked about dinner, he took me to the kitchen and lifted a lid off a pot to show me something stewing in boiling water. I gave him a thumbs-up and said the only word in Armenian I could: ‘Lava.’ Good.
Armenia is still a very underrated destination for Western travellers. While many combine a trip there with a visit to Georgia, this Southern neighbour still sees less love from international tourists. Partly due to this, tourist infrastructure is still in parts poor – transportation is arranged through minibuses, marshrutkas, where as many passengers as possible are crammed in together, sightseeing is not always arranged well, and in many places, a language barrier springs between you and locals as soon as you open your mouth.
But Armenia is not an overly difficult place to visit. It is incredibly safe (well, unless you get mowed down by a crazy driver) and it is a beautiful country full of lovely people (although for some reason all their men seem to sport the same straight-bangs haircut.) And for a hiker, the Dilijan national park is not to be missed.
I started my last day of hiking by visiting Haghartsin, the monastery right beside the hotel. A few small tour groups from Dilijan had already got there but I could wander between the 14th century churches and Armenian crosses in peace. I’m not religious but I felt a little bad about the tight fit of my hiking trousers. Maybe for this blasphemy I would be smitten down later that day as I’d have to escape a storm into a cave like a character in a children’s adventure book.
But early on the sun was still bright, chasing away shadows and any contrast in tourists’ Instagram photos, bathing the hillside and the old monastery in a yellow bask. I looked up the cloudless sky and saw a bird flying over. Maybe it was a soaring eagle, the bird that had given its name to the monastery; maybe it was a pigeon. Who’s to tell.
If you want to hike the same route as me:
Day 1: Dilijan to Gosh via Parz lake, 17 km. In Gosh, there is just one hotel, Gosh Hotel, that cost me 19 e for one night in a private room. They can also provide dinner and breakfast for an extra price. The ladies working there only spoke Russian.
Day 2: Gosh to Belveder Eco Resort via Gosh Lake, 22 km (last 7 km on a road.) I stayed overnight at Belveder Eco Resort which was a new property with lovely staff, heaters in the rooms and amazingly soft beds. One night for one person is 32 e, and they can make dinner and breakfast. To get to the hotel, you can hitchhike from Khachardzan or walk on the road for the last 7 km.
Day 3: Belveder Eco Resort to Haghartsin via Hovk, 28 km. The first 5 km are roadwalking to the village of Hovk, first 2 km on the asphalt and the gravel road. In Haghartsin, Vanatun Monastery Stay is the only possibility. It costs 37 e per night in a private room and includes breakfast, and they can also arrange dinner.
Day 4: Haghartsin to Dilijan, 18 km through the valley / 26 km via the mountain and Jukhtakh monastery. In Dilijan, you have plenty of options for overnight stays, a few tiny shops and some restaurants. I stayed at Green Garden Guesthouse for 14 e per night. They can arrange breakfast and dinner but I decided to arrange them myself; I ate in Tava Restaurant near the centre of Dilijan.
The trail is pretty well marked, but it’s always smart to have maps on you. You can download the route here and transfer it to e.g. maps.me. Note that the route I took is for 4 days, not for 5, and it goes anti-clockwise to what the route on the site shows.
The reason I walked the trail this way was because I didn’t have a tent; if you could camp on the way, you could cut the days shorter and do the loop in five days.
The original trail is a horseshoe-shaped path, not a complete loop, but I wanted to start and finish in Dilijan since if you don’t have a car and don’t want to pay for a taxi, it’s the easiest point to get to. There are frequent minibuses between Dilijan and Yerevan; you can also get a bus from Dilijan straight to Tbilisi, Georgia, but you have to book it beforehand.
Thanks for reading!
Are you planning a trip to Armenia any time soon?