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Wednesday, 22 August 2007

The Vikos Aoos National Park: Greece's Wild and Beautiful Backcountry

Written by Michael Heins
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Arriving after a long ferry ride from the island of Naxos, I dashed through Athens, and hopped on the intercity train that heads north toward some of the greatest natural wonders found in this mythic land.

My aim was to explore the by ways and back roads of Greece, which reveal a world seldom seen by most tourists. After group tours of Greece’s famous sites with my class from the Evergreen State College of Olympia, Washington, I took off on my own, in the spirit of adventure, to explore some of Greece’s lesser-known regions. I headed for the misty northwest corner of Epirus, to a seldom visited wilderness area known as the Vikos Aoos National Park.

I began my journey to the national park at the spectacular, ancient monasteries of Meteora, heading by bus to the town of Ioannina. From there, I boarded another bus for the mountain villages of Mikro and Megalo Papingo. About halfway there the bus started to wind its way through the Pindus Mountains, stopping at several small mountain villages along the way. As we approached the two Papingo villages, jagged peaks came into view and the countryside seemed more like Central Idaho than Greece. It was a cloudy day, and the mist partially engulfed the peaks that towered above a deep canyon called the Vikos Gorge.

Photo by Onno Zweers
Photo by Onno Zweers

The cute little mountain village of Mikro Papingo was the bus’ final stop. I found myself impressed by this quaint hamlet’s narrow, cobblestone streets, sidewalks and slate stone roofs. Most of the village’s old stone houses are summer homes of wealthy Greeks from the larger cities, but the village still gave off the feeling of another era, and the surrounding forest of ancient oaks added its own aura of antiquity.

It did not take me long to find lodging and I quickly became acquainted with the innkeeper, who doubled as a park ranger. Next I started to explore the surrounding countryside, an area of natural beauty comparable at once to the rugged backcountry of Central Idaho, the Chaparral areas of Southern California, and the lush canyons of West Virginia's Appalachian Mountains, all within a few miles. On one hike, I walked up one of the side canyons, near the village, and found a real treasure: a series of small waterfalls and crystal-clear pools that lined the canyon, surrounded by a lush forest of oaks and alders. The canyon wall was made up of layered limestone that reminded me of postcard scenes I have seen of West Virginia.

My original plan was to backpack into the park's wilderness, but, this being an usually wet June for Greece, I settled for a series of day hikes to, among other sites, the Vikos Gorge and a high-elevation, glacier-carved lake. The unusually wet spring blessed the area with an abundance of wild flowers that seemed to explode with color throughout the park’s numerous, small, meadowy glades. In the 20-plus years I have hiked throughout Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho and other western states, I had never seen such a display or variety of wildflowers. The only species I recognized was a bright red poppy that seemed common in Greece.

The Vikos Aoos National park was, in fact, established to protect the rare flora and fauna of this region, which is comprised of the widest variety of highland trees in all of Europe. The park’s topography is no less spectacular; from the Vikos and Aoos gorges the Pindu mountains rise up over 8,000 feet. They are small in elevation, compared to the Rockies, Cascades or Sierra Nevadas, but every bit as wild and beautiful.

The park provides backcountry lodging in an old stone building known as “The Refuge,” though accommodation can also be found at the inns in Megalo or Mikro Papingo. The hike to the Refuge is steep and requires one to be in reasonable shape, but provides excellent views of the Pindus on the way up. A series of developed natural springs along the way provide cool refreshing mountain water.

The hike takes approximately a couple of hours depending on one’s physical abilities and speed. The Refuge is set on a saddle above a glacier-carved lake basin, a setting reminiscent of the Montana Rockies. On my second day, starting early in the morning, I hiked up to the Refuge and spent about an hour staring at the stark beauty of the glacier cirque below. The combination of the wind, wildflowers, open space, rugged peaks and stillness gave this backcountry a sense of unforgettable beauty, tranquility, and inner peace, the reason so many long for the solitude of the wilderness.

I was so absorbed in the beauty of this land that only the feel of rain against my face awoke me from my trance. Within 10 minutes of my return to the inn the surrounding peaks were covered in misty clouds and a violent thunder exploded over the craggy peaks. The storm was brief and as it started to break up, the clouds lowered and surrounded the giant sentinel-like mountains, a scene of majestic, mythic beauty. I could almost see Zeus standing tall above the peaks with thunderbolts in both hands.

One of the many things that drew me to this enchanting landscape was the fact that this was one of the last homes in Europe for brown bears, lynx, and wolves, as well as other species, including roe deer, wild boar, chamois, eagles and vultures. Just the thought that these animals still exist in this remnant wilderness took me back in time when my Greek ancestors walked, lived and hunted in these ancient mountains. While I was at the park I could feel and sense the history that stretches back to the time when the valiant Greeks fought against the invading German armies, to the days of Byzantium, and on back to the mysterious Bronze Age. To walk in one of Greece's last remaining wild areas gave me a sense of my roots that I have never felt hiking anywhere in North America.

On my last morning, in the park, I awoke to a spectacular sight: the mountains were covered in a mantle of snow. It was such a beautiful scene with the village of Megalo in the foreground that I felt like staying another five days, but I had a ferry to catch to Italy and, with regret, I left the park.

Photo by Onno Zweers
Photo by Onno Zweers












I highly recommend a visit to Vikos Aoos National Park, it is truly one of Greece's national treasures. Even for non-hikers, the beauty around the village is enough to make Papingo a worthwhile destination. Local lodging is very reasonable and quite comfortable, and the lodge's tavern offers excellent Greek cuisine and some tasty local yogurt and honey. To make arrangements for the inn or the mountain refuge call the inn at Megalo Papingo (26530/41-257 or 26530/41-892)

Bring a pair of sturdy boots for the uneven cobblestone paths of the village and pack a canteen, rainwear, compass and first aid kit for the backcountry. Because the park is so close to the Albanian border one is unable to obtain topographical maps while there, but I would suggest going to a map store before leaving home to get any topographical maps of that area, if available.

For further information on the Vikos-Aoos National Park check out these three web sites:

Villages of the Land Behind the Mountains, Zagoria, Greece"

The Zagorohoria Villages & the Vikos-Aoos National Park and Greece Zagoria/ Pindus Mountains


©Michael Heins

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012