DESTINATION GUIDE: Walking Mount Olympus

by Jane Livingstone Oct/2016
This article has been read 2,026 times

Mount Olympus is a geological wonder, but it's the historical and cultural significance of the mountain that cement its foundations as one of the world's most desirable peaks. The trails that wind their way around its craggy pinnacles and gorges truly make it worth your time.

Mount Olympus in winter, 115 kb
Mount Olympus in winter
© Jane Livingstone

At 2918m, Mytikas Peak of Mount Olympus claims the title of highest point in Greece, with its jagged pinnacle poking out above the cloud line that often swathes the eastern coast of the Greek mainland.

Just below Mytikas, down the trails that teeter along the ebbing slopes of Olympus, you’ll find two more peaks: Skala and Skolios. Each sit above 2800m, making all of them higher than any other mountain peak found in continental Greece. Altogether there are 48 other peaks littered across this vast mountain range.

Cloud rolls in over Mytikas peak, 146 kb
Cloud rolls in over Mytikas peak
© Jane Livingstone

This impressive national park is home to a diverse range of biology and ecosystems, jaw-dropping trails and unspoilt natural beauty. Over 10,000 people aim for its high point each year, drawn by the promise of one of Europe's finest and most prestigious walking experiences.

People aren’t climbing Mount Olympus simply for the thrill of the adventure and the beauty of the trails. Part of the allure of this legendary mountain comes from its deep-rooted status as a home of mythology.

Legends of the Mountain

You may have never visited Greece or even seen a picture of Mount Olympus, but I guarantee you’ve heard its name. Just like Everest, Kilimanjaro and Fuji, the pedigree of this mountain means its reputation precedes it. Mount Olympus is famous the world over.

The fame Olympus enjoys comes not from its staggering views over Greece, though it has those aplenty; nor does it come from the fact it’s the highest mountain in the country. No, we all know of Mount Olympus because of the gods said to preside above it.

From the 8th century BC to 800 AD, the Ancient Greek civilisation prospered on the lands and islands of Greece. At the heart of their world loomed a vast mountain, with dark and ominous clouds often concealing its highest reaches.

The Greek Gods were said to have watched from the sky above Mount Olympus, 84 kb
The Greek Gods were said to have watched from the sky above Mount Olympus
© Jane Livingstone

The Ancient Greeks are famed for their devotion to the gods, with remarkable structures of worship still standing to this day. However, no place in Greece was more sacred or more widely worshipped than Mount Olympus. Atop the mountain, above the clouds, was the domain not of man, but of gods.

The Ancient Greeks knew the highest point on Olympus not as Mytikas Peak, but instead as the Pantheon. Here, the twelve Olympians — including Zeus, Ares, Poseidon and Aphrodite — presided. Gold was their palace and gold was their theatre, within which they met on thunderous nights to squabble and make plans for the mortal realm below. Below the Pantheon was Zeus’ Throne — known today as Stefani — from where he would perch, ruling both gods and man, hurling thunderbolts at those who displeased him.

We all heard these tales as children, and now our childlike curiosity gets the better of us as we yearn to climb Mount Olympus in search of the gods.

This is quite unlike the thoughts of the Ancient Greeks, however. It is said that no man was to have ever set foot on the peaks of Olympus, only venturing to lower plateaus to make offerings to appease the gods. The peak was not actually conquered until 1913, when Swiss photographer Frédéric Boissonnas made the ascent.

For thousands of years, people had lived beneath the shadow, but it was only within the last 100 years that man has stood atop its mighty summit.

Climbing Mount Olympus

It must have been the gods that kept climbers at bay; climbing the lower peaks of Skala or Skolio is not particularly challenging as far as mountains go. Indeed, these are walkable mountains. In snow-free conditions the higher peak of Mytikas involves only some easy scrambling (grade 1); it is exposed in places and not advised in wet weather.

The Mount Olympus National Park covers a staggering 24,000 hectares, resulting in a great many entry points and trails that all converge on the peaks protruding from its rocky heart. Most people climbing Mount Olympus, though, choose to start from the small town of Litochoro on its eastern edges.

A cloud-covered Mount Olympus hides just beyond the town of Litochoro, 172 kb
A cloud-covered Mount Olympus hides just beyond the town of Litochoro
© Jane Livingstone

All roads west of the town lead towards the mountain, giving walkers the opportunity to take one of three distinct routes towards the summit. Many mountain walkers choose to take the central path, a trail cut into the deep valleys that run between Mount Olympus’ outlying ridges. They head up this trail, through Prionia (bar, car park and public toilets), before ending up at Refuge A in the shadow of Mytikas Peak.

We prefer to take a different route, however. It’s a trail that straddles the ridge north of the valley and heads not directly to Mytikas, instead taking a detour through the staggeringly beautiful Plateau of the Muses — but we’ll come to that in a moment.

No matter what route you take up the mountain, before you reach the alpine slopes you’ll have to traverse the forests that engulf the lowest peaks and ridges of Mount Olympus. Like the mountain itself, the forests here have a pedigree unlike any other.

Over 10,000 years ago — before even the gods made it to the slopes of Olympus — the forests protected the flora and fauna of Greece from the devastation of the last ice age. Their high altitude and alpine location kept them shielded from the goliath glaciers tearing their way through Europe, while the Mediterranean climate allowed them to stay relatively warm. As a result, these ancient forests are home to one of the richest ecosystems in Europe.

View from the northern ridge over the ancient forest, 229 kb
View from the northern ridge over the ancient forest
© Jane Livingstone

Breaking free of the ancient forests, we head for Refuge C. The quickest route up to the Plateau is via the summit of Skourta. Take in the world from this amazing location and look ahead to the peaks you’ll soon be climbing.

The last stretch of our first day on Mount Olympus takes us across a striking pathway, teetering on the edge of two vast, deep-cut ridges and a steep — but not too challenging — ridge above. The Mount Olympus Park Agency has fixed a ten-metre chain to the toughest, steepest section of this ridge, giving support for the climb. For those looking for an easier way up the mountain, you can take a short detour by following the route used by the mule train that services the refuges on the plateau.

Atop Skourta, the Muse’s plateau lays just beyond a narrow mountain path, 197 kb
Atop Skourta, the Muse’s plateau lays just beyond a narrow mountain path
© Jane Livingstone

After a long, beautiful day of walking, we arrive at Refuge C. Sat in the heart of the Plateau of the Muses, the views from this overnight halt are breathtaking. A wide, sweeping tundra vista, the plateau lies beneath the intimidating vertical cliffs of Stefani Peak.

Stefani Peak hangs over the plateau, 215 kb
Stefani Peak hangs over the plateau
© Jane Livingstone

Refuge C perching on the Muse’s plateau , 189 kb
Refuge C perching on the Muse’s plateau
© Jane Livingstone

An early start the next morning welcomes you with the opportunity to climb three of Olympus’ highest peaks. Following the Plateau of the Muses to the west, you’ll reach a path that cuts along the sloped base of Stefani. It’s a stunning walk, right beneath the shadow of its sheer cliff edge. More experienced climbers may be tempted by the challenge of the narrow Stefani peak, but most choose to ignore it in favour of heading across the ridge to Mytikas.

The trail follows this line across the base of Stefani, 153 kb
The trail follows this line across the base of Stefani
© Jane Livingstone

Route from Stefani to Mytikas , 180 kb
Route from Stefani to Mytikas
© Jane Livingstone

The trail from the Muse’s plateau has you heading straight for Mytikas. Most of the route is straightforward, although the steepest sections involve scrambling and do require a head for heights.

From atop Mount Olympus, home of the gods, you’ll be treated to unforgettable views across Mount Olympus National Park and over the Mediterranean Sea. From the summit of Mytikas, it is possible to scramble to Skala, though this is an exposed route, and not advised in poor weather.

The highest point in Greece, 187 kb
The highest point in Greece
© Jane Livingstone

After taking in the views and resting your feet on ground no Ancient Greek ever dared to set foot on, you have two choices. You can follow the trail further west from the plateau and visit Skolio and Skala — the second and third highest peaks on the Mountain — or you can head back down towards the forests.

No matter which path you choose, you’ll eventually converge on the ancient forests and arrive at the popular Refuge A. This is where you’ll find most climbers, swapping stories and advice over the log fire in the dining area.

The descent off Mount Olympus follows the valley trail most climbers would have used on their ascent. It winds its way through the forest and into the glorious Enipeas Gorge, a vibrant place full of life and luscious greenery. You can do nothing better with your afternoon than lazing around the lakes and waterfalls, taking in the beauty of the natural world. Once you’re done admiring the gorge, simply continue down the trail all the way to Litochoro.

photo
Man and nature intertwine beautifully through this bridge in Enipeas Gorge
© Jane Livingstone

When To Visit

You can ascend Mount Olympus year-round, but unless you are a skilled winter mountaineer, it is best to avoid the colder months. Conditions can get rough and avalanches are likely during the height of winter (November through February).

Snowfall tends to start some time in October and doesn’t thaw until the summer sun hits the slopes in early June. The altitude combined with its location near the Mediterranean, however, means that Mount Olympus remains cool even when the world below is baking in scorching 30 degree heat.

If snow and steep ground are not your preferred combination then June through September are your best options for exploring the mountain of the gods, although August is the peak climbing time for locals.

How To Get There

Thessaloniki is the closest airport to Mount Olympus, just an hour’s drive away. If you don’t have your own car, shuttle services and public transport are available.

Thessaloniki, a small regional airport, in summer it has direct flights from a number of British destinations including London and Manchester. For travellers outside of the UK the easiest method of arrival would be a flight into Athens. From there, it’s just a 50-minute flight up to Thessaloniki, or a 4-hour car journey north to Mount Olympus.

Where To Stay

Depending on your path through the mountain — as well as time spent exploring the park — you could be staying at any number of refuges within the mountain range. Olympus National Park’s official website has all the details you need for accommodation when planning your climb. Refuges fill up quickly in the summer months, so it’s best to call early if possible. You can camp, of course, but lugging a tent up the mountain isn’t everyone's idea of the best way to enjoy the experience.

Before and after your climb, the best place to stay is in the small town of Litochoro, located on the fringe of the mountain range. A town built by travellers and mountain walkers, it’s packed full of hotels, hostels, supplies shops, and bars for relaxing after some hard days trekking.

Things To Be Aware Of

If you’re climbing in the summer months, you still need to keep an eye on the weather as there is always a chance of rain and even hail from the turgid clouds above that can sometimes swallow the peaks whole. There are a couple of ways to keep an eye on the forecast:

The majority of the Mount Olympus ascent consists of walking along pre-cut mountain pathways, but when going for the summit — and some lower peaks — things get more challenging. Low-grade scrambling is required to reach the top. You’ll also need a head for heights and good balance, as the trail to Mytikas in particular is set at a 45’-50’ angle. It’s also important to avoid climbing Mytikas while it's raining, when the limestone trail becomes notoriously slippery.

Most of the refuges for overnight stays have basic amenities and supplies — blankets, pillows, etc — but you’ll need your own sleeping bag. It’s also advisible to bring a combination of sunscreen and a hat to protect against the sun, and windproof and waterproof clothing to protect against the rains, such is the unpredictable nature of Mount Olympus’ weather.

Map of the Mount Olympus Climbing Routes

The management agency of Olympus National Park has put together a detailed map of the most popular routes. To download the PDF for yourself, follow this link.


Jane Livingstone headshot, 107 kb

About Jane Livingstone & Mountain Walking Holidays

Jane Livingstone, of Mountain Walking Holidays, is an expert in European hiking and walking experiences. A qualified international mountain leader, Jane has over a decade's worth of climbing and exploring under her belt. She currently leads annual trips through some of the world's most exciting terrain.

Mountain Walking Holidays is a mountain walking tour company. Experience marvels like Mount Olympus, the Sierra Nevada, Mount Mulhacen and more while in the company of qualified and knowledgeable experts.

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