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The Seven Rila Lakes

[Rila National Park, Bulgaria, Sep 15, 2018]

The Seven Rila Lakes are glacial lakes located in the northwestern corner of Rila mountain, about 2 hours from Sofia. Since I didn’t want to drive myself or make my parents come with me, I booked a day trip through Globul Tours. I talked about how we decided which tour company to trust in this post.

To preserve the mountain and its ecosystems, Rila national park was established in 1992. Musala, the highest peak on the Balkans at 2925 m (9,596 ft) is within the park boundary. Rila national park is one of 11 in Bulgaria.

There are 120 glacial lakes in the park, the most prominent of which are the Seven Rila Lakes. The trail connecting the seven lakes has become extremely popular since 2009, when a lift was built from the mountain resort Panichishte to the Sedem Ezera chalet. The lift is over 2 km long (1.2 miles), saving you a good 2 hours of climbing and 600 m (1900 ft) of elevation gain. The lift takes about 20 minutes to get to the Sedem Ezera chalet.

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Hikers can reserve bedding and food in advance and hike from chalet to chalet in the mountains if they don’t want to camp

Because we arrived fairly early (8:45 am) and it was already outside the peak tourist season of July and August, we did not have to wait for the lift. I heard that in the summer, the line for the lift can be several hours long. There is a great debate as to whether the chair lift has been good or bad for the lakes. Visitation has greatly increased, and since Leave No Trace principles are virtually unheard of in Bulgaria, the impact to the trail and lakes is undeniable. In the photo below, you will see that multiple trails have been created by people, and it’s not at all clear where the original trail is supposed to be. In addition, people often go off trail to rest, and it’s not uncommon for people to take a cigarette break along the way. Tourism has also impacted the lakes themselves, which are losing their signature blue color due to human-caused erosion around them. Some tourists are ill-prepared for the hike, dressed as if they are going for a walk in a city park.

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Small businesses have popped up at the base of the chair lift offering honey, jam and jeep rides up the mountain. The jeep rides become popular when the line for the chair lift is so long that people are willing to pay extra to be taken up by 4×4. Jeeps in a national park? Yes, only in Bulgaria! At the same time, the increase in tourism is important for the economic health of the region, creating valuable jobs for the locals. The issue is complicated, and it will take a great deal of education, planning and sensible regulation to address it. I am glad the chair lift, despite being built within the last 10 years, is slow, which serves as a bottle-neck and somewhat controls the crowds at the top – albeit crowds that the chair lift itself is attracting. I guess I am trying to say it could be worse.

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4×4 SUVs wait for customers at the base of the chair lift

Onto lighter topics. Look carefully at the picture below. Starting from right to left, do you see what looks like a person lying down face up? First are the head and mouth, then the chest, then the arms crossed, then the legs.

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Legend says that two giants used to live here long before humans walked the Earth. They were crazy in love, but evil spirits wanted to break them up and a battle ensued. The male giant fought valiantly but did not survive. The female giant was left alone on the mountain to mourn the loss of her beloved, and the seven Rila lakes formed from her tears. That’s why they have such a unique blue color. Each lakes is named after its shape or, in the case of Lower lake, it’s position related to the others.

The trail is a loop that begins and ends at the Sedemte Ezera chalet.

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Starting counter-clockwise, the beginning of the trail takes you above the first four lakes, in this order – Lower Lake, Fish Lake, Trefoil Lake and Twin lake.

Lower Lake

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Fish Lake

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Trefoil Lake

After this initial climb, the trail levels.

At this point we could see the fourth of the lower lakes, the Twin, behind us. This lake looks like two lakes with a very small connection between the two, better seen in the second photo below.

The Kidney is the biggest one of the lakes, and it was my favorite. The higher you go, the better you can see its shape.

The lakes are connected by streams and waterfalls, even this late in the summer.

Here is the fifth lake, the Eye. A patch of snow as lingering on its shore.

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Finally, at the top, one could see all 7 lakes, although they are not all in one line and it takes an almost 360-degree turn to see them all. I took many, many photos up there.

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All 7 lakes. A sliver of the Tear is visible in the very left. The Eye is in the middle of the photo, then the Kidney, then the lower 4 on the right.

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From left: the Eye, the Kidney, and the Lower 4

On the way down, we completed the loop by following a longer but less steep trail among the 4 lower lakes.

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Here are some close ups of the Twin and the Trefoil.

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The rest of the way was pretty rocky, which made footing treacherous. By the time we got to the Fish Lake and its chalet, we were ready to take a break.

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And finally, after quite a few hours on the trail, we were back at the beginning and back on the lift. The views on the way down facing the valley were spectacular. I rode the lift with a Bulgarian girl living in Germany. We compared the amount of vacation we get and other work-related stats. With 30 days of vacation and a 30-hour work week, her work life definitely seemed much less intense.

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At the bottom, I indulged in some typical Bulgarian street food – boiled corn on the cob! It was delicious and the perfect snack after our hike. For other delicious street food in Bulgaria (chestnuts, anyone?), check out this blog post.

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Before going back to Sofia, we detoured to the village of Ressilovo and visited its monastery. Monasteries in Bulgaria are typically very old (from the Middle Ages if not earlier) and have a rich and important history. During Turkish rule (14th-19th century), monasteries were instrumental in the preservation of our language and religion. They also served as hiding places for Bulgarian haiduti (revolutionaries), especially during the Bulgarian revival in the 19th century. The Ressilovo monastery is not one of the old ones – it was built in 1932 – but it’s nonetheless very pretty and made for a good stop before we went home. And here is a pro travel tip – many monasteries take in overnight guests, which makes for a unique and quiet way to spend a night in Bulgaria.

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