The main attraction in Kazbegi (Georgians call the town Stepantsminda) is the mountains. Whether you’re a hiker, walker, or climber, one mountain dominates the agenda: Mt Kazbek. The 5033m giant is a beautiful snow-capped peak in the Caucasus mountain range and is the highest peak in Eastern Georgia. It’s the 3rd highest mountain in the country but probably the best known thanks to its location, stunning beauty, and relative ease of access. Climbing Kazbek to the summit is for experienced mountaineers and requires a multi-day trip. But walking to the glacier is a rewarding and challenging hike. If you’re fit, don’t miss the opportunity to walk one of the most beautiful short treks in the world.
Georgia is one of the best places in the world to hike. If you love walking in the mountains (as I do), you’ll love this country. There are endless possibilities and trails are uncrowded. One of the best day hikes I’ve ever done is the Kazbegi-Gergeti Glacier walk.
The Kazbegi to Gergeti hike is one of the best things to do in the region but you’ll likely need an overnight stay in the town of Stepantsminda. Travelling to and from Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, on the same day as the walk will leave you exhausted and short on time, especially if you plan to walk from the town of Kazbegi and back down again.
Starting the hike from Stepantsminda town
Walk downhill until you reach the Terek river and north until you find the bridge to cross. Start walking towards the Gergeti village. You can see the village from almost anywhere in Stepantsminda.
The Stepantsminda-Sameba road has a couple of restaurants and cafes. Stay on this road and look for signs for the Gergeti church. You will cross a few roads as you follow the rocky track to the church. Everyone’s going the same way and they are on the lookout for hikers. Just make sure to check both ways and listen for the 4WD vehicles that shoot up and down the windy road.
Once you’ve reached the church, it’s time to take a few photos. Some of the best locations for shooting the church are from the 2nd carpark (see below). There you’ll be able to photograph the Gergeti Trinity church with the magnificent Caucasus mountains as a backdrop. The main carpark actually looks sad beside the magnificent church and mountain backdrop. Who planned this?
Starting the trek from the Gergeti Trinity Church
The trail isn’t marked apart from some cairns (piles of rocks) along the later stages. It’s easy to follow the trail though as it’s well worn for the most part.
The trail starts just behind the bottom carpark near the church.
The Gergeti Trinity Church sits at 2200m of elevation (according to my GPS tool). Wikipedia puts it at 30m lower but you’re probably not that concerned.
Behind you, there’s a trail that heads up the hill and to the left. This is the one you want to follow. There’s another, slightly less worn trail, that goes straight up the hill but this is more for sightseeing and isn’t part of the trek to the glacier and Mt Kazbek.
It’s better to be over-prepared when heading into the mountains. The weather can change at any moment so here’s a checklist of things to do and to bring:
- Tell your hotel where you’re going and when to expect you back.
- Put a GPS map on your phone. Use an app like GPX viewer and download a GPX or KML file from Caucasus Trekking. Don’t rely on Google Maps for this journey. It doesn’t show anything useful.
- Water – There are places near the glacier to fill up but don’t rely on this.
- Wind jacket or windbreaker
- Sunscreen – The sun in the mountains will burn you faster than you can say, “oh crap where did I pack my sun cream?”
Starting the Hike
The first part before is the hardest and covers around 800m of elevation.
It’s also the part with some of the best views, especially looking back down the valley to the church which gets smaller and smaller as you climb but still looks amazing, even as a tiny blip.
Stretch out your calves and quads before you start hiking as there’s little flat ground for the first hour of the trail. It’s like climbing stairs until you reach the Arsha Pass at almost 3000m.
The trail at this point is easy to follow and even if you manage to make some minor detours, it won’t take long to get back on track. Look out for other hikers (I didn’t see any) and mountaineers (I met quite a few). They’re all going the same way.
At the pass, check out the magnificent view of Mt Kazbek. From this point, you can also see the top of the glacier.
Take in the views and then follow the more obscure path downhill a bit. Below the valley between you and Mt Kazbek is spectacular. The next main point on the route is the Betlemi (Bethlehem) hut, visible from the pass. The Red Cross on a white background stands out amongst the browns, greys, and greens.
Just before the Betlemi hut, you’ll have to cross a stream via a ladder bridge. It’s safe, but don’t take your eye off the ball.
From the hut, there’s another steep climb until you reach more streams. Depending on the level of water, and what you’re carrying, you could hop over the streams. There was a snow/ice section leading to a narrow crossing at one point but I didn’t trust it would hold me. On my way back down I saw that other people had used this bridge, so I followed their footsteps for the way back and avoided jumping across the stream.
The glacier itself isn’t that spectacular (viewed from the bottom) but you might get a glimpse of mountaineers making their way across it on their journey to the top of Mt Kazbek. Unless you have proper footwear (preferably crampons) it’s best not to wander around the glacier as it can be slippy. There’s also the danger of crevasses.
Grab some water from the flowing streams through the ice, admire the view, and start making your way back to the start of the trail.
It took me three hours to hike from the church to the point where I could put my feet on the Glacier. I’m a fast walker so unless you sprint up hills I’d allow for 4 hours. I made the trek from the town to the church on a different day but for this amazing day hike, I decided to grab a taxi to the church and start from there.
It took me 1.5 hours to get back to the church and another 30 minutes to get to the town. On the way down I made it halfway from the church to the town and then hitched a ride the rest of the way. Georgia is a safe country for hitching so I encourage you to try it. In this part of the country, the locals generally speak Russian and Georgian so don’t expect thrilling conversation in English with drivers.
Getting to Kazbegi / Spantsminda
Most people will travel from Tbilisi to Stepantsminda on a day trip tour. You definitely won’t have the opportunity to do any walking if you join one of these tours. Consider taking the tour to the town and making your own way back to Tbilisi.
The cheapest way to get from Tbilisi is by Marshrutka, the local buses that leave when they get full. And by full, I mean packed to capacity (And possibly more than that).
A taxi will set you back 180-200 GEL ($65 – $70 USD) one way.
Tours cost around 60 GEL so you could take a tour one way and a Marshrutka back as I did. I’m not really a fan of tours. It’s less than 100km from Tbilisi to Stepantsminda with 4-5 sights on the way, but the journey took us 9 hours if you include waiting for the bus to leave. Lunch is an overlong 2 hours in an expensive, low-quality restaurant.
I’m generalising here as I only did the journey once, with one company.
However, tours can be a great way to meet people and get some local insights. They are also much cheaper than hiring a taxi. If you have a group of people, it’s worth talking to a taxi driver for a better rate.
This is a 20km round trip hike from roughly 1800m to 3300m. You’ll climb 1500m during the ascent.
Where to stay in Stepantsminda
If you want luxury on a budget, Rooms Hotel Kazbegi is the place. I love this hotel. It reminds me of a Swiss ski resort and the view is spectacular. Rooms Hotel is rustic and gorgeous. The restaurant’s food, while expensive, is excellent and even if you’re not staying there, the staff treat you like a guest. You can hang out in the comfy seats of the cafe anytime. The coffee is delicious and you can order from 6 am, perfect for that pre-walk caffeine injection.
Another option is Hotel NOA, which is a 5-minute walk from Rooms. A great option if you’re on a tighter budget.
The only “problem” with both of these hotels is the location. They are at the top of a gentle incline hill. It’s a 5-10 walk from the town centre. Of course, if you’re here for hiking, this won’t be too much of a problem, and there aren’t a lot of interesting distractions in the town centre.
Can you climb to the glacier in one day from Tbilisi?
Yes, but only if you have your own driver. Otherwise, you’ll cut it fine. It’s worth spending a night in Kazbegi though. Accommodation and food in the town are not expensive and Kazbegi sunsets are incredibly beautiful.
What is the cost of hiking from Kazbegi to the Glacier?
No cost. There are no park fees and you do not need a guide unless it’s winter, or you require assistance.
Enjoy your walk!