Hiking Cappadocia is arguably the best way to take in the region’s surreal landscapes. And it’s also completely free. In this guide, we’ll be covering what’s possibly Cappadocia’s very best loop trail. Starting from Göreme, the hike will take you through Meskendir Valley, Red Valley, Rose Valley and finally Sword Valley – a long but highly rewarding journey.
In addition to the beautiful landscapes, what makes this particular hike special is the abundance of ancient churches to see along the way. It’s therefore essential for both nature and history lovers.
To learn more about transportation and accommodation in Cappadocia, check the end of the guide.
About this Hike
THE BASICS: Leaving Göreme, you’ll need to walk for awhile to Aynali Church to reach the start of the loop.
After the church, the trail will take you north through Meskendir Valley and east through Red Valley. Entering Rose Valley, you’ll gradually head northwest, while Sword Valley will take you back south.
There are many churches to stop at along the way, some of which are slightly off-trail. You can read more about how to reach them in the guide below.
In total, the loop stretches out to 13 km (or more with detours) and is generally rated as ‘moderate.’ Depending on your pace and time at the churches, it could take anywhere from 5-8 hours.
RECOMMENDED APPS: This particular route has more trail markers than other parts of Cappadocia. But apps are still very useful.
For this hike, we recommend the app called TrailSmart which covers the entire loop. It’s based on Google Maps, so many of the smaller trails are missing. However, unlike AllTrails, this app highlights most of the churches.
You should also check Maps.me during this hike, as it features both the churches and smaller hiking trails. (The loop route itself is missing, however.)
WHAT TO BRING: Be sure to wear decent shoes. Hiking boots are recommended, but a sturdy pair of tennis shoes should also be fine. Trekking poles would be helpful for this hike but aren’t completely necessary.
Also be sure to bring adequate water, though you will be able to restock at several cafes along the way. Definitely bring some snacks with you as well. And don’t forget to put on sunscreen!
What Makes Cappadocia so Special?
Cappadocia’s unique landscape owes itself to a combination of factors. Multiple volcanoes erupted over 30 million years ago, with the ash hardening into a type of limestone called tufa. The tufa was then subject to millions of years of erosion by both wind and rain.
All sorts of strange shapes formed as a result, including Cappadocia’s iconic ‘fairy chimneys.’ The standalone rock towers do indeed resemble something out of a fairytale.
Cappadocia isn’t just geologically unique, but historically important. The region was a major Christian center for centuries – perhaps even as early as the 1st century. And the community especially thrived during the Byzantine era.
Local Christians took advantage of the tufa’s softness, carving churches within the fairy chimneys and entire monasteries within the larger outcrops. This particular hike includes many such churches, most of which still retain their beautiful Byzantine-era frescos.
As with any loop trail, you can choose to hike it in either direction. But this guide presumes you’ll start by walking all the way east to Aynali Church before walking north through Meskendir Valley.
Aynali Church is 2 km away from central Göreme – a pretty long journey just to get started. From the town center, follow the signs for the Göreme Open Air Museum and walk along the main road for awhile. After passing the museum, keep following the same road uphill, continuing further east.
If you haven’t seen it yet, you may be tempted to visit the Open Air Museum in the morning. However, considering the length of this hike and all there is to see at the museum, I’d recommend skipping it for now. While it’s definitely worth seeing, save it for another day or perhaps later in the evening if you still have time.
Eventually, you’ll see a sign pointing toward Aynali Church. You’ll have to turn right down a path off the highway, and it’ll only be a few moments before it comes into view.
Like all Cappadocia churches, it was carved right into the rock. But this one is so big it even consists of multiple stories. Entry to the church costs 10 TL (as of 2020), and Aynali the only church in this guide to require an entry ticket.
Aynali Church is also known as the Symmetrical Church due to the matching geometric patterns lining either wall. Not a whole lot of its history is known, but archaeologists believe it was carved sometime in the 11th century during Byzantine times.
As some sections are pitch black, the staff will lend you a flashlight upon entry.
Exploring the dark passageways, you’ll encounter a round millstone which acted as a security measure. It’s similar to the ones in the underground cities of Derinkuyu and Kaymaklı.
On the upper floor, one of the rooms was used as a dovecote to attract pigeons, as pigeon waste was commonly used as fertilizer. Another columned room, meanwhile, offers good views of the surrounding scenery.
It’s a good idea to stock up on water here, as you likely won’t encounter any vendors until the beginning of Red Valley.
Returning to the main road, keep walking east until you see a sign for the Kaya Campsite on your left. Shortly after the campsite, you’ll want to turn left. And at the next fork of the road, make a right to begin your descent into Meskendir Valley.
Meskendir Valley is the most straightforward section of this hike. It’s well-shaded and there aren’t too many deviations off the main trail. And like everywhere else in Cappadocia, the scenery is gorgeous.
After making your descent into the lowest part of the valley, you’ll find yourself walking along a forested path. And you’ll also pass through some tunnels – just the first of many.
Roughly halfway through the valley, you’ll spot the large rock-cut Meskendir Church over on your right. But it’s unclear at first how you’re supposed to get there.
After passing through another tunnel, walk past the church before encountering a narrow uphill path on your right.
You’ll then want to backtrack slightly via this path, which will take you right up to the church. (Be sure to check Maps.me for this.)
Originally part of a larger monastery complex, Meskendir Church consisted of two main places for worship in addition to refectories and a kitchen.
The craftsmanship of the main church, consisting of three apses, is noticeably more refined and precise than at other Cappadocian churches. And the red geometric patterns still appear fresh.
When finished exploring the complex’s various rooms, head back down the way you came. Continue north along the main path, traversing various tunnels along the way.
Following the TrailSmart map, make a sharp right where the road forks to make your way toward Red Valley.
The scenery around here is impressive, and you may want to take some time to explore before proceeding. I decided to walk all the way north to see Kucuk Kilise, but there was no way to get inside. And so I walked back, turning east to enter Red Valley.
Approaching Red Valley, you’ll be greeted with another long tunnel. Continuing eastward, your first goal will be to find the Güllüdere Tea Garden. Whether or not you want to stop for a drink, you’ll need to need to pass through here to make your way onward.
Despite the map appearing pretty straightforward, I encountered some hiccups on my way to the cafe. It’s confusing because you’ll soon be walking through what seems to be peoples’ property as the main trail fades away.
And as you’ll also find yourself within a small canyon, your GPS will likely go a bit haywire. But you do indeed want to continue heading east, even if it seems like you’re walking over someone’s farm.
Heading uphill and turning around a corner, you’ll encounter the cafe.
I sat down here and had some tea, juice and water (yes, I was that thirsty!). The owner is very friendly and he even brought me some complimentary snacks. But expect him to proselytize Islam to you, which can get a bit awkward.
He pointed me in the right direction and I continued heading east and uphill. Eventually, I found myself at a scenic viewpoint overlooking Red Valley from above.
Now heading northeast, your next landmark will be the Grape Church (Uzumlu Kilise). Its name is appropriate, as it’s situated among local vineyards.
As opposed to the elaborate multistoried churches we’ve seen thus far, the Grape Church was carved out of a single ‘fairy chimney’ formation.
You’ll likely find the gate to be locked. But the opening at the bottom is even wide enough for some adults to squeeze through. If you don’t think you can fit, try finding a local child to open it for you in exchange for a small tip.
However you make your way in, the trouble is worth it, as the frescoes still retain their vibrant color. And they’re especially remarkable considering the church likely dates back to the 7th century.
In addition to the grapevines and crosses, three figures in the center seemingly represent Jesus and two angels. But with their faces entirely missing, it’s hard to tell.
Most of the faces were etched out by Islamists. But other parts of the frescoes were likely damaged earlier by the Greek Christians themselves. According to an ancient superstition, fragments of these holy frescoes could offer healing powers when mixed with water.
When finished with the Grape Church, your next destination will be the Aktepe Sunset Viewpoint to the east. Looking closely, you should be able to spot a parking lot with some kiosks over in the distance.
That’s where you want to head, but figuring out exactly how is one of the more confusing parts of this hike.
The path seems to split into multiple parts in this area, with some of them leading nowhere. Thinking I was on the correct trail, I’d climb up one of the rocky humps, only to reach the edge of a cliff. A couple of times I had to scoot on my butt to make it down safely.
But eventually, the view from one of the hills revealed the proper trail, which was just a bit to the north. I followed it and found myself at the parking lot
As this is a sunset spot, many of the stalls and kiosks were empty, but there was somebody selling juice. Even if you’re not looking to buy something, it can be nice to relax on flat ground for a bit to enjoy the views.
The Aktepe Sunset Viewpoint is the easternmost point of the day’s hike. Moving on, you’ll want to exit the parking area via a trail leading to the north. You’ll then make a left heading west, walking along a ridge with two valleys on either side of you.
The views of Rose Valley from this ridge are breathtaking, and arguably the highlight of this entire hike. Take your time soaking it all in before making your descent.
There’s not a clearly marked trail around here, and it’s not obvious where you need to go. But basically, you just want to head downhill as you continue heading west.
You’ll probably have to improvise a little bit, but you’ll eventually figure out a way into the valley. Fortunately, the paths around here aren’t too steep or slippery.
As great as the hike’s been thus far, Rose Valley is arguably the most interesting part of the whole day, as it contains multiple ancient churches to explore – each of them unique.
As the path meanders north, the first major landmark to visit will be the Columned Church (Direkli Kilise / Kolonlu Kilise), which is a bit off the main loop trail.
To get there, head west down the junction where TrailSmart has you continuing north. It will be easy to backtrack to the main trail later.
The Columned Church is situated within a huge outcrop. And from the outside, it doesn’t look all that different from Meskendir Church. But the interior is another story.
Heading up to the second floor, you’ll find that the church does indeed live up to its name. But what’s especially impressive is that this spacious hall wasn’t built, but entirely hollowed out!
Created in the 11th century, the cruciform-shaped Columned Church is one of the largest in the region, with the top of the dome reaching up to 8.5 meters above the ground.
In addition to the main hall with four columns, there are multiple other rooms to explore. Noticeably absent, however, are any frescoes or intricate carvings.
Exiting the Columned Church, I decided to deviate further from the recommended loop trail, heading west to check out the Joachim-Anna Church. I was unable, however, to find a way inside.
Returning northeast, the next landmark of Rose Valley is Haçlı Church, which is indeed accessible.
Near the base, you’ll encounter a small cafe where the shop owner is selling juice and water. The prices are considerably higher than those of other vendors. But in such a remote location, who can blame him.
In addition to an ornate cross carved in the ceiling, the central apse contains a detailed and well-preserved fresco. Most of the faces have been etched out, but the other portions remain in excellent condition.
The imagery depicts Jesus seated on a throne, surrounded by a crew of saints, angels and even animals. They likely date back to around the 9th century.
The next landmark will be the Ayvali Church – the northernmost point of the loop trail. Returning to the base of Haçlı Church, you’ll want to continue heading north along the recommended route.
After a short uphill trek, there’s a steep downhill section leading you back into the valley. On Maps.me the point is labelled ‘Difficult pass without ropes.’
Clearly, there used to be a rope for trekkers to use, but it was entirely missing at the time of my visit.
As the dust and small pebbles make this section very slippery, I had to squat down low and carefully scoot my way down, grabbing grass and plants for leverage.
While I did eventually make it down without incident, you might want to consider bringing trekking poles with you just for this particular section.
Disappointingly, Ayvali Church turned out to be completely locked, with no way to squeeze in. There are, at least, some colorful frescoes above the doorway.
Ayvali Church is situated slightly north of the recommended loop trail, but it’s no major detour. Backtrack to the south, and then continue heading west along the main trail.
There’s still one more church to look forward to, which is indeed open and one of Rose Valley’s highlights. And there are plenty of picturesque views to take in on the way there.
You should eventually encounter the Church of the Three Crosses (3 Haçlı Kilise) on your right. But strangely, there’s no obvious entryway at ground level.
It’s quite tricky, but I decided to climb up the steep path situated all the way to the right. Once you make it in, the rooms are all connected to one another.
And your efforts will be rewarded with both well-preserved frescoes and detailed carvings of crosses on the ceiling (hence the name).
The church dates back to the 10th century and was likely once a large monastery. For a great summary of the symbolism, check this entry on the Cappadocia History website. (Confusingly, the author labels most of the Rose Valley churches as being in Red Valley instead.)
Without any staircases, exiting the church is a challenge. I ended up just sliding down on the same slope I walked up.
The remaining portion of Rose Valley is relatively unremarkable, and your next goal will be to make it to Sword Valley, the final portion of this hike.
Continue heading west and then make a sharp turn left (south) as indicated on the TrailSmart route. And after turning, it’s important to pay attention to the map and take the right-hand path at the next fork of the road.
(Were you to continue straight down the central trail, you’d eventually end up at the part from earlier where Meskendir Valley and Red Valley meet.)
Heading slightly southwest, the trail will lead you behind someone’s farm and then up a hill. After that, the trail leads you downhill again, and you should soon find yourself at the start of Sword Valley.
You’ll know you’re in Sword Valley as soon as its trademark sword-like fairy chimneys come into view. Near the beginning, you’ll also spot what appears to be a large fortress, or perhaps monastery, carved into a formidable outcrop.
Peeking into some of the rock-cut rooms, you’ll find what was likely a dormitory for monks. But frankly speaking, none of the man-made structures in this area can compete with the churches of Rose Valley.
As Sword Valley is relatively close to Göreme, this may be the first and only section of the hike where you encounter group tours. The area is popular for horseback excursions as well as ATV tours.
I fully expected Sword Valley to be a simple and straightforward end to the day. After all, the TrailSmart route simply tells you to walk south all the way through it before reaching the highway near the Göreme Open-Air Museum.
But that’s not how things turned out.
*Note: From this point on, I found the TrailSmart route to be misleading, only taking me to a dead-end. The Maps.me trail wasn’t of much use, either. Either I missed something, or there have been major alterations to the area fairly recently.
Keep reading to find out what happened to me. But in regards to trekking advice, here’s what you should do: After passing the main Sword Valley formations, head directly west to find the wide dirt trail that connects Göreme with Çavuşin. Once there, simply head south to reach the highway on which you started the hike.
As the sun began its descent on the horizon, I continued heading south through Sword Valley. I then found myself in a smaller valley, with dovecotes carved into the tall ridges on either side.
The path veered to the left, and it was also lined with chain-linked fences. I checked the TrailSmart app, which told me I was still on the correct path. Looking closely, there is indeed a section of the highlighted trail that veers slightly to the left.
Anyway, I was so close to the highway that I wasn’t too concerned.
But this path only took me into the middle of a tall, narrow canyon. Certainly not what I was expecting! But I figured it would be a short walk before I came out the other end and reached the highway.
But I only encountered multiple ladders to climb. And after several minutes of traversing what felt like an obstacle course, there was no end to the slot canyon in sight.
Eventually, I hit a dead-end that was blocked by a boulder. While I could’ve tried climbing over it, I had serious doubts at this point that I was even in the right place. And the GPS wasn’t functioning at all here.
And so I begrudgingly returned the way I came. I figured I must’ve missed something near the entrance to the canyon.
Making my way back to the first ladder, I found two dogs waiting patiently below. I hadn’t seen them before, but it was as if they knew I’d be coming.
To gain their trust, I gave them some of my remaining snacks before I climbed down the ladder.
They were delighted, and this was apparently enough for them to consider me their new best friend. As I walked around to see where I’d gone wrong, they followed me every step of the way.
Outside the slot canyon, I looked carefully and determined that there really was no other path I could’ve taken.
Walking back through the fenced trail, I looked around some more. But I spotted no other paths leading directly south to the highway, as that direction was entirely blocked by the tall ridge.
The only way back to Göreme, as far as I could tell, was to head west toward a large trail/dirt road connecting the highway with Çavuşin to the north.
But there was no direct route there – even on Maps.me. But at least there was no ridge blocking my path, and I decided to improvise by cutting through people’s backyards to reach my destination.
The dogs, meanwhile, kept following me closely. I’d already given them the remainder of my snacks, but they still seemed intent on keeping me company. They were clearly still hungry, feasting on horse droppings that we passed along the way (yuck!).
As they both had collars on, they were surely owned by somebody. But they seemingly had no qualms about leaving their family behind. It was good luck, I figured. If I encountered any guard dogs on my journey, the pair would back me up.
And just moments after thinking that, my theory was put to the test.
Just ahead of me, I saw what was, without exaggeration, one of the largest dogs I’d ever seen in my life. He was easily the size of my two companions combined!
And he wasn’t happy to see me. At all. He began running toward me at full speed. I was at the edge of a small ridge and had seconds to decide what to do.
As I scanned my surroundings for a potential weapon, he kept charging at me until he was just several meters away. But then, all of a sudden, he came to an abrupt halt.
Though I hadn’t noticed it at first, he was actually leashed. It was a really, really long leash, but it may have saved my life.
As for my new friends? They were cowering behind me the entire time. Utterly useless…
Just as I made it to the dirt road, a big dust storm started up for good measure. I shrugged it off and headed onward to central Göreme, as the dogs kept on following closely behind me.
I was convinced they’d end up tailing me all the way to my hotel. But on the way to Göreme, they got caught up in a skirmish between a different gang of dogs, and I finally lost them.
It was already early evening by the time I strolled into town. After stopping at a local market, I returned to my hotel and headed straight for the shower.
Cappadocia refers to a vast region that overlaps a few different Turkish provinces. And the region contains a number of cities and towns.
Cappadocia’s main towns are Göreme, Avanos, Ürgüp and Uçhisar – all of which are situated amongst stunning natural landscapes. And they all provide ample amenities for tourists, like hotels, restaurants and tour agencies.
The two proper cities of the region are Kayseri and Nevşehir, but they’re lacking in scenery and there’s no good reason to stay there.
Having stayed in Göreme during my first visit several years ago, I was considering changing things up by trying a different town. But upon further research, I realized that Göreme is by far the most conveniently located, hence its popularity.
As my main goal was to hike, I found that many of the region’s most well-known valleys, castles and other landmarks are within walking distance from Göreme. While there are indeed other highlights in Cappadocia that require a vehicle, you’ll have to rely on them much less if you stay in Göreme.
Göreme is probably one of the most touristy parts of Turkey. And with that comes both negatives and positives, among which is the large selection of hotels.
You’ll find something for all budgets here – from backpacker dorm rooms to luxury suites.
Many of the hotels advertise themselves as ‘cave houses,’ meaning they’ve been carved out of the natural limestone rock. This not only makes for a special and cozy atmosphere, but the rooms keep surprisingly cool in summer.
During my first visit to Cappadocia, I stayed in a proper cave house which is apparently no longer in business. On a smaller budget my second time around, I opted for the Mevlana Hotel. While not carved into the rock, the hotel is nonetheless made of stone.
The room was a basic private room with a private bathroom, and it also included breakfast. At the time of my visit, the price was reduced due to the coronavirus pandemic.
I was happy with what I got for the price that I paid. The room was fine, but I wouldn’t consider it a great value had I paid the standard rate. Then again, Göreme is a bit pricier overall than most places in the country.
The nearest big cities to Göreme are Kayseri and Nevşehir. Both of these cities have airports, and from either one you can easily take a shuttle bus to Göreme.
Despite being just a town, Göreme has direct bus connections with many major cities throughout Turkey.
For example, I was able to get a direct coach bus to Göreme all the way from Gaziantep with the Süha bus company. I was actually somewhat surprised that there was no transfer in Kayseri, with the same bus taking me all the way.
It’s not unheard of to need to transfer in Kayseri or Nevşehir, though, so it’s best to confirm this when buying your ticket (if they speak any English!).
Conveniently, the Göreme Otogar (bus terminal) is located in the very center of town. It shouldn’t be more than several minutes on foot from wherever your hotel is.
Leaving Cappadocia, I easily caught a direct bus to Konya, and the same bus would be continuing onward to Antalya. You should also find direct buses between Göreme and Istanbul, Ankara and other cities.
While the Turkish government isn’t quite as extreme as China when it comes to online censorship, you’ll probably want a decent VPN before your visit.
I’ve tried out a couple of different companies and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.
Booking.com is currently banned in the country (at least when you search for domestic accommodation). However, there are actually quite a few Turkish hotels listed on there anyway. And many them don’t even appear on Hotels.com, which hasn’t been banned.
Over the course of my trip, I ended up making quite a few reservations with Booking.com and was really glad I had a VPN to do so.
Another major site that’s banned is PayPal. If you want to access your account at all during your travels, a VPN is a must.
While those are the only two major sites that I noticed were banned during my trip, Turkey has even gone as far as banning Wikipedia and Twitter in the past.