Picturesque Matka Canyon, home to numerous caves and monasteries, and Vodno Mountain, known for its towering Millennium Cross, are two of Skopje’s most popular destinations. But few visitors are aware that they’re linked by a hiking trail, with the journey lasting just a few hours. Though not many attempt it, hiking from Matka Canyon to Vodno Mountain is a unique and entirely free way to enjoy both scenic spots on the same day.
Be sure to check the very end of the article for specifics on reaching Matka Canyon from central Skopje, along with where to stay in the capital. But first, here are some essential things you should know before your hike:
Important Things to Know Before Hiking Between Matka Canyon and Vodno Mountain:
- To follow the trekking guide below, you’ll first need to get to Matka Canyon from Skopje by public bus. Once at the canyon, you’ll then need to hike up to the St. Nikola Monastery (30 minutes) from where the hike begins. The final landmark will be the huge Millennium Cross at the top of Vodno Mountain. In total, the hike takes 3-4 hours, not including the descent from Vodno.
- You can do this hike in either direction. Hiking from Matka to Vodno is the more difficult route, with the hike being mostly uphill. By finishing in Vodno, however, you can simply walk back into Skopje without needing to worry about bus schedules.
- There’s a cablecar that takes visitors up and down Vodno Mountain, but it might not always be running. Therefore, you should anticipate possibly needing to hike up or down the mountain. The lack of a cablecar would also make starting in Vodno the more difficult route overall.
- There are no water sources in between St. Nikola Monastery and the Vodno Cross. It’s imperative, then, that you bring enough water. Around two liters would be ideal on a hot day.
- The trail is marked, but the trail markers can be misleading and unreliable, often leading you to dead-ends. Therefore, it’s best to ignore the markers and follow the route outlined on the Maps.me app.
Arriving at Matka Canyon from Skopje by public bus (more below), you’ll find yourself near the medieval Sveti Bogorodica, or the Holy Mother of God Monastery. You can reach it by walking south for a few minutes away from the canyon.
Once there, you can enjoy the peace and quiet of the 14th-century monastery for a bit before heading on toward the crowded canyon.
After about ten minutes of walking south, you’ll reach the Matka Dam, constructed in 1935. And just beyond is the artificial but beautiful Matka Lake. In addition to several tourist-oriented restaurants, you’ll pass by yet another church, this one called St. Andrea.
As soon as I peeked my head in, a man inside immediately shouted ‘Ticket! Ticket!’ at me. The experience was so off-putting that I left right away. But if you really want to see the 14th-century church and its preserved frescoes, a ticket costs less than 100 MKD.
Nearby is the ferry pier, which you’ll need to use in order to start the hike to Vodno, as the path to St. Nikola Monastery begins on the opposite bank.
It’s also from here that you can take a boat ride to Vrelo Cave, one of the deepest caves in Europe and arguably Matka Canyon’s most popular attraction.
The one-hour boat ride to the cave costs 400 MKD (about 6.5 euro) per person, but I decided to give it a pass, as I’d have a long journey ahead of me.
Instead, I walked south along the walking trail, taking in the gorgeous views of the water and the canyon. And along the way, I even encountered a humongous snake!
After about ten to fifteen minutes in, I turned around and headed back to the ferry pier. Once there, I paid the boatman (or in this case, the boatchild) 30 MKD for the ride across. There would, of course, be no need for a return trip.
Hiking Up to St. Nikola Monastery
The trail up to St. Nikola Monastery begins immediately from the other side. It’s a steep, rocky climb, but it’s at least well-shaded. And it serves as a nice warmup for the much longer hike to Vodno.
The Matka Canyon area long served as a refuge for Christians escaping the Ottomans. And even once the Ottomans established control and proved themselves tolerant of Christianity, what better place than Matka for quiet contemplation?
As you make your way up the trail and above the trees, the 1,000 m-high canyon will come into view. And before long, you’ll arrive at the monastery itself.
While the monastery’s exact construction date is uncertain, it was first mentioned in the 17th century. Unfortunately, the church was locked at the time of my visit. But from the outside, it looks much like other churches of the era.
In addition to public bathrooms, you’ll find a picnic area which overlooks the canyon. This is the perfect place to relax and eat some snacks before setting off for Vodno Mountain.
It’s important to remember that the public tap at the monastery is the very last place you can refill your water bottle before arriving at Vodno (which lacks a tap but has shops selling bottles). Even if you’re not feeling thirsty, it would be wise to drink as much as you can handle before leaving.
Now it’s time to exit the monastery out the door in the back and begin the steep climb further uphill.
Hiking to Vodno Mountain
Exiting the monastery, you’ll immediately notice a sign pointing to Krstovar Peak, the official name of the peak on Vodno that’s home to the Millennium Cross, our final destination.
The first part of the hike is the toughest, as the climb is just as steep as the walk up to St. Nikola Monastery – but this time without any shade.
If you’ve taken your time to enjoy the scenery of Matka Canyon in the morning, your ascent will likely take place during the hottest part of the day.
Not expecting such a steep ascent from the getgo, I repeatedly needed to stop and catch my breath. But as I got higher and higher, I was rewarded with clear views of the surrounding mountains in all directions.
This is probably the most scenic part of the entire hike, so don’t feel guilty about taking your time here.
After admiring the viewpoints, you’ll have to hike a bit further uphill before you can finally catch a break. Then, follow the gently-sloped walking path as you continue to make your way further east in the direction of Vodno.
You’ll encounter plenty of trail markers and signs along this hike. In my case, tired of staring at my phone while out in nature, I decided to use my eyes and follow the on-site markers. But this turned out to be a mistake.
Occasionally, all of a sudden, the trail markers and the trail itself would just end, leaving me stranded in some strange, nondescript place. Checking Maps.me, I’d find myself well off the suggested trail and would need to work my way through a forest to get there.
As annoying as it can be to constantly check your phone while roaming the great outdoors, it’s best to trust the app over the trail markers for this hike.
Finding my way back to the route suggested by Maps.me, I was relieved to also encounter a clear outline of a trail on the ground. Unfortunately, however, the views were lacking for much of the middle portion of the hike, with tall trees obscuring the scenery on either side.
Eventually, the view will open up a bit, and you’ll get your first glimpse of the final destination, the Millennium Cross, far off in the distance.
While there are a few more uphill portions of the trek, the slopes from here on out are much gentler than the initial climb past the monastery.
In the middle of the hike, I found myself walking up to a ridge. And once there, I encountered a construction site for a brand new road across the mountain.
Just next to the road, I spotted a trail running parallel to it that was marked with red and white trail markers. This seemed like the right way to go, and I followed it for around ten minutes. But yet again, trusting the markers turned out to be a mistake.
At some point, they simply stopped, and I found myself at a dead end with nothing but thick forest in front of me. Checking Maps.me, I saw that the app’s trail was a bit further north, seemingly several minutes away.
I had to fight my way through a thick forest to reach it, and this turned out to be another mistake. Making my way out, with plenty of fresh scrapes and scratches, I realized that the ‘trail’ on Maps.me was the road all along! But I was at a level a few meters above it, with no safe way to jump down.
Annoyed, I had no choice but to retrace my steps back to the point where the road and marked trail separated. Once on the road, the hike from this point is at least pretty straightforward.
By the time you read this, the road will have likely been finished and paved. It’s never fun to ‘hike’ along a road, but there don’t seem to be any alternatives at this part of the journey.
As mentioned above, I made a mistake by not bringing enough water, and I was dying of thirst by this point. I was aware that the Millennium Cross was only an hour away, but I also spotted a spring relatively close by on Maps.me.
It would take me twenty minutes to walk along an alternate path to reach the spring, followed by another twenty minutes back. While this detour would nearly double the remainder of my journey, I was so thirsty that I couldn’t resist the temptation.
Making it there, however, I was devastated to find no water coming out of the spring! I had no choice but to return to where I started, even thirstier than before.
I tried to take my mind off the water situation, and the excellent views of the city down below made that a bit easier. Looking out over the bustling capital of Skopje, it was hard to believe that I’d walked all this way from Matka Canyon.
The sun and the heat were relentless this afternoon, but I could finally breathe a sigh of relief upon seeing the Millennium Cross straight ahead of me.
Vodno Mountain & The Descent to Skopje
Vodno Mountain’s monumental Millennium Cross was constructed in 2002. At 66 m high, the metal cross is one of the largest of its kind in the world. But frankly, apart from its size, there’s nothing too remarkable about it.
The real reason to come to Vodno Mountain is for the views. And at the top, you’ll find various lookout points in addition to outdoor cafes where people can sit and take in the scenery.
But despite being one of Skopje’s top tourist attractions, I was surprised to find only one other visitor there! The reason was, it turned out, the cablecar wasn’t running at the time.
While I’d been planning on taking the cablecar down, I had no choice but to hike instead. Fortunately, it was only a 40-50 minute journey on foot back to my hotel.
While there are no public springs on Vodno Mountain, I was relieved to find one of the small shops open. I bought a few bottles of water, finally quenching my thirst on this sweltering summer day.
The descent down the mountain was fortunately quite easy and straightforward compared with the earlier parts of the journey.
My guest house also happened to be within reasonable walking distance from the base of the mountain. But those staying further away will either need to head to a main road to find a bus or taxi.
All in all, hiking from Matka Canyon to Vodno Mountain certainly made for a memorable experience. But it was a longer, more confusing and much hotter hike than I’d anticipated!
Despite being one of Skopje’s, and North Macedonia’s, most popular tourism destinations, getting to Matka Canyon isn’t as straightforward as one would expect. While you can take public bus #60 from the main terminal, there’s no regularly updated info about timetables online.
Fortunately, the owner of my guest house provided me with a timetable that was valid as of 2021.
Bus #60 departs from Skopje’s bus terminal to Matka Canyon at 7:00, 8:45, 10:30 and 12:10.
I got there a bit before the 8:45 bus and it left right on time. You will need an electronic transport card to board buses in Skopje, but you’ll find a stand selling them right by where the public buses depart.
Note that there’s no need to go inside the bus terminal to board this bus. Instead, just head to the area under the railway tracks across the street. You’ll see many red buses gathered here along with signs indicating the bus numbers.
If you’re following the guide to hiking from Matka Canyon to Vodno Mountain above, you won’t have to worry about a return bus. But if you happen to be doing the hike in the opposite direction, getting from Matka Canyon to Skopje can be even more tricky.
Buses back to Skopje should leave every couple of hours, but try to ask your hotel manager for details before heading out. Also keep in mind that depending on traffic, return buses may not always depart at the normal bus stop. Furthermore, taxi drivers may try to take advantage of the confusion by convincing travelers that buses aren’t running at all!
While you might not face such difficulties, the thought of potentially having to deal with all that after a long hike is a major reason why I chose to start in Matka rather than Vodno.
As North Macedonia’s capital and largest city, Skopje can be reached directly from all over the country by both train and bus.
At the time of writing during the coronavirus pandemic, however, not as many buses will be running as one might expect. Buses that previously departed hourly may now only be running a few times a day. Be sure to check at the local bus station wherever it is you’re departing from.
You should also be able to find direct buses from many other cities in the Balkans.
The closest capital to Skopje is Pristina, Kosovo, which is just about 90 minutes away by bus.
The city also has its own international airport, with direct connections to multiple other cities in Europe.
While central Skopje’s main sites can all be seen on foot within a single day, spending several nights and using Skopje as a base for different day trips is ideal.
With that in mind, it’s more important to stay within reasonable walking distance of the bus terminal than it is to the city center.
While Skopje has a public bus system, it’s difficult to figure out and terribly slow due to bad traffic. Therefore, it’s best to walk whenever you can.
I stayed at a place called Universe Rooms and Apartments (formerly Universe Hostel). It’s located about 20 minutes on foot from the bus terminal and about 25 minutes from the Alexander the Great Statue.
I had a comfortable private room with a shared bathroom. The host Goran was incredibly kind and helpful in regards to information around the area, and it was easily one of my better accommodation experiences in the Balkans.