The climb to Gergeti Glacier is arguably the most challenging, but also most scenic, day hike in Georgia’s Kazbegi region. Standing at over 3,000 meters above sea level, the glacier can be reached via a steep hike from town in about five hours. Despite the difficulty and lack of signage, hiking to Gergeti Glacier is pretty straightforward. Whenever in doubt, just head in the direction of the massive Mt. Kazbek which looms over the horizon.
Up to the Church
In a previous article, I covered the various routes one can take to get to Gergeti Trinity Church. This hike to the church is just one small piece of the entire hike up to the glacier.
So, despite having visited the church the previous evening, I started the morning off by repeating the walk over again. Fortunately, my prior experience gave me an idea of what to expect and the most straightforward path to take.
If you only have one full day in Kazbegi, you can just visit the church in the morning and then head on to the glacier from there. Since I’d already seen it, I decided to skip the church to save myself a bit of time.
Departing from my hotel at around 7am, I decided to take the most common and most straightforward route up, the trail that goes right past the ruined defensive tower.
This would eventually take me to the bottom of the hill behind the church. And from there I could just keep walking straight in the direction of Mt. Kazbek.
Arriving at the tower, there were only a few other hikers on the trail with me. But on the way, I passed nearly a dozen cows eating breakfast in the early morning sun. I was relieved to see that it was a clear day, though things can always change in an instant in the mountains.
After an hour so of walking, I caught a glimpse of Gergeti Trinity Church up on the hill over to my right. As mentioned, I decided to pass on a visit to the church this day.
But if you’d like to visit, walk around the hill until you reach the paved road leading to the entrance. Alternatively, you could also stop at the church on your way back down.
I continued heading straight. Over to my left, I saw a group of wild horses grazing in the large grassy meadow. And eventually, on my right, I’d pass by a large parking lot. Now with the church well behind me, I crossed the road and continued walking forward.
Hikers then have to walk uphill for awhile before the trail breaks into two. There’s a lower, easier trail and a steeper trail which leads you along the ridge.
It was around here that I happened to encounter a large group of hikers who seemed to appear out of nowhere. Apparently, they’d gotten a head start by taking a vehicle to the parking area.
Given the length of the entire hike, I’d been considering taking the easier trail up. But once I saw nearly the entire group of twenty or so hikers take that path, I opted for the more difficult route along the ridge. And this turned out to be an excellent choice.
Along the Ridge
The views from the ridge are far superior to the alternate trail (which I’d later take on the way down), as it offers a clear view of Mt. Kazbek the entire time.
And once you make it out of the forested area, you’ll be rewarded with fantastic views of the valley down below to your right. While steeper, taking the walk along the ridge is highly recommended unless it happens to be especially windy.
Gergeti glacier, the goal of the day’s hike, it situated along the southeastern slope of the extinct volcano of Mt. Kazbek. At 5,046 meters above sea level, Kazbek is Georgia’s third-highest mountain, but easily one of its most scenic.
According to local belief, the mountain is same one mentioned in the ancient Greek myth about Prometheus.
In Greek mythology, Prometheus is a Titan who steals fire from the gods in order to gift it to humans. And with fire, humans were able to create civilization.
This greatly angered Zeus, who tied Prometheus up to a mountain in the Caucasus. And every day, an eagle would come down to tear out his liver.
Each night, the liver would heal up again before the eagle returned the next day. Ultimately, the vicious cycle was put to an end when Prometheus was liberated by Heracles.
While the name of the mountain isn’t explicitly named in the myth, Georgians have long believed it to be Mt. Kazbek.
They also have their own version of the tale, in which the granter of fire is a character named Amirani. Supposedly, his shape can be made out in the side of the mountain from certain angles.
Confusingly, an alternate version of the local tale states that Amirani was trapped inside of a cave and not chained to a mountain – hence the ‘Prometheus Cave’ located outside of Kutaisi.
While Mt. Kazbek is climbable, it’s a grueling four-day hike that usually requires a guide. Most visitors to Kazbegi, then, make do with hiking to Gergeti Glacier and calling it a day.
The views of the valley, known as the Arsha Pass, were breathtaking. And I had virtually had the entire area to myself. All in all, I encountered no more than five of six other hikers.
This would be a pretty good place to stop and turn around for those looking for a medium-length hike. One shorter than hiking to Gergeti Glacier but more demanding than just turning around at the church.
Having skipped breakfast, I found myself starving. The sun was shining brightly, but I found a large boulder that offered a bit of shade. I sat down beside it and opened my bag of trail mix as I admired the dramatic scenery down below.
Eventually, it was time to move on. I got up and continued walking along the ridge. For awhile, it was pretty clear where I needed to go.
Eventually, however, I ended up in a large grassy meadow. There were various dirt trails here, some of which eventually faded away into the tall grass. It wasn’t exactly clear which path one was supposed to take, and there were no other hikers in sight. But as I could still see Mt. Kazbek over in the distance, I knew that I was at least headed in the right general direction.
And then, over in the distance behind me, I saw two other people who waved over at me. We chatted for a bit, and it turned out that they were just as confused as I was. We figured that as long as we were walking in the general direction of Mt. Kazbek, we’d probably be OK. And this turned out to be true. Before long, we found a distinct dirt path along the mountain.
Finally, we saw a small checkpoint up in the distance. It was here that the lower path and the path along the ridge converge. Numerous people were stopping to relax. And from this checkpoint, far off in the distance, we could spot the AltiHut up ahead – the last major landmark before our final destination, the Gergeti Glacier waterfall.
But to get there, there was still a lot of work to do, as we’d have to make it through the Saburtse Pass.
The Final Stretch
After hours of walking uphill, the next part of the path took us downhill for thirty minutes or so, which came as a slight relief. But this section of the hike happened to be especially rocky, meaning we carefully had to watch our every step.
By now, the Gergeti Glacier and waterfall were well within view, but we still had to make our way across the river.
While the river is relatively narrow, it’s definitely not something you should try to walk through. Fortunately, there’s a small bridge, which you’ll find by walking straight for several minutes.
The bridge is really just a narrow, rickety metal plank that requires a bit of caution. While not very long, only one person can walk across it at a time. If you happen to get there when groups of people are hoping to get across from either side, expect a holdup of around 10-15 minutes.
Crossing the river, I could see the AltiHut over in the distance to my right. Supposedly, there’s a cafe inside and it’s even possible to spend the night!
But I decided not to stop. Though I was already feeling pretty worn out from hours of hiking, I was now under an hour away from the final destination. And so I decided to keep pushing on until the very end.
By now, I was likely already on top of the glacier itself. But as much of it’s covered by rocks, it’s nearly impossible to tell where the glacier ends or begins.
As my main objective was to make it to the waterfall, and I still had another half an hour or so of hiking to do. And this would end up being one of the trickier parts of the climb.
To get to the final stretch, we all had to make our way over a large stream of water that was too wide for hopping over. It was necessary to step on at least two rocks to get to the other side. But there were several rocks to choose from, and it wasn’t obvious which ones would offer the most stability. (As I’d later learn in Svaneti, hiking poles really help in situations like these.)
I had my camera and lenses to take care of, and I patiently waited for awhile as I watched some other hikers figure it out. Different people chose slightly different routes, but everyone managed to make it across. Determining my course of action, I put my camera in the dry bag and leaped into action.
Luckily, I made it, but one little slip and I would’ve ended up soaked. While doable, this is another part of the hike that could really use a small bridge.
There were still more steep rocky hills to traverse, taking me up and back down again numerous times. The exhaustion, combined with the altitude, called for lots of pausing to catch my breath. But since I was so close, and I decided to keep pushing onward before allowing myself to sit down.
And the next thing I knew, there was the Gergeti Glacier waterfall right in front of me. From the angle I was standing, I saw a small yet vibrant rainbow form in the falls. It was a nice little reward for the long, grueling hike.
But this isn’t where everyone was stopping. Over in the distance, I could see a number of climbers walking over the ice at the base of Mt. Kazbek. Some were likely experienced climbers at the start of their multiday journey to the top. And others were probably daytrippers like me who wanted to walk on the ice for awhile before turning around.
Though I thought about walking up to the ice, I decided that the waterfall would be an ideal place to turn around. I was already feeling some pain in my feet and could sense that I’d have a long walk back down to Kazbegi,
The Long Walk Back Down
The walk back down is very straightforward. Simply head back the way you came. Or, if you hiked up the ridge on the way up and want to take the easier path back down, veer to the right after you make it back to the checkpoint area.
This is what I did, though the return trip was hardly as smooth as I would’ve liked.
As my regular shoes weren’t really suitable for the outdoors, I decided to buy a new pair of hiking shoes before my trip to Kazbegi. Admittedly, I knew very little about hiking gear and at the time, I didn’t realize how crucial it is to get the right shoes.
I’d climbed up and down numerous mountains, such as Mt. Fuji or Mt. Merapi, in nothing but cheap old tennis shoes. And I’ve also done plenty of trekking through the jungles in regular sandals. So while I’d never owned a proper pair of hiking shoes, I didn’t see the issue with picking up something cheap in Tbilisi. But by the time I realized my error, it was much too late.
While I made it up to the waterfall without any problems, the walk back down was a whole other issue. I soon started to feel pain in my toes, which I couldn’t prevent from repeatedly banging up against the hard edge of the shoe.
Not only were my shoes of poor quality, but they were much smaller than they should’ve been. Hiking shoes, I’d later learn, should provide a lot more room for your toes than regular shoes.
And the more I walked, the worse the pain grew with each step. Eventually, it felt like I was stubbing my big toes with every step I took! I stopped to take off my shoes and look at my feet, and sure enough, they were already bleeding.
Having no choice but to persist, I slowly and carefully made my way back down. Step by excruciating step. Finally, after a few hours, I sighed in relief as I spotted a familiar sight in the distance: Gergeti Trinity Church. But of course, I’d still have to make it all the way down from there.
I eventually limped into town much later than I ever could’ve anticipated. Despite making good time on the way up, the climb down took me just as long! (Normally, most people can complete the hike in around 8-10 hours round trip).
Though I’d intended to walk through the Truso Valley the following day, I knew that my feet were done for awhile. I made it back to my hotel, showered and had a long, deep sleep.
On the bright side, I was able to learn from the experience. Putting in the proper research and investing in a decent pair of shoes, I later completed the four-day Mestia to Ushguli hike without any issues – albeit with two missing toenails! Now with the right gear, I’d be open to hiking to Gergeti Glacier again sometime in the future.
From Tbilisi, first take the metro to Didube station and then follow the crowd to the large bus station/outdoor market hybrid. It’s not really a station, but a bunch of vehicles spread out among a huge parking lot.
From Didube, you have two options to get to Kazbegi: a marshrutka (shared minibus) or private minivan. The marshrutka costs 10 GEL and goes straight to Kazbegi, though there will likely be a bathroom break at some point. The minivan/taxi costs double the price, but this will allow you to stop at the Ananuri Lake View Point and the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument mentioned above.
It seems that neither option has a set schedule. The driver will just wait until the vehicle is full. But as the private minivan fits less people, it will likely require less waiting time.
Didube is a chaotic mess and it’s hard to figure out where you’re supposed to go to find the proper vehicle. Fortunately, considering the popularity of the destination, you’ll likely have people coming up to you and asking if you’re going to Kazbegi.
Even though the standard price for the minivan is 20 GEL, don’t be surprised if the drivers quote you a higher price. Annoyingly, you’ll probably need to haggle a bit just to get the basic fare.
For either the minivan or marshrutka, you just pay the fare on the bus. There’s no need to make a purchase from any of the ticket counters.
If you’re prone to carsickness, this ride is going to be a tough one. I was barely able to hold it together, and I was really glad that I hadn’t eaten a large breakfast. Another benefit of taking the private minivan is that the two stops give you some time to recuperate and breathe in some fresh air.
To make matters worse, the road on the journey there reeks badly of exhaust fumes, which certainly doesn’t help with the nausea!
Unlike other popular Georgian mountain towns like Mestia or Ushguli, the town of Kazbegi is pretty dilapidated and rather devoid of charm. There’s not much in town of note to see, aside from the Stepantsminda History Museum, which seemed to be closed during my visit. The town, then, is best thought of as a base from which to hike.
Numerous restaurants and cafes have been built recently to take advantage of the ongoing tourism boom in Georgia. Wherever you base yourself, you won’t have any trouble finding restaurants, coffee shops or supermarkets.
Kazbegi is a small town, so just make sure you’re relatively close to the bridge which takes you to the other side of the river. Or, you can also stay somewhat uphill in Gergeti Village on the opposite side. Gergeti is home to a few guesthouses and restaurants, and staying there would give you a brief head start on your hikes.
I stayed in a small yet modern private room that I booked on Airbnb. While not a completely horrible experience, the walls were paper thin, and I’m not going to recommend it. I could make out every single word the people in the room next door were saying, even when they were talking at a normal volume. It seems that a lot of the newer guesthouses in the area are being built as quickly and as cheaply as possible.
When researching accommodation, I came across several great-looking rooms, all run by different hosts, that all had a common complaint in the reviews: the door wouldn’t lock. Though the room I booked didn’t have any such comments, it turned out that my door wouldn’t lock either!
This is a strange problem that I’ve noticed all over Georgia. It seems like a trend for builders to give up at 99%, without bothering to carry out this final yet crucial step. Mentioning it to the owners doesn’t do much good, as they’ll often just shrug their shoulders. With that in mind, always bring a little lock for your luggage when traveling in Georgia.
If you’re just hiking to Gergeti Church, there’s not a whole lot you need to bring. Just wear close-toed shoes (regular tennis shoes are fine) and prepare a raincoat just in case. You should also bring a small bottle of water.
If you’re hiking onward to the Gergeti Glacier, you’ll definitely want to bring ample snacks and water. You should also bring a hat and sunscreen. Considering the length of the hike (9-10 hours in total), you’ll need to reapply sunscreen at some point.
Even though the glacier hike is a long and fairly tough one, you don’t really need any special shoes other than a decent pair of tennis shoes. But in case it rains, shoes that hold up fairly well in water are best.
The most important thing is that your shoes don’t hurt your feet as you walk downhill, as the downhill portion of the trek goes on for hours.
While, as mentioned above, I’m far from being an expert on hiking shoes, these shoes by North Face really came through for me during my later hikes around Svaneti. It was almost like walking on pillows, and I never developed a single blister. You can also get them at the Magellan sporting goods shop in Saburtalo, Tbilisi.
Also, prepare a raincoat and long sleeves for the morning, as it can get quite cold in the mountains. Hiking poles would be nice, too, but they’re not an absolute necessity.