The American Guide to Vitosha (Витоша)

Cherni Vrah (2290m/7513ft)

Cherni Vrah (2290m/7513ft)

Although I am an American my intent behind this post isn't necessarily to provide my perspective (I have the whole rest of the site for this) but to provide my eccentric compatriots a guide that suits them. What do I mean by that...well here comes the stereotyping...Americans visiting in Europe are usually passing through and are most interested in checking tings off the list. In this case answering the question, "So, how do I get to the top?" For those of you who don't know the top is Black Peak or in Bulgarian Черни Врах or in latin Cherni Vrah (one of 10 peaks over 2000m on Vitosha). For those intrepid travellers I have put together the bare bones options (I will work to expand on these on the site soon).

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Trail up slopes above Hizha Aleko

Trail up slopes above Hizha Aleko

Option 1: Hard As Nails - In the case you want the most traditional route, start from NDK (НДК), yes thats right NDK and head due south over the pedestrian bridge, across to the main part of South Park where you will head to the south end and take the ul. Nikola Krush towards Dragalevtsi (Драгалевци). This route mirrors that of Vitosha Run and the track and map are available at Marathon.bg (BG). This route is 18.5 km (11.5 miles) long with 1800m (5900ft) of climbing, and thats just to the top.

Option 2: E-4 - Get yourself to the main square of Dragalevtsi, either by taxi, car or public transport .  Follow the red blazed trail up the steep street at the southwest corner of the square and continue all the way to Cherni Vrah. This trail goes via Hizha Aleko. This trail is just under 10km (6 miles) long and requires around 1500m (4900 ft) of climbing. Variant - From Goli Vrah lift station you can continue of the main gravel road to Cherni Vrah, this will by pass the steep section by Hizha Aleko but the distance and climb are the same.

Option 3: Easiest way - So maybe you're not a sadist like other trail runners, if thats the case this if for you. Part 1: choose your method: 

Aforemention gravel road from Goli Vrah to Cherni Vrah

Aforemention gravel road from Goli Vrah to Cherni Vrah

  • Simeonovo Lift (weekends),Taxi, or car to to Hizha Aleko
  • Dragalevtsi Lift to Goli Vrah (Bus 93 from the Zoo or Vitosha Metro stop)
  • Bus 66 (weekends) to Hotel Moreni

Part 2: Choose your way, but I recommended ascending via Goli Vrah to Cherni Vrah then if you like descending to Hizha Alkeo

So there ya go, for my traveling peak bagging friends there is your quick overview. Below is an overview of the trails on on Vitosha so you can navigate a bit better. As you may or may not know I am a fan of REI's Trail Run project  you can access all the data there or you can download their app. If you have any other questions feel free to leave a comment below or to reach out to me on social media at the links below.

Results: A weekend at the Seaside

This past weekend I spent in the Bulgarian Black Sea resort of Golden Sands for a wedding. While I was there of course I had to take the opportunity to get a run or two in.

Descending to sea level in Varna

Descending to sea level in Varna

The first of two runs I planned was in Varna itself. I knew that my main focus area was going to be Sea Garden as it is the site for the weekly. This was the perfect opportunity to work on some pace work as I continue to build my base back after my knee injury. I decided to make a loop out of the course and continue the run further until i reached the road down to the sea. I then followed the road all the way back to the Port of Varna and continued on to my hotel. The sea garden was filled with other runners and offered the perfect terrain to pick up the pace a bit. Running along the sea was very pleasant and empty although as I saw later in the day it would not be the ideal place for running as there is alot of pedestrian traffic especially on the southern half.

The next two nights we would be staying in Golden Sands, and as you saw last week i planned on doing some exploration the Golden Sands Nature Park. The park runs the length of the resort and covers some very rugged terrain reaching inland around 3 kilometers. Leaving our hotel at the northend of the resort I immediately hit a snag having to find my way past roads blocked with construction materials. With that solved the and the correct road I climbed quickly to reach the main road some 50+ meters above sea level. Crossing the road and following the indications on my GPS route I find myself in a sand pit that was being excavated, after a quick back track I followed the broken road that passed the northern edge of the Panorama section of Golden Sands. My plan was to take the M4 trail as marked on the map to the left, the section near the town was the hardest there were few markings and trail was faint at best.

As the road ended I continued into the forest following the faint trail for a few hundred meters. As the trail appeared to end cut through the few streets that remained and found the trail off a dirt road heading in the correct direction. I continued following this trail as it rapidly began to climb. I soon reached the intersection with the M1 trail where I was met with good trail markings and some foreboding animal skulls.  Here I turned south and continued along the wide trail, after a few hundred meters the trail joined a road for a few minutes before returning to dirt. This next section of trail had been heavily traveled by 4 wheel vehicles and made running difficult.  

M4 trail

M4 trail

Five kilometers into the run I reached the outskirts of a residential area that lies on a plateau about 200m above the sea. Here the M1 and M4 trails split and I decided to take the M4 that continued to the south. This ended up being a great choice as the terrain in this section was gorgeous. The trail was just over single track width with rolling hills and dense Lord of the Rings type forest surrounding either side. Shortly before reaching the next intersection I came across a small view point from and outcropping unfortunately the trees have overgrown and no view was available.

At the next intersection I turned left and descended via the M2 trail. The trail quickly descended about vertical meters in about half of a kilometer. This section of the trail is paved with limestone and has many stairs so I imagine in wet conditions its like ice. After the trail flattened out a bit I got back to running. The trail wound through the forest and was mostly flat until I reached the first road crossing. There I headed across the parking lot and found the trail that descended quickly again. I then crossed the main road and entered back into the resort area.  

Modeling my new hair style

Modeling my new hair style

Overall I was very happy with the quality of the trails and the weather. While I was lucky to be running in a mild 15-20C, I still felt the seaside humidity. In the summer I would imagine that this trail would be much more difficult. In fact I would be surprised if many tourists explored these areas as the summer sun would turn the forest into a sauna. However if you are in the area you should definitely check out some of the trails they are worth the time. Plus after running there is nothing better than taking a dip in the sea to cool off.

Routing in a foreign land

One of the main reasons I originally got into running was because it is an easy activity for me to do even when I am on the road. For those of you that know me, I am lucky enough to have a job that provides me with the opportunity to travel regularly. However I rarely find myself staying in a hotel in a major city, this makes finding running routes more of challenge and more of an adventure.

Strava's Route Builder

Strava's Route Builder

The primary tool that I use to plan my routes is Strava's Route Builder. It has a number of features that help me manage my time and effort levels. Firstly, it allows you to load the routes that you make on your phone. I no longer track activities using the Strava iPhone app, but will leave the track open to check if i am close. The other option is that I could potentially export the GPX then transfer it to my Garmin Fenix 3, however in the past Garmin Connect has not allowed me to do this. In addition I often travel without my connecting cable making transferring to my watch not an option.

Heat Maps Activated

Heat Maps Activated

The second feature that I love on Strava's Route Builder is overlay of the heat map. Although somewhat controversial due to data privacy, I find heat maps an import tool when I am on the road. They allow you to see the most commonly used routes (running/biking). The third feature (which is built off of heat maps)is the ability to plan a route by popularity. As you click the system will build the route between points using the most popular paths. This of course isn't fool proof and I have found that in heavily tracked cities or areas it can be a bit of a pain. However you can turn it off and add in a few manual points when necessary. This helps me get the most accurate track and idea of how long it will take me to run.

In addition to Strava's Route builder I do use a few other tools when I am researching different routes. If I am in an area where trail/mountain running is an option I will check REI's Trail Run Project, however it is most useful in North America. I will also try doing research for local races which can often give me an idea of trails or routes that maybe of interest. In addition I try to reference a variety of map resources to determine what is the path of least resistance.

Generally when I am traveling I have one of two goals that I try to get from my runs. The obvious one is the opportunity to see some of a city that I would have otherwise missed. The second is get some time out in nature and find an adventure. I rarely do work outs when I am travel however on occasion I find that I need to and for this I stick to the heaviest traveled routes. I recommend being extra observant if you do this because unfamiliar areas may present unfamiliar challenges. Not only unexpected changes in surfaces, but differing traffic patterns and all other forms of unexpected circumstances.

Tentative Route

Tentative Route

This weekend I am headed to the Bulgarian seaside for a wedding and as is ever the case, I plan on doing some running based exploration. The first run will be in Varna mostly based around the "Sea Garden." However the morning before the wedding I plan to explore some of the trails near Golden Sands and to the right you will see what I have tentatively planned. Let me know what you guys think, either leave a comment or send me a message on Instagram if you have thoughts on how I can get the most out of my run.