26 June 2024.

 

Albania’s spectacular Holta Canyon (Kanioni i Holtës) makes an epic day trip for anyone looking for an adventure away from the well-trodden tourist trail. 

Wedged between the Valamara and Tomorri Mountains, the vast Devoll Valley that cuts through central Albania is an agricultural stronghold, with the steep, fertile hillsides streaked in neat rows of orchards, vineyards and terracotta rooftops.

However, venture further into this lush backcountry, and you’ll discover waterfalls, caves and canyons that simply beg to be explored.

While this region of central Albania has become a popular weekend destination for locals, it is often overlooked by international tourists in favour of the shimmering Albanian Riviera and peaks of the Albanian Alps.

But with new roads and infrastructure being put in each year, this region is set to be the next big thing on Albania’s adventure scene.

holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh.

Concealed in the spectacular foothills that rise behind the tiny, riverside village of Drize, the narrow tear of Holta Canyon (Kanioni i Holtës in Albanian) is the main drawcard and makes an excellent day trip for anyone looking for an offbeat adventure and to escape the stifling summer heat.

This impressive karst ravine, carved over millennia by the Holta River, stretches on for some 3 kilometres.

Marked by rugged limestone cliffs that soar hundreds of metres overhead, the clear river meanders past wide pebble beaches, creating turquoise pools, some of which are warmed by the underground thermal activity.

As you move further into the mountain, tiny trees cling to the upper reaches of the steep rock face, while the gorge becomes so narrow down below that sunlight struggles to reach the pebbled river bed.

holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh. albania
holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh. albania

You can wander as far into the canyon as you’d like, often only limited by how wet you intend to get in the deepening river pools. Temperatures inside the ravine also remain wonderfully cool, providing a much-needed reprieve from the scorching summer heat that awaits outside.

I loved my time exploring Holta Canyon and if you enjoy an offbeat DIY adventure as much as I do, I’m sure you will to! This guide covers everything you need to know to help plan your visit to Holta Canyon, undoubtably one of the best things to do in central Albania.

Where is Holta Canyon?

Holta Canyon lies almost smack bang in the middle of Albania, located an hour southwest of Elbasan or a 30-minute drive north of Gramsh.

Though this region is often left off the usual tourist circuit, it offers a unique glimpse at authentic rural life in Albania, with tiny villages and deep-seated farming traditions that are a far cry from the commotion and seemingly endless construction of places like Saranda and Tirana.

The scenery is also stunning with mountains rising up along both sides of the Devoll River as it weaves its way towards the turquoise Banje Reservoir. The main road hugs the riverside for much for the way and continues through the mountains all the way to Korçë further south.

How to Get to Holta Canyon

After spending hours trawling over bus schedules and tour options, I decided to rent a car for a few days to make the most of my visit to Holta Canyon and, if it’s within your budget, I’d highly recommend this as the best way to explore the area independently.

Gramsh is the largest town nearby and the best place to use as a base from which to explore, however the closest village is actually Drize which lies just off the main road. You can also visit on a day trip from Tirana or Berat.

Holta Canyon By Car From Gramsh

 

From Gramsh, follow the main road northwest (SH71) and turn right at Drize.

The road through the village looks like it was once paved but has certainly seen better days with many large potholes and significant road damage. It’s a bumpy drive but is certainly manageable in a small 2WD.

After 1km, veer right at the intersection where there is a small and very faded sign indicating Holta Canyon, or Kabashit Cave (Shpella e Kabashit) which lies up the hill to the left. From here, the road is brand new and in excellent condition until the final stretch.

Continue on for 8 km where you’ll reach another turn off to the right where the road returns to rough gravel, however just before this intersection there’s a large parking area on the right hand side from where it’s a one kilometre walk to reach the canyon.

holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh.

This last section is manageable in a 2WD, almost all the locals took their little cars down, but if you’re in a rental car with a no dirt road policy, I’d suggest leaving your vehicle at the parking and walking the final section.

If you do continue to the very end, you’ll find some shaded parking in front of the Holta Hydroelectric Power Station, as well as beside both restaurants located at the end of the road.

Continue on foot past both restaurants to a set of concrete steps that go down to the river bed from where you’ll be able to see mouth of the canyon up ahead.

As you approach, the distinct sulphuric smell hangs in the air, indicative of the thermal activity brewing below the surface.

 

FIND YOUR RENTAL CAR  //  Visiting independently by car is really the best way to get the most out of your Holta Canyon experience. Tirana and Saranda are the best pick-up points with many options available. Compare the best rates for rental cars here.

holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh. albania
holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh. albania

Holta Canyon By Car From Berat

 

From Berat, there are two routes you can take which travel on either side of the Devoll River from Kuçovë and both take around 2 hours.

I drove the west route there and the east route back and much preferred the road through Deshiran which is in excellent condition and meanders through lovely bucolic scenery as you move through the mountains.

The west route does also have some pretty sections, however it is heavily damaged in parts and the vegetation is somewhat overgrown as you come over the mountain pass which obscured much of the views along the way.

Once you pass through Gostime and beyond the dam wall, the views up the valley are beautiful, with a backdrop of mighty Tomorri in the distance.

When visiting Gramsh, be sure to stop at the Banjes Reservoir Viewpoint – unfortunately there’s plenty of trash and some very sad looking dogs milling about but the views over the turquoise reservoir are great.

 

FIND YOUR RENTAL CAR  //  Visiting independently by car is really the best way to get the most out of your Holta Canyon experience. Tirana and Saranda are the best pick-up points, but you can also find vehicles available in Berat for a shorter trip. Compare the best rates for rental cars here.

holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh.

Holta Canyon Day Tour

 

If you’re not travelling by car, a day tour from Tirana will be your best bet.

At this point in time, tour options are reasonably limited, but I have no doubt that as Holta Canyon becomes more popular and demand grows, more tours will become available from other Albanian towns.

 

BOOK YOUR TOUR  //  This new top-rated tour departs from Tirana and takes you directly to Holta Canyon with brief stops along the way for a morning coffee and to enjoy the beautiful views of the Banjes Reservoir.

After the 90-minute drive, you’ll have 4 hours to enjoy the canyon with your guide before travelling back to the city. Check rates and availability here.

holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh. albania
holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh. albania

Holta Canyon By Bus

 

Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to reach Holta Canyon by public transport.

The best you can do is to take the bus to or from Gramsh and get off on the main road (SH89 / SH71) at the intersection for Drizë.

From here, it’s a 10km hike along the road to get to the canyon which, based on old reports, is how visitors used to get there before the new road was put in. There are some steep climbs but the route mostly flattens out on the approach to the canyon.

There are around 10 daily buses between Elbasan and Gramsh (1 hour), as well as a handful travelling from Tirana, Berat and Durres which pass by this intersection. Direct transport from Korçë appears to be virtually non-existent as most of the buses travel via Pogradec rather than taking the mountain pass through Gramsh.

Check the timetable here though I’d highly recommend checking the actual departures with your guesthouse as I found this website to not be entirely reliable, particularly outside of peak season when many routes operate on reduced schedules.

holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh.

If you visit on a weekend during the warmer months, you’ll likely see plenty of local traffic to the canyon and I’m sure would have no trouble hitching a ride from or back to Drize if you wanted to cut down the hike and are comfortable with the risks.

In fact, three elderly ladies who were visiting with a tour waved me down to get a ride back to the car park rather than walking in the scorching heat.

I visited on a Sunday in early June and by mid-morning there was a steady stream of cars making the drive in and out.

Where to Stay and Eat

Accommodation in Gramsh and the surrounding areas is somewhat limited with just four established hotels in town, as well as a few new apartment listings.

Hotel Latifi  |  I stayed at Hotel Latifi which is located on the outskirts of Gramsh and offers simple rooms at reasonable prices. The place is a little dated but the beds are super comfortable, there’s onsite parking and much-needed air-conditioning. If you can nab it, the mountain views from the corner room are also excellent! Check rates and availability here.

Hotel Lundra  |  Another decent option in the area is Hotel Lundra which is located right on the water in Cërujë, just south of Drizë. Breakfast is included and served in the property’s garden overlooking the river and there’s also an onsite restaurant serving traditional Albanian fare. Check rates and availability here.

Camping  |  For those travelling by tent or van, Restaurant Kanioni i Holtes (the one at the very end of the road to the canyon) has a large grassy area out front and offers space for campers. Self sufficient vans can also park up in the large parking area – I saw a few there during my visit.

holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh.

For dinner, I was recommended by my hotel to eat at Restaurant Redi in Gramsh and wasn’t disappointed.

Redi is a traditional grill house serving meats, salads, dips and a few other sides, and like many places in Albania, the portions are huge and perfect for sharing.

It’s worth mentioning though that there is no fixed menu here and the hosts don’t speak English, but after some very amusing back and forth through Google translate, we settled on a mixed plate with a bit of everything for just €5. What arrived was an enormous spread and absolutely delicious, excellent value feast.

For vegetarians, they do also offer a veggie pizza.

Another place I passed but I didn’t get the chance to stop at was Bar Restorant Etjoni which sits about half way between Gramsh and Drize overlooking the river and was packed on my drive through. Reviews are mixed, but the location looks lovely to enjoy a coffee beside the water.

holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh.
Exploring Holta Canyon

Holta Canyon is really a ‘pick your own adventure’ type of place.

You can make it as epic or easy as you like.

Many visitors simply go to the first beach located just inside the mouth of the canyon, wet their feet, take a few pictures and head back to the car or cafe. Others push on further but turn back once they reach the deeper channel crossings.

If you’re up for an adventure, this is one of the best things to do in Albania and you can really spend hours here exploring, but how far you venture into the canyon, is entirely up to you.

holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh. albania
holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh. albania

After wading through ankle deep water and passing through the mouth of the canyon which spans about 10 metres across, you’re welcomed by two large pebble beaches that fill with sunlight between the open cliffs that are dressed with vegetation.

While the river is reasonably shallow for most of the way, just a few minutes and river bends later, the rocks narrow, forcing the water through a single channel which is about knee deep. A short way further on, the next crossing is even deeper, reaching up to my waist.

Onwards, the gorge begins to narrow dramatically and weaves tightly, back and forth with the bends in the river as you move upstream.

The stark cliffs undulate in impressive wave formations that shield the sunlight from view, but up top where the rocks widen, golden rays spill across the cliff tops and small trees cling on for dear life, brightening the otherwise bare rocks.

The combination of the two is simply spectacular.

holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh. albania
holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh. albania

Away from the crowds, silence takes over, disturbed only by the whisper of flapping wings as tiny swallows dip and dive from their rocky perches, the slosh of footsteps through water, and the roll and clunk of rocks plunging from the cliff top into the river.

Continuing on, the canyon tapers even further becoming increasingly dark around each bend and without any signal for my gps, it was impossible to know just how far along I’d gone.

After arriving at a wider clearing scattered with large boulders and a narrow channel of deep turquoise water where the current seemed to gain strength and meant I’d definitely need to be fully submerged, I decided this would be a good place to turn back.

I walked up the canyon for over an hour, covering just 1.6 kilometres – about half of the total length.

holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh. albania
holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh. albania

By this point, I also hadn’t seen anyone else for quite some time with the only other morning visitors having turned back early on. The intermittent sound of falling rocks, coupled with the dim light also began to feel a little eerie being out here all alone.

Heading back towards the entrance of the canyon, it was then quite a surprise to suddenly bump into a steady stream of visitors, and even a dog, in the first few chambers, once I’d crossed back through the knee deep pool. The hot air and unfiltered sunlight also hits you immediately as you exit between the cliffs, a stark change from the cool of the narrow gorge.

holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh. albania
holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh. albania
How Much Time Do You Need At Holta Canyon

How long you spend at Holta Canyon really depends on how far you plan to venture into the gorge, but I’d recommend at least 3 to 4 hours as a good amount of time.

The drive through the mountains from Gramsh is also really scenic and I stopped quite a few time to take photos of the view so, if this sounds like you, expect the drive to take a little longer than the 30 minutes suggested by Google Maps.

I headed into Holta Canyon at around 8:30am and arrived back to my car at midday which allowed me to walk around halfway into the canyon at a really leisurely pace and plenty of time to take photos and soak up the magic – this is not somewhere to rush through.

That said, if you’re not keen to get all that wet and just want to catch a glimpse of the canyon, most people I saw there only walked in a few hundred metres until they reached the first deeper crossing, spending less than half an hour in the gorge itself before settling in at the cafe or beside the thermal pool to while the afternoon away.

holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh. albania
holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh. albania
Facilities at Holta Canyon

Though I didn’t visit these myself, there are two restaurants at the end of the road as you arrive at Holta Canyon – Bar Restaurant Kanioni i Holtes is at the very end and Kompleksi Holta is just next to it. The massive building behind the restaurants is the Hydroelectric Power Station.

Bar Restaurant Kanioni i Holtes looks right onto the river and has a large grassy area out front with seating beneath the trees. Coffee and beer are on offer at the bar (among other things), while the restaurant serves up grilled meats and other traditional dishes.

Kompleksi Holta is set back from the road and also has a restaurant on site, but its main draw is the large thermal pool which backs onto the lush hillside. For the 200 lek entrance fee, you can also make use of the umbrellas and loungers.

Keep in mind that both are closed over winter if you’re planning to visit outside the peak season.

holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh.
Other Places To Visit Near Gramsh

These rugged mountains have plenty to offer, but tourist infrastructure is still very much in it’s infancy. Things are looking to change fast though, with plans for several roads to be paved in the near future which will greatly improve access.

Currently both Sotira Waterfall and Kabashit Cave can be reached by rough 4WD roads only, so I wouldn’t recommend taking your little rental car here, but you can join a tour or tackle the roads if you’re travelling in your own vehicle.

Unfortunately given the challenges with access, I wasn’t able to visit either but look forward to adding these in on a future visit.

holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh. albania

Sotira Waterfall

 

Located on the northern flank of the mighty Tomorri Mountain which looms large over both Berat and Gramsh, Sotira Waterfall tumbles in one single drop directly from the rock face before cascading across the mossy boulders below.

Surrounded by rugged cliffs and lush forest, it’s a wildly impressive sight tucked away in this remote wilderness.

The village of Sotira lies just 15km from Gramsh, however the road is rough and unpaved beyond the bridge south of Gurrë. From the village, it’s a 4.5km walk which culminates in a steep and slippery scramble to the base of the falls.

JOIN A TOUR // This top-rated, full-day tour departs from Berat and transports you in a 4×4 to Sotira in preparation for the hike with a local guide. Check rates and availability here.

Kabashit Cave (Shpella e Kabashit)

 

Hidden in the cliff face of the mountains that soar above Holta Canyon lies the intriguing Kabashit Cave or Shpella e Kabashit.

Now, I saw plenty of signs for the cave, but trying to figure out exactly where it’s located and how to get there was not all that simple so I would only recommend visiting to experienced hikers and definitely bring a torch and a map.

According to Maps.me there is a 3km walking trail that peels off from the access road a short way west of the village of Kabashi and leads to the cave and a viewpoint.

The trail is steep in parts and funnels below the cliff line to the cave which opens up into an enormous chamber.

holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh.
Tips for Visiting Holta Canyon

The water levels change with the seasons

 

In spring, when the river swells with melting snow, the water levels in Holta Canyon will be much higher than you’ll find in late summer or autumn.

During my visit in early June, much of the river was only ankle deep and easy to navigate, however there were some deeper channels that reached slightly over my knees, and then further along, up to my hips.

Where I turned back, I would have had to be fully submerged in the water to make it across.

I’m also a long-legged 5’9, so I imagine a shorter person may be up to their chest in the middle channel.

It’s also worth mentioning that there was very little snow over the past winter meaning water levels this year may have been lower than normal.

holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh.

There is no phone signal in the canyon

 

You’ll lose phone signal shortly after entering the canyon which means that any gps becomes completely useless and there’s no calling for help in an emergency. I tried at several points to check my map to see where I was and exactly how far I’d gone, only to have my location pinned to the carpark.

While there’s really no way to get lost in the canyon, it’s worth keeping in mind if you’re visiting out of season when the area receives very few visitors if something were to go wrong.

How cold is the water?

 

If you’ve visited the likes of Bogove Waterfall near Berat or the Voidomatis River in Greece, you may be thinking this might be a similarly bone-chilling experience, but thankfully the Holta River is comparatively mild.

It’s cool and refreshing but won’t feel like a thousand tiny daggers drilling into your ankles.

That said, after a few hours in the water, you will start to feel the cold.

Due to the area’s gentle thermal activity, there are also some pools that are warmed to several degrees higher than the river. These tend to be slightly milky blue in colour, in contrast to the clear water of the river.

The first is on the left in the opening chamber of the canyon where a small trickle of water cascades down the rocks and collects in the milky blue pool. About half an hour into the canyon, a shallow, muddy pool again on the left is also nicely warmed.

holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh.

Navigating the river

 

The riverbed is strewn with large pebbles or patches of sand the entire way, but thankfully, for the most part, the rocks are stable and not slippery making crossing the shallow water straightforward with the right footwear.

There are some sections of thick, claggy mud that stretch along the side on the canyon or where the rocks thin out which will stick to everything and can be very slippery.

There are also some areas that have a much stronger current and I suspect this would be amplified when the water levels are higher, however these were still easy to navigate in the shallow water and were easily avoided in the deeper sections.

holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh. albania
holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh. albania
holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh. albania

What To Bring To Holta Canyon

 

Once again, what you need will really depend on how far you intend to go into the canyon.

If you’re planning to go as far as you can, prepare to be fully submerged in the water. A dry bag and a waterproof camera are a great idea if you have them, otherwise I’d suggest not bringing anything at all to carry except a bottle of water.

Footwear  |  Sandals or flip flops are perfectly fine, but lightweight runners that can get wet would be the better option if you’re planning to go further up the canyon. I wore slip on sandals which were comfortable enough for navigating the pebble riverbed and only became slightly slippery in some of the muddier sections or when clambering over the larger boulders.

Waterproof camera  |  I was expecting to be swimming across the river from the start of this adventure so had my waterproof Olympus TG-6 with me just in case I needed to ditch my backpack with my mirrorless camera early on. This tough little camera is waterproof, shockproof and dustproof so perfect for this kind of adventure. Check prices here.

Dry bag  |  A dry bag is a good idea for those planning to head into the far reaches of the canyon and will mean you can bring your phone and some snacks with you, as well as keep your towel and a change of clothes dry for when you start to get cold. Check prices here.

Swimmers and towel  |  I wore my swimmers under my clothes but left my towel in the car so I had something clean to dry off with once I got back.

Sun protection  |  While you’ll mostly be in the shade as you move through the canyon, sun streams into the opening chambers and the scorching Balkan sun is no joke.

Lightweight, quick dry clothes  |  Wearing the wrong type of clothing is the main reason so many people seem to turn back rather than continuing into the gorge. Something lightweight that you’re comfortable getting wet and a little muddy is best. I wore quick dry hiking shorts and a soccer shirt over my swimmers which also helped to keep me warm after several hours in the canyon.

Water bottle  |  Remember to stay hydrated in the heat.

Helmet  |  There are no safety measures in place out here and the sound of rocks falling off the cliffs and crashing into the river was somewhat unnerving and definitely not something you’d want to come tumbling down on your head or shoulder. While I doubt many travellers will actually have a helmet handy, if you do happen to have one, I’d suggest bringing it with you into the canyon.

holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh.

Temperatures in the canyon

 

Despite the outside temperatures soaring above 30°C, the temperature inside Holta Canyon stays wonderfully cool, around the low 20s, which was a much-needed reprieve from the stifling summer heat.

In the narrower sections where the sun doesn’t reach the canyon floor, you’re also able to remain in the shade for much of the way.

That said, if you are spending a lot of time in the water, it will start getting rather cold – certainly not something I expected given the scorching heat I experienced during the rest of my Albania visit.

The road conditions

 

Since the previous 4×4 road was recently paved, Holta Canyon is now easily accessible in a small 2WD car.

The section through Drize is still a bit sketchy and the bitumen has certainly seen better days, but once you’re through town, it’s smooth sailing from there along the brand new asphalt road until you reach the final turn off.

holta canyon. holtes canyon. visit gramsh.

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