12 November 2018.
For many, a trip to Albania will mean a string of blissful afternoons spent drifting between the warm sand and deliciously blue Ionian Sea.
But nestled in the country’s far north, a world away from the sun-drenched coast, lies a fantastic untapped playground for those seeking a touch of adventure.
The Albanian Alps, or Accursed Mountains as they are more ominously referred to, are one of the country’s most beautiful destinations, and while in winter they lie dormant and largely abandoned beneath a thick blanket of snow, the warmth of summer brings a fresh burst of life and a surge of curious adventurers ready to explore.
As the wintery white coat is shed, crystalline rivers swell with melted snow and dart between fragrant pine forests, striking ridgelines tumble into lush summer meadows and a network of spectacular hiking trails are uncovered between the soaring peaks.
Tucked away between the folds of the Albanian Alps lie two of the region’s most enchanting alpine villages, Theth and Valbona, with arguably the country’s most famous hike acting as a pulsing artery between the two.
The beloved trail offers up incredible views and is the sole reason many venture to these remote mountains to begin with, but for those with a little extra time to explore, there’s plenty more to the area than just this one hike.
In fact, it’s a veritable goldmine of gushing rivers and pools, verdant forests and ridiculously beautiful trails that are still only visited by the few rather than the masses you’ll find elsewhere in Europe.
This guide covers everything you need to plan your trip to the Albanian Alps and the hike between Theth to Valbona.
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Valbona to Theth or Theth To Valbona.
Arriving in Shkodra with plans to hit the mountain trails, the question on everyone’s lips is where exactly to begin the hike.
To my great amusement, this topic was hotly debated between travellers, with anyone who had actually done the hike assuring newcomers that whichever way they had done it was undeniably the best choice.
Really, the hike is spectacular either way, it just depends on how you want your experience to unfold.
I chose to start from Theth for the simple reason that the trip along Komani Lake is widely regarded as one of the best things to do in Albania and I felt this would be the perfect reward after a few days of hiking, rather than a way to start the trip. I also considered that Theth seemed to have many more options for day hikes which would provide a nice warm-up for the main trail after spending precisely zero time exercising and far too much time eating in the previous few weeks (no regrets!).
In the end I was very happy with the way I did the trip, having a few days to relax and explore the area around Theth and with the Komani Lake ferry as a stunning bookend to the Albanian Alps chapter of my trip.
The main reasoning behind doing the hike in reverse is that the entire section between the pass and Valbona is exposed to the blazing sun. If you start in Valbona you can generally reach the ridge during the coolest part of the day before entering into the shaded forest that leads down to Theth, while if you start in Theth, you’ll reach the pass around midday and be in the roasting afternoon sun for the long descent into Valbona.
From a sleepy alpine village with a name that would be perfectly at home in the pages of the Lord of the Rings, Theth has somewhat exploded in recent years into a tight cluster of guesthouses catering to the growing stream of tourists tricking into the Albanian Alps.
Set in a lush forested valley, it makes a perfect base for day hikes in the area as well as an excellent starting point for the hike to Valbona, and while so many will rush through in their impatience to reach Valbona, beautiful little Theth ended up being one of the highlights of my time in Albania.
Despite its remote location, getting to Theth is actually exceedingly simple.
Most hostels and guesthouses in Shkodra are able to arrange a door-to-door service in either an organised shuttle or the public furgon. The trip costs €10 and generally departs at around 7:30 a.m. arriving 2 to 3 hours later.
Be sure to secure a window seat as the drive through the mountains is simply beautiful, zipping past lavender fields on the fringe of Shkodra, winding steeply up the mountain pass and bouncing along the rough forested road toward Theth.
You should arrive by mid-morning leaving plenty of time to enjoy one of Theth’s many wonderful day hikes.
When it comes to accommodation in Theth, you can expect to find comfortable private rooms, delicious home-cooked meals and unparalleled mountain views at the growing collection of locally run guesthouses.
Bujtina Gjergj Harusha | I stayed at two properties during my stay in Theth and this one was my favourite for both comfort and value. It’s clearly sign posted just across the bridge and offers spacious and clean ensuite rooms and delicious and plentiful meals. The location is also great for the hike to Valbona.
Prices start from €20 per person for a bed, breakfast and dinner. A packed lunch can also be arranged for an extra €5. The large also garden has ample space for those travelling by camper van or with their own camping gear.
Villa Gjeçaj Folk & Design | Another great option in Theth with a beautiful stonework house set in a lush garden and perched on the hill above town. I didn’t get to stay here as it was fully booked but based on reviews this sound like a lovely spot.
Or check here for the many other accommodation options in Theth.
During the peak summer season, it’s a good idea to book in advance as the best places definitely fill up. When booking online though, don’t be fooled by guesthouses that seem improbably cheap – many are set several kilometres from Theth proper and will add a considerable amount of time to your hike.
Unsurprisingly for such a spectacular mountain region, you’ll find plenty of day hikes on offer from Theth.
And while many arrive with blinders on and head straight for the trail to Valbona, in my opinion, they’re sorely missing out. Many of the other trails that lack all the notoriety of are just as beautiful and far less trodden.
The Blue Eye Of Theth | Wedged between verdant forested peaks, the gushing turquoise pool of the Blue Eye is another popular choice.
As the saying goes, the destination here makes a rather pretty rest stop, but this hike is really all about the journey. En route you’ll find towering peaks that rise from deeply chiselled valleys and crystalline waters trickling beside dewy summer fields with each corner revealing new and exciting vistas that make it awfully hard to put your camera away.
Seriously, this is one to put firmly on your itinerary.
The hike is 19km return and takes around 6 hours with a break at the Blue Eye. It’s mostly flat and well marked with two possible routes. Most visitors follow the dirt road which leads left across the bridge in Theth and hugs the valley for quite a way. Where the valley forks, hang right and the trail will criss cross the river before eventually leading to a narrower rocky path that climbs uphill through the forest.
At the pool itself, there are a few cafes selling drinks and food. The owners here will generally be happy to point you in the right direction but some were less than impressed to let hikers through that weren’t buying anything.
Be sure to take an invigorating dip in the icy pool while you’re still hot from the hike – the water will give you brain freeze, hairs on your chest and bite at your ankles all at the same time.
To return, the alternate route follows a smaller trail on the opposite side of the river, just keep an eye out for the bridge on your way out of Ndarlysaj. This route does involve several river crossings, though by late summer these streams were bone dry. If you’re visiting in spring or early summer it may be a different story.
Grunas Waterfall | Possible as a short standalone hike or as part of the Blue Eye circuit, Grunas Falls is a small oasis just a 45-minute walk from Theth.
Simply follow the village road downstream for around 30 minutes before veering off to the left. The falls are visible from the path which will help to guide you in the right direction.
Other Day Hikes | Arriving in Theth, it’s impossible to miss the soaring peaks and passes that sweep across the skyline and many of these can be reached on foot, such as the beautiful Pejes Pass which takes 2-3 hours each way.
The very friendly staff at the Visitor Centre in the heart of town is a wealth of information on the area and various trails available so be sure to make a stop here for hiking suggestions.
Peaks Of The Balkans | Avid hikers should consider the 12-day Peaks of The Balkans trek which passes between Theth and Valbona before taking in the dizzying peaks of Kosovo and Montenegro.
This helpful guide covers some top tips for the trek.
Without further ado, the reason most of you have probably clicked through to this post – how to hike from Theth to Valbona.
The trail is well trodden and clearly marked leading straight out of Theth, over the pass and down the gentle slope toward the Valbona Valley.
From Theth the trail climbs steeply uphill through silent shaded forests until you’re almost at the saddle. A couple of small refreshment stops dot the path and are a great spot for a break on the sharp incline.
Once at the pass, panoramic views sprawl out beneath your feet and it’s finally time for a proper break. You’ll see a rubbly path peeling off to the right which leads to the actual summit and it is here you’ll find the absolute best views.
Though some hikers chose to skip this short detour, it’s well worth a visit.
The way down follows a gentler trajectory, zigzagging across loose scree and open meadows to the parched riverbed of the Valbona Valley. The descent winds downhill in direct sunlight and can become blindingly bright when traversing the glistening riverbed so a pair of polarised sunglasses are a good idea.
Soon enough, patches of brown brick begin to peak through the trees and the buzz of cars greets your ears and you know you’ve arrived in Valbona.
More accessible than Theth but still infinitely peaceful, the wide braid of sparkling white riverbed that forms the bulk of the Valbona Valley is a suburb spot to kick back at the end the hike and watch the sun rise or set beyond the rim of jagged peaks.
Regardless of which direction you do the hike, choosing where to stay in Valbona is an important decision, one that could very well add a number of extra kilometres to an already long day on the trail.
Hotel Margjeka | For this reason, many people opt to stay at Hotel Margjeka which is the first accommodation you’ll come across on the approach to Valbona, or the closest to the start of the trail if hiking toward Theth.
It’s one of the top-rated options in Valbona with guests loving the view, friendly staff and excellent location. Unsurprisingly its one of Valbona’s most popular options and books up in well in advance, especially during summer. If you’re hoping to stay here, try to get in early! Prices start at €25 per person.
Guesthouse Kol Gjoni | This was the charming guesthouse where I stayed in Valbona, and it’s a place I can happily recomend. Located 2.5 km further along the road with a beautiful location in the valley, this property boasts excellent food, clean and comfortable rooms and a decent location in relation to the trailhead. If you’re traveling in peak season, making a reservation ahead of time is a good idea. Prices start at €25 per person for a bed, dinner and breakfast.
For shoestring travellers, you’ll also find a few hostels available closer to Valbona proper which means you’ll add an extra hour or so to your hiking time but save a fair few pennies. One such option is Quku i Valbones Farmhouse which was suggested by my hostel in Shkodra and offers dorm beds for just €15 with breakfast included.
Komani Lake is widely regarded as one of Albania’s highlights and thankfully, the place more than lives up to the hype.
Austere cliffs dressed in spiky shrubs soar high above the serene turquoise waters. Perfect reflections shimmer on the surface, broken only by the gentle ripples of boats puttering back and forth.
Even if you have no intention of exploring the Albanian Alps on foot, it’s well worth setting a few hours aside for the ferry trip and stealing a front row seat for some of the country’s most spectacular scenery.
Though I had read it’s the standard for guesthouses in Valbona to organise direct transport from Valbona to Fierze, the lack of visitors at the time of my visit meant a slightly more fiddly route with a stop at Bajram Curri.
If there is no direct furgon from Valbona to Fierze, simply take the early morning furgon to Bajram Curri (300 lek/€2.50) which your guesthouse can arrange, before changing to a rather overpriced taxi to Fierze (700 lek/€5 per person) and then transferring to the ferry (1000 lek/€8).
On arrival in Komani, furgons will be waiting to drive you the rest of the way back to Shkodra for €5 or 700 lek. Though not all that far in distance, these were definitely the worst roads I encountered anywhere in Albania so the going is rather slow and bumpy.
Shkodra Backpackers | While Shkodra’s hostel scene has been growing of late alongside the city’s popularity, Shkodra Backpackers (also called Mi Casa Es Tu Casa) continues to remain a firm favourite. Plenty of outdoor areas, a delicious feast of a breakfast, bikes for rent, an excellent location and a wonderful group of staff make it one of Shkodra’s best hostels.
It’s a truly laidback backpacker haunt and a great place to recuperate after a few days in the mountains.
Eco Garten Guesthouse | For something a little more private, Eco Garten is one of Shkodra’s top-rated guesthouses set in a leafy garden and with winning hospitality.
Solid Hiking Boots | The trail is, in part, both very steep and very rocky so a pair of sturdy hiking boots are a good idea. I travel with and love these SCARPA Gore-Tex Boots which are wonderfully lightweight, durable and waterproof.
A Reusable Water Bottle | No need to buy any plastic bottles out here! There are a number of icy springs along the way where you can fill up your bottle straight from the source. This bottle from Klean Kanteen is my go-to.
A Waterproof Jacket | Even in summer, when Tirana and Shkodra swelter, the mountains have an unpredictable and much cooler climate of their own. One day may mean blazing sunshine, while the next could bring an afternoon of gushing rain. In summer, a thin base layer with a waterproof outer shell should be enough. In autumn and spring you’ll definitely want something warmer.
Band-Aids | Haven’t worn in your boots yet? Better pack a few band-aids just in case. The steep uphill and downhill sections mean your shoes will constantly be rubbing against your heel and an uncomfortable blister could very well ruin your hike.
A Map | Though the trail is easy to follow, a map is an absolute essential for the mountains. I always use the free map app Maps.Me which has the trail and many of the guesthouses labelled. Just be sure to download it before you arrive to the region.
Snacks | These days there is a basic mini market in Theth, but I’d recommend picking up a few things in Tirana or Shkodra before arriving, especially if you plan to do multiple hikes while in the area or don’t want to fork out for a packed lunch. Fruit, nuts, crackers and candy are all a good idea!
Entertainment | Whether you’re a keen hiker or this is your first time in hiking boots, you’ll definitely find yourself with plenty of downtime in the evening and afternoon. It’s hard to pass up a good old game of cards in the mountains, or if you’re travelling solo, a fully stocked Kindle or Audible library are other practical and lightweight options to pass the time.
Pssst! New to Audible? It’s one of my most-used Apps. Sign up here for a free 30-day trial and receive two complementary audiobooks of your choosing!
Pack light | Whichever way you do it, the hike involves a long uphill slog. To save your legs (and your back) only bring the bare essentials for your time in Theth and Valbona and leave the rest in your Shkodra accommodation.
Book accommodation in advance | If you’re visiting during the peak summer period, it’s best to book your accommodation well in advance to secure the best guesthouses with a prime location, particularly in Valbona where the options are spread throughout the valley.
Get an early start | The Valbona side of the hike is completely exposed to the elements so it’s best to leave as early as possible to escape the afternoon heat or torrents of wind. If you haven’t managed to book your accommodation, arriving early also means you’ll get the first choice of what is still available.
Don’t Stress About Transport | Though there’s little information online about bus timetables and types of ferries, one phone call and your hosts should be able to book you on the next bus (and wave away your half asleep insistence that perhaps you should wait for the bus on the road rather than at the breakfast table). Bus services are generally door-to-door (except for those arriving in Shkodra) and organising them the night before at your guesthouse should ensure you a seat on the bus or ferry the next day.
Way out here in the mountains, you won’t have access to an ATM so you’ll need to bring all the money you plan to spend with you for the 3 or more days of your visit.
My total costs for this trip came to €105.50, broken down as follows:
Accommodation + Food | €70 | 8,900 lek
3 nights of bed, breakfast and dinner + 1 lunch (€25 + €20 + €25)
Transport | €30.50 | 3,900 lek
€10 bus Shkodra to Theth, €2.50 bus Valbona to Bajram Curri, €5 taxi to Fierze, €8 Komani Lake ferry, €5 bus Komani to Shkodra.
Extras | €5
Nothing tastes as good as a cheeky post-hike drink and snack! Many guesthouses sell drinks otherwise the mini market and bar in Theth has a few options.
TOP TIP: the mini market sells much the same products as the bar next door but for around half the price.
If you plan to spend any extra days in the mountains, I would suggest budgeting at least €30 per day plus a little extra in case the weather interrupts your plans. Also be sure to factor in a further €5 per person per day if you expect to take a packed lunch from your guesthouse.