AR­ME­NIA

In Ar­me­nia, hik­ing moun­tains and camp­ing is a unique ex­pe­ri­ence. The land is packed with amaz­ing land­scapes and na­tional parks for na­ture lovers. Ralph Vartabedian shares his first trip to Yere­van

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My son, Marc, and I had tromped through shin-deep snow for sev­eral hours, and by the time we reached the blus­tery top of the peak, we couldn’t see more than 25 feet be­cause of a white­out. Some­where in front of us was a deep crater and the sur­round­ing peaks of a vol­canic rim we had hoped to reach. But as we stood on one of the high­est peaks in the Ar­me­nian Cau­ca­sus Moun­tAIns, wE wErE sAtIsiED wE’D mADE It tHIs FAr.

SmItH­so­nIAn mAG­A­zInE EAr­lIEr tHIs yEAr IDEn­tIiED Ar­me­nia as one of the next world-class hik­ing des­ti­na­tions.

The na­tion’s beau­ti­fully wooded Dil­i­jan Na­tional Park re­sem­bles Great Smoky Moun­tains Na­tional Park. The plateaus of vol­canic Mount Ara­gats look some­thing like the Sierra Nevada’s high coun­try, with bar­ren ig­neous rock, grav­elly slopes and snow-cov­ered peaks. Lake Se­van is twice as large as Lake Ta­hoe and a thou­sand feet higher in el­e­va­tion.

WHAt tHE Coun­try lACks In AFluEnCE Is oFF­sEt By tHE warmth of the peo­ple, whose iden­tity is an­chored to its long his­tory. Yere­van, the cap­i­tal, was founded in 782 B.C., decades be­fore Rome. Be­tween hikes, you can visit an­cient tem­ples and some of the old­est Chris­tian churches in the world.

But any­one who fre­quents Cal­i­for­nia’s well-trav­elled moun­tAIns woulD inD A FEw sur­prIsEs AnD CHAl­lEnGEs In HIk­InG or ClImB­InG In Ar­mE­nIA. You oF­tEn won’t inD marked trail heads. The weather will be un­pre­dictable. THE lorA wIll BE For­EIGn. You mIGHt EnD up DrIv­InG your rental car across a boul­der-strewn moun­tain river to get near a trail.

Just to GEt to Ar­mE­nIA rE­quIrEs A lonG lIGHt tHAt takes you to a place that’s 11 hours ahead of Cal­i­for­nia. That’s im­por­tant in plan­ning stren­u­ous hik­ing, be­cause it takes awhile to get over that day-to-night jet lag. But the coun­try re­wards those who make the ef­fort. It will be a lib­er­at­ing ex­pe­ri­ence from the crowded trails, packed park­ing lots and scarce back-coun­try per­mits in Cal­i­for­nia. In fact, you won’t need any per­mits in Ar­me­nia. I had long searched for a good rea­son to visit Ar­me­nia.

Af­ter a day of ex­plor­ing Yere­van on foot, we planned for three or four days of hik­ing. On the way to Dil­i­jan Na­tional Park, we stopped at the Se­vana­vank Monastery, two 1,100-year-old stone churches over­look­ing Se­van Lake. We went on two hikes in Dil­i­jan Na­tional Park, one to pleas­ant back-coun­try Gosh Lake, along the Tran­scau­casian Trail, or TCT.

A few days later, I met park su­per­in­ten­dent Ar­men Abra­hamyan at the park’s head­quar­ters just out­side Dil­i­jan. The park now has 124 miles of trails, about half of them on the TCT, he said. Some of them are Jeep roads, although we didn’t en­counter ve­hi­cle trAFiC on our HIkEs.

The sec­ond hike took us to the ru­ins of the 11th cen­tury Jukhtak Monastery, deep in a for­est. I imag­ined how peo­ple, iso­lated from the rest of the world, would hike to that moun­tain­top 1,000 years ago. It seemed such a far cry from driv­ing to a church park­ing lot these days.

The main ob­jec­tive of our trip was Mount Ara­gats, the high­est peak in the coun­try, about an hour ’s drive east of Yere­van. I found a crude dig­i­tal to­po­graphic map of Ara­gats on the in­ter­net

I met Hovik Mizrakyan, a jew­elry de­signer and stronG HIkEr AFilIAtED wItH FInDAr­mE­nIA.Com.

Marc and I camped the night be­fore at sub-alpine KArI LAkE. THErE wErE no irE pIts, pIC­nIC tA­BlEs, FEE sta­tions or in­fra­struc­ture you’d ex­pect when car camp­ing.

Mount Ara­gats has four peaks, the high­est be­ing the North sum­mit, at 13,420 feet. It was still snow­cov­ered in mid-June and would have re­quired a 6,000-foot ver­ti­cal climb in one day or an overnight stay in the crater. Either way, we would be travers­ing deep, soft snow. The weather wasn’t co­op­er­at­ing. The Cau­ca­sus Moun­tains can be un­pre­dictably stormy, with vi­o­lent light­ning.

In the morn­ing, the storm clouds roiled. So we nixed climb­ing Ara­gats North and chose the much tamer Ara­gats South, at 12,756 feet. We weren’t dis­ap­pointed. Our hik­ing trip barely scratched the sur­face of what Ar­me­nia’s four na­tional parks have to of­fer. I ran out of time be­fore we could get to Are­vik Na­tional Park along the south­ern bor­der. Maybe some day I’ll try again for Ara­gats North, know­ing I’ll need more time. Even in the Sierra, you some­times have to try more than once to reach a peak.

My Ver­i­zon iPhone did not work in Ar­me­nia. My son’s AT&T iPhone did. Be sure to ar­range an in­ter­na­tional call­ing plan ahead of time or, if your your phone is un­locked, a lo­cal SIM card.

The four Ara­gats peaks, sur­round­ing the mas­sive caldera of an ex­tinct vol­cano, form the high­est point in Ar­me­nia and re­main snow cov­ered through at least June.

Our last din­ner in Yere­van in­cluded a trout from Lake Se­van, a tomato salad and stuffed grape leaves.

The Tran­scau­casian Trail runs from Ge­or­gia through Ar­me­nia, marked by small signs nailed to trees.

Our camp site near Kari Lake at about 10,000 feet el­e­va­tion.

Wild pop­pies and other flow­ers bloom in the Ar­me­nian spring.

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