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
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.