With the launch of the Armenian section of the Transcaucasian Trail (TCT) this December, anyone with a bit of hiking experience and about a month’s worth of free time can walk the length of Armenia. The brand-new 829-kilometer route has been stitched together from thousand-year-old footpaths, Soviet jeep tracks and newly-built trails. Organizers hope it will not only put Armenia on the international hiking map and help promote sustainable tourism, but also be a boost to the country’s fledgling hiking scene.
“There is lots of solitude, epic views, great water sources and just enough difficulty,” says Stiina Kristal, one of the first people to hike the route this summer. “We experienced everything from extreme heat, and afternoon thunderstorms… to wonderfully welcoming people.”
The launch of the route is the culmination of more than five years of exploration, mapping and trail-building by the Transcaucasian Trail Tourism Support NGO of Armenia, the local vehicle for the TCT. Ultimately, the Armenian section will link up with the broader TCT network across the South Caucasus, which, when complete, will consist of two enormous walking routes, each of about 1,500 kilometers. One route will pass north-to-south through Armenia and Georgia, from the Iranian border to the Black Sea coast north of Batumi; the other will run east-west along much of the Greater Caucasus, connecting Georgia’s Black Sea coast to the shores of the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan.
Most of the scouting for the trail in Armenia has been done by Tom Allen, a UK citizen who is the president of the TCT Armenia NGO. Since coming up with the idea for a long-distance footpath across the Southern Caucasus in 2015, he moved to live in Armenia and estimates he has walked about 5,000 in search of the perfect north-to-south hiking route. “I have spent most of my summers just hiking around with a GPS and illegal Soviet maps,” he says. “It’s a fascinating process that really appeals to, firstly, my lifelong obsession with exploring new places, and, secondly, my theoretical mind that wants to make everything fit together.”
The route across Armenia can be walked either north-to-south, or south-to-north. If hikers chose to begin in the north, they start by the shores of Lake Arpi before trekking over the high, windy plateaus of the Arpi National Park and crossing into the pine forests that surround the city of Stepanavan. After walking by the Dzoraget River and through Dilijan National Park, the town of Sevan is the last major settlement before the route’s most remote, and spectacular, section, across the Geghama mountains (which separate the land around Yerevan from Lake Sevan). Allen describes this landscape as “an ancient volcanic range of red pumice stone and lava flows that have disintegrated into huge boulder fields”, and the trail here reaches its highest point just below the snow-covered peak of Azhdahak. On emerging from the Geghamas, hikers descend into the arid, twisting landscapes of Vayots Dzor Province, pass the monasteries of Noravank and Gnedavank, and go through the spa town of Jermuk. Entering its most southerly stretch, the trail winds along the Vorotan River to Tatev Monastery and then across the wooden hills and gorges of Syunik Region before, finally, entering Arevik National Park and the semi-arid deserts of the Aras River valley, the second-lowest point in Armenia. It finishes in the town of Meghri.
All those who have tested the route so far have a different favorite section. For hiker Kristal and her partner Kristians Lunins, it was the Geghama mountain, which, says Kristal, “surprised us with landscapes different from anywhere else in Armenia,” and where “the hospitality of the Yazidi people was very encouraging… it was wonderful to witness their nomadic lifestyle.” For Allen, the hidden gem of the trail is Arevik National Park — the country’s newest national park — not far from the border with Iran. “It’s the richest landscape and the most untouched area of the country,” he says. “The Aras valley was a cradle of civilization… it’s one of the most exciting areas that we’ve been working on.”
For aspiring hikers, the GPS coordinates for the route are now available on the TCT website, and Allen is working on an accompanying guidebook. The TCT is also planning to produce more detailed maps of the trail. The path itself is marked by some signposts, and regular way markers of red-and-white paint.
“Anyone coming at this stage needs to be prepared for a bit of self-sufficiency,” says Meagan Neal, the co-executive director of the Transcaucasian Trail Association, who hiked the route in the summer. “A lot of the trail has been constructed from ancient footpaths buried in the forest and then cleared out to a certain extent—but may still be pretty overgrown—so, you need to expect overgrown trail conditions, limited infrastructure and to be comfortable navigating based off of a map or a phone.”
The organizers predict that facilities—like guesthouses—will spring up once locals grasp the economic potential of a steady stream of hikers. “In five or ten years we’re going to see a really big difference in the infrastructure that exists because of the natural momentum of people getting more excited about the trail,” says Neal. The TCT also wants to continue improving the trail itself, adding more signposts, and perhaps branded trail markers.
Its high-altitude sections mean the full trail is inaccessible due to snow for much of the year. And even in the summer months there are risks: from bears and wolves, to lightning storms, intense heat, giant hogweed, venomous snakes, ticks, drunk men and aggressive dogs. While that may sound intimidating, Allen says a basic knowledge of hiking safety is likely to be enough to avoid coming to any harm. “I always say the biggest danger is being in a car crash on the way to start your hike,” says Allen. “If you’re taking a taxi make sure it’s in the daytime and that there’s a seatbelt.”
Most of the Armenia route has been stitched together from existing footpaths or tracks, but the TCT have also fundraised to clear overgrown paths, and build entirely new sections of trail. It costs, on average, about $1,000 per kilometer of trail, according to Neal. To plot the route, Allen used satellite imagery and Soviet-era military maps. But it was also important to test out routes: sometimes, while exploring, he came across jeep tracks or footpaths that were not on the maps. In particular, many jeep tracks—that proliferated in the unregulated post-Soviet period—remain off-the-grid to this day.
The TCT operates very differently in Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. In Armenia, the approach has been a grassroots one, and the TCT has teamed up with volunteers, other NGOs and development organizations. The result has been a steady boost to the Armenian hiking community, and a growing network of other organizations interested in trail-building and hiking development. In comparison, the TCT’s work in Georgia has not — yet — led to the development of such a large community. Some of the TCT’s partners in Armenia include hiking organization HIKEArmenia (many of the routes for day hikes offered on HIKEArmenia’s popular hiking app were developed as a result of scouting by the TCT), trail-building NGO Trails for Change, and map-makers Cartisan.
“Now it’s trendy to go for hikes and to go out on trails in Armenia. You see a lot of events and excitement about trails, and there have been a lot of changes,” says Ashkhen Mesropyan, who volunteered as a trail-builder for the TCT in 2017 and now works for Trails for Change. While the TCT expects foreign hikers will begin travelling to Armenia next summer to try the new trail, the TCT is not something that is run exclusively by and for foreigners. Allen points out that he is the only non-Armenian who has been involved in the work on the trail in Armenia. “You have to have this globally-relevant trail product and brand to build the excitement and be a flashpoint,” he says. “But it’s overwhelmingly local hikers using these trails.”
Whether you are a foreigner or an Armenian, there is much from which to choose. And nor do you have to have a whole month spare to hike the whole 829-kilometers: diversity of landscape and culture is one of Armenia’s calling-cards, and the trail can be easily broken up into smaller sections. “We liked most the variety of landscapes – from forests to meadows to canyons to volcanoes and Lake Sevan,” said Kristal. “Be ready for a real adventure, lots of heat and a beautiful experience. The hard days will be forgotten when you eat palmfuls of fresh plums and pears from the trailside or enjoy some strong Armenian coffee with locals.”
In 2011, myself and approximately 16 Peace Corps Volunteers walked across Armenia.