Theth National Park

The Complete Guide to Hiking the Albanian Alps

Albania

Published on 10 May 2023

When researching top things to do in Albania, everyone seemed to mention the mountain pass hike from Valbona to Theth. I honestly had never heard of these places, but when I saw the photos, it very quickly went to the top of our itinerary!

In the very north of Albania, close to the borders with Montenegro and Kosovo, the Albanian Alps is an absolute stunner. Some of the most phenomenal scenery in the whole of the country, maybe (dare I say it?) the whole of the Balkans, is right here. Crystal clear rivers, snow-capped mountains, lush green forests, meadows dotted with brightly coloured flowers and lofty mountain passes with views that seem to go on endlessly. Standing in awe, your mind clears while it tries to comprehend the sheer magnificence of what lies before you; almost like a mental recalibration.

views over the Albanian Alps mountain pass

Phenomenal landscapes

Hiking the Albanian Alps from Valbona to Theth was THE highlight of our trip to the country, and our three month trip throughout the Balkans. It is a challenge and an adventure that definitely comes with logistical complexities, but that’s probably why we enjoyed it so much. The toughest journeys bring about the biggest reward, and yes, the views and the sense of accomplishment at the end will make it all worth it. ‘Venture further. Explore more. Journey beyond.’ That’s our thing, right?

I had so many questions before we took on this momentous challenge, and I’m sure you do too! So, I have put together a list of all the doubts that I had, along with answers to hopefully help you feel more confident in knowing what to expect on this memorable Albanian Alps hike.

The Basic Itinerary

Shkoder is the gateway to the Albanian Alps, so base yourself here. BUT don’t just use Shkoder as your base. It is a fascinating, characterful city and is worth at least a couple of nights of your time if you have them to spare. Find out all about Shkoder in my post here.

Day 1: Pack a small bag for your hike, leave your backpack/suitcase etc. in Shkoder. Travel to Valbona, explore Valbona.

Day 2: hike from Valbona to Theth, explore Theth.

Day 3: lie in/explore Theth and then head back to Shkoder.

There are obviously plenty of alterations, but this is the general gist. You could have an extra day in Theth and explore the Blue Eye, you could stay for a night on Komani lake to go kayaking etc.

How difficult is it? Is it dangerous?

I would give it a 7/10 on the difficulty scale, and a 6/10 on the dangerous scale. Anyone with relatively good fitness and in relatively good health could complete this hike – (it will be a challenge, but if you’re reading this post, you’re already up for a challenge, right?). Just for your reference, my step count by the end of the day was over 40,000.

There are sections that are very steep, hang over sheer drops, or have loose gravel that slips under foot. As someone who is not good with heights, yes, I felt pretty sick when we reached the top and had to go down the other side. (Going down is always worse than going up – I always feel safer and more in control going up.) But it really isn’t bad.

This is an exhilarating hike which rewards you with phenomenal, breathtaking views that are 100% worth the slight discomfort.

snow capped mountains

1795 metres above sea level

rickety wooden stile

Rickety stile

handmade bridge over a river

Looking pretty hand made

How long does it take?

It can take anywhere from six hours to ten hours depending on your ability and how many times you stop for photos. Most people manage to make it across within seven or eight hours.

When is the best time of year to hike?

The best time to be hiking the Albanian Alps is between May and October as there is too much snow during the winter months to make the hike accessible. We hiked in June. The weather was perfect, and the route wasn’t really busy.

What is the terrain like?

You’ll find the terrain really varies. There are sections that are rocky, some have loose gravel that is slippery; other sections are very even and easy-going, some were muddy. I was very thankful for my walking boots at the uneven sections and was envious of the people with walking poles coming down the steep, slippery section with loose gravel!

rocky path

The rough…

flat and easy-going path

…and the smooth

Do I need a guide?

Not necessarily. For this specific route hiking  from Valbona to Theth, the vast majority of people just go for it themselves. It’s a pretty well marked route and you will undoubtedly bump into other hikers going the same way. The route is marked on Maps.me so make sure you download your Albania map beforehand just in case. We didn’t need to really refer to it throughout the hike. Google Maps has no idea how to get there though. It’s not easy to get lost as you will see red and white markers showing you the way. If you would feel more comfortable with a guide, this is something that you can arrange at a tour agency in Shkoder.

trees painted with red and white markers

Red and white markers

signs showing the hiking route

That way

Do I need any special equipment?

The only thing that I would say really is necessary is a good pair of hiking boots that you have worn in well. I have sprained and broken my feet and ankles on too many occasions, so repeating anything like this on top of a mountain is not something I would want to risk. Other than that, I would imagine that a pair of walking sticks would help to take the pressure off the knees on the way down and to stabilise you when you hit the sections of loose gravel.

Simoni Kafe

At the top of the mountain pass

Can I buy lunch on the hike?

Maybe. There are a few places en route that sell food, drinks etc. (marked on Maps.me) but they are much more expensive than you would find elsewhere in Albania. Also, you can’t guarantee that they will be open, so crossing your fingers that you can get lunch on the hike is too risky in my book.

I would recommend that you arrange for your Valbona accommodation to fix you a packed lunch. Ours was not great. They gave us a roll of tin foil and our lunch to wrap up: two cucumbers, two tomatoes, a couple of slabs of cheese, a sour bread and two ‘hard-boiled eggs’ which turned out to not actually be hard-boiled. (I can strongly advise against eating cold, half-boiled eggs on a hike.) But, at least we had something. Top tip: don’t expect too much from the food in the Albanian Alps, especially if you’re vegetarian. Bring a load of snacks from Shkoder.

There are no shops to buy food in Valbona before the hike.

Are there facilities along the route?

Yes, there are maybe three spots along the route where you can stop for coffee or a snack and use the toilets. They are all marked on Maps.me. They do charge premium prices for their products (they have had to lug it half way up a mountain after all!). Make sure you bring enough cash.

Simoni Kafe

Simoni Kafe en route

Can I do the hike from Theth to Valbona instead?

By all means, you can hike the opposite way if you prefer. We met plenty of people hiking the other way. Most people tend to start in Valbona because the journey to Valbona is long, so they like to get that part out of the way first.

What should I pack in my day bag to take away for three days?

I would recommend taking all valuables with you instead of leaving these back in Shkoder. Unfortunately for us, that meant laptops had to be lugged up and over the Albanian Alps! Also bring something like a pair of flipflops – your feet will thank you after the hike.

Other than regular day-to-day items, take a refillable water bottle, a first aid kit with antiseptic spray, plasters, blister patches etc., a power bank (or even a solar powered one), plenty of snacks, sun protection and warm layers/waterproofs because it will get cold up in the mountains in the evenings, and a packed lunch.

And remember to bring enough cash for the duration. You can’t guarantee cards will be accepted or ATMs or card machines will be available/working.

taking a picture over the mountain pass

Don’t forget to pack those flip flops

Where can I leave my bags while I hike?

We left our bags at our accommodation in Shkoder as we were returning back to the same accommodation after the hike. Most won’t charge for this service especially if you book a night’s stay after the hike.

How can I book all of the transportation and accommodation?

You can either book each individual part yourself, which is pretty complicated, or pay a local tour operator to arrange it all for you. There are plenty of companies in Shkoder that can sort this out. It is standard procedure that accommodation in Valbona and Theth includes all meals purely because of the lack of restaurants and shops up in the Albanian Alps.

Most people turn up to Shkoder, book their hike with a travel agency that same day, and travel to Valbona the very next morning. Don’t worry about trying to book everything up ahead of time, which was one of my biggest concerns. I would recommend staying in Shkoder for at least a couple of nights before the hike and one recovery night afterwards.

Route map

Where would you recommend for accommodation?

We stayed at Guesthuose Natyra in Valbona and Theth Paradise in Theth.

When you’re up in the mountains, you don’t have so much of a choice and the general standard is lower than you would get in the cities.

Guesthouse Natyra

Guesthouse Natyra was one of the very few places in Valbona that served food: they have a restaurant on the side of the guesthouse. The room itself looked like a cute wood cabin from the outside, and the rooms had a small private bathroom with a shower and toilet. It was basic but was clean.

Mountain cabin

All the essentials for breakfast on the go

Theth Paradise

Theth Paradise again was a similar wood cabin style. Rooms had a private bathroom with shower and toilet, and were basic but clean. 

All of our meals were included in the accommodation price for both.

coffee with a mountain view

Coffee with a view

How do I get to Valbona?

Well, it’s not straight forward, and that is half the fun (trust me!). The first leg up to Valbona in the Albanian Alps requires two minibus rides and a ferry.

Leg One

Get the bus going to Komani Lake ferry port. You can buy tickets from any travel agent in Shkoder. It will leave Shkoder centre around 07:30 and then drive for about two hours on a very poorly maintained, potholed road.

Leg Two

When you arrive at the ferry port, it will be manic (I’m not going to lie). Several boats do the same trip with slightly different stops, some take pedestrians only, some take cars. Show your ticket (that again you should pick up from your Shkoder travel agent) and you will be directed to the correct boat. Get on and position yourself somewhere with a good view because you’re about to embark on a pretty spectacular journey.

ferry at Komani lake

Ferry

Komani lake is stunning and reminds me of Milford Sound in New Zealand or Halong Bay in Vietnam with great masses of land protruding straight out of the water. The land either side of the lake seems uninhabited, but don’t be fooled: the boat will periodically head to land where people will just appear out of the bushes to be handed packages of goods from the city – kind of like Deliveroo, I guess!

Leg Three

After two or three hours, depending on the stop-offs en route, you will reach Fierza ferry port. Jump off here and then jump on to a minibus going to Valbona. I recommend you buy your tickets for this bus in Shkoder too. You can pay for it when you get on the bus, but you have to cross your fingers that there is a free seat that hasn’t been booked. It will take you another hour or so to drive up into the mountains. You will be dropped off right at the door of your accommodation.

Settle in, maybe go for a wander around Valbona before getting an early night in preparation for the big hike tomorrow!

the water of Komani lake with mountains

Komani lake

How do I get back to Shkoder from Theth?

This is actually so much easier than getting to the start of the hike in Valbona. A furgon (minibus) will pick you up from your Theth accommodation and drop you off back in Shkoder. Again, you can buy your ticket ahead of time in Shkoder. Some people want to experience the Albanian Alps without the hiking, and so they visit Theth on a day trip as it is only an hour outside of Shkoder.

Theth to Shkoder furgon

Theth to Shkoder furgon

Where is the start point of the hike?

The beginning of the trail is actually a good hour or so’s walk from Valbona, and depending on where your accommodation is, could be even further. To get there, you walk along the tarmacked road until you come to what looks like a car park. You will see a sign for the hike and two trees marked with red circles that have smaller white circles inside. There will likely be several vehicles driving guests to a point further on from this. If you get a lift beyond this point, you’re cheating (totally kidding, folks!). It’s a tough hike, no doubt about it. Speak to your Valbona accommodation when you arrive and they will be able to arrange a lift which will take you as far as possible before the hiking begins. Or, just walk it like we did.

hike start point marked with red and white circles

Ready, set, go

What time should I start hiking?

The scenery in the Albanian Alps is stunning! Give yourself as much time as is possible. It truly is a spectacular place and you don’t want to be rushing to get to Theth before sunset. We left our accommodation in Valbona at 07:30 and arrived into our accommodation in Theth at 14:30.

What is there to do in Valbona?

Valbona has several hiking trails you can find on Maps.me if you fancy a warm up before the big one. It is very much slim pickings on the restaurant front. Some guesthouses include meals, but its not optimistic for vegetarians. The meal that we had in the evening before our hike was not too special: lemon and egg soup, cheeses, bread, salad, plain pasta, stodgy risotto. There aren’t any shops where you can buy food here. We only found one stand that sells dried fruit, seeds and nuts, so plan ahead.

coffee with Valbona mountain views

More coffee with more views

Warm up walking trail

long road leading to mountains

Long dusty road

What is there to do in Theth?

Theth is a small mountain town with several walking trails (again, use trusty Maps.me). If you’re not knackered after your hike, go for a wander around. Head over to Theth church (Kisha e Thethit), and see this small building with the mountains looming in the background. It is THE iconic spot that you will no doubt have seen online when researching this hike. Not too far from here is a wooden hut that has cans and bottles of drink lined up around it. Stop here for a drink while you take in the most stunning surroundings.

There is also Theth Blue Eye, which is further afield and not easily walkable after hiking through the mountains for eight hours. If you have extra time in Theth, definitely head over here. We didn’t have time, but from what I have seen, it looks amazing. There are some restaurants and guesthouses which also serve food.

iconic Theth church

Theth church

hay stack

Hay there

Happy hour

Fancy giving it a go? Or have you already done it?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, recommendations or questions.

 

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