Peaks of the Balkans – Backpacking through Albania, Montenegro, and Kosovo

When I moved to Europe in 2018 I ended up with some unexpected extra time on my hands before starting my job in Belgium. I eventually spent that time hiking around Romania, but not before reading about a trail called the Peaks of the Balkans. A ~190km loop trail through the rural mountains at the intersection of Albania, Montenegro, and Kosovo, it was one of the newer and more remote backpacking trails through Europe and it immediately captured my attention. For the next five years it would live in the back of my mind and I would revisit the idea each summer before delaying it to the next year for an ever shifting list of reasons (excuses). Finally, last year, I roped my cousin Dave into hiking it with me and he gave me the final push that I needed to sit down and plan it all out for real this time.

This is a long post, with more pictures than anyone needs, so probably you’ll want to read it in chunks or just skim for interesting details :).

The standard Peaks of the Balkans (PoB) trail sits within an extensive network of mountains and trails that offers as much variation and adventure as you can dream of. I opted to plan out a modified version of the loop that excised the sections in Kosovo in favor of several detours into some of the (even more) remote areas of Albania and Montenegro. We hiked for 12 days, around 150 km, setting foot in all three countries and up to 2656m elevation.

[August 24 – September 5, 2023]

Day 0 [Travel]
I flew from Belgium to Tirana, Albania where I met up with Dave. He had just come from two weeks in Romania with his fiance and her family, then a week traveling through Bulgaria and Greece before meeting me in Albania. We met at the bus station in Tirana and caught the next bus to Shkoder, one of the larger cities in the northern part of the country and a common staging point for trips into the mountains there. We spent the night in Shkoder at a fun hostel, and early the next morning caught a shuttle ride a couple hours into the mountains to the small village of Theth, where we would begin our hike.

Day 1 [Theth, AL -> Valbona, AL] (19.3km | 1,299m)

The shuttle got us to Theth around 9am under clear blue skies and hot weather. We spent a few minutes sorting final bits of gear and then spent our loose change on a couple sodas at the small shop nearby to cut down on extra weight ;). We started out of Theth and followed a dirt road for several km, first winding past a bit of farmland and then starting to snake up a steep hillside. Eventually we left the road for a dirt path that kept going up and up towards Valbona Pass, just below the peak of Maja Valbona. Along the way we hiked through beautiful forest, picked up a stray dog for a km or so (the first of many to share our path the next two weeks), and stopped in at a small cafe setup on the side of a hillside to provide cold refreshments to hikers on their way to the pass.

All along the entire PoB route many locals have set up small cafes and food stands catering to the hikers that come past during peak season, and we would pass and enjoy many such stops along our way. The cafes took on all shapes and forms, from the huts that shepherd families were themselves living out of, to light plywood and tarpaulin constructed shacks, to full timber beam constructed small cabins.

After reaching the pass we continued down into the Valbona Valley, stopping for a late lunch in the shade of a huge boulder. On reaching the valley floor we still had 5-6 km of flat gravel walking left to get us into the town of Valbona itself, which did grate on our joints just a bit after the strenuous hike up and over the pass behind us.

Eventually we reached Valbona, and after a short mix-up and subsequent car ride from a friendly local we managed to get ourselves to the correct guesthouse where we were staying that night. We showered, had a tasty dinner at their restaurant, and even did a few items of laundry – luxury that would not be regularly repeated for most of the following nights.

Day 2 [Valbona, AL -> Cerem, AL] (11.1km | 1,291m)

We had a nice breakfast at the guesthouse and purchased a packed lunch to go consisting of bread, tomato, cucumber, boiled egg, and some cheese. Almost all of the guesthouses we stayed at had the option to be sent along with a packed lunch, and almost all of them gave the same staple ingredients. Not exactly ultra-light, but it made for a nice morning snack and helped supplement the food stores we were carrying on our backs.

After breakfast one of the guesthouse workers drove us a few km down the street to the start of our route for the day. The “official” stage for Valbona -> Cerem is not particularly impressive, following the paved road out of Valbona and keeping along the relatively flat valley all the way to Cerem. We instead chose the alternate route that would take us over Prosslopit Pass and then back down into the valley where the seasonal village of Cerem is situated.

The day passed in a way that became typical for the rest of our trip: we would begin with a hot and sweaty climb up from the valley floor, through beautiful forests eventually thinning out into alpine pasture. After reaching our highpoint for the day (usually a pass or small peak) we would descend on the far side towards the next valley where our next night’s stay awaited us.

For this second day on the trail we were still feeling strong after a good night’s rest, despite the solid workout we had put in the day before. The sun was hot and our backs sweaty as we approached Prosslopit Pass, and we had lunch sheltered beneath the meager shade of a small boulder with the noonday sun riding high overhead. When we crossed the pass we could look up and see a small chain of people ascending and descending Zla Kolata, one of the highest peaks in this region at 2535m. As stunning as the views must have been, with the heavy packs on our backs and the long ascent to the pass just behind us, neither us gave much consideration to the 3km / 450m detour for the peak, and instead we continued on our way, thankful to be past the day’s highpoint.

We continued along a bit of a high and rolling plateau on the far side of the pass for a bit before dropping down towards Cerem. At one point we passed a very cool cave formation, with an entrance leading about 2-3m into the rock before dropping down into a deep hole of unknown depth, and with a very cold and refreshing wind blasting up out of it.

On the way down to Cerem we stopped by a small cafe / shepherd family hut to grab a few beers for the night. They had a herd of sheep, some chickens, and a few young cows who were cavorting around and enjoying themselves to our amusement.

Though there are guesthouses in Cerem, we decided to camp that night, starting a pattern of switching between guesthouse / camping every other night that we would follow for most of our trip. We poked around between a few shepherd settlements outside of town and eventually found a nice secluded spot at the edge of a large field overlooking the village for us to set up camp for the night.

Day 3 [Cerem, AL -> Doberdol, AL] (17.4km | 1,329m)

The next morning dawned on another beautiful day, but a day that would be one of the more physically challenging days during our trip. We were starting to feel the effect of the previous two days’ effort, and despite eating well our packs were not feeling much lighter. As an added bonus, Dave woke up to find out that the welts he had dismissed as mosquito bites the previous day were not healing yet but instead getting worse, and we eventually came to the conclusion that he had the misfortune of suffering a bedbug attack during our first night at the guesthouse. Why they went for him and not me, sleeping in a bed just two meters away, we had no idea, but unfortunately those welts took another couple itchy days to heal completely. And of course put a holy fear and paranoia into us that any guesthouse we stayed at could be a repeat that gets both of us. (Though luckily we would remain unscathed after this initial run-in.)

Despite the challenges for the day we had a very enjoyable hike, up from the valley and across a series of small ridges through various iterations of field and forest, including stops at two different backcountry cafes along the way. Clouds began to roll in during the afternoon and soon thunder tolled off in the distance. When we were a few km away from Doberdol the skies finally let loose with the rain, starting slowly but then building up into a decent pour. We spent about 15 minutes underneath a big tree debating whether to attempt to wait out the rain before deciding it was best to push forward and make sure we got to our guesthouse that night in time for dinner.

So we continued on through the rain, getting decently soaked though our packs stayed dry enough under their covers. The thunder continued over our heads, though luckily remained on the far side of the ridge we were hiking beneath. We reached the village of Doberdol (also seasonal) and our guesthouse for the night, Guesthouse Bashkimi, with just enough time before dinner to settle our packs into our room and wash up a bit.

Day 4 [Mt. Gjeravica from Doberdol, AL] (18.2km | 1,419m)

This day was planned as an out-and-back detour from the standard PoB route, to cross over the border from Albania into Kosovo and grab the peak of Mt. Gjeravica, the tallest peak in Kosovo at 2656m. Dave was feeling a bit tired from the previous three days, and with the plan already being that we would spend a second night at the same guesthouse he decided to take a rest day and explore a bit around Doberdol while I went for the peak.

After breakfast we parted ways and I headed up the valley above Doberdol, passing farms and fields with horses and other livestock. A nicely steep climb brought me to the top of the Peja Pass and I was feeling light and strong with my pack only loaded with the day’s necessities. From there it was a bit of gentle sidehilling and slow ascent up to a nice lake, followed by steep gain to the summit ridge and final push to the top.

After enjoying the view from the top for a bit I decided to take a detour on the way down, continuing on over the top in the opposite direction from which I had come, and eventually looped into a large basin several hundred meters below the peak past a beautiful lake where I stopped for a short swim and lunch. As I finished lunch a large group of tourists showed up, my cue to leave. A short climb back to the summit ridge was my last ascent of the day, before heading back down towards Doberdol along my earlier path, with one more short stop to swim at the first lake I had passed.

Back in Doberdol I joined Dave for another great dinner. This was one of our favorite guesthouses that we stayed in. The facility was comprised of multiple small buildings arranged together on a plot of land, with a few out buildings for dorms, an outhouse complete with shower, and one main hall where all the guests ate dinner and breakfast together. That second night we ended up chatting with a few people who were coming the opposite direction on the PoB trail and got some good intel from them on how to handle some modifications we were planning for the next stages of our hike.

Day 5 [Doberdol, AL -> Lake Hrid, MNE] (9.6km | 841m)

This was the most significant of our deviations from the standard PoB route. At this point the normal route heads into Kosovo for a few days before looping back around into Plav, Montenegro. I had decided to cut off that section and take us directly across from Doberdol to Plav, and opt to use the extra days later in the Grebaje Valley. We were still doing fine on time, though, and so decided to split what would otherwise have been a very long day into two, camping for the night around the beautiful Lake Hrid.

The day opened overcast as we made a very steep climb up the side of the valley cradling the village of Doberdol. From the top of that ridge we made a small detour to Tromeda peak, the triple point intersection of Albania, Kosovo, and Montenegro at 2366m. We were socked in with clouds and fog, so not much of a view, but still fun to stand on the triple point.

The rest of the hike over to Lake Hrid was fairly easy walking along some plateaus and wide rolling ridgelines, mostly beneath cloudy skies but with nice views along the way. Even with less than ideal weather conditions, the scenery of the mountains around us was just incredible. I’ve remarked multiple times after this trip how any “worst scenery” section of the PoB was still comparable to some of the best hiking I’ve done anywhere else.

We reached Lake Hrid in the early afternoon and had a nice warm lunch of noodles before I went for a (very cold) swim as the sun graced us with its presence for a few minutes. When the sun came out for longer we spent some time lounging in the woods by the shore of the lake, before heading back up the trail just a bit to a stone cabin / shelter that we had passed on the way in. We had heard about this from our friends in Doberdol and decided to check it out as a possible place to spend the night. It was nicely situated right on the knoll of a ridge with great views in both directions, spring-water pumped into a basin nearby, and a picnic table for dinner. Inside the shelter was sparse but welcome accommodations, with four raised wooden sleeping platforms. We ended up with the place to ourselves (apart from a visiting dog and herd of cows) and both agreed it was one of the nicest nights we spent on the trail.

Day 6 [Lake Hrid, MNE -> Plav, MNE] (13.8km | 201m)

The next morning we headed towards the town of Plav, Montenegro, which would be the largest town we passed through along our route, and the only one with access to standard grocery stores and restaurants.

The route down from the mountains gradually gave up elevation as we passed through fields and forest, alternating between single track, farmer’s tracks, and maintained dirt roads.

We got into Plav a bit after noon and headed towards the hostel where we would spend the night, stopping along the way for some kebab and fries that were probably just average but tasted amazing in the moment. Once checked in to the hostel we sorted gear and disposed of some trash before showering and taking some time to relax for a bit. That evening we went down the street to a local restaurant for another great meal. While Plav is not the most picturesque town, it was still nice to enjoy the comfort of civilization for a night before heading back into the woods.

Day 7 [Grebaje Valley, MNE] (3.7km, | 627m)

After breakfast at the hostel we paid for a car ride from the owner to take us into the nearby Grebaje Valley, a stupendously gorgeous valley guarded by tall mountains and cliffs on three sides, commonly referred to as one of the most picturesque places in Montenegro (and we would probably agree). The day was overcast and a bit drizzly, so we didn’t plan much in the way of hiking. We just carried our gear from the valley entrance where the car left us, up the road past a few assorted guesthouses, and to a nice field and camping area past the edge of the developed areas. Over the afternoon a few other cars and camper vans would arrive to spend the night, but with plenty of space to spread out it didn’t feel crowded at all.

With a big day hike planned for the next day, we decided to spend the afternoon exploring the slopes of the valley around us before dinner. A short but very steep scramble partway up the trail leading to Ocnjak peak satisfied us well with some excellent views across the valley and excited anticipation for the next day’s adventure.

The valley, like locales all along our trip, was also home to more than a few stray dogs, one of which decided that we looked like the chumps most likely to share our food with him. Despite keeping our dinner to ourselves, I still woke up partway through the night to find him huddled underneath the fly of our tent and pressing in against my sleeping bag. While he had been very friendly to us, I was concerned about fleas and miscellaneous disease, so I shooed him away.

Day 8 [Grebaje Valley, MNE] (14.5km | 1,478m)

Our original plan was to do a 2-day overnight hike into the highcountry above the Grebaje Valley, but this idea eventually underwent several modifications, some on purpose and others due to unfortunate necessity.

After discussing with the host at our previous hostel and another detailed look at the map we decided to adjust our plan into two day hikes out of the valley, coming back to our campsite at the valley floor to spend the night in-between. This ended up being a wise decision as the spots I had been eyeballing on the map as potential backcountry camping sites turned out to be less than ideal when we passed by on our day hikes.

For our first and primary day hike we chose to hike a modified version of the “three peaks” trail, passing over Volušnica, Talijanka, and Popadija peaks (one of the most scenic and popular routes in the valley). Not long after starting up from the valley floor we made our first, unintentional modification to the loop when we played a bit fast-and-loose with our trailfinding and after a bit of bushwacking ended up headed up the switchbacks towards Karaual peak instead of our intended start towards Popadija. We realized too late to change our plans and so we grabbed an extra fourth peak before looping around along our previously considered overnight route towards the remaining section of the three peaks loop.

Passing over Popadija we had cloudy skies that opened up for us by the time we crested the top of Talijanka, giving us stupendous views across the Grebaje valley and all of the amazingly rugged high backcountry surrounding it.

On the way down from Talijanka towards Volušnica Dave began feeling a bit off, which we at first attributed to just fatigue and elevation. But we soon realized it was more than that as he quickly progressed into a bout of serious nausea that had him lying on the side of the trail just trying to catch his breath. With 5km and 600m of descent still beneath us, dusk beginning to fall, and no idea what sort of affliction Dave was grappling with, I think we were both feeling uneasy about our prospects that evening.

As I was weighing up a handful of progressively worse options, Dave made a heroic rally and got himself headed down the trail, using his poles to keep himself moving while I took his pack (very lucky for both of us that we had decided on a day-trip and not an overnight). We took a minor shortcut to skip Volušnica and head down directly, and over the next four or five hours we slowly made our way down to the valley floor as Dave continued to doggedly fight off the swift advances of what we eventually decided must have been a mean case of Norovirus. (There were previous reports of the virus going around the PoB that summer, and we had been washing our hands religiously, yet it seemed our luck eventually ran out.)

We reached the valley floor around 9pm to find a piece of good luck. One of the guesthouses was still open and they still had accommodation available for the night. We got a nice 3/4-person cabin (complete with toilet and shower!) all to ourselves for what ended up being one of the nicest accommodations that we had during the entire trip. Dave got himself wrapped up in bed while I humped some night-essentials gear from our nearby campsite back to the cabin before passing out myself.