Georgia may be a small country, but its mountains are enough to impress everyone from flatlanders to the most seasoned mountaineers. The greater Caucasus range marks the northern border with Russia, while the lesser Caucasus range fills the middle of the country, leaving very little flat land.
The greater Caucasus consists of impressive, steep, glaciated peaks, while the lesser Caucasus are more rounded, lower, and forested. The lesser Caucasus regions bordering the Black Sea receive the most consistent snowfall, but due to their low elevation (<2500 m), the ski season finishes at the end of March and most peaks are comfortable for hiking in late May.
The greater Caucasus, on the other hand, are generally skiable well into April and even into the summer above 3000m. Hiking season there doesn’t begin until the end of June or later.
Gudauri & Kazbegi
Kazbegi and Gudauri regions lie directly north of Tbilisi. These are the most visited mountain regions in Georgia due to their easy accessibility and developed tourist infrastructure. Gudauri is home to Georgia’s largest ski resort and numerous ski touring routes and is just beginning to develop as a summer destination with mountain biking and hiking options as well.
Kazbegi region (especially the main town, Stepantsminda, which is more commonly referred to simply as ‘Kazbegi’) is a very popular summer destination but also provides a wealth of ski touring and mountaineering options. Luckily, most tourists stick to the same routes, so even when the towns are crowded, you can always find solitude off the beaten path.
Access to this region is very easy by hitchhiking or marshrutka. Marshrutkas leave from Didube station in Tbilisi approximately every hour between 8am and 5pm. The price is 7 GEL to Gudauri or 10 GEL to Kazbegi (Stepantsminda). Though the marshrutka is quite fast and cheap, it’s always bumpy and cramped, and hitchhiking is often faster, much more comfortable, and, obviously, cheaper. Taxis are also available from Didube for about 75-100 GEL for a private car or 15-25 GEL per person to join a shared car, depending on your haggling ability.
Note that the road between Gudauri and Kazbegi often closes during snow storms, but very rarely stays closed for more than a day. Luckily, there are plenty of ski touring options on both sides of the pass, so being stuck on one side doesn’t mean you can’t ski (though, if the pass is closed, the avalanche danger may be such that you’re not skiing anyways).
There is no shortage of guesthouses along the road, and one can find an especially high concentration of guesthouses in Gudauri and Stepantsminda. Accommodation in Gudauri is significantly more expensive than anywhere else in the region, so it’s only recommended to stay there if you’re going to ski in the resort.
Ski touring guide
Oleg Gritskevitch wrote an exellent guide to ski touring in the Gudauri region, which can be purchased from Travel Bar in Gudauri ski resort. I absolutely recommend picking up a copy and taking it with you on your tour for more detailed information on the routes and avalanche zones.
Vagabond Ski School in Gudauri offers lessons with native English speaking instructors for those wanting to touch up their technique or review avalanche rescue procedures before heading out into the backcountry.
6 to 8 hours (ski touring/walking) – 950 m elevation gain
Sioni valley is a beautiful and snowy place where the lack of sun exposure ensures good quality snow well into the spring. It has recently been discovered by more skiers, but there are always fresh tracks awaiting those who seek them. The terrain varies from wide snow fields to technical couloirs and everything in between. In summer, hiking to the ridge is rewarded with a view of Mt. Kazbek and the contrast between steep rocks and lush green grass.
The route begins in the village of Sioni – simply turn south from the highway and head to the southernmost point of the village where there is a little parking lot. The Tbilisi-Kazbegi marshrutka passes Sioni, so you can simply walk from the highway if you don’t have transport to the end of the village.
The approach starts with 4 km through the valley before reaching the main ascent. As the terrain begins to get steeper, you can choose your route based on your ability level. This is a place that you could hike many times and never ski the same line. In spring, pitching a tent at the end of the flat approach and spending a few days skiing the endless terrain is well worth it. For summer hikers, it makes more sense to spend only a day here.
It is also possible to make this hike into a loop from the village Sno, to the ridge, and down Sioni valley. This is more recommended for summer hikers, as skiers should test the snow stability in Sioni valley on their way up if they intend to ski anything steep.
7 to 9 hours (ski touring/walking) – 1150 m elevation gain to the basin between peaks
Chaukhi massif is absolutely worth a visit on your trip to Georgia. This unique mountain stands out like a 3842m castle rising above the valley. The most popular hike from here goes over Chaukhi pass from the village Juta to Roshka, but there’s already plenty of information about that online, so we’ll cover a less common hike on the other side of the mountain.
Juta is accessible only by Mountain Freaks’ daily bus from Stepantsminda in summer (25 GEL r/t) or by taxi (40-50 GEL one way). The road closes until late March or April, meaning winter skiers will need to hike the last 4 km to the village. This is an excellent destination for spring skiing, though, as the upper couloirs are skiable into June.
From Juta, head up the valley towards Chaukhi – about an hour walking to the base of the massif. By April, this section will likely be without snow. As you get closer, the main trail heads towards the pass just to the left of the massif at a fairly low angle. Instead, you will veer a bit right and head straight up the valley on the right side of the massif. This valley should be snowy at least until late May.
The trail gets a bit steep in sections, so be aware of avalanche danger if skiing. As you ascend the valley, you’ll be amazed with the endless couloirs – a ski mountaineer’s playground. Skiers, take your pick which one to climb.
There is a fairly large, flat basin around 3300m just before the final steep pitch up to the ridge. To the left the basin narrows between the largest peaks. Ascend the fairly steep pitch to the top of the ridge if you so desire, but simply standing between Chaukhi’s peaks is the most impressive part of the hike.
Ski mountaineers can access Chaukhi’s largest and most famous couloir by circumnavigating the nearest peak and climbing to the small pass just after it – this is seriously expert’s only terrain, though, and requires crampons, ice axes, and a comprehensive knowledge of self-arrest techniques. Most people will be content simply watching others climb from amongst the rocky palace-like peaks.
5 to 6,5 hours (ski touring/walking, including a stop for tea with the monks) – 1000 m elevation gain
Just across the valley from Gudauri is a very popular hike to Lomisa monastery – a functioning monastery on a high ridge inhabited by monks year-round. The trail is often loaded with tourists, especially in winter as nearly every guided ski tour group goes there. Little do they know that absolute solitude lies just a bit further down the ridge in the Fairytale forest.
The Fairytale forest can be done as an out-and-back hike to totally avoid the crowds, but I recommend doing a loop and ascending to Lomisa monastery and descending through the forest on skis, or the opposite direction for summer hikers. That way you get the unique experience of having tea and snacks with the monks – there’s good reason the monastery is such a popular hike – and a more wild experience on the other half of the route.
If ascending the typical route to the monastery, begin at the church in Kvemo Mleta village. This is along the Tbilisi-Kazbegi marshrutka route or a 40 GEL taxi ride from Gudauri. The monks will be happy if you stop at the church and ask if they have anything for you to bring up to the monastery (food, wood, etc.).
The trail from there is pretty easy to follow all the way to the top. If ascending through the Fairytale Forest, head up the valley from the road at 42.42619, 44.52679, and ascend the right side of the valley towards the old stone cross at 42.41753, 44.51952, then continue straight up to the top of the ridge.
From Lomisa monastery, head east along the ridge to the next peak, and descend through the north-facing forest from there. Though not world-class tree skiing, this is the best ski tour option on low visibility or higher avalanche danger days due to the relatively low angle and abundance of visual landmarks. It also holds powder longer than other areas thanks to the shelter provided by trees.
In summer, you’re more likely to encounter a bear here than anywhere else around Gudauri.
Svaneti is a popular destination in northwestern Georgia for hikers and skiers. It is home to the ski resorts Tetnuldi and Hatsvali, the unique Svan language, and is designated a UNESCO heritage site due to the medieval stone towers scattered across the landscape. Photographs of Svaneti cannot possibly portray the scale of the mountains; this is a place you simply must see with your own eyes.
Travel time from Tbilisi to upper Svaneti is long, about 9 hours by road, but it is easy to reach by public transportation or hitchhiking. A night train leaves Tbilisi in the evening, via Kutaisi in the middle of the night, and arrives in Zugdidi at 6am, from where a marshrutka connects to Mestia, the region’s capital.
There are also direct marshrutkas from Tbilisi, Kutaisi, and Batumi which are a slightly cheaper but much less comfortable option. Hitchhiking to Mestia is relatively easy in any season, but hitchhiking further down the road to Ushguli requires a lot more luck in winter.
If long drives are not for you, there is an airport in Mestia with regular flights from Tbilisi and Kutaisi, though they are often cancelled due to weather. Flights are relatively cheap, running about 65 GEL, but the luggage limit is 15 kg which may not be enough for ski equipment.
Guesthouses are easy to find in this region, many of which offer meals included in the price. In Mestia, hostels can be found for as little as 10 GEL per night (Manoni’s Guesthouse), and in other villages accommodation is slightly more expensive but still quite reasonable. Ski touring is generally possible everywhere in Svaneti until mid-March, and above 2000m the season lasts into April or May.
Baki pass to Mazeri
4 to 6,5 hours (ski touring/walking) – 1200 m elevation gain
The trail begins right from the bus stop in Etseri, which any marshrutka from the rest of Georgia to Mestia will pass by. Note that Etseri doesn’t appear on all maps because it is not the name of a village, but rather a small region containing a few villages (you’re more likely to find Tsalanari on a map). All marshrutka drivers will know where to stop if you tell them “Etseri”. The trail is marked on Open Street Maps, going north and east from the village Barshi.
Walk up the valley on a dirt road past a few villages, and just after you pass the first peak on the right side, a trail turns east to begin ascending to Baki pass. From the pass, you are rewarded with a panoramic view of the surrounding peaks, with Ushba directly in front of you. At this point, if you’re on skis, you can decide on your descent option. Either continue straight ahead for a smooth east-facing descent into the village Mazeri, turn right (southeast) and continue along the ridge for a more north-facing aspect, or turn left and keep climbing for a longer southeast-facing descent.
If on foot, the trail follows the ridge to the southeast, then turns left away from the main ridge, up and down a bit, past a small church, and to one last open hill with a gorgeous panoramic view. From there, the trail descents into Mazeri on a steep but well-marked forest path.
Grand Hotel Ushba is a hotspot for backcountry skiers and hikers to spend a night in the Mazeri village, but it’s also possible to walk, hitchhike, or take a taxi 7km back to the main road, from where you can easily reach Mestia or any other part of Svaneti.
Ushguli is questionably labelled the highest village in Europe, at an elevation just above 2000m. Due to the higher elevation, skiable snow is more accessible here than the rest of Svaneti in spring. Don’t be fooled by the 40km distance from Mestia – due to the condition of the road it usually requires 3 hours to drive.
In summer, minivans depart from Seti Square in Mestia whenever they fill, usually charging 30 GEL per person. In winter, a private car for 200 GEL may be your only option, so go to the bars in Mestia before you leave and see if you can meet other skiers to split the fare with. Since drivers return to Mestia each evening, the price is the same for one-way or a round trip on the same day. From Ushguli, you can find a car that would otherwise be returning to Mestia with empty spaces, which gives you much more bargaining leverage to get a cheaper price for the return trip. Hitchhiking is possible, but is much easier in summer than in winter or spring.
4 to 6 hours (ski tour/walking) – 850 m elevation gain
This is one of many possible ski tours/hikes up to the ridge just south of Ushguli. It’s great for spring ski touring, as north-facing slopes hold snow well into April. In summer (and, theoretically, in winter), it can easily be turned into a through hike down the south side of the ridge to the village of Chvelpi.
Begin hiking southwest just after the bridge where the main road crosses the river in Ushguli and continue downstream along the river until the village Murkmeli, where you begin to ascend up the valley. As this is a common destination for guided ski tour groups, skiers will likely have tracks to follow. The hiking trail sometimes seems to disappear, so hikers should just continue south up the valley, keeping right where the stream forks. The way up to the ridge is fairly simple; just keep going straight.
From the top of the ridge, you’ll be rewarded with panorama of Mount Shkhara to the north, and on clear days Tetnuldi and Ushba are visible. Through hikers should turn right at the ridge and continue around the next peak to the marked Latpari Pass, where a road leads down to Chvelpi. Skiers can traverse the ridge in either direction in search of the best descent line. It’s possible to ski a more avalanche-safe route if you follow your tracks, or find a steeper descent if the conditions are stable enough.
Shkhara Mountain viewpoint
5 to 6 hours (ski tour/walking) – 950 m elevation gain
The vast majority of tourists who come to Ushguli either hire a jeep or walk up the valley towards Shkhara Mountain to get a better view of the glacier. Little do they know that they could have a much wider panorama by just exploring a bit further (and higher) away from the trail. This route is best done as an out-and-back for hikers and as a loop for skiers in order to hike up a west-facing aspect and ski down a north-facing aspect.
The ascent is the same for both. In winter, this hike is only safe with a very stable snowpack. In spring, make sure to start early while the snow is still frozen solid, as the very exposed, steep lower slope will soften and begin to slide early in the day. As with many spring morning ski tours, the hike may be more comfortable with ski crampons, but bootpacking the icy sections is also entirely doable.
Continue straight on the main road after the bridge until the end of the last houses. A mountain begins directly in front of you (to the east), rising up on the left side of the road. Hike straight up this mountain to the beginning of the ridge which creates the south side of Shkhara valley – the valley which most tourists come to see.
The ascent begins somewhat steep, flattens out, then rises a bit more towards a final steepest section. Skiers without crampons may want to bootpack the last slope, and hikers should be careful about foot (and, if necessary, hand) placement. The entire hike is in a straight line, so it’s hard to get lost.
Once you reach the first summit along the ridge, you will understand why you came. The mighty Great Caucasus ridge spreads out in front of your eyes, with its 5000m glaciated peaks lining the horizon. Continue further down the ridge as far as you like; the view never ceases to amaze and epic ski lines can be found everywhere.
Hikers can return back along the path you came up, but skiers will find better snow on the north-facing slopes down to Shkhara Valley.
From most points on the ridge, you can see about half of the ski descent, so you’ll have to continuously reanalyze your route choice as you go. The lower section of the mountain is densely forested, so it may be easier to ski down one of the narrow gullies where there is a break in the trees – but beware that this is a terrain trap, so it’s better to stay in the trees if the lower-elevation snow has become heavy and wet in the midday heat.
At the bottom of the valley, it’s easiest to cross the river, put your skins back on, and hike out the flat portion of the valley back to Ushguli.
Racha is one of the least explored regions of the greater Caucasus – meaning the hardy hikers who make it there will be rewarded with unspoiled views in every direction. This regions lacks any typical tourist attractions, thus, it is only visited by those who come explicitly for the mountains. Access is more difficult than other regions, so expect to have to take a taxi at some point or potentially wait a long time to hitchhike.
The two hikes described below begin from the villages Shovi and Glola – only 3 km apart – thus can easily be linked into one longer hike. Daily marshrutkas to the town of Oni leave from Tbilisi at 8am and from Kutaisi at 8:30am (slow) and 2pm (faster). Occasionally, these marshrutkas will continue onward to Shovi, so ask the driver. If not, your best bet is to hitchhike or take a taxi.
There are rumors of a marshrutka from Oni to the village Ghebi on Thursdays, but the consistency of this is not confirmed. If it exists, you can ask the driver to let you off at the turn to Shovi which gets you 9 km from Shovi/6 km from Glola. Maybe you can even convince him to take you the extra few kms. Ghebi is also a potential destination for hiking and ski touring – go there and explore!
It’s definitely possible to stay in a guesthouse in Shovi in summer and probably in winter. In Glola it might be possible also. Ski touring season generally lasts until the beginning of May, and hiking season begins around the end of June.
5 to 7 hours (ski touring/walking to glacier and back) – 1450 m elevation gain to the glacier
Shovi was a beautiful resort town during the Soviet Union. Since then, it has fallen to ruins, and the remaining ghost town gives off a spooky-yet-serene energy.
The hike to Buba Glacier begins by the large info panel at the entrance to Shovi resort. Follow the road ENE through the village and you’ll find the first hiking marker about 1 km in, just past a ruined hotel. The trail follows red markings, though these may or may not be visible in winter.
When the wide road ends and the trail reaches a tributary of the Bubastskali River, begin a fairly steep climb through the mixed deciduous and coniferous forest. The trail later opens up as you reach the ridgeline, and continues through overgrown (or snowy) alpine meadows where the giant Buba Mountain comes into view. The trail markers end not long after, but you can continue creating your own trail as far as you like towards the glacier.
Follow your tracks on the descent, being especially avalanche aware on the smaller convexities up high and in the steep lower forest during winter and spring. Altogether, this trail takes 6-9 hours depending on your speed and how far you continue up it. Start early for spring ski touring! On the descent, you can look across the valley to see your possible ski lines/hiking trails for the Udziro Lake hike, described next.
A second descent option for a 2-3 day hike is also possible in summer (and, theoretically, in winter, but it would be a less exciting ski run): turn southeast at the last tourist pointer, continue down and then back up a valley on what appears to be a very abandoned and overgrown gravel road, past Tbilisa glacier, and then descent down the next valley back to the road a few km past Shovi.
This route is marked on Open Street Maps, though it technically requires a border permit due to its proximity to South Ossetia. Going in the clockwise direction (as described here), you’d be leaving the permit zone when you pass the checkpoint, so the guards likely won’t do anything if you don’t have a permit…but…well…good luck!
8 to 12 hours (ski touring/walking to lake and back) – 1400 m elevation gain to lake, 1900 to summit
Udziro Lake – meaning Bottomless Lake in Georgian – is a small alpine lake at 2800m elevation. This hike could be done out-and-back from the village Glola or as a loop from Shovi to Glola. For ski touring, it’s recommended to do the out-and-back hike so you can test the snow stability on your way up. For summer hiking, it’s nicest to break into two days and camp on the beautiful banks of the lake. The route from Shovi to the lake is on Open Street Maps, but the slightly shorter and more moderately steep route from Glola is not (yet).
The first 700 vertical meters or so are through a beautiful pine forest. After that, you emerge into a few meadows, back through a small birch forest, and then above tree line. As you leave the birch forest, cross a stream by a large stone cairn, continue up the right side of the valley, and cross a small pass into the adjacent valley. From here, you continue up to Udziro pass. On top of the pass, you can turn right and climb for a few more minutes to an epic viewpoint – well worth the extra work.
After breaking for a snack at the viewpoint, return to the pass and continue down the other side towards the lake. Here, you can set up camp and scope out epic ski lines from the 3300m Katitsvera Mountain (Georgian for ‘cat whiskers’). Some ski lines above the lake require mountaineering equipment and knowledge, others not. If doing a day hike/ski tour, return back generally following the way you came up.