The Shkhara glacier hike in Svaneti Georgia
The Shkhara glacier is located in the mountains of eastern Georgia. The region of Svaneti is home to the largest glaciers in the Caucasus mountain range and the Shkhara glacier is just one of them.
The Shkhara glacier is on the slopes of mount Shkhara. The hike starts in the village of Ushguli. One of the highest settlements in Europe together with Juta in Kazbegi and Xinaliq in Azerbaijan.
Why hike to the Shkhara glacier?
Svaneti is home to a number of glaciers, but most are quite difficult to reach. The Shkhara glacier near Ushguli and the Chalaadi glacier near Mestia are the only ones that can be reached on an easy day hike.
The hike to the Chalaadi glacier is very easy. The hike to Shkhara is slightly longer, but also more beautiful in my opinion. The full hike is a 16 kilometer round trip and it takes about 5 to 6 hours to complete.
To get to the foot of the Shkhara glacier you need to follow the Inguri river. The trail goes through the valley floor with beautiful views of the Shkhara mountain in front of you. Only at the end there is a gradual climb up to the glacier.
Nowadays jeeps can enter the valley as well. This way you can shorten your hike making it possible to visit the Shkhara glacier in 2 to 3 hours if you are on a daytrip from Mestia to Ushguli.
Another option is to visit the Shkhara glacier on a horseback riding trip. In Ushguli it is easy to find guides who rent their horses for this purpose. Also a good option if you visit Ushguli on a daytrip.
My experience on the Shkhara glacier
I did the Shkhara glacier hike twice and both were very different experiences. The first time was in June when everything was lush and green. The second time was in October when the autumn colours were at its most beautiful.
I am a slow hiker so for me it took 6 hours to visit the Shkhara glacier. Others might be able to do this in 4 to 5 hours. As you follow a gravel jeep road for the biggest part of the journey I was a bit worried about traffic, but I did not see any jeep. I have the feeling most people still choose to hike, despite this option being available.
There are some parts where you have to cross small streams. In October this was very easy as the water level was very low and you can simply walk through without my shoes even getting wet. In June the water level was slightly higher, but it was still not difficult at all.
The Shkhara glacier hike without a guide
You can do the Shkhara glacier hike on a tour, but it is also very easy to arrange it yourself without a guide. Below I will describe how to do the Shkhara glacier hike on your own.
Part 1: Ushguli to Lamaria church (1 kilometer, 15 minutes)
Depending on where you start in Ushguli it is about a kilometer or less to walk to the Lamaria church in Zhibiani. The northernmost neighbourhood of Ushguli. Lamaria church is worth a short visit for its ancient frescoes inside and the beautiful views over Ushguli.
Part 2: Lamaria church to Shkhara glacier restaurant (6 kilometers, 1.5 – 2 hours)
After the Lamaria church you will follow the gravel jeep road along the Inguri river. This part of the trail goes through the valley and is mostly flat. Sometimes you have to cross a small stream, but nothing too difficult.
Part 3: Shkhara glacier restaurant to the glacier (2 kilometers, 1 hour)
The gravel road stops at the Shkhara glacier restaurant. Worth a stop in case you need a small break. This is as far as jeeps can go and from here it is a gradual climb up to the foot of the glacier.
You shouldn’t get too close to the glacier and you should watch out for falling rocks. Because of climate change and the glacier melting the area has become unstable.
Other glacial hikes in Svaneti
Chalaadi glacier: you can visit the Chalaadi glacier from the village of Mestia. It is an easygoing day hike from Mestia.
Adishi glacier: you can visit the Adishi glacier from the village of Adishi. To reach the glacier from Adishi it is a 12 kilometer roundtrip. Most people visit Adishi on the very popular 4 day trek from Mestia to Ushguli.
Ushba glacier: you can visit the Ushba glacier from the village of Mazeri. This 22 kilometer hike is considered difficicult with steep parts and an elevation gain of more than a 1000 meters. A taxi from Mestia to Mazeri costs about 70 – 80 Lari.
Laila glacier: the Laila glacier is one of the most difficult to reach glaciers. It’s a 2 to 3 day trek that starts in the village of Tviberi. A taxi from Mestia to Tviberi costs around 100 GEL.
Shkhara glacier travel tips
What to bring
The Chalaadi glacier hike is an easygoing day trip from Ushguli and there is no need for special equipment. Just bring a day pack with everything you need on a day hike. Below are some things to think about for the Shkhara glacier hike in particular.
Water bottle with filter: If you are going on a hike it is always important to bring enough water. There is no need to add to the plastic waste problem so bring your own water bottle with a water filter or steri pen. It is easy to refill your bottle on the way with water from the river.
Sturdy shoes: Once you enter the glacier’s moraine there will be lots of rocks and boulders. There is no need for professional hiking boots, but you will definitely appreciate wearing sturdy shoes. For sure leave your slippers or sandals at home.
Warm clothes: Even if it is warm and sunny in Ushguli, it can be cold once you get close to the Shkhara glacier. Therefore bring some warm clothes.
Where to sleep
The nearest accomodation is in Ushguli. For it’s small size there is an impressive amount of choice in Ushguli. Although the facilities improve year by year, most hotels are still relatively basic and small scale. The first time in Ushguli I stayed in a small hotel with no name that still doesn’t have an online presence. Most of all I remember the delicious food.
If you want to book things in advance I can recommend the Caucasus guesthouse or Mshvidoba guesthouse
If you visit on a daytrip from Mestia there is also plenty of choice. After several visits to Mestia, my best experience is still with Nino Ratiani guesthouse. Mostly because of the great food and delicious breakfast buffet. It is very popular and often fully booked though and that was the only reason that I didn’t stay there again on subsequent visits.
Where to eat
The Skhara glacier restaurant is a good place to eat, although it is slightly more expensive than Ushguli itself.
The best place to eat in Ushguli is probably at your guesthouse in case you are sleeping in Ushguli. If you visit Ushguli on a day trip there are several restaurants where you can have lunch. Cafe Koshki is conveniently located near the minivan/jeep stand and serves good Georgian and Svan food. The kubdari I had there was very good.
How to get there
Public transport into Ushguli is limited. From Mestia there are daily minivans that run to Ushguli. Most minivans leave in the early morning. The cost is around 40 Lari and the journey takes about 2 hours.
The ‘bus station’ is near the post office and you can make a reservation for your bus ticket there. In the busy summer months this might be necessary. When I was there in October it was easy to get a seat when I just turned up around 8 AM. The minivan filled up quickly and I was soon on my way.
Private taxis are of course more expensive. Expect to pay 200 lari for a car. Still worthwhile if you can find other people to share the costs.
Private jeeps from Ushguli to the Shkhara glacier cost around 300 – 400 lari.
When to visit
The hiking season in Svaneti runs from June till October. This is also the best time to visit Ushguli and the Shkhara glacier. In winter there will be lots of snow making it difficult to reach Ushguli.
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