The Apuseni Mountains: an itinerary

I’m supposed to be writing about the mountains mostly, but I just noticed none of my last three posts deal with the mountains in any major way. Time for an itinerary again – through the Apuseni Mountains this time. Not the highest of mountains, but certainly not the least among them in terms of beauty and surprises. I’d been wanting to visit them for a long time – and I finally got to explore them in July. And I was pleased with what I found. Here is an itinerary through the delightful Padiş region.

Day One: Gârda de Sus to Peştera Scărişoara ice cave

The Apuseni Mountains, and more specifically the Padiş region, are home to a wealth of caves. Scărişoara ice cave is probably the most famous of them. It is home to the world’s second largest ice block, and the oldest one at that: it is around 10,000 years old. It has a sheer volume of about 120,000m³. At its thickest, it is 22.5m. Air temperature varies between -14̊C in the Great Hall and +4.5̊C in the lowermost part of the cave. These are impressive facts – however, for me the best part of visiting the cave was getting to see some of the beautiful ice formations in the cave. They consist of stalagmites that melt and grow every year. The one you can see on the 30-minute guided tour through the cave is called ‘the church’ – you will see why when you visit. There is much more to see in the cave -it has a total lenght of 720m – but you can only access the rest of it if you are an experienced speleologist, under guidance.

If you want to visit Scărişoara ice cave, the best point for departure is the village of Gârda de Sus, which is located on the southern border of the Apuseni national park, on the DN75 road that winds along the Arieş valley. If you have a car, it’s easy to get here; you can even drive all the way up to the cave (except for the last kilometre or so). In that case, turn right onto the 750 road in Gârda de Sus. However, if, like me, you rely on public transport and your feet, here are some instructions. There are a few buses that ride along the Arieş river; they depart from Câmpeni in the east and from Beiuş at the western end of the Apuseni. These places can in turn be reached from (respectively) Cluj and Oradea; Cluj-Câmpeni is the easier route (more buses). You can find buses at autogari.ro; however, in your search, enter Arieşeni rather than Gârda de Sus; the latter does not give any results in searches. Arieşeni is less than 10km west of Gârda, and all buses that go there also pass through Gârda. If you want, you can spend the night in Gârda and then move on the next day; you can camp in the backyard of Pensiunea Danciu (also a restaurant), but I recommend you try Pensiunea Marinarul. I met some Hungarians on the trail and they were really enthusiastic about this place. It is run by a former mariner; hence the name. It is right at the start of the trail to the ice cave.

Right, so, let’s get going. From the signpost in the centre of the village turn right (north) onto the 750 road. It is marked blue stripe, blue circle and red cross. After about 500m, turn left (Pensiunea Marinarul is on this road; it’s the first house on the right); then immediately right (east) onto a narrow trail, up into the woods, marked red cross. When you get to a meadow after 1.3km, cross it to the southeast initially, then northeast. When you get to the road, turn right onto it. After almost 5km, you will see Pensiunea Scărişoara on the right. It’s possible to pitch your tent here and they serve great meals (large portions too). It is a traditional Moţi farmhouse (the Moţi are the indigenous people of the Apuseni region).

From Pensiunea Scărişoara, it’s a short walk to the ice cave. Follow the road up for about 500m, then turn left towards the ice cave (10 mins from here). Tickets cost 10 RON; tours depart regularly. Do put on something warm!

Distance: 5km | Altitude range: 785-1175m | Total ascent: 400m | Total descent: 40m
Pensiunea Marinarul: +40 358 402 727 | +40 763 792 977 | jb.ioaneill@gmail.com
Pensiunea Scărişoara: +40 744 528 363 | +40 744 902 621
pascanicodim@yahoo.com |  Satul Ghețari, nr. 242

Day Two: Pensiunea Scărişoara to Cabana Vărăşoaia via Padiş

Time for a more challenging hike to the heart of the Apuseni Mountains: the Padiş region. From Pensiunea Scărişoara, walk back up to the ice cave (see above). Pass the entrance of the cave and continue north on the blue triangle rail. After about 1.5km, the trail veers to the left, off the main path, to the west (look for an arrow). After 400 more metres, you will see an arrow on a tree – turn left (west) through a fence, crossing a meadow. After 2.2km, cross another meadow to the north (right), then follow an arrow to the west, down. After almost 3km, after you’ve descended down a meadow with a barn, cross the road and head northwest, uphill, back into the forest. After about 3.4km, the trail heads northwest, over some fallen trees; don’t continue on the obvious path! After one more kilometre, you will see a small woodenhouse; pass to the left of it, and head south, downhill. After 4.5km you will come down to a gravel road; cross the stream over the bridge and turn right onto it. After almost 1.5km on this road, you can make a small detour to Izbucul Tauzului: an 87m-deep spring (in which a diver drowned, according to a plaque on the rock wall…). It is the deepest water-filled cave in Romania and has a total length of 424 metres. Watch footage of a dive into the siphon here.

There are some springs along this road. After almost 9km, you will reach Casa de Piatra village – a great place for a break. You can even order a placintă at the little bar. There is a pension as well, so if you want, you can stay overnight here. About 1km after Casa de Piatra village, you can turn right to explore Vârtop cave (30mins off the trail). After 13km, the road deteriorates into a rocky path and swings to the left. After almost 1km on this path, turn left (west) off the trail; there is a waymark on a rock. Head up a grassy hill to the right (northeast), uphill, then down again to the northwest, down a rocky section into another valley. Walk north along a sheep trail (unmarked), then walk down to the dirt road. After 16.6km you will reach the asphalt road; from here, it’s 1km to Cabana Padiş. There are several cabanas and pensions there and most of them will let you camp in the yard. Personally I think the area is a bit run-down, so I’d recommend to continue to Cabana Vărăşoaia, which is less than one hour further up and situated in a much more pastoral area. To get there, walk down the road until you get to a bend, then turn right (north) onto the blue stripe route, and follow it all the way to Cabana Vărăşoaia. Camping is not allowed here, but you can rent a nice little wooden hut (casuţă).

Distance: 20km | Altitude range: 822-1375m | Total ascent: 830m | Total descent: 650m
Cabana Vărăşoaia: +40 788 601 815 | +40 788 297 015 |+40 372 763 409

Day Three: Cheile Someşului Cald circuit from Cabana Vărăşoaia

This is a very fun circuit route from Cabana Vărăşoaia. It will take you past spectacular caves and dazzling drops. From Cabana Vărăşoaia, turn left onto the gravel road. After 1.5km, turn right onto the red circle trail. After about 500m, you will reach the Cetăţile Rădesei cave, which is essentially a 212m long karst tunnel. You can either enter it now or at the end of the circuit, because you will return to this point. Whatever you do, to continue on the red circle trail, walk up the narrow trail that leads up into the forest to the left of the cave, until you come to an info panel and a signpost after another 500m or so. It’s best to follow the trail clockwise; so turn left (northeast) to follow it in the recommended direction.

It is possible to visit Tunelul Mic, ‘the small tunnel’, here, but it’s a bit hard to find; essentially, when you have to cross the stream a second time, you have to follow it to the left and climb over some boulders. The tunnel really is small, but if you want to have some fun on the trail you can try to crawl through it. Watch out to not fall into the ‘bath’ at the end of the tunnel though. 😉

After 3.5km you will reach the northernmost corner of the circuit. There is another awesome cave here – Honu cave. Personally, I like this one better. It’s rather deep and, since there are no holes in the ‘ceiling’ as in the Rădesei tunnel, it is pitch dark (so bring a good headlight). The drops hanging from the ceiling look like diamonds, and the water dripping from the rocks has created intriguing shapes.

After a short descent, you will reach the Rădeasa stream; cross the stream and climb up to the highest point of the circuit, past Cuptorul cave. The ascent is steep and tricky; I wouldn’t like to descend this way. At the highest point, around 1350m, there is a beautiful viewpoint – although a bit scary if you have fear of heights. After 5.2km, you will have completed the circuit; make your way back to Cabana Vărăşoaia the way you came.

Distance: 8km | Altitude range: 1177-1357m | Altitude gain/loss: 640m

Day Four: Cabana Vărăşoaia to Stâna de Vale

This is an easy exit route out of the Apuseni. I’ll try to keep the description short since this has become a bit of a lengthy post. Turn left onto the gravel road again; where the red circle trail departs right, follow the gravel road to the left. Stay on the gravel road, marked red and blue stripe, at all times. You will ascend to about 1660m. After about 5km, you will see a signpost; go straight ahead to stay on the blue/red stripe route to Stâna de Vale (2-2.5hrs). Another blue stripe trail departs right to Cabana Vladeasa. After 10.5km you will reach Poiana Poienii meadow; make a sharp right turn to reach the signpost and descend northwest to find a gravel road that takes you down to another signpost. Turn left onto the yellow triangle gravel road for 50m, then turn right (northwest) off the road onto a narrow trail marked red stripe, yellow triangle and yellow circle. After almost 13km you will reach a road; either head straight ahead onto a grassy trail for a shortcut or turn right onto the road until you reach the asphalt road and Izvorul Minunilor, a spring of some fame and a well-known Romanian mineral water brand. To find the camping spot, turn left onto the road into the village; when the road forks, keep left. You will see the (very rudimentary) camping spot on your left hand when the monastery is on your right. Hotel Iadolina has a decent restaurant. Stâna de Vale is at the end of a road so it can be hard to find a ride down to Beiuş; however, there is a bus on Friday, Saturday and Sunday during the summer and winter months (June-August & December-February). It leaves from Hotel Iadolina at 11am and 3pm. Check the AutoGenn website for an up-to-date timetable. From Beiuş, you can take a bus back to Câmpeni or Oradea.

The Apuseni Mountains may not be among the highest, but this beautiful region certainly deserves a mention. It has something to offer for everyone: whether you are an absolute beginner or want to do some proper scrambling, it’s all there. I will probably have to devote another post to this area, because I haven’t even talked about my favourite route yet – the Cheile Galbenei. To be continued!

Distance: 15km | Altitude range: 1140-1670m | Total ascent: 585m | Total descent: 730m

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