The Retezat: Getting there & What not to miss

Let’s just be clear: the Retezat Mountains should be on top of your list if you want to explore the Romanian Carpathians. Many Romanians will agree with me that it is among the most beautiful mountain ranges in Romania, if not the single most beautiful. I can sum up the facts – like there are over 20 peaks over 2,000 metres, some eighty lakes that gleam like blue eyes – there are bears and marmots and chamois, ancient beech forests and rugged ridges, scrambling sections and lovely meadows. But you should really just go and immerse yourself.

The first time I visited the Retezat National Park was in 2013, and since I had good memories, I was eager to visit again. In the past month, I have made two trips to the Retezat Mountains, each of them very satisfying. The Retezat is compact but very versatile; so anything I try to do in this post will fall short of the glory of the Retezat. So I decided to just give you two entry routes and two circuits from Bucura Lake that you shouldn’t miss out on – and let you discover the rest for yourself. 🙂

Access from the north: Ohaba de sub Piatra-Cârnic

If you have a car, this might be the easiest access route – or at least, the least uncomfortable. Drive to Ohaba de sub Piatră from either the direction of Haţeg/Deva or Petroşani over the E79 road, then drive up the last 17km to Cârnic via Mălăieşti (you can visit a castle here) and Nucşoara. The road is a bit rough from Nucşoara onwards, but it isn’t that bad really. You can park your car in Cârnic for 10 RON a day.

If you don’t have a car, fear not: there is a train station at Ohaba de sub Piatră! Well, it isn’t really a station; it’s called a halta – a stop. There are two trains a day from Petroşani and one from Deva. Buses don’t really stop at Ohaba, but you can certainly try to hitchhike; the E79 is a busy road so it shouldn’t be hard. From Ohaba, there is a maxitaxi service, currently run by a Mr Victor Farcaş. See this document for his number; the other details are probably outdated. Just call him if you want to arrange a ride from Ohaba to Cârnic, or the other way round. Outside the weekends, he also drives all the way from Haţeg. I believe he only speaks Romanian though, so if you don’t master the language you may want to ask someone to call him for you.

From Cârnic, you can walk to Pietrele Cabana in just two hours (4km) over an easy gravel road (400m ascent to 1480m). Please note that, if you want to stay at Pietrele Cabana, you will have to make a reservation in advance. This can be done by texting to +40 722 715 595 (Vodafone) or +40 374 975 188 (Orange). Please text, do not call; the signal is bad in that area. You can either reserve a place in the dorm (25 RON/night/person) or a wooden cabin (35 RON/night/person). From Pietrele, it’s a three-hour hike via the blue stripe route to Bucura Lake, which is the central and biggest lake in the park, from where you can make the hikes described below. There are other options, too: you could try the much more challenging (but rewarding) yellow stripe route over the Retezat Peak (2485m) or the blue triangle route through the Stanişoara Valley, which also allows you to visit Retezat Peak via a little detour.

If, however, you want to spend the night in Cârnic, you can do so at several cabanas. I recommend Cabana Codrin; the staff is very friendly, the owner speaks English and they serve good food. They also have a little campsite at the back. You can also buy maps and souvenirs here, as well as your entry ticket to the Retezat (10 RON). Then there is Cabana Cascada right next door, and Cabana Lolaia a little bit further up the road. If you’re short of cash, you can also camp at the parking lot – this is for free, I think – but that means no access to a bathroom.

Access from the south: Sarmizegetusa-Clopotiva-Gura Apelor Lake-Poiana Pelegii

Driving to Poiana Pelegii has the advantage that it’s only a two-hour hike from there to Bucura Lake. However, if you’re looking for peace and quiet, this may not be your preferred option, since many other people will have come up with the same idea – especially during summer weekends. The same goes for the camping spot at Bucura Lake; I’ve seen as much as forty tents up there. There is plenty of space, but if this is not your cup of tea, either pick a weekday or camp at one of the less busy spots (Poiana Pelegii or Pietrele) – with the disadvantage that you are not nearly as central as you are at Bucura Lake.

From Sarmizegetusa, drive towards Haţeg; after about 1km on the DN68, turn right towards Clopotiva and follow the road all the way to Gura Apelor Lake, and then onward to Poiana Pelegii. Although it is only a 50km ride, you should allow about 2hrs to get to Poiana Pelegii; the road is decent up to Gura Zlata but then deteriorates into a difficult gravel road, and later on into a narrow forest road that rapidly ascends to an altitude of 1600m. There is a checkpoint at the lake, where you will have to buy a 15 RON ticket for your car and a 10 RON personal access ticket that is valid for seven days. You can also buy a map of the national park here.

From the end of the road at Poiana Pelegii, it’s a five-minute walk to Poiana Pelegii camping spot and the Salvamont base. If you want to hike to Bucura Lake straight away, follow the combined blue stripe/red cross route to Bucura Lake. This should take no longer than two hours (unless you are taking lots of breaks, of course), and involves a 400m ascent. The path is well-marked and easy to follow; the scenery is gorgeous right from the start.

Circuit One: Bucura Lake-Peleaga Peak-Curmătura Bucurei-Bucura Peak-Bucura Lake

Once you have arrived at the camping spot at Bucura Lake, you have plenty of options. You can, of course, hike straight through the Retezat by combining the two access routes, but that seems like a silly thing to do when there is so much rugged beauty to be explored. This circular hike is about 6km long and will take you about 4hrs, and will give you beautiful views both towards Bucura Lake and further south, and north towards, amongst others, the Retezat and Papusa Peaks.

From the Salvamont base at Bucura Lake, walk up to Peleaga Peak (the highest peak in the Retezat with its 2509 metres) over the yellow cross route. This should take no longer than 2hrs – probably quite a bit less. From there, continue on the yellow cross for a bit until you see a signpost; continue north-northwest on the ridge following the red stripe trail. You will make a gentle descent to 2300m over the next kilometre, then ascend again to Custura Bucurei (2370m). Then, you’ll descend again to Curmătura Bucurei (2206m). From here, you can cut this round short by returning to Bucura Lake over the blue stripe trail (30mins). However, if you’re still full of beans, continue to Bucura Peak (2433m). This involves some scrambling over boulders. From Bucura Peak, descend southwest until you meet the yellow stripe trail; turn left onto it and follow it to Poarta Bucurei, from where you’ll have beautiful views of the Gemenele Reserve to the right and Bucura Lake and some other lakes to the left. Then descend to Bucura Lake again, passing by the beautiful Tău Porţii and, quite possibly, a flock of sheep.

Distance: 6km | Time: 3hrs 30mins-4hrs | Total ascent/descent: 730m | Highest point: 2509m | Lowest point: 2040m

Circuit Two: Bucura Lake-Peleaga Peak-Papuşa Peak-Porţile Închise-Galeş Lake-Zanoaga Saddle-Pelegii Saddle-Bucura Lake

I wouldn’t have ‘discovered’ this round if I hadn’t met Catalin and his dad, Marin. I met them on Peleaga Saddle; they left the peak at the same time and I remember thinking as I walked behind them that I wouldn’t mind to stick with them for a while. I asked Catalin to take a picture of me in a scenic spot (well, there are only scenic spots!) which he kindly obliged to; then asked where they were heading. When they heard about my plans (a round over Papuşa and Custura Peaks and then back to Bucura Lake via Poiana Pelegii), they tried to convince me to join them on what they said would be a much more rewarding hike. And they succeeded. I am so glad I joined them. Not only did this hike end up in my top five (not that I have one written down anywhere); they also made great company. They kept a pace but also took plenty of time to take in the view – and to take pictures. Catalin has a more than decent camera and some skill – for which I thank him. They also shared their lunch with me (Lidl bread! Tuna! Onions! Tomatoes!) and were good conversation partners – although I mostly talked with Catalin – Marin didn’t speak English and I resorted to English most of the time because frankly, hiking and making an effort to be understood in Romanian is a bit much. But, as Marin said when I apologized for this – cred că ne intelegăm: I believe we understand each other. I think we did indeed.

Although you may not find the same good company 🙂 I’d still urge you to do this hike. If you have only one day, pick this one. It’s a tough 10+km hike that will probably take up most of your day (in my case, 6hrs excluding breaks), and will offer you everything you could possibly want (I think) in a hike: major peaks, scrambling, cables, ridges, lakes, the amazingest views and an easy section every now and then to catch your breath.

To start with, walk up to Peleaga Peak; see the description above. Walk up to Pelegii Saddle and turn right to continue on the yellow cross trail to Papuşa Peak (2508m). From Papuşa Peak, descend northeast on the red stripe trail. You will pass Tăul Adânc, also known as Tăul Răsucit, ‘the twisted lake’ – because it really looks like a wrung-out tea towel (well, a very wet one at that). The fun thing is the trail itself also has more or less this shape; see the map at the bottom of this post.

After 3.3km, there is a steep section down with some cables, but it’s short. You’ll soon see Tău Ţapului on your right, which is another interesting lake because it has a little skull-shaped island in it, with tree clumps for the eyes. After this, there is a plateau section; but soon, you’ll find yourself scrambling towards Mare Peak over a ridge called Porţile Închise, ‘closed doors’. Worry not; it is not as closed as it sounds. Just a fun scrambling section. Just before Mare Peak, descend west towards Galeş Lake via the red triangle trail (it’s pretty steep). If you need to refill your bottles, you can do so here – there is a stream flowing into the lake from the south. To start making your way back to Bucura Lake, make a sharp left turn onto the red stripe trail to Zănoagelor Saddle, from where you will have stunning views in all directions – you’re essentially surrounded by lakes here. From the saddle, descend into the valley and climb back up to Pelegii Saddle.

If you want to stick to marked routes, you’ll have to make your way back over Peleaga Peak; however, there is an unmarked shortcut. To find this trail, turn right onto the red stripe trail to Custura Bucurei; turn left onto a grassy but clearly visible trail after about 700m on the red stripe trail and make your way back to Bucura Lake. It’s a nice way to cool down and arrive back at casa dulce. It’s even better if your new friends invite you to dinner and offer you tea saying ‘We have an extra glass’ – and, at my surprise, add: ‘Especially for guests’. This day made me a happy girl, feeling a bit sore but very satisfied – and it still puts a smile on my face every time I think about it.

Distance: 10.5km | Time: 6hrs 30mins | Total ascent/descent: 1350m | Highest point: 2509m | Lowest point: 1990m

A few more thoughts

Catalin told me the best time to visit the Retezat is the first half of August; of course you can come earlier or later but there will be a higher risk of thunderstorms. These can get very violent in the Retezat; and the wind can reach great speeds at Bucura Lake. Whenever you go, make sure you’re well prepared: bring a solid tent with plenty of nails, and wind- and rainproof clothing. There is a Salvamont base at Bucura Lake (and there are several others), but I’m sure you’d rather not have to resort to asking for shelter there with your tail between your legs.

One thing you don’t have to worry about in the Retezat Mountains is water. There is plenty of it. You can drink water from springs (like the one at Bucura Lake) safely; however, I recommend you filter water you take from streams that can be accessed by sheep. I’m personally very happy with my Sawyer mini water filter. Romanians will not bother to do this, but perhaps they have stronger guts than me – I prefer to not take the risk to get sick.

A few more considerations: This is a national park. Camping is only allowed in designated places. Please stick to those. You’ll find them on the map (there are several maps available; amongst others, one issued by DIMAP and one by the park itself). Please do not leave any rubbish; take your garbage with you in a garbage bag. Rubbish makes the place look sad, for one thing. Not to mention that you’re a guest in the habitat of some magnificent creatures. Leave nothing but footprints; take nothing but memories (and pictures).

It’s possible to traverse the Retezat in just two days or even make a day trip, but you’ll probably find you want to stay longer. So take your time and soak up all the goodness that the Retezat Mountains have to offer. And come back as many times as your heart tells you to. Because, like me and many others, you may find that one visit is not enough. Your mountain is waiting – so get on your way! 

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