The long, wild and stunning Nerei Gorges, one of the seven natural wonders of Romania, have been on top of our bucket list for quite some time. My parents’ many stories of climbing, hiking and rafting adventures from when they were young made me fall in love with the place before even seeing it. It’s already a tradition for us to head to southwestern Romania in Băile Herculane each autumn for some top-notch rock climbing and well-deserved relaxation at the hot springs. This time, we finally decided to check the Nerei Gorges off our list.
Nerei Gorges in a nutshell
In the heart of one of Europe’s largest and last remaining virgin beech forests, the Nerei-Beuşniţa National Park is one of the country’s best-kept secrets. Here, the longest gorges in Romania twist and turn for 22 kilometers (13.6 miles). They are widely acclaimed as the most beautiful too. I cannot argue with that.
They are wild and, as cliche as it may sound, simply spectacular. Cliffs up to 200 meters (650 ft) rise up from the river, piercing the sky. There are suspended footbridges, narrow stone-carved pathways perched over the gently flowing Nera River, tunnels and archways, caves and lakes, meadows and river crossings, freshwater springs and isolated households.
The area is also known for its venomous snakes, namely the viper and its even deadlier cousin, the horn-nosed viper. We did not see any, but that doesn’t mean that you should not be careful, especially since there’s no cell phone reception in the gorges!
I consider myself to be quite good at making travel plans. But this time, all the info I gathered back home did not seem to match the scenery…
We decided to hike the Nerei Gorges upstream, starting from Sasca Română, a small village next to the charming old mining town of Sasca Montană. I grabbed an old map and put my index finger on the shortest access route. And it took us nearly a day to get there. Why? It never crossed my mind to check and see whether the road was paved all the way. It was not!
The road from Bozovici to Şopotu Nou is beyond criticism – one pothole next to the other. From Şopotu Nou, there’s a dirt road through the mountain to Sasca Montană. Ours was the only car on the road. No, it was not a smooth ride at all, but it was worth it in the end. And now, I can share the access details with you. The right ones.
To get to Sasca Montană, you must head to Oraviţa. We started from Băile Herculane, as you can see in the map above. From Oraviţa, drive on National Road 57 and then turn left on road 571 to Sasca Montană.
The hiking route through the gorges starts from Sasca Română, which is right next to Sasca Montană (approx. 2 km). You can spend the night in Sasca Montana and start the hike from there, or you can camp close to the biggest attraction in the Nerei-Beuşniţa National Park – Ochiul Beiului Lake. That’s what we did.
To get to Ochiul Beiului Lake and the campsite on the Bei Valley, you must get to the village of Potoc, which is to the left as you drive to Sasca Montana from Oraviţa. From Potoc, follow the signs to Ochiul Beiului and Cheile Nerei (Nerei Gorges in Romanian). The narrow asphalt road will take you down and into the gorges in no time. Once you get on the bottom of the valley, the asphalt road ends at a bridge with a crossroads. This is the entrance to the Nerei-Beuşniţa National Park. To get to Ochiul Beiului Lake, cross the bridge, turn 180 degrees and follow the dirt road on the other side of the stream up the Beiului Valley.
In about 6 km (3.7 miles), or around 30 minutes, we arrived at an opening in the valley with a small restaurant on the left serving trout. On the right, we found the campsite enclosed by a wooden fence. This is where the road ends, and it takes another 30 minutes to walk to Ochiul Beiului Lake.
Where to spend the night
You can spend the night at one of the many guesthouses in Sasca Montană and you can also find accommodation in Şopotu Nou.
If you prefer to camp, there are a few designated areas where you can do so. One is Camping Valea Beiului, near Ochiul Beiului Lake. It might seem a little off-track, but you can start the hike at the crossroads I mentioned above and save yourself some time. Other places where you can pitch your tent are the meadow around the abandoned Damian forestry canton, at Lacul Dracului (Devil’s Lake) and Poiana Meliugului, a meadow further upstream and across the river from Lacul Dracului.
Ochiul Beiului Lake
Ochiul Beiului means “The Eye of the Bey.” To get to it, park your car at the end of the dirt road on the Beiului Valley and follow a wide path on a quiet valley along a crystal-clear river flowing between rocks covered in green moss. We got there just before sunset. There were no other tourists around; it was just us and the silence of the woods.
Legend has it that the lake is fed by the tears of a bey for his lost lover, a beautiful young local girl. I had seen pictures of the lake before, but what was revealed before my eyes was far beyond any expectations. The light, the colors, the clarity, it was all hypnotizing, like a figment of someone’s imagination come true. A few fish were swimming carelessly, as if in an aquarium. Were it not for the fish and seaweed, I could have sworn that it was turquoise mist and not water in there. I could have stared into its depth forever.
Three meters deep (10 ft), Ochiul Beiului Lake is fed by an underground spring. The lake and its mystical turquoise glow are hard to describe in words; I feel as though they simply don’t do it justice. That is why I will let the pictures speak for themselves…
Hiking the Nerei Gorges
We arrived at Camping Valea Beiului in the afternoon and, after visiting Ochiul Beiului Lake, spent the night there. Come morning time, we prepared our backpacks – we decided not to pack our tent and grabbed only our sleeping bags and pads. This meant lighter backpacks and would have made it easier to find a spot to sleep. The weather forecast was excellent, and we weren’t quite sure where we would spend the night. A little mystery couldn’t hurt, right?
There are two ways to do this – upstream or downstream. This means either from Şopotu Nou to Sasca Română (downstream), or from Sasca Română to Şopotu Nou (upstream). Either way, it takes a whole day of walking to get from one end to the other, approximately 12 hours according to the guidebook. But then again, you don’t necessarily need to go all the way to Şopotu Nou. Most hikers choose to walk the section between Sasca Română to Lacul Dracului (Devil’s Lake), the most spectacular part of the Nerei Gorges. We did the same.
The first section of the route is the famous Tunnels’ Pathway. There are 7 tunnels carved into the steep cliffs, some of them perched 15 meters (50 ft) or more above the Nera River, and one of them 40 meters (132 ft) long. This is the most visited part of the Nerei Gorges, thanks to its easy access from both ends. It starts just outside of the village of Sasca Română and ends at the crossroads with the asphalt road coming down from Potoc, the road to Ochiul Beiului Lake and the dirt road that continues through the gorges. It takes 45 minutes – 1 hour to complete, which means 2 hours maximum for the round-trip (taking lost of awesome photos included).
These tunnels have quite a history behind them. Some believe they were carved during the time of the Ottoman occupation to ensure access from the ore mining spots to the Danube, while others say they date back from the time of the Roman occupation.
From the crossroads, the dirt road takes us upstream towards the abandoned Damian forestry canton. The scenery is not as spectacular here, but the sun rays making their way through the wild forest and the silent murmur of the river make for a mystical hike. It took us a little less than 2 hours to get from the crossroads to the canton. We encountered a spring along the way where we stocked up on water.
From the forestry canton, the gentle path continues through the woods, the river on our right, tall rock towers rising on the opposite shore. There are some old rock climbing routes there, and I remember that my dad used to tell me about them. We walk and walk, anxiously waiting for the carved footpaths to be revealed. Then suddenly, the valley gets narrower and the first cliffs appear in our way. I can hardly describe my excitement.
The carved footpaths barely fit one person, and I would bang my backpack onto the cliff time and time again. I’m surprised I didn’t fall into the river. At one point, we had to cross the river and move on the opposite bank. We took off our shoes and dipped in the wide river. During spring months, when the water is higher, I’m sure crossing the river is quite the challenge.
The carved pathways and occasional tunnels and archways continue on this side of the river. The steeper, more exposed sections are equipped with safety cables. The scenery is like a drug, and you can’t help but get high on it. We stopped at every turn and took pictures on every section of carved pathways, wishing for the hike to never end.
The valley widened again and we left the perched pathways behind us. Cliffs still rose high across the river. We continued through the forest and reached a suspended footbridge over the Nera River. Unfortunately, the wooden planks were rotten and many of them missing, and the cable torn from one side so we did not dare cross it. Shortly after, we stocked up on water again from a spring near the river signaled with a signpost. We continued on the path which took us away from the river and deeper into the forest. A signpost told us that the last attraction for the day was on the left.
Lacul Dracului, Devil’s Lake, is where the devil played its charms. Legend has it that a demon threw itself in the lake after having lost a bet with an old man. To this day, locals believe the lake has no bottom, and there’s a common superstition that those who venture in for a swim never come back up.
It was afternoon when we reached the lake, hidden in the forest close to the river in complete and utter silence. Rays of light were making their way past the trees, sending reflections on the deep blue water. The coloring is surreal, the blue is so unusual and intense that it almost puts a spell on you. Who knows, perhaps it did.
Lacul Dracului is 13 meters (42 ft) deep and is the biggest karst lake in Romania. Enclosed by imposing overhanging cliffs, it was once an underground lake that came to light after the roof of the cave collapsed.
We continued our hike
From what we could see, you can camp near the lake, on the banks of the Nera River. There was a nice little spot there, but mosquitoes and other nasty bugs kept feeding on us and, considering that we did not bring a tent, we imagined it would not be such a good idea to sleep there. So we continued…
The initial plan was to spend the night in Poiana Meliugului, a meadow with a spring that was not far from the Devil’s Lake. But the bugs were killing us so we thought that going up above the gorges might be a better idea. We ended up going up on a path that was not on our map, but seeing that it had been recently marked and that the signpost said 3 hours to Sasca Română, we figured it was worth a shot.
We climbed the path until we reached some beautiful meadows. The markings were hard to spot at times, there were many dirt roads and I’m actually surprised we did not get lost. We decided to keep moving until we’d find a nice place to spend the night. We kept passing by what seemed to be meadows, but they were all covered in thistles. So we continued into the sunset on what seemed like a wide rocky road carved into the hill, which we later learned was the Old Roman Road used to transport the ore from the mines.
We ended up laying our sleeping bags under a walnut tree on small thistles right outside of Sasca Română. Mosquitoes sucked my blood all night. It was a nightmare. I wanted to get up and continued through the Tunnels’ Pathway to the car in the middle of the night just to get away from them. I don’t know how, but I survived the night. As soon as the first sun rays appeared, we packed up and left. We crossed the spectacular Tunnel’s Pathway first thing in the morning and reached our car just in time for breakfast.
After years of talking and dreaming about it, we finally did it – a three-day odyssey through the Nerei Gorges. It surpassed all expectations and left me craving for more. It was a mystical journey, a fantasy movie come to life, like something from Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones combined, only much better because we were actually living it. And as I finish writing this article, I’m daydreaming of returning to Nerei Gorges to explore all the hidden wonders we missed this time.