Aradena Gorge is a challenging hike through a canyon of high colorful walls with sections of bouldering and overgrown brush to contend with in southwestern Crete near Chora Sfakion. Difficulties encountered on the hike include figuring out transportation to and from the canyon, hiking down (or up) a very steep kalderimi at the top of the gorge, taking a cliffside bypass trail which has some minor exposure, dealing with frequent sections of boudering, and navigating through portions of thick overgrown brush. Google Earth maps of the hiking route (with Route Map 1 turned to the east for better viewing) can be found by clicking on the buttons above. GPS coordinates for the parking area are 35° 13.377'N, 24° 3.714'E. GPS coordinates for the 1st Kalderimi are 35° 13.497'N, 24° 3.859'E. GPS coordinates for the iron ladder bypass are 35° 13.252'N, 24° 3.540'E.
To wrap up our trip to Crete, we decided to hike Aradena Gorge. This was going to be my sixth and final gorge hike in a period of six days. I knew that Aradena Gorge had a bit of an intimidating reputation, being known for having a very steep drop to reach the canyon floor, challenging spots within the canyon including a cliffside bypass, and overgrown areas where hikers have gotten disoriented and lost. Those were a few of the issues which I had read about online in other hiking reports while doing trip preparation. In order to carry out our hike, we drove from Chania to Chora Sfakion and parked our rental car in the pay parking lot in the center of the village. We then arranged for a local taxi to give us a ride up to the abandoned village of Aradena, which would be the starting point for the hike. The head of Aradena Gorge is actually farther to the north, but the upper portion of the gorge is rarely explored. Most hikers usually start at the mid-point of the gorge at Aradena village (located at about 1,875 feet in elevation) and hike 7 km down through the lower gorge to Marmara Beach. The upper gorge is also about 7 km in length but there are a number of obstacles including polished dry falls to contend with. Because we were limited on time and would need to catch a ferry boat later in the day, we skipped exploring the upper gorge and instead just did the standard hike that everyone else does. After our taxi dropped us off at the Aradena village parking lot overlooking the gorge, we walked back across the iron bridge which spans the gorge from one side to the other. The views into the upper gorge, lower gorge, and straight down were quite impressive and frightening at the same time. Known locally as the Vardinogiannis Bridge (named for its benefactors), it is a Bailey bridge (referring to the type of construction) that is 453 feet high and 275 feet across. We next opened the gate at the back of the parking lot and began walking through and exploring the ruins of the village of Aradena which contains a Byzantine church from the 14th century. We got lost a few times in the village but finally found our way to the gate which lets hikers out into the gorge. The funny part in all this is that we were the tourists and we got lost ourselves, but at the same time we had other tourists in the parking lot asking us for directions into the gorge. We tried to help them by encouraging them to walk through the village, but they appeared to give up on finding the gorge entrance as they got back into their vehicle and drove away. My point in mentioning this is that directions are not very clear in this area so just keep in mind that the gorge entrance is about 1/4 of a mile from the parking lot. To reach the gate entrance, you will need to head north, then west, then northeast. Upon opening the gate, we were standing at the 1st Kalderimi. When I wrote my report on Kritsa Gorge, I promised to explain what a kalderimi is for those who are not familiar with the term. Basically, a kalderimi is an old mule trail usually made of flat stones which was commonly used to connect two locations such as one village with another. When crossing chasms or dropping down steep mountains, a kalderimi was built with rock steps rather than flat ground. This meant that vehicles could not go up or down a kalderimi but rather it would only be used by foot traffic or animal traffic carrying loads. In the case of Aradena Gorge, the 1st Kalderimi was the best way to get across the gorge and reach Agios Ioannis for many years until the iron bridge was built in 1986. In addition to the 1st Kalderimi, there is also a 2nd Kalderimi (located 3/4 of a mile up canyon) and a 3rd Kalderimi (located an additional 1/2 mile farther up canyon). Had time permitted, I would have liked to see both of the other kalderimia to take some photographs. But you can only do so much in one day and on one trip. Most pictures which show the descent down the 1st Kalderimi into Aradena Gorge look quite frightening. And, indeed, it is a very steep descent with sweeping views down to the canyon floor and across the way at the opposite side kalderimi.
Upon reaching the canyon bottom, we headed down the wash and underneath the iron bridge. One of the things which we quickly noticed about the bridge is that it creates a thundering echo through the upper canyon whenever somebody drives across it. At times, the sound can catch you off guard and scare you. We noticed that there were some old tires and debris directly underneath the bridge, so we quickly moved past that falling hazard zone. The upper gorge (starting from where we did) had towering narrows. One of the things which I enjoyed was the fact that we were walking through this grand rock cathedral directly in the canyon wash, rather than on hillside trails like in Agia Irini and Samaria. But this brought up a new challenge which was not present in those two gorges. Aradena Gorge has a large amount of rockfall and giant bouldering sections within the canyon. Getting down these bouldering sections requires both caution and minor climbing skills. In most bouldering sections, the correct route to navigate through with the least amount of down climbing has been marked with paint on the boulders. A little over 1/2 mile down canyon from the gorge entrance point is the major obstacle of Aradena Gorge. Several massive house-sized boulders have fallen into the gorge at a very narrow spot, creating a dry fall section which cannot be safely climbed. In past times, two tall iron ladders were installed and secured into the boulders in order to allow passage through the gorge without the use of canyoneering ropes. The ladders were described in the past as a terrifying experience by some who have tried them. Meanwhile, some hikers would turn around upon encountering the ladders and discontinue the hike due to safety concerns. In recent times, a bypass trail has been built on the northwestern side canyon wall. In some areas, but not all, a rickety wooden handrail has been installed to help keep hikers away from the edge of the cliff. We took the bypass trail and were soon back down in the canyon below the giant boulders obstacle. While Gary relaxed for a while, I headed back up canyon to check out the old iron ladders from below. This is where I ran into my only Cretan snake on the trip. Before leaving home, I had researched Cretan snakes. I found out that there were four main species of snakes on the island but none were poisonous. After learning this, I decided to leave my snake-bite kit at home. The snake that I ran into was a Balkan whip snake. It definitely didn't want me to get too close to it but I was able to work my way around it and continue the hike. I read later that Balkan whip snakes are "capable of biting fiercely if threatened". The iron ladders were interesting to see up close, but I didn't test out climbing them. Instead, we continued hiking down the gorge, seemingly climbing down and working our way around one bouldering section after another. Through the middle gorge there were high colorful cliffs everywhere. The views were incredible and the scenery was breathtaking. Just past the turnoff for Livaniana, trees and thick brush took over the gorge. We also started seeing Cretan wild goats (or perhaps domestic runaways) regularly. After several more sections of climbing down boulder jams and working our way through mazes of brush, we arrived in the lower gorge. The lower gorge had very impressive high walls which were really glowing from the reflected sunlight. As we approached the mouth of Aradena Gorge, we passed by some acrobatic goats which gave us a good laugh.
Upon exiting the gorge, we walked directly out onto Marmara Beach. It was a very welcome sight as we were both ready for a nice break. So we climbed a few steps and relaxed at the taverna overlooking the bay. I enjoyed a Greek salad and a pint of Mythos. But our hike was not over. We still had to walk the coastal trail from Marmara Beach to the village of Loutro, where we would be catching our ferry boat back to Chora Sfakion a couple of hours later. The coastal trail was quite beautiful and enjoyable to walk with the majestic views up and down the coast. The walk was actually on less of a "trail" but more like a marked rock scramble along sea cliffs. I had read that this portion of the hike is not for anyone who has a fear of heights, but I did not find it to be overly intimidating. One problem we did have is when the trail finally dropped back down to the beach, there were quite a few goats on the cliffs above us. I started to worry that when we passed beneath the goats they would dislodge rocks that could fall on our heads. And that's exactly what happened. Fortunately, we didn't get hit by any of the falling rocks but once we were out of sight of the goats and underneath them, they scrambled closer to the edge to try to see us and this resulted in rockfall. Shortly after this, one of the neat places that we passed by was the peninsula of Phoenix (also spelled Finix). Phoenix is of interest to Bible readers as it is mentioned in Acts 27:12. At the time of the Bible account, Paul was a prisoner on a ship that had taken shelter at Fair Havens, Crete. Going against Paul's advice, the pilot, ship owner, and army officer decided to set sail. As the Bible verse (NWT) states: "Since the harbor was unsuitable for wintering, the majority advised setting sail from there to see if they could somehow make it to spend the winter in Phoenix, a harbor of Crete that opens toward the northeast and toward the southeast." But they never made it to Phoenix. To find out what happens next, you'll have to continue reading in Acts chapter 27. After checking out the ancient windmill and old Turkish fort on the Phoenix peninsula, we walked over to a viewpoint and saw an absolutely amazing view of Loutro far below us. To wrap up our day, we got to enjoy over an hour of time relaxing in Loutro. Loutro proved to be my favorite village on Crete. It is a bit of a tourist village, but what I like about it is that Loutro has such a pretty setting at the base of the mountains with a calm bay of beautiful blue water. And there are no roads which lead to Loutro, you can only get there by hiking in, by ferry boat, or by water taxi. All of this combines to make it an extremely peaceful and relaxed atmosphere. If I could only stay in one village on Crete for a whole week, I would definitely choose to stay in Loutro. But I will have to leave that idea for another trip. A short time after watching a sea turtle swim through the bay past where I was standing looking out at the water, we boarded our ferry boat and returned to Chora Sfakion. We then drove back to Chania where the rest of our group was waiting. The next day, we relaxed at Elafonisi Beach, definitely a grand reward for six consecutive days of hiking on Crete. And with that, our time on Crete had come to an end. Our hike took place on September 5, 2014.
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