Georgia – Two days in Stepantsminda in the Caucasus

Le Mont Kazbek covers with its eternal snow

Today I’m super excited as we’re heading to the Caucasus Mountains on the northern border of Georgia! Do not forget that I come from the Alps and that I am fond of mountainous regions.

But first, do you know where the name “Caucasus” comes from? Well, actually, no one knows for sure. There is still a debate among historians about its origin; some think it means “rocky ground,” another “sparkling sky,” or “sky support.” It’s up to everyone to choose their favorite interpretation!

On the other hand, what is certain is that the peaks here flirt with 5,000 m altitude and are among the highest in “continental” Europe. The highest point is Mount Elbrus in Russia, with its 5,642 m.

I am talking about “continental” Europe because the highest peak in “western” Europe is Mont Blanc, 4,809 m, in the north of the French Alps, my native region. And for French people, it is quite simply the highest in Europe. Final point.

The Mount Kazbek 5,034 m

We went to the region of Mount Kazbek or Kazbegi, the third highest peak in the Caucasus, which is easily spotted in summer thanks to its eternal snow.

Its legend

First climbed in 1868, Mount Kazbek, “ice peak” in Georgian, is not only an ancient volcano and one of the highest peaks in the Caucasus but it is also a place surrounded by legend.

This is indeed where Prometheus was chained.

In Greek mythology, Prometheus is the one who stole the sacred fire from Olympus to give it to humans in an effort to aid them. Angered by this disloyal act, Zeus condemned him to be tied to a rock on Mount Kazbek and to have his liver devoured day after day by the Caucasian eagle.

Today, it is a famous and very traveled summit for the feat of conquering 5,000 m, climbing a glacier, and admiring exceptional landscapes.

The village of Stepantsminda

For our getaway, we planned a weekend at Stepantsminda, previously Kazbegi. It is a small village located 30 minutes from the Gudauri ski resort, in the Khevi region, an ideal starting point for many hikes in the Caucasus.

We took the Georgian Military Road. It is the historical name of a highway connecting Georgia to Russia across the Greater Caucasus. It owes its name to the Russian military, which built and borrowed it following the annexation of Georgia in the early 19th Century. It is one of the three routes that cross the Caucasus, the other two being the Ossetian Military Road and the Transcaucasian Road located further west.

Stepantsminda is also home to some fantastic Georgian restaurants. After a great hike, there are plenty of choices.

To make your mouth water, here is a non-exhaustive list of some dishes that I love:

  • mushroom soup (I promise you it’s delicious)
  • Khabizgina, Kazbedi’s khachapuri made from potatoes and cheese,
  • meat and vegetable barbecues
  • Georgian salad with tomato and cucumber
  • the traditional cheese plate with fresh Georgian bread,

all accompanied, of course, why a glass of local red wine.

You can imagine my ordeal making up my mind!

Our plan for the weekend

  • Friday evening: arrival at Stepantsminda.
  • Saturday
    • hike in the Caucasus followed by the visit of the Gergeti Trinity Church
    • discovery of Pansheti’s mineral water spring swimming pool
  • Sunday
    • a short tour of the Gudauri ski resort before going back home.

Hike to Gergeti Glacier followed by a visit to Gergeti Trinity Church 

Duration: 7 hours of walking
Length: 20 km
Difficulty: difficult
When to go: June to September

Here is the hike we did, and we don’t regret it. It was just amazing!

It is known to be difficult for its length, but there is no problematic passage.
On the other hand, you have to leave early in the morning. The landscapes are all the more beautiful, and as is often the case in high mountains, it is not uncommon for clouds to hang over the peaks around noon.

The weather can change very quickly at this altitude!

It’s the big day

We did not start walking from Stepantsminda but a parking lot at the foot of the mountain. We took our car to get there.

It is 8:00 am, and we are the first to arrive. So it’s alone that we started the climb to the first stop, the Gergeti Trinity Church.

And let’s go for seven hours of walking 😃
A small cemetery along the way

The trail is quite steep. It’s a good warm-up! It is fitted out with stairs which make it very practicable. It winds through the forest and alternates between open passages and ones entirely covered by trees.

The smell of the pines reminds me of being by the sea!
Precisely 936 m left …

After an hour and a half of climbing, we reached the church — which we decided to visit on the way back — and the scenery changed completely. The view emerges finally, and we found ourselves facing majestic mountains. We couldn’t help but look around to fully embrace this spectacle. The morning light, the sun coming out from behind the mountains, and the calm of the place made us forget this morning’s brutal awakening. Our only companions were the horses and the cows which grazed in the meadows.

Mount Kazbek in the distance

There are a few farms here and there. We met a flock of sheep, its shepherd, and of course its captain, a goat! Indeed, to lead their herd more efficiently, the shepherds put a goat with their sheep. It is easier to steer, and the sheep follow it unconditionally.

We did the rest of the climb, admiring the sublime views, in the middle of wild nature.

The hike continues up to the Sabertse pass at an altitude of 3,000 m. From there, we went back down to the glacier river that we had to cross and then back up to the glacier.

We have just crossed the Sabertse pass

After the pass, a new panorama is offered to us. The vegetation disappears and gives way to a rocky landscape.

The weather turned threatening in the late morning
The space of the tents is surrounded by small stone piles to protect them from the wind

The path crosses the camping area where brave people spent the night. They are usually hikers who go on a multi-day tour to Mount Kazbek.
There is also a refuge for the less adventurous and the more cautious, the Altihut, which offers beds and meals.

Or just good coffee on the go!

The Gergeti glacier

It is one of the largest glaciers in Georgia.

Our goal of touching the icy tip of its tongue was now at our fingertips!

The glacier river

Here we are at the foot of the glacier. The weather changed, and heavy clouds began to hang over Mount Kazbek.

The glacier is covered with dirt… But it was icy!

We weren’t sure what the weather would be, and despite the four-hour climb we had on our legs, we decided to wait until our return to the church for our picnic. We just took a little break, a cereal bar, and headed back down.

We took another route for the return and walked along a magnificent canyon. If you refer back to the map, we hiked clockwise.

We followed a man and his horse returning after delivering supplies to the refuge on the way back. And I can assure you that, even though it seemed to us that we were walking quickly, we could not catch up to them. And we thought we were making good progress! Our long hike was just their daily journey.

As planned, we arrived at the Gergeti Trinity Church and stopped to visit it.

The Gergeti Trinity Church

It is one of Georgia’s most popular tourist spots and the pride of Stepantsminda. Perched at an altitude of 2,200 m, the church overlooks the valley and can be seen from anywhere in the village.

The most poetic people describe it as the face of the country — a Christian haven of peace enthroned amid beautiful nature.

The church and its bell tower on the right

But it is its history and its location that make it an exceptional place, even if a great mystery revolves around it. Nobody knows when and who built it. Analyzing the ancient sources and its architectural style, it was probably in the 14th Century during the ascent of the Georgian Church. It is the only cross-domed church in the province of Khevi and the only one with the bell tower built next to the main building.

As for its name, it simply comes from the neighboring village Gergeti.

Its history

According to “The Story of Iberia” written by Georgian Prince Teimuraz Batonishvili, a cross was first erected on Mount Trinity before the shrine was built. He was one of the first writers to write about the history of Iberia, the former name of Georgia.

The then king, George the Shining, commissioned the people of Gergeti to watch over the temple. They then became the “sakdrisshvili” of the Trinity, the servants of the Trinity. Over the following centuries, other kings also claimed this honor from the people of Gergeti.

The Trinity of Gergeti was the refuge of riches such as the “Jewels of Mtskheta” and one of the most sacred relics of Georgian Christians, the Cross of Saint-Nino. This honor was shared with other holy places, Svetitskhoveli and Tbilisi Sioni.

But besides its religious purpose, the shrine also served as a hiding place for men and treasures during the many invasions that ravaged Georgia. Its geographical location made it a fortress where enemies rarely dared to venture.

From the other side of the church, we could admire a view of Stepantsminda at the bottom of the valley.

We took one last photo before leaving for the last part of our descent.

Variants of the hike

The hike most popular with many travelers is the round trip from the village to the church. At the risk of repeating myself, the trail is charming and well-laid-out. There are stairs and signs that tell you exactly how far you are from the church.
It takes two hours to reach the church leisurely and a little less for the return.

Others prefer to walk the part from the church to the glacier.
Since the concrete road opened in December 2018, it’s possible to reach the church by car. If you don’t have one, there are a multitude of taxis ready to take you there. Then you will only have the climb to the glacier.

Pansheti spring water pool

Many areas in Georgia are rich in mineral waters, used for therapeutic baths or just for relaxation. 

So when we learned that there was a spring water swimming pool surrounded by nature in Stepantsminda, we were in a real rush to get there. After the hike, we could already imagine ourselves splashing around and relaxing our legs in the cool water.

One can go there by car, but we decided to get there on foot. The path is flat and passes among the horses.

Two surprises awaited us when we got to the pool.

Its bottom was covered in moss and the water was not cool but cold, which definitely stopped us in our tracks.

Too bad but at least, we refreshed ourselves and quenched our thirst directly at the source. The water is delicious and slightly sparkling.

Go if you have a little extra time to spend on the site!

Gudauri ski resort

Gudauri is a ski resort located along the Georgian Military Road near the Jvari Pass, at 2,200 m. Open from December to April, it offers a sunny ski area with 75 km of ski slopes. Its highest peak rises to an altitude of 3,279 m.

We plan to come back to ski here in the winter to enjoy it.

In the meantime, we went for a bit of a walk on the slopes. The rain came pretty quickly, and we just had time for a short lap before setting off again.

In the photo, we can see the path we were supposed to take. But the sheepdogs forced us a bit to climb the hill to get around the herd. We have read so many warnings about these dogs that we did not dare to walk near the sheep. They are known to be aggressive because they defend their herd, and even if supposedly they don’t bite, they are terrifying.

Zhinvali reservoir

It sits in the middle of the Aragvi River, a popular spot for rafting.

We stopped at a lookout to take in the view. There are a plethora of merchants of all kinds. The spot is used to the maximum, knowing that there are not many other places to stop if you want to stay on the main road.

However, you can go to the lake banks to enjoy the sun, picnic or even swim.

This reservoir was created during the construction of the Zhinvali hydroelectric complex and plays an important role, supplying drinking water to around half of Tbilisi’s population.

Final word

When planning your trip to Georgia, spending a few days in Stepantsminda is a must for all mountain lovers.

I would have enjoyed staying an extra day or two to explore the area further and do other hikes.

Next time, my dream would be the ascent of Mount Kazbek over five days, with overnight camping or in a refuge. However, we don’t feel capable of doing it on our own. I will therefore have to find an organized tour with a guide. You don’t go on a glacier without enough knowledge, and what’s more, I’m terrified of crevasses!

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