Hiking the Valbona to Theth Trail: A How-To Guide For Travellers
Updated on April 3rd, 2020
During our time doing a work exchange in Lake Skadar, Montenegro, Ben and I were always looking out over the Lake at the impressive Albanian peaks. We knew we wanted to get over there and hike we just had to find a suitable one. After very little research, the Valbona to Theth trail popped up time and time again. According to everyone who had been before us, this is one of Albania’s (not so) hidden gems. We can now confirm that everyone is spot on! So much so, it made my list of favourite destinations for 2019.
After leaving Montenegro, we did a quick loop around Kosovo and North Macedonia. We visited Peja and Prizren in Kosovo then Skopje and the most incredible Lake Ohrid in Macedonia. From here we got the bus into Albania, where we spent a night in Tirana – easily my favourite city in the Balkans and then finally to Shkoder the gateway to the hike.
The Valbona to Theth trail can be hiked in either direction from the small northern Albanian villages situated in the Valbona National Park. While many serious hikers are conquering the Peaks of the Balkans or the Via Dinarica Trail those with limited time or experience can do the Valbona to Theth day hike. What I love about hiking is it is a great budget travel activity and you get to see parts of the country that are untouched and only accessible to hikers.
If you haven’t yet heard about this hike, let me tell you why you need to do it, and that you need to do it now due to its increasing popularity. Are you confused which direction to hike? This post will list the itinerary for each hiking direction to help you decide which is best for you.
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What is the Valbona to Theth trail
The Valbona to Theth trail is a beautiful day hike located in the Albanian Alps. If you’re an outdoor lover this hike is for you. It’s especially perfect for travellers who would like to get started on multi-day hikes but don’t have all the gear.
Most backpackers and travellers, like us, will start the hike in Shkodër and spend 2 nights away – one in Valbona and one in Theth. However, the total hiking time is under a day. The hike can be done in either direction and transport options are readily available to and from Shkodër.
Whichever way you choose you will be able to enjoy a beautiful ferry ride over the Komani Lake, stay in one or two traditional Albanian villages, hike through the Valbona National Park and witness stunning mountain scenery.
Which direction should you hike?
We did a lot of research into which direction we should hike and ended up going from Valbona to Theth. It seems that most people say the way they went is the ‘best’ way – which in that case means you can’t go wrong. The following will give you a better idea of the pros and cons of each direction.
Direction 1 – Valbona to Theth
We chose this direction for a couple of reasons, but the main one was to do the hardest part of the hike first and then have the second half on the shadier side going downhill when the day is at its hottest.
If you choose this direction, your hike will look like this:
- Depart Shkodër early (6:30 am) for a 1.5-hour minibus trip to Koman.
- 2.5 to 3-hour ferry ride to Fierza
- Drive from Fierze to Valbona for about an hour.
- Spend the afternoon in Valbona and stay at one of the guesthouses
- The following day hike 17km from Valbona to Theth
983m incline and 1161m decline. With a steep 3.5km section being the majority of the elevation gain. The path is mostly shady after the Valbona pass.
- Spend the afternoon in Theth and stay at a guesthouse
- The following day take a 4×4 back to Shkodër which takes 3 hours
Direction 2 – Theth to Valbona
This direction has less of a steep incline but the entire way to the pass is walking uphill (about 7km ascending 1161m.
- Depart Shkodër at 8 am by 4×4 to Theth. The journey is 3 hours
- Arrive in Theth at 11 am, have the rest of the day to explore the area and stay in one of the guesthouses this evening.
- The following day hike 17km from Theth to Valbona
The section prior to the peak has a lot of shady areas and climbs 1,151m over a 6.5km distance
After the peak, 3.5km of steep downhill and then 7km of a gradual decline.
- Arrive in Valbona in the afternoon. Time to explore the area and spend the night in one of the guesthouses.
- The following day a minibus will take you from Valbona to Fierze around midday for a 1 pm ferry departure
- Enjoy the 3-hour ferry ride to Koman
- 1.5-hour minibus ride back to Shkodër
So, would you rather hike a 2.5km hard steep part and be done with the hard part? Or walk a fairly steep uphill for 7km? If you have knee issues and don’t like the downhills maybe direction 2 will be best, to do a short 2.5km steep descent and then the rest quite gradual.
Our experience trekking to Theth
Organising tickets and where to stay in Shkodër
We stayed at the Bulldog Hostel and Club in Shkodër which I would highly recommend. The staff were incredibly friendly and went out of their way to help us with any requests we had. We had a private room in the hostel for €19/night which included breakfast. The hostel also has a luggage storage room where you can leave the majority of your belongings so you only need to hike with a small day pack.
There is a tour booking company across the road from the hostel who will organise all of your tickets for getting to Theth or Valbona. The cost was €1 more per person than we saw online, but this could have been due to to the increasing popularity of the hike. The total cost for the minibus, ferry, minibus transfer from Shkodër to Valbona came to €16 each.
On the morning of our departure, the hostel owner came to meet us and we left our big bags in the storage room. He even gave us a packed breakfast which was incredibly nice – we had just assumed we would miss the breakfast and had bought snacks the day before.
Shkodër to Koman
The minibus picked us up outside our hostel just after 6:30 am. We drove around to other hostels and designated pick up zones until we were almost full then set off to Koman. The drive went quickly and we had one short stop near the lake to stretch our legs. We arrived in Koman just after 8 am and were ushered on to the car/passenger ferry.
The Komani Lake ferry ride
The ferry departed Koman around 8.30 am. There was both indoor and outdoor seating but everyone moved around freely once the ferry set off.
The lifesaver on board was the little shop which opened soon after leaving the dock and sold shots of espresso. The coffee came from a pouch and was surprisingly delicious. You can also buy snacks and cold drinks here during the trip.
Make sure you pack a jacket or a windbreaker as although the days are hot, it was still chilly in the morning and the wind when you are outside.
The ferry ride was as beautiful as everyone says, and 3 hours went by very quickly. The tall mountains advanced on either side of us and deep green glassy water kept most of the passengers busy with photos for the first hour.
The next couple of hours passed enjoying the sunshine on the bow of the boat. This was made possible due to the car level being only partially full, which in the peak summer months may be too full.
Fierze to Valbona
Once we departed the ferry, there were minibuses waiting for us to take us the final leg of the journey. This part of the trip lasted under an hour.
Our driver asked us where we were staying and dropped us off outside our guesthouse. Or attempted to, had it been the right one. However, as we each only had small backpacks it wasn’t a problem. It turned out our guesthouse was next door and were escorted there by the staff of the first place.
We chose to book online due to mixed reviews about how busy everything would be at the end of June. We knew we could find somewhere cheaper had we walked around, but in hindsight are happy we did it the way we did. While I’m sure there was plenty of free rooms at this time of year, everything in Valbona is very spread out. There are sometimes multiple km’s between one guesthouse and the next.
We had checked into Lazer Cardaku guesthouse in Valbona around 1pm. We paid €25 for a private room and bathroom that included breakfast.
The guesthouse offered set lunches for €8 each so we decided to go for a walk to find somewhere that offered a menu. We ended up walking to Krojet e Rrogamit hotel which had a simple menu and a large balcony for dining with views of the mountains. We ordered a salad, Ćevapi (typical small meat kebab’s for the Balkan states), fries and a coke. Ben ended up ordering another portion of Ćevapi and the total price was just under €8 for the lot.
In the afternoon we spent a few hours, relaxing, reading and even took a nap 🙂 You could also use this time to go on a small walk around Valbona – the mountain backdrop is stunning!
That evening we had dinner and a few drinks in the main town centre (about 10 buildings).
Starting the hike from Valbona to Theth
We organised to have breakfast at 7:30 am so we could start hiking by 8 am. The included breakfast consisted of homemade bread, fig jam, boiled eggs and mountain tea (which tasted similar to peppermint).
Soon after 8, we were on the road walking to the beginning of the trail – already the temps were rising and it was getting warm in the sun.
From the trailhead, the first part of the walk follows a dry riverbed full of large uneven rocks. The path is semi smoothed by 4×4 tire tracks. It is easy to follow and there is one obvious path, so you won’t get lost. Also, keep an eye out for the white/red/white trail markers.
After around 5-6km (depending on where you started in Valbona), you come to the village of Rragam. There are a few guesthouses and bar/cafes here. Up until this point, the trail is relatively easy and is gradually ascends a couple of hundred metres.
We need to readjust our bags and decided to stop for a break. We bought two cold canned drinks which cost €1.20 each. You can also fill up your water bottles here with lovely cold spring water.
From here the hike gets steep. Unless you want to make the detour to the waterfall, make sure where the trail splits you take the path leading up to the right.
Heading to Valbona Pass
From Rragam, the path rises steeply over the next 3.5km and gains 620m in elevation. The hardest part about this ascent is that it is in direct sunlight. There is very limited shade until you get below the final climb.
The pass offers incredible views over the surrounding Albanian Valley and Accursed Mountain range. When you reach the top here you will forget about the difficult climb very quickly once you look around.
The top viewpoint was busy and full of people heading in both directions eating their packed lunches. If you want to eat your lunch here keep walking another hundred metres over the ridge to enjoy more solitude.
We didn’t have a packed lunch (only snacks) and decided to keep going until we found a shady area for a longer break.
Descending to Theth
The descent is 1,100m in elevation over a 6km distance. A lot of this area is shaded and doesn’t have the stunning mountain scenery like the first side. By the time you reach Theth, your knees are feeling it and you’re ready for another cool beverage.
The descent is anything but gradual. Which makes me unsure what direction would have been best to take. On one hand, the long descent was very tiring but then having to walk up it without any respite may have been worse.
The entire hike took us 6.5 hours with a few rest and photo stops.
We stayed at Bujtina Harusha for €32 which included a private room with our own bathroom and breakfast. Again, lunches were a set price of €8 and dinner €10. We opted for the cheaper option of heading next door to the restaurant where we could order something smaller and cheaper.
We had read some people hiked to the Blue Eye from Theth, however, when looking this up it is 9.3km away and 4 hours in each direction. If you really wanted to do this you could stay an extra day in Theth to do this hike.
Instead, we used our morning after the hike to walk half an hour to the waterfall next to the road on the way out of town.
Heading back to Shkodër
There are 4×4 transfers which head back to Shkodër each day. We didn’t book ours ahead of time as we were assured we could book them in Theth.
When we asked at our accommodation for them to book us a 4×4 back. The guy made a few calls and told us they were full. He suggested we wait around at midday on the day we wanted to head back to find a lift.
While I’m sure there would have been a spare seat if we waited, we decided to hitchhike from the waterfall. After about 45 minutes got a lift with a German couple in their van. We were pretty stoked about this as it saved us €20.
Valbona to Theth hike difficulty
The hike is not technical and doesn’t require any special gear or experience to complete. However, you want to have at least a moderate level of fitness. We met one couple who complained that it was definitely more than ‘moderate’ fitness required. Yet, they still made it to Theth only an hour so so after we did.
If you aren’t as fit, take extra water and factor in more rest stops. Possibly hike the trail in the Theth to Valbona direction as you don’t have the extremely steep part to contend with.
Tips for hiking Valbona to Theth
Download Maps.me and/or Mapy.cz
Please, please, please don’t rely on Google maps when hiking. Since the beginning of this trip, we have been using Maps.me and mapy.cz, both are great map apps which show hiking trails and mapy.cz even shows topography.
While the trail is relatively easy to follow, having a map app you can quickly reference in case you haven’t seen a trail marker in some time can definitely take the worry away.
Both apps are free to download and allow you to download the region to be used in an offline mode.
Bring enough cash to last until you are back in Shkodër
There are no ATM’s in either Valbona or Theth. The towns were much smaller than I had envisioned and have very limited services. I couldn’t even find an ice cream in Theth after our hike, which I was very sad about.
You will need enough cash to pay for your guesthouses, two dinners, two lunches, snacks for the hike and any drinks you will want to buy. If you haven’t pre-paid for your transfer back to Shkodër, you will need €10 per person for the 4×4.
Book ahead in the summer months
The hike was busy when we were there in late June. We counted about 50 people hiking in the opposite direction to us. As both Theth and Valbona are very small villages I would suggest booking accommodation in advance in July and August. While I haven’t heard of anyone being forced to sleep in the street this hike is getting busier and more popular.
Start hiking early
Albania gets hot! To avoid the hottest time of the day try and get started before 8:30 am.
What to pack
As mentioned previously, you don’t need any special equipment for this hike, which is one of the reasons it appealed so much to us. We also loved that most hostels in Shkodër allow you to keep your luggage with them to avoid carrying heavy loads.
There are mules which you can hire for the hike but this additional cost seems unnecessary.
All you really need for the hike are some comfortable walking shoes (preferably hiking boots), a water bottle, sunscreen and a change of clothes for after the hike.
LifeStraw water bottles are great for travelling because they have a built-in filtration system that removes 99.9999% of waterborne bacteria, and 99.9% of waterborne protozoan parasites,
The complete list of things I packed:
- My flip flops for around the villages
- Money and passport
- Waterproof jacket
- Dry bag
- Toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, face wash and body wash)
- Any necessary personal items like medications or food products
- Phone charger
- Small backpack to put everything in
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I hope this post has answered your questions about hiking the Valbona to Theth trail and helps you decide which direction to do it in. Enjoy the hike and the spectacular scenery! Why not read more of my budget travel tips for Europe.