National parks of the Caucasus
By Martha Hales
Standing at the confluence of Europe and Asia, the Caucasus mountain range is a towering landmark of this historic cultural divide. These mountains include some of Europe’s lesser-known but beautiful highland landscapes, and give their name to the beguiling Caucasus region which incorporates Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The Caucasus region is small, but punches above its weight in terms of beauty, diversity and intrigue. The major cities are rapidly modernising, yet with a respectful deference to history, while in rural areas tradition reigns supreme and agriculture is still the mainstay of the economy. Surroundings incorporate everything from soaring peaks sheltering idyllic valleys crisscrossed by streams, to the shores of the Black Sea via fertile lowlands striped with vines.
Despite the delicious cuisine, legendary hospitality and ancient monuments, this is a region where natural beauty is the trump card, and we’ve highlighted some of the most enticing national parks in the Caucasus to inspire your inner wanderer.
Serene and sparkling, Lake Sevan basks at around 2,000 metres altitude. The lake and its pristine surroundings have been protected as a national park since 1978, ensuring that the varied flora and fauna found here can exist undisturbed. Hares, jackals, martens and wolves are found here along with 267 species of birds and a complex range of plant varieties. Several endemic fish have been recorded in the protected area’s rivers, too. For many visitors it is the scenically sited Sevanavank and Hayravank Monasteries which sit on the water’s edge which are the most memorable aspect of visiting Lake Sevan National Park.
A wetland site situated in Armenia’s north west and important enough to be listed by RAMSAR, Lake Arpi is another beautiful lake which, together with its surroundings, is protected as a national park. This lake is also located at just over 2,000 metres altitude, and holds significant appeal for naturalists and bird watchers with rich biodiversity including 190 species of birds. The lake supports a variety of migratory and nesting birds, including a large colony of Armenian gulls, and is thought to be the only place in the country where you can find nesting Dalmatian pelicans. Look out for greylag geese, Egyptian vultures and imperial eagles here, too.
Kolkheti National Park
Down by the Black Sea coast in the lowlands of western Georgia, an area between the outflows of the Supsa and Tikori rivers has been designated a national park since 1999. The major feature of the park is the wetland ecosystem which attracts a vast array of waterfowl and makes an interesting destination for keen birders. At the last count more than 190 different birds had been recorded in the area, most notably the Kolkhi pheasant which is thought to originate from here. The main activities in the park, as well as birdwatching from designated hides, include boat trips on the lakes and fishing.
Known for its healthful mineral water and pristine forests, this national park spans a variety of habitat zones as it ranges in altitude from 800 metres to 2,750 metres. It is a haven for hikers and nature lovers due to the well established trails that weave through the ancient forested areas and the open alpine meadows. Spring is a particularly special time to visit because of the profusion of wild flowers and the presence of large flocks of colourful bee-eaters in the park. The mammalian fauna here is equally unique - keep your eyes peeled for wolf, chamois, brown bear, lynx and red deer.
The section of high peaks in the Greater Caucasus around Stepantsminda is protected as the rugged Kazbegi National Park, an area of great drama and beauty where birds of prey soar above wild valleys and ancient churches sit atop lofty bluffs. This is a land of myths and legends, and many Georgian folk tales involve Mount Kazbegi’s icy crags, but although mystery swirls around its tallest peaks, the people of the Kazbegi area have a long tradition of hospitality and the welcome here is particularly warm. The old military pass over the mountains here is hugely scenic, there is a good chance of spotting impressive birds of prey. The walk up to see the Gergeti Trinity church is also not to be missed.
The Caucasus is a region of dazzling natural beauty and varied flora and fauna. Enjoy the pristine surroundings in the many national parks that protect some of the most important landscapes and biodiversity. Our local experts are founts of knowledge when it comes to their home countries, so get in touch today to find out more. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.