Chania White Mountains

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Location: Omalos

The White Mountains or Lefka Ori, as they are known in Greek, are a mountain range covering the greatest part of Chania and part of the Rethymno prefecture in western Crete. Their name derives from their perpetual white color as their off-white limestone glistens in the sun, only to be covered by snow from winter till late spring. The locals also call them Madares, from the Cretan word madaros, which means ‘bald, bare of any vegetation’.

The White Mountains have the second-highest peak in Crete, Pachnes (Morning Dew), which rises 2,453 meters above sea level. The central and southern parts lie at an elevation of over 1,800 meters, creating an awe-inspiring high desert with no less than 58 mountain tops exceeding the altitude of 2,000 meters and another 54 between 1,500 and 2,000 meters! The rugged terrain forms innumerable ravines, chasms, sinkholes, and legend-filled caves, as well as several plateaus, such as the plateaus of Omalos, Anopolis and Askifou. It is precisely here that Greece’s deepest caves, Gourgouthakas and the Cave of the Lion, can be found, while other worth-visiting caverns include Drakolaki and Tzanis, which are richly adorned with stalactites and stalagmites.

The mountain range boasts an impressive number of gorges (around 50), which run nearly parallel to one another and descend towards the Libyan Sea. The most famous is Samaria Gorge, the second largest in Europe, but there are several others of considerable interest too. Aradena features prominently among them, as it is not only one of the longest but also the deepest, lending itself to bungee jumping. The list would be incomplete without the gorges of Eligia, Tripiti, Agia Eirini, Imbros, Therissos, the verdant Kydoni and, last but not least, the imposing Klados and Vrissi, with its spectacular waterfalls. The E4 long-distance path passes through various of these stunning landscapes.

The mountains are rich in flora and fauna, with over 650 plant species, some of which are steno-endemic and cannot be found anywhere else, not even in the rest of Crete. The areas near the southern slopes are covered by cypress, kermes oaks and pine forests. In contrast, areas with greater humidity levels are lushly vegetated with planes, chestnuts and other water-loving plants. What is more, there are as many as 200 animal species, including the extremely rare bearded vulture, a variety of frogs and reptiles, the famous Cretan kri kri wild goats, endangered wildcats, and 15 different bat species.

The area is also steeped in history. According to archaeological research, the first settlements date back to the Neolithic period, and human activity has been uninterrupted ever since. Thanks to their isolated, rugged terrain, the White Mountains were the ideal stronghold of rebels during Cretan uprisings during the Venetian and Ottoman eras, as well as during the German occupation. Visitors can still see a number of Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman constructions that survive to this day.

Today, the White Mountains are a popular hiking and trekking destination, and there are several refuges for mountain climbers. Though the ascent is very demanding, it is a highly rewarding experience, as the mountaintops afford sublime views of the surrounding landscape as far as the Cretan and the Libyan Sea.



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