Musala (9,596ft) – Highest Mountain in Bulgaria
Bicycle Tour Leg 5: Campsite near Midzor, Serbia to Musala, Bulgaria
October 19-21, 2014
I awoke from my tent on the slopes of Midzor, the highpoint of Serbia, to the first frost of my trip. I had started my bicycle tour in Romania on October 1, when the leaves were just starting to change color, and now for the first time it was starting to dip below freezing at night. I was prepared, though, with plenty of warm clothes and gloves for biking in the cold.
I packed up and carefully coasted down the dirt road leading from my campsite in the open meadows above treeline back to the Midzor trailhead at the Babin Zub lodge. From here I enjoyed an hour-long descent on steep well-paved roads all the way down to Inovo where I regained the major road 221. Here I headed south toward the Bulgarian border and my next objective, Musala, the highest mountain in Bulgaria.
My route wound through quiet backroads in the forests, with only the occasional collection of houses that made up the villages of Sugrin, Cerova, and Temska. After climbing up and over several passes I dropped down to Sopot and was back contending with traffic again. I stopped at a corner store in Pirot to buy some pasta, fruit, and meat, then headed south on E-80.
Any road in Europe with a name “E-[number]” is kind of like an interstate in the US, and I usually try to avoid these because of all the semi truck traffic. But this was the only road I could take to the Bulgarian border this time. The shoulder was acceptably wide, though, and the trucks generally switched lanes to pass me, so I made it to the border with no problem.
The border crossing went smoothly, and the road entered forests again on the Bulgarian side. I soon noticed I was in a much drier environment, with scrubbier looking vegetation, and very little undergrowth. As I dropped down to the town of Dragoman the trees mostly disappeared, replaced by scrubland.
I stopped for an afternoon snack in a park in Dragoman, polishing off some Nutella, chips, an apple, cheese, and other snacks. My usual schedule was to take an hour-long food break for every three hours of biking, giving my about nine biking hours during the day and two midday food breaks. This was pretty sustainable, and usually put me around 90-100 miles for the day.
I looked at the map in Dragoman and realized I was basically on track to end my day in Sophia, the capital of Bulgaria. But I didn’t want to pay to sleep in a hotel. I would much rather stealth camp for free. So I would either have to bike really hard to get far out of town before dark (that seemed difficult), or stop early. I didn’t like the thought of getting stuck out at night again like in Romania while still looking for a place to camp, so decided to stop early, maybe even at the next good site I found.
Shortly outside of town the road crested a hill and I could see all the way to Sophia, with suburbs spreading almost the whole way in front of me. But at the crest of the hill to my left was a patch of woods with a
small dirt road leading in. I turned inside, and soon found my campsite for the night. My spot actually had a good view of Sophia, and even what I thought in the distance might be Musala. I went to sleep
early that night, having only put on about 80 miles for the day, but at least I didn’t have to pay to sleep.
I got back on E80 in the morning, and by snack time had made it all the way into downtown Sophia. I decided to find a nice park in town to take my snack, and found my way to the Park Borisova Gradina, and nice semi-forested, quite area with fountains and plenty of benches. I attracted a few stares with my bike touring equipment, but was content sitting on a bench eating my snacks.
The tricky part of passing through Sophia was just beginning. It’s easy to get into a big town (just think about the saying “all roads lead to Rome”), but hard to get out in the direction you want to go. This is especially true on a bicycle, when I wanted to get out on small secondary or tertiary roads. It would have been much easier in a car to get out on the big E-number roads.
I took a few wrong turns, and stopped to ask for directions once, but eventually made my way onto route 82 following signs for Samokov. Finally, I was leaving the city and getting back into the woods. The forests soon surrounded me on both sides and I felt more relaxed.
There was hardly any traffic on this road, and I could really enjoy biking instead of worrying about navigating. I wound up into the mountains, passing a few old stone buildings on promontories that looked like castles. I eventually reached the edge of the Iskar Reservoir, and hoped to find a nice park on the shore to take a snack break. But the shore was all either fenced off, or private property. I could hardly even see the reservoir past the big fences.
At last I reached a small snack store with benches outside, and stopped to take a break. I loaded up on snacks inside, then ate outside with a view of the tops of the hills on the opposite side of the reservoir (I still couldn’t really see any water).
The road continued in the forests all the way to Samokov. Here I got my first view of Musula, a large hulking massif jutting out of the flat lowlands. It even looked to be above treeline on the top. I bought a few bottles of water at a gas station, then followed route 82 for a few more miles up through the trees to the ski-town of Borovets.
This was where the official trailhead started. I biked up the only road in town heading toward Musala, and saw a small trailhead sign on my left. I quickly pushed my bike up the trail and out of sight, planning to camp close by. As I pushed it farther, though, the trail intersected with a dirt road going up the mountain. This was some good fortune, because I just hopped back on my bike and started riding up the road. I made it a few miles before the road started getting too steep for it to make sense to ride. It passed a great flat area next to a stream, and I couldn’t resist stopping here for the night to pitch camp. This was a perfect spot, miles away from the nearest building in the safety of the woods.
That evening, though, I had what was probably my worst dinner experience of the entire trip. As I was crawling into my tent after polishing off a half pound of pasta, my stomach started feeling terrible. I got back out of the tent, and promptly threw up every last noodle that I’d eaten. Then I miraculously felt better.
This was a hallmark sign of food poisoning, so I carefully considered what I could have done wrong with dinner. I definitely boiled the stream water sufficiently to kill anything. I had been having an annoying cough for the past few weeks, though, which could be related to this experience. My conclusion, which I would test for the rest of the trip, was that I may have not been careful enough cooking with gasoline. My
MSR stove runs on gasoline, which is easier to obtain than white gas but burns dirtier. I suspected that, since the lid didn’t fit exactly over my pot (from many years of abuse) that the part sticking over the edge was catching the smoky fumes from the burning gasoline and funneling them into the pot. This was then making me ingest small particles of the gasoline smoke with my food.
This theory could explain my cough. And perhaps I hadn’t been careful wiping the gasoline off my hands and some had gotten into my food today. I resolved to be extra careful with the gasoline, and not use the pot lid anymore. [I never coughed again on the trip, or threw up my food, so it appears to have worked.]
Even with an empty stomach I still managed to get a good night’s sleep.
The next morning I rose early, packed up my hiking gear, took down my tent, and hid my bike and tent under my tarp so they wouldn’t be visible from the road. I sprinkled some leaves over the dark blue tarp for good measure. I then continued hiking up the road for a few miles until the edge of treeline. It appeared the road existed to service a chairlift for a ski resort that operated on the mountain. I could see the road ended at the base of the lift, which went up to some sort of lodge on the hillside. There must have been other lifts starting from near Borovets leading up to that lodge.
At this point a trail marked with metal poles started winding up through the bushes and into the open fields. I tromped through some wet marshy patches, then through a broad open field to a small tarn. On the hillside above was smaller lodge of some sort connect by a dirt road to the larger lodge. Construction vehicles were driving back and forth, doing some work on the building. Luckily this was as high as any road went, and it was just trails from there to the summit.
I rounded a larger pond, Musalenski Ezera, and passed a few backpackers before scrambling steeply up some boulders. A little bit higher I reached a big blue pyramid hut at the base of another tarn. Musala reminded me a lot of Katahdin back in the United States. This would be like Chimney Pond at the base of the north cirque of Katahdin.
There were patches of snow visible in sheltered areas at the base of the cliffs above the tarn. I’d heard this area got a foot of snow a week earlier, but now it was almost all melted. As I hiked higher I saw mountain bike tracks in the trail, and wondered how it would be possible to bike all the way up through all the boulder fields. Undoubtedly, the bikers had carried their bikes up and
then rode down as much as possible. I definitely wished I had a mountain bike to descend with.
After skirting a few snow patches I strolled out to the summit around 11am. Two other hikers were sitting down admiring the view. There were actually a lot more mountains in Bulgaria to the south, and you could definitely get in a lot of weekend hiking trips from Sophia.
From the summit Musala I saw a sharp knife-edge ridge circling around the tarn below, with steep cliffs to the north and broader slopes to the south. I talked to some of the hikers on top, and it turned out another guy had done big bicycle tours as well! It was years ago, but he’d biked all over Europe, similar to what I was doing. They were planning to hike down the way I’d come up.
I saw one hiker continuing along the ridge, though, and thought it looked more fun. I had given myself the entire day for Musala, and even though I could rush back down to my bike now and make progress towards the next mountain, I decided to hike around up there a little more. Besides, I already had an awesome campsite, and if I took my time on the mountain I could just camp there again tonight.
I traversed along the knife edge, taking some fun third class scrambling routes to some good viewpoints. The knife edge eventually broadened to a gradual slope, which I took back down to Musalenski Ezera to meet up with the trail I had ascended on. I took my time hiking back down the trail and dirt road to my camp, arriving close enough to dinner time to justify not moving camp.
That night I finished off the last of my pasta, and had a relaxing evening in the comfort of the woods. Tomorrow, I thought, I might even get to take my first rest day of the trip before my next mountain, Zla Kolata, the highpoint of Montenegro.