Absolutely everything you need to know (and plan for) before attempting the Valbona Theth hike in northern Albania.
The Valbona (Valbone) to Theth (Thethi) hike in the Albanian Alps is an A to B trek that takes you from one idyllic alpine village to another. By all accounts, it’s one of the most spectacular treks in the Balkans.
The route, an old mule trail, winds through the Accursed Mountains, a landscape of rocky peaks and deep ravines shared between Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo.
I knew I would be out of my depth – still, it didn’t take much convincing to get me to sign on for the Valbona Theth hike. The four of us – myself, Ross, and his parents who were visiting us partway through our trip – organised to do the trek in the second week of June.
In the lead up, I sifted through a lot of inspirational content about the Valbona Theth hike. But the more I read, the more anxious and intimidated I felt. So many of my questions went unanswered – there was a lot we had to figure out for ourselves.
In the end, we triumphed and had an amazing day. The trek surpassed all my expectations and will go down as one of my top travel experiences to date.
Written from the perspective of an anxiety-prone, self-confessed indoors person and non-trekker, this post is designed to bring you the practical information you need to make the most of the Valbona Theth trek.
Hopefully I can answer your questions and allay any of your fears!
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Valbona Theth hike: Practical tips & common questions
In this post I run through some of the common questions surrounding the Valbona Theth trek and offer my best pieces of advice for making the most of your time in the Albanian Alps.
Valbona Theth hike tips: Planning your trip
Laying the groundwork for a successful hike.
When is the best time to do the trek?
The first thing you need to consider when planning the Valbona Theth trek is what time of year to go. Northern Albania has pronounced seasons – it’s not possible to trek in the Albanian Alps in winter due to snowfall.
The hiking season typically starts in May and lasts until the end of October, with July and August being the most popular months. This does vary year to year depending on the weather, so it’s a good idea to check with someone on the ground. June through September is a safe bet.
Another thing to consider is the Koman Lake ferry (an add-on to the trek to get from Shkoder to Valbona and a highlight in itself) runs from 13 April to 2 November.
We did the trek in the second week of June. The weather was warm and a little hazy. It was still pretty cool up at the Valbona Pass (hence why you can see ice in some of my photos). I recommend avoiding peak season (July/August) if you can, and opting for June or September instead.
Theth to Valbone or Valbone to Theth?
There are two ways to do this trek: By walking from Valbona to Theth (like we did), or by doing the route in reverse. Everyone you speak to seems to have a different opinion about which way is best.
Starting in Theth and hiking to Valbona seems to be the more popular route. Almost everyone we encountered was doing it this way. I actually recommend doing the reverse.
Before I get into the reasons why, here is a brief overview of our schedule:
- 2 nights accommodation in Shkoder
- Transfer by van to Koman (1.5 hrs)
- Koman Lake ferry to Fierza (2.5 hrs)
- Transfer by van to accommodation in Valbona (1 hr)
- 1 night accommodation in Valbona
- Valbona to Theth hike
- 2 nights accommodation in Theth
- Van to Shkoder (3 hrs)
As you can see, getting to Valbona from Shkoder takes more time and more transfers. Getting back to Shkoder from Theth is easy by comparison.
Pro tip: Start the trek in Valbona. The last part of the trail into Valbona is very exposed and rough – I would hate to have to walk this bit in the afternoon sun. If you start from Valbona, you can get it over with and be in the shade of the forest near Theth before it gets too hot.
There is more to do in Theth than in Valbona (including other, shorter hikes). In my opinion, it’s nice to do the trek then relax in the mountains for a few days. Guesthouses in Theth are closer to the trail, which makes it easier to finish in Theth.
Finally, it’s easier to organise transport back to Shkoder from Theth on the fly.
Book your transport in advance
There are only 2 ferries that cross Koman Lake each day (both departing at 9am). In summer especially, it’s a good idea to book your transfer at least a few weeks in advance. If you have your own car, you’ll definitely need to be organised as the ferries only have enough room for a couple of vehicles.
You can reserve your place on the Koman Lake ferry, plus van transfer from your hotel in Shkoder and transfer at the other end to your accommodation in Valbona, via Berisha.
You have the option of paying online using credit card, or paying in cash on the day.
Choose your guesthouses wisely
There’s nothing worse than having a bad night’s sleep before a trek – or arriving at your destination after a long day of walking and finding your room isn’t ready yet. There are lots of guesthouses in both Valbona and Theth – read the reviews and choose wisely.
In our experience, family run guesthouses offer the best value for money, the heartiest meals, and hands-on staff who can help you with trekking and transport logistics.
You can find my personal recommendations at the end of the post.
Can I camp?
As I understand it there are no regulations on camping, meaning you can pitch a tent anywhere you please along the trail. A good place to camp is near the cafe above Theth.
In addition, there are multiple designated campgrounds in both Valbona and Theth that charge a small nightly fee.
Do I need a guide for the Valbona Theth hike?
No. The Valbona Theth hike is designed to be done independently, without a guide. It is possible to go with a private guide or as part of an organised tour, but it’s not necessary. If you prefer to travel with a guide, Journey to Valbona is a reputable provider.
Most solo travellers choose to pair up with a few other people and go as a group. Technically there’s no reason you couldn’t do the trek alone (provided you feel confident).
I talk more about navigating the trail in the next section.
Preparing for the trek
The kinds of questions you’ll be asking yourself in the days and hours leading up to the trek.
Do I need hiking boots and gear?
For a brief moment – probably around 11pm on the night before the trek – I started wondering if I was under-prepared.
Some people at our guesthouse were carrying poles, boots, and other fancy trekking paraphernalia. Honestly, you don’t need any of it. I did the trek in thin socks and a pair of beat-up Nikes that have holes in the toes.
What should I wear on the hike?
Your biggest concern should be covering up to protect your skin from the sun. I wore a long-sleeved skivvy, comfy exercise shorts and a light scarf.
Again, many people were dressed in ‘proper’ hiking gear when something comfortable and cool would have done the job. It’s a personal preference, but don’t feel like you need to buy a special outfit for the hike.
There aren’t really any places to swim on the route, so don’t bother wearing bathers (although you might want to pack them if you’re going to the Blue Eye in Theth).
Do I have to carry my own bags?
Valbona to Theth is a thru hike – once you’re over the pass, there’s no road to take you back. Whatever you need, you have to carry with you – which is why I highly recommend travelling with a light day pack only.
Find a guesthouse in Shkoder that will mind your things if you book another night with them on the way back through. That way you can just carry the bare essentials.
You can hire a mule to carry larger backpacks (we saw a few people doing this), but I personally think it’s overkill.
What else should I bring? Should I pack food?
A refillable water bottle, a light jacket (it gets cold and windy at the pass, even in summer), and sun protection gear are all essential. It’s also a good idea to bring some snacks.
Don’t count on the cafes being open. There are 2 cafes on the route: One 2 hours from Valbona and another approximately 3 hours from Theth. The Valbona cafe was closed in June, and the Theth cafe only had limited food offerings.
We were lucky we had that packed lunch, otherwise we would have gone hungry.
Do I need my passport/ID?
There are no border crossings and no security checkpoints on the trail itself. Neither of our guesthouses asked to see identification when we checked in – but that’s not a guarantee you won’t be asked for ID.
My recommendation is to seal your documents in a waterproof bag and keep them at the bottom of your day pack.
How much cash should I carry?
There are no ATMs in Valbona or Theth, so you’ll need to carry whatever cash you need with you from Shkoder.
Budget for food, drinks and transport, plus whatever you need to cover the cost of your accommodation. Meals at our guesthouses cost us between 7 and 10 Euros, and drinks (coffee, beer) a couple of Euros.
Most guesthouses and cafes only accept cash but will take either Euros or Albanian lek.
Is there drinking water available?
There are several water sources on the route where you can replenish your refillable water bottle. Both cafes I mentioned are located on the edge of a stream and have free water (even if they’re closed, the hose will still be running).
The water is meltwater and safe to drink. It tastes delicious and is naturally icy cold. It’s safe to drink the tap water in both Valbona and Theth as well.
Terrain & difficulty
What is the Valbona Theth trek actually like on the ground?
How long does the Valbona Theth hike take?
After asking and reading around, we figured it could take anywhere between 6 and 10 hours to complete the 9.5 km hike. We started walking at 7.20am and arrived in Theth at 3pm, giving us a total time of 7.5 hours (a new PB!).
That includes around 45 minutes at the cafe, 45 minutes at the pass, and various other rest stops along the way.
Is the Valbona Theth hike difficult?
I was fully expecting to struggle with the trek, but it wasn’t as difficult as I anticipated.
Most people recommend having a medium level of fitness to do the hike. My fitness level is absolute zero and I still did OK. The uphill parts are gruelling for sure, but they only come in short bursts, and you do get some relief with the downhill portions.
The maximum elevation is 1,800 metres, so altitude sickness is not something you have to worry about.
What is the terrain like?
For the most part, the terrain on the trek is rough but manageable. Most of the way you’ll be walking on stone ‘paths’ that are relatively flat and even.
There are parts where you’re clamouring over larger rocks and some downhill portions over shale that are very slippery and hard on the knees. We all took turns at falling over during the last part of the walk – the steepest and most slippery part of the trail is just outside Theth.
Briefly, the terrain can be split into five ‘chapters’:
- Leaving Rrogam (Valbona): Wooded forest and a steady incline until you reach the first cafe. This takes about 1.5 hours.
- Steep ascent: Up, up and up a bare, stony mountain face. This was the most challenging part of the hike for sure. It takes around 3 hours.
- Valbona Pass: When you near the top, the trail takes you around to the left for some breathtaking viewpoints. Here, you should briefly detour off the main trail to check out the various lookout points. Be very careful as these steep hills are slippery.
- Descent to the second cafe: From the peak, it’s about 45 minutes downhill walking on a steep path.
- Descent into Theth: Another 2-3 hours of downhill, this time through dense pine forest. Depending on where you’re staying in Theth, you might then have to walk through the town.
Is the trail marked?
Yes, the way is well marked. Most of the trail is a white rocky path that is very easy to distinguish from the terrain around it.
In addition, there are red-and-white flag markers. These are prominent and appear as often as every 50 metres on either end of the trail, although they are more dispersed as you near the pass.
We only took one wrong turn, right at the beginning of the hike as we were leaving a small village. A man popped out of his house right on queue and showed us the way back to the trail.
Is there phone reception on the trek? Does Google Maps work?
Because we were travelling in Albania for more than a month, we bought a local sim card in Shkoder. We had limited reception in Valbona and Thethi, and were mostly without a signal during the hike. (Note that WIFI is standard in guesthouses in both villages.)
I loaded up Google Maps before we left and took a few cursory glances – mainly to monitor our progress throughout the day. The route isn’t marked on Google Maps, so don’t try to use your phone to navigate. Just follow the trail markings.
Will I see any wildlife on the trek?
Theth National Park is rugged and biodiverse, so there’s a good chance you’ll see some wildlife along the way. We spotted three grass snakes (non-poisonous) and a small, unidentified mammal. (Actually the mammal was carrying another, smaller mammal in its mouth, so technically we saw two animals.)
There are brown bears, wolfs and lynx in the area – another reason why you should stick to the marked trail.
Tips for the day of the trek
Hit the ground running!
Skip breakfast and get an early start
The night before we left Valbona our hosts gave us the option of skipping breakfast and taking a pack lunch instead. This was a brilliant idea.
We were able to leave our guesthouse by 7am and start walking at 7.20, which put us way ahead of the pack (and ahead of the weather). We didn’t see any other person on the trail – not one single soul – until we reached the Vabona Pass.
Don’t underestimate the value of having the trail to yourself. It’s narrow in parts, and it’s so nice not having people breathing down your neck or needing to negotiate two lanes of traffic.
Get a lift to the trailhead in Rrogam
This is my top tip for the Valbona Theth hike – and it’s not something I’ve read anywhere else, online or offline.
When we got to Valbona, we thought we could wake up the next morning and start walking. What we didn’t realise is that most guesthouses are a mighty long way from the Valbona Theth hike trailhead. Our accommodation, for example, was a full 9km from the start of the trail – that’s almost the same distance as the hike itself!
Instead of walking from your guesthouse, you can organise for a car to take you to Rrogam, the small village where the trail starts. This means skipping the first part of the hike through the open riverbed (some of the toughest terrain, incidentally) – but it also saves you having to walk along the highway and it shaves off 2 to 4 hours of extra slog.
We paid 25 Euros total for a car to take us to Rrogam, organised through our guesthouse the night before. You can lower the cost by carpooling with other travellers.
Know exactly where you’re headed in Theth
As you descend into Theth, it might not be immediately obvious where you guesthouse is located. Theth is pretty spread out (though not to the same extent as Valbona), with guesthouses and camping grounds all along the river.
Figure out the rough location of your place before you leave and pin it on Google Maps so you know where you’re headed and which way you need to turn off the track.
If you don’t have a guesthouse pre-booked (tsk tsk!), head for Mini Market Jezerca where you can grab a drink and use the free WIFI to get your bearings.
Where to stay in Shkoder, Valbone and Theth
These three guesthouses are clean, comfortable, and managed by excellent hosts who can help you handle the logistics of the Valbona Theth hike.
Shkoder: Sweet Living Apartment. An awesome self-contained apartment in the city centre.
Valbona: Guesthouse Mehmeti. Spotlessly clean, huge meals, serene location. Staff speak English and can organise a car transfer to the Theth trailhead.
Theth: Guest House Flodisa. Family run, excellent free breakfast included. Florina, one of the hosts, also works at Tourist Information and is exceptionally helpful.