Everything you need to know about visiting the Vashlovani Protected Areas (AKA Vashlovani National Park), including an easy one day Vashlovani itinerary.
Many people say the high mountains of Tusheti are Georgia’s final frontier. But I might have found a place that feels even more remote and untamed.
Stretching from the bottom of the Alazani River Valley wine region to the southernmost point of Georgia and the border with Azerbaijan, Vashlovani is a side of the country few people ever see.
Part national park and part strict nature reserve, the Protected Areas is a 35,200-hectare swathe of territory that varies from semi-desert to steppe to savanna. In 1935, it was named a State Reserve and in 2022, it was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Vashlovani is like its own little world: It holds everything from pistachio groves and wild apple orchards to dried up seabeds studded with ancient corals.
One minute you’re dwarfed by the soaring walls of a ravine, the next you’re on top of the world looking over the Georgian badlands, then you’re suddenly cast into an open plain that ripples with bouncing gazelles.
It’s impossible to visit Vashlovani National Park on a whim. It requires time, patience, and pre-planning. A skilled driver and a robust vehicle are absolutely essential. Doing Vashlovani properly is a small investment, but it’s worth it to see one of the most captivating and remote corners of Georgia.
Earlier this year, I spent one day in Vashlovani along with my dad, who was visiting from Australia. Thanks to the expert planning (and skilful manoeuvring) of our driver-guide, Mindia, we packed a lot in and managed to see all the best bits of the northeastern area.
While extensive guides and multi-day itineraries for off-roading in Vashlovani already exist, my goal is to give you a concise and replicable Vashlovani itinerary that can still be achieved with limited time and a limited budget.
I’ve also included a stack of Vashlovani travel tips to help you with your planning.
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Essential things to know before you visit Vashlovani National Park
To help you get your head around Vashlovani, there are a few essential things to know. I will explore some of these points in detail later. For now, here are 9 quick pointers:
1. There is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ time to visit Vashlovani. The windows for visiting are quite short, and conditions change rapidly, so some flexibility is required.
2. You need a car for Vashlovani. This is non-negotiable.
3. There are no roads as such, so it must be a 4×4.
4. Vashlovani is an off-roading destination, not a hiking destination.
5. Because of its location near the border, some parts of Vashlovani require a border permit. All visitors to the park must register and pay an entrance fee. Both must be organised in advance.
6. You must carry your passport/ID with you when you visit Vashlovani. You will be required to present it (hard copy) to border agents, along with your paperwork.
7. You should also pack enough drinking water to last the day – there is only one fresh water source in the park at Mijniskure. Bring your own food, too, as there are no restaurants or shops inside the park. Your last opportunity to buy food/water is at Dedoplistskaro.
8. Mobile coverage is spotty inside the park. This is one of the only places in Georgia where I didn’t have phone reception. If you are self-navigating, you need to come prepared with an offline map. My friends Kim and Del have created an excellent Vashlovani E-Map that you can purchase here.
9. Vashlovani is NOT suitable for a day trip from Tbilisi. There are plenty of other places you can see in a day – Vashlovani deserves and needs more time. (My ‘one-day’ itinerary for Vashlovani is really a three-day itinerary because it assumes you will start and end in Dedoplistskaro.)
When is the best time to visit Vashlovani National Park?
I recommend visiting Vashlovani in spring. There are several reasons why I think May is the best month.
Firstly, if there is late rain (which has become more common in recent years), the landscape is nice and green. Since Vashlovani is literally the ‘place of apples’, I think it’s befitting to see it wrapped in spring colours and wildflowers rather than autumn’s cloak.
Secondly, you have a better chance of seeing wildlife in spring. This includes nesting birds and also gazelles. The latter are scared of sheep (or more to the point, sheepdogs) so the best time to spot them is outside of the shepherding season.
How to get to Vashlovani & travel around: 3 options
Vashlovani is located in Kakheti region in far southeastern Georgia. There are several entrance points to the park. We entered near Kasristskali, which for context is around 170 kilometres from Tbilisi, 75 kilometres from Sighnaghi, or 40 kilometres from the closest major town, Dedoplistskaro.
In terms of where to fit Vashlovani into your Georgia itinerary, the most logical option is to go before or after Kakheti wine region. If you are pairing Georgia and Azerbaijan then you can make Vashlovani your first stop after crossing into Georgia overland (like we did).
Option 1: Hire a private driver for Vashlovani
The easiest option for Vashlovani is to hire a driver-guide. Travelling with someone who knows the ‘roads’ and is familiar with conditions will make the trip a lot more enjoyable.
My father and I travelled with Mindia Lomidze, who I met a year earlier in Tusheti. After we crossed into Georgia from Azerbaijan, Mindia picked up at the border and we headed straight to Dedoplistskaro.
Mindia can organise transfers to Vashlovani from anywhere in Georgia, or plan multi-day itineraries that combine the park with other landscapes.
Option 2: Drive yourself
If you have off-roading experience and conditions permit it (entering the park in the days following significant rainfall is never a good idea), you can self-drive in Vashlovani.
Most overlanders tackle Vashlovani with their own vehicle. As mentioned, there are no roads in Vashlovani – there are some dirt tracks, but it is essentially all off-roading.
Although the T&Cs don’t explicitly say so, car hire companies such as Local Rent will not permit you to take a rental car into Vashlovani. Instead, you should opt for a company that specialises in off-roading. Overlando offers 4×4 camping vehicles that are suitable.
If you are planning to drive around Vashlovani, I highly recommend picking up a copy of OunTravela’s Explore Georgia book, which covers four driving routes in the area.
Option 3: Organise a taxi locally
A third option is to organise a driver locally in Dedoplistskaro. Your accommodation (or staff at the visitor’s centre) will hopefully be able to assist with this. You should definitely reach out to them in advance and try to pre-organise a car.
A few years back my husband’s parents did this – only their driver showed up in a sedan. Evidently he didn’t know the area very well… They got lost and missed out on seeing the park.
Entry fees & border permits for Vashlovani
Permits and permissions for Vashlovani must be organised in advance. If you book a driver-guide, they will assist you with this process. When we travelled, Mindia took care of everything for us.
All travellers must obtain prior authorisation to enter Vashlovani. This involves paying an entrance fee (5 GEL per person and 5 GEL per car) and presenting your passport and car papers. This can be done at the Administration of Vashlovani Protected Areas office in Dedoplistskaro. Cash only.
For this itinerary that includes Mijniskure, you will also need a border permit. It is free and can be obtained from the Border Police office in Dedoplistskaro.
To apply for a permit, you must have an itinerary for Vashlovani mapped out (so you know how long you will spend in the park and where exactly you will be travelling), and you need to supply a copy of your passport and entry stamp/visa for Georgia, plus your car passport. If you are travelling in a rental car, the hire company should be able to help.
Permits usually take a few days to process, which is why you must send your info off in advance. Nino Seturidze works at the administration office and is your best contact person. She speaks perfect English and is very efficient. The best approach is to call her on +995 577101849, then email her your documents.
Paper maps of Vashlovani are available at the administration office for 3 GEL.
Don’t forget to carry your passport with you on the day. You will need it to present to the border guards along with your paperwork.
Where to stay near Vashlovani National Park
I suggest basing yourself in Dedoplistskaro, the closest major town to the national park.
There are several excellent guesthouses in Dedoplistskaro. I stayed at and highly recommend Savanna Guest House, which is located in the centre of town and offers both private rooms and self-contained cabins and cottages. Owner Temo and his family are warm hosts and extremely knowledgeable about the national park. They offer full board (the food is great) and can help with organising drivers and guides for the area.
Another option is Teo’s Cottages, which is located outside town on the road to Eagle Gorge.
If you’re planning a multi-day itinerary, you can either use Dedoplistskaro as your base and return to the guesthouse each evening, or you can overnight inside the park.
Camping is permitted (charged at 5 GEL per person per night), with equipment available for rent at Green Valley in Dedoplistskaro. Bungalow accommodation is available at Mijniskure for 40 GEL per night. There is also a guesthouse called Dilicha in Kasristskali close to the park entrance.
Copy my Vashlovani National Park itinerary
This itinerary for one day in Vashlovani focuses on the extreme southeastern part of the park. Starting and ending in Dedoplistskaro, you will drive in a big loop that takes you all the way down to the Azerbaijani border and back.
This is an established route with several visitor’s centres and checkpoints along the way.
This itinerary was designed for us by Mindia, but I couldn’t have done a better job myself. It includes five major points of interest:
- Big Shiraki abandoned airfield
- Pantishara Canyon & the Alesilebi seabeds
- Samukhi Valley
- Usakhelo Viewpoint
- Mijniskure (Azerbaijan border)
This equates to a full day of driving. Try to get an early start to avoid being out on the road after dark.
I highly recommend arriving in Dedoplistskaro the day before to give yourself enough time to visit St. Elia Monastery, Eagle Gorge (part of the Protected Areas) and Khornabuji Castle. See my Dedoplistskaro Guide for more pointers.
This itinerary does NOT include the western side of the protected areas. That means you won’t get to see the Takhti Tepha mud volcanoes, Dali Mta Reservoir or Chachuna Managed Reserve.
It’s impossible to see everything in one day. You need at least two full days to visit both sides of Vashlovani. We chose the southeast because the scenery is more impressive and we could fit more in. We had just come from visiting the mud volcanoes in Azerbaijan, which are by all accounts more impressive than those in Georgia.
Of course I would love to see the other side of Vashlovani one day – as if I needed another reason to return!
1. Big Shiraki
On your way down to Vashlovani, I recommend making a quick (or not so quick) detour to see Big Shiraki. Once a Soviet military airbase, this abandoned airfield is a playground for photographers and a great spot to ‘warm up’ ahead of your big day in Vashlovani.
The Big Shiraki territory covers miles of concrete runway, dozens of empty airplane hangers that are rusted out in a very aesthetically pleasing way, a lone jet, and a bunch of abandoned buildings.
The turnoff to access the airfield lies between Dedoplistskaro and Kasristskali, meaning you can easily fit it in on your way to the main park entrance.
For all the details, see my detailed guide to visiting Big Shiraki.
2. Pantishara Canyon & the Alesilebi seabeds
With no gate or checkpoint, it’s hard to know when exactly you have entered into Vashlovani proper. Your first big clue is reaching the Rangers’ Station where there are several cottages, information sign boards and a marked viewpoint.
This is where you get your first glimpse of the wild park interior, including the reservoir and Azerbaijan border in the distance.
The Eldest Tree Trail, a short 500-metre walking path, starts from this location and takes you into the periphery of the Vashlovani Strict Nature Reserve. The views here are very green and lush thanks to the perennial pistachio trees, some of which are 400 years old. Juniper bushes, wild pears and Georgian elms add more colour to the scene.
After arriving at a second marked viewpoint, the landscape becomes noticeably sandier and dryer. The rolling hills turn to serrated cliffs as the wind-sculpted ‘Georgian Badlands’ come into frame.
The road then leads you down into Pantishara Canyon. Navigating the canyon is like driving along a dry riverbed, all stones and cloying mud. The path is almost like a mudflat in parts – sliding around on the soft, sticky ground, I was very grateful to have Mindia behind the wheel.
The high sandcastle walls narrow and widen as you make your way through the dry gorge that was formed 2 million years ago.
Since most of Vashlovani is driving, this is a great opportunity to get out and walk. If you look closely at the rock walls you can see marine sediment – corals, shells and fossilised crustaceans caught in the strata of rock and left behind as souvenirs when the sea receded.
Known as the Alesilebi seabeds, this area has yielded rich archaeological finds including the bones of a 4-metre-tall (now extinct) southern elephant.
If time permits, there is an option to extend your time on foot here by following the Pantishara – Bear Gorge Trail, a 2.5-kilometre marked loop that takes around 2 hours to complete.
3. Samukhi Valley
After climbing up and out of the canyon, the landscape changes again as you continue pushing down towards the southernmost point of Georgia. The Samukhi Valley is a goitered gazelles’ voliere – though we visited at the perfect time of year to spot them, we only managed to see a few lone animals on the horizon.
Backed by low mountains, this corner of Vashlovani provides some of the best scenery in my opinion. Ramshackle homesteads with tin roofs and timber verandahs, winter outposts for Tush families who bring their flocks down to Vashlovani every autumn, add to the wild wild west movie set feel.
4. Usakhelo Viewpoint
As you skirt the Iori Canal in search of the next point of interest, the Usakhelo Viewpoint, you pass by Burungovag, an Azerbaijani village that is visible in the distance.
It was around this point that my phone network connected to Azercell, and I knew we were getting close to the border zone. Right on cue, a security checkpoint revealed itself and two friendly officers checked our documents for the first (but not the last) time while a litter of Caucasian shepherd puppies danced around their feet.
The Usakhelo Viewpoint has a gangway viewing platform that allows you to walk right out over the lip of the canyon. My favourite vista in all of Vashlovani, it overlooks a huge pit of undulating mountains.
Marking Georgia’s final frontier and the start of Azerbaijani territory, Mijniskure sits on the bank of the Alazani River. Another border security checkpoint and a collection of cottages are arranged along the riverbank.
You are free to jump out of the car and stroll around the campground. This is a good spot for a picnic lunch, if you have supplies with you.
Note the Mijniskure ‘Post Office’, literally a mobile phone propped up on a tree stump in front of the security station.
Dark and fast-flowing, skirted by tall grass and with sheer rock walls on either side, the river is ominous and potent. It curls to make a perfect horseshoe at this point, and it’s possible to hike up the steep cliffs to look down over the river bend.
Before setting off for the walk, the border guards on duty gifted us with a big stick to ward off any snakes!
Leaving Mijniskure, it takes around 2.5 hours to complete the loop and rejoin the road near Shiraki to take you back to Dedoplistskaro.
Are you planning a trip to Vashlovani? Do you have any questions about the region? Leave your thoughts below and I will do my best to help out.
More ideas for adventurous trips in Georgia
- Visiting David Gareja and the Udabno mountains, semi-desert near Tbilisi
- How to visit Tusheti, Georgia’s remote mountain paradise
- Guide to the Javakheti Plateau, visiting the Georgian arctic
- Guide to Guria, Georgia’s little-visited tea region
- Things to do in Samtskhe-Javakheti, off the beaten track in southern Georgia
- Hiking to Shaori Fortress, a megalithic castle above Paravani Lake
- Hiking Tskhrajvari, a mountain shrine in Racha