Despite its small size—just over 11,000 square miles—Armenia packs a wealth of scenery, wildlife, and early Christian history into its craggy terrain. It’s a hiker’s dream, with landscapes winding through the Caucasus Mountains from the arid Aras Valley, at the Iranian border, to lush forests rolling into Georgia.
But until recently, it was impossible to hike across the whole of this nation at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. “I remember looking out at these mountains and thinking, ‘my God, I really want to explore them’,” says Tom Allen, a British adventurer and trail developer who first visited the country in 2008. “But there were no hiking maps of the country, Google Maps was basically blank, and the Soviet military maps were classified.”
Allen’s experience led him to design a 514-mile route crossing Armenia, which launched in early 2022. Working with NGOs HIKEArmenia and Trails for Change, Allen and teams of volunteers not only built fresh trails but also linked Soviet-era 4x4 tracks, herding routes, and longtime footpaths. It all winds through cloud-hugging pastures past ancient monasteries, stone villages, and crumbling caravanserais from the days when the Silk Road made Armenia rich.
This Armenian section is the first country-wide through-hike of the greater Transcaucasian Trail (TCT), which will one day link Armenia with Georgia and Azerbaijan via an 1,800-mile network going west-east from the Black Sea to the Caspian, and north-south from the Greater to the Lesser Caucasus.
The TCT’s Armenian portion offers a glimpse of what’s to come. Hiking it, past green mountains and ancient Christian monuments (including the clifftop Tatev Monastery), also gives a taste of this storied land.
A trail is born
The TCT first broke ground in 2017, when a team of volunteer trail builders began carving paths in the dense oak and hornbeam forests above Dilijan, a resort town a 90-minute drive north of the Armenian capital, Yerevan.
Visitors can now follow red-and-white TCT trail markers across the nation to witness the volcanic domes of the Gegham Mountains and the emerald depths of Vorotan Canyon. The trail also passes three UNESCO-listed monasteries, which speak to Armenia’s history as the first country to establish Christianity as the state religion.
Still, the TCT remains a work in progress. “The trail isn’t completely marked, signposted, maintained, and beautifully groomed [yet],” says Allen. He says there are abundant resources on the TCT website—including topo maps, recommended apps, and both KML and GPX route downloads—to navigate less developed areas like the vast steppe near Lake Sevan.
Wildlife and warm hospitality
The possibility of encounters with Syrian brown bears and gray wolves adds to the appeal of hiking the TCT, as do tales of the recent return of the Caucasian leopard (which locals view, auspiciously, as a revival of the Armenian spirit). Some stretches of the TCT recall the rugged red rocks of Sedona; others the forested hills of Shenandoah.
“There is a huge diversity of landscapes for such a small country,” says Jakub Babij, a through-hiker from Poland. “You have areas that are like a desert, and then parts that are similar to the Alps.”
Babij set aside 40 days to do the trail from Meghri, in the south, to Lake Arpi, near the Georgian border. He camped most nights, but occasionally slept in one of the guesthouses that have started springing up along the trail “to get a real sense of the local culture.” The hospitality of Armenians, he says, left the biggest impression.
Many hosts prepare sprawling khorovats (feasts) for overnight guests, with grilled meats, lavash flatbreads, soft cheeses, and vegetable and bulgur wheat salads. Shots of oghi (homemade fruit vodka) often lead to rounds of kenadz, a poetic Armenian toasting custom.
An ecotourism boom
Recent campaigns to promote Armenia and to fund improvements to its tourism offerings have inspired a travel boom, with visitation increasing by 15 percent each year from 2010 to 2020. Ardag Kosian, executive director of HIKE Armenia, says cash flowing into communities beyond Yerevan (where one-third of Armenians live) makes the TCT key for rural development. “When you have a village that doesn’t have a lot of resources, and you have villagers opting to leave rather than stay, there needs to be a way for them to make a living,” he says. “Ecotourism is a surefire way to do that.”
In 2018, Garnik Gevorgyan built a campsite along the TCT with hot showers, covered picnic tables, and a restaurant serving locally grown food. He was inspired by tourists who had started showing up in his tiny village, Artavan, seeking lodgings and meals.
“I don’t see it as a business; it’s showing my way of life,” he says. “Before the TCT, nobody knew the name of my village—not even Armenians. Now it’s like Artavan finally exists.”
HIKEArmenia has been instrumental in disseminating trekking intelligence through its website, app, and information center in downtown Yerevan. It’s also funded much of the infrastructure-building (though NGO Trails for Change builds most routes). Assisting rural communities remains HIKEArmenia’s main focus.
The idea is that hikers can do loop trails or day paths and stay in one place for a few nights. Take Old Martiros, for example. This ancient village now lures tourists with trails out to lakes, traditional Armenian cross-stones, and a rock-hewn church carved into the mountainside. While in town, travelers can buy local products such as dried stone fruits, gata pastries, and wine. “The longer they’re there, the more impact,” says Kosian.
Hiking along ancient thoroughfares from village to village, “you see things that are thousands of years old,” Kosian adds. “You meet families who have lived in the same place for generations. They tell you stories about how they used the trail you’re walking on to go to school. And all of this adds age and depth. It becomes more than just hiking; it becomes walking through an open-air museum.”
A boost to hiking across the Caucasus
Armenia was once merely the realm of intrepid hikers who connected the dots on their own. The TCT, which is expected to draw a hundred through-hikers this year (and thousands more day hikers), gives the country a way to draw “soft adventure” travel as well. All the while, the trail has fostered a burgeoning outdoors movement within Armenia, with local trail clubs helping maintain the route.
A similar buzz now exists across the border in Georgia, which has 84 miles of its TCT complete, and in Azerbaijan, where $10,000 in government funding is jumpstarting trail development. “This came as a surprise,” says Allen, “because Azerbaijan’s government was funding a shared project with Armenia.” The neighbors have fought two wars over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Tensions remain high and borders are closed (the TCT will enter Azerbaijan via Georgia).
“If nothing else, [the TCT] will show that it’s possible for there to be a shared project that has little to do with geopolitics and a lot to do with what all of these countries have in common,” says Allen. “I’d like to think that, one day soon, the TCT will become a hopeful, symbolic thing for the region.” In a way, it already is.