Without having the fame of the Alps or the spectacular altitude of the Himalayas, the Carpathian Mountains mesmerize with their sometimes terrifying wilderness, their ridges covered with tall fir-trees which seem to defy gravity or the beauty of their meadows where gorgeous green blends with lively yellow and blue. It is the place imagined by Tolkien, wild and sometimes unwelcoming, with a mysterious air that inspires dreams. In the Carpathian Mountains, you'll find naturally-sculpted statues with strange shapes reminding you of the Sphinx or pagan temples, old cave paintings, and thousands of caves in which were discovered fossils of big carnivorous animals that disappeared during the last ice age.
The mountain range stretches from the Czech Republic through Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Ukraine and ends in Romania. But despite stretching across 7 countries, 51% of their total area spans over Romania's territory. The highest peak of the Carpathians is in the Tatra Mountains, at the border of Slovakia and Poland, with a height exceeding 2,600m, while the second highest peak can be found in Romania, at an altitude of more than 2,500m.
Caraiman Peak, Bucegi Mountains. Photo by Stefan Cosma
The name of the mountains is derived from the old Dacian tribes called "Carpes" or "Carpi", who lived in the area of the present-day Romania, stretching from the north-eastern side of the Black Sea to the fields of Transylvania.
The Romanian Carpathians are part of the eastern sector of the Carpathian Mountains and are divided into 3 geographical groups:
The Romanian Carpathians have a medium altitude of approximately 1000m, rarely surpassing 2500m in places like the Bucegi Mountains or the Făgăraș Mountains.
Throughout the ages, the Carpathian Mountains have played important roles in Romania's defense system. Several fortresses, castles, and fortified churches were strategically positioned on top of cliffs and hills in order to provide better defense against invaders, and the main trade routes were built through the mountains, in close proximity to the castles and fortresses. And while the cliffs provided excellent strategic positions for fortifications, the forests and caves provided perfect escape paths and hideouts, where the civilians could retreat in case of invasions, or that the armies could use in order to ambush the enemies.
The Carpathians also provided excellent spots for human settlements, and several of Romania's cities and towns are located close to them. Some of the most important ones are the medieval cities of Brașov, Cluj-Napoca, and Sibiu, but there are also several smaller cities located in mountainous regions, such as Piatra Neamț, Bicaz, or Vatra Dornei.
Today, many of the fortresses and caves have been renovated and draw in thousands of tourists each year. One such example is the Scărișoara Ice Cave, the largest cave in Romania and the second largest underground glacier in south-eastern Europe. The cave was mentioned for the first time in 1847, and the first scientific research was conducted between 1921 and 1923 by Emil Racoviță, but the locals have known of the existence of the glacier for a long time. The Scărișoara Ice Cave is located in the Apuseni Natural Park, one of the many Natural Parks created on the surface of the Carpathian Mountains.
There are 14 national parks in Romania, out of which 12 are located on or near the surface of the Carpathian Mountains. They are as follows:
Buila-Vânturița is the smallest national park in Romania, stretching over a surface of 4.186 ha, and it is situated in the Vâlcea County. Despite its size, the area is filled with over 250 km of mountain tracks, several gorges, potholes, sinkholes, and over 100 caves, all of which make it a very difficult area to explore.
Photo source: Dan Chitila
The park is home to some of the best caves in Romania, such as the Bats Cave and the Bears Cave, and its mountaineering tracks are some of the most difficult in Europe. Due to the rough terrain, the whole area has preserved many elements of the natural patrimony, such as natural habitats, virgin forests, and a large variety of endangered species of plants and animals.
The Călimani Park has a surface of 24.566 ha, and it stretches over 4 counties: Mureș (45%), Suceava (35%), Harghita (15%), and Bistrița-Năsăud (5%). It is situated in the Călimani Mountains, and it includes the largest volcanic crater in Romania, which has a width of approximately 10 km. The flora of the area is truly diverse, with several endangered and rare species of plants and flowers being found here, as well as several species of trees and shrubs. The fauna is dominated by brown bears, stags, grey wolves, squirrels, and lynx, but there are also several species of birds (which offer a spectacular bird watching experience), such as mountain eagles, capercaillies, hawks, and more.
Sulfur quarry in the Călimani Mountains. Photo source: Gheorghe Popa
If you head 60km west of Târgu Neamț, you will find one of the most beautiful mountains in Moldavia, the Ceahlău Mountain. In antiquity, the Dacians believed that their supreme deity, Zalmoxis, lived on top of the Ceahlău Massif and that he turned the daughter of King Decebalus into the Dochia peak.
Ceahlău Mountain during winter
Oclașul Mare Peak (1907) and Toaca Peak (1904) are the tallest peaks of the Ceahlău Massif. The surface of the mountain is covered in beech, fir, and spruce trees, but dwarf pines and juniper can also be found at an altitude of over 1700m. Regarding fauna, the wildlife here is thriving with bears, lynx, chamois, capercaillies, boars, and the majestic Carpathian stag.
The Bicaz-Hășmaș National Park has a surface of 6.575 ha. that is home to numerous natural reservations, such as the Bicaz Gorges, the Red Lake, the Hășmașul Mare Massif, and more. Bicaz-Hășmaș is widely known for its paleontological sites from the Mesozoic, Cretacic, Jurassic, and Triassic areas, but it also an important area where geology and geomorphology can be studied.
The Bicaz Gorges are the most spectacular gorges in the Romanian Carpathians, and they were slowly created over thousands of years by the Bicaz river that carved its way through the hard mountain rock.
This canyon formation is stretching along the Nera river, in the Caraș-Severin county, and it has a total surface of 36.364 ha and a length of 20km, being the longest canyon in Romania. In certain areas, the walls are as high as 200 meters, dug in the mountain by the river and its affluents.
Cheile Nerei-Beușnița is home to several stunning tourist attractions, such as the famous Bigăr Waterfall and the Ochiul Beiului Lake, but also lesser known but beautiful nonetheless landmarks such as Beușnița Waterfall, Devil’s Lake, and Saint Helen Cave.
Ochiul Beiului Lake
Cozia has a total surface of 17.100 ha, and it is located on the south-central side of the Southern Carpathians. The national park has a large geographical and geomorphological diversity that created perfect spots for numerous habitats for both flora and fauna.
Photo source: Montaniarzi
There are 6 protected species of mammals in Cozia, 2 of amphibians, 3 of fish, and 7 of invertebrates, as well as 4 species of plants and several other floral rareties. The flora of the Cozia park is very diverse, being home to around 930 species of plants and flowers, some of which being protected by law.
The Defileul Jiului National Park is a protected area of 11.127 ha located between the Retezat-Godeanu Mountains and the Parâng Mountains, alongside the Jiu River. The natural area is full forests that represent a natural habitat for plants and animals alike. 80% of the landform is covered in beech, sessile, hornbeam, and ash trees.
Photo source: Trecator.ro
This is a truly beautiful region, that can be explored by train, car, or even on foot. The road and the railroad follow the bank of the Jiu river, constantly switching between the left and right side through bridges and tunnels in the mountain.
Domogled – Valea Cernei is the largest natural park in Romania, as well as one of the oldest. It got its status due to the large number of thermal springs, lakes, caves, and the more than 100 species of plants and animals that populate it.
Photo source: Romania Resorts
The whirling rivers of the park make it a perfect place for rafting enthusiasts, and the strong flow of the water is bound to give you an adrenaline rush. The reservation is also a perfect spot for mountaineering, being dominated by mountains with steep walls.
The Rodnei Mountains National Park is one of the most important parks in Romania, due to the geology and geomorphology of the mountains, but also due to the numerous species of flora and fauna, as well as glacial relics. It is included in the Man and Biosphere UNESCO program, and it stretches over a surface of 46.399 ha.
Photo source: Timp Online
The area is filled with landmarks and there are several routes that one can take in order to explore the area. Unfortunately, since the area is so large you can’t explore all of them in a single day, but you can still make the most of your trip. For most of the routes you can take a chairlift from Borsa, which will give you some extraordinary view over the plateau, and then you can visit the Iezer Lake, the Stiol Lake, or the Horses Waterfall.
Piatra Craiului is pretty much Heaven on Earth for the lovers of adrenaline and mountaineering. It is full of challenging hiking and climbing routes, but they reward those who are up to the challenge with some truly stunning views. The mountain offers some tracks for beginners as well, but the sights are not as good.
Wildlife in the Piatra Craiului National Park - Photo by Boti Jozsa
Besides the stunning views, the national park is home to a large biodiversity as well as several touristic attractions, among which Bran Castle. The reservation is easily reachable from Zărnești, where you’ll find the famous Libearty Bear Sanctuary where you can adopt a bear.
With over 50 glacial lakes, thousands of species of plants and hundreds of species of birds, the Retezat National Park is by far the best place to go in order to escape the stress and the routine of the day-to-day life. Besides glacial lakes, the park is dominated by beautiful waterfalls, canyons, and mountain peaks that easily surpass 2000m, but that is easily reachable, such as Retezat (2482 m), Păpușa (2508 m) or Peleaga (2509 m).
The area is visited by almost 18.000 tourists each year, and the local administration created several routes, some of which are of a low difficulty and are even kid-friendly. Most of them have a duration of 2 to 4 hours, and you can discover the natural landscapes as well as the flora and fauna without putting in much effort. Just like the Rodnei National Park, Retezat is included in the Man and the Biosphere UNESCO program.
Semenic – Cheile Carașului offers over 100 km of hiking trails, and it is home to one of the largest semi-virgin forests in Europe, with some of the trees being more than 350 years old. Cheile Carașuluiare one of the most spectacular gorges in Romania, having a total length of 19 km, and with depths reaching more than 200 m.
Depending on the season, there are a lot of activities that can be done in the park. During the warmer seasons, it is used for hiking, mountain biking, mountaineering, cave exploring, swimming or sunbathing, but during winter, the park is the perfect place for ski lovers.
A wonderful way to explore the area is by taking a train ride on the Orăvița-Anina route, that connects Semenic – Cheile Carașului with Cheile Nerei – Beușița.
Orăvița-Anina forestry train
Besides the 14 National Parks, Romania also has 18 Natural Parks, all of which account for a rich and diverse flora and fauna. Romania has one of the largest remaining areas of undisturbed forest in Europe, an extensive network of rivers as well as the largest part of Europe's largest wetland, the Danube Delta.
In terms of fauna, Romania is home to half of Europe's population of brown bears, as well as 30% of its wolves and a large percentage of its lynxes, making it one of the wildest areas of the continent.
The Carpathian Mountains also provide a wide range of activities that can be enjoyed, from taking off-road tours through the Jiu Valley and hiking in the Bucegi Mountains, to bird watching from the cliffs of the Apuseni Mountains and horse riding on the Transylvanian Plateau, near the traditional villages with fortified churches, included in the UNESCO World Heritage patrimony.
Approximately 66% of Romania’s territory is dominated by the Carpathian mountains and maybe this is the reason why the country was also named the Carpathian Garden, a place where nature does not obey the strict patterns designed by man.