The quiet announcement came like a bolt out of the blue. While planning a family vacation to Greece, my 12-year-old daughter, Kailas, who hates hiking and whose constant complaints make her older brother, my husband and me miserable whenever we take her along, had just declared she wanted to climb Mt. Olympus, the country’s tallest peak.
Parents of adolescents know it’s nearly impossible to coax them into doing what the rest of the family enjoys, especially on vacation. To keep the peace, I had long abandoned my hope of trekking through northern Greece’s rugged mountains.
I hadn’t counted on the mystical pull of mythology or the mystifying ability of adolescents to abruptly change their minds.
My daughter, a fan of Rick Riordan’s young-adult books, was enthralled by the myth-inspired stories of Percy Jackson and his hair-raising encounters with the Olympian gods. After rereading one, she decided she wanted to see for herself the deities’ legendary meeting place — even if it meant hiking.
Heaven on Earth
We quickly topped off our water bottles, shouldered our packs and began walking along the signposted trail. As we climbed steadily through the sun-dappled forest, fistfuls of dried apricots and crunchy almonds, plus tantalizing glimpses of Mt. Olympus’ upper slopes, helped distract my daughter from the exercise.
Four hours later, we arrived at a metal-roofed trekkers’ hut on a rocky ledge halfway to the 9,573-foot summit.
We sat at a weather-beaten table on the large terrace and sipped steaming mugs of cocoa and glasses of peppery red wine while drinking in the view of the Mediterranean far below.
Later, we savored hearty bowls of bean soup and heaping plates of pasta by a crackling fire before crawling into our bunks for a deep sleep marred only by our crack-of-dawn alarm. After a mountaineer’s breakfast of crusty bread, jam and tea, we continued our ascent in the brisk morning air.
The well-trod trail climbed steeply, so I anxiously watched my daughter for signs of a meltdown. But she seemed genuinely excited; instead of complaining, she quizzed me about Greek mythology.
After zigzagging up several sharp switchbacks, we reached a bench with views of jagged peaks rising above billowing clouds. The trail then angled up rocky inclines to the top of Skala, a subsidiary peak, where the route forked.
Here we had to choose between two summit options: ascending Mytikas, the true summit, which involves scrambling up a series of exposed slopes, or veering west to scale Skolio, which is 170 feet lower and safer when hiking with children.
As we debated, dark clouds began to shroud both peaks.
Hiking with kids is particularly appealing in Europe, where networks of trekkers’ huts offer an opportunity to explore the region without having to lug heavy tents, sleeping bags, stoves or large stores of food.
The amenities at each hut vary, as do their operating seasons. Of the nine on Mt. Olympus, the largest and most popular is the Spilios Agapitos Refuge, which has 110 dorm beds, two dining rooms and an unheated bathroom block with flush toilets and cold-water showers.
This refuge is along a heavily used section of the E4 Trail that runs from Cyprus to Spain. Many people who climb Mt. Olympus sleep at this refuge the night before their ascent, then summit and return to Prionia in one long day.
To maximize our chances of getting to the top while minimizing adolescent drama, we had booked our beds for two nights.
After you arrive at a hut, it’s customary to remove your boots and stow them near the entryway. Although it’s a good idea to bring slippers or flip-flops for inside, most huts offer footwear in case you’ve forgotten yours.
The huts also provide blankets and a pillow, but you’ll need to bring a towel, toiletries and a sheet or sleeping-bag liner.
Inspired by nature
Mt. Olympus has had profound cultural significance for millenniums as the source of inspiration for countless myths. Much of this celebrity undoubtedly stems from its landscape, which is best appreciated while slowly walking through it.
While you are climbing Olympus, it’s easy to see that, unlike nearby peaks, the gods’ mountain doesn’t host an orderly succession of vegetation as the elevation increases. Thanks to the massif’s rugged and elevated terrain, high precipitation, proximity to the sea and extended winter snow cover, it features an unusual patchwork of microclimates where different types of vegetation can thrive near one another.
Olympus’ distinctive characteristics contribute not only to its stunning scenery but also to its remarkable biodiversity, for which it’s been designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
The mountain hosts 1,700 kinds of plants, which represent a quarter of all Greek flora. These include groves of ancient beech trees as well as large stands of towering black pines. At loftier elevations, including around Spilios Agapitos, stately Bosnian pines, which thrive in dry, rocky conditions, dominate the slopes.
As you ascend the E4 Trail from the hut, the trees become increasingly stunted. Above the tree line (about 8,200 feet), Olympus’ uppermost slopes are blanketed with fragile alpine tundra. Despite the harsh, windswept environment, for a brief time each summer the tundra bursts with tiny wildflowers, providing a colorful spectacle for hikers and important resources for the hardy animals, such as the Balkan chamois, a goat, that venture here.
In Greek mythology, Greece’s highest peak was the home of the Olympian gods. But this hadn’t always been the case, my daughter informed me during our ascent.
The Titans, an older generation of immortals, once ruled the cosmos. Kronos, their leader, married Rhea, who gave birth to the first Olympians. But Kronos feared a prophecy that predicted his child would one day overthrow him, so he ate each of his kids in turn. Overcome with grief, Rhea hid their next son, Zeus, in a cave.
Years later, Zeus tricked Kronos into vomiting up his siblings, who joined forces to battle the Titans. During this fierce war, the Olympians based themselves on Mt. Olympus; the Titans fought from a higher peak.
After the younger generation triumphed, Zeus shattered the Titans’ summit, elevating Mt. Olympus to Greece’s highest peak.
As thoughts of Zeus and great battles swirled in my head during our hike, storm clouds drew my thoughts back to Earth. My husband, an experienced mountaineer, swiftly clambered up Mytikas’ exposed slopes, while the kids and I walked up Skolio, where we signed the register and snapped photos of my daughter proudly posing on the summit.
Just as my husband joined us, a single clap of thunder echoed across its slopes — a sign, my daughter was certain, that Zeus himself approved of her change of heart.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO THESSALONIKI, GREECE
From LAX, Swiss, Lufthansa, Turkish, Air France, Austrian, KLM, Scandinavian, Aeroflot, El Al and Alitalia offer connecting service (change of planes) to Thessaloniki. Restricted round-trip airfare from $1,046, including taxes and fees.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 30 (the country code for Greece) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY
Spilios Agapitos Refuge (Refuge A), 235-208-1800. Basic mountain hut with several dormitories accommodating as many as 110 hikers. $16 per bed. Open mid-May to late October. Book ahead, especially for weekends.
Guesthouse to Palio Litohoro, 35 Agiou Dionisiou, Litohoro; 235-208-4059. Wood-and-timber boutique hotel with eight cozy rooms. Doubles from $90 with breakfast.
Xenios Dias, 2 Enippeos, Litohoro; 235-208-1234. Stylish guesthouse in the village’s central square. Doubles from $70 with breakfast.
WHERE TO EAT
Spilios Agapitos Refuge (Refuge A), 235-208-1800. Limited menu for all three meals, plus drinks and snacks. Lunch for two from $16.
Mykonian Fish Tavern, Olympos Beach, Plaka; 235-202-2111. Simple tavern serving fresh seafood, Greek salads and other traditional fare in a peaceful setting by the sea. Dinner for two from $24.
Meze Meze, 40 Agiou Nikolaou, Litohoro; 235-208-2271. Popular tavern with Mediterranean cuisine made with fresh, local ingredients. Lunch for two from $14.
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