Carved out of the limestone, dolomite, and marble rock of Crete’s White Mountains, the Samaria Gorge starts on the Omalos Plateau at Xyloskalo 4,025 feet (1,227 meters) above sea level and continues for approximately 9 miles (13.5 km) to its end. There is another 2 miles (3.2 km) of flat, open plain from the end of the national park before reaching the village of Agia Roumeli on the Lybian Sea which runs along the southern coast of the island. The total distance from Xyloskalo to the village, therefore, is approximately 11 miles (18 km) and can take from 4 to 6 hours to complete.
This part of Crete is filled with the mystery of ancient legend: according to Greek mythology, one of the Titans living on Crete slashed the land with his knife to create the Gorge. And according to another story from the ancients, Cretan-born Zeus placed his throne atop Mt. Gygilos which guards the entrance of the Gorge and the huge boulders at the foot of the mountain are the result of his thunderbolts . . . and, if these stories are to be believed, they are the same ones we climb over as we trek through the Gorge today.
It resounds with an almost constant cycle of invasion, resistance, and internal conflict – from the Venetians who occupied Crete for over 450 years through the almost 200 year occupation by the Ottoman Turks and finally to the invasion of the Nazi Germans during World War II and the noble resistance of Cretan guerilla fighters that followed. Centuries of invaders left behind folklore stories of how they could never truly conquer the rough Cretan mountaineers who lived in these hardy areas of the island.
It is marked with the imprint of the hands of time: natural processes, often violent and extreme such as catastrophic earthquakes, have molded the mountains and the seas, shaping the land of the Aegean and of Crete. The White Mountains of Crete, just like all the Greek mountain ranges, is just one link in a great chain of mountains which were created millions of years ago along with the alpine orogenesis, the process which built mountains from the Pyrenees to the Himalayas.
Today, the Gorge is a protected area within the Samaria National Park which was created in 1962. Since then, people across the globe have visited the Gorge for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hike it, marvel at its magnificence, and explore its ancient geologic formations, rare forests, and endangered flora, fauna, and wild animals found nowhere else but in this part of Crete.
What a better way to spend a full day in Crete than to walk the Gorge and, at the same time, help assist the hard-hit people of the island who have struggled these past several years to cope with the extraordinary economic conditions that have been visited upon the country.