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Why I Love Hiking in Gauja National Park, Latvia


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Besides Riga, Sigulda is the only place in Latvia that I’ve been to twice. While the castles in Sigulda are pretty great, what really drew me back was the gorgeous nature around town provided by Gauja National Park. Sigulda isn’t the only town along the national park, but it’s the best starting point to explore all that Gauja has to offer. All across this river valley you have pristine national park that’s crisscrossed with trails, making hiking in Gauja National Park an absolute joy.

Both times I’ve been here it’s been in summer, which is actually an ideal time for hiking in Latvia. Cool and calm when in the forest and pleasantly warm out in the sun are the kind of conditions I love when in the outdoors. Although my focus on both visits was on other things, I was able to fit in several days each time to set out and hit the forest trails all through this wonderful Latvian national park. So, here are the best hikes in Gauja and why I love coming to this national park in Latvia. 

 

Gauja National Park

While there are quite a few national parks in Latvia you can visit, there’s a reason that Gauja is special. Not only is it the oldest national park in the country, it’s also the largest, giving you boundless space to explore. Biological diversity is the other important aspect of Gauja, as 900 species of plant, 149 of birds and 48 of mammals call it home.

The national park runs along the valley of the Gauja River and is half covered in pristine forest. It also boasts an unusual collection of rock formations, including cliffs and caves, that add to its appeal. But there’s something about the forest here that I just love. It’s so lush and green that you could easily mistake it for somewhere like the Pacific Northwest of the US or Tasmania.

Interestingly, Gauja National Park has long been a popular hiking destination. Even back in the 19th century, people would visit to hike here and explore. No wonder then that Sigulda has thrived off of tourism since or that it developed a tradition of making walking sticks. The various castles dotted throughout the region don’t hurt either, but there’s really not much human development in the park area which is always nice.

Now that you see a little of why Gauja is so interesting, here are several great hikes you can do there.

 

Paradise Hill Viewpoint

Paradise Hill Viewpoint

First up we have the walk out to Paradise Hill Viewpoint. This walk will take you out to the northeast of Sigulda into some really up-and-down territory. But it’s worth it for the views and a few cool sights along the way.

Part of what makes this hike interesting is that you actually set out from Sigulda Cemetery. Siguldas kapi in Latvian, this cemetery is quite pretty with its forest setting and worth a look on its own. From there, it’s a walk out northeast across easy trails to reach Paradīzes kalns or Paradise Hill. Featuring a large flat terrace and gap in the trees, it boasts a breathtaking view over to Turaida Castle across the valley.

Once you’ve admired Paradise Hill Viewpoint, there’s a little more in the area I suggest you check out. Following the trail and stairs through several dips and hills, you’ll soon reach Raven Gorge or Kraukļu aiza. This is the site of one of Gauja’s many caves and boy is it moody. Like many local caves, the outside of the cave has been vandalized by historic tourists over the past two centuries.

From here, you really have two options open to you. One is to simply return to town via the cemetery and trails you’ve walked already. Alternatively, you can head down to the riverfront and take the trail back below Sigulda Castle.

Kraukļu Aiza Gauja

 

Riverside Trails

Gauja Walking Trails

Since we were just talking about following the Gauja River, let’s dig into that now. The Gauja River is the central defining feature of the national park and has many stretches of walking trails along its banks. Along much of the northern side of the river the trails lead through forest. Over on the southside though, they regularly pass through open meadows full of long grass that triggered my Australian concern for snakes quite quickly.

From Paradise Hill, it’s possible to head down the hillside to near the river and take trails there back into town. While the trails don’t completely follow the river, you do spend a lot of time by the water. Here and there along the Gauja River you’ll come across small beaches that I was always amazed were empty.

Trails along the river also pop up on the other side of Sigulda. Down near the Tarzāns you’ll find the trail again, as well as several beaches that were a bit more popular. Past the camping site, the trail takes you back into gentle wilderness that’s really quite pleasant to wander about.

Really the only problem with walking along down here is the massive hill you have to climb to get back into town. That said, there is a chair lift at Tarzāns if climbing a great long staircase doesn’t appeal to you.

 

Emperor’s Chair and Devil’s Cliffs

While further away from the centre of Sigulda, there are also some great hiking opportunities out to the west of town. During my first visit I decided to explore the trails from Krimulda Castle and ended up hiking past Devil’s Cliffs to Emperor’s Chair. This took me along the far bank of the river, across the minor Kājnieku bridge and back up to the Emperor’s Chair viewpoint.

From Krimulda, the forest trails are quite flat and wide, making it a popular spot for nature walks and biking. I’d say I saw more people on the trails here than anywhere else. They do start to make their way down to the river out near Kājnieku bridge, which is also where you find some interesting rock formations. Here you can visit the Devil’s Cliffs seen below, as well as a couple small caves.

Devil's Cliffs

Across the small bridge and river, you soon reach clearings with open fields. You then really have two options: either take the road back into town or follow the river and climb up to the Emperor’s Seat. I highly recommend visiting the Emperor’s Seat, aka. Ķeizarskats, because it’s surrounded by more superb forest and features a nice viewpoint. It’s hard to imagine getting tired of the views here, because I certainly didn’t.

 

Other Sights in Gauja National Park

One particularly bizarre – or terrifying, depending on your point of view – thing I came across was what can only be described as a sea of spider webs! Apparently one of the local species of spider weaves its webs across low reed-like plants in Gauja. This meant there were all these horizontal webs appear like a sea or carpet of spider webs from afar. Certainly somewhere where it’s best to stay on the trail.

 

Travel Tips for Visiting Gauja National Park

As I said earlier, I really do think that Sigulda is the perfect place to explore from. Getting to Sigulda is super easy, with both buses and trains running regularly from Riga, taking 75 minutes. To have enough time to see Sigulda and hike around the valley, I recommend staying at least two nights here. For that, there’s quite a few places to stay in Sigulda, ranging from camping to hotels and more. Personally, I’ve used Airbnb here for affordable accommodation staying with locals.

In terms of your time hiking in Gauja National Park, I can think of a few pointers worth sharing. First, expect loads of stairs, as long staircases is how you navigate the hilly aspects of the landscape here. Second, you don’t really need proper hiking gear most of the time as the trails are usually pretty good and incorporate lots of boardwalk. If it has been raining however, things can get a bit muddy the further out you go.

 


Have you had the opportunity to visit Gauja National Park or Sigulda? Do you like to make time for hikes and outdoor activities when you travel internationally? Please share in the comments below.

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Why I love hiking in Gauja National Park in Latvia, home to forest, castles and more, via @travelsewhere

Why I love hiking in Gauja National Park in Latvia, home to forest, castles and more, via @travelsewhere Why I love hiking in Gauja National Park in Latvia, home to forest, castles and more, via @travelsewhere


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