The highest, most magical and most dramatic of all Greek mountains, MOUNT OLYMPUS – Ólymbos in Greek – rears straight up to 2917m from the coast and, when pollution allows, is visible from Thessaloníki, some 100km away to the northeast. Its summit was believed by the ancient Greeks to be the home of the gods and it seems that quite a few locals still follow the old religion. Dense forests cover its lower slopes, and its wild flowers are without parallel even by Greek standards.
Climbing the mountain requires an early start (certainly pre-8am) for the 3hr ascent to Mýtikas, the highest peak, so it’s best to stay overnight at one of the refuges. The peaks frequently cloud up by midday and you lose the view, to say nothing of the danger of catching one of Zeus’s thunderbolts. Besides, nights at the refuge are fantastic: a log fire blazes, you watch the sun set on the peaks and dawn break over the Aegean, and you can usually see a multitude of stars.
The main trailhead for the ascent of Mount Olympus starts from Priónia – just under 18km up the mountain on the sealed road from Litóhoro (€20 taxi ride). There is an information booth at km3, where (in high season, anyway) your nationality is recorded and you’re given some literature advising you of the park rules, but so far there’s no admission charge. At the Priónia car park there’s a spring, toilets and a primitive taverna (May–Oct).
If you’re up for a real challenge and an early start, it’s possible to walk from Litóhoro to Priónia via the monastery of Ayíou Dhionysíou. It’s a delightful route (allow 4hrs) along the E4 overland trail, but you’ll need basic hiking skills, as there are some scrambles over steep terrain, and a few water crossings. From Ayíou Dhionysíou it’s just under an hour more upstream along the riverside E4 to Priónia.
From the Priónia car park the E4 trail carries on just uphill by a signpost giving the time to Refuge A as 2hrs 30min, though it actually takes more like three, even at a brisk pace. You cross a stream (last water before Refuge A; purification advisable) and start to climb steeply up through woods of beech and black pine. This path, the continuation of the E4, is well trodden and marked, so there is no danger of getting lost. As you gain height there are majestic views across the Enipéas (Mavrólongos) canyon to your left and to the peaks towering above you. Refuge A perches on the edge of an abrupt spur, surrounded by huge storm-beaten trees.
The E4 path continues behind the refuge (your last water source on the ascent), climbing to the left up a steep spur among the last of the trees. Having ignored an initial right fork towards the usually unstaffed Khristos Kakalos hut (Refuge C), within about an hour you reach a signposted fork above the tree line. Continuing straight on takes you across the range to Kokkinopylós village with the E4 waymarks, or with a slight deviation right to Mýtikas, via the ridge known as Kakí Skála (1hr 30min–2hr). An immediate right turn leads to the Yiosos Apostolidhis hut in one hour along the so-called Zonária trail, with the option after 45min of taking the very steep Loúki couloir left up to Mýtikas; if you do this, be wary of rock falls.
For the safer Kakí Skála route, continue up the right flank of the stony, featureless valley in front of you, with the Áyios Andónios peak up to your left. An hour’s dull climb brings you to the summit ridge between the peaks of Skolió on the left and Skála on the right. You know you’re there when one more step would tip you over a 500m sheer drop into the Kazánia chasm; take great care. The Kakí Skála (“Evil Stairway”) begins in a narrow cleft on the right just short of the ridge; paint splashes mark the way. The route keeps just below the ridge, so you are protected from the drop into Kazánia. Even so, it’s a tough scramble and not for those who don’t like heights.
You start with a slightly descending rightward traverse to a narrow nick in the ridge revealing the drop to Kazánia – easily negotiated. Continue traversing right, skirting the base of the Skála peak, then climb leftwards up a steepish gully made a little awkward by loose rock on sloping footholds. Bear right at the top over steep but reassuringly solid rock, and across a narrow neck. Step left around an awkward corner and there in front of you, scarcely 100m away, is Mýtikas summit, an airy, boulder-strewn platform with a trigonometric point, tin Greek flag and visitors’ book. In reasonable conditions it’s about 40min to the summit from the start of Kakí Skála; three hours from the refuge; five and a half hours from Priónia. Descending from Mýtikas, most climbers go back the way they came, with the option of turning left at the signpost for the Yiosos Apostolidhis hut (2hr 30min from Mýtikas by this route).