The Albanian Alps: Hiking Theth to Valbona (2023)

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You might not expect a country known for its beaches and turquoise water to also have snow-capped mountains, but that is what makes Albania so great. The Albanian Alps are just as spectacular as the more popular Alps, but with much less crowds and more affordable prices. Specifically the Albanian Alps are called the Accursed Mountains and with a name like that, who wouldn’t want to visit!

The most popular thing to do in the Albanian Alps is the 20 km hike from Theth to Valbona.  However, getting in and out of these areas, will require time. While the hike is only one day, it takes one day to get to Theth and one day to get back to Shkoder from Valbona. Therfore the minimum amount of time needed is 3 days, but we think 4 or 5 days will make the journey more enjoyable.  While we loved the Theth to Valbona hike, it was only one of the great parts of our 5 days in the Albanian Alps.

If you aren’t into hiking, you can also spend time in either Theth or Valbona soaking up the mountains. If you do this, pick one (Theth would be our pick) because even though they are only 20 km apart as the crow flies, you cannot travel by car between the two easily.

Albanian Alps Itinerary

This is our recommended itinerary:

Day 1: Travel Shkoder to Theth

Day 2: Theth Waterfall and the Blue Eye

Day 3: Theth to Valbona Hike

Day 4: Valbona to Shkoder via Komani

You can do a 3-day trip if you are short on time; just combine day 1 and 2. You can also add days in either Theth or Valbona if you want to do more hiking in Albania or simply soak up the magic of these valleys. Note that you can do this itinerary in reverse and first visit Valbona and hike over to Theth. We really don’t think it matters which way you do it, although we liked visiting Theth first.

Be sure to also check out our full 2023 guide to Albania with the best places to visit, tips and more.

Gateway to the Albanian Alps: Shkoder

This area of Albania is remote and takes some time to get to.  The gateway to this area is Shkoder, a really nice city on Lake Shkoder along the Montenegro border. We only spent one half day in Shkoder, but it is a city you could definitely spend a couple of days in if you had the time.  In addition to the beautiful lake, there is an interesting castle and nice pedestrian central area. Skhoder is 2 hours north of Tirana – an easy drive or you can take the bus.

Those wanting to do the hike between Theth and Valbone, can choose to start at either side.  Those who want to visit the mountains, but not do the hike, should base themselves in Theth.  Theth is getting easier and easier to get to as its popularity increases. 

The best place to stay in Shkoder for hikers is Wanderers Hostel which are pros at helping you organize your visit to the mountains. If you would prefer a private room, the Cocja Boutique Hotel is a great option with very reasonable prices.

Getting to Theth

There are really 3 options for getting from Shkoder to Theth:

  • Minivan – there is a scheduled daily minivan bus from Shkoder to Theth departing at 7 am and returning to Shkoder at 11 am (2-2.5 hours). Your Shkoder hotel can organize this for you. Cost: 10 euros/person.
  • Private transfer – hire a private transfer for the 2+ hour trip for approximately 85 euros.  We opted for the private transfer booked through Thethi Guide because we were driving from Tirana that day and because it wasn’t that much more than the bus.  You may be able to organize a cheaper rate through your guesthouse. We parked our car in a secured lot in the centre of Shkoder for 800 LEK/day.
  • Self Drive – If you have a rental car you can drive yourself to Theth – it is fully paved now. However, if you are planning to hike to Valbona, you will want to leave your car in Shkoder. 

The road has been greatly improved recently and the views are stunning along the drive.  Theth is still a small place with no market, so make sure you bring any supplies you need. 

The Theth Valley

The Theth Valley is gorgeous and we would recommend giving yourself at least one free day to enjoy the simplicity and views of this magical place.  Construction is rampant in Theth and like so many places in the world, it will be a much different place in a few years. Just a few years ago there were only a handful of guesthouses to stay in when visiting Theth, but now there are lots.  Most of these are small guesthouses run by families and visitors typically eat meals at their guesthouse. There are a few restaurants starting to be built. 

Visiting Albania’s Blue Eye

The church in Theth is one of the most picturesque places and most photographed. The other must-do thing to do in Theth is to visit the Blue Eye and Theth waterfall.  There are actually two Blue Eyes in Albania: this one in the north and one in the south. However, the one in the south is overrun by tourists.

Hikers can visit both the waterfall and the Blue Eye in a 19 km roundtrip hike.  The trail is not well signposted; the app is helpful to follow the track.  Start early and bring lots of water since it gets very hot. Make sure you take the trail on the left side of the river and not the road, which is even hotter. We did it in June and it was a very sweaty hike. 

After you visit the waterfall and walk towards Nderlysaj town, you will cross the bridge and there are two restaurants which make a great lunch spot.  Continue on to the Blue Eye. First you will encounter a beautiful river with a bridge across, which makes a great swimming spot.  The water is shockingly cold, but refreshing for the brave. Make sure you continue on to visit the actual Blue Eye.  There are a few stands and places selling food and drinks.  If you aren’t interested in hiking, you can take a transfer or drive to Nderlysaj town (7 km) and then walk the 3.5 km from there to the Blue Eye. 

Where to Stay in Theth

There are guesthouses popping up left, right, and centre in Theth these days. We opted to stay in a traditional family-run guesthouse, but there are now more luxe offerings as well. We stayed at Bujtina Pllumi Theth and loved its central location (right near the iconic church), great views from its elevated location, friendly family and excellent meals. Breakfast is included – heaps of Albanian pancakes and the dinner is very good (12 euros/person). Other guesthouses that come highly recommended are Gjin Thana, Shpella Guesthouse, and Guesthouse Rrashkadoli.

Theth to Valbona Hike

This hike is the reason most visitors come to Theth, but the Valley itself is a destination worthy of a few days. You can do the Theth-Valbona hike in either direction. It is 20km hike, give or take a few kms depending on where your guesthouse is in Theth and Valbona.

There is a bit of a debate about which direction is the better hike: starting in Theth or Valbona. We really don’t think it matters much, however we were happy with the Theth start. If starting in Theth, you have a steeper uphill first and you are mostly through the forest. If starting in Valbona, you have a more gradual (but longer) climb with less shade. You will have to do both sections regardless so you might consider if you preper a quicker and steeper climb or a more gradual start.

We would classify the hike as a moderate hike that attracts a wide range of people from experienced hikers to beginners. You definitely need good trainers and lots of water. We saw many older folks and a few families with young children on the hike.

Again, you will want to start early and be prepared with lots of water and sun protection.  There are a few places to fill up your water bottles (from the fresh glacier water), but bring plenty to start. In Theth, you will have to walk along the river for a few kms before the trail officially starts.  Once the trail starts it is a fairly consistent uphill, although many parts are shaded by the trees. 

This is a popular hike so don’t expect to have the trail to yourself. Before you reach the highest point, you will come across a restaurant serving cold drinks and flija, a traditional layered crepe sweet dish.  You can also fill up your water bottles here.  The views of the Albania mountains just get better and better as you ascend and are treated to alpine meadows and views of the snow-capped peaks.

Continue on and you will reach the saddle where you will have panoramic views in both directions. We got a lunch to go from our Theth guesthouse and enjoyed a picnic lunch here. The trail to Valbona is more exposed to the sun and offers more stunning views. There is another restaurant/café with drinking water halfway down.  The last bit of the hike is along the rock riverbed and is hot and tiring.  Our guesthouse was at the far end of Valbona, so we had to walk an additional few kms on the road. 

Lunch at the saddle

Valbona is more developed than Theth and is a popular winter destination for Albanians. It is also more sprawling with lots of construction going on. We had given ourselves an extra day to enjoy and hike in Valbona, but found that after two days of long and hot hikes, we weren’t up for another big hike.  If we had the energy or were visiting when it was cooler, we would have hiked to Maja Rosit, another 20 km hike.  But since we were all pretty wiped, we took a little walk/stroll to the Old Mill and Xhema Lake and spent the rest of the day relaxing and soaking up the views.

Where to Stay in Valbona

Just like in Theth, construction is rampant in Valbona and guesthouses are spread out over a few kilometers in the Valley. Guesthouse Drino’s Valbona is consistently recommended, as is Bujtina Albjoni. There were both booked for our dates so we stayed at the newer Bujtina Brahim Selimaj. The price was excellent and the rooms were new and very comfortable. There was limited English spoken, no wifi and it is located a ways from the Theth-Valbona trailhead. But, the meals were good, the staff very kind and it had great views. We would stay there again.

Valbona to Shkoder

Getting to and from Valbona is an adventure in itself.  It involves two buses and an epic ferry ride.  Combination tickets can be booked through Komani Lake Ferry – it is a little confusing on the website, but surprisingly well organized.  Tickets are 2100 LEK (21 euros). You will be picked up at your guesthouse in Valbona at 10:30 am for the hour drive to Fierza, where the ferry departs. The road is windy and shockingly in poor condition. The ferry departs at 1 pm, so you will have some time to kill at the ferry dock; there is a cafe/bar servings drinks and snacks.

The ferry is an adventure in itself as you wind through the gorgeous Komani Lake, a narrow turquoise lake with mountains rising up. The ferry does have seating outside and inside, but you won’t want to miss the views from the boat. Once you arrive at the end of the lake, you will be ushered into another van for the 2 hour drive back to Shkoder. It is a long travel day since you won’t arrive back in Shkoder until almost 6 pm.

What to Expect in the Albanian Alps

You Need Cash

There are no ATMs in either Theth or Valbona, so bring plenty of cash – LEK preferably, but euros are also accepted. Even if you book your accomodation online, you will most likely have to pay in cash at the time of your stay.

Guesthouses and Food

We love the mountains and our time in Theth and Valbona was a huge highlight of our time in Albania. One of the things that made it so special was the guesthouses we stayed in.  Tourism is still new here, so don’t expect polished service. Accomodation is simple, but it is the warm hospitality that will make your stay. If this is your first stop in Albania, be aware that showers in Albania are generally a shower head located in the bathroom with no seperation from the toilet and rest of the bathroom. This means the floor will get wet; no big deal, but it takes some visitors by surprise.

We were served simple Albanian traditional foods with homegrown supplies. Breakfasts were generally pancakes (fried dough) with salty cheese, homemade jam and honey.  Dinner was meat, potatoes or homemade pies with a salad. The guesthouses include breakfast and it is expected that you eat at your guesthouse (there really aren’t any restaurants anyway).  There won’t be a menu – everyone is served the dinner of the day, but there will be a vegetarian option (which is usually just double the carbs).  You can buy drinks at the guesthouses – a cold Peja beer tastes great after a day in the sun! Surprisingly many of the guesthouses do have wifi and we did have cell reception with data during most of our time in the Alps.

Drinking Water

You can drink the water at the guesthouses and we also filled up our bottles from the rivers – you are drinking pure, mountain water.

When to Visit

We visited in June 2023 and already it was very hot and humid. The best time of year in the Albania Alps is September – you won’t have to deal with the summer temperatures, there will be less people and no snow yet. July and August are very popular and if you visit during the summer months, be prepared for the heat and humidity. Thankfully evenings are cooler, so bring layers. The season starts at the end of May, which can be a good time to visit as well.

So sweaty!

Staying Connected

Until recently a trip to the Albanian Alps meant time away from technology. On our visit in 2023, we found that many guesthouses now had WIFI and we had cell reception frequently.

Give Yourself 4-5 Days

If you simply want to visit Theth, you can visit in 2 days. However, if you are planning on doing the Theth-Valbona hike, you will need 3 days. We suggest staying for 4-5 days to really soak in the mountains and not be rushing.

This is the Crossroads of Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro

While you are in Albania, you are located right where Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro come together. In fact, you can hike into Montenegro on a daytrip from Valbona. You will also encounter hikers on the Peaks of the Balkans Trail, a 192 km path going through all of these countries. This is a trip we are planning to return and complete in the future.

This is it for our guide to visiting the Albanian Alps and doing the Theth to Valbona hike in 2023. Let us know if you have any questions. It was definitely one of the highlights of our time in Albania.

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