Caves and Waterfalls

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The grand cascade of 33 falls is located on the River Shakhe in the Lazarevsky District. It’s easier to get here with a tour group or an offroading party. The road traverses a mountain village and follows a riverbed. This well-known cascade of relatively small falls, slides and rapids – the tallest one is about 7 metres – is on the right-hand tributary of the Shakhe, the Jegosh, which is less than two kilometres long, including the non-perennial section of its riverbed. There are some cafés and gift outlets at the beginning of the route. The wooden bridges and stairs on both banks of the river take you to 17 out of 33 falls. Those wishing to see more will have to make their own way through the forest and along the rocky banks. The whole route runs through shady woodland. Part of the appeal of these waterfalls are the lakes they form, in which people are wont to swim.

If you venture beyond the Pslukh Cordon to the wildlife sanctuary part of Krasnaya Polyana, you definitely have to see the Narzan mineral water springs and the scenic waterfalls on the River Pslukh. Both these landmarks are about six kilometres from Krasnaya Polyana, and it’s drivable. The magical walnut and pear grove amid the lofty mountains is also a must-see. From here it’s an easy walk or horse ride to the falls. There are three Narzan mineral water springs here. Although they come to the surface only centimetres apart, the water from these springs tastes differently and differs by chemical composition. People usually come here not for a day trip, but to put up tents and stay for a while, enjoying the pristine mountain air. There is a small café and some gift outlets around.

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This is one of the few National Park landmarks that can be reached by foot. In fact, there are no organized tours here. Take Svirskaya Ulitsa from the centre of Lazarevskoe, following the signs “Waterfall” and “Svirskoe Gorge,” until you reach the beginning of the route. The route is marked: painted marks on the rocks and trees will not let you lose your way. The trail runs along Svirsky Ruchey creek and into the canyon, carved out by water, and comes to the first waterfall. It is about seven metres high, and its lake is good enough for swimming. From the glade in front of the gorge, another trail leads to a small rocky spot, from which it is easy to get to the second waterfall and the dolmen. Following the signs, you will walk past another waterfall until you reach the so-called Moon Stone. This is in fact a sandstone boulder. The sign next to it says it’s a natural landmark protected by the state. The total route barely exceeds three kilometres in length, so it won’t take too long. There are a few picnic spots on the way. The gorge hardly ever gets direct sunlight. It is pleasantly twilit most of the time.

One of the natural landmarks of Sochi’s Lazarevsky District is to be found in the vicinity of the mountain village of Najigo, which can be reached by bus. From there, one has to walk or drive an SUV through the forest to get to the canyon and the falls. Two kilometres later, the forest trail comes to the River Kumyshtepe, the right-hand tributary of the Najigo which, in its turn, flows into the river Gumyshtepe. Inside the gorges, carved in the rocks by the streams, you find the majestic waterfalls. Close to the point of the Kumyshtepe confluence, the first waterfall gushes down uproariously from the elevation of 32 metres. This one is reachable by foot. There are 13 more falls upstream ranging from 5 to 8 metres, but no trails go there.

The Gumyshtepe is a more popular tourist destination. There are proper trails, stairs and bridges here you can take from the confluence first to two small falls, 4.5 and 6.5 metres high, and then on to the highest and mightiest 35-metre waterfall.

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Beloved of locals and tourists alike, the Psydakh and Shapsug waterfall cascades are on the River Ashe in the Lazarevsky District of Sochi, about five kilometres from the aul of Kalezh. It is advisable to come here with an organized tour group rather than on your own. You will observe the beautiful triple cascade of Psydakh Falls on the left-hand tributary of the Ashe. On the top and highest fall, water crashes down from an elevation of 30 metres. Then the stream accelerates as it rushes through some narrows before it hits the middle rapids and disgorges, from five metres up, into a rock bowl with perfectly precipitous walls. Then the water languidly continues on its way till it reaches its final two-metre drop. There are trails and observation decks for each of the falls. If you keep walking upstream and take a turn towards the left tributary, you will reach another cascade of four falls, Shapsug. Here, the bottom fall is the most impressive, being about 20 metres high and of two stages.

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In central Sochi, one of the more popular tours on offer is the one that takes you to Agura Falls and Eagle Rocks, and it’s available all year. Easy transport accessibility must be one of the reasons. Leading through the gorge, the manmade trail brings you to a cascade of three waterfalls, where the top one is 21 metres high, middle one, 23 metres, and bottom one, 30 metres high. There is also a small lake here, named Devil’s Basin, and a cave. When you get to the bottom fall, you can swim in its good size lake and visit the tiny café on the bank. One has to climb near-perfectly vertical rocks to get to the other two falls, but thanks to the steps carved in the rock, even a kid can do the climb. As well as hikes, there are some extreme adventures available to the more daring tourists in the Agura Gorge. For example, they do what they call “canyoning,” where the descent happens right inside the waterfalls. The river dries up during the hottest weeks of the summer, but the naked gorge does not look any less enchanting for that.

From the Agura River, a trail leads to the other local landmark, Eagle Rocks, overhanging the gorge. The view that opens up on the mountains, the sea, the dark woods and the river from the top of Eagle Rocks takes your breath away. The elation is further enhanced by the statue of Prometheus erected on the rocks. Legend has it that the rock to which the Olympian Gods chained Prometheus in punishment for stealing fire from the Gods and giving it to humans, was right here.

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When you’re travelling from Dagomys to Solokh-aul, make a stop in the valley of the River West Dagomys to see a curious natural landmark, known as Dagomysskie Koryta (Dagomys Washtubs). The river has worked hard for centuries, burrowing through massive layers of chalky clay and shale, forming stone walls and huge bowls filled with water in the middle of its flow. These are the Washtubs. There is a whole cascade of these “washtubs,” filled with pristine mountain water, which is pretty warm. They are surrounded by thick forest, giving steady shade in the summer. You can get here with a tour group, but the spot is accessible by bus or car. Dagomys Washtubs is a popular destination for local and tourists, who seek to escape from the summer heat and relax in the shade here. There is a banya and a café. The oldest tea plantations in Russia are not far away.

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This natural treasure, protected by the state, is located in the valley of the River Khosta. Chertovy Vorota, or “Devil’s Gate,” is a small canyon of amazing beauty close to the confluence of the West and East Khosta. Water had to work for thousands upon thousands of years to carve it in the rocks, so that today we stand spell-bound by the smooth undulations of the 50-metre rock faces, and the sandbars and smooth bottom of the canyon, which is only five metres across at the widest. The curves are what gave this canyon its name. Devil’s Gate is surrounded by primal forest, where plants from before the Ice Age occur. This nature sanctuary is of two parts: one is open to the public, the other is restricted. You can walk through the yew and box-tree grove [LINK] to reach Devil’s Gate, or you can drive and park by the picnic ground with tables and fire pits. There is also a small beach on the bank of the mountain river nearby.

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The River Sochi has many tributaries with beautiful waterfalls. There is a whole cascade of waterfalls on one of the tributaries, the Azhek. The tallest and most enchanting of the falls has the same name. You take a forest path to Azhek Falls, which is about six kilometres from the village of Orekhovka. You walk along some rocks, crossing a few bridges over some rivers and creeks. The path is marked with pointers and information boards for travellers’ convenience. It is not an easy hike, but definitely worth taking. At the end, the traveller will be rewarded with an amazing sight of torrents of water descending loudly from an elevation of 25 metres into a giant bowl the water has wrought in the rock over many thousands of years, and then flowing placidly on into a small like inside a grotto. The out-of-this-world feel of the place is enhanced by the unusual chiaroscuro pattern: the waterfalls are never fully in the sun.

The Canyons of the River Psakho – the “wet” one and “dry” one – are famous for their uniquely beautiful nature. The “wet” canyon measures nearly two kilometres in river length, and ranges from 1.5 to 10 metres across. The wet canyon is filled with small waterfalls with grottoes, rapids and sandbars, with tiny lakes and sinuous canals where the water is now so crystal-clear you can see through to the bottom and observe the fluvial wildlife, now, with the play of light and shadow, turns pitch-black, opaque and mysterious. To hike the full length of the canyon, you will have to jump bank to bank, climb through the rocky parts and/or cross the river occasionally.

From the wet canyon a trail leads up through the forest to the dry canyon, which is even more amazing. The dry canyon is a huge crack in the rock, formed due to an earthquake millions of years ago. It is less than a metre wide in its narrowest part, and about 30 metres deep. One cannot help wondering how these trees grow on sheer rock, without even a handful of soil. Rock climbers as well as tourists love this place. You can see where they’ve charted their routes by the white marks on the rocks.

The Vodolei (Aquarius) Falls are a relatively recent addition to the tourist attractions of the Sochi National Park. There was no proper trail to reach it until five years ago. Vodolei has since become a popular tourist destination, appreciated for its peaceful ambience and accessibility. The crushed-rock trail, leading away from the turnpike, takes you through thick forest and a deep ravine to a cascade of waterfalls a few hundred metres away. The largest and most scenic waterfall was christened Vodolei. It is about ten metres high. There are many benches here where one can sit quietly enjoying the sights and sounds of the water and the forest.

Past Drakona, or “Dragon’s Maw,” owes its menacing name to enterprising tour guides. They decided that the historical name Glubokiy Yar (Deep Ravine) didn’t sound attractive enough for tourists. At 41 metres, this is one of the highest waterfalls in Sochi area. It is located on the left-hand tributary of the Mzymta, close to the observation deck of the Akh-Tsu Gorge. Tourists get to see not one, but three amazing waterfalls when they come here. The first and tallest one sheds its water into a semblance of a stone sack, dug out inside a rock by water. Underneath these falls there opens up a small lake and a cave more than one kilometre long, which has an underground river flowing through it, and a 18-metre subterranean waterfall inside it. It is a freak accident of nature: this river has two flows, surface and subterranean, and it’s as if one of these waterfalls is placed inside the other. Further downstream the river once again hits some rapids and another nine-metre waterfall. In the vicinity of this river there are ruins of a Christian church from the Middle Ages, which was built on the ruins of an ancient fortress.

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Navalishchenskoe Gorge in the Khosta River valley is a popular destination, frequently visited by both locals and tourists. Like a sculptor, water has toiled for centuries to polish these rocks and boulders, and carve out a meandering riverbed with backwater pools, rapids and falls. The water is so pure in this river that freshwater crab live in it, among other fluvial creatures. The forest, too, did its part of the work, adorning the walls of the deep canyon with primal trees that cast a mystical shadow on the stream below. There is a tourist route about 1.5 kilometres long in this part of the Caucasus Nature Preserve. There are picnic grounds, a café, and Russian banya on the route.

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This part of the Sochi National Park in the valley of the River Kuapse, squeezed, as it were, between two mountain ranges – Asheisky and Bezymyanny – is overgrown with oaks, chestnuts, beeches and ferns.

The gorge is named after Old Man Mahmed, the hero of local lore. Like Ivan Susanin of Russia, Mahmed, hired as a local guide by enemy soldiers, led them into the neck of woods where they died, and thus saved his village.

The entrance to the gorge is impeded by a heap of rocks from a rock-fall, beyond which the prepared trail begins. If you follow it, you will pass a little grotto and enter a narrow rocky corridor. The river, which toiled to carve itself a passage to the sea, built a veritable arch here. Three metres up, the walls of the gorge converge. Beyond the tunnel the gorge expands abruptly. This is what the locals call the White Hall, due to all the chalk-stone washed up on the bank at the river-bend. The water falling down one of the walls of the “Hall” from a height of more than 10 metres is called Mahmed’s Beard. Another waterfall nearby has formed a semblance of a basin, which they call Mahmed’s Bathtub. Still farther down the gorge you will discover a cascade of three bathing bowls, which the locals call the bowls of health, beauty and love. At this point the trail climbs up, bringing the traveller back to the walnut glade.

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The more daring travellers are drawn to the underexplored Witches’ Cave (Peshchera Vedm) in the Lazarevsky District of Sochi. You can drive here or come with a tour group, but be prepared to get wet if you wish to explore the cave. It is known for a fact that this cave, which is devoid of the usual stalactites or stalagmites, is a tunnel about 80 metres long, 1.5 metres high and two across. The cave is partially flooded and never dries up. The flooded parts range in depth from a few centimetres to a metre. You can walk, wade or swim for about 75 metres in the main tunnel before you hit a small trap-rock, which is surmountable but is soon followed by another trap-rock, which so far no one has been able to get past. Which is why the exploration of this cave has stalled. According to a local legend, the cave is actually about 12 kilometres in length, surfacing near the village of Bolshoe Pseushkho. They say that this secret passage once saved the local tribes when enemies invaded. It is not known where the “witchy” name of this cave comes from. What can a cave in the Lazarevsky District of Sochi possibly have to do with witchcraft? But no matter how many rumours, legends and hypotheses about this cave and its name go around, none of them can be confirmed or denied until the whole cave has been explored.

The Achishkho Mountain Range, towering above Krasnaya Polyana, is the home of an alpine lake system at an altitude of over 1800 metres above sea level. The lakes were named after the Russian botanist Vikenty Khmelevsky, who lives at Krasnaya Polyana, studying the local flora and climate, in the early 1900s. SUV tours of the lakes are available, but devout hikers can hike there, taking an 11-kilometre mountain trail. Shortened to just “Khmeli” in popular parlance, the system consists of four rather large overgrown lakes and a few smaller ones, scattered around in the alpine meadows, surrounded by forest. The commercially available tour of the lakes is about three kilometres long. The observation decks by the lakes offer great views of the Caucasus Mountains, taking in the peaks – Achishkho, Fisht, Chugush, and Aibga.