A Popular Walking Route.
Hikers flocking to the area around Gudauri and Stepantsminda will without a doubt also head up to Juta, a little high mountain village that lies nestled in the High Caucasus Mountains. It is popular as a start location for day hikes and also for those keen to make the overnight trek past the colourful Abdelauri Lakes to Roshka.
Originally, my aim from Juta had been to make a return trek to the Abdelauri lakes but we quickly realized that the distances from Juta, the altitude and the difference in height made it almost impossible for us to achieve in a day without starting before sunrise. Nevertheless we left the centre of Juta in high spirits – us and quite a few other walkers. Some hikers seemed to be locals who had travelled all the way from Tbilisi in the early morning, for a Sunday out of town. The path started in the far corner of the village and immediately headed up on the mountainside, with a steep incline.
Vista of the Impressive Chaukhi Massif
Walking uphill, we passed vegetable and fruit patches and a small cemetery, the gravestones engraved with photos of the deceased. Semi-wild horses and cows roamed the lush landscape and after about half an hour of exhausting exercise we reached a plateau. The path gently meandered towards the impressive Chaukhi Massif, a rugged mountain chain that lay ahead in the distance and reminded us of the Dolomites in Italy. Two modern mountain huts, Fifth Season and Zeta Camping, have been built nearby, and are often used for overnight stays or a place for hikers to stop for lunch or herbal mountain tea. One also offers a large fun area for children with trampolines and swings.
Crossing a Mountain Stream
The hiking path was easy to recognize at this point and it took us closer to the majestic spikey crest of the Chaukhi Massif. Soon enough, we had to cross a wide mountain stream in the bottom of the valley, taking off our shoes we slowly waded through the freezing water. Thankfully, the current was fairly low and we reached the other side without any troubles. Jerome rather enjoyed this freezing foot bath. It was a welcome respite from the heat, although putting our shoes back on was even harder. I am not sure he would have enjoyed it outside the summer season so much! You also have the option at this point to stay on the left path without crossing the stream, but you would miss out on seeing the beautiful Chaukhi Lake!
Chaukhi Lake, a Pleasant Surprise
Chaukhi Lake came to us as a kind of a surprise, it had not been mentioned anywhere before in my reading, despite it obvious popularity with locals from near and far. The lake itself certainly deserves being an attraction on its own, the clear mountain water surrounded by the incredible landscape is a mesmerizing sight. When we reached its shores, we also discovered that the cool waters were happily used as an open-air swimming pool and wer surrounded by picnicking hikers, some Georgian some from further afield.
A Chilly Wild Swim
We never say no to an opportunity for a dip or wild swim on a hot day, especially in such stunning surroundings. Therefore we swapped our walking outfit for a swimming costume, which we generally carry in our backpack during hot summer days. Georgia had blessed us with many other opportunities so far, our swim at the Kaghu waterfall and Martvili Gorge were equally fun. Without a doubt, the water would be chilly, but nothing could prepare us for the shock when we jumped in – it was glacial!
Drinks and More…
Chris and I quickly fled the water after just two strokes, while Jerome was brave and swam a few meters before returning to shore to the applause of other hikers that probably had escaped the as water quickly as I had. A small, wooden hut next to Chaukhi Lake offered drinks to the crowds, including beer, the local schnapps and herbal tea. We skipped tea, wanting to head further up the slopes, towards the pass that crosses to the other side and the Abdelauri Lakes.
Always Follow the Track!
The hiking path led us through grassy fields, here some people had rigged their tents and a small stream provided several taps with fresh, drinking water. This water runs straight out of the glaciers hugging the sheer slopes of the Chaukhi Massif, a few meters away melting under the hot sun. We filled up or water bottles, just in case and wandered on. Shortly after, the path winds itself through an area strewn with rocks and boulders and we had to keep an eye out for the continuation of the track. If you do follow this route try to always stay on the right side of the main mountain stream in order to not get off track.
Deeper Into the High Caucasus
After we had conquered the stony area, the path, by then narrower, led us deeper into the High Caucasus. Jerome at this point started to tire and he wanted to turn around. The high altitude, we must have easily been over 3100m, might have contributed to his mood and exhaustion. Altitude sickness can never be under estimated and although we did not have any troubles during our far higher climb of Mount Fuji, so it just may have been his disposition or hunger that day!
Wildlife and Fauna
We tried to push him a bit further and agreed on a spot in the distance, where we would have a picnic and then start our return to Juta village. Despite the high altitude the vegetation was still surprisingly lush, the grass filled with wild blossoms, including some rare flowers like the bright, blue gentians.
We found a perfect spot for our picnic next to the stream and while Jerome combed the rocks for some semi precious stones we indulged in a serene lunch from our backpack with local cheese and fresh kachapuri. From our advantage point we were able to make out the zigzagging track of the pass in the distance. It seamed to still be miles away and we were glad to have not pushed us to reach the steep slope and equally steep decent the other side. We guessed it would double the walk.
View of Mount Kazbek
Downhill is always easier and faster than up and now full of bread and cheese Jerome was happy to wander ahead again with a bounce in his steps. Mount Kazbek showed his majestic face in a gap, its top still shrouded in a thin layer of clouds. On our return Chaukhi Lake still had a few hikers gathered around its shores and the wild horses on the hillside accompanied our walk for a while. Just before the steep descent into Juta village we took in another gaze at the impressive Chaukhi Massif behind us.
A Less Strenuous Trek
The hike had certainly been a highlight of our stay in Stepantsminda and we can happily recommend it to other nature and mountain lovers. Our advice, is perhaps avoid the weekend crowds and for all those who prefer a less strenuous trek, make just the Chaukhi Lake area your destination!
Some Additional Advice
Please bear in mind that weather conditions may always change in the High Caucasus and prepare for the worst. Wear proper hiking boots, get a map and take plenty of food and drink with you. Above all allow more time than expected, especially to any those adventurous hikers, planning to advance to the Abdelauri Lakes and onwards to Roshka.