If you’re like many climbers from around the world, Mt. Elbrus is on your bucket list to summit. Whether or not you have a goal of climbing the world’s 7 summits, you are like many thousands of Russians and foreigners who descend on the Caucasus Mountains every year to conquer this beautiful peak.
Many climbers are single-minded and come to the “Caucasus” with one goal in mind: conquer Elbrus and go home. But if you’re like others, you want to maximize your time in Russia while you’re already here. For many, that means touring Moscow & St. Petersburg, which are great in their own right.
For others, this may be your only ever trip to the Caucasus Mountains, and you want to see more of the mountain range that you looked down on in wonder from the peak of Mt. Elbrus. There are endless amounts of things to do in the Elbrus vicinity and beyond. Here are our top recommendations for you to enjoy your time in the Caucasus Mountains to the fullest:
Elbrus area: a 5-minute drive
1. Take a hike – There are many parallel valleys and areas around Mt. Elbrus where you can take beautiful 1/2 day or full-day hikes. The Terskol Valley runs perpendicular to the main road through Terskol (directly across from the army barracks), and is a stunning sanctuary away from the touristy areas of Azau and Cheget. You can also hike up to the aptly named “Maiden’s Braids” Waterfalls (Devichi Kozi) from Terskol. Elbrus’s neighboring peak Cheget can be summited in a day, including a visit to its beautiful alpine lake.
***Summiting Mt. Cheget requires a special border permit because of its proximity to the Georgia border; do not attempt this unless you have your passport and this permit with you.
2. Visit a banya –This is a MUST for tourists, to experience one of Russia’s most unique cultural traditions. Banya is another word for sauna. If done right, the entire process should last 2-3 hrs. and you’ll feel more relaxed than you have in years: roasting in the steam room, then jumping into a nearby pond, then roasting again, and being “beat” with the infamous birch-leaf brooms to clean out your pores.
Top it off with a meal of famous Caucasus shashlik (shish-kabobs) and chai (hot tea), and you’ll be ready for a good night sleep tonight! Check with your hotel if they have a banya complex (many do, with services for an additional cost), or visit the Gorni Rodnik Banya complex just down the highway on the right from Cheget.
3. Ride a horse – Even better than exploring some of the surrounding area on foot, is exploring it on horseback! The North Caucasus is famous for its world-renowned Kabardian breed of horses, and you can arrange for anywhere from a 20-minute trot to a full-day excursion up one of the surrounding valleys or areas. There is a stable of horses right off the Cheget tourist area/parking lot that do excursions, or you can call the plethora of #s on billboards along the highway advertising horse-back trips in the area.
Half-Day Excursion: 1 hr. or less from Elbrus
1. Tirnauz & the Mining Town ruins – The last “city” you drive through on the way to Mt. Elbrus is Tirnauz, a once-thriving mining town in the Soviet Union, whose industry collapsed in the early 1990s.
It’s well worth your time to hire a local driver to take you high above the city to explore what’s left of the mining operation. The views are incredible and you will learn a ton about this hidden corner of the Caucasus and its tungsten-rich mountains.
2. Bilim, or Gijgit, Lake –This man-made lake is an incredible place to spend a day hiking, swimming, and taking in the incredible surrounding rock-faces of the Caucasus range. To access it, cross the Baksan river to the left of the highway just before entering the village Bilim (past Tirnauz), and it’s about a 20-minute drive up the bumpy road to the lake entrance.
If you can hire a local driver with an off-road vehicle, you can explore higher up past the lake, as the road continues deep into the Tzilskoe Valley, all the way to the famous “Mother-in-Law’s Tooth” Ridge.
3. Off-roading –Two gorgeous valleys that run perpendicular to the Elbrus highway are the Adir-Suu and Adil-Suu valleys, both which extend right up to the border with Georgia. If you are able to hire a local driver, you will love the remoteness of these valleys: mountain rivers, waterfalls, and way off-the-beaten path for most tourists/trekkers. The entrance to the Adir-Suu valley is a treat, as you and your car must be transported up the ancient Soviet car lift, to continue to the valley. ***Entering both these valleys requires a special border permit because of their proximity to the Georgia border; do not attempt this unless you have your passport and this permit with you.
Day Trips: 2-3 hrs. away
1. Paragliding at Chegem – Besides Mt. Elbrus, probably the most visited site in Kabardino-Balkaria is the Paradrome in the Chegem Valley. A local family took advantage of ideal wind and mountain conditions and has created Russia’s top paragliding destination. If you can make this day-trip, it’s well-worth your time. The surrounding views are incredible, and at only 4,000 rubles (approx. $80) a person, the paragliding experience is a steal.
Combine this with a meal at the beautiful Chegem Waterfalls cascading down huge rock faces, and this is a must for day-trips from the Elbrus region.
2. Upper Balkaria –This village complex is two valleys over from Mt. Elbrus but has a fascinating variety of things to see. You’ll stop first at the beautiful Blue Lakes, which, despite its small size, boasts one of the deepest lakes in the world (depth of 258 meters), fed only by an underground spring. Past the Blue Lakes, you’ll drive up the beautiful narrow gorge that defines the Cherek Valley, to the Upper Balkaria village complex. Here you can really get a feel for Caucasus Mountain village life, as well as learn about the Balkar people’s history. There are village and tower ruins accessible here, most of which were destroyed in the 1940s by Soviet authorities. Try the tasty and filling local food of khichini at the Tau-El restaurant, and on your way back to Mt. Elbrus, make sure to take a dip in the Aushiger Hot Springs. You’ll return home tonight well-rested and relaxed for sure!
Here are our top 3 places to visit if you have 3-4 extra days after your Mt. Elbrus climb:
1. North Ossetia –North Ossetia borders Kabardino-Balkaria (home of Elbrus) and is home to equally stunning mountain gorges and valleys. You can stay in historic Vladikavkaz as your home base, which has quality 3-star and 4-star accommodations, and incredible views of the surrounding mountain range from its downtown view along the Terek River. Some of North Ossetia’s highlights include the City of the Dead mausoleums, the Fiagdon Monastery, and the Midagrabin Waterfalls (highest-elevation waterfalls in Europe).
Vladikavkaz is a beautiful and historic city to explore, and make sure to try the famous Ossetian meat pies while you’re here. The Ossetians are one of the most unique of the 40+ Caucasus peoples in terms of pagan religious belief, so make sure to learn about their various holy sites and saints. There are daily flights to Moscow if you’d like to travel home from here.
2. Ingushetia –Just because you’ve never heard of it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit it! Ingushetia is Russia’s smallest state/republic, but holds quite possibly some of its most beautiful views and landmarks. Translated as “The Land of the Towers”, Ingushetia is home to the largest # of ancient tower complexes in the country. The Ingush people historically lived in towers in the narrow Djeirakh mountain pass, and to see them today is like going into another world. There is an ancient church that was built in the 13th century, and many of the tower complexes date to the 16th-18th centuries. If you have time, make sure to visit Ingushetia’s tiny capital city Magas, which is the “newest” capital city in the world. The Deportation Memorial is a very well-done but sobering look at Ingush history and all they’ve come through till today.
***Entering Ingushetia’s tower region requires a special border permit because of its proximity to the Georgia border; do not attempt this unless you have your passport and this permit with you. Its proximity to Vladikavkaz allows for convenient flights back to Moscow and home from there.
3. Chechnya –This may be the most recognized name in the North Caucasus, but unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. Chechnya went through a terrible period in the 1990s and early 2000s during the Chechen Wars, but what many people don’t know, is how the entire republic has been rebuilt and become extremely stable in the following years.
The capital Grozny is the most beautiful city in the North Caucasus, replete with brand-new skyscraper complexes and one of Europe’s largest mosques, the Heart of Chechnya. The mountains of Chechnya are not quite as sharp and high as some of the neighboring republics, but the sites are equally astounding, including Lake Kezenoy-Am (which is the largest lake in the North Caucasus) as well as the Argun Gorge, which has multiple renovated tower complexes, similar to what one would see in Ingushetia. Chechens are very hospitable people, so don’t be surprised if you are treated to a spontaneous meal or your taxi driver refuses to accept your payment, as they want guests to always feel welcome. Grozny is an international airport and also has daily flights to Moscow, so is very convenient to travel in and out of.
Whether you are planning on climbing Mt. Elbrus on your own or with a climbing company, all of the above-mentioned activities are within your reach. If you are interested in one of the above options (or your own custom adventure!) but feel a bit overwhelmed about how to plan it all, Beyond Red Square can help! We work closely with the local tourism structures and would be happy to facilitate the rest of your time in the North Caucasus to complete your Elbrus experience. Contact us today for a customized quote for your group!