Georgia’s Caucasus Crossing

  • Distance

    794 Mi.

    (1,278 KM)
  • Days

    21

  • % Unpaved

    70%

  • % Singletrack

    5%

  • Difficulty (1-10)

    8

  • % Rideable (time)

    97%

  • Total Ascent

    103,636'

    (31,588 M)
  • High Point

    11,500'

    (3,505 M)
The Caucasus Crossing is a meandering traverse of the Georgian portion of Europe’s highest range. It offers a blend of classic mountain topography and rolling steppe, punctuated with a 12th Century monastery chiselled into a rockface, a ride around the country’s largest lake, a profusion of fortified towers, a generous handful of rugged passes, the inevitable run-ins with fierce Tushetian sheepdogs, and likely a few shots of chacha, the country's potent homebrew, along the way.
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Diminutive, post-Soviet Georgia is a fascinating land, considerably more dense in heritage and culture than its size would suggest. It’s also a country with an important present-day geopolitical role, being the buffer that it is between Russia and the West. Putting an element of this in context, the route wends its way between the Upper and Lower Caucasus, as a way of bypassing South Ossetia, the partially recognised state that encompasses the Tskhinvali region, for which travel isn’t permitted since a series of conflicts a decade ago.

  • Bikepacking Georgia, Caucasus Crossing
  • Bikepacking Georgia, Caucasus Crossing
  • Bikepacking Georgia, Caucasus Crossing
  • Bikepacking Georgia, Caucasus Crossing
  • Bikepacking Georgia, Caucasus Crossing

This said, Georgia is an incredibly safe place to travel, populated by a people only to eager to engage with travellers. For the most part, the route keeps to dirt roads and tertiary paved roads for its 800 mile/1300km length, enlivened by a beautiful ribbons of high altitude singletrack, as well as few hike-a-bikes thrown in for good measure, offering a beguiling overview of the country’s Higher and Lower Caucasus.

Bookending the ride are two of most popular hiking destinations – Svaneti and Tusheti – long popular amongst those who live in countries that form part of the former Soviet block, like Poland and the Ukraine. Of these, Mestia and Omalo are the main bases for those interested in hiking and biking. The latter is far less developed and only open to the outside world by public transportation for six months of the year. Outside of this, the small population of locals who stay in the valley year-round have to rely on army helicopters, that keep the sensitive border with Chechnya under guard. Given that Mestia is also home to a ski station, the roads are kept clear in the winter too, with a more developed infrastructure as a result.

  • Bikepacking Georgia, Caucasus Crossing
  • Bikepacking Georgia, Caucasus Crossing
  • Bikepacking Georgia, Caucasus Crossing

As the cradle of winemaking, Georgians take their drinking seriously. A recycled plastic bottle of chacha, a potent, homebrew grape brandy is never far at hand – Georgian’s like nothing more than to toast life, friendship, peace, family, even sheepdogs…

Oh, the sheepdogs! Tushetian sheepdogs are legendary; more often than not, shepherds will help steer them away, but if they’re too drunk or lazy, you’ll have to negotiate them yourself. Svaneti is largely clear of sheep (and thus sheepdogs too) but you’ll encounter them on the rolling plains that border Turkey too. Be prepared to run the gauntlet!

Route Development

Thanks are due to Joey Schusler (see the awesome Trail to Kasbegi for inspiration) and Kyle von Hoetzendorff of Yonder Journal (see their brilliantly observant Sweaty in Svaneti series) for their generous input with piecing together singletrack/hike-a-bikes links in Tusheti and Svaneti. If you ride this route and have any improvements, please let me know so they can be worked in. Thanks too to Ben Paige for joining me when I re-rode the Svanetian portion of the ride, having been thrwated by foul weather and snow the first time round.

Along the way, the ride crosses the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, heading towards the lesser travelled border with Turkey, passing the 12th-century monastery complex of Vardzia, a labyrinth of two hundred cave dwellings excavated into a hillside. Within, the Church of the Dormition houses a remarkable set of 12th Century wall paintings and frescos, closed off to the world by a monk’s keys and a set of heavy wooden doors. Later, it loops around tranquil Lake Parani, speckled with grass-roofed dwellings, before hurdling a series of rugged mountain folds to Gori, infamous as the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, his childhood home now entombed within a mausoleum that stands alone in the city’s central square. Returning to the high mountains, other intrigue includes Khevsureti’s Crypts of Anatori, an eery, medieval communal tomb piled high with human skulls and bones. And of course, the beautiful stone watchtowers, in various states of repair, that stand sentinel across much of the Upper Caucasus. From there, the route’s hardest, hike-a-bike, across Atsunta Pass, lies like a gateway in Tusheti, a tight parcel of ragtag mountains enclosed by the Russian Republics of Chechnya to one side and Dagestan to the other. In stark contrast to this time bubble, beautiful Tbilisi, in the midst of being reconstructed and renovated, reflects Georgia’s headfirst dive into capitalism and free enterprise.

  • Bikepacking Georgia, Caucasus Crossing
  • Bikepacking Georgia, Caucasus Crossing
  • Bikepacking Georgia, Caucasus Crossing

For thoughts and advice on which direction is best to ride this route and ways shorten the ride, see Trail Notes. I’ve also suggested a couple of possible sections that could be incorporated into the route, that I wasn’t able to investigate fully.

Difficulty

The route has been awarded an 8. For the most part, it’s a fairly straightforward ride. However, the hike between Shatili and Tusheti is extremely challenging, which bumps up its overall scoring, and there’s a few smaller hike-a-bikes in Svaneti. Other than this, road conditions are mostly manageable, ranging from packed dirt to grassy two track and tufty singletrack, along with broken paved roads. The connector between Gori and Tedjisi stands out as being a demanding (but wonderful) section. Communication in Georgia can also be a challenge, as few speak English outside of the capital. Thankfully, inherent generosity and friendliness transcend linguistic differences. I’ll repeat my canine warning here: sheepdogs are a formidable opponent, especially if travelling solo in Tusheti. I only met one who liked a tummy rub!

  • Highlights

  • Must Know

  • Camping

  • Food/H2O

    💧

  • Trail Notes

  • Hurdling Abano Pass, gateway to rugged Tusheti, and said to be the division between Europe and Asia.
  • Testing your hike-a-bike tenacity during the crossing from Tusheti to Shatili.
  • Visiting Vardzia, a 12th Century monastery that tunnels deep into the rockface.
  • Riding around Lake Paravani… home to semi-nomadic Turkish shepherds, displaced Armenian communities, and grass-roofed traditional dwellings.
  • Ripping along sweet Svanetian singletrack.
  • Ogling medieval watchtowers that stand sentinel around the Upper Caucasus.
  • Experiencing warm (and often drunken) Georgian hospitality, washed down with homebrew wine.

 

  • Summer is the only time to be in Georgia’s Higher Caucasus; late May/June to early September is ideal. Mid summer can be extremely hot. Venture into October and you’ll risk increased rain and snow, as I experienced.
  • Keep an eye on the weather. If there’s heavy snowfall, Atsunta Pass is likely to be closed. I used the YR weather app, finding it to be accurate for much of the region. On the whole, the west side of the country tends to be wetter than the east.
  • In the height of summer, expect T-shirt weather in the mountains tempered by cool evenings. The lowlands can be muggy. A sleeping bag that’s comfortable to temperatures a little below freezing should be fine, supplemented with extra clothes as needed. In late summer/early autumn, the weather is fresher and the views clearer.
  • At the time of writing, there are no visa issues to contend with for most nationalities. Always check for updates though.
  • Communication can be an issue, especially given the complexities of Georgian script. Google Translate can come in handy!
  • Georgia is an extremely safe country to travel across. The caveats are the death-defying driving (this routes avoids main roads where possible) and the impossibly fierce Tushetian sheepdogs.
  • The best tactic for appeasing sheepdogs is to give them as wide a birth as possible. Try and remember that they are just doing their job… one they take especially seriously.
  • In terms of maps, the TerraQuest series is recommended. I used Georgia Caucasus Mountains Adventure Map (1:400,000), but for a more detailed investigation of Tusheti, the Georgian Caucasus (1:75,000) is best. I also managed to pick up an excellent 1:55,000 Trekking Map at the tourist information centre outside Omalo, complete with excellent topo and details. But I don’t believe they always have it in stock. Other than that, I relied on my iPhone and Gaia app for navigating.
  • To cross Atsunta Pass between Shatili and Omalo, be sure to stop in at the army checkpoint and procure the necessary paperwork, as this popular trekking route runs close to the border with Chechnya. This is a quick process during the summer, but can take more persuasion during the shoulder seasons if the weather is mixed.
  • To complete this route in its entirety, a mountain bike is required. If you’re on a gravel/adventure bike and want to avoid singletrack, it’s easy enough to ride through Svaneti without hopping onto trails. However, there’s no way of avoiding Atsunta Pass. Aside from this, all the route should be rideable, though there’s some extremely steep sections on the crossing between Gori and Lake Paravani.
  • For background reading and practical info on the more travelled areas of the country, the Lonely Planet’s Georgia guidebook can be downloaded to your phone.
  • Cell phone access is surprisingly good. Pick up a local SIM card (Magti is the recommended carrier) for incredibly cheap, and relatively fast, data access.
  • There are plenty of good bike shops in Tbilisi, though they’re several kilometres from the old city.
  • Tblisi has some great local singletrack trails too, most of which start near Vake Park, if you have a day or two spare. There’s plenty of rides to be found on Strava and Wikiloc. The trail to Udzo Monastery is a classic and well worth riding – you could even incorporate it into this route.
  • For local guide hire, check out Geo Riders – their site has some suggested day rides with links to gpx files.
  • For gear rental, contact expat mountain biker James Dean, who has a shop in Tbilisi.
  • If you need to skip a section of the ride, it’s generally easy enough to hop in a marshutka, the minibuses that ply the Georgian roads a death-defying speed. Countryside versions tend to have roof racks but more modern, intercity marshutkas have little or no room for more than one bike – and even that can be a squeeze/take some persuasion. Marshutkas tend to congregate on street corners, depending on the destination – just ask a local for details. Buses ply some of the country roads. Their timetables are more limited but they will have more room for bikes than marshutkas. There are various transportation hubs around Tbilisi that serve different areas of the country; just ask a local for where to go.
  • A far more relaxing, though slower option is to take the train. There’s a daily train to Zugdidi (and a night one too). Bikes cost an extra 5 Lari (whatever the distance ), paid to the conductor, who will give you a receipt. For train times and routes, see the Georgia Railway site.
  • Tblisi is the main airport in the country (taxis cost 20l into town – there’s a very helpful Tourist Info desk). I flew with Turkish Airlines, as it had the best bike policy. Bear in mind that Kutaisi offers much cheaper flights from Europe, as this is where the budget airlines operate.
  • At the time of writing, 1 Lari is worth $0.4 USD.
  • Camping in Georgia is safe and generally very easy.
  • Tourist enclaves offer hotels and hostels (with cheap dorms). Otherwise, there are many homes that offer extremely affordable, B&B style accommodation. On some occasions, I camped in gardens and ate in homes. Just ask around if you can’t find anywhere. Many businesses are signed up with booking.com
  • The areas of Svaneti and Tusheti are well served by mountain huts/lodges/homes, as both areas are very popular with East European hikers. In fact, you could explore both these regions without a tent/stove, though you’d be missing out on some wonderful morning vistas.
  • There are too many hostels to recommend. But here’s few that I stayed at ate in and liked. Omalo: Hostel Tishe (Eteri Markhvaidze), great lunch, has a good shop too. Tusheti: Guesthouse Giveri, near the army checkpoint for Atsunta Pass. Etseri (Svaneti): Hanmer GH, I camped in the garden and ate great food, UK/Georgian owners. Shatili: Nina Chincharauli (995 591 11 64 24, 595 34 74 76), I camped in her garden and she cooked me up a big meal. Roshka: Guesthouse Roshka. More expensive than most, but fantastic food, camping available. For the most part, my MO was to camp wild, using guesthouses to enjoy a good lunch. But I often camped at guesthouses too, eating dinner, breakfast, and using the facilities.
  • Hostels/Guesthouses in Kutaisi and Tbilisi can get busy at weekends; you may need to book in advance through booking.com
  • Georgia is abundant with clean water spigots in villages and natural springs in the mountains. I rarely needed to carry more than two bottles at any one time and never used my filter.
  • Small, simple grocery stores can be found in almost every settlement, offering vegetables, cheese, and an impressive assortment of cookies. Large cities have big supermarkets.
  • In Lower Omalo, Hostel Tishe (run by Eteri Markhvaidze) has a good shop and delicious food.
  • Local honey, walnuts, cheese, and kefir abound. 
  • Georgia’s traditional bread (shotis puri) is made in clay ovens; when it’s fresh and piping hot, nothing beats it. It’s cheap and huge!
  • Georgian cuisine is heavy on cheese, Khachapuri (molten cheese stuffed in a pizza-like dough) being a firm favourite.
  • Chacha is the tipple of choice. This grape-based vodka is brandished at any excuse for a toast, often complimented with homemade wine. Ironically, drivers stop and drink it when they’re passing roadside memorials, of which there are plenty on the road over Abano Pass, said to be amongst the most dangerous in the world.

Given the mixed weather that I experienced (I had to time my crossing of Atsunta Pass between snow storms), I actually researched and rode this route from Zugdidi to Tblisi, and then from Telavi to Tblisi.

As you can see, the eventual Caucasus Crossing route includes two out and back spurs, plus a circuitous ride through Tusheti – all of which I’d highly recommend!

Eastbound:

The advantage to riding this route west to east is that it’s an easy, paved climb from Zugdidi, and a dirt road/singletrack descent out of the mountains. In terms of Tusheti, the hike-a-bike out of Shatili towards is considerably shorter but a lot sharper than coming from the Tusheti direction. The descent down from Atsunta Pass is long and almost completely rideable – this would be a highlight.

Westbound:

It’s a gargantuan climb over Abano Pass to Omalo to kick off the ride, but a stunning one nonetheless. The hike-a-bike over Atsunta Pass, towards Shatili, is more gradual and largely rideable with an appropriate bike and setup, until the last few kilometres before the pass itself. The steep descent should be predominantly rideable unless there’s ice/snow. Locals mountain bikers are divided as to which direction is best when tackling Atsunta, as they both have pros and cons.

I’d consider riding Svaneti to better in an easterly direction (as we did it) – particularly if you’re riding the trails – but I expect riding it towards Zugdidi would be fun too.

Options:

If you’re short on time, consider creating a loop out to Tusheti and back – this is where Georgia’s wilder, more remote riding is to be found. The mountain scenery is arguably more impressive in Svaneti, but I preferred Tusheti as a complete travel experience, as it has less developed tourist infrastructure. If you’re not adverse to hike-a-bikes, consider taking a bus to touristy Stepantsminda (Kasbegi), riding to the trailhead, and hiking from Juta to Roshka, via the Chaukhi pass (the trail becomes rideable again from the three Abudelauri lakes). Then, rejoin the route from there. The first place to find food after Roshka (guesthouse) is Shatili. After that, Giveri has guesthouses, on the other side of the pass in Tusheti.

The Lower Caucasus is often overlooked. The ride between Gori and Akhaltsike was actually a highlight for me, as much of this region sees extremely little tourist traffic, bar the monastery complex of Vardzia. The Lower Caucasus is less dramatic but offers wonderful, distant views of snowy peaks and beautiful, high altitude rolling steppe. There’s a convenient train between Gori and Tbilisi, and there are regular Marshutkas between Kutaisi/Tbilisi and Akhaltsike.

Other areas worthy of exploration for lightweight bikepacking include the Borjormi-Kharagauli National Park, served by two excellent park offices at the northern and eastern entrances. There, you can find maps and local information for a few well established treks. I would have attempted such a traverse but unusually heavy rain forced me to reconsider.

Algeti/Trialeti National Parks are also recommended bikepacking destination -Ben and I tried valiantly to complete the route we’d planned but snow turned us back, given the onset of winter. If you’d like to incorporate my original route, gleaned after talking to local mountain bikers, try this  Tbilisi to Gori segment. Please let me know how it goes! An alternative to entering/exiting Tbilisi is to follow the singletrack/jeep track to Udzo Monastery, a classic local ride.

There’s more potential singletrack in Svaneti, but most involves a very high percentage of hike-a-biking. Eg: Guli Pass, between Mestia and Mazeri, for views of North and South Ushba. It’s worth climbing up to the Koruldi Lakes (a dirt road out of Mestia) for some great, up close views of the Upper Caucasus and prime camping potential. We also rode out to Zaargashi and hiked to the tongue of the Chalaati glacier. Hike-a-bikers may also ‘enjoy’ crossing from Adishi to Iprali, via the Chkhutnieri Pass. We weren’t able to attempt it due to snow.

If you’re on a gravel/adventure bike and want to avoid singletrack, it’s easy enough to ride through Svaneti without hopping onto trails. However, there’s no way to avoid the tough carry across Atsunta Pass. Aside from this, all the route should be rideable, as long as you don’t mind some rough sections.

Additional Resources

  • I wrote a feature on the ride for Cranked Magazine, Issue 9.
  • Caucasus Trekking is an extremely useful site for those considering riding the country’s trekking routes.
  • Watch the wonderful Trail to Kasbegi for inspiration! Just don’t attempt to ride this route outside of summer.

Terms of Use: As with each bikepacking route guide published on BIKEPACKING.com, should you choose to cycle this route, do so at your own risk. Prior to setting out check current local weather, conditions, and land/road closures. While riding, obey all public and private land use restrictions and rules, carry proper safety and navigational equipment, and of course, follow the #leavenotrace guidelines. The information found herein is simply a planning resource to be used as a point of inspiration in conjunction with your own due-diligence. In spite of the fact that this route, associated GPS track (GPX and maps), and all route guidelines were prepared under diligent research by the specified contributor and/or contributors, the accuracy of such and judgement of the author is not guaranteed. BIKEPACKING.com LLC, its partners, associates, and contributors are in no way liable for personal injury, damage to personal property, or any other such situation that might happen to individual riders cycling or following this route.

  • Timo Kangas

    Looks like an epic route to a very fascinating landscape. Beautifully captured stills!

  • Perfect!

  • Peter Hedman

    Incredible! The scenery is amazing. Did you ever have any particular safety concerns?

  • Cass is out on the CT, so I thought I’d chime in. I asked him the same question and he said no… except with the sheep dogs as mentioned above.

  • Doug Nielsen

    I just sat there mesmerized by the photos. Unreal. Loved this.

  • Konrad Fersterer

    Great Trip … great Country, I cycled several parts of the trail in May .. unfortunately it was too early to up the high passes ..
    will defenitely come back to finish ;-) I highly recommend going there .. people are amazing . except if they are going by car :-)
    camping is easy, getting cheap accomodation is easy, beer is very good
    I went from Akhalkalaki via Tabatskuri lake to Tsalka (actually the other way round) was very nice and remote

  • Benjamin Webb

    Hi, fantastic route cass and respect on such an epic journey:)
    So, I was just wondering what was that time of writing? Maybe it is in front of my eyes but I can’t find it.
    This is a new route on bikepacking.com, no?
    I was just wondering if you could suggest a tour in Georgia for ten days? I understand this takes a lot of planning but I just thought I would ask directly if you had any ideas or if you had sought g in mind for this timeframe.
    Stay awesome bikepacking.com
    And I will post and write what I achieved:)
    B

  • stefanrohner

    Tusheti, Abano Pass, so beautiful and hard, we have been completely drunk half way up, too much “”chacha””….

  • Cass Gilbert

    Ben, have a look in Trail Notes, I’ve outlined some other options – ways to shorten the ride and other areas that looked worthy of exploration, if you have less time. Certainly, a 10 day ride would be eminently possible, as the transportation logistics for getting around the country are relatively quick and straighforward.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks Doug!

  • Cass Gilbert

    Yeah – I had that exact same experience (-;

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks Timo.

  • Cass Gilbert

    As Logan said, none what’s so ever, bar the sheep dogs and crazy driving on highways (which I avoided at all costs). People are very kind and the country is deemed extremely safe. Camping was never an issue.

  • Benjamin Webb

    Hi bikepacking.com

    I just tried to download the GPX for this rout (Caucasus Crossing) and the link keeps on coming up as page not found?
    Now, i have been known to be a bit of a techno dummy but could someone please look at it and let me know.
    I want to ride part of this next week and i really need the map.
    i hope that doesn’t sound demanding, just a little urgent:)
    Thanks and stay awesome.
    Cheers Benjamin:)

  • Cass Gilbert

    Just hop on to the Ride With GPS site (click on view full route) and you can download it from there. Enjoy!

  • Janek Kosior

    I am reading your page all day today and I came across this beautiful route, I was planning to go to Armenia / Georgia / Azerbajian and now I know what my Georgian ( is that the word ?:) part will look like :) also I have already asked You today what to choose Surley Ogre or ECR 29 and considering difficulty of this track which one would you choose or neither ? Thanks for such a great website ! :) I am already hooked on bikepacking !

  • Just a bit of a warning… this is some hard stuff if you are new to bikepacking. I did the Tusheti portion of this route and it has some tough hike-a-bike and pretty sketchy riding (as in steep with exposure and technical bits). I would rate part of that a 9 in difficulty. Either of those bikes will do though; if you are a shorter rider (and require a size medium), I would probably go with the Ogre, otherwise 29+ is great. They are really very similar; the main difference being the tire size options as I noted in the other post…

  • Janek Kosior

    I am 185 cm tall.I was thinking of 29″ 2.5″ wheels on Ogre size LG. Maybe having 2 sets of wheels. One for day to day commuting and other for off road crazyness. 27.5″ wheels on LG frame would be ok for me sizewise ? I would change crankset to something like Surly’s OD too I dont need so many gears. Does it make sense to you ? :) I am almost sure Ogre is the answer :)

  • Christian Dupraz

    We did a similar route this month and were quite lucky with the weather, 2 weeks blue sky, only 2 short thunderstorms. Tusheti, Svaneti and Lesser Caucasus are really to recommend. The winds can be strong, one tent pole broke while camping just before Atsunta Pass.
    We went up the Military Highway (side trip Truso gorge and its high valley are very recommended) and went over Roshka pass (Juta, then piste to the first military post on 2200 m, we got our permit already at this first post and handed it back at Girevi, it is possible to cycle most of the rest to the 2500 m second military post, then you push up to the 3000 m Sadzele/Roshka pass, at around 2300 m on the other side you get on the new road, which is now built to Arkhoti valley). Tusheti clockwise is better, the Abano pass is quite steep in the valley coming from Telavi (upper section is better). At the Atsunta pass there was an advanced military post on the Khidotani Ridge.