Mount Olympus is the highest mountain in Greece, at 2917m tall. It’s also one of the highest peaks in Europe in topographical terms (measuring the height relative to the lowest contour line encircling it) and, of course, it's home to the 12 Olympian gods of the ancient Greek world. You know; Zeus, Hera, Poseidon and all that lot. Bunch of troublemakers, if you ask us. This article is all about hiking Mount Olympus, as well as about that mythical history, and the little details.
Mount Olympus actually has 52 peaks. The 2,917 metre summit is called Mytikas. Below Mount Olympus you’ll find some stunning, deep gorges. The mountain is situated in the north of the country on the borders of the regions of Thessaly and Macedonia in the Olympus mountain range.
Other notable stuff about Mount Olympus? Well, it is a World Biosphere Reserve. That’s cool. It also became the first National Park in Greece in 1938. Naturally, thanks to the fact that it housed the 12 gods of ancient Greece – and they subsequently lent the ‘Olympus’ name to a niche, boutique sporting event that’s become rather popular (The Olympics) – the mountain has developed a sense of magnitude and romance quite unlike any other.
Mount Olympus: Basics and a Brief History
Mount Olympus can be found in the Olympus Range. That’s in the north of Greece. To get your bearings, that’s about a six hour drive up from Athens, the capital in the very south of the country. The closest easily-accessible airport is Thessaloniki. It’s about a one and a half hour drive from Litochoro – which is the most commonly used gateway town for climbing Mount Olympus. Litochoro is in the eastern foothills of the mountain, only a few kilometres from the sea, and the name loosely means “the city of the gods”. Makes sense.
To the northwest of Mount Olympus, meanwhile, you’ll find the villages of Kokkinopoulou, Petra, Vrontou and Dion. To the southeast, the Ziliana gorge divides Mount Olympus from the Lower Olympus mountain and the Agiga Triada Sparmou Monastery can be found to the west of the mountain.
Mount Olympus has a Mediterranean climate. It’s hot and dry in the summer and humid and cold in the winter. Winter temperatures range from -10 to 10 degrees Celsius and in the summer temperatures go from zero to 20 degrees. It often snows throughout the winter, though rain and snow is also not unheard of in the summer. Over the 2000m mark, for example, the mountain is actually snow-capped for nine months of the year, from September to May. The north slopes receive more rainfall than the northwest slopes and so the scenery can be quite different between the two.
Mount Olympus is formed of sedimentary rock. The mountain was moulded by glaciers over one million years ago and shaped over time by wind and rain. People have been climbing the mountain for hundreds of years, too. Archaeological findings on Mount Olympus have shown that the third highest peak on the mountain, Agios Antonios, was once the site of a sanctuary to Zeus.
In the modern era, German Edward Richter was one of the first people to try to reach the higher summits of the mountain. He went up Mount Olympus in 1911, but was abducted by bandits, and the Ottomen guards travelling with him were reportedly killed. A newspaper report from the time stated that the German scientist and traveller Richter was later "discovered safe and well at a place on the Greek frontier".
The summit was eventually reached on 2nd August 1913, just one year after the liberation of northern Greece from Ottoman rule. The men who reached it were Swiss climbers Frédéric Boissonnas and Daniel Baud-Bovy, guided by Christos Kakkalos – a local hunter from Litochoro. Not to be shown up by the Swiss tourists, Kakkalos was the first man to actually reach the summit of Mytikas. He then spent the rest of his days working as a guide on Mount Olympus, until he passed away in 1976.
Hiking Mount Olympus: The Climbing Route
Mount Olympus typically takes two days to climb, with a night spent in a mountain refuge along the way. The majority of Olympus isn’t a technical mountain to hike, but the finale can be tricky. The final section of the climb, from the summit of Skala Peak at 2882m to the peak of Mytikas at 2918m is categorised as a YDS (Yosemite Decimal System) Class III rock scramble.
The YDS define a Class III scramble as the following:
“Scrambling with increased exposure. Handholds are necessary. A rope should be available for learning climbers, or if you just choose to use one that day, but is usually not required. Falls could easily be fatal.”
Basically, it’s a little trickier than your average ascent and it can be a bit scary. Specifically, the climb from Skala Peak to Mytikas is a lot more committed and involves more exposed scrambling than any other point on the ascent of Mount Olympus.
An alternative route, if you’re not up for the scramble, is to take a narrow ridge line over to Skolio Peak, which is at 1911m. A lot of people do this. In fact, while nearly 10,000 people climb Mount Olympus each year, the vast majority only reach the Skolio summit.
On our climb up Mount Olympus, we do of course offer the option to summit Mytikas (weather permitting) – but Skala Peak or Skolio Peak are also options. Either way the views of the rugged outline of Olympus, and nature all around, will be stunning.
The majority of climbs start from the town of Litochoro, pictured above, and follow the road to Prionia where the hike begins. From the Prionia trail head, which is the highest point of Mount Olympus accessible by car, you head to the Spilios Agapitos Refuge. This is the busiest trail on the mountain and it’s likely you’ll meet plenty of other hikers from around the world here as you make your way through dense forests of pine, fir and birch.
You’ll continue past the Agapitos Refuge at 2100m and find yourself on a zig-zagging trail, which will take you above the treeline and give you a view of the summits of Mount Olympus.
It’s a two day mission up and down, so you will need to pop in for a stay at one of the mountain refuges along the way. That also means getting to watch the sunset over the Greek mountains, though. We stay at the small but cosy Kakkalos Refuge, which is up at 2700m. The lodge has a view over the Plateau of Muses and a backdrop of Mount Olympus’ summits.
It’s an early rise the next day, and as with any mountain climb, the chances of summiting Mytikas will depend largely on the weather and conditions on the mountain. You’ll set off, reach one of the peaks of Olympus, and then you can either head back the same path, or a different trail. We take a different trail back down to ensure some fresh views and end at the Gkortsia trailhead. From there, it’s back to Litochoro. Check out the full Mount Olympus climb itinerary right here.
Mount Olympus: The Myths and Legends
The history and mythology surrounding Mount Olympus is as much of a reason to climb the mountain as the scenery. There are few mountains in the world that can stand up to Mount Olympus in terms of romanticism or folklore. It is “the mountain of the gods” after all. It was literally thought to be the place where the ancient gods of Greece looked down on society each morning and decided who was going to be defeating centaurs and who was going to be accidentally standing in Pegasus poo.
In Homer’s Odyssey (6.42) he speaks of ‘Οὔλυμπο’ / ‘Oulumpos’, as the seat of the gods, without specifying a peak. “Olympus” was dreamt of as being a high mountain top, constantly shrouded from human eyes by clouds, and so, in most regions in Greece, the highest point of elevation actually tends to be named some variant of “Olympus”. Being the tallest of all of them, it’s no surprise that the name stuck for the great Mount Olympus.
“Olympus” was known as the home of the 12 Olympian gods of the ancient Greek world. They are, in full: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Hermes, and either Hestia or Dionysus.
The Olympians were deities. They were supernatural beings and tended to be third or fourth generation immortal. They were worshipped as the principal gods of the Greek pantheon and gained their supremacy in a 10-year war of gods, in which Zeus led his siblings to victory and rule over the previous generation of gods – known as the Titans. According to folklore, it was this battle between the new gods and the Titans which actually shaped Mount Olympus.
Zeus was the king of the gods and ruler of Mount Olympus. He was god of the sky, lightning, thunder, law, order and justice. If you’re interested, he was the youngest child of the Titans Cronus and Rhea, and was also the brother and husband of Hera (times have certainly changed in that respect) and brother of Poseidon, Hades, Demeter and Hestia.
Hades was also a major Greek god, but his realm was the underworld, as far from the lofty heights of Olympus as one could be. As such, he wasn’t considered an “Olympian” and isn’t counted as one of the 12 ancient gods of Greece who presided on Mount Olympus. So you’ll be glad to hear you shouldn’t be bumping into Hades, “god of the dead and the king of the underworld” on your hike.
It was said that the tables in Zeus’ palace on Olympus were made of gold and were actually automations created by Hephaestus. So there is a chance that you’ll see some autonomous solid golden tables wandering about the mountain by themselves.
Mount Olympus: The Tale of Bellerophon
The legends say that no human could actually climb Mount Olympus. Naturally, though, where humans are forbidden, at least one or two of us will inevitably try and reach. Enter Bellerophon.
Bellerophon was a Greek hero who was banished from home after accidentally killing his own brother. He fled to Tiryns, where he was eventually sent on a quest by the King to attempt to slay the Chimera, a fire-breathing monster who was part lion, part goat and part serpent. Bellerophon was expected to die in his efforts but, after taming the divine winged-horse Pegasus, he successfully slayed the Chimera. Due to his success, the King (who didn’t like Bellerophon very much) then sent our poor hero on further quests to try and get him killed. But Bellerophon ended up defeating pirate ogres, Amazones and even avoided direct assassination attempts organised by the King several times. He began to get a reputation with the gods as a result, and was eventually recognised as “the son of a god”.
A while after this, having got a little too big for his boots, Bellerophon decided to try and fly Pegasus to the top of Mount Olympus, where he would preside with the gods. He flew to the gates but, upon seeing him, Zeus sent a gadfly to sting Pegasus, who bucked Bellerophon off. The hero then fell from his horse and back down to Earth (literally). He didn’t die, but he did live out the rest of his days blinded, alone and in misery. Not the best ending.
Don’t worry, though. None of that should happen to you on Mount Olympus. Unless you’ve annoyed Zeus recently. You haven’t, have you? Sigh. Be careful up there.