Canyons and Cave Towns: an Ecotourism Guide to Georgia’s National Parks

| © Zura Mchedlishvili
Ashley Pope

From bird-watching meadows to untrodden forest trails, the national parks of Georgia are a fine representation of the country’s natural beauty. Here’s our ecotourism guide to exploring eight of Georgia’s most beautiful parks.

Georgia’s setting, beside the humid southeastern shores of the Black Sea, helps to make it a green and fertile land; a land punctuated by massive mountain ranges and pooled with lakes; baking in summer and frozen white in winter. It is a country of ancient spirituality and forceful nature. In these magnificent national parks you can find yourself at one with wildlife and wilderness.

1. Tbilisi National Park


Tbilisi National Park
Courtesy of Georgia Tourism
Wildlife-watchers love to holiday in this dramatic place, 20km (12mi) from the capital, Tbilisi. Thick forests of ash, beech and hawthorn are home to lynx and noble deer while eagles and sparrowhawks wheel overhead. How you enjoy it depends on when you visit. In autumn it is dazzlingly golden. Winter turns it sparkly white. Spring brings clouds of blossom. In summer, the camping areas are oases of cool relief from the city heat. You can picnic and cycle (there are three routes for all abilities), or follow the hiking trail to Saguramo Ridge, where the eighth-century Zedazeni Monastery lies hidden among the trees.

2. Vashlovani National Park

Forest, Park

Faig Huseynov - Nature - Vashlovani National Park - 41951 - 1 (Original) copy 2
© Faig Huseynov
Who’d believe that in far-eastern Georgia, near the border with Azerbaijan, lay an area of semi-desert? The appeal of Vashlovani National Park is the ecodiversity, which includes steppes and deciduous forests of oak and elm. Backed by the Caucasus Mountains, this is a dream wilderness for mild adventurers: there are plateaus and karst caves, deep ravines and – at Takhti-Tepha – bubbling mud craters. Limestone slopes are dotted with ancient churches and convents to explore. One of the best hikes is the climb up to the fifth-century Khornabuji Fortress, infamously raided by Mongol invaders in 1264.

3. Tusheti National Park


© Vakhtang Gvinianidze/Shutterstock
It’s been dubbed Europe’s last wild frontier – and when you first glimpse Tusheti province, deep in the Caucasus Mountains of the north, you’ll understand why. Famous for having unique, centuries-old fortress-houses and fortified towers, Tusheti is cut off from the world during snowy winters, and this isolation has forged an independent culture. Tushetian cuisine is unique and delicious, using harvests of organic produce – try the shepherds’ creamy curd dish khavitsi. In summer, spend your days among hamlets and hay meadows, forests and alpine lakes. One of the best hikes is from Omalo to the village of Diklo. After four hours comes your reward: swooping mountain views.

4. Kintrishi Protected Areas

Bridge, Park

© Shutterstock
Base yourself in Batumi, a western city on the shores of the Black Sea, and drive an easy 60km (37mi) to this area of outstanding natural beauty in the spectacular Kintrishi River Gorge. Here, maritime air trapped by mountains produces a unique level of humidity, resulting in the growth of rare vegetation – Colchis box tress, Caucasian persimmon – with some plant species more than 1,000 years old; you will also find endemic beetles, salamanders and snails. Well set-up for tourists, the region is laced with hiking and horseback riding trails leading to extraordinary sites, including the notable Tamari: a 12th-century arched bridge that spans the rushing Kintrishi River.

5. Javakheti National Park

Forest, Park

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© Ekaterine Karkusashvili
In southern Georgia, on the borders of Armenia and Turkey, Javakheti National Park is perfect for a weekend getaway. It is the lake district of Georgia – perfect for angling – with countless pools of blue among the orchid-spotted green plains and weathered mountains, including the largest in the land, Lake Paravani. There are no fewer than seven routes for cyclists, hikers and riders. Bring your binoculars – bird biodiversity is impressive, numbering some 140 species, from great white pelicans to flamingos – and make note that some species will only be present at certain times of the year, passing through Georgia while migrating south to warmer climates.

6. Mtirala National Park

Building, Park

Mtirala National Park by George Khelashvili.jpg1
© George Khelashvili
Where the Lesser Caucasus Mountains sweep down to the Black Sea you’ll find Mtirala National Park – 25km (15mi) from the town of Kobuleti. A fertile region of chestnut and beech, elm and yew, it is one of the wettest regions in the land, with an annual rainfall anywhere between 1,200mm and 2,000mm (47in and 79in). Various animals inhabit this verdant region of western Georgia, including brown bears, wild boar and jackals, and nature co-exists happily with the intrepid travellers who come here to zipline and picnic, hike and horse ride. Should a day not be enough, then it’s possible to overnight here if you have camping equipment.

7. Kazbegi National Park

Natural Feature, Park

Kazbegi by Soft Light
Courtesy of Georgia Tourism

Myths swirl like eagles around the peaks of this jagged northern corner of Georgia. Legend holds that Prometheus was chained to the icy slopes of Mount Kazbegi for eternity as a punishment for showing humans how to make fire. Visit today – in season, as snow shuts it down in winter – and you will find endless hiking opportunities starting from the atmospheric little town of Stepantsminda, which is also home to some excellent places to stay. Be sure to visit the Stepantsminda Historic Museum, in the former home of writer Alexander Kazbegi (1848-1890), to see his personal belongings, as well as religious relics and local art.

8. Kolkheti National Park

Natural Feature, Park

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Courtesy of Georgia Tourism

The main attraction here, in one of the first national parks of Georgia, is the so-called Colchic forest: essentially the last vestiges of old-growth woodland in western Eurasia. Its fertility is encouraged by the humidity coming in from the southeastern shores of the Black Sea. This area is also sometimes known as the Georgian Amazon, with boat trips available on swampy Paliastomi Lake and Pichori River. Migrating birds attract bird-watchers from around the world in early spring and late autumn and you can be prepared to glimpse pelicans, swans, ducks and geese flying in formation overhead.

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