THE SAMARIA GORGE (Tennis shoes or hiking boots are a must.)
The gorge of Samaria is the second most popular tourist attraction in Crete (after the Minoan palace of Knossos) and by far the most popular walk. More than a quarter million people walk through the gorge every year from the middle of April to the end of October. In the winter the gorge (located in the National Park of Samaria) is closed to visitors because of the danger posed by water and falling stones.
The reason for the popularity of Samaria may be that it is said to be the longest gorge in Europe, it may also simply be that it is an area of stunning natural beauty, passing through forests of ancient cypresses and pines, then cutting very deep between vertical cliffs through the mountains to emerge at Agia Roumeli by the Libyan sea in the South of Crete
Do not be misled by the fact that so many people walk through the Samaria gorge and think that it is just an easy stroll: the gorge is 16 km long and the path is stony and also steep at times. If you never walk or take any type of exercise you may find it all pretty heavy going and you will certainly feel your legs for days afterwards. Don't be fooled by the fact that 95% of the hike is downhill. The first third of the trail is fairly steep in many places and there are rocks and boulders throughout the hike that you are constantly stepping over. It's the type of hike where you spend most of the time looking at your feet.
The walk through the gorge from Xyloskala (near Omalos) at an altitude of 1250 meters down to Agia Roumeli at sea level, will take you anything from 4 to 5 hours of walking time (excluding the breaks). There are 2 main entrances to the gorge. In the gorge, you don't have to stay in one group but try to follow the others in case you need some help.
You can do all portions of the gorge trip without a tour and save money. Essentially, you take a public(KTEL) bus rather than a tour bus and have to get the ferry tickets and make sure to get off at the proper stop to catch the public bus back. However most people prefer to have these arrangements made for them particularly being tired after the long hike.
MY EXPERIENCE FROM THE HIKE.
I was there in May so it wasn't too crowded or hot. However, the crowds and the heat both significantly increase during the peak season (July & August), which may adversely affect your hike. In fact, some days in the summer they need to close the Gorge because it gets too hot in the Gorge that there is not enough oxygen! By the end of the hike my legs were incredibly sore. In fact, by always going downhill one tends to overuse muscles that normally you don't use that much since you spent most of the time trying to slow down the steeper parts, made even more difficult by the fact that the rocks are often slippery due to being polished by the millions of hikers.
Injury is also a possibility on this hike. So, while the vast majority of people make it out just fine, you do have to be very careful.
There is a glorious, very cool and very clear river that follows the path and you cross over it at numerous points. This is clean mountain spring water that is perfectly safe to drink. There are rest stops where it is literally gushing out of fountains but you can drink from the river anywhere. Remember to bring with you an empty bottle to fill up between stops and make sure to drink plenty of it on the way. Also, be sure to bring something to eat to give you energy.
The last third of the hike is generally considered the most impressive. This is where you'll find the "Portes", the gates of the Samarian Gorge. It is very impressive since you are walking along the rocky river bottom with the cliff walls towering above you on both sides.
The trail ends in the town of Agia Roumeli, a resting stop for tired hikers. There is a nice beach for those who want to go swimming, a number of tavernas, convenience stores, and several hotels for anyone interested in spending the night. The only way out of Agia Roumeli is to either hike back up or catch a public ferry. Actually you have several free hours between the time you finish the hike and the ferry departing at 4:45 pm. Where you get off the ferry depends on where is your bus leaving from. The boat ride to the first stop takes about half hour.
The question is: Is the hike worth it? Most people definitely think so.