Understanding Rila

Rila (Bulgarian: Рила, pronounced [ˈriɫɐ]) is a mountain range in southwestern Bulgaria and the highest mountain range of Bulgaria and the Balkans, with its highest peak being Musala at 2,925 m. The massif is also the sixth highest mountain in Europe (when each mountain is represented by its highest peak only), coming after the Caucasus, the Alps, Sierra Nevada, the Pyrenees and Mount Etna, and the highest between the Alps and the Caucasus. More than one-third of the mountain is occupied by the Rila National Park.

The name Rila is believed to be of Thracian origin and is thought to mean “well-watered mountain”, owing to Rila’s abundance of glacial lakes (about 200) and hot springs in fault areas at the base of the mountain. Some of the Balkans’ longest and deepest rivers originate from Rila, including the Maritsa, the Iskar and the Mesta.

Culturally, Rila is famous for the Rila Monastery, Bulgaria’s largest and most important monastery, founded in the 10th century by Saint John of Rila. Alongside the cultural landmarks the mountain is also famous for the Seven Rila Lakes.

Flora & Fauna

The flora of Rila contains three local endemics which are seen only in this mountain. These plants are Primula deorum (with the largest population), Rheum rhaponticum anAlchemilla pawlowskii. In the mountain thrives also 36 plants as Campanula lanataCentaurea mannagettae which are endemic for the Balkans. Some of the plant species have survived the last glacial period by turning into relict organisms.
Some of the animals, which live in Rila, are in danger as well. 24 of the species that inhabit Rila are listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. There are 172 types of vertebrates living in Rila and 121 of them are registered in the Bulgarian Red List of Threatened Species, 15 are recorded in the European Red List of Threatened Species, 24 are listed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature and 158 of 172 are included in the Bern Convention lists. Such animals are Barbus cyclolepis (which is rare because of the habitat loss and the river pollution), Triturus alpestrisSpermophilus citellus (European Ground Squirrel) and others.


Rila is subdivided into several parts depending on their geographic position.

  • East Rilaor the Musala Ridge is the highest and vastest part. The highest peak, as well as 12 of the 18 peaks over 2,700 m are located there — Musala, Yastrebets, Irechek, Deno Mancho, etc. The Musala Lakes lie in this part of Rila, as well as Ledeno ezero (“Icy Lake”), the highest lake of the Balkans at 2,709 m. Other lakes in East Rila include the Maritsa Lakes and the Ropalitsa Lakes. The renowned mountain resort of Borovets is also located in this part of the mountain.
  • Central Rilaor the Skakavets Ridge is the smallest part (1/10 of the total area), most famous for the glacial lakes — the Fish Lakes, Dzhendem Lakes, Monastery Lakes. The largest glacial lake of the Balkans, Smradlivo ezero (“Stinky Lake”) with an area of 21.2 km² is located in Central Rila, as well as the peaks Kanarata, Cherna polyana, Malak Skakavets and Golyam Skakavets, Rilets. The ridge of the Skakavtsi (the peaks of Golyam Skakavets and Malak Skakavets, Pchelina and Sveti Duh) rises isolated between the Levi and Beli Iskar  Another well-known ridge in the area is the one of Marinkovitsa and Vodniya chal, extending to the forest reserve of Kobilino branishte.
  • Northwest Rilatakes up 25% of Rila’s total area. The highest peak is Golyam Kupen at 2,731 m. The Seven Rila Lakes are an important landmark in this part, as well as the many remote peaks and small lakes.
  • Southwest Rilaor the Kapatnik Ridge occupies 30% of Rila and has the oldest reserve of Bulgaria. Apart from its small northern part, Southwest Rila does not have the alpine appearance of the other parts.


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