Crete's Lefka Ori (the White Mountains)

Hanion prefecture mapIt is in this mountain range in western Crete, named for its white limestone, that the Samaria Gorge (above) is found, with the mountains around and to the east of the gorge, and stretching half way across the island, and from Hora Sfakion to Soughia on the south coast.. The highest point in the range is at 2453 meters (8046 feet) at Pakhnes.

Many endemic plants are found in these mountains, with others having their center of distribution in them. The Omalos Plateau (reached from the coastal city of Hania via the road through Lakki) has fine flora, though much diminished during recent years.

It is an internally draining plateau, a common feature of limestone mountains in Greece, such plateaus once lakes which are now mostly dry. Interesting flowers are found on the rocky slopes around it, some of them flowering bushes, and trees including Cretan maple and wild pear also flower in spring. The white endemic peony (also found in Samaria Gorge) is also found here, a patch of them near the Omalos village.

On the valley floor are wild tulips, tassle hyacinths, snake's head iris, and other flowers. Woodlarks and ortolan buntings are common birds there, and scops owls live near the village; Balkan green lizards and green toads are among the amphibians found there. Other plants are found on the slopes that lead to the head of the Samaria Gorge including a very rare tree that resemble an elm (but isn't), crocuses, orchids, and others.

red anemoneHigh altitude plants, best reached by the demanding path up to Mt. Ginghilos, and best in late April to early May, depending on snow, include a large white flowered saxifrage, and a smaller rue-leaved one, the endemic sainfroin, orchids, pink-flowering prunus, and others. Higher up, in a spectacular setting with wonderful views, are very ancient cypresses of the variety, Cupressus sempervirens forma horizontalis, some of them perhaps thousands of years old, and very gnarled and impressive, the last word of their name coming from their bent-over shape. Beautiful crocuses grow in masses near the melting snow line with a lovely endemic blue and white one among them, as well as tiny forget-me-nots.. Other plants are found here later in the year. Lammergeiers, alpine choughs, and crag martins are birds seen here, as well as alpine accentors, golden and Bonelli's eagles, ravens, chukars, and other birds. The endemic wild goat, the kri-kri, is also found here. Yet other flowers grow at the highest altitudes, requiring some time to reach and return, but well worth it for both the plants and the stupendous views.

From the villages of Aghia Irini and Epanohori, west of Omalos, a little-known gorge has many interesting plants including the Cretaqn sainfoin, an endemic, shrubby crown vetch, an endemic Cretan flowering cabbage, many kinds of orchids, a large bellflower, the Cretan blue lettuce (a hasmophyte), and others. There are various routes, some of them circular, and some of them starting at the coast, offering exploration of different fascinating habitats, with good walking guides available for them.