Since the first time I visited Romania 6 years ago, I started to hear stories about this mythical road trip on the roof of Romania along the Transfagarasan Road, that every adventurous visitor shouldn't miss on his journey to Romania.
This summer we happened to be in Romania to visit Oti's family at the beginning of the summer, and the period coincided with the opening of the road, usually accessible only for 3 full months a year (July to September). Access is restricted according to snow conditions, so be sure to check if it's open before approaching the Transfagarasan.
The Transfagarasan highway was built during Ceaucescu Regime between 1970 and 1974, and it's famous for its stunning views, winding roads and for reaching an altitude of 2.042 meters in the Carpathian mountains, second only to the Transalpina road in Romania (another scenic trip on our 'to visit' list).
Despite its misleading name, it has nothing to do with a motorway, being a two lanes road, one for each direction.
There are several attractions where to stop along the way, and possibilities can multiply according to the time you want to devote to this experience and if you are planning to sleep and hike in the area or to just cross it from beginning to end by car. If you are short in time you can even go though this 90km of road in just 2 hours, but you would miss part of its beauty, that needs to be tasted and admired slowly.
It can be run on both directions, from south to north and viceversa, and you'll find an equal number of people that will assure you that one of the two is better than the other: choose according to your instinct and convenience, or if in doubt just do both!
Since we were hitchhiking (public transport is anyway non existent here), we weren't free to go and stop wherever we wanted, but we still managed quite well taking many short rides and stopping at our convenience, so it is definitely doable also with your thumb sticking out. We started from the south coming from Curtea de Arges (the village Corbeni is a reference point on this side of the route) and took a direct ride to 'Barajul Vidraru'.
The 'classic itinerary' contemplated also a stop a few km before Vidraru Dam, to the base of 'Cetatea Poienari' a castle on top of a rocky pinnacle where also Vlad the Impaler lived, historical counterpart of Dracula. We decided that the view from the road was enough for us, and didn't want to add an extra stop, but that's totally personal.
Several people suggested us to stop also in 'Valea Lui Stan' a short but beautiful hiking path, starting just 2km before the Vidraru Lake, that was unfortunately closed at the time of our arrival because of too much water obstructing the way.
So we reached directly the Vidraru Lake and Dam and spent some time going back and forth along the route. The barrage is quite high and impressive and the view on the side of the lake is worth a stop: green covered banks anticipating a series or peaks on the background overtaking one each other and fading away towards the horizon.
But apart from that there is not much else to see here: a few souvenir stands and a tunnel leading to a parallel and non paved alternative road on the opposite side of the lake. Well, there is also an unappealing metal sculpture named 'Prometeo' on top of a hill, that looks strangely popular with Romanian visitors.
After the dam, we started hitchhiking again and got a ride with a nice couple from Bucharest, going straight to Balea Lac, the highlight of the whole trip. Right after the dam is finished, the route is entering inside a thick forest and any view toward the long artificial lake is obstructed.
But once the forest disappeared at higher altitude, we stopped on a few random locations on the way, to admire the beauty of the area and take some photos. Worth a mention is the 'Cascada Capra' a small but nice waterfall on a rocky ridge, whose presence is announced by a line of stands selling traditional Romanian products.
Soon after, we continued our trip and reached the Lake of Balea, the highest point of the whole route and the most panoramic one.
We were having an idealized vision of the lake in our minds, and we were a little bit disappointed to find out upon our arrival that a huge parking and bazar were invading what we were expecting to be a peaceful and natural location.
The area is more man-made than it was probably necessary, with several huts serving food and offering accommodation to cater for the comfort of the tourists arriving here by car.
We greeted our drivers and travel companion for a couple of hours and started exploring further the lake. We went towards a pointed chapel on top of a small hill, and luckily we already found the most known viewpoint of the whole Transfagarasan highway hiding just on its back. From here you have the stunning view of dozen of hairpin bends winding down through this amazing valley in the Fagaras Mountains: probably you have already seen a similar photo over the internet and maybe that's why you are considering to visit the Transfagarasan road!
We happened to be here for the first time around sunset, so that the reddish light hue and the contrast of the shade of the surrounding peaks was creating a magical combination adding up to the already beautiful landscape.
After our first sample of the best viewpoint, we got more intimate with the lake, going to taste its shores not far away. It is possible to hike the whole loop around this high mountain crystalline lake, but since it was getting dark, we decided to postpone it for the following day.
At this point most of the people jump back on their cars and continue on their way to Sibiu, but we came here with the intention to spend some time hiking in the Fagaras Mountains and to camp next to the lake.
Unfortunately we found out that it was forbidden to camp in this protected area, except for a single camping on a private land, that despite the payment required, was offering no services: no showers, kitchen, electricity or toilet of any kind. Luckily we had access to the restaurant toilets when needed.
The location was also not particularly inspired, far away from the lake, in a steep area with no flat space to pitch the tent, exposed to wind and next to cars and noise.
We later found out that many hikers and backpackers were going to camp at a higher altitude at Capra Lake, while possibly still forbidden by a non enforced law, where at least there was a totally natural environment in companionship of other nature's lovers.
The following day we explored further the area hiking to Balea Lake, Capra Lake, Fereastra Zmeiilor and Varful Vanatarea lui Buteanu. Read also this article if you want to find out our favorite hike from Balea Lac!
On our third day (that could still be included in your 1 day itinerary if you started early enough) we got an early morning ride to Cascada Balea, the tallest waterfall in Romania. There is also a panoramic cable car coming here all the way from Balea Lake, and different hiking routes, taking around 3-4 hours to complete. There were also many cyclist climbing all the way here, either alone or in groups, so there are transportation options available for any taste and budget. The access to the waterfall is once more marked by several souvenir and food stalls, and the entrance to the hiking path and the cascade is free.
Already from the road the view of Cascada Balea, far away on top of the forest, is revealed, and we actually found this view to be much more attractive than the one in its proximity.
It took us around 35 minutes to reach the waterfall passing mostly through a pleasant forest on a mildly uphill track, except for the last part, rising more abruptly. Bears and other wildlife are supposed to inhabit this region, but hardly you'll encounter any of them in this highly visited path.
The view next to the fall is not impressive at all as we already stated, since only part of it is visible from the bottom, due to the nature of the waterfall made of several receding steps.
Once back from the waterfall we had to walk quite a lot further down to find a good hitchhiking spot, and eventually got a ride to Cartisoara with a Road maintenance van, before continuing our trip towards the surprising Alba Iulia.
All in all we were satisfied with our first approach with the Transfagarasan highway and we would suggest to any visitor to explore this scenic mountain road and possibly to take into account some extra days to hike in the surroundings of Balea Lake and Fagaras Mountains!