This stunning gorge is, together with Svaneti, one of the best places in Georgia to experience the Greater Caucasus mountains. The village of Stepantsminda forms a convenient starting base, as it is is located within 3 hours driving from Tbilisi and boasts a number of comfortable accommodation options. It is also a great destination for non-birders, with good hiking trails, beautiful scenery, and a number of ancient churches and pagan worshipping places.
In winter and early spring, you can go skiing in the nearby Gudauri resort. At the bottom of the gorge lies the ‘Georgian military highway’, the only passage through the Greater Caucasus which is open year round. In the past, it formed the gateway through which the warring tribes of the Northern Caucasus organized their attacks on the rich Kingdoms of Armenia and Persia. Control over this passage gave the small Iberian kingdom of Iberia enormous regional influence. A line of towers stretching all the way south to Mtskheta still testifies of these ancient times, when fires were lit on their roofs as a warning of the approaching enemy.
The recently enlarged Kazbegi National Park protects a remarkably intact mountain ecosystem. The place is great for birds, but if you’re into mammals, plants or butterflies, you won’t be disappointed. Most people come to see the ‘Caucasian endemics’: Caucasian black grouse, Caucasian snowcock, Güldenstadt’s redstart, Caucasian chiffchaff and great rosefinch. Only the snowcock is a true endemic of the Greater Caucasus – the other species have a wider regional distribution or occur also in the mountains of Central Asia. Nevertheless, these are truly spectacular birds, and it is relatively easy to see them in Kazbegi. The Greater Caucasus holds a diversity of species much higher than any other mountain range in Europe. Four species of vulture are regularly seen - you are likely to get some of the best views of Bearded Vulture of your life here. Interesting passerines include the regional race of Twite, Horned Lark, White-winged Snowfinch, Red-fronted Serin, Alpine Accentor, Wallcreeper and Rock Bunting. Many of these come down to the valley in winter to feed on the buckthorn berries, where they are easy to see. Flocks of great rosefinches and Güldenstadt’s redstarts stay around until late April or early May. If you come in spring, you’ll hear corncrakes calling everywhere, even from tiny gardens in the village. From late spring to autumn you’ll have to walk up the mountain to find the goodies. It takes 4-5 hours to reach the glacier, where most can be found. Early morning is the best time to hear the snowcocks calling and to locate the other species. Scanning the rocks is important, and you may be lucky to find a herd of East Caucasian turs.
The gorge also features some top class migration. Although good days are less guaranteed than in Batumi, raptor migration can be pretty spectacular. Count go up to 30,000 raptors on a day, the most numerous being Black Kite and Steppe Buzzards. Eagle migration can be very impressive and in late September the place can get several hundred Pallid Harriers in a single day. Apart from raptors, black storks and common and demoiselle cranes can also be observed on passage. The gardens along the river and the small woodland near the bridge are excellent for migrating passerines.