A little known natural gem with lush forests and a river running through a canyon, Ballıkayalar Park is close enough to Istanbul for an idyllic day trip of trekking, rock climbing, and camping.
By Yasemin Ulusoy
It seems counterintuitive to leave the concrete chaos of Istanbul and travel to the industrial zone of Gebze to find some green space. Around an hour’s drive from Beşiktaş, the area is full of construction sites, depots, and roads dominated by trucks. But after passing through the dusty, winding roads of the bordering village of Tavşanlı, Ballıkayalar Park suddenly materializes, greeting visitors with vibrant, bountiful nature.
Although Ballıkayalar is one of the few official nature parks in Istanbul’s vicinity with a trekking route and camping site that is open to the public, it’s still unknown to most city dwellers. On a sunny Saturday in March, only 30–40 people could be spotted on the grounds, including a large group of training climbers and a handful of campers setting up their tents for the night. This is a real escape from the crowds of the city.
Ballıkayalar was designated as an official nature park in 1995. It is home to important bird species including sparrowhawks, magpies, and nightingales, and other animals such as wild boars, moles, and foxes. Researchers have identified more than 400 plant types in the Ballıkayalar area, and 15 of these plants are rare and local to the area.
A natural stream cuts through the two kilometer long canyon, creating pools and two small waterfalls along its way. The width of the valley varies between 40 to 80 metres, and surrounding rocky summits stand up to 100 meters tall.
According to the locals, Ballıkayalar Park takes its name—meaning “honey rocks”—from the large caves in the canyon which were previously filled with beehives. Today, the beehives have been cleared, and they offer rock climbers some challenging overhangs.
The jagged limestone formations make Ballıkayalar a popular destination for beginner and professional climbers, and the park is rumored to be the birthplace of rock climbing in Turkey. Climbers have been visiting Ballıkayalar since the 1970s and have discovered more than a hundred climbing routes. It is the perfect training ground for climbers before hitting more advanced destinations in Turkey like the legendary Geyikbayırı Park in Antalya.
Once you move away from the entrance of the canyon, which is where most campers and daily visitors stay, you find yourself in the embrace of dense greenery and impressive limestone rocks. Then the sounds of the canyon’s nature—running water, singing birds, rustling bushes—are all that can be heard.
There are two main walking trails in Ballıkayalar Park. Both start at the entrance of the canyon near the parking lot. Neither trail is waymarked and it can take a couple of attempts to find the right path. Don’t be alarmed if this happens; although the space can look vast, it’s hard to get too badly lost.
The first trail follows a path leading to the top of the canyon rocks and passes through the forest, creating a loop around the canyon itself. This trail is said to be approximately five kilometers long and offers aerial views of the canyon.
The second, shorter, and more popular trail follows the stream through the canyon, passing pools and two waterfalls. The trail takes you to the end of the canyon and follows the exact same route back; the round trip is approximately three kilometers long and takes two to three hours to complete. This route is suitable for experienced trekkers, but is also a good training route for novices.
Enter the second trail by walking towards the canyon along the left side of the stream. You will be walking on sections of sand and small rocks along the river bed the whole trail. Much of the route zigzags across either side of the stream. The trail isn’t marked; if you find yourself walking away from the stream or into the forest, return to the stream and look for an alternative route. There are sections of the trail where you can find yourself at a dead end or unable to cross some of the rocks; if this happens, just trace your steps back and try finding a path from the other side of the stream.
Halfway through the trail, there are small climbs and scrambles, and a few passes over rocks paving way through the stream. The first waterfall is located in the beginning of the route and the second towards the end. These are the closest markers for estimating where you are along the trail. The entire route offers scenic spots for taking breaks. In good weather visitors come here for a crisp dip; there are sections of the stream with pools that are calm and safe for swimming.
Ballıkayalar Park is not a wilderness per se, but it is like a small Garden of Eden right at the edge of Istanbul.
- Entering the park is free. The easiest way to get to Ballıkayalar is by car, but you can also take the metro to Gebze from central Istanbul, and minibuses run from Gebze to Tavşanlı village. There are parking spaces at the entrance of the canyon costing 10 TL for the day.
- Although there is a designated picnic and camping area, there are no restaurants, only two small huts offering tea and coffee. The nearest shops for basic goods are in Tavşanlı, a five minute drive from Ballıkayalar Park. There aren’t any hotels in the vicinity, but camping is permitted in the park for 20 TL per tent. There is no internet service or electricity.
- Wearing waterproof hiking shoes is recommended, especially if you plan to walk either of the trails; normal footwear will prove too slippery on the riverbed rocks. Various companies offer daily guided tours, camping programs, and climbing lessons.