Gauja National Park, Latvia

You might not first think of Latvia when mentioning a serene canoe trip through a national park which ends at a centuries old historic village.

But that’s what you’ll get when paddling the Gauja River through the National park of the same name.

Map: ResearchGate

After completing a solo bicycle trip through the Happy Isles of Western Estonia (The Happy Isles of Western Estonia), I rented a car in Tallinn and headed East and then south to explore the other side of Estonia and venture into Latvia. After exploring Lahemaa National Park in the northeast part of Estonia, I headed south and found a hostel in the college town of Tartu. Estonia is a compact country with a very good road system. Tartu is considered to be the intellectual capital of the country and there were tons of students during finals week walking about on the banks of the Emajogi River which runs through town.

Emajogi River through Tartu
A River runs through it

The hostel that I stayed at had a nice second floor patio where you could enjoy a night time refreshment while overlooking the city, or enjoy your cup of coffee in the morning.

A young German man named Jonathan was managing the place for the summer. Having also lived in Colombia in the past, his Spanish was excellent and we hit it off, speaking Spanish as our lingua Franca. He invited two other guests from the hostel to go out and have a beer in town. This time, we switched to English as our lingua Franca, as the ladies didn’t speak Spanish.

The following morning, I got back behind the wheel and headed for the Latvia border. Just before crossing into Latvia you will come up on Suur Munamagi, the highest elevation point of Estonia. Having been covered by Ice sheets during the last Ice Age, there is not a lot of topography in the country of Estonia. But I took the opportunity anyway, to check off another country high point off my bucket list.

After the equivalent of climbing about five flights of stairs, I got to the high point and found a tower erected on top of it. I climbed to the second floor of the tower, but eschewed the 5 Euro fare to take the elevator further upward. NATURAL high points count. I can truly say, it was a harder hike than to the high point in Delaware!

Tower atop Suur Munamagi

The first time I was in the Baltic States in 2013, all three countries (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia) all had their own currencies. Today, they are part of the European Union and all have adopted the Euro as their currency. The border patrol building was now closed and unmanned, and access was easy. However, the language abruptly changed. The Latvian language did not resemble the Estonian language one bit.

my rental car at the Latvian border

I had read and researched Gauja National Park ahead of time and found the Zagarkains campground near the town of Cesis. I could park the car on the banks of the river, and could rent a canoe the following day. For the sum of only 5E, I could pitch a tent next to the river and chill out until tomorrow’s paddle.

The canoe rental was affordable and I paid extra for a drop off up river, so that I would not have to paddle upstream. The following morning, a high school kid came with a truck and loaded the boat and dropped me off about 9 miles upriver. I hope he wasn’t late for class that day! I had a lovely paddle of four hours through the bucolic countryside.

The serene Gauja River

Besides seeing lots of bird life, a few outcrops of Sandstone cliffs made this a very scenic paddle.

Sandstone cliffs

The water seemed like a pane of glass, reflecting the sky above, but upon closer inspection, the current was moving at a couple of knots. A knot refers to a nautical mile, which is 1.16 statute miles. With a current behind me, all I had to do was use the paddle mostly as a rudder for steering, leaving me time to sit back and enjoy, eat a snack and snap pictures.

Egret in flight

When I saw that I was approaching a bridge over the river, I knew that the campground would be on the left bank soon after passing under the bridge. Time to turn in the canoe and check out the nearby town of Cesis.

Gauja National park is home to about 150 bird species and close to 50 mammal species. The national park also has cultural resources and not just biological ones. Just outside of the town of Cesis is the hillfort on Riekstu hill, which was built by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword in the early 1200s. It was destroyed and rebuilt a couple of times, as this area of the world has an interesting history of being on the front lines of many expanding empires.

After returning the canoe and checking out the Castle at Cesis, I headed to the town of Sigulda, which is only about 25 miles from Cesis. There I found a nice cozy and affordable lodging for the night for less than 30E. Eastern Europe is so much more affordable than Western Europe!

my lodging in Sigulda

Sigulda sits on a picturesque stretch of the Gauja River valley and has been called the “Switzerland of Vidzeme (a region of Latvia). It is home to the largest cave in the Baltic Republics and is a popular spot for bobsledding and luge in the Winter. There is a town festival in May when the cherry trees blossom. The town is compact enough to walk and has all the amenities that you might need, but still small and quaint enough to to have a personable feel to it. After a good meal and a , I got a good night’s rest and was refreshed for the next day.

A short three miles away from Sigulda is the Turaida museum reserve, which also merits a visit for its cultural significance. Entrance Fee is 6E in summer and about half that in the Winter months. Parking is limited, so you may have to pay to park in the town lot in town near the Reserve and make the few minutes walk to the reserve.

The grounds of the Turaida Museum Reserve covers more than 43 Hectares and is situated in the historical center of Turaida. It reveals historical events that took place over a thousand years ago. According to, the word “Turaida” is translated from the ancient Livonian language to mean “God’s Garden”. The reserve is open from 0900-2000 every day of the summer and from 1000-1700 in the Winter. Area sights include the Turaida Castle, a sculpture garden, a wooden church, and several other Manor buildings depicting the life of the people and their folklore.

Folks in period costume
The Sculpture Garden

Small world, but as I was walking around the premises, I ran into Tyler and Melanie from Canada, who stayed at the same hostel that I did in Tallinn, Estonia, just days ago. They were on a one year sojourn around the world, starting in the Baltic countries.

Meeting Tyler and Melanie again

On the way out of town, I stopped at the Sigulda bobsleigh, luge and skeleton track, which was built in 1986. Located just over 50 kilometers from the capital city of Riga, it has become the training center for Latvian winter sport athletes. It was closed at the time I was there, but I would have loved to visit here in the Winter months, not only to see others train, but to take a turn on it myself. The track length is 1200 meters and has 16 turns. Riding a bobsled course is something that I’ve always wanted to do. Now that would be quite a geographical journey!

The drive back to Tallinn was a pleasant trip, with the Gulf of Riga in view on the left side of the road. The trip takes a little less that four hours, so I had time to stop in Parnu, Estonia one last time and relive the bicycle trip again, before heading north to Tallinn to drop off the car.

The Gulf of Riga from the roadside

When I got to the airport to return back home, I took this picture of Air Force two at the adjacent gate. Estonia is a NATO member, and there was a joint meeting between the U.S. and Estonia about the amount of Russian troops doing “Military Exercises” just across the border. This was prior to the Ukraine invasion, but Estonia is always nervous about its large aggressive neighbor.

Air Force Two for NATO talks

I would recommend visiting ANY of the Baltic states, as there is a lot packed into a small area. Whether you travel by car, boat, bike, train or on foot, there is lots to see and experience, both in the cities and in nature.

Other posts related to this general region that might interest you are…..

The Happy Isles of Western Estonia The Happy Isles of Western Estonia a bicycle trip from Parnu through Saaremaa

The Five Times I’ve Never been to Russia The Five Times I’ve Never Been to Russia so, so close….from Norway, Finland, Estonia, and Lithuania

4 thoughts on “Gauja National Park, Latvia

  1. Thank you for your adventures around the world. Kai and I look forward to your posts, write that book? Hi to Beth … Kai said to tell you he did not miss the homework but loved hearing your stories!


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