Activities in Iran
Iran's landscapes offer up numerous opportunities to get active, with the undoubted highlights trekking, rock climbing, mountaineering and snow skiing; both diving and swimming are possible in the waters of the Persian Gulf, although these tend to be more local pursuits.
Iran’s main highways can be terrifyingly truck-dominated, but secondary routes are well-suited to cycle touring. Few locals push the pedals, but a steady stream of overlanders has long braved the traffic en route between Europe and Asia. We're not sure we'd be going any further east than central Iran right now, but that has more to do with the security situation than it does with cycling conditions.
Scuba diving and snorkelling are limited to sites around Kish Island and Qeshm Island in the Persian Gulf. There are some great coral reefs and plenty of colourful critters, although it can't rival the Red Sea or other world-class diving regions
Iran boasts dozens of high mountains, some of them permanently snowcapped. Many can be climbed by anyone fit, without the need for special equipment, experience or a guide, but you should always check the situation before embarking on a mountain trek. Early June to late August is the climbing season.
Where to Climb Mountains
The magnificent Alborz Mountains contain about 70 peaks over 4000m; those listed here are the most notable.
Mt Damavand (5671m) Northeast of Tehran, Iran’s highest and best-known peak has a classic Fuji-esque profile, but reaching the summit is not of great technical difficulty.
Alam Kuh (4850m) Mt Alam is Iran’s most technical peak with an 800m near-vertical granite wall on its most difficult northern face: a world-class challenge.
Mt Sabalan (4811m) An elegantly soaring peak usually approached from Meshgin Shahr, though it’s worth arranging guides and equipment in Tabriz.
Mt Oshturan (4070m) Too tame for climbers, Oshturan is the most accessible peak of the splendid Zagros Mountains. It has an attractive lake near the summit and is ideal for mountain walkers.
Rock climbing is growing in popularity in Iran and there are several accessible and challenging climbing routes. Hiring equipment is not easy but if you are keen you’ll probably be able to turn up to many walls and be invited to join the locals (on weekends especially). You’d be wise to check with police or tourist information offices before setting out as certain innocuous-looking climbs can overlook sensitive military posts. That said, if locals are using the climb there won’t be a problem.
Where To Go Rock Climbing
There's good climbing around Maku and Yafteh Wall near Khorrammabad. Otherwise the most appealing climbs include the following:
Band-e Yakhchal Easily accessed by hiking an hour uphill from Darband in north Tehran, there are several low walls and the 200m-high Shervin wall; there’s a hut here called Shervin Hut. The lower 25m have been set up for climbing and reports are that in summer it’s a difficult but not especially technical climb to the summit. It’s busy on Fridays.
Farhad Tarash Cliffs around the ancient collection of inscriptions at Bisotun include a particularly challenging rock face. The Kermanshah tourist information office can put you in touch with the local climbers club for support and equipment.
Alam Kuh (Mt Alam) The 800m-high wall here rises from an elevation of 4200m and is a major expedition. Kassa Tours offers a six-day trip, including acclimatisation time. Iran Mountain Zone has a thorough description of routes.
There are more than 20 functioning ski fields in Iran. The season is long, the snow is often powdery and untracked and, compared with Western fields, skiing in Iran is a bargain.
All the resorts have lodges, chalets and hotels. Ski lifts cost as little as US$10 a day. You can hire skis, poles and boots, but not clothes, at the resorts. The slopes are also some of the most sexually equal areas of Iran outside of the family home; skiing was banned after the revolution, and after the ban was lifted in 1988 the images were of women skiing in chadors. But with Khatami’s rise to the presidency in 1997 came a considerable easing of restrictions on the slopes. These were tightened somewhat under the Ahmadinejad presidency; women must still keep their heads covered, but on higher slopes there is usually plenty of hair to be seen (particularly at Shemshak). Skiing is very popular among the affluent young.
When to Ski
The season in the Alborz Mountains (where most slopes are located) starts as early as November and lasts until just after No Ruz (ie early April); around Tabriz and at Dizin (close to Tehran) it can last until mid-May. The slopes are busy with Iranians on Thursdays and Fridays, and with diplomats and expats on Saturdays; other days it should be pretty quiet. Iranians don’t get off-piste that much, so even on Fridays finding untouched powder is not hard.
Where to Ski
Some of Iran’s major ski fields:
Tehran Most accessible and with the best skiing are Dizin, Shemshak, Darbansar, Tochal and Abali.
Western Iran There is also good downhill skiing available near Tabriz and ski resorts can be found nearby at Ardabil, Hamadan and Bijar.
Zagros Mountains Smaller fields at Sepidan, north of Shiraz, and Chelgerd, west of Esfahan.
Solo trekking is possible but taking a guide is a good idea as much for translation skills and friends along the route as the actual navigation. In remote regions, especially near borders, you may stumble across military/police/security areas; in 2009, three Americans were imprisoned after straying into Iran while hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan and they were not released until 2011 – an Iranian guide or a few phrases of Farsi should hopefully smooth over any misunderstandings. Drinking water is often scarce, so take your own supplies in desert regions, and purification tablets or water filters elsewhere.
Where to Trek
One and two-day walks are possible in many areas, particularly the northwest and around Tehran. For Tehran, nearby Tochal and Darband are a good start. Further afield, Kelardasht, Masuleh and Takht-e Soleiman make good launch pads for mountain walks. Day and overnight desert treks can be easily arranged from Yazd.
But perhaps the most popular and rewarding route (in spring and summer) is through the historic Alamut Valley, once home to the Assassins, including a trek taking you across the Alborz Mountains and down to the Caspian.