I cautiously stepped off the narrow wooden boardwalk and settled my foot onto what looked like a patch of rusty grass. And then my foot sank. Not all the way, just an inch or so—enough for the cold, red-tinged water hiding underneath to squish through and remind me that what I was actually trying to do here was walk on water.
I was in Estonia’s Soomaa National Park, in the central-western region of the country, known for its forests, grasslands, and, most notably, its raised bogs—a type of wetland in which a spongy blanket of peat grows on top of a sheet of water. They are rich with vegetation and revered as carbon sinks. Estonia has one of the largest peat bog systems in Europe, and you can go hiking in it. Or, on it.
My guide was Aivar Ruukel, who grew up in this area and opened a bed-and-breakfast along the Navesti River in 1992—just a year after Estonia gained independence from the Soviet Union. Soomaa National Park was designated in 1993, and in ’94, Ruukel became the first person to lead canoe trips here. He added bog hiking tours soon after; they are best experienced in the summer and early fall (though he also leads hikes on the frozen bog in Estonia’s cold winter).
Today, Ruukel had paddled us across a thin neck of the river in a type of wooden dugout canoe that was added to UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2021. Called haabjas, they are made from a single tree and have been indispensable to the region for centuries, not only because of the four rivers that thread through the land here but also because the rivers have a tendency to rise so high in the spring that they submerge roads, forests, houses, and meadows—and residents can only get around in canoes. They call it Estonia’s “fifth season,” a short window usually in late March or early April, when snow melt swells the waterways, sometimes in the extreme. A post on a country lane marks some of the highest water levels in recent memory: The 2010 marker is as high as a car.
Within this region is one of Estonia’s remarkable peat bogs, the Riisa bog. These marshy wetlands cover about 6–7 percent of the country. Scientists can tell that Estonian bogs are more than 5,000 years old because of the thickness of the peat layer that grows across the top: The layer grows 1 mm annually, and today it’s an average of five to seven meters thick. Imagine a spongy plush carpet floating on a pond and you’ll start to get an idea of what the bog looks like—and what it feels like to walk on top of that layer.
After Ruukel canoed our small group across the river, we stepped onto a narrow boardwalk that wends through a thin band of trees. He picked wild blueberries and bog bilberries from the underbrush, and my whole face puckered when I popped them into my mouth. I made a mental note to look for ripe ones in cakes and jams later in my trip.
We walked for a couple minutes and then emerged into the sun, and the sight wowed me: a far-reaching plain of mottled yellow, red, and green, like something out of a Van Gogh painting. Green trees lined the horizon, and closer in, I could see a few open ponds that had broken through the peat and grass. One even had a wooden swimming platform, where, Ruukel told me, people in the area often come for a dip in the cold water.
Ruukel explained that he can stick to the boardwalk on his hikes if people prefer, but those who are up for it can don the special shoes he’s adapted and tread onto the bog itself. I’m up for it—this is the reason I came to Soomaa National Park after all.
What it feels like to go bog hiking
After a short stroll on the boardwalk, I kicked off my sandals and slid my bare feet into the special bog shoes Ruukel had brought. They are similar to plastic snowshoes, with an oval frame and rubberized straps, and Ruukel pointed out that their wide footprint would distribute my weight to keep me from sinking more than an inch or so on the peat. As I stood up, I also realized that they are hilariously awkward.
I felt like a toddler plodding around in them, exaggerating each stride so as not to trip over my own feet and failing to stifle a delighted giggle every time I watched my foot squelch down into the mossy carpet. The sensation was mind bending: The buoyant peat beneath me felt securely thick and supportive but just unstable and bouncy enough to send signals to my brain that I was definitely not walking on solid ground. The only thing I could think to compare it to was imaginary: like walking on a wet, squishy cloud—sensorially disorienting in the most delightful way possible.
I eventually got the hang of it and waddled over to the swimming hole, where the peat opened to reveal a pool of deep, umber water. While the depths looked dark and mysterious, Ruukel assured me it was safe to swim here, as he’d been doing for decades. The natural acidity of the bog water prevents bacteria from growing—plus, it is rich with organic compounds that supposedly soften the skin. And so, in I went. On that hot late-August day, the water felt deliciously cool. Ruukel and I floated around for a spell, talking more about the bog and the park and his life in Estonia. Then we rested on the platform while drying off in the summer sun and eventually made our way back to the canoe and his lodge across the river for drinks and snacks.
The hikes usually run two to three hours and can include lunch; some guests may choose to stay overnight in Ruukel’s small B&B or another guesthouse, but Estonia’s beautiful capital city of Tallinn and its second-largest city (one of Europe’s 2024 Capitals of Culture and a pick for the AFAR Where to Go list) are both only an hour and 45 minutes by car, so it’s easy enough to make this a day trip. Fun fact: Ruukel is also an experienced mushroom hunter, and he and his sister will use varieties from the park’s forest to whip up such treats as a mushroom quiche and mushroom salad for your lunch, plus a delicious cake that featured some of the berries I’d sampled in the wild.
His company, Soomaa.com, also offers canoe trips, snowshoeing, and mushroom-foraging activities. But to me, nothing measures up to the wonderful weirdness of bog hiking.
How to go bog hiking
• How to book: To arrange a bog hike, a fifth season visit, or to learn how to carve a traditional dugout canoe, contact Aivar Ruukel through his company Soomaa.com. It offers a variety of tours and information about the area. The Riisa bog boardwalk is open to the public, so visitors don’t necessarily need a guide for that part (it’s also wheelchair and stroller accessible), but if you want to step off the wooden trail and hike on the bog itself, it’s best to go with an experienced guide.
• Where to stay: In Tallinn, the Hotel Telegraaf, Autograph Collection is a modern and sleek update of the city’s old telegraph office. In Tartu, Hotel Lydia is perfectly situated a block from the main square and walking distance to just about everything.
• What you need: Nothing. Bring the usuals for a hike (a hat, sunglasses, water, and sunscreen), plus watersafe shoes or sandals and a swimsuit if you want to take the plunge. Ruukel or one of his guides will provide bog shoes and you can wear them over your regular shoes or use them barefoot.