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The Rila mountains, with their rugged, alpine aspect consist of peaks, ridges, steep precipices, and many pristine lakes and streams. They are most likely named after an ancient Thracian word that translates as "rich in water". This is very appropriate as the Rila are a major water catchment area in the Balkan Peninsula with two of the largest rivers in the area, the Mesta and the Maritsa, originating here, as do many of the significant tributaries of the Struma river.
The Rila are in the southwest of Bulgaria and extend for 83 and 52 kilometres east to west, and north to south, respectively. They encompass 2629 square kilometres, have an average height of almost 1490m asl., and have 140 peaks rising to above 2000m asl. The highest mountain summit in the entire Balkan Peninsula is situated in the Rila, Mt. Musala at 2925m asl., which is 8m higher than Mt. Mitikas in Greece's Olympos mountain range. About 80% of the annual precipitation on Mt. Musala falls as snow, with most of the snow lying for approximately 250 days each year.
The Rila are separated by the Predel Pass (1142m asl.) from the Pirin mountains to the south, by the Avramova Saddle (1295m asl.) from the Rhodope mountains to the east, and are bordered in the west by the Struma river.
The Rila have four distinct regions. The largest is eastern Rila (35% of the total area) with an average height of 1620m asl., and 53 peaks exceeding 2000m asl., including Mt. Musala. Southwestern Rila (30%) has the lowest average height at 1035m asl., with 24 peaks exceeding 2000m asl., and Mt. Angelov Vruh the highest at 2643m asl. Northwestern Rila (25%) has an average altitude of 1555m asl., with 34 peaks exceeding 2000m asl., and the highest being Mt Golyam Kupen at 2731m asl. The smallest region is Central Rila (10%), which has the highest average altitude, 2077m asl., and has 29 peaks over 2000m asl., with the highest being Mt. Cherna Polyana at 2716m asl.