The high mountains are one of the characteristics of the Cretan landscape. They are composed of limestone. The geological upheavals which created basins and plateaux also formed a large number of impressive caves, many of which were used for religious purposes during antiquity. The mountains of Crete make up a section of the Dinaric -Taurus chain, which starts in the Dinaric Alps and comprises the mountains of Albania, Pindus, the Peloponnese, Kythira - Antikythira, Crete, Karpathos and Rhodos, and ends in Taurus in Asia Minor.
These massifs form three large mountain complexes, each with its own personality. Between the ranges lie the mountainous or semi - mountainous zones which cover the greater part of the land. There is a third lower zone along the coast and in the interior. In western Crete, the area of Hania, are the White Mountains or Madares, a large mountain complex with scores of peaks, the highest of which is Pachnes (2453 m.). Ida or Psiloritis, a single elongated mountain mass whose highest peak is Timios Stavros (2456 m.), constitutes the main mountain complex and is also the highest point in Crete.
On the western side of eastern Crete is Dikti or the Lassithi Mountains, a range with many peaks, the highest being the anonymous "2148". The well - known plateau of Lassithi (402 sq. km.) spreads out between the peaks.
On the south side of the island are lower, mountains such as Kedros (1777 m.), which is separated from the Ida mountain range by the Amari valley. There is another small mountain range north of Ida, Kouloukonas, known in antiquity as the Tallaia mountains. The Mylopotamos valley lies between them. Mount Kophinas (the Asterousia Mountains, highest peak 1231 m.) lies to the south of the plain of Messara.
Finally, there are two large mountain complexes in the province of Sitia: to the west the Sitian mountains (the highest peaks are Kliros, 1320 m. and Aphendis Kavousi, 1476 m.) and to the east lower mountains (the highest peaks are Playia, 819 m. and Prinias, 803 m.).
Another characteristic of the land in Crete is the numerous plateaux which are generally located in the middle zone of the mountains and which act as rain water collectors in the winter. Several of these plateaux are fertile and densely populated. Others are used only for grazing. Unquestionably, the most beautiful and impressive of these is the Lassithi plateau, which is surrounded by the peaks of Dikti and lies at a height of approximately 900 m.). It is as heavily populated today as it was in antiquity. Also of importance are the plateaux of Omalos in the White Mountains at a height of 700 m. , Nida on Psiloritis at a height of roughly 1400 m. near the Idaian Cave and Askyphou. The plateaux that are at a high altitude (such as Omalos) are only inhabited in summer and are relatively easy to reach.
One of the principal features of the Cretan landscape is the many ravines which cut through the island from north to south. Most of them start in the mountainous zone and end near the sea. Their role in preserving the rare flora and fauna of the island is enormous, because they are the only regions that remain far - removed from all human activity. The best known, both for its size and its beauty, is the Gorge of Samaria, the famous "Pharangas" which is 18 km. long and which ranges from 3 m. wide at its narrowest point to 150 m. and requires five to seven hours to traverse.
A small mountain stream with cold water runs along its bottom. In walking the length of the ravine one has to cross this stream forty seven times. At many points the vertical walls of the ravine reach a height of 500 m., while the mountain peaks that surround it (Gigilos, Volakias, Zaranokephala, Pachnes) are over 2000 m. high. On the slopes of the ravine are cypress forests (Cypressus sempervirens) in their true, wild form with horizontal branches, and pine trees of the Pinus brutia type. There are plane trees at the bottom. The ravine is also full of rare Cretan wild flowers. Here is also the last refuge of the Cretan wild goat (the kri-kri) which is why the region has been declared a National Forest, meaning that hunting, lumbering, the cutting of wild flowers and staying overnight in the ravine are prohibited.
Other large ravines in Crete are the Imbriotiko, between the villages of Imbros and Hora Sfakion, the Kourtaliotiko, where the historic Preveli Monastery is located, the Topoliano, near the village of Topolia, where besides the thousands of deciduous plane trees there are some evergreen plane trees as well, and the Prasiano, in the Prefecture of Rethymnon.