A list of best hiking Croatia itineraries must include Velebit Mountain range. We take a 80km trip through Croatia’s biggest mountain range, hiking through two National Parks, one Nature Reserve, past stunning island vistas of islands Rab, Pag and entire Zadar archipelago juxtaposed to steep cliffs, deep sinkholes and rolling hills as far as your eyes can see. See a photo essay from the trip.
Velebit is one of Croatia’s largest mountain ranges. It is also a Nature reserve. Velebit’s northern part is a UNESCO protected National Park – called Sjeverni (north) Velebit. Sjeverni Velebit is the least visited National Park in the country. A fraction (less than 4%) of all National Park visitors make it here. A modest number of visitors is definitely not due to a lack of astonishing natural sights, wildlife, and cultural history. It is more because you need a pair of solid hiking boots with ankle support, some waterproofs, and some outdoor experience and a bit of grit. Off the beaten path, hard to get to, stunning scenery and tons of exciting information – that is precisely why we do our trip here. We join parts of the Velebit Long distance hiking trail and meander on and off of it to hike through some of the most stunning sites and vistas.
Best hiking in Croatia
If you want to compile a list of best hikes in Croatia then Velebit mountain range will likely be on top of the list if not dominating it with its diversity and multiple sites to visit. There are so many epic trails here. One that is both equally stunning and easiest to do is a hike around Rožanski Kukovi – specially protected reserve.
Sjeverni Velebit hiking
Most of Sjeverni Velebit National park would be hard to access had it not be for the Premužić hiking trail. It was built in the 1930s and today it keeps hikers afloat a vast expense of sinkholes and cliffs. The trail was built partially to give access to this wild part of Croatia, and partially to provide state-funded work opportunities in times of high unemployment rates in the area.
Most of Velebit is built of carbonate rocks that create different carst formations found around the Velebit mountain range. These formations are the result of a cocktail of geological forces that include sedimentation, tectonic movement, erosion by water and wind. On the topo maps you will find work ‘kuk’ mentioned often. ‘Kuk’ are carst formations (in ways similar to cliffs) rising like giant statues. As you walk in Sjeverni Velebit they dominate your vistas, but occassionally, the trail goes just around them as on the image above.
Another very interesting geological element of the karst terrain is the sinkholes. Girls in the photo above are looking at one. Just months before this trip, a group of researchers have done testing and found that in one of the sinkholes they have found 3000-year-old snow. This is not surprising if you know that a number of species that are found on the sinkholes in Velebit are found elsewhere in th world only in arctic circle. We are talking about small insects, many of which live hundres of meters deep underground that have found shelter in the sinkholes after the ice from last ice age has withdrawn. Some of these species are endemic to Velebit.
Via Dinarica hiking trail in Croatia
Now popular long-distance hiking trail Via Dinarica cuts across the Velebit mountain. It is basically a combination of existing hiking paths that have been on the range for years. Via Dinarica goes through the forests, karst formations but also plateaus carved out during the last glacial period.
Hiking Croatia in Autumn
Forests on Velebit mountain range are a combination of deciduous as well as evergreen trees and plants. Their biological symbiosis in fall creates a visual spectacle: hues of reds, greens, yellows, greens and, you wouldn’t expect it, whites. Parts of the rock are so exposed to wind that no soil can stay in place to support the plants. Patches of white rock formations frame your idyllic autumn foilage mosaic.
Hospitality and culture on a Croatian hiking adventure
Velebit mountain range has a long history of interaction with humans. Romans have built roads across it to help easy communication and movement of goods and soldiers. Different empires whom Croatians supported have harvested it’s natural resources in the base of the mountain range. In the last couple of hundred years, people have been moving their livestock for summer pastures and in places made permanent residences. Traces of those influences are obvious if you scratch the surface as you hike through the mountain range today. Notice the paths still in use for hiking today, kilometers of drywalls in now remote terrain, abandoned hamlets (and some refurbished) that now take hours of hiking to get to, mules and donkeys still used for logistics, natural caves used formerly used as shelters or man-made tunnels.
Skills for hiking in Croatia
You would be surprised at the skill level required to navigate some of the most demanding sections of the Croatian mountains. Stipe Božić, one of the most famous Croatian mountaineers who has climbed a number of 8000+m peaks in the world, including Mount Everest, has said that, from his experience, conditions found on Croatian mountains rising above Adriatic in winter are not very different from conditions you find in the Himalayas.
Your hiking holiday will probably not take time during winter, but it’s a good illustration that mountains here have plenty of skills to teach mountaineers. Some of them are really absolutely mandatory. On the more advanced level, there is climbing radiators and navigating razor shaped carbonate rocks, climbing loose scree and gravel. On the more intermediate level, there is a correct usage of polls on diverse terrain, pace management with ascending steep slopes. On the ‘foodie’ end of the spectrum, there is learning all about different spices, medicinal plants, mushrooms.
In terms of diet – expect a lot of meat. We did, however, manage to secure enough options to cater to both pescatarians, vegetarians, vegans and gluten-free diets.
Hiking Paklenica National Park
The south part of Velebit mountain range is home to two gorges: Mala (Small) and Velika (Big) Paklenica. Above the gorges is labyrinth of peaks, valley, and saddles. It is there that you find Vaganski Vrh (1.756m), the highest peak of Velebit Mountain range.
Controversy: bear refuge
There is a bear refuge close to Sjeverni Velebit National park. We visited it and while we fully support the vision of helping bears, we discovered that there is a different side to the story.
Bear refuge vision is very positive. Bear cubs found in the wild without a mother are brought to the refuge to survive. In practice, it’s a double-edged sword. Young bears spend 2 years with their mothers where they learn their tricks of the trade: what and how to eat, what not to eat, how to behave, where to find shelters. After graduating from their mother’s academy they go out on their own. Without a teacher, they don’t learn it themselves and die in the wild.
What happens when you take the bears and they are ‘adopted’ by humans? Bringing them to a human-operated keeps them alive. It makes them used to humans and dependent on human giveaways. Much like what happens with feeding dolphins. You then have the next 28 to 40 years of life in a fence.
This is where the dilemma presents to us: were the bears made for living in the small limited fenced area. I guess it’s the same dilemma we humans ask ourselves: do we settle for a ‘safe option in a cage’ or live a life infused with meaning even if that means we may fail and perhaps die? On top of that, there is a question of how do young cubs get there. Are the bear mothers shot for hunting as they are lured into hunting stations and this practice further supports hunting bears?
What is better of the two options – keep them alive in the fence or let them die on their own in the wild? It’s hard to say but I mush share an observation with you. Seeing them in this habitat, one thing becomes apparent right away. It is that the bears you see in the wild they are full of life and spirit. I’ve had the opportunity to see them in wild 2 times, once a face to face encounter with a mother and cub. In the wild, they stand upright and look at you with razor focus. They are gritty, wild and alive. The ones you see in the refuge appear to be sedated, slow and somehow sad (this being a completely subjective observation of mine). Humans were not made to sit in a cubicle and be a little wheel in a big system staring at a screen most of the awake part of the day. Bears were not made to do hundreds of circles on the inside of the fence, they are meant to roam hundreds of kilometers of vast forests and mountains.
Seeing a bear in the wild is a miracle. Seeing them in captivity just dilutes the wild experience. It is like climbing Mount Everest with an elevator. Not everyone is meant to climb Mount Everest. Not everyone is meant to see the bear live. The mountains and bears in the wild are supposed to be an inspiration to get better at hiking, climbing, navigating, being fitter, stronger so we can humbly venture in their terrain. The world today should provide us with more inspiration, not removing it from our lives.
To finish on a positive note, here is one shot from this hiking trip that inspires. We hiked on the road early in the morning. It was precisely at the time when the fog was rising up under the trees. Minutes before we could bearly see a tree in front of us. Then at one moment, sunlight cut through the branches while fog made each ray of light perfectly visible. This is why we go out to nature. So that it surprises us in ways we don’t even expect.
Complement this piece with a photo essay about a slightly more adventurous option of the route described in this post, or see a post about a different hiking route in Paklenica National Park.
On a different note, read more about island life in our main base on Molat which nicely connects to reflections on adventure travel and art of slowing down.
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‘Moving your limits’ isn’t necessarily about the highest mountains, deepest canyons or oldest ruins. But it is about great adventures. It’s about that constant pursuit of the world’s secrets – cultural as well as natural. It’s about how we move in nature and raise our expectations about each and every place in the world, moving our mental and physical limits on the way.