The Magnificent Velika Paklenica Limestone Canyon: An Introduction to the Velebit Hiking Trail (Velebitski Planinarski Put)

Date: November 4, 2019
Vagabonding Day: 35
Location: Paklenica National Park (Nacionalni park Paklenica)

Anića kuk in Paklenica National Park.

The Velebit is the largest mountain range in Croatia, stretching for 90 miles (145 km) along the Adriatic and separating the coast from the interior of the country. A member of the Dinaric Alps, the Velebit boasts two National Parks – North Velebit National Park (Nacionali park Sjeverni Velebit) to the north and Paklenica National Park to the south. The rest of the mountain range is protected as a nature park.

I first learned about the Velebit in the book Walks and Treks in Croatia by Rudolf Abraham. His descriptions of this majestic mountain range had me itching to check it out for myself. So, while Daniel and I were staying in the town of Zadar, I took the bus to Paklenica National Park one day to do some hiking.

Viewing the Velebit mountains across the bay from the bus window. Yep, looks like a rainy day!

The bus from Zadar to the small town of Starigrad-Paklenica took about an hour. Rain was in the forecast and sure enough, the minute I exited the bus it started raining – hard. I was a little concerned about how my rain coat would hold up as the lining was starting to deteriorate. So I stopped off at the only outdoor store in town, Iglu Šport, and bought myself a new jacket. The store specializes in climbing gear and so I ended up with a very technical and fancy ultralight coat in the only non-pink color available. It was perfect.

The bus stop in Starigrad-Paklenica (for buses heading northwest).

New fancy raincoat!

Thus fortified for a day of trekking in the mountains, I started walking towards towards the National Park entrance. I had a lunch packed with me but I’d heard rumors that the park had a mountain hut in the backcountry. After skipping lunch at the mountain hut on my first Croatian hike to Mount Mosor, I was determined not to make the same mistake. I’d try to make it to the hut for lunch today if I could.

Velebit Hiking Trail: Starigrad-Paklenica to the Paklenica Mountain Hut

Distance roundtrip: 11 miles/18 km
Elevation Gain: 1972 feet/601 meters

My route for the day can be divided into 3 sections:

  1. From the town of Starigrad-Paklenica to the Paklenica National Park entrance
  2. From the park entrance to the parking lot following the Pjeskarica Educational Trail
  3. From the parking lot to the Paklenica Mountain Hut following the Velika Paklenica Educational Trail

I later discovered that this route is part of a much longer hiking trail known as the Velebit Hiking Trail (Velebitski Planinarski Put in Croatian or VPP for short). The 100-kilometer (62-mile) trail runs the entire length of the Velebit mountain range. Given my well-documented obsession with long-distance hiking routes, I’m salivating at the chance to hike the entire Velebit trail. It’s now firmly on my bucket list.

Section 1: Starigrad-Paklenica to the Paklenica National Park Entrance

Distance: .9 miles/1.5 km

After walking from the bus stop through the town of Starigad-Paklenica, I turned off the main road onto Paklenička ulica. The road curves past guest houses and restaurants that are all closed for the season. Rain fell steadily as I headed towards the mountains which were ominously obscured by dark clouds. The forecast promised some breaks in the rain later in the afternoon. I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

The road to Paklenica is 100 meters ahead on the left.

Walking along Paklenička ulica towards the mountains.

I soon encountered a collection of aging stone houses in the rustic hamlet of Marasovići. Protected by Registry of Cultural Heritage in Croatia, the area features an old-fashioned tavern and an ethno-house that has been preserved by Paklenica National park. The hamlet was completely deserted, save for a stray dog that trotted past and started following me companionably.

The hamlet of Marasovići.

A short time later, I arrived at the Paklenica National Park entrance booth and bought a ticket for 20 kuna ($3 USD). The ranger seemed surprised when I only bought a single ticket. I get that a lot when I hike alone.

Official entrance to Paklenica National Park.

Section 2: Paklenica National Park Entrance to the Parking Lot

Pjeskarica Educational Trail
Distance: .9 miles/1.5 km

Most people visiting Paklenica National Park arrive by car and drive 1.5 kilometers from the entrance booth to the parking lot. Since I arrived on foot, I had to walk. Lucky for me, the national park has implemented a pleasant interpretive trail so I didn’t need to hike along the entrance road.

The trail crosses this lovely creek several times.

The Pjeskarica Educational Trail officially starts at the now-defunct Paklenica mill and follows along the east side of Paklenica creek. Interpretive signs are included along the path to help educate hikers about local cultural and natural history. My doggy companion kept me company as I walked, waiting patiently each time I stopped for a picture.

The old Paklenica mill.

Walking along the Pjeskarica trail with my new canine companion.

What’s up, handsome guy?

I noticed some massive rock formations to the right as I walked. Most were marked with signs for climbing routes. I was starting to get the impression that Paklenica is popular with climbers.

The nature trail ends a few hundred meters before the parking lot and rejoins the road. My jaw dropped as I looked around in wonder. Enormous karst cliffs towered dramatically above me as I entered into the Paklenica river canyon. This just kept getting better and better.

Bridge crossing over the creek again.

Entering the Velika Paklenica canyon. Wow!

Double wow!

Section 3: Parking Lot to the Paklenica Mountain Hut (Planinarski dom Paklenica)

Velika Paklenica Educational Trail
Distance: 3.7 miles/6 km

After leaving the parking lot, the trail continues into the Paklenica river canyon. Several facilities are grouped together near the parking lot including souvenir shops, restrooms, and a museum. I imagine that these must serve hordes of visitors in the summer months. All were deserted now, with the exception of one shop selling umbrellas. Thankfully the restrooms were still open.

Trail into the park from the parking lot. This is where my doggy friend and I parted ways as he started following another group of hikers.

The restrooms are tunneled into these rock walls.

From here the trail climbs through the narrowest part of the canyon, crossing over the Paklenica river several times. The river was swollen from the recent rains and rushed powerfully along the river bed, almost gushing over its stone bridges.

Bridge over troubled waters.

The magnificent wall of Anića kuk dominates the gorge in this section of trail. At over 186 feet tall (300 meters), Anića kuk is renowned among the climbing community. The massif rose majestically before me as I ascended the trail via a series of switchbacks carved out of limestone.

Anića kuk peeks out from behind the trees.

The magnificent Anića kuk.

Stone steps ascend to the top of the gorge.

Eventually, I reached the top of the gorge and the stone switchbacks gave way to a pleasant earthen path through the woods. Trees framed the trail, their branches afire with red and yellow leaves. With the magic of autumn all around me, I felt like I was in the valley of Rivendell from Lord of the Rings.

The sun came out for a moment and shone directly on these trees. Wow!

More autumnal trees.

Walking in a tree tunnel.

I soon passed a turnoff for Manita peć cave. One of 113 caves in Paklenica National Park, Manita peć is the only one open to the public via guided tours. But like almost everything else around here, it was also closed for the season. So I kept going.

Turnoff for the Manita peć cave trail.

I saw several signs along the path advertising various mountain huts and the services they offered such as beds and food. When I began the hike, I didn’t realize that there was more than one hut. I highly doubted that they were all still open. It seemed like the entire country shut down at the end of October. But I was hopeful that at least one would still be operational.

Mountain Hut? Yes please!

True enough, the first mountain hut I passed was closed. Situated just over a bridge, it was a charming little structure nestled in among the trees. I could just imagine sleeping there at night, the gurgling river lulling me to sleep. Ah well.

This mountain hut is shuttered for the season. Boo!

A sign advertised another mountain hut about 30 minutes up the trail. I would have to hurry if I wanted to make it there and back to town in time for the bus. But I was determined to get my lunch in a mountain hut today so I quickened my step.

Hiking to the Paklenica Mountain Hut.

This mountain looks mysterious.

As luck would have it, the Paklenica Mountain Hut was, indeed, open and serving lunch today. It’s actually one of the few mountain huts open year round, I was to later find out. The hostess met me at the door and served a tasty dish of beans and sausages along with some hunks of homemade bread. It was everything I could have hoped for!

Wait… what’s that hiding in the trees over the bridge? Could it be!?

The Paklenica Mountain Hut in all its glory, open year-round.

I was joined for lunch by a young German couple and their infant daughter. They were taking some time to explore Croatia while on parental leave. The Germans are climbing enthusiasts and the hostess is a spelunker – so I got to hear a fascinating conversation comparing the merits of climbing versus caving over lunch.

Lunch at the Paklenica Mountain Hut – beans and sausages with homemade bread.

It was one of the longest conversations that I’ve had with anyone (except for Daniel) since entering Croatia. I was loathe to leave but I had a bus to catch. So I bid my new friends goodbye and started back the way I came.

As predicted, the weather cleared up in the afternoon and I had a pleasant walk to town. The sun occasionally peeked through the clouds and dried off my wet clothes. I was rewarded with even more spectacular views of Anića kuk and the craggy cliffs along the limestone canyon as I walked.

Hiking towards Anića kuk on my return trip.

The sun broke through the clouds on my return trip through Velika Paklenica canyon.

Another shot of the canyon.

One day was not nearly enough for me to adequately explore Paklenica National Park and the Velebit mountain range. In the words of your favorite Terminator and mine: “I’ll be back!”

I’ll be back!

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