Paklenica National Park is a gorgeous wilderness area in central Croatia about an hour’s drive east of Zadar. Located at the southern end of the Velebit mountain range, the park is famous for its dramatic canyons of Velika and Mala Paklenica as well as black-pine forests. Paklenica is popular with climbers who like to ascend the various karst rock formations throughout the park. The area also boasts miles of trails for those who prefer going on Paklenica National Park hiking adventures.
I visited Pakelnica National Park in November 2019 and spent an amazing day hiking a section of the Velebit Hiking Trail (Velebitski Planinarski Put). This is one of the most popular Paklenica National Park hiking trails. I did not have a car so I took the the bus from Zadar to Starigrad and then walked to the park from the bus stop.
Paklenica National Park Hiking Trails
With over 100 miles of trails, Paklenica National Park is a great destination for hikers to explore the stunning limestone canyons of the Velebit mountain range. From easy tourist routes to treks leading to the highest mountain peaks, there are Paklenica hiking trails for everyone. As with all major trails in Croatia, the paths are clearly marked with red and white signs signs and the trail crossings include direction boards.
Since I visited in the off-season, I chose to hike the Velebit Hiking Trail (Velebitski Planinarski Put) to the Paklenica Mountain Hut. This is a popular tourist trail and can be crowded during high season – however I had it practically to myself during my visit. Other popular trails include the Manita Peć Cave Trail and the Mala to Velika Paklenica Trail.
Velebit Hiking Trail (Velebitski Planinarski Put)
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 mountains in the book Walks and Treks in Croatia by Rudolf Abraham. His descriptions of this majestic mountain range had me itching to visit the mountains for myself.
I discovered that one of the best ways to explore the Velebit is my hiking 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. Since I didn’t have time to hike the entire 62-mile trail, I decided to explore a short section of it in Paklenica National Park.
Preparing for hiking in Paklenica National Park
Before setting out on this or any hike, make sure you are prepared with water, snacks, sturdy hiking shoes and any other gear you may need for the day’s weather (sun hat, rain gear, etc). Note that there are several water fountains as well as restrooms along the Velebit Hiking Trail. Be sure to leave no trace of your visit behind.
Here is a list of some of my favorite gear for day hiking.
- Hiking Shoes – Sturdy hiking or walking shoes are a must. Personally, I’m a big fan of Altra Lone Peak Trail Running Shoes. I pair them with Dirty Girl Gaiters to keep rocks from getting into my shoes.
- Socks – Good thick socks are also important. I usually wear a pair of double-walled Wrightsock Coomesh II socks with my Altras. For longer hikes, I switch to Injinji Midweight socks to prevent toe blisters.
- Backpack – A backpack is essential so you can carry water, layers, and snacks. I love Ospreys and use the Osprey Manta pack which is technically a men’s pack (because I have a longer torso than most women). The women’s equivalent is the Osprey Mira pack.
- Hiking Poles – Hiking poles reduce pressure on your joints and help maintain your balance if you trip. My current favorites are the LEKI Micro Vario Carbon Trekking Poles because they are super lightweight and fold down to easily fit into my suitcase.
- Electronics – if you are using your phone for navigation, bring a portable battery such as the Anker portable battery charger.
My Experience Hiking from Starigrad-Paklenica to the Paklenica Mountain Hut
Since I took the bus to and had to walk to the park entrance, my day included some extra walking. My route can be divided into 3 sections for a total distance of approximately 11 miles (18 km):
- Starigrad-Paklenica to the Paklenica National Park entrance – .9 miles/1.5 km
- Park entrance to the parking lot via the Pjeskarica Educational Trail – .9 miles/1.5 km
- Parking lot to the Paklenica Mountain Hut following via Velebitski Planinarski Put – 3.7 miles/6 km
Section 1: Starigrad-Paklenica to the Paklenica National Park Entrance
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.
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.
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. Note that the entrance fee is higher during peak season.
Section 2: Pjeskarica Educational Trail
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 called Pjeskarica Educational Trail so I didn’t need to hike along the entrance road.
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.
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.
Section 3: Velebitski Planinarski Put
After leaving the parking lot, the trail continues into the Paklenica river canyon. This is the official start of the Velebit Hiking Trail (Velebitski Planinarski Put), although this section is also known as the Velika Paklenica Educational Trail.
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 during my visit in November, with the exception of one shop selling umbrellas. Thankfully the restrooms were still open.
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.
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.
Junction for Manita peć Cave
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.
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.
The Elusive Mountain Huts
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.
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.
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.
Paklenica Mountain Hut (Planinarski dom Paklenica)
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!
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.
The Return Hike
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.
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!”
Hike Details and Map
Here are the details from my hike, starting from the town of Starigad-Paklenica to the Paklenica Mountain Hut and back again:
- Distance roundtrip: 11 miles/18 km
- Elevation Gain: 1972 feet/601 meters
The below route on AllTrails.com starts at the park entrance and ends at Foresters House. The route described in this hiking guide continues past the Foresters House to the Paklenica Mountain Hut.
I used the OsmAnd app for navigation during my hike and it worked quite well. Another option for navigation is the Interactive Hiking Map of Croatia (developed by Croatian Mountaineering Federation) where you can download .gpx trace of every marked hiking trail.
Paklenica National Park Entrance and Fee Information
The fee to enter Paklenica National Park varies from 20 kn ($3 USD) to 60 kn ($9 USD) depending on the season. 3-day and 5-day tickets are also available, as well as discounted passes for children and senior citizens. There is also a small parking fee if you are bringing a vehicle. More information about the entrance fees area available here: Paklenica Entrance Fees.
Paklenica National Park is located next to the town of Starigrad-Paklenica which is about an hour’s drive from Zadar.
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