Croatia with Kids: Hiking Paklenica National Park
Only 45 minutes drive from the coastal city of Zadar, Paklenica National Park is a must-see for hikers and nature lovers. Our second national park while traveling in Croatia, it’s where I planned to go hiking with my kids. Featuring twin karst canyons that run from the Adriatic sea into the Velebit massif, Paklenica is known to be a climbers’ heaven but that’s not why we came. I want to hike with my girls and my dad all the way to a mountain hut and enjoy a picnic lunch with views. My dad, a soil scientist, is terribly intrigued by the karst formations in the mountains. As for my girls, they always enjoy a good picnic walk and interesting critters along the way are a bonus.
Paklenica may be a national park, but it’s definitely off the beaten path. What with the small sign off the main coastal road that you can easily miss, the tiny visitor center where you buy your ticket and the small parking lot at the trailhead, it’s no wonder we are almost the only ones on the trail that day in April. While the infrastructures at Plitvice National Park were built for crowds, Paklenica is still a secret weekend escape for Zadar residents and it’s not very popular with the beach crowd. It’s too bad because the natural beauty of the park and its proximity to big tourist areas make it a winner for a day out in nature. Tourists who make the trip can expect a long limestone canyon, pristine forests in the mountains, unique rock formations and early in the season, clear cascading river pools with fresh mountain water. Did anybody say swim?
Our first sight after we park is a duo of climbers up the walls of the canyon. And another pair. And another. They are climbing well-equipped single pitches and some climbers hesitate as to where the hands, or the feet, or both should go. Some wear helmets, most don’t. It’s the climbing school! Oh, if only we had time, we’d love to give it a try. I get close to the wall and touch a moon-shaped hole to feel it. The limestone feels dry, sharp and “grippy,” just perfect. Paklenica is not only a hiking mountain but also a top European climbing spot. We’ll have to park that idea for later.
My girls run to the first board that displays a large map of the park. What should we do? The Paklenica Hut being a red dot at the top of a narrow loop, we decide to take the easy route in (along the river) and the rugged route out (in the mountain). Of course, the best intentions cannot withstand the powerful call of several deep pools encountered later on the river. We have no choice, fate demands that we return the same way. To get out of the canyon, we follow a series of zigzagging steps that are nicely paced but the steep grade still requires us to stop once in a while to catch our breath. In about 20 minutes, the trail gets wider, the grade eases and the landscape opens up on a wide valley with snow-capped mountains in the distance.
It can’t be snow, though. It’s way too warm and the Velebit culminates at 1,757m. Maybe the rock is so white because limestone reflects the bright sun under a cloudless sky? Whatever we’re looking at, the day becomes a lot warmer and we start shedding layers.
Off with the outside jacket! Off with the fleece layers! We are soon wearing tee-shirts and don our (newly-purchased) sun hats. The trees may still have their winter shapes but a Mediterranean spring is clearly around the corner. This park must be sizzling hot in the summer. Thanks to regular wooden signs with destinations (in Croatian) and timing estimates, the chances of getting lost are pretty slim. They even get the timing right, which is fun because it means that our walking pace is exactly the average walking pace of hikers in the park.
What’s for lunch? When I called the park office the day before, they assured me that the mountain hut would not be serving food on a Monday in April. So we’ve already stopped at a grocery store for supplies. It’s too bad, because the barbecue and domestic cheese advertised on a wooden sign sound rather promising. Our stomach is already grumbling but we decide to picnic at the hut and not before. In the meantime, we stop to drink some water because it’s getting hot. Will we have enough?
No worry. The park rangers have very thoughtfully harnessed mountain springs into drinking fountains for visitors. In fact, why do we even bother carrying 6 liters of water? My dad keeps reminding me that we could do with only 2. He may be right but I’m the cautious type. At that point, the trail is mostly flat and most of the pools on the river look extremely promising. I make mental notes of where to find the best one on our way back. There’s a big tree here, and a bend in the trail, but will it look the same on the way back? It never does. I even check my watch to have a timing estimate to the next trail junction, but the pool is so wide and clear that it’ll be hard to miss.
Honestly, it wouldn’t be human to resist such a nature beauty spot. On we walk along the trail, which has become so wide that it could accommodate a horse and a cart and a small army of scouts. Oh, wait. Horse poo! We later find out that one of the mountain huts runs donkey tours in the mountains.
After a last uphill and a few bridges, we reach the Paklenica Mountain Hut. What a lovely building it is! Built in wood on two storeys, the upper level offers a shaded balcony with doors to three or four rooms. The bottom floor is a dark open room with benches and tables, mountain-hut style. Oh, it smells stuffy and sour. We’ll stay outside, I think. A family lives in that hut and the old man in the family sits by the main door, sharpening a knife. We would love some food if they have any but no, they don’t do food this time of year. However we can buy soda cans if we’ll pack them back to the car. At the back of the terrace, a younger guy is hunched over a pile of wood with a huge ax. Splitting the wood with striking regularity, he makes it look effortless but I bet the guy’s strong as an ox. What’s the wood for, chilly nights?
No, today’s barbecued sheep. That, we learn because my dad goes fishing for information as he orders a cup of coffee as dark and thick as treacle. Apparently, it tastes like a Turkish coffee. When the wood is reduced to embers, a sheep will be placed on top of it and the metal bell lowered so that the beast cooks covered. Wow, I’ve never seen such a mechanism before. Under the trees, we sit and eat our picnic lunch and it’s all good under the sun but there is one problem. The view! We’re still in the forest and the view is pretty much only thick rows of burgeoning trees. Can we find a view nearby? The old man is the guy to ask. He sizes up my girls and announces in a tone that precludes discussions, “they cannot go to the ridge. It’s too difficult for kids.” Little does he know, but anyhow. “There’s a view 10 minutes from here.” Supposedly, the view is off the main trail a little ways uphill. Uphill? My girls decide to stay and play under the trees.
My dad and I hit the trail. About 20 minutes and three mountain huts later (including the donkey rides hut), we stop on the terrace of a closed mountain hut. I don’t want to leave my girls alone too long and decide to climb a small cliff behind the hut. It’s not high, but it’s steep and the rock is loose, all mixed with dirt. Actually, I pull clumps of grass and dirt while scrambling. I’m not so good with heights and right under the top, I stop and turn back, as glued as I can to the rock. Not looking down. I am not looking down. This is the view that I manage to snap with one hand.
It’s definitely a view and it confirms that we’re far from any pass, let alone any ridge. The mountains stretch as far as I can see and we better get back. Quickly, I grab a few bushes with my hands (the smell of wild thyme and rosemary is delicious in my sweaty hands) and I scramble down with shaky legs. At the Paklenica Mountain Hut, my girls are sitting at a picnic table and they are extremely still. Not playing? They argued right after we left and stubbornly refused to talk to each other until we returned. Kids!
Fortunately, their foul mood evaporates as soon as we’re walking and they switch to a mode that I like to qualify as dreamy. It’s a “virtual reality” state when they start inventing imaginary worlds, forget about what’s around them and quicken the pace. If I didn’t stop them from time to time, they’d be running back to the trailhead and not even notice.
Eventually, we reach the pool I coveted for so long. Swim time! It’s past mid-afternoon now and the sun is already going down but the “perfect pool” is still in the sun. It even has a nice bumpy rock to jump from into the deep spot. Isn’t life beautiful?
On the way back, we notice a big steep rock face that we hadn’t seen on the way in. It’s Anića Kuk, an impressive 350-meter wall that you can see behind the curtain of trees. I look at it as Croatia’s answer to El Capitan, only limestone and a stone’s throw from the sea. Nearby, a big board retraces the history of climbing at that spot and the tragic fate of Dragutin Brahm who died while attempting the first ascent of Anica Kuk in 1938.
Shortly after, we get back to the climbing area at the bottom of the canyon and our car. This first visit leaves me wanting to spend several days in Paklenica National Park but this will have to wait for another trip.