The Velebit mountain is part of the Dinaric mountain range running alongside the Adriatic. An observer from the coast can easily notice its barren appearance, rugged terrain and sparse, withered vegetation. This makes the comparatively lush nature of Paklenica national park all the more remarkable. Nestled between the mountain and the sea on Velebit’s southern slopes, the 96 km2 park comprises the twin canyons of Velika (Big) and Mala (Small) Paklenica and their surroundings.
The area had been a home to nomadic pastoralists since before recorded history. The settled Bronze Age cultures that succeeded them used stone to construct fortifications and dwellings for their nobles. The remains of this Liburnian architecture take the form of oval mounds, while the accompanying stone heaps have been identified as burial sites of local rulers.
The conquering Romans in their turn used fortified defences on two occasions in an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to maintain control of the Dalmatian coast. Their efforts can be admired or mocked by visiting Modrič or Sveta Trojica, where ruined forts and towers dating to the 6th century are located. Roman presence in the vicinity of Paklenica was centered around the commercial town of Argyruntum. Having provided modern-day archaeologists with a sizeable collection of glassware – housed in nearby Zadar – as well as examples of ancient jewelry and metalwork, the site of Argyruntum (modern Starigrad) remains an enduring Roman legacy.
The knowledge that Croats are only one link in a chain of custodians of the area contributes to the atmosphere of timelessness and humility that surrounds the Park grounds.
Getting your bearings in Paklenica national park
The Park itself is an example of karst relief formation, which features many ravines, pits and sharp drops which draw the eye and dare explorers and wanderers. It is separated into three main patterns of local geography.
Flow of water through porous rock and soil has sculpted the dual canyons of Velika Pakenica and Mala Paklenica. Both are hemmed in by steep cliffs rising hundreds of meters into the air. Mala Paklenica is less wide and at 12 km in length, two kilometers shorter. The canyon shrinks to a mere 10 meters in the narrowest section, and the torrents running through it during the wet winter months are much less violent.
The rotund valley of Velika and Mala Močila rests in the tamer central area of the national park. It is encircled by scenic hills offering views of the valley floor, and a forest of black pine to the south whose resin (paklina) gives the Park its name. The rich forest environment is the most ecologically precious feature of the Park and its conservation was the motive behind the granting of national park status back in 1949.
The eastern zone of the Park transitions from a rugged, inhospitable terrain of dry thickets to the karstic tablelands around Veliko and Malo Libinje.
Making sure you do not trip over anything on Velebit mountain
The most convenient way to get around in a sanctuary of nature is on foot. There are over 150 km of marked trails to hike along, in the shade of pristine forests of oak, beech, hornbeam and black pine. The foliage conceals diverse wildlife populations, from coveted woodpecker species to the equally elusive Orsini’s viper, or the roe deer. More inaccessible slopes above the treeline house populations of chamois. A possible source of refreshment for weary travellers can be found in year-round springs of delicious drinking water at Kontinovo vrilo, Crno vrilo, Velika Močila, Stražbenica and Pećica.
If just dawdling at the foot of the Velebit mountain can take one’s breath away, the same can be said for making the climb. After all, the mountain’s highest peak – Vaganski vrh, at a vertiginous 1757 m above sea level – is within the Park’s grounds. Paklenica is a hotbed for climbing enthusiasts, with over 360 climbing routes catering to all skill levels. From spring to late autumn, the rocks and crags such as the famous Anića kuk are a draw for climbers and mountaineers. The combination of a challenging climb, fair weather and the invigorating air blown from the sea is a winning one.
Velebit’s ridges are also riddled with 37 catalogued caves and 39 pits, meaning that the views below ground are often just as spectacular. Manita peć is the cave that is most renowned for its palatial natural architecture, but other grottos offer wondrous arrangements of stone spires to visitors. Animals dwelling underground are another point of interest, providing a surprising contrast to the hundreds of bird species nesting on the cliff faces.
Naturally, traffic is forbidden in the Park’s interior. However, you can still take the elegant wheels of a bicycle for a spin along the trails – or down a slope. The bumpiest as well as the most exhilarating way of paying tribute to nature, mountain biking is another favorite pastime of the visitors to the Park. Rental apartments in Starigrad, Paklenica are the ideal camp from which to launch your daily excursions into the Paklenica national park, and whence to retire once daylight has been spent.
But at the end of the day, if you suspect you did not have time to experience everything you were hoping for, we extend our invitation to visit the Park anew in the future and resume the adventure.