June – July. We are day-hiking several Croatian National Parks on our journey. Strange and exotic names beckon: Ucka, Velebit, Paklenica, Plitvice, Krka, Mljet, and Kravica. How do we rate them? Read on and see!
In 2020, we hiked all across the USA. And living in North Carolina, we often day-hike the Blue Ridge Mountains. Generally, we target 4-12 miles, moderate-to-challenging trails. The critical requirement and way we judge a hike: the effort/payoff ratio. A challenging workout had better have great views or wildlife. A good example is our Silver Falls hike in 2020, with ten stunning waterfalls in an eight-mile loop. THAT is a great payoff.
In our Croatia Journey, we planned six hikes, completed four, and added one additional. While all had beautiful views, but not all were great hikes. We have our definite favorites. Here is the list, worst to first.
#5 – Učka
Učka (ooch-kah) National Park has a stellar view at the top, but the hike was disappointing! The park sits on the Istrian Peninsula with views out over Opatija and the sea. The trek was a hot mess (literally). It started in a patch of road construction, then wandered through featureless forest paths to a steep incline up a rock jumble. No views on the way up, no place to sit, and no shade at the top. Oh, and the hike finished with a few miles on a shade-less gravel road. Our advice – drive up the gravel road, hike the quarter-mile up to the top for a view, and skip the hike!
#4 – Krka
Krka is lovely, but it isn’t a hike. There are a series of seven beautiful falls. However, the park is very crowded, full of ice cream and souvenir stands. The fish are tame, waiting by the boardwalk for tourists to throw bread. The route itself is short, less than 3 miles. It had more views than Učka but wasn’t a great experience with the heat and crowds. I’m sure it would be better if we’d arrived earlier.
Fun fact about Krka: they had the worlds second alternating current hydroelectric dam, which went live three days after Niagara Falls. Both were designed by Croatian native Nikola Tesla, genius and nemesis of Thomas Edison.
#3 – Kravica (Bosnia)
Kravica (crah-veetz-ah) is actually in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but was part of our Croatia trip. It is what Krka was maybe 15 years ago, though much smaller. You can swim in the clear waters, thus ranking above Krka! There are a few vendor stands, so you can enjoy a beer after your swim (there is no hike).
Fun Fact: As B&H is about half Muslim and half Catholic, we saw everything from burkas to bikinis at Kravica!
#2 – Mljet
Ah, Mljet (mell-yet). Much of this hike was on paved or gravel around two beautiful lakes on the island of the same name. We also explored rocky side trails that highlighted the tenacity of early settlers here, where they’ve moved (literally) tons of stone to create enough bare earth for olive trees. During the 6+ mile hike, we paused to swim in a secluded area of the salt lakes. When finished, we took a ferry to a former monastery for lunch. Beautiful, I would definitely go again!
Mljet fun fact: the lakes are saltwater. Centuries ago, monks flooded the marshes with seawater to kill mosquitos and stop malaria.
#1 – Plitviče Lakes
Our favorite! Of all of the national parks we have visited (anywhere), Plitviče (pleet-veet-cheh) is truly unique. Underground waters flow through karst rock, collecting calcium carbonate before surfacing in streams. The calcium slowly, slowly ossifies in the plants along the river, creating natural stone dams. These form a series of stair-stepped lakes with hundreds of waterfalls. It looks like a fantasy land. Boardwalks go right above many of the falls and offer great views of the fish deep in the crystal water.
We came in the back gate and hike for hours before we saw other tourists. After our 12 miles around the lake, we stopped for a beer right on the water at the trailhead. Perfect! Plitviče should be on your Croatia bucket list, but get there early via the back gate!
DNF: Velebit and Paklenica
We had planned two other hikes: Northern Velebit with some of the last real wilds in Europe, and Paklenica with high coastal peaks. These would be challenges – no ice cream stands here. We enjoyed a fantastic drive along the coast on the way to these treks; it was reminiscent of California Highway 101. We skipped the hikes themselves though. The temperature was 95F by the time we arrived, and there was no shade for the 2000-foot elevation gain the hikes required. Discretion won over valor, and we continued our lovely, air-conditioned drive.
Next up… we are on to Greece, where we plan to hike Mount Olympus, Vikos Gorge, and Samaria Gorge.