When a group of local and government organizations got together to create a pilot portion of the Via Dinarica—a network of long-distance hiking trails connecting the Balkan countries of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Serbia, Albania and Macedonia—in 2010, chances are that no one quite realized this now 1,200-plus miles of combined pathways would soon become of the world’s most epic treks. The Via Dinarica brings together a system of centuries-old trading routes, military circuits, former shepherd paths and new corridors to form a dedicated artery that not only highlights a unique historical crossroads, but also introduces wayfarers to a slice of local life as well as a spectacular landscape of mountain peaks, alpine lakes, evergreen forests and coastline.
Nat Hab’s Wild Nature of Croatia & Slovenia offers travelers a chance to experience a small stretch of this mega-trail, along with some of the most stunning national parks in two diverse Balkan countries: Croatia and Slovenia. From the turquoise waters of Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes National Park to the 6,167-foot-high summit of Slovenia’s Mount Sija, get ready to don your hiking shoes for a deep delve into one of Europe’s lesser-known—though both incredibly scenic and culturally significant—corners.
Together, Croatia and Slovenia are home to 9 national parks, some of which sit in close proximity to the breathtaking Dalmatian coast along the Adriatic Sea and others situated within Europe’s easternmost Alps, rugged mountains in which exquisite flora and fauna thrive. If you’re a nature lover, here are four of them that are absolute musts to visit (and also happen to be an essential part of Nat Hab’s Croatia & Slovenia trip).
Plitvice Lakes National Park
At nearly 75,000 acres, Plitvice Lakes is Croatia’s largest national park: a UNESCO-listed site known for its remarkable karst landscape and natural travertine dams. Located about 73 miles northeast of Zadar, Croatia’s oldest inhabited city, the park gets its name from the 16 interconnected lakes, subterranean rivers and calcium carbonate-rich waterfalls flowing over limestone rocks that make up this extraordinary natural wonder. The color of the water constantly changes from green to deep blue to clear turquoise, the result of varying mineral deposits and the transforming skies above.
Caves and sinkholes are also par for the course here, along with resident wildlife such as wild boar and martens. The park’s even home to some 50 or so European black bears, as well as 321 butterfly species flittering among a forest of fir and birch trees that cover the bulk of its landscape. As far as plants go, Plitvice Lakes hosts more than 1,400 flora species and subspecies: nearly 30% of all the flora in Croatia. This includes everything from wild lady slipper orchids to carnivorous common butterwort.
Paklenica National Park
Another park within easy driving distance to Zadar is Paklenica, a favorite among hikers for its 100-plus miles of marked trails, while climbers flock to its dramatic karst rock formations. Part of the larger Velebit Mountain UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, the park occupies part of the Velebit Mountains’ southeast slopes—a pristine wilderness carved by two vertical-walled gorges: Velika Paklenica and the smaller Mala Paklenica. It’s also where you’ll find a forest of rare and endemic black pine trees, as well as stands of beach, fern, oak and oriental hornbeam.
Visitors can wander among the stalagmites and stalactites of the park’s Manita Peć cave on guided tours, trek among the lofty peaks of the Velebit Range for spectacular coastal views, and keep a watchful eye for golden eagles and peregrine falcons circling overhead, as well as fire salamanders navigating the grounds. Wolves, lynxes and foxes roam the park’s forests and meadows.
North Velebit National Park
Velebit is Croatia’s largest mountain range—a craggy and wild landscape brimming with edelweiss and European mountain pine and a bevy of mountaineering trails. In fact, all of Velebit is a nature park, with North Velebit National Park occupying the mountains’ northern stretch. Along with Plitvice Lakes and Paklenica, it also happens to be one of the country’s six national parks that the Via Dinarica passes alongside. Walking along the trail here, you’ll have fantastic views overlooking the Adriatic Sea and some of its many islands. These include Pag, known for its distinctly flavored sheep’s milk cheese, and Goli, with its haunting prison ruins.
Brown bears, eagles and wild boar are sometimes spotted in this remote place, along with a range of flora that includes alpine sea holly, Carniolan lilies and peonies.
Triglav National Park
Established in 1924, Triglav is the second-oldest national park in Europe. It’s also Slovenia’s only national park. Named after the country’s highest mountain, not to mention its national symbol—a 9,400-foot-tall, “three-headed” peak that’s within park boundaries, is known to have inspired poets, writers and painters and appears on both Slovenia’s flag and its coat of arms—Triglav is beloved nationwide.
Hikers take to the well-marked trails winding among the park’s eastern Julian Alps and glacial valleys, wander among steep river gorges, and happen upon magnificent alpine lakes, including the crystal clear Lake Bohinj, Slovenia’s largest permanent lake, with waters ripe for swimming during summer. The park’s Triglav Lakes Valley boasts nearly a dozen lakes that sparkle in hues of teal and turquoise, thanks to the large amounts of limestone rock that line their beds.
Chamois (a short-horned type of goat-antelope) and ibex are sometimes visible climbing the park’s steep slopes, such as those on 6,305-foot-tall Mount Vogel and 6,167-foot-tall Mount Sija. Each of their peaks is accessible to hikers via chairlift, one that climbs through dwarf pine forest and ends at a panoramic plateau offering wonderful views of Lake Bohinj below. From here, you simply trek upward.
What’s more, the park is bursting with unique features, like the fallen boulders that have formed a natural walkway across streaming waters and a wealth of memorial and historic sites, including castles, farmhouses and churches. Don’t miss The Four Bold Men, an impressive sculpture that pays homage to the four local residents who first scaled Triglav on August 25, 1778.