Where The Mountain Greets The Sea: Starigrad Paklenica

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Where The Mountain Greets The Sea: Starigrad Paklenica

Starigrad Paklenica has been on my things to do in Croatia list since I first heard how close it was to where we live. As we drove closer and closer toward Starigrad Paklenica, the Velebit mountain which happens to be the largest mountain range in Croatia grew larger and larger, I could hear the theme song to Star Wars, and it felt like we were going to be enveloped by the mountain range ahead.

Starigrad Paklenica is a town that sits at the base of the towering Velebit mountains, in northern Dalmatia, just 40km from Zadar. Mother nature blessed Croatia when it comes to nature, and she gave Starigrad Paklenica an extra blessing by sitting the Paklenica National Park right next door.

The Velebit mountain range is a part of the Dinaric Alps & runs through Slovenia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, and reaches its highest point in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The are two National Parks in the mountain range, the National Park Sjeverni Velebit which is in the north and the Paklenica National Park, which is in the South. On a clear day, the Velebit could almost be compared to a Hollywood backdrop, with the mountains looking as though they’ve been painted below the sky.

Once we arrived in Starigrad Paklenica, we were in complete awe of the mountains rising sharply up from the sea.

Staring up towards the sky, I felt dwarfed by this immense giant, like a mere speck at its feet.

Velebit Starigrad Paklenica sights - Chasing the Donkey Croatia

 

What To Do In Starigrad Paklenica?

The best time to visit Starigrad Paklenica is from early spring all the way through to late autumn; it’s the ultimate place for nature lovers. The area has much to keep you busy and is located in an excellent position to make take day trips to neighboring national parks and towns.

Starigrad offers real diversity, where the magnificent mountains and the swirling sea meet with the town of Starigrad sandwiched between them. The area is most well known for adventure vacationers and although we’re not climbers, hikers or bikers, we spent three days at Paklenica and had more fun than we thought we would – and best of all it’s so close to our home we can go back again and again.

The main attraction is, of course, the Paklenica National Park, yet there is much more to enjoy in Starigrad than I had ever thought…

Starigrad Paklenica | Croatia Travel Blog

Paklenica National Park

Paklenica National Park was established in 1949 and is Croatia’s second oldest national park behind Plitvice Lakes in Northern Dalmatia. Croatia is home to 8 stunning national parks, all worth a visit.

Paklenica National Park is 95 km2 and lies within Croatia’s largest mountain range, the Velebit. The park consists of two dolomite limestone canyons called Velika (big) Paklenica & Mala (small) Paklenica.

The park has around 150km of hiking trails, which if you have the legs for it, will ultimately take you up to the highest peak of Vaganski Vrh at 1,757m. The mountain rises sharply from the sea, and while the park initially looks very rocky, you’ll be surprised to find that 75% of the national park is in fact forest, primarily Beech and Black Pine.

If you are into adventure sports, then Paklenica National Park is undoubtedly calling your name.

Velebit Starigrad PAKLENICA national park - Chasing the Donkey
One of eight National Parks in Croatia – Photo Credit Marko Katic

Hike, Climb, And Cycle

Paklenica National Park is the largest climbing site in Southeast Europe and by far the most popular in Croatia. Each year there is an annual Big Wall Speed Climbing event held in May, where local and international climbers race up the smooth limestone walls with prowess and agility. The current record for the 160-meter climb is a staggering 15 minutes and 16 seconds, by Croatians Jurica and Perica Levatić who have held the record for three years in a row. If you’re feeling inspired by Jurica and Perica, you can take pre-arranged climbing lessons here.

Paklenica has over 150km of hiking trails, with routes taking from just a few hours, up to an entire day. On one side, you have the towering Velebit, and on the other, you have the mesmerizing Paklenica beaches.

Velebit Starigrad Paklenica Climbing - Chasing the Donkey

Velebit Starigrad Paklenica national Park - Chasing the Donkey Croatia
Climb or hike in Starigrad Paklenica – Photo Credit Paklenica NP

Pack your bike or hire one in town and cycle through Paklenica National Park along one of the many suggested cycling path routes. The routes vary from 10-30km. Download the Starigrad Paklenica Cycle Paths guide and see which one takes your fancy.

If you love trekking, then you’ll love the Velebit Ultra Trail competition. Held every year since 2003, with four categories: 16 km, 27 km, 47 km, and, of course, for the toughest Velebit 100 km with a 6500-meter ascent. Registrations close early June each year.

Ultra trail Starigrad Paklenica - Chasing the Donkey Croatia
Slow and steady wins the race – Photo Credit Croatian TZ Aleksandar Gospić

Local Tip: The locals tell me that you would need a week to be able to cover the entire stretch of trails, so pack your comfiest hiking boots!

Photo Jeep Safari

You can’t be in Starigrad and not be captivated by the Velebit mountains – it’s commanding. To appreciate the mountain you need to get up close and personal, so we jumped in a Landrover Defender and headed up, up and up into the mountain for a thrilling off-road adventure.

Starigrad Paklenica Photo Jeep Safari
Starigrad Paklenica Photo Jeep Safari

Thanks to the efforts of men 200 years ago who painstakingly created the roads through the Karst landscape in the Velebit Mountains, we were able to spend 5 hours driving, stopping every 20-30 mins for photos and to be in awe of the view, breathing in the crisp mountain air.

As we came around the bend on one corner, down below in the distance, the rocky view changed to a luscious green pasture. With my window rolled down to take a photo, I noticed some movement in the far corner. Our guide said this area was known for wild horses and that owners of properties kept some cattle here. As we wound slowly down the road, it became clear that the black and brown blurs were, in fact, a herd of galloping wild horses.

Paklenica Velebit photo jeep safari chasing horses - Chasing the donkey Croatia Travel Blog
Run little guy, run!
Paklenica Velebit photo jeep safari wild horses - Chasing the Donkey Croatia
Wild horses running amok in Starigrad

I frantically began clicking on my camera, but with all of the bumping, I was unable to get a clear shot. We continued and came to a stop just meters from the herd. Out of the corner of our eyes, we saw a striking black stallion chasing a much smaller brown horse. Click, click, click went my camera, but I had the long lens on, which I needed to change to another. As I did the stallion circled our Jeep in laps, nipping and biting at a young brown horse. Our guide said in his years of doing the tours he has never seen such an impressive sight, and it’s an up-close moment I won’t soon forget.

During the safari, you’ll reach the edge of the arid Dalmatian side of the Velebit mountain and within two turns reach the Lika side, where neon green trees and moss stretch along the roadside. In summer the jeep safari makes a pit stop to swim in the Zrmanja (zer-marn-ja) River.

Tip: Pack tissues for your photo jeep safari. There are no toilets in the Velebit, and so you’ll need to use nature’s toilet behind a big rock. Also pack a warm coat, as even on the sunniest of days, the Velebit mountain can serve up a whipping icy wind, known as the Bura.

Bonus: This tour is kid friendly! Our jeep was pre-fitted with a child restraint, or you can supply your own.

Get Out On The Water

Rafting trips take place on Zrmanja River starting in early spring up to summer and then start again at the end of summer through to late autumn. During the low water level periods of summer, you can still enjoy the Zrmanja on a kayak or canoe.

If you’re like me and the thought of doing all that sounds too exhausting, you can take boat trips from Starigrad for the day. The family-friendly boat excursion start at Starigrad along the Zrmanja River mouth, all the way to Obrovac, and includes lunch.

The mighty Zrmanja River

Laze About On The Starigrad Beaches And Drive To Ancient Sites

Yes, beaches! I was so excited to see just how close they are to the Velebit mountain. The crystal clear waters of the beaches of Starigrad Paklenica are lined with rounded pebbles,  making it the ideal place to both enjoy an outdoor adventure holiday and to relax. The best beach we found was Kulina, right next to Večka Kula Tower, but you should also check out;

  • St Peter’s Church. Constructed in the pre-Romanesque Early Croatian style, at the turn of the 10th century.

  • Večka Kula Tower. Some locals tell you that it was a watchtower in the Middle Ages around the 14th to 16th century, while others will tell you that the tower was a once a royal court.

  • St. George Chapel. C. 9th-10th century, located just 12km away in the neighboring town of Rovanjska

Velebit Starigrad Sunsets ancient Večka Kula Tower - Chasing the Donkey Croatia
Večka Kula Tower

Head To The Wellness Spa

After a hard day hiking, cycling or even a tough day lazing by the beach, you should make use of the spa in town. Located in the Bluesun Alan, you don’t need to be a hotel guest to make a booking and enjoy the divine treatments on offer. The Wellness Centre is over 900 m2 and has seven treatment rooms available.

Starigrad Paklenica Alan spa - Chasing the Donkey Croatia

We spent a few hours here and thoroughly enjoyed the massages and facials. The spa has received an award for being an authentic Croatian wellness spa. If you only have time for one treatment, I recommend their specialty – the Mount Velebit aromatherapy treatment, which comes in two parts. First, a blend of St John’s Wort, calendula and thyme oils, which form a body scrub, are massaged onto your body, then after a quick shower, you’ll receive an hour-long relaxing massage. Total heaven. Just ask Mr. Chasing the Donkey, who also loved it.

Book the spa:

E-Mail: alan@bluesunhotels.com
Tel. +385 23209050

Take A Day Trip… Or Four

There are many day trips that can be taken from Paklenica. Our suggestions are:

  • Tour the cities of Zadar, Pag, and Nin. It’s in Pag where the award-winning Paski Sir is made, and you can take a tour like this one.

  • Krka River Waterfalls. Drive or catch the bus south along the Dalmatian coast to the Krka National Park. Spend the day swimming under the giant waterfall and touring the old stone mill.

  • Sail the Majestic Kornati Island National Park. This group of islands contains the largest number of islands in the entire Mediterranean. You can swim, snorkel and, if you’re lucky, spot a donkey on Dugi Otok.

  • Plitvice Lakes. Spend the day marveling at the oldest and most famous Croatian national park. You can walk or enjoy a boat ride through the 16 interconnected lakes.

paski sir croatian cheese -Chasing the Donkey #Croatia
Head to Pag to try award-winning cheese

Enjoy The Iridescent Sunsets In Starigrad Paklenica

Hotel Vicko Sunset Croatia - Chasing the Donkey
Sunsets in Croatia are always amazing
Starigrad Paklenica Sunset - Chasing the Donkey Croatia
Just another day in Starigrad Paklenica – Photo Credit Marko Katić

Fun Facts About Starigrad Paklenica

  • Not very far from the entrance to Velika Paklenica there are humanmade cave and tunnel system that took several years to build. It was commissioned by the Yugoslavian leader Tito during the Cold War as a fallout shelter, as he believed that Croatia (then known as the Republic of Yugoslavia) would be attacked. These tunnels are planned to be turned into exhibits at some point in the future.

  • Paklenica National Park WinnetouWay back in 1960s, Paklenica National Park doubled as the American Wild West in 11 movies filmed onsite about the fictional Native American hero Winnetou. Based on a series of popular novels written in German by Karl May, the movies have since developed a cult following and each year many flock to Paklenica to retrace Winnetou’s footsteps.

Where To Stay In Starigrad Paklenica

We stayed at the Bluesun Hotel Alan, where we spent several nights as their guest while we toured the sites of Starigrad. The hotel is located just 20m from the beach, and a few minutes drive to the Paklenica National Park. The hotel offers an in-house travel agency service to help you plan your local day trips.  In addition to a range of hotel room types, they also offer villas and camping facilities, so it’s suited to every budget.

Book or find out more

Starigrad Paklenica For Families

As you can see Starigrad Paklenica is a delightful choice for families. With so many outdoor activities your kids will have the time of their life. To help you decide if  Paklenica and other places in Croatia are right for your family refer to this guide to Croatia for families. 

Accommodation In Starigrad Paklenica

There are some accommodation options close to the national park. Including private apartments, small and family run hotels but the biggest hotel in the area is the Bluesun Hotel Alan, where we spent several nights. The hotel is located just 20 meters from the beach, and a few minutes drive to the national park entrance. In addition to the 139 hotel room, they also offer 24 villas & camping facilities.

Best of all the Hotel Alan has a wellness center, which offers full-service spa facilities at very affordable rates – the perfect way to end the day after hiking or climbing.

Another great option is Hotel Vicko, it’s family run, and very close to the National Park, you can read what we thought here. 

Hotel Vicko Starigrad

Our Choice for Accommodation in Starigrad

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How To Get To Starigrad Paklenica

It’s an effortless to get to Starigrad Paklenica. It’s located just 40km from Zadar, 260km from Zagreb, and 170km from Split. Starigrad Paklenica can be reached by the A1 Highway which stretches from Zagreb to Split. Take the Maslenica exit and then join the D8 state road, and follow the signs to Starigrad.

   View Starigrad in a larger map

So, what do you want to try on your first visit to Starigrad Paklenica?

We want you to know: Our stay at Bluesun and the activities were a part of a sponsored trip. All thoughts and opinions are given honestly and without bias.

What Is There To Do In Near Starigrad Paklenica?

There are 6 Croatian national parks accessible for day trips, all you have to do is decide if you want to raft, hike, go mountaineering, explore caves, waterfalls or head out on your mountain bike.

There are several beach spots within easy walking distance. Hotel Vicko provides complimentary beach chairs and towels for use during your stay. Also, bikes are available for rent so that you can head to some of the beaches a little further away.

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Comments (73)

  1. This post is so useful thanks! I’ll be visiting Paklenica National Park without a car – do you have any tips about where to stay that would mean the park is easily accessible by bus or other transport? Or anywhere to avoid?

    1. Sorry I have no idea. This is not an area I would you not have a car IMO. I’d ask the major hotel in the area what they offer by way of a shuttle service.

    1. Erm, I’m going to Split, Hvar, Mljet, Dubrovnik, Korcula, Makarska, Pucisca, Omis, & Zagreb but I’m only in each for a day (except Pucisca and Omis, that’s on the same day).
      I land in Split around 9am on 10th & leave around 11am on 12th, so I essentially get two full days there!

  2. Well after reading this, I think I must go to Croatia! I had no idea how beautiful it is! Thanks for posting. Very informative.

    1. You’re so welcome. When you come be sure to let me know and I can help you plan it 🙂

  3. Wow, what a stunning place! I love all your photos of the sunset. Croatia is super high on my travel list right now, and this is making me want to go even more.

  4. Looks like an amazing place to visit and somewhere that actually meshes with my travel style. I continue to ask myself why I have not been to Croatia yet after reading your posts!

  5. Thanks so much for linking up with us in #WeekendWanderlust – this is a really great article showcasing a spot that would be great to explore on a weekend trip!

    Taking a trip to explore the Starigrad Paklenica National Park and then relaxing in front of one of those gorgeous Croatian sunsets sounds like a pretty enjoyable trip to me!

    Stumbling across the Večka Kula Tower would be a cool experience also. Whenever we are out and about on our travels, we always love it when we come across such iconic structures and there are always cool stories behind them whether they are a watchtower or something closely related. Grab a local and have them tell you the stories, it is definitely worthwhile!

  6. Wow that looks amazing. I had never heard of this region either. The spa and cheese look like exactly my type of thing – what can I say, I’m lazy! Although a jeep safari would definitely suit me as well for that reason.

  7. Fabulous, I never heard of this region! I want to do the jeep photo safari– that looks incredible. The (flock?) of wild horses? That must have been an amazing moment!

  8. The off roading adventure followed by some time at a spa would be so much fun. This area is stunning but then everything about Croatia seems to picturesque. Great information.

  9. I am stunned by how thoroughly you covered this. What an excellent job and so much work! The horses and the climbing really piqued my interest. (Okay, and the cheese…lol) Great work.

    1. Thanks very much. Information is key for these lesser known places in Croatia. And yes the cheese… hmmm mmmm

  10. I’ve heard lots of great things about this park, thanks for this thorough review. The Winnetou reference made me chuckle. I remember a few of those films from when I was a kid on summer vacations to (then) Yugoslavia. 🙂

  11. I would love to go here – completely right up my alley! I’d love to do any of these activities and see the horses for sure 🙂

  12. I would love to go here – completely right up my alley! I’d love to do any of these activities and see the horses for sure 🙂

  13. We did a wonderful excursion in this lovely park almost a decade ago. I agree with you, it’s so wonderful with the mountains and the sea so close to each other. Excellent post with so much information in it!!!

  14. Wow, you were not kidding when you said the mountains were big. I would love to rock climb that (not that i’m any good)! And it must be amazing to see wild horses!! Wonderful pictures!

    1. The horses were a real surprise. The black stallion galloped within metres of us and jumped over a small mound. You could feel the ground reverberate as he galloped by. AMAZING!

  15. Amazing! You could change the name of your blog to chasing the wild horses of Paklenica 😉 but it doesn’t quite have the same ring. I was going to ask if that jeep had car seats – but you answered my question already. Plus one for Croatia being kid-friendly.

  16. Absolutely stunning! You’ve shown me so many different, lovely parts of Croatia that I wonder how it can all fit in the country.

  17. This looks like an ideal spot for some (non-wild) horseback riding. Actually (assuming that the whole Ukraine madness calms down and I can travel through the Schengen stress-free next year), what are your thoughts on booking a place for a week or two in an area like this? A bit less knows, more secluded…

    1. I hope so for you Anna. Seems like your kind of place… Starigrad Paklenica that is.

  18. This looks like a beautiful place to visit. It’s on my list for my return to Croatia…someday!

  19. This looks gorgeous – the pictures really give a flavour and the park looks amazing. Truly sounds wonderful

  20. What an amazing place with so much to do and see. My kids would love to go mountain biking there.

    1. I have said to so many people that Starigrad Paklenica is a GREAT place for kids – and don’t forget the spa for you.

  21. It is absolutely gorgeous there, there is so much to see and explore! I want to go there!

  22. Those sunsets are absolutely wonderful. Of all the options you listed, I think I would be most interested in the Photo Jeep Safari. I’ll have to hope that I am as lucky as you to encounter those frisky wild horses.

  23. This place looks lovely, I have never heard of it before. I am not a climber but would be happy to just walk around for the scenery and I LOVE wild horses!

  24. Thanks for adding the cycle path PDF. Always love looking at cycle routes for places I plan to visit in the future 🙂

  25. The scenery is absolutely stunning. I am a hiker, cycler and climber and I’d love to spend a few days here with a stay at the Bluesun being the cherry on top.

    1. They have this hotel in Starigrad Paklenica and a bunch more locations if you are keen.

  26. How beautiful. I had never heard of the Dinaric Alps but now I know I should pay a visit there one day… wherever there’s climbing is worth a visit if you ask me!

  27. What gorgeous scenery, it looks like a stunning place. Sorry have only just seen the outdoor theme, I joined through Adelina’s blog this morning! Emma 🙂

  28. Another gorgeous looking part of Croatia. You are lucky to live there, though I must admit to also being the lucky one as I too live where the mountains meet the sea. My link up is “sort of” outdoors…all about the historic grand Prix in Monaco where you SIT outdoors to watch noisy cars go round anad round! Does that count?!!

  29. These pictures are absolutely breathtaking! That photo safari sounds ideal for getting around and seeing the area. My 14-year-old self is just about squealing over those gorgeous wild horses!

  30. What a gorgeous and fun park! I would be on that photo jeep safari and then spend quite some time at the spa after some hiking. Beautiful photos!

  31. Oh my! You had me at Hiking and Climbing! Cheese and the spa, too? Heavenly! Stunning photos. My husband and I both have discussed Croatia. I don’t think I could limit it to just a couple of things on your list. I’d want to try it all! Thank you for the awesome Sunday Traveler Post! – Heather, Life of a Traveling Navy Wife

    1. Cheers Heather, Starigrad was a great place and we have already been back it was THAT good.

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