As someone who lives just a short 30-minute drive from Paklenica National Park, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting this natural wonderland numerous times. And I’m here to tell you, it’s an absolute must-visit destination.
During my initial trip to Paklenica, my wife had arranged for a local guide named Zeljko from the Paklenica National Park Service to show me around. Meanwhile, she and the little one enjoyed some relaxing beach time.
Established in 1949, Paklenica National Park holds the distinction of being Croatia’s second-oldest national park, right after Plitvice Lakes National Park (another gem you shouldn’t miss). In fact, Croatia boasts a total of 8 breathtaking national parks, each offering a unique experience.
Paklenica National Park is 95 km2 and consists of two dolomite limestone canyons called Velika (Big) Paklenica & Mala (Small) Paklenica in the Velebit Mountain is Croatia’s largest mountain range.
My wife, Mrs. Chasing the Donkey, always says that the Velebit often looks like a Hollywood backdrop on a clear day. Would you agree?
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 1757 meters.
The mountains rise sharply from the sea, and while the park initially looks very rocky, you’ll be surprised to find out that 75% of the national park is, in fact, forest, which is primarily beech and black pine.
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What Can You Do In Paklenica National Park
If you are into adventure sports, then Paklenica National Park is calling your name.
Climbing In Paklenica National Park
The first thing I noticed upon entering the park were rock climbers. They were everywhere! Zeljko explained that one of the positives for climbers who come to Paklenica is that no massive hikes are required to get to your climbing location.
The climbing positions await you just meters from the entry point into Velika Paklenica canyon. So, there is no need to drag your climbing gear with you.
As you enter the park, the walls of rock immediately surround you. Paklenica National Park is also favored by climbers because there are climbs available for all levels of experience.
I was surprised to learn from my guide that 35% of all visitors to the park are climbers. Zeljko also explained that an annual event is held each May in Velika Paklenica called the Big Wall Speed Climb.
It’s a pairs climbing event where the teams are timed climbing a staggering 160m cliff! Clearly, the quickest pair to the top wins.
When I saw the rock face that is climbed for the event, I was gobsmacked! It is scary. The record for the climb, which was done in 5 pitches, stands at 15 minutes and 16 seconds, won by Croatian Jurica Levatić in 2014.
Hiking Paklenica National Park
Paklenica National Park is a hiker’s paradise. Over 150km of trails take you from rocky canyons to lush green meadows and mountain peaks. Zeljko and I stuck to the novice trail winding our way through Velika Paklenica.
We walked beside a beautiful stream that had lots of little waterfalls. If you ever make the walk, make sure you drink some of the spring water along the way. It’s signposted, so you shouldn’t miss it. It’s so crisp and refreshing – take an empty bottle and fill it up along the way.
For those who are more experienced, the park offers various shelters and accommodations up in the mountains, so it’s possible to hike over a few days and reach mountain peaks such as Sveto Brdo, 1753 meters, and Vaganski Vrh, 1757 meters.
Most Popular Hikes In Paklenica National Park
I plan to return and take the two-hour guided tour along the mountain trail, where I can look at Manita Peć Cave. This cave is 175 meters long and is divided into two halls filled with gorgeous stalagmites & stalactites.
- Manita Pec Cave (1.5 hours)
- Forest House (1.5 hours)
- Mountain hut (2 hours) – you can even rent this out and sleep overnight in the park
- Velika Paklenica to Mala Paklenica (6 hours)
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Tips For Going To Paklenica National Park
You can start your day with blue skies, and it can end with the bura wind blowing a gale, and you find yourself soaking wet from the rain. Equally, a day on the Velebit mountain can warm up quickly, and you’ll be hot and thirsty, so visit Paklenica well prepared and stay safe with these tips;
- Hike or climb in pairs or small groups
- Be safe and wear appropriate footwear
- Bring a jacket on cooler days, as it can get very chilly in a matter of hours
- Pack plenty of fresh water (try one of these collapsible water bottles!)
If you become lost or in any danger, help is on hand by phoning 112, where the Mountain Rescue Service can be reached.
At The End Of Your Adventure
Once you’ve ended your magical day in the national park, head to Dinko’s cafe, which is just outside the entrance to the park. Owned by a local named Dinko (see what he did there), this cafe has been serving tired and hungry hikers and climbers for over 40 years.
Decorated with old climbing gear, this is the perfect place to unwind. Dinko will serve you up an icy cold Croatian beer, Paski Sir, and prsut with bread for a great price.
Let him know Mr. Chasing the Donkey said hi!
Where Is Paklenica National Park
The park’s entrance is from Starigrad Paklenica at the base of the Velebit mountains and is located just 40 kilometers from Zadar, 260 kilometers from Zagreb, and 170 kilometers from Split.
Paklenica National Park has car parking facilities available right at the entrance.
National Park Paklenica can be reached by the A1 Highway, which stretches from Zagreb to Split. Take the Maslenica exit, join the D8 state road, and follow the signs to ‘Starigrad.’
Contact Paklenica National Park for more information on entrance fees or book a local guide.
Fun Facts About Paklenica National Park
Not very far from Velika Paklenica’s entrance, there is a human-made cave & tunnel system, which took several years to build. It was commissioned by the Yugoslavian leader Tito during the Cold War as a fallout shelter; 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
Way back in the 60s, Paklenica National Park doubled as the American Wild West in 11 movies filmed on-site about the fictional Native American hero Winnetou. Based on a series of novels written in German by Karl May, the books & films have since developed a cult following, and each year, many flock to Paklenica to retrace Winnetou’s footsteps
Accommodation In Starigrad Paklenica
There are several accommodation options close to the national park. Including private apartments and small and family-run hotels, 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 rooms, 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 a family-run hotel we stayed in once (and recommend), which is very close to the national park, and they can also help you arrange climbing tours, rental equipment, and more. Hotel Vicko provides complimentary beach chairs and towels for use during your stay, and they have bikes available for rent so that you can head to some of the beaches a little further away.
Where Is Starigrad
Starigrad Paklenica is a town that sits at the base of the towering Velebit mountains in northern Dalmatia, just 40km from Zadar.
What Is There To Do In Starigrad Paklenica?
Of course, the main attraction is the Paklenica National Park, yet there is much more to enjoy in Starigrad than that.
Starigrad offers real diversity, where the magnificent mountains and the swirling sea meet with the town of Starigrad sandwiched between them. The area is best suited to adventure vacationers:
There are several Croatian national parks accessible for day trips from Paklenica.
You can pack your bike or hire one in town and cycle through Paklenica National Park along one of the many suggested cycling paths. 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 most challenging 100 km with a 6500-meter ascent. Registrations close in early June each year.
Rafting trips take place on the Zrmanja River, starting in early spring up to summer and starting 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 starts at Starigrad along with the Zrmanja River mouth, all the way to Obrovac, and includes lunch.
There are several beaches within easy walking distance, plus even more a short car ride away. I was so excited to see just how the beaches are to the Velebit Mountains. The crystal clear waters of the beaches of Starigrad Paklenica are lined with rounded pebbles, making them the ideal place to enjoy an outdoor adventure holiday and relax.
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 suggest you do what we did and jump in a Landrover Defender and head up, up, and up into the mountain for a thrilling off-road adventure.
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 approached 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 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.
Sounds fun, right? Enjoy the Velebit in the comfort of a 4×4; click here for details on the photo Jeep safari.
Drive To Ancient Sites
- 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 it was a watchtower in the Middle Ages, around the 14th to 16th century, while others tell you that the tower was once a royal court.
- St. George Chapel. C. 9th-10th century, located just 12km away in the neighboring town of Rovanjska
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.
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, and then, after a quick shower, you’ll receive an hour-long relaxing massage—total heaven.
Take A Day Trip… Or Four
Many day trips can be taken from Paklenica. My 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, catch the bus, or take a private transfer south along the Dalmatian coast to the Krka National Park. Spend the day admiring these waterfalls 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.
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Best Time To Go to Starigrad Paklenica
The best time to visit Starigrad Paklenica, home to the Paklenica National Park, depends on your preferences and the activities you plan to enjoy. Here’s a breakdown of the different seasons and what they offer:
Spring (April to June):
Spring is a fantastic time to visit as the weather is mild, and the landscape comes alive with vibrant greenery and blooming flowers. The temperatures are comfortable for hiking and outdoor activities, and you’ll find fewer crowds than in the peak summer months. It’s an excellent time for nature enthusiasts and hikers.
Summer (July to August):
This is the peak tourist season in Starigrad Paklenica, as well as the warmest time of the year. Summer is ideal for beach lovers who want to enjoy the nearby Adriatic Sea and sunbathe. However, be prepared for more crowds and higher accommodation prices during this period.
Autumn (September to November):
Autumn offers pleasant weather with slightly cooler temperatures than summer. It’s an excellent time for hiking and exploring the national park as the crowds thin out. You’ll also get to enjoy the changing colors of the landscape as the leaves turn various shades of red and gold.
Winter (December to March):
Winter in Starigrad Paklenica is the quietest time of the year, making it an ideal choice for those seeking solitude and tranquility. While it’s not the best time for outdoor activities like hiking, you can still enjoy the peaceful surroundings and perhaps engage in birdwatching or photography.
In summary, the best time to visit Starigrad Paklenica largely depends on your interests and what you hope to experience. Spring and autumn are generally recommended to balance pleasant weather and fewer crowds, but if you prefer warm weather and beach activities, summer could be your preferred choice.
Have you ever visited Paklenica National Park, or is a visit on your bucket list?