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Papuk Nature Park: Croatia’s Only UNESCO Geopark
As a nature lover, you won’t have any trouble finding great places to go hiking, camping, biking or boating in Croatia. We’ve covered many interesting places to explore like Plitvice Lakes National Park (arguably the most famous park in Croatia), several stunning natural treasures like Croatia’s idyllic islands, family-friendly nature spots and even where to go camping.
But, after I traveled to Slavonia in the eastern part of Croatia last week, I was blown away by the natural and cultural diversity of this region.
Slavonia is a much less visited part of Croatia, but it’s here that you’ll find Papuk Nature Park, which may just be the most underrated Croatian park – and since 2015 it also happens to be Croatia’s first and only UNESCO Geopark.
Nature Immersion In Slavonia
Lowland plains, farmlands, pristine forests, and rolling mountains characterize the Slavonian landscape.
I boarded the bus bound for Slavonia at 7 am and promptly went back to sleep knowing I had a big travel day ahead. I was awoken by the bumpy road leading to Papuk Nature Park; it was apparent Slavonia is a lush and green region, I was in awe when I saw first-hand just how green it is (and mind you, it’s still summer!).
I also then came to learn that Papuk is home to an abundance of wildlife and a fantastic destination for outdoor enthusiasts.
Papuk Nature Park was established in 1999 to protect the region’s biological and geological diversity as well as its cultural heritage and historic sites.
This is simply a delightful place to visit – particularly if you have children. It’s far removed from the hustle and bustle of the Dalmatian coast; it is an oasis of peace and a geological wonderland.
What To Do In Papuk Nature Park
The centerpiece of the park is Papuk Mountain, the highest mountain in Slavonia. Besides mountains, the park also consists of exceptional centuries-old beech forests, waterfalls, caves, lakes and rivers, and extraordinary biodiversity.
My guide was Goran, a geologist; who was ever so kind with answering all of my questions.
The park lies in a low-lying area in Slavonia known as Pannonia, which is also home to the Slavonia Highlands. The mountains that dominate this landscape are by no means high—up to 1,000 meters—but because the valleys are so low, they are very prominent and visible. Thick forests cover virtually the entire landscape, from valley to mountain, and set this particular region apart from the rest of Slavonia.
Papuk Nature Park is 336 km2. You can’t access every square inch of course, so if you’re planning on going to Papuk—and you should—make sure not to miss the following attractions in Papuk Nature Park.
Jankovac Forest Park
There are ten different natural forest communities in Papuk Nature Park, woods covering about 95% of the entire park. Its lower areas are predominantly hornbeam and oak forest, while the higher altitudes are where you’ll find the beech forests.
These various forest types harbor myriad wildlife, especially birds such as Croatian stock doves, collared flycatchers, jays, and woodpeckers. Mammals, too, inhabit the woods. Lucky visitors might spot a deer, wild boar, fox, marten or bats.
The Jankovac Forest Park is one of the half-dozen areas within the park with a higher protection status, set aside for its populations of rare and endangered animals and fungi. There are several nature trails there, allowing you to explore and experience this pristine woodland from up close.
We took a walk of around 500m, which was easy to do – well, besides the fact it had rained in the morning, and there was some mud about. I’d say you can bring kids along, so long as you all have good travel shoes.
There is just one small section that you can push a stroller or wheelchair, but the park has plans to extend this section to make more of Jankovac more accessible.
In Jankovac, you’ll find both Jankovac Lake and the Jankovac Mountain Lodge, the park’s main lodge (see more on that below). A short distance from the lake lies the Skakavac Waterfall, arguably the most beautiful waterfall in Papuk Nature Park.
This waterfall was a little tricky to get to for me. I am a clumsy old fool, and I had to be helped along as the track was muddy and very slippery. There are sections that are wooden or rock, making it a little easier.
Some sections of the trail would be no good for small children, and even perhaps considered unsafe. So only take children along who you can carry without trouble, or who can listen to instructions. The walk to the waterfall, and back in approx 1km.
This waterfall was not in full force, as it’s summer – though Goran explained to me that in the spring the fall can get up to 10m wide and will soak you if you stand on the landing! So take a waterproof jacket with you.
Gah, my tour did not go here. But I can’t not add this to the list, as it just looks so damn good.
The peaks of Papuk Nature Park’s mountains proved very strategic locations for fortifications in the Middle Ages. Of those ancient structures, eight are left in the park, and a visit to one or more of them is highly recommended. Most of those medieval fortifications date from the 13th and 14th centuries and indicate the historical importance of the Papuk area. They protected the Croatian hinterland from invasions from the east, most notably against the Turks.
The best-preserved fortification is Ružica, the “old citadel” located near the town of Orahovica, which was first recorded in 1228 in King Andrew II’s documents. The first mention of Ružica as a fort dates from 1357.
Regarding cultural heritage in Slavonia, few places are more fascinating than this ancient edifice, a superb example of local Gothic and Renaissance castle architecture. This is, in fact, one of the largest remaining medieval town-fortresses in Croatia.
Another place you want might want to check out is Velički Grad, a 13th-century town situated north of Velika. Alternatively, above the village of Drenovac, you’ll find the ruins of the Klak Citadel, while the fortified citadel of Kamengrad lies near Kamenski Vučjak.
Near Voćin lies an outcrop of square and hexagonal prismatic rock pillars. These columnar basalt formations are known as Rupnica and are one of the star attractions in Papuk Nature Park.
Created by volcanic lava flows—some researchers say up to 70 million years ago, others claim it was more recent—Rupnica is of such geological importance that it became Croatia’s first natural heritage site in 1948.
It’s thanks to extraordinary places like this that Papuk Nature Park was awarded the UNESCO Geopark status.
The Sekulinačke Mountains are another extra-protected area within Papuk Nature Park. Just like Rupnica, it lies in the Voćin area. This important forest reserve is home to primeval mountain beech and fir forests.
Beech forests once covered much of Europe, but are now reduced to small surviving pockets spread across the continent. This is one of the few places where you can still go for hikes in pristine mountain beech forests, and that’s precisely why Papuk is such an excellent destination for nature lovers.
Two Oaks Nature Monument
One of the top things to do in Papuk Nature Park is visiting the Two Oaks Nature Monument. This area protects two giant Sessile oaks, both estimated to be 400 to 500 years old. What’s certain is that they are the oldest living organisms in Slavonia, but it’s also said that they may just be the two largest living things in this part of Croatia, too.
Pliš, Mališcak, Turjak And Lapjak Hills
The four Pliš, Mališcak, Turjak, and Lapjak Hills together make another specially protected area. This is a floristic reserve, given additional protection because of its large numbers of endemic and threatened plants, among which are several orchids. In northeastern Croatia, the blue anemone and rose daphne, for example, only grow in this small, 190-hectare reserve. Nowhere in Papuk Nature Park will you find such an abundance of protected plant species.
How To Get To Papuk Nature Park
Most visitors will arrive at Papuk Nature Park from Zagreb. Even if you’re coming from the Croatian coast, you’ll have to drive to Zagreb on a major highway first, before turning east toward Slavonia.
From Zagreb, you’ll follow the E70 highway from the Ivanja-Reka Interchange for about 130 kilometers to the Nova Gradiška exit. Then, continue north on route 51 toward Požega, where you’ll turn left onto 4253 toward Velika.
The village of Velika is the main and most accessible entrance to Papuk Nature Park, located on the south side of the park. There are also three entrances on the north side—Voćin, Slatinski Drenovac, and Orahovica.
Accommodation In Papuk Nature Park
Campers will relish the opportunity to camp at Camp Duboka. Located in Velika, right on the edge of the park, this is the first modern campground in the east of Croatia. There is room for 200 campers, while 11 sites for caravans or mobile homes also have water and electricity. There are communal restrooms and a small kitchen. From this wonderful campground, you have easy access to a multitude of biking and hiking trails.
Oh, and when you are there, be sure to try out the weirdest toilet ever. It’s made of a one-way mirrored glass. As you sit on the loo, doing your business, you have 360 uninterrupted views of the park, and those waiting outside. But, do not worry, they can not see you!
In terms of accommodation, there is no better place to stay in Papuk Nature Park than the Jankovac Mountain Lodge. Considered one of Croatia’s most beautiful lodges, it offers accommodation in Papuk Nature Park for 80 guests.
Situated in the heart of the park, at Jankovac Lake, you’ll be within striking distance from all highlights mentioned above. The lodge’s restaurant overlooks the lake, while the Skakavac Waterfall is only a short walk away.
If you want a bit more luxury, then a hotel is probably a better option for you. They are a little further away, so, be sure to get a rent-a-car.
B&B Winery Sontacchi
The popular and well-rated B&B Winery Sontacchi is in Kutjevo, just beyond the park’s southeastern border. As its name suggests, this is essentially a modern winery where you can spend the night. Does it get any better than that? There are five double rooms and a restaurant.
Also in Kutjevo, the Akademija Graševine is yet another winery with accommodation. Surrounded by vineyards, this beautiful building features a restaurant serving local, homemade food and has ten beautifully decorated rooms, all of which bear the name of a type of wine.
A few minutes’ drive from the Požega town center lies Zlatni Lug – and it is where I stayed.
In the heart of an area known as the Golden Valley, this excellent accommodation has both a luxury holiday home and a well-equipped campground. The holiday home accommodates up to 6 people and has a bathroom, a fully equipped kitchen, free Wi-Fi, a covered patio and an indoor jacuzzi. At the campground, there are 15 sites suitable for tents and mobile homes. There are water and electricity, as well as restrooms with showers, free Wi-Fi and lots of recreational opportunities.
How Much Does Papuk Nature Park Cost?
Entry prices into Papuk Nature Park are as follows:
- Adults: 25 Kuna
- Students and kids: 20 Kuna
- Retirees: 20 Kuna
- Mountaineers with badges: 20 Kuna
Tours of the park with a professional guide are popular as well. Those rates are:
- Half-day guided tour (max. 4 hours): 250 Kuna
- Full-day guided tour (max. 6 hours): 350 Kuna
As you can see, there are plenty of things to do in Papuk Nature Park in Slavonia. From hiking and cycling to exploring ancient ruins and wildlife watching, you could easily fill up an entire weekend with fun activities here. Don’t rush your visit (like I did!) though; it’s too lovely. Savor the greenery and serenity in this peaceful, forested region. Papuk is an ideal destination to get away from any urban craziness and reconnect with nature.
Hike the educational nature trails, see well-preserved hilltop fortresses, admire a 28-meter-high waterfall, visit one of Croatia’s most extraordinary geological sites, go wine tasting (and stay) at a winery in the surrounding wine country,… It’ll be a well-filled and varied, yet relaxing getaway in the eastern Croatian mountains.