A blood-orange sun sank into the Adriatic on Croatia’s western edge as we reached the first hut on the Velebit Hiking Trail. Islands—the northern section of the country’s 1,185-isle archipelago—appeared in sharp silhouette as we took the last steps up to the ridge. For the next eight days, this 65-mile route would lead me and my two trekking companions south over rugged passes high above the shoreline and across the Velebit Range, the country’s largest and most challenging, to our final destination, the Dalmatian coast.
The trek would also let us experience this European-tourism hot spot in a novel way: hoisting backpacks to peaks rather than crowding island ferries to hop from one beach party to the next.
We carried gear and provisions necessary for eight-hour days crossing two national parks and well-marked stages leading to huts. The rations skewed European: wedges of cheese, mushroom pâté, brandy and prosciutto. Our trio included Thierry Joubert, the owner of Green Visions, a Sarajevo-based adventure tourism operator, and Edo Vričić, a Velebit guide from VMD adventure travel in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital.
Dusk closed in as we entered that first night’s accommodation, Zavižan Mountain Hut. At 5,230 feet, the stone structure multitasks as the launching point for the Velebit trail and Croatia’s highest meteorological station. A smile cracking his white beard, the hut’s caretaker greeted us and placed a bottle of rakija—a local moonshine—on a rough-sawn picnic table. In the window behind him, the last light outlined peaks we’d soon cross.
The next morning we hiked through Northern Velebit National Park’s Botanical Garden, which showcases around 300 of the region’s 2,500 plant species, a product of multiple climate zones. We merged onto the 35-mile Premužić Trail—the backbone of the Velebit trail’s upper half—carved through car-size stone blocks.
“We get the mountains and the sea in the background—that doesn’t happen often in the world,” Mr. Vričić told me of the 90-mile chain. We were walking though patches of wild purple irises, yellow gentian, orange lilies, edelweiss and primrose. “Velebit is the symbol of Croatian mountaineering and trekking here is zen.”
That “zen” doesn’t come easily—trekking in much of the Velebit Range demands in-the-moment focus. For long stretches, hikers plod across karst limestone slabs jutting out at tenuous angles. And though not high (the chain’s tallest summit is 5,764 feet, similar to elevations in the Appalachians), the peaks erupt from sea level, requiring sustained climbs. The reward: unobstructed panoramas from ridgelines undulating above the coastline.
‘We get the mountains and the sea. That doesn’t happen often in the world.’
The less obvious reward for travelers to the isolated range: These mountains serve as a window onto an old European lifestyle. For centuries, people lived in these highlands. They herded sheep. Traders provided a lifeline between villages and the sea. They survived changing empires and wars. “This is more than a trail,” said Thierry Joubert as we picked our way across irregular white rocks. “This is a history lesson in the mountains.”
On the second evening, we reached Mountain Hut Alan. “How do we like Velebit?” Štefan Pavlić, the hut’s caretaker, asked. “We like it very much,” I said, worn out just two days in. “Good, good,” he said with a sarcastic smile. “Up to here, the trail is smooth. After this, the trail is bloody.”
Over the next three days, we made our way through the heart of the mountains. Intermittent storms pushed us to wait out the rain under lean-tos set between exposed expanses of slippery, rocky terrain. We’d look to the islands of Cres, Rab, Lošinj and then Pag, to our west, to mark our trekking progress. On day five, we reached the mountain shelter at Stap. A gaggle of middle-aged Germans, with horses toting their packs, had already made camp. Croatian guides, acting as cooks and porters, led the Germans’ 1920s-esque tour. In the morning, we drank coffee from tin mugs before heading out to explore the Kamena Galerija—a maze of natural bridges and tunnels that feels like a limestone version of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. I asked one of the local guides for his most important piece of advice for trekking here. “Hikers should know where water sources are along the trail—ask everyone you see if the next source still has water.”
On our penultimate day, we trekked to the Velebit’s highest point, the 5,764-foot Vaganski vrh. Sweeping views of the Velika Paklenica (or Big Paklenica) Canyon and the sea, our final destination, enveloped us. On the last day, at the bottom of a sharp descent into the canyon, the sheer, limestone behemoth Anića Kuk filled the panorama. Above us, teams of climbers scrambled across it like multicolored ants. If Paklenica National Park, with some 360 routes, is synonymous with Croatian climbing, this 1,000-foot natural wall, and its nearly vertical face, is its calling card.
Our path wound toward the Adriatic, which gleamed in the afternoon sun. A man sold fruit from a wooden kiosk on the pebble beach. Families splashed in the water, oblivious of the mountains above them. Before taking the plunge to wash the trail from our bodies, we stopped for a beer at Restaurant Dinko, Paklenica’s unofficial clubhouse. Decades of donated gear—axes, shoes, harnesses—hung from the ceiling. A climber in his 60s sat at the next table. When he asked where we’d hiked, I told him we finished the route from Zavižan Mountain Hut. “No place is better than Velebit,” he offered. “You can climb and then swim in the sea. Do you know I have never been to the doctor, or even been sick?” He gave me a nod, raised his glass of rakija and stared at the peaks above us.
THE LOWDOWN // Trekking Croatia’s Velebit Hiking Trail
Getting There:Lufthansa, Delta, and British Airways all offer one-stop flights from New York’s JFK airport to Zagreb, Croatia’s capital. Regular buses leave from Zagreb to towns throughout the Velebit region, including Senj, which takes about three hours (akz.hr). Auto Europe offers competitive rental car prices across the country (autoeurope.eu).
Hiking There: The Velebit Hiking Trail or Velebitski planinarski put (VPP), is open throughout the year, though heavy snowfall makes winter trekking unwise. Prime hiking season is typically from May to October. The markings are the typical European red-white-red stripes or a red circle with white center. The initials VPP often accompanies marking at trailheads. Because hiking can be slow, the trail is best attempted in eight or nine days at around 10 miles a day. Finally, water is always a top priority on Velebit. Check with ranger stations about the availability of sources during the period you are hiking (hps.hr/english/velebit-hiking-trail). VMD Travel Agency, in Zagreb, is the place to start gathering information about Velebit tours and to hire a guide. Weeklong Velebit group tours run about $ 720 a person, vmd.hr.
Staying There: Check the trail website—and the separate park sites—for a list of accommodations. All are open year-round. Mountain “huts” are manned and have food. Mountain “shelters” are neither manned nor have food. They are, however, free and provide dry shelter and most have wood-burning stoves. For the huts, expect per-bed prices to range from $ 13 to $ 18. Simple meals of bean soup run about $ 5. The Hostel Baške Oštarije, about halfway along the trail, is a great place to recharge and shower for a night. From about $ 14 night, vegium-turag.com/en/hostel-baske-ostarije-2. The Hotel Rajna, at the trail’s end in Starigrad, is a family-run establishment directly across the street from the sea. From about $ 45 per person during the high season (July to September, hotel-rajna.com.)