Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Road Less Traveled in Paklenica

From the day we landed in Croatia, I've been itching to get up into the mountains inland from Zadar. Natalie was slightly less enthused about hiking mountains, so we decided I should make this journey on my own. Paklenica National Park is about an hour bus ride north of Zadar and offers easy access into the mountains. I checked the park website for maps, but found them insufficient for a serious hiker such as myself. I instead turned to the internet and downloaded some GPS files for trails that the park had carelessly omitted. My time was limited by the bus schedule, so I laid out a 10 mile loop that would take me to the old settlement of Tomići and to one of the park's main attractions, the Manita Peć cave.
The game plan courtesy of Google Earth and the internet.
Now, using GPS routes has always been a double edged sword. On the upside, they keep you from getting lost when the trail is hard to find. On the downside, they lead you down trails that are hard to find. The hard-to-find trail tends to be so for a reason -- nobody wants to walk the route because it's lousy and there are much better ways to spend your time. Despite the many ill-advised hikes I've taken on trails that existed only in my GPS, I never seem to remember this lesson.

The next day started with a successful navigation of the bus system to arrive at the park entrance in Starigrad; an auspicious start to my adventure. The entrance fee was 50 kune ($8.28), which I'm sure will be used to maintain the trails throughout the park. I ventured forth into the park until the GPS indicated that I had arrived at the trail head. Here's what I found:

Is that the trail?

Most sensible people would have looked at this (Natalie included) and decided that perhaps another trail would be a better choice. I am not one of those people. After about an hour of bush whacking, I was reasonably certain the "trail" had been established by drunken billy-goats and subsequently marked with paint blazes by the park service to make it "official." I was starting to understand why this route wasn't on the park maps.
Can you find the paint mark?
After scaling a few rock walls I began to wonder if I missed the notice that ropes were required to complete the journey.
Note the cable anchored to the rocks for assistance up the "trail!"
The "trail" climbed from sea level to 2,900' in very rapid fashion. It hadn't looked all that strenuous on the computer the day before, but in light of the strict eating regimen of beer and pasta I had been following for the past several weeks, I was finding this to be a rather formidable challenge. The upside to such a rapid ascent was I wasted no time in getting spectacular views of the surroundings.

The big-boy mountains were too far away from the bus stop.
Starigrad and an inlet of the Adriatic Sea.
Eventually, I reached the remains of Tomići. The old "streets" were flanked with stone walls for a considerable distance. A few buildings remained -- some even had house numbers! I quite enjoyed strolling through this forgotten town in the mountains.

Walking the "streets" of Tomići.

These houses had postal addresses. Are you listening Costa Rica?
After several hours of hiking, I finally reached Manita Peć cave. This is one of the "must-see" attractions in the park, and I had planned my route to go right to it. Here's what it looked like:

Beautiful, isn't it?
Apparently, the cave had operating hours and I had just missed them...by 2 days and 4 hours. I can't say that I was all that disappointed since 5 hours on the "trail" had me thinking more about the beach and a beer than looking at a hole in the ground. Of course, that doesn't mean I didn't verify the gate was actually locked.

I ended my hike with a stroll down Paklenica Canyon and a dip in the river to wash away the magnificent odor that had accumulated on my person. I'm not entirely sure I was allowed to do that, but of all the pictographs depicting what stick figures shouldn't do, swimming wasn't one of them.

In the end, it was a bit more of a hike than I had bargained for, but a great day nonetheless. If you're in the area, and looking to take a hike in the non-pejorative sense, then I definitely recommend Paklenica. And don't worry, there are much more enjoyable trails that won't leave you bleeding and broken at the end of the day. You can find those trails on the park maps. They're on the website.