Via Dinarica Week 3! Croatian Karst and Community.
You may wonder, “What the heck is karst?” Karst is a geographic/topographic term for outcroppings created by the dissolution of rocks, in this case limestone. The results are sinkholes, caves, and some crazy rock formations. The Balkan region is one of the most famous places in the world for karst landscapes, and the Via Dinarica leads you through it.
So let’s get back on trail. I left off having just met another hiker going the same direction as I am, an incredibly rare phenomenon on this little known, fairly new, exotic Eastern European route!
Day15 – Tuk Vojni to Dragutin Hirtz (10.25 miles)
A limestone labyrinth and cozy cabins.
I left the mountain hut before my new buddy did, but I’d see him again after lunch. The trail climbed a short hill through the forest and then followed a long, mostly flat dirt road for a few miles. Along the way was a strange rock installation in a field, I was later told it was a memorial for a locals who froze to death fleeing the Nazi invasion.
After cruising through the forest at a good pace, I slowed down a bit to climb a steep hill (Samarskih Stijena) and then pause at the top to take in the view. Some sharp short ups and downs along a well worn and well marked path through forest and white rock led to the Ratkovo Skolište hut, built in a cave in the cliff:
I had lunch and plucked at the guitar inside for a bit, then continued walking. Shortly after rejoining the official trail I ran into Thom and hiked with him for a half hour or so. I have a faster pace and conditioned leg muscles, so I got ahead into the labyrinth first.
This area has a few different names, but I’ll just call it the limestone labyrinth. If you’ve hiked the AT, imagine Mahoosuc Notch but up high with steep drops off the side and abrupt ascents and declines. It involved squeezes, scrambles, crawls, ladders, steel cabels (with anchors dangling), reebar holds, pack drops, blood, sweat, cursing, and laughter.
I didn’t take many pictures in the labyrinth due to the focus required, but here are a couple from parts where it opened up a bit or where I scrambled up to a rise to have a look around:
I had planned a 20 mile day, but I after this limestone ninja warrior course I arrived at the cabin on the other side exhausted and it was almost 6pm.
The cabin was completed in 2022 and designed by architect Ivan Juretić who has created 4 huts for the Croatian Mountain Clubs. More to come, both for you readers and for hikers.
Thom joined me for the evening and I learned his story, an interesting one for sure but not one to share here. After we had settled into our bags and were just starting to drift off headlamps shined in and we were joined by a Croatian couple. The guy is a mountain guide (he claimed 14 Annapunra summits and several on Everest) and he dropped a lot of beta on us in a short time, but it was late and we all had to rest for more adventures.
Day16 – Dragutin Hirtz to Vratnik (23.8 miles)
Overgrown trail and bad water.
A tough day, hot and humid. The first few miles through the forest were ok, though the trail was faint and a little hard to follow. The next few miles were along old logging roads overgrown with nettles and tall flowers gone to seed which got in every nook and cranny, poking and itchy.
I came to a road with an abandoned ranger station that had a well, but I didn’t need a refill yet. Boy would I regret not taking water there.
A few hours later I was down to a half liter and came to Duliba cabin which was run down and trashed, but had a well. I had lunch and went to fill my bottles. After I dropped the bucket in and hauled some water out I got a whiff of death… I looked back in to see a couple floating mammals:
Fuck. This could be bad with 11 miles to go to the next village. I assessed my bailouts and found a couple buildings on the map that could be inhabited and got going, slowly so as not to exhaust myself. Luckily, it became overcast for a few hours.
Eventually I did find a house with some people outside that kindly filled my bottles. The clouds broke up and I emerged from the woods on exposed hillside just above The Adriatic Sea.
The trail dropped off the ridge to Krivi Put, where I had planned to stay. There were still a couple hours of daylight left and the road into Senj was only a few miles further, so I hiked into the golden hour and got an insta-hitch when I came to the road!
Day17 – Senj (0 miles)
Coastal Croatia and all the tourists.
My hitch with a couple Austrain women my age took me to a campground a little outside of Senj. We all camped together and shared stories, some food, and a couple beers. I got up well before them and had breakfast on the beach in the secluded cove before hitching back into town.
It’s was a pretty old town, but the coastal tourist droves made it a bit overwhelming.
I’m not sure why I stayed, I guess I just needed a little break. I did find out about an event called Highlander Adventure of a Lifetime happening on trail that I would encounter over the following five days.
I had another glorious golden hour at the fortress on the hill where I could see the peaks of Velebit, my course for the coming days, then I watched sunset on the water.
Day 18 – Vratnik to Dom Zavižan (16.1 miles)
Entering Velebit National Park
I didn’t get many pictures this day, it was fairly uneventful. I caught an early bus back up to the pass (reliable, unlike hitching) and walked a long dirt road, eventually regaining the ridge. looking back down the valley to Senj:
I was going to stay at Kuća Oltari because it was just outside the park and I had heard the ~600 hikers with Highlander Adventures would be starting from Dom Zavižan, the next hut.
I arrived at Kuća Oltari and it was locked tight, no water, and only lunch time. So I climbed up into the park and found my way to Zavižan.
I had heard that the Highlanders weren’t allowed to stay in the huts, but I found out that the volunteers and organizers could. All the bunks were full, camping in the park is illegal and there were rangers hanging out, so I was told I would have to sleep on a bench in the dining room.
^ These are almost all trail club stickers. It turns out the hiking community in Croatia is alive and well.
It felt just like staying at one of the huts in The White Mountains as a thruhiker on the AT only with shots of Travarica, pickled viper, and Balkan folk music!
Day 19 – Dom Zavižan to Ograđencia (16 miles)
Cruisey trail and Czech friends!
First thing I did was the side trail through the Velebit Botanical Garden, a well thought informative trail that looped around a sinkhole.
The rest of the morning was mellow, I was between two waves of the Highlanders and had the trail pretty much to myself.
I found the trail through Velebit to be amazing, it was made by Ante Premužić and his crews from 1933-39 without machines, concrete, or cement and is still incredibly smooth. European masonry really is some of the best in the world.
Lunch was at the Alan hut, where I found the stragglers of the first wave of Highlanders and the fastest of the second wave would overtake me. I struck up a conversation with a Czech guy who mentioned his friend coming had lived in Montana.
After their whole crew arrived we were talking and I mentioned I had finished the HRP earlier this summer, and they said two good friends of theirs had also, just recently! I had stayed at a shelter with a couple Czech guys… and of course they were the same people. The thruhiking community is small and interconnected, even in distant lands!
We all were looking at Ograđencia hut to stay for the evening, but upon arriving there we found it to be a little too “rustic”, and small, and occupied. Behind the ridge out of the wind we found a place to set up a little tent village in the trees. A few of us climbed back up to the hut later to watch the sunset on the Croatian islands, the Adriatic Sea, and distant Italy.
Day 20 – Ograđencia to Baške Oštarije (16.6 miles)
Breakfast beers and riding The Dragon’s Back.
An overcast morning meant easy miles, and I couldn’t help feeling like fall is coming, though probably the color change is largly due to the drought.
A few miles down the trail was the Skorpovak mountain hut, the small meadow in front of which the Highlanders had camped. They asked if I needed anything and I said “just water”, but noticing the racks of tallboys I added “maybe a breakfast beer?” which they kindly obliged.
My new Czech friends arrived and hung out for a bit before taking off ahead of me. I’m pretty sure they, and the Highlanders, took a different route than I did in the afternoon.
I went on a journey to summit a small peak called Bačić Kuk, which I’m told translates to Dragon’s Back. I ditched my pack and scrambled up the path, then essentially rockclimbed the final pitch to get on top of it.
The afternoon brought a drizzle with a heavy wind, impossible to hide from or to stay dry, so I miserably moved quickly towards what I hoped would be a warm place to stay in Baške Oštarije.
Unfortunately nothing was open besides the hostel,which was full. Luckily, however, the Highlanders were camping in the field across the street. The Czech crew and I stealthily joined the tent village, then ate large plates of warm food and had quite a few rounds ofbeer in the hostel.
Day 21 – Baške Oštarije to Šugarske Duliba (9.4 miles)
I knew it was going to be a short day because I had heard the Šugarske Duliba was another hut by the architect Ivan Juretić and had hammocks inside and a killer view. I ate an extremely leisurely breakfast before climbing up a small ski pitch back to the forest covered limestone hills.
About halfway through the day I did a side quest and climbed a steep and rocky trail with quite a few blowdowns to check out another cabin. The cabin I found turned out to be yet another by Juretić, brilliantly placed with a killer view, solar powered charging ports and lights, and even a sink with running water!
I was joined a little later by the medical crew for the Highlander Adventures, a super friendly and kind group of young people loving their journey and excited to hear about mine.
After lunch I walked more limestone hills, a little more exposed as we travel south, but with sweeping views of the Adriatic and the Croatian islands.
I arrived at Šugarske (a perfectly designed shipping container hut) kind of early, but with the views and the hammocks and the company, it made sense to literally hang out.
The mist descended in the evening, ruining the sunset, but we enjoyed it anyway. By some freak coincidence we all had blue jackets, making for a good team photo which you can find on my Instagram because guess I deleted it already.
And that’s week #3 so bye for now and until next time… Happy Trails!
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