Her Majesty – the Mountain. There is no nature lover, regardless of the level of his or her mountain-climbing experience or rock-climbing skills, who will not bow to the beauty and challenges of Paklenica in the silence of gratitude.
This is where the highest and the most magnificent peaks of Velebit are located: Vaganski vrh (1,757 meters) and Sveto brdo (1,753 meters). Only experienced mountain climbers can reach that high. However, even those without any mountain-climbing experience whatsoever, tourists with a simple desire to spend some time in the mountains, will be richly rewarded during their stay.
For many visitors, the giant ravines of Velika Paklenica and Mala Paklenica are perhaps the most attractive parts of the Park. When facing four hundred meters of ash-grey, wrinkled cliffs dozens of tons in weight, one has no emotion left other than deep respect for the force and superiority of nature.
The stony faces of ravines are so close to each other in some places, as if they are ready to meet after so much history between them. In walking through ravines, one can only vaguely picture the immense force of water that used to flow through them. Nowadays, the ravines are mostly dry, although some creeks still exist in the higher parts of the Park area, drying up in the lower part of their courses during the summer period.
During the last ice age, the highest peaks of the Velebit Mountain were covered in glaciers. That was the time when rock formations were disintegrating, without forest cover that would mitigate the erosion. Due to a large quantity of karst material and various substances brought by erosion, the power of water flowing in those times was enormous. Thus creeks, the only ones on the littoral side of Velebit, managed to force their path to the sea. As a result of this geological “episode” from a highly complex history, two impressive canyons remained cut into the mountain.
The sea is within easy reach of the mountain. The intensity of beauty of the view is immense, from sea to mountain and vice versa. The bulk of the National Park belongs to the Velika Paklenica basin, which is highly accessible to visitors.
The ravine of Velika Paklenica is fully passable, and its lower section is two and a half kilometers long. Towards its upper end lies the highest vertical wall on the Velebit Mountain – Anića kuk. This rock, 400 meters high, is more than well known and popular on the map of every alpinist: in fact, it is the best-known location for rock climbing in Croatia. In May, climbers from all over the world rush to it, as part of a rock-climbing gathering.
Kilometer by kilometer, Velika Paklenica reaches all the way to the heart of Velebit. At 500 meters above sea level, one comes across Brezimenjača – a valley “without a name”, as its Croatian name suggests. The main forests of the Park grow in this area, so a climb to the valley brings with it yet another beautiful view of the contrast between the forest and the rocks.
Mala Paklenica, literally “Small Paklenica” in Croatian, is not particularly big, as its name suggests. The torrent here was weaker. And while even leisurely walkers can enjoy the nicely beaten path that runs through Velika Paklenica, passing through Mala Paklenica requires some skill. One even needs hands in order to break through the thicket, and this part of the Park is best explored during the summer, when the ravine is dry. The wilderness of Mala Paklenica is reserved for mountain climbers, after all. At the very entrance to Mala Paklenica, there is a sign informing the visitors that they are entering the area “for experienced mountain climbers only” – in other words, on top of the entry ticket, experience and knowledge of the mountain are also required. This is an area of pure wilderness, highly beneficial for the area of the Park and its flora and fauna, where the environment is pulsating in the rhythm of its own originality.
Over time, due to the increasing level of protection, the Park has been expanding its borders. At one point, the rocky peaks of Bojinac (1,110 meters) and massifs of Debelo brdo or Višerujna (1,632 meters) and Badanj (1,638 meters), located on the western side, became constituent parts of the Park. Between the localities of Bojinac and Višerujna, there is the largest “field” on the littoral slope of the Velebit Mountain – Veliko Rujno.
Veliko Rujno is a karst depression, and the locality Rujanska kosa is a remnant of true moraine – an accumulation of material of various sizes that a mighty glacier once crushed and carried along through the passage of Ribnička vrata. One of the most beautiful parts of Mala Paklenica is the locality of Velika Močila, covered by black pine forest at the height of 850 meters.
Forests, in particular black pine forests, are a major asset of Paklenica. In the past, hard-living population used to exploit wood to a large extent, primarily for heating and processing, and many trees also ended up destroyed for the purposes of reconstruction following World War II. The establishment of the National Park prevented further destruction of that treasure.
Forests cover roughly one half of the Park area. Beech forests are the most prominent, with black pine forests (Pinus nigra ssp. Illyrica) second in importance. Black pine likes high altitudes, and it seems as if it grows straight from stone. Until World War II, sap was extracted from black pine, providing substance for lighting the houses and for coating wooden vessels. People used to call this substance “paklina”, and some believe that Paklenica got its name precisely because of that.
At high altitudes, above 1,450 meters, survival gets tough even for plants. When it comes to forest species, only bushy mountain pine (Pinus mugo) is present, but not so densely as at lower altitudes. In order to create pastures, livestock farmers used to clear the terrain, thus decreasing the area covered by this pine species.
The vegetation of rocks and talus cones is a story in itself. The blue color of the Adriatic bellflower (Campanula fenestrellata), white flower of Daphe alpina and many endemic mountain species enrich the landscape and biodiversity of the mountain by their scent and appearance. In spring, visitors to the ravines of Velika Paklenica and Mala Paklenica can come across small white flowers of sandwort (Arenaria orbicularis), that can only be seen here, and nowhere else.
The fauna is quite diverse, since this area is marked by a considerable scope of altitudes. The running water flows literally give life to various species. In total, 258 bird species have been recorded, including rare birds of prey such as the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), short-toed snake-eagle (Circaetus gallicus) and peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus). Griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus) used to inhabit this area too until 1999. One can only hope that, with the establishment of feeding spots, this bird will also fly above the ravines of Paklenica again.
If the golden eagle is the king of the skies, with its striking appearance and impressive wing span, the role of the kings among carnivores would surely belong to brown bear (Ursus arctos), wolf (Canis lupus), lynx (Lynx lynx) and wildcat (Felis sylvestris).
The underground is mystical and attractive. Among 115 speleological sites, hiding an entire world of numerous endemic animal species, the visitors are particularly attracted to the cave Manita peć in the lower section of Velika Paklenica, which captivates with a large number of dripstones. So far, 175 meters of the cave have been researched. The dimensions of underground halls are impressive. The biggest one is 65 meters long, 40 meters wide, and 32 meters high. The height of stalagmites exceeds 20 meters. At the sightseeing point in front of the cave, located next to the rocks Zub Manite peći and Maniti kuk, one can enjoy the view of the highest peaks of Velebit.
Paklenica is not a space of alpine gardens; however, with its pointed and rounded peaks, its position and natural characteristics, it is most definitely one of the top rock-climbing and tourist destinations.
Velebit is an extraordinary mountain. Experienced rock climbers, who scaled various mountain peaks of the world, continue to consider Velebit one of their most vivid experiences.
It is challenging, wonderful, unforgiving and harsh; it terrifies and thrills, asks for respect and knowledge of the mountain; and yet, it is an extraordinary host to those who respect it. A space of unforgettable experience and fascinating views, Velebit Mountain is a Nature Park in its entirety, and Paklenica a fairy offering her peaks as challenge and object of admiration to man.
Prevailing plant groups in the flora of the Park are Asteeaceae and Cichoriaceae, Poaceae, Fabaceae, Lamiaceae, Rosaceae and Caryophyllaceae.
Due to the impact of the sun, ice, water and temperature, the rocks of Paklenica eroded and broke over time. These processes resulted in talus cones created below the steep ridges and peaks of Buljma and Vaganski vrh, providing a habitat to many endemic plants, such as Kitaibeli's columbine (Aquilegia kitaibelii), Maly's moon carrot (Seseli malyi), Tertiary relic Linaria alpina and the widespread plant Paronychia kapela.
The specific microclimate existing in crevices of rocks enables the growth of a number of endemic and relic species. One particular species – sandwort (Arenaria orbicularis) – grows only in the canyons of Velika Paklenica and Mala Paklenica, and nowhere else in the world. This plant from the family of Caryophyllaceae grows in crevices and recesses of carbonate rocks at altitudes between 100 meters and 700 meters. One of the most frequent endemic species of Velebit is the well-known window bellflower (Campanula fenestrellata), a species widespread in rock crevices. Its blue flowers give a special and striking appearance to the canyons of Velika Paklenica and Mala Paklenica in the first decade of May. Similar to window bellflower is Waldstein’s bellflower (Campanula waldsteiniana). This plant flowers slightly later, in July and August, and grows in altitudes exceeding 500 meters, its distribution partly overlapping with the distribution of window bellflower.
Rocky landscapes of the highest peaks of Velebit are also rich in many endemic species. They include Kitaibeli's columbine (Aquilegia kitaibelii), Maly's moon carrot (Seseli malyi), Velebit bellflower (Campanula velebitica), Crocus malyi and Iberis pruitti .
Long retention of snow in karst valleys is favorable to the growth of wonderful flower plant formations. Particularly prominent species include orange and yellow carnic lilies (Lilium carniolicum), thyme (Thymus sp.), great masterwort (Astrantia major), buckler mustard (Biscutella laevigata) and garland flower (Daphne cneorum). Lower parts of the Park include wet grasslands, covered in orchids in the spring.
The area of Paklenica National Park is home to 350 vertebrate species. Invertebrate fauna is not yet fully researched, and includes 1,200 species recorded so far.
Birds are the dominant group of vertebrates, with 254 species present in the wider Park area, out of which 112 species are nesting birds. There are 24 species living on canyon rocks and cliffs, with western rock nuthatch (Sitta neumayer) and blue rock thrush (Monticola solitarius) as the most frequent species. Particularly valuable species in the Park are rare birds of prey, such as the golden eagle (Aquilla chrysaetos), peregrine falcon (Falco pereginus), short-toed snake-eagle (Circaetus galllicus) and northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis). There are seven owl species in the Park; tawny owl (Strix aluco) and European scops owl (Otus scops) are particularly prominent in terms of numbers. The biggest European owl, eagle owl (Bubo bubo), regularly nests in the canyon of Velika Paklenica and Mala Paklenica.
Woodpeckers are a prominent presence in forest stands, including the rarest species, white-backed woodpecker (Dendrocopos leucotos) and middle spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos medius).
When it comes to invertebrates, butterflies are undoubtedly the most striking phenomenon. Their survival is closely linked to human activities, and the overgrowing of meadows is a major problem in the Park in this context. Not so long ago, the highest areas of Velebit were inhabited, with many livestock herds grazing the wide expanses of high mountain meadows. Nowadays, these meadows are gradually covered by black pine, prickly juniper, mountain pine and thorny plants. Maintenance is very important for the conservation of habitats, particularly due to the fact that butterflies such as pearly heath (Coenonympha arcnia), marbled white (Melanargia galathea) and southern festoon (Zerynthia polyxena) live in the grasslands of the National Park in relatively dense populations. When it comes to less frequent or rare meadow species, marsh fritillary (Euphydrias aurinia) is worth mentioning too.
The numbers of individual species belonging to targeted animal groups in the Park are subject to monitoring, with the aim of conserving the natural habitats and unique karst ecosystems, given the fact that indicators such as the numbers and population quality of certain species point to the level of quality of habitats. For example, white-throated dipper (Cinclus cinclus), regularly encountered along the creek of Velika Paklenica, is an excellent indicator of water quality.
On the other hand, nesting of peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) in some parts of the National Park is a clear indicator of remaining wild and pristine habitats that one can encounter in the southern part of Velebit.
There are 24 bat species recorded in the area of Paklenica National Park so far, making the Park one of the richest areas of Croatia in terms of bat species.
Rising ground towards Buljma, Crljeni kuk, Babin kuk and Sveto brdo is covered in subalpine beech forests. The diversity of structure and multitude of plant species in these forests is most striking in the summer.
These forests are considered to be very old, due to their slow growth caused by harsh climate and the presence of snow cover in these areas for almost half of the year. The upper boundary of the forest is made of clumps of mountain pine trees (Pinus mugo) covering the peak zone of Velebit. These stands represent the most comprehensive mountain pine surface in Croatia.
Sinkholes or karst depressions, the borders of which are typically covered by these forests, are known as sites prone to frost and very low night temperatures, even in the summertime. Mixed forests of beech and black pine, and pure stands of black pine (Pinus nigra), are widespread in the canyon of Velika Paklenica. They represent some of the oldest pine forests in the Mediterranean area. Some trees are estimated to be several hundred years old.
Black pine is a pioneer species in covering skeletal soils with major share of rock and stone material. Following the spread of black pine, stands with favorable conditions for other species are gradually developing as well, which is particularly true for beech, which then gradually expands and enters black pine forests.
Community of black pine with cotoneaster (Cotoneastro-Pinetum nigrae) is one plant community that gradually developed in the area of Paklenica National Park, and it represents a relic community today. It grows on ridges exposed to the sun, mostly on skeletal soil made of dolomite rocks.
It is precisely in such forest habitats that one comes across a range of rare and endangered plant species, such as martagon lily (Lilium martagon ssp. cattaniae), red helleborine (Cephalanthera rubra), white helleborine (Cephalanthera damasonium), narrow-leaved helleborine (Cephalanthera longifolia) and other species.
The diversity of karst relief and extraordinary geomorphology of the area, coupled with climate impact, results in temperature inversion and major climate diversity in individual micro localities on a relatively small total surface of merely 95 square kilometers. As a result, the distribution of individual Mediterranean elements of the flora occasionally expands substantially upwards in the Paklenica canyon due to the penetration of Mediterranean climate; that includes, for example, fig, holm oak and pubescent oak species. On the other hand, continental species such as beech and yew spread downwards close to the sea.
Vertical wall of the impressive locality of Anića kuk rises up to 400 meters, making it the most recognizable cliff of the National Park, and the biggest cliff of Velebit. Below Anića kuk, one can see numerous caved-in blocks and rocks, together with fluvial and moraine sediments from the geological past. The creek that flows through the canyon most of the year tends to run dry in the summer months, disappearing into the underground. Its water flow is abundant only in the first half of its course.
In the area where the creek of Brezimenjača meets the valley of Velika Paklenica from the west, the valley extends eastwards to the locality of Ivine vodice. There, at 1,300 meters above sea level, several permanent and abundant water sources enrich the creek of Velika Paklenica.
Although the dimensions of the canyon of Mala Paklenica are somewhat smaller, its length nevertheless exceeds 12 kilometers. Geomorphological characteristics and relief are particularly interesting at its source area, under the localities of Vlaški grad and Jerkovac, all the way to the point where the course of Orljača meets the canyon. The diversity of forms and beauty of the canyon of Mala Paklenica can certainly match those of Velika Paklenica. Remarkably, the narrowest part of the canyon of Mala Paklenica is less than ten meters wide.
Abundance of karrens, cliffs, solution pans and peaks is particularly staggering in the southwestern part of the National Park, in the area of Bojinac. That part of the karst terrain is relatively poor in vegetation, which is why it is precisely in the area of Bojinac that one can experience the karst at its most spectacular.
Numerous caves and pits in the area of the National Park point to a very diverse and intriguing underground. There are 115 caves and pits discovered and researched in the area so far; some are truly impressive in terms of the dimensions of their halls and the abundance of dripstones.
Dry karst environment focused the population on small domestic animals (sheep and goats), since they provided the biggest benefits in terms of feeding the family and creating surplus (meet, milk, skin, wool, etc.); on top of that, it was relatively easy to ensure food for such livestock. One characteristic of life on the mountain of Velebit was the zonal distribution of huts, which were divided into several altitude zones on the littoral side of the mountain.
In early spring, around St. George’s Day, entire families would move to huts at 550 to 900 meters above sea level together with their livestock. They would remain there until early summer, depending on the weather and the available quantity of grass for grazing – roughly until the feast day of St. Anthony. Then they would move on to huts at higher altitudes (900 to 1,300 meters). They would remain there throughout the summer. With the arrival of colder days, they would then return down to the huts at lower elevations. Some would spend the entire year living in these huts, built at 550 to 900 meters above sea level.
The idea was to spend as much time on the mountain as possible, as that was in the interest of both the livestock and people. Huts at 1,300 to 1,700 meters above sea level were relatively poorly built, not as numerous as those on lower elevations, and they were used for shorter periods of time.
Entire close and extended family would participate in such seasonal migrations, and entire households would move to the mountain. All households of a hamlet would move to the mountain on the same day, which was determined at least fourteen days in advance by village elders.
Each household took care of its migration separately, which would frequently be done in two or three phases, required to move all the needed equipment to the huts. When it comes to these relocations, they did not entail the transfer of an entire household inventory; instead, only the bare necessities were taken. Families would move on to the huts located at highest altitudes only after the livestock would graze all the available grass in the lower areas. Around 35 pastures once existed in the area from the peak of Visočica to the locality of Sveto brdo along the peak zone of Velebit, and in the lower zone on the littoral side. In addition to the inhabitants of hamlets on the coastal side of the mountain, Dalmatian livestock breeders from the areas of Bukovica and Ravni kotari also used these pastures, together with farmers from the region of Lika on the continental side of the mountain.
Mirila can be found on mountain passes, elevations and glades of Velebit, along the mountain trails. They were built back in the times when the population of Velebit lived a semi-migratory lifestyle connected with livestock breeding.
The main households of the population were located in hamlets at lower elevations close to the sea, and a local church with a cemetery would typically be placed nearby. In the spring and summer months, people would move to huts at higher elevations, together with their livestock. They would remain in that pasture zone until the autumn, sometimes even throughout the year, depending on the weather.
When a family member would pass away, the family would carry the deceased to the cemetery, which sometimes entailed longer, and sometimes shorter passages, depending on where the person was at the time of death.
The distance between mirila and a cemetery varied, ranging from ten minutes to two and a half hours of walking, which depended on the distance between a settlement and a cemetery. Mirila would typically be built halfway from the settlement to the cemetery. These stone monuments serve as a memory of the deceased who passed away on mountain slopes, and who then had to be carried to the village church and the cemetery where they would be buried.
On that difficult journey, it was permitted to stop, rest, and lay the deceased on the ground only on one place – and that place represented the final farewell between the deceased and the Sun. It was there that mirilo would be built, and the word represents a “measure” of the deceased, taken by two stones marking the position of the head and the feet. The area in between would be covered in stone, and marked by symbols cut into the headstone in a shallow-cut relief. These monuments were venerated and visited more than the grave itself, which contained only the body, since the soul “stays on mirilo”.
Mystical artwork on head stones, with the cross and the solar circle as the most frequently used symbols, point to a continuity of art forms, ranging from prehistoric cultures, to early Christianity, to the iconography of standing tombstones typical for the region. Written inscriptions are rare, and relatively recent. Mirila, these stone symbols of a unique funeral cult, convey a message about the customs, a way of life and spirit of an entire era.