Rising from the most forested area of Croatia – the region of Gorski kotar – one can see barren and stony-faced massifs of Risnjak (1,528 meters) and Snježnik (1,506 meters). Their peaks are just three kilometers apart, resembling stony twin brothers rising from the green forest below.
The landscape of the massif of Risnjak is more balanced, which is also reflected in the names of its peaks – Sjeverni Mali Risnjak or “Northern Little Risnjak” (1,434 meters), and Južni Mali Risnjak or “Southern Little Risnjak” (1,248 meters). These peaks are close neighbors too, just 1.8 kilometers apart.
Snježnik, on the other hand, is an elongated mountain spur with lower peaks: Međuvrhi (1,460 meters), Guslica (1,490 meters) and Planina (1,426 meters).
The peaks of these massifs offer amazing sights, and they are a wonderful place to observe the region of Gorski kotar, the Kvarner Bay, and the Alps in Slovenia.
The thick and endless greenness of the forests of Gorski kotar has ensured the entry of Risnjak into the “society” of national parks of Croatia. On the surface of only sixty square kilometers or so, there are fourteen forest communities and thirty plant communities, and seventy percent of the Park’s surface is strict protection zone.
The nature here is her own master. In the silence of its own wisdom, life is fully sustainable. In general, for science and researchers, the value of Risnjak is priceless, for this area allows them to examine nature without human traces.
The largest part of the Park, over one half of it, is covered by a mixed forest of beech and fir (Abieti-Fagetum dinaricum) in the altitude span of 600 to 1,200 meters. Above that altitude, there is less and less fir, and while beech is still present up to an extent, the dimensions of trees are significantly smaller. We have already entered the belt of subalpine beech forest with alpine coltsfoot (Homogino alpinae-Fagetum sylvaticae), the second-biggest forest community in terms of territorial distribution in the Risnjak National Park. In addition to these forest communities, delineated by altitude, there are also azonal, scattered communities. One such example is the fir community Calamagrosti Abietetum, also known as the “Dinaric fir forest on limestone blocks”.
It would require a full scientific paper to describe all the species, with all their characteristics and in the full scope of the flora. However, let us just briefly mention the forest community of fir and hardfern (Blechno Abietetum), forest with ferns growing on acid soil in the valley of Leska and along the creek Bijela vodica, for it is precisely here that the tallest trees of Risnjak are found: the height of many fir trees exceeds even the impressive threshold of 45 meters.
The attractive educational trail – Leska – also got its name from the valley of Leska. It is the first protected facility of its kind in Croatia, designed in such a way that it allows anyone to independently pass 4.2 kilometers of the trail, and offering the visitors a chance to get better acquainted with the natural and cultural heritage of the Risnjak National Park.
There is no presence of man in the heights of Risnjak. In fact, some Risnjak forests have never been subjected to felling. Inaccessibility made it impossible for people to exploit timber. Pristine forests thus remained intact, and true virgin forests still exist in the belt of subalpine beech around the highest peaks and in the area around the rocks of Bijele stijene – a strict reserve, and a place intended for scientific research.
Human fingerprints are visible in the valley of the Kupa River, on the other hand. The valley gave the opportunity to cultivate land, and thus gave food to the people as well. In the hilly terrain, only some isolated glades remain without forest cover, such as Leska, Lazac, Šegina and Btov laz.
There isn’t much water in the National Park. Due to carbonate layers, precipitation water ends up “lost” in the underground.
However – there is the Kupa River.
There is no instrument that could be used to measure beauty, but many will say that precisely this river is the most beautiful one. Ever since 1963, the source of the Kupa River and the surrounding area enjoy the status of a protected area.
Vrelo Kupe, the source of the river, is certainly one of the most attractive karst locations, and a still unresolved riddle of the karst. It is one of the deepest Croatian water sources.
Below a vertical rock 100 meters high, at an altitude of 321 meters, there is a lake from which the strong and clean Kupa River starts her path. In the hinterland, waters of the karst disappear underground, allowing the Kupa to bring them together in the form of a river. The surface of the source is almost completely calm. The water rises from the vertical abyss 154 meters deep. It is also a reason why the water is so cold – merely 7 degrees Celsius.
The Kupa valley is the only inhabited area of the National Park. Around twenty inhabitants live in the settlements of Dolari, Podgrič, Razloški Okrug, Donji Okrug, Gornji Okrug, Gornja Krašićevica and Razloge. It is worth preserving these localities, given their traditional building and ethnographic heritage.
The flora in the Risnjak area creates a true bouquet of the most spectacular colors. Šloserova meadow under the Risnjak peak is literally covered with flowers. A visitor who arrives in the spring and summer is awarded with a majestic experience of vivid colors as far as the eye can see. Among the plants growing here are orange lily (Lilium bulbiferum) and edelweiss (Leontopodium alpinum) – a plant that is highly threatened due to picking, and therefore protected.
In the National Park, 1,148 species and subspecies of vascular plants have been discovered so far. Given the fact that this area is not comprehensively researched, the actual number must be significantly higher.
Risnjak got its name after the animal ris – lynx (Lynx lynx). Unfortunately, given the fact that the hunting of lynx was permitted in the past, the last remaining lynxes were shot towards the beginning of the 20th century. Lynxes present today, not particularly numerous, came from the neighboring Slovenian mountains.
While the autochthonous lynx saw the fate of disappearance, the brown bear (Ursus arctos) is present in the area in the species’ natural density. Wolf (Canis lupus) is also present in the territory of the Park, although not nearly as numerous as the bear, and there is also the wildcat (Felix silvestris). On mountain peaks, one can also see chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra). Its appearance on stone peaks is the pride of the mountain.
There are 114 recorded bird species, and 78 of them are nesting in the Park. Other important types of fauna include the species living in water habitats, speleofauna and entomofauna, with as many as 89 species of butterflies.
When it comes to visitors, Risnjak is a highly accessible area. All attractions can be reached simply, and without any special preparation or equipment – all that is needed is excursion-style curiosity, and a desire to spend some time in nature. For example, the source of the Kupa River, that remarkable karst phenomenon, can be reached by walking trails from the villages of Razloge, Hrvatsko or Kupari. Several mountain climbing trails lead to the Schlosser Mountain Hut on Risnjak, and completing the walk along these trails is a genuine discovery of nature. Along the way, it is possible to see wild game on attractive locations. Recreational fishing is also possible – naturally, only subject to a license. Everything that is caught must be given back to the river.
A visit to Risnjak is a visit to the area where the Pannonian and the Peripannonian space come closest to the Adriatic. This is where one can find the most beautiful glades of the Gorski kotar region. Enjoying the beauty of Risnjak means having a true feeling for nature. It is also worth visiting the places that are the top choice of natural scientists, and perhaps less so of tourists. For that means walking in the footsteps of connoisseurs, and arriving with certainty to places of beauty and tranquility never before experienced.
All plant species in the Park are protected, which means that it is not permitted to pick them, dig them out, destroy or damage them. Particularly interesting are mountain plants that have their rare or only habitats on the mountains of Risnjak and Snježnik.
Some of the species appearing on mountain peaks and grasslands are the following: edelweiss (Leontopodium alpinum); alpine sea holly (Eryngium alpinum); silvery yarrow (Achillea clavennae); mountain arnica (Arnica montana); Clusius's gentian (Gentiana clusii); alpine pasqueflower (Pulsatilla alpina); hairy alpenrose (Rhododendron hirstum); orange lily (Lilium bulbiferum); alpine butterwort (Pinguicula alpina); alpine aster (Aster alpinus).
Leontopodium alpinum is extraordinarily decorative, and one of the best-known mountain plants, representing a symbol of the mountain. As a glacial relict present in Croatian flora, it deserves particular attention and strict protection.
Eryngium alpinum is a plant with prickly leaves and intriguing appearance, its intense blue color leaving a strong impression wherever it grows. It is resistant to drought and temperature oscillations.
Arnica montana is an aromatic mountain plant with medicinal properties, growing in dry meadows and on mountain slopes and hills. Uncontrolled harvesting of the plant has made it a fairly rare occurrence, which has led to its protected status.
Gentiana clusii grows in mountain grassland ecosystems on carbonate substrates. It is very well adjusted to physiological drought and low temperatures. Its stem is extremely short and sometimes completely absent, and the plant is adorned with blue, bell-shaped flowers.
Rhododendron hirstum is an evergreen shrub growing in mountain pine thicket stands. Due to its decorative appearance, it is frequently used in mountain horticulture.
Lilium bulbiferum is a flower in the pronounced shape of a star, with strong orange color and unusual, astringent scent. As an endangered species, it enjoys protected status, and it can still be encountered on the slopes of mountain peaks.
Pinguicula alpina is a carnivorous mountain plant feeding on insects. It grows on rocks with very little soil. Ground-level leaves resemble little green stars on grey rocks, serving as trap for insects.
Achillea clavenae is a strongly aromatic mountain plant of the Alps and the Dinarides. Its stem and leaves are densely covered in fine hairs, giving them a velvety texture. Due to bitter substances, it improves the appetite and serves as a remedy to improve digestion, and it is used as an ingredient in the production of liqueurs.
Pulsatilla alpina grows on mountain grasslands and in sinkholes. Its flowers are more upright than those of other Anemone plants. Big and hairy flowers are white on the inside; their external hues range from violet to reddish color. Long hairy extensions on the fruits give the plant an interesting and appealing shaggy appearance.
Aster alpinus has large, star-shaped, violet-blue flower heads with a yellow center, reminiscent of daisies. It flowers from May to June on mountain grasslands. It is extraordinarily decorative, and used in alpinarium and garden horticulture.
Risnjak National Park and its environment represent one of the last large carnivore shelters in Europe. These species depend on large and calm expanses where they are not disturbed by human presence, as well as on numerous animals that represent their typical prey.
Wolf (Canis lupus) is listed as an endangered species on the IUCN Red List, and hunting of wolves is forbidden. According to assessments, there are between 160 and 210 wolves living in Croatia. Main habitats of wolves in Croatia are karst ecosystems in the regions of Gorski kotar, Lika and Dalmatia, with the bulk of the wolf population in the country living in these areas.
Bear (Ursus arctos) is the largest terrestrial animal and the largest terrestrial carnivore species in Croatian forests. Plant food constitutes approximately 95 percent of food consumed by bear. There are over 1,000 bears living in Croatia.
Lynx (Lynx lynx) is probably the rarest and the most hidden carnivore living in Europe. It represents an important link in the food chain of the Risnjak ecosystem. According to assessments, there are between 40 and 60 lynxes living in Croatia today. One of the key reasons behind the declining numbers of the species is believed to be loss of genetic diversity, as a consequence of inbreeding.
The relief of the Risnjak National Park is characterized by numerous karst phenomena, such as karst meadows, abysses, deep caves and karst fields, resulting from climatic and hydrological impacts. The area around the mountains of Risnjak and Snježnik is typical European forested high-altitude karst, while the source of the Kupa River is one of the most interesting karst water sources worldwide, due to the fact that water reaches the surface from depths exceeding 154 meters.
Soil types in the area of the Park mostly include various types of brown forest soil and humus. Due to corrosive and mechanical impacts and dissolution of limestone and dolomite material, funnel-shaped depressions called dolines or ponikve have been created on the surface of the karst terrain. The biggest and best-known doline in the area of Risnjak National Park is Viljska ponikva, the depth of which reaches approximately 200 meters. Dolines in the peak area of Risnjak are characterized by an interesting phenomenon of temperature and vegetation inversion. Warm air rises towards the upper layers of dolines, while the colder, denser air settles on their bottom, remaining there for longer periods of time due to low air circulation. The fact that doline bottom is colder than its upper boundary is eventually reflected in the types of vegetation, with species typical for habitats at higher altitudes growing in the lower sections of dolines.
Specific conditions of life, primarily marked by climate, are best seen in the design of traditional houses of Gorski kotar, built from stone and wood. In addition to very steep roofs, designed to facilitate the sliding of snow from them, these traditional houses are also marked by elaborately decorated gables.
One such road was passing through the area of Risnjak National Park, from Trsatica through Grobnik, Platak, Lazac and Šegine to Gerovo, and further on via Hrib to Osilnica, where it intersected with another road from Lož and Blok in Slovenia. These were typical forest roads of the time. One can still see their remains here and there; some sections have been reconstructed for truck transport. These roads were used by traders and foot travelers who carried goods for their own needs in trade caravans. Later on, in the times of the Zrinski noble family, they were used for the transport of goods to the city of Rijeka for trade purposes.
In addition, these roads were also used for transport of charcoal and wood ash used in glass production, as important export commodities from this area.
The road passing through Risnjak National Park from Platak towards Lazac still bears the name Roman Road. Expanded in the meantime, it represents the shortest route from Gerovo to Platak and further on to Rijeka. Until the beginning of World War II, women from the area used the road to go on foot to the market of Sušak. Nearby, there is the Frankopanska Road too. The renowned locality of Srebrna vrata or Silver Gate can also be seen in the vicinity. It is a passage cut through the rock, that got its name since it allegedly took as much silver to cut through the rock as the amount of stone that was chiseled out in the process. There are reasons to believe that a road passed through this area during Roman times; due to irregular maintenance, however, it eventually turned into a barely passable path, as was the case with most other roads.
In addition to the passage of Srebrna vrata enabling the visitors to enter deeper into the mountain of Snježnik, a similar passage, called Medvjeđa vrata or Bear Gate, can be found on the mountain of Risnjak, chiseled out with the same purpose...
Stone, and in particular wood, are constant companions of the people of Gorski kotar in all aspects of life, as has been the case in all periods of history. From the perspective of ethnography, this relationship reveals itself in a typical, yet attractive manner: the roof is covered by wood, either by using boards or small planks. Gable roof sits on wood construction, and joints are fastened with wooden wedges. On the outside, houses were clad in wood too – with cut boards as the first layer, followed by planks and special boards called opaž or pažilo. Houses built of stone are typically protected by wooden boards on the southern side, to protect them against moisture. The front of the house typically includes characteristic, relatively small windows, and a decorated wooden doorway.
Typical organization of house space includes a functional division based on the type of use: areas for people, for livestock, and for various items. The central entry part of a traditional house of Gorski kotar is called veža (vježa). It is a space with an open-ceiling fireplace and part of the space with closed ceiling (hiša, hiža). Veža is linked with the attic – izba (under the roof of the house) – where hay, fruit and chests of cereals were stored, and where meat was cured. Hay on the attic also served as insulator and protection against snow. One of the important parts of traditional houses of Gorski kotar was kender (basement). Alternatively, a dugout would frequently be placed below a room with a board-covered floor, serving for storage of potatoes and other food.
Only later did people start building houses with a more complex spatial organization and separate facilities for livestock. In a more developed type of rural homes of Gorski kotar, wooden entry staircase and porch – ganak – are added on both sides of the entry room.