The Premužić Trail - Velebit Mountains

Getting There

After our sailing adventure, we had a domestic day in Split - doing laundry and organising supplies for our 4-day walk in the Velebit Mountains, where we planned to tackle the Premužićeva Staza (Premužić Trail) on its meandering route along the spine of this coastal limestone range. It was an interesting shopping expedition trying to find substitutes for our usual hiking food supplies (tip: if there is no powdered milk, baby formula makes a vitamin-enhanced, if somewhat more expensive, alternative). At lest we found the right gas cylinder, so we would be eating our food hot.

Saturday is wedding day in old Split town and we spent our last evening there watching the singing, flag-waving, flare-burning celebrations of a couple of wedding parties as they exited the ancient cathedral - Croatians know how to celebrate an occasion. It was a good note on which to leave this lovely old town.

Looking south over Karlobag

The old church at Karlobag

The following morning we were up and away by bus, heading northward in the driving rain to Karlobag, our gateway to the Velebit Mountains. A complex pattern of lows and cold fronts has been hanging over Europe for the past week, bringing unseasonal snowfalls, rain and strong winds to various parts - often warm sunshine and cold rain on the same day. Such was the weather today and we reached Karlobag, in its lovely setting where mountains plunge into the sea, under bright sunshine and a gentle breeze. Dark clouds, however, hung ominously over the mountains behind. What awaits us in the Velebit is in the lap of the gods.

A beautiful Adriatic afternoon at Karlobag

After a very comfortable night in Karlobag, we caught the bus for a 40km trip northwards along the coastal road that wound its way around the rugged and indented limestone that formed the base of the Velebit Mountains. Out to sea, the sun shone brightly on the off-shore islands, while, like yesterday, cloud still hung above the mountain tops. Suddenly, the bus conductor told us we were there - the bus stopped briefly and left us and our heavy packs at a lonely stop on the side of the road. We were at Klada, our starting point and our 4-day walk in the Velebit Mountains had begun.

Day 1 - Gornja Klada to Zavižan (10 km - 1430m ascent - 110m descent)

We quickly turned off into the little country road and walked up it through the scrubby oak to the village of Gornja Klada - not a soul was in sight as we wandered through the village, keeping an eye out for the red-and-white spot markers that guided us along the stone-walled lanes and on to the route to Zavižan.

Once we were on this stony track, the climb began in earnest. Today we would have to haul our full-packs with three days worth of food 1300m up the mountain side in 9km, which is a serious bit of work. As we pushed up the uneven limestone rocks in the bright green scrub, I wondered whether I should have mentioned this elevation gain to the fair Nello before setting out - nah! she's a strong girl. Glimpses appeared through the trees over the off-shore islands, gleaming limestone-bright in the morning sunshine and I forgot about the job ahead.

Waiting for Godot?

Heading towards the Velebit

The houses of Gornja Klada

First glimpse of the islands

A rest on the climb

The track flattened out, giving us great views of our route ahead through the beech and oak forest to the steep limestone slopes behind. An array of wildflowers in all hues dotted the trackside and the birds sang in the bush. Despite the scudding clouds, we were in a fine mood. Reaching the side of Brondinovača, we zig-zagged our way up the slope of this prominent hill to pick up a stone-lined track that led us up into some denser and taller beech forest. We were now walking beneath the canopy, as the track began to zig-zag its way steeply up through the forest on a stony and uneven surface - it was prudent to choose your footfall carefully.

Old stone wall near Brondinovača

Entry to the National Park

The barren island of Goli Otok, once a notorious prison

As we flattened out again, we emerged into a clearing. It was Babrovača, the site of a small stone cottage and vegetable gardens belonging to a family from Klada. Again it offered views out to the Adriatic Sea. Then it was back into the forest for one of the longest climbs of the day.

The cottage at Babrovača

View over the Adriatic from Babrovača

The oak scrub of the seaward Velebit range

Refuelled by lunch, we headed onwards and upwards, passing jumbles of jagged rocks, which provided excellent viewpoints, and stopping at a small meadow for a pleasant rest in the sunshine. Yes, sunshine - it was here we noticed that the sun seemed to be winning the day as the clouds were being dispersed by a cold wind from the south. The cool wind did not stop us from sweating however, as we re-entered some beautiful tall beech forest and continued the climb up a somewhat muddy track.

Climbing up beneath the beech forest

A resident of the Velebit Mountains

A clearing on the climb

Then, suddenly we were descending, past Cigovane, a small clearing once inhabited by a gipsy family and on to another clearing where the tinkle of bells alerted us to presence of a dozen very friendly horses and one mule. They were resting around the old stone water-holes built by the long-gone Velebit farmers and followed us for a while, but then left as we headed back in to the forest and started climbing yet again - 1000m done, 300 to go.

An old livestock watering pond

The pale green beauty of beech in spring

The first snow

However, as we climbed, we noticed the first snow-drifts on the ground, remnants of winter cover with purple crocus popping up through them. It was so aesthetic that we briefly lost the track and, instead of zig-zagging, we headed straight up the hill across a carpet of flattened brown beech leaves, newly exposed by the snow-melt. As expected though, we crossed a zig and picked up the zag - we were on track again, crossing snowdrifts on the path with no other footprints than a large canine (do wolves live in the Velebit?).

A long climbing traverse brought us out of this lovely forest and onto a limestone ridge that marked the pass to Zavižan. The sun was now dominant and the views from the pass were brilliant - a panorama westwards over the bright green forest we had just climbed up through to the blue of the sea and the islands offshore and a sweeping view eastwards across a grassy depression to the limestone tops of the Velebit Range with (loud hallelujahs) Zavižan Hut looking down on us.

Zavižan Hut

View over the islands from the pass

View towards Vučjak (1645m) and Zavižanska Kosa Mountains

The only downside, was that someone opened the fridge door - a strong and gusting icy wind also greeted us as we reached the tops. We hurried quickly across the low saddle to make the last ascent to the hut, where we were greeted by Ante, who manages the met station there and the hut. Ante's family, the Vukošić from Klada are long-time inhabitants of the Velebit region and have been meteorologists at Zavižan for several generations.

Ante - meteorologist and hut-keeper

The home-distilled slivovitz and cup of hot mint tea that he offered us soon took the chill away. It was needed as Ante told us the temperature was currently 4°C (and that is the official met station reading).

Zavižan is an active meterological station

The warm interior of Zavižan Hut

View west from Vučjak Mountain over the forest to the Adriatic Sea

View south from Vučjak Mountain towards our route along the Velebit Mountains

Adriatic Islands in the late afternoon light

Sunset at Zavižan

After settling in, we made the last pack-free climb to the top of Vučjak Mountain, just behind the hut. Mission accomplished, the rest of the afternoon was set aside for relaxing and enjoying the magnificent mountain scenery in the evening light - a job made easier by the warmth of the big tile stove in the refuge. Zavižan is a great place to spend a night and being here made the climb worthwhile. Now, let's cross our fingers for the weather tomorrow.

Day 2 - Zavižan to Kuća Alan (15 km - 310m ascent - 560m descent)

Some days you should leave your fingers uncrossed. After a comfortable and warm night in Zavižan, I woke and looked out the window. High cloud had taken over the sky and bands of low cloud were drifting up from the coast and creating mists that from time to time obscured the views. Still, by the time we packed up, put on our wind-proof gear and farewelled Ante, things were looking a bit more positive and a pale watery sun was even trying to shine through the high cloud layer.

Morning sun on Veliki Zavižan (1676m)

The horses of the Velebit

All ready to set out on the Premužićeva Staza

The tiny chapel below Zavižan

We headed quickly down to road from the hut, taking time to admire the views over the alpine botanic garden in its grassy bowl backed by the triangular peak of Balinovac. Then it was back on to the road and around the leeward side of of Mt Veliki Zavižan. The road was soon blocked by thick snow drifts beneath the bright green of the beech forest. We picked our way along the edge to reach our objective, the start of Premužićeva Staza (the Premužić Trail), a track-building masterpiece constructed in the 1930s by an engineer of the same name to provide work for foresters during the depression.

The bowl of Zavižan Botanical Gardens

The wide stone track led us away from the road, past a shallow sink-hole, and into the forest. Once again we were walking beneath the tall beech, this time on a snow covered path, accompanied by the mournful call of a cuckoo. After a while, we began to notice the odd wet drop - it was time to stop and put on our wet weather gear. Just in time too, as it rapidly turned from drops to showers to steady rain.

Snow covered road from Zavižan

Start of the Premužić Trail

On the Premužić Trail

The trail is a remarkable feat of engineering

Fortunately, visibility wasn't too bad, as we were now entering the most spectacular part of the day's walk, where Premužić's track took us smoothly into a landscape of rugged limestone formations, steep-sided walls, crags, cliffs and bluffs.

Crossing the snowy beech slopes

On either side views extended over the green forest to more distant peaks of the Velebit. We were entering the surreal world of the Rozanski Kukovi, following this spine of twisted limestone. Even the rain could not suppress the rugged beauty of this place, though the white of sunlit limestone was for us replaced by the white of snow-covered path or deep snow-filled sink-hole.

The Premužić Trail climbs up to the limestone ridge

Grey sky and grey rock in the limestone crags of the Northern Velebit

Path through a landscape of jagged limestone boulders

The bleak beauty of the Northern Velebit Mountains

Snow-covered section of trail

The path to Rossijevo Shelter

Back on the snow-covered track

A deep drift in the beech forest

Looking down the track towards Crikvena (1641m)

We wandered by the impressive peak of Gromovača, the weather too bleak to even consider a short detour to its top. Pushing on with the rain beginning to find its way through our wet-weather gear, we followed the path beneath tall cliffs to reach the little shelter of Rossijevo.

Gromovača (1676m)

It was a very pleasant sight indeed and even moreso was the little pot-belly stove. The stove was difficult to get going, but after the fair Nello finally discovered that the problem was an over-full ash-tray, it roared into life and was soon drying wet gear and providing warmth for our lunch-break. Trekking really does reduce life to the basics - warmth, food and shelter.

Rossijevo Shelter in the mist

We spent 2 hours in the refuge, joined briefly by a German couple taking their dog for a walk in the rain, watched the fog roll by and the rain come and go. Then we bit the bullet and set off again, continuing our route along this spine of jumbled limestone slabs, working our way upwards to the base of mist-shrouded Crikvena and then steeply down a set of steps through a snow-covered crevice - a gap in the fog opened up magnificent views of the peaks around and then closed again.

The fog descends

The steps brought us into a deep bowl of forest and rocky hollows through which the path meandered, often blocked by deep snowdrifts that forced us to cut steps into the soft snow to regain the path. We were grateful for the red and white markers that kept us on route.

Snowy bowl below Crikvena

Finally we crossed on to a west-facing slope and a short section of snow-free track - it was a false hope for it led us into deep beech forest on the northern slope of Goli Vrh, where the track vanished beneath the deep snow. For a couple of kilometres we trudged our away along, following some old footprints and the occasional track marker. It was slow going, and when you stopped you could feel the silence - a special place indeed.

The big sink-hole

Nello warming up in front of the stove at Rossijevo

Path up a limestone gully

Foggy ridge across the crags of Rožanski Kukovi

Forced off the track by a big drift

The beech forest of Goli Vrh

Great views to the north (when the fog lifts!)

In the silence of the forest

Eventually we left the forest to skirt around a deep and grassy sink-hole beneath the fog-bound peak of Seravski Vrh. Here, apparently there is a fine viewpoint of the mountains to the north (we'll take that as a given since the swirling fog had swallowed the view - oh well, at least the rain had eased).

The sink-hole landscape near Seravski Vrh

At last the snow is disappearing

Crossing a series of grassy bowls, we were again led into the forest to start another long descent in the snow with a dash of hail for seasoning (my stoicism was starting to be tested). The snow was, however, getting thinner as we lost elevation, making walking easier. Finally, we reached one last big drift where the track vanished, along with the footprints that we were following. After a bit of consternation, my GPS indicated where the route should be and the fair and eagle-eyed Nello spotted a red and white marker in the forest in that direction. We were back on track and soon reached the junction for Kuća Alan.

The welcome sight of Alan Hut

Irena and Stefan - caretakes of Alan Hut (with friend)

From here, we descended a now snow-free, but wet and muddy track and, 10 minutes later, emerged from the forest to the welcome sight of the Alan Hut, smoke drifting from it chimney. Warmth, shelter and hot food awaited - happiness required nothing more at that moment.

Day 3 - Kuća Alan to Skorpovac (20 km - 250m ascent - 690m descent)

I am sitting writing this beneath the beech trees of the Velebit, looking at the crumbling stone huts of Skorpovac, a mountain village abandoned in the 1970s when isolation and life became too hard for the remaining old people - a sad fate of many villages in these areas. The fair Nello and I are also sipping some potent home-distillate offered to us by Tihomir, the caretaker of Skorpovac Sklonište, a recently built and very comfortable log-cabin style shelter that is our haven for the night. We have just completed a great day of walking, mainly in the sunshine, which I would not have imagined yesterday.

A welcome slivovitz at Skorpovac

World War II Partisan Memorial at Alan

When we woke this morning, the sky was still grey though the rain had gone. Our wet weather gear and boots were all dry, thanks to a night suspended over the wood-fired stove of Irena and Stefan, our kind hosts at Kuća Alan. It was good to feel dry again as we farewelled them and set off up the road to rejoin the Premužićeva Staza at a point marked by a monument to the Partisan fighters of World War II.

A nice section of beech and boulders

Abandoned fields and farms near Alan

Startled deer (at 24X zoom)

From the monument we headed south into forest on a track lined with soft brown beech leaves - it was bliss not having to trudge through snow. The track emerged from the forest high above a grassy valley, criss-crossed with the drystone walls of long-gone Velebit farmers. In the distance a solitary deer bolted up the slope and over the ridge.

The morning was looking good and it got even better as we crossed the ridge ourselves to be be greeted by a glorious view out across the Adriatic to the off-shore islands of Pag and Rab.

First view of the Adriatic from the Velebit ridge

The grand panorama over Pag Island

Thus began a long traverse southwards along the western face of the Velebit, a grassy meadow with the occasional grove of beech and oak, accompanied by ever-changing panoramic views of the off-shore islands, as far out as Cres and Losinj in the hazy distance. To top it all, the sun came out, the meadow-larks began to sing and the whites, blues and yellows of wildflowers speckled the green mountain meadows. This is why we walk.

Behold the island beyond

Northwards vista towards Goli Otok and Krk Islands

The barrenness of the offshore islands

Crossing the grassy upper slopes of the Velebit

The grand view over the islands of Pag and Rab

Eventually, the track turned inland to enter beech forest. The stony surface of the Premužićeva Staza led us on smoothly beneath the luminous green canopy of new spring leaves. This track evens out the elevation changes, but at times the surface is very uneven which requires strong ankles. Twice, I tested the elasticity of my ankle ligaments, luckily without dire consequences.

Stunted pines of the ridge-line

Heading inland towards the forest

Back into the beech forest

Breaks in the forest provided more views over the coast to stop and contemplate as alternating bands of cloud and sunshine rolled across. Reaching a fork in the track, we opted for the low road. The high road led back up to the heights of the Velebit and possibly more snow - yesterday was our mountain tops day, today is the day for sea views.

A lush valley near Gornja Korita

Topping up water at a trackside spring

Heading gently down through the forest, we reached a small bluff to start traversing across a slope of jagged limestone outcrops high above a grassy valley. Sheltered from the cool breeze, it was a good spot for lunch. Continuing on, a set of zig-zags at the head of the valley brought us down to Gornja Korita, a small spring in a shady gully. Water being a premium in these porous limestone mountains, we stopped to top up our bottles and headed on, rounding the valley to climb steadily up to the next saddle. This part of the Premužićeva Staza seemed to be suffering the ravages of time more than elsewhere, in parts overgrown by plants and in other parts its edges crumbling due to the forces of erosion and gravity. Still, it offered an incredibly even route with very smooth elevation changes.

In the shade of the forest

Crossing a big land slip

The landscape near Radlovac

Wild irises

Crossing the saddle to reach the neighbouring valley, we also found ourselves on a drier slope covered with flowering herbs and shrubs. The afternoon sun warmed the slope and our spirits as we traversed a region of wild roses, wild irises and many other wildflowers. Below the valley was gridded with the dry-stone walls marking the fields of Radlovac village, from where the tinkling bell of some farm animal drifted up.

The Premužić Trail crosses a drier treeless landscape above Radlovac

We had one last saddle to cross, and the Premužićeva Staza sidled gently up to it to begin a long descent through the lush beech forest on its inland slope. This path gradually merged with a road, where we saw the welcome sight of the Skorpovac shelter with its kitchen and 10-bed bunkroom, where I now sit.

The comfortable interior of Skorpovac Hut

The new hut at Skorpovac (with Tihomir the caretaker)

Ruins of the abandoned village of Skorpovac

We were welcomed by Tihomir, the first person we had seen since leaving Kuća Alan, and had a pleasant chat, proving that you don't need to master one another's language to communicate. It had been a superb day - our longest day, but in many ways the easiest with no big climbs and no bad weather, and we had seen a very different Velebit, both in landscape and in mood. This walk has so many different aspects to offer - what will tomorrow bring?

Day 4 - Skorpovac to Karlobag (abandoned due to wet weather)

Last night, after dinner, we were spending a pleasant time sitting around the campfire that Tihomir had lit, chatting with our new Croatian friends, Boris and Krešo, who arrived late by car after a day of hiking. We ignored the first few drops, but they soon became more insistent and sent us scurrying inside the hut. All night long rain drops pattered on the roof. While we were eating breakfast, the skies opened and it bucketed down. Boris and Krešo mentioned that they were now going to head back down the mountain and home. The fair Nello enquired if they might have room for a couple of fellow hikers back to Karlobag. They did - and, even though we hate to abandon a walk, it was a no-brainer. The alternative to this was a 6 hour walk in the heavy rain through thick forest finishing with a long and potentially dangerous descent on uneven and slippery limestone to the sea. Someone has been looking after us.

End of the Premužićeva Staza

Not only did Boris give us a lift down the long and winding road from the Velebit heights to the sea, he made a short detour to show us the point where the Premužićeva Staza finally ended, overlooking a deep green valley, surrounded by the jagged limestone crags of the Dabarski Kukovi. It was almost ethereal with wisps of cloud drifting by - a fitting place for a great track to finish.

The crags of Dabarski Kukovi

Finally we reached our hotel in Karlobag, warm and dry instead of wet and bedraggled, for a welcome hot shower after three days on the track. Thank you, Boris and Krešo, for your kindness, and also thanks to Ante, Irena and Stefan and Tihomir who showed us a friendly welcome at the mountain huts and refuges of the Velebit. These are definitely mountains that every hiker should visit (though maybe a bit later in the season).