Stable weather, friendly locals, good food, inexpensive, easy access, Mediterranean swimming, flawless limestone – lots of bolts, abundant routes, huts… this is Croatia’s Paklenica National Park. A little piece of heaven. Yet while most European climbing destinations are somewhat packed, Paklenica is like a step into the past, mellow and relaxed. Imagine taking part in the Italian film Il Postino but with climbing as the subject matter.
Accessed from the sleepy seaside town of Starigrad, Paklenica is an oasis in a somewhat dry and inhospitable landscape. Here temperatures soar into the 30’s (90’s) creating more desire to soak in the Adriatic than to go climbing. In fact climbing seems an almost unlikely activity upon arriving. But, enter the park, just a few kilometers from Starigrad, and the entire scene undergoes a rapid change thanks to a deep canyon, lush forest and flowing small river. Paradise found. On our first morning we weren’t so sure about Paklenica, by evening, we were in love.
Starigrad is not the postcard seaside village of Croatia, there is no colorful bay, no fishing boats in a small harbor and no cute, quant little village. It is touristy but in an old school, traditional, authentic village kind of way. It is not expensive, camping is about €6/person, hotels top out at about €45/person, restaurant prices are reminiscent of Europe 10 years back. But here too you can stroll town with a gelato, get seafood fresh from the fishing boats, sit in a bar with other climbers and, best of all, easily pedal your bike to the crag where a small store provides gelato and drinks just 3 minutes from the start of the climbing walls.
Paklenica National Park itself is all about big, limestone walls, deep canyons, hikes to 1800 meter peaks from sea level, and a lush forest with a hut system. The star attraction being Anica Kuk, a 350 meter wall of impeccable limestone with over 100 multi pitch routes of all grades. As one enters the park, the canyon narrows and immediately both sides form perfect climbing walls with countless routes from 5a to 8a. For the beginner-intermediate climber, it is paradise as there is an abundance of routes from 5a-6b, all well bolted with bomber anchors. It is very user friendly.
As you enter town it will become immediately obvious that lodging will not be a problem. There are many campgrounds, hotels and private rooms in homes (look for the word Sobe in Croatian). The campgrounds are very user friendly with, quite possibly, the cleanest bathrooms I have seen. We stayed at the seaside campground on the south end of town, Paklenica Camping, our car was a 4 second walk from swimming in the Adriatic, there is a bar and Bancomat in camp and the staff is super friendly and informative.
We also checked into the Hotel Vicko Villa for a few nights; 4 star, free Wi-Fi, great breakfast, super friendly, fantastic seaside position. €45/person.
A bike is the absolute ideal form of transportation. We parked our car and never touched it for a week. From the center of Starigrad to the climbing is only 15 minutes on the bike, slightly uphill, but not steep. In the evening, it is a refreshing, fantastic end to the day as you coast into town and the gelato stand. At the road’s end in the Park there is a bike storage area.
Paklenica National Park Logistics & Climbing Info
> There is one primary entrance to the Park on the south end of Starigrad. Each day you must pay to enter, it is 40 Kuna per person (€5.50). Be sure to ask about multiple day passes.
> There is a small store within the park, 5 minutes from the parking and right at the beginning of the climbing area. A well with drinking water is found on the trailside about 10 minutes uphill from the main climbing area.
> Near the Park entrance from the main road is a climbing shop with all the necessities.
> Key Climbing Website for organizing a trip, visiting and climbing in Paklenica is Climb Croatia. There is a good Climbing Guidebook readily available throughout Starigrad, recommended.
> Climbing: The climbing is sport, with big, new bolts. Anchors are single massive rings or chains. For the easiest classic route on Anica Kuk, the 5c Mosoraski,some crack gear may be appreciated depending on your level and comfort running it out. A 60 meter rope is pretty much mandatory. Climbing style is classic limestone; pockets, tufa, greasy if a popular route, but always well equipped and on perfect rock. Some routes have small tags with name & grade at the bottom, but most do not. A guidebook is helpful.
> Language: Many locals speak English, but perfect German and Italian are also spoken.
What else to do in Starigrad?
> Cycling: Cruise the coastline north and check out some of the the sleepy little villages. Croatian coastal roads are an ideal combination of perfect asphalt, stunning scenery and no cars. A trail system is being developed that parallels the coastline on the edge of the park, we didn’t do it, but info is available at the tourist office.
> Hiking: Get an early start and hike up to the highest peaks. Sea level to 1760 meters, you’ll cross numerous zones en route to some great views. The Paklenica Hut, about 2 hours from the parking lot, offers lodging. 20 minutes below is also a small hut providing food and drink during the day. And 10 minutes further above is the small, incredibly friendly Ivancev Dom, also offering lodging.
> Take an evening trip to Zadar (45 minutes in car) and stroll the ancient town. Do not miss the seaside walk along the city walls where you will find a series of man made blow holes in the stone that create music based on the waves frequency as they hit the wall.
> Stop at a roadside fruit & veggie stand and stock up on tomatoes (consistently the best) and especially the figs – the sweetest, most flavorful we have ever had.
When to visit Paklenica?
I had mixed reports on this one (some said all year, others the spring and fall) but basically decided: April – early July then again September & October. We went in mid June and the temps were certainly high in town, but okay for climbing in the shade. The mid-day descent off Anica Kuk was something I wouldn’t be in a hurry to repeat. Thankfully, the many pools in the canyon’s river provide perfect swimming. And of course having a bath-like Mediterranean is quite wonderful.
Croatia is a special place, while very European, it is a bit of a step into something more gentle, less hectic. Everything is there as in Europe, but so too something from the past that gives it a unique feeling. It is a place one can spend a great deal of time and not feel like life is rushing by.
And the climbing… it is not so common that I have said, “That was one of the best routes I have ever done.” but in Paklenica… over and over again throughout the day.
As we only scratched the surface of things to do, in addition to the well written Lonely Planet Croatia guidebook, these websites are helpful:
Finally, Dubrovnik is a few hours south and undoubtedly one of Europe’s greatest destinations, it is well worth 2-3 days all on it’s own. Do not miss it.