NOLS has been exploring the coasts and islands of Croatia since 2013 by sailboat and kayak but before this June, we had never ventured far inland. In early June, six NOLS Alumni, two NOLS Instructors, and one incredible local partner set forth on NOLS’ first hiking trip in Croatia, and it was outstanding.
The trip had been conceived many years prior but due to logistical restraints and the pandemic it had been delayed and delayed. Finally coming together it blended 3 different national parks, 5 backcountry huts, miles of hiking, and a bit of beach time together to generate NOLS Alumni’s newest adventure.
The best motto for this trip was “it is a pilot trip”. The whole group demonstrated great patience and tolerance as we worked through understanding what we had gotten them into. From gear list misses to mileage and elevation miscalculations there were plenty of things that didn’t go as planned, “it was a pilot trip”.
Starting in Croatia’s capital of Zagreb the trip gathered as a team for the first time and started to talk about the coming days. We didn’t entirely know what to expect because while we had scouted part of the route, we didn’t know all of it. Our local partner Tomislav had hiked every inch of the trail in preparation, but we all had different frames of reference to draw upon.
The first 4 days of the trip were magical. We moved through the Northern Velebit and into the central section. Our trail took us along Karst limestone ridges towering over the Adriatic coastline below us. We stared out into the sea and gazed on the islands sprawling out in front of us. New wildflowers greeted us at every bend in the trail and we had enough clouds to keep us cool but enough sun to keep us happy. Croatia was showing off.
Arriving at our first string of huts we learned a lot. Rustic in some ways, very comfortable in others, each one was a bit different. Other hikers were consistently surprised to see a group of Americans, remarking that “most Croatians don’t even know about this area!”. While the food was basic, we had no lack of volume and learned a lot about mountain cuisine in Croatia. We were all definitely missing salad!
We wrapped up the first segment of the trip with a visit to a family owned organic cheese and milk dairy. Learning about the small farming industry of the area from the owner was a trip highlight and sampling the cheeses, butter, and yogurt were a huge bonus. This was a lovely prelude to an afternoon in a coastal village accompanied by beach sitting and sea swimming before hitting the trail again.
Next up was Paklenica National Park in the southern Velebit region. This park was much more popular and the entrance was busy with rock climbers dangling from some of Croatia’s best rock climbing. We spent the next few days exploring this park from a backcountry hut basecamp and it certainly held up to the high standards of one of Croatia’s best parks.
Leaving Paklenica was bittersweet as we were continuing on into an even busier tourist destination. Plitvice Lakes National Park was our next stop, the most popular, and oldest, national park in Croatia that attracts over 1 million visitors each year. We weren’t excited about the crows, but simply could not skip one of Croatia’s national treasures.
The Plitvice Lakes were formed by the gradual erosion and redepositing of the chalk found in karst limestone. Many conditions had to align 12-15,000 years ago to start this process and the lakes are ever shifting. It is an amazing park to visit.
After Plitvice Lakes, our team journeyed back to Zagreb together, quietly staring out the windows of our bus reflecting on our time in the mountains and our future plans. We shared a final dinner together, enjoyed some reflective laughs, and said goodbye to our team. “It was a pilot trip” and we learned a lot together.
Thank you to the FIRST NOLS Alumni Croatian Hiking Team. We couldn’t have done the trip without you and we’ll do many more in the future.
Travis is the NOLS Alumni Trips Director. Travis took his first NOLS course in 2009, a WFR in northern Thailand. He became an Instructor the next year and moved to Wyoming to work at NOLS' Global Headquarters. Before NOLS Travis lived in SE Asia and Central America for a few years, working as a SCUBA Instructor and exploring remote places through personal expeditions. Nowadays, Travis primarily organizes trips for NOLS Alumni but also instructs sea kayaking, hiking, and wilderness medicine for NOLS. Travis is known in his community for his love of all things hot pink.