Why Thrill-Seekers Can't Get Enough Of This Lesser-Known National Park In Europe

Croatia is packed with beautiful places offering sun-drenched beaches, ancient cities, and cultural heritage. But for the outdoorsy adventurers among us heading to this European country, one national park will hit all your checkboxes. Paklenica National Park is a protected sanctuary offering breathtaking scenery, mountainous terrain, and adrenaline-pumping activities. From climbing to speleology, Paklenica is the lesser-known park that thrill-seekers just can't get enough of.

Paklenica National Park is located about 29 miles north of Zadar in Dalmatia, a coastal region. It is Croatia's second oldest national park — yet, even with this honorary title, it doesn't receive the crowds of visitors like some of the other eight national parks in Croatia, such as Plitvice or Krka, despite being just as appealing and significant. One reason for this is that Paklenica can only be fully explored on foot — with an area of 59 square miles, it's as uncharted as it gets. 

The park has several notable designations, such as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (2017), a Natura 2000 site, and the Velebit Mountain range being part of a UNESCO biosphere reserve. This mountain range is actually the longest in Croatia, and the highest peak is located inside the park: Vaganski Vrh, which towers at 5,767 feet. The park has 14 other peaks that reach beyond 5,500 feet, all of which you can explore. Along with Black Pine forests, mountain grasslands, and other well-preserved natural phenomena — you know you're in for a treat at a park like Paklenica. 

Activities at Paklenica National Park

Paklenica is a climber's paradise. With over 500 equipped climbing routes, the park caters to all levels and styles of climbing, with grades spanning 3 to 9a. One of Croatia's top climbing sites is located in the park: the Velika Paklenica canyon. Anića kuk is a crowd-favorite climbing rock, while Debeli kuk, Veliki ćuk, and Kuk od Skradelin offer longer routes. If you're deeply into the sport, join the larger community at Paklenica for the annual International Climbers' Meeting.

This park is also a hotspot for speleology enthusiasts. It houses 115 caves, each one presenting a fascinating underground world. Among them, Manita Peć stands out for its accessibility and stunning display of subterranean formations. At nearly 600 feet, it's one of the longest caves in the park. You can take a 30-minute guided tour through the cave for around €5 ($5.40) between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. 

After climbing high and caving low into the earth, how about a good old-fashioned hike? Paklenica boasts nearly 124 miles of trails, clearly designated for visitors with red and white signs. Hikers can choose routes based on difficulty, time, and elevation. A popular two-hour trail starts from Entrance 1 and ends at the Paklenica mountain hut — on the way, you'll see the canyon, explore old settlements, and have an opportunity to freshen up in the natural stream. But for the ultimate adventure, tackle the mountains — these hikes are typically done on a multi-day basis.

Travel tips for your visit

Beyond the thrill of adventure sports, Paklenica National Park enchants with its rich biodiversity and diverse ecosystems, from mountainous beech forests to subterranean caves. The park is home to 80 endemic plant species, 260 bird species, and 59 mammal species, among many others. If you enjoy birdwatching, you may get the chance to spot rare species like the golden eagle or the peregrine falcon. There are also cultural points of interest, such as the ethno-house Marasović, Paklenica mills, Paklarić Fort, and 20th-century underground bunkers built during the war.

To visit the park, the nearest major city and airport is Zadar. From there, you can rent a car or take a bus to Starigrad-Paklenica, the town closest to Paklenica. The journey takes approximately 45 minutes. Once in Starigrad-Paklenica, the park's Entrance 1 to Velika Paklenica is easily accessible. If you want to enter Mala Paklenica, drive a little more southeast to Seline town and enter via Entrance 2.

The best time of year to visit is in the spring or fall. Summertime can get uncomfortably hot, while winter brings cold northern winds. For accommodations, you can book a comfortable hotel in Starigrad, stay at one of three mountain shelters in Paklenica (Ivine Vodice, Struge, Vlaški grad), or camp at one of the nearby campsites. The park offers one-day, three-day, five-day, and annual passes — prices vary by season but can cost as little as $6.50. Now, go take a hike, you thrill-seeker!