This Mountainous National Park In Europe Is A Wildlife Lover's Paradise

Croatia is becoming an increasingly busy hotspot for a European vacation — and with good reason. After the break up of Yugoslavia in 1992, Croatia was left with the vast bulk of the former bloc's Adriatic coastline. As a result, tourists continue to flock to the country's 4,000 miles of coast, inlets, and islands; by contrast, Bosnia and Herzegovina only has 12 miles of coast while neighboring Macedonia and Kosovo are landlocked. Also blessed with fine weather, the large majority of Croatia's visitors head to the sun-kissed beaches. But what many people visiting the northern part of the country don't realize is that they are only a short drive from coming face-to-face with a brown bear in Risnjak National Park.

Croatia is a narrow country, tapering away the further you head south, and the hills and mountains of the interior are an almost ever-present backdrop. Venturing inland from the northern port city of Rijeka towards the Slovenian border, an hour's drive will take you to see rugged vistas and diverse wildlife in one of Europe's most spectacular national parks. Here, you're entering the Dinaric Alps and the park is home to Risnjak, a mountain that rises 5,000 feet above sea level. The region's peaks, forests, gorges, and rivers provide a verdant habitat for a wide range of birds and animals, making it the perfect getaway for nature and wildlife lovers.

What wildlife can you see in National Park Risnjak?

Originating from the deep turquoise Kupa Spring which gathers water and snow melt from the surrounding peaks, the Kupa River flows through Risnjak National Park to the east until it joins the Sava. The river is populated by salmon and brown trout and is an important source of water for many of the park's resident animals. From the banks, you may be able to see beavers and otters going about their business.

Near the village of Skrad, you can also explore the dramatic wooded landscape of Vražji Prolaz, a narrow canyon known as "The Devil's Passage," and Zeleni Vir, a beautiful waterfall that plummets over 200 feet into a deep green pool. The waterfall and verdant surroundings are home to many species of birds including owls, falcons, and woodpeckers.

The mountainous heights are home to larger animals. Around Snježnik Peak you may see chamois grazing on the rocky slopes. The species of mountain goat is nicknamed the "mountain ballerina" for its grace and elegance. You can book a place on a chamois observation program for a greater chance of seeing these unique animals in action. You may also spot some of the region's predators roaming the peaks. Brown bears feed in the area and wolf packs are also on the prowl. If you're really lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the rare lynx, though they're nocturnal and notoriously elusive.

Where to stay in the National Park

There are many beautiful places in Croatia, and Risnjak National Park is popular with hikers, climbers, and cyclists, and the area is dotted with villages. If you plan a stay in or around the area, one good accommodation option is booking a hotel or B&B in the quaint village of Crni Lug on the road leading into the Park. It's a pretty small place but the locals are well used to catering for visitors and there are several private guesthouses, apartments, and chalets available to rent. One of the highest-rated is Chalet House Olga, a beautiful family-run cottage with clean and cozy wood-paneled rooms and access to garden and barbecue facilities. Also worth checking out is Kod Korita Rooms, a charmingly rustic property with a sauna, breakfast room, terrace, and great views. Places to eat out are limited, but there is a small grocery store in the village and Pansion Risnjak offers a solid selection of local dishes.

For a more unusual option that will put you right in the heart of nature, there is Old Mom's Lodge (Konak Stare Mame) on the banks of Mrzla Vodica Lake, at the foot of Risnjak mountain. With its basic wigwam-like huts, the site is perhaps better suited to more adventurous travelers who don't mind things a little rustic, but it's a great place for wildlife lovers who want to truly immerse themselves in Croatia's gorgeous natural surroundings.