The Adriatic Highway and Mala Paklenica canyon

We’re following part of the beautiful Adriatic highway up the coast from Split to Rijeka, the Jadranska Magistrala in Croatian or more prosaically the D8. Various earlier sections of road were connected up during 1945-1965 to form a complete coastal route from Trieste via Rovinj and Pula all the way down to the Albanian border. Himself remembers travelling from Rovinj to Biograd in a land rover with his parents in the late 1950s, when construction was still in progress. The road surface was very rough with fist-sized rocks, and there was a ferry crossing where the Maslenica bridge now stands. A few years later, the road was new asphalt and the bridge spectacular with its single arch spanning the 55m deep chasm. That bridge now boasts the highest bungee jump in Croatia at 56m!

Map of the Jadranska Magistrala
Our route up the Jadranska Magistrala

The road was planned to connect towns and improve access for industry, not as a scenic coastal route. But the completed Magistrala became very popular with tourists, especially in summer, when everyone and their caravan would head for the coast. Classed as one of the top ten most beautiful roads in the world, it also ranks as one of the most dangerous. It’s best to heed the speed signs as you swoop your way round the curves of the bays and headlands. Your GPS, of course, will want to put you on to the more recently-built motorways for a speedier journey, and we had a constant struggle with Google maps to reject all its suggestions of a “better” route. Partly because of that, of course, the Magistrala on a sunny October day is a peaceful drive, and the scenery simply glorious.

Jadranska Magistrala at Velebit
Jadranska Magistrala at Velebit

Heading north from Lake Vrana, we kept to the Magistrala at Posidarje, and headed left towards Starigrad on the seaward side of the magnificent Velebit mountain range. This definitely reminds me of the Californian coastal highway – a great wall of rock on one side, and the blue of the Pacific stretching out on the other. In this case, it’s the more turquoise Adriatic, with islands floating out there.

Mala Paklenica from across the bay
Mala Paklenica canyon from across the bay

Very shortly, we come to the Paklenica National Park, a pair of deep canyons cutting into the Velebit mountain range. These are the valleys of the Velika and Mala Paklenica rivers and the area was designated a National Park in 1949 to protect the surrounding forests, the best preserved natural forest complex in Dalmatia. The park covers 95 square kms, and includes the highest peaks of Velebit, Vaganski vrh (1752m / 5748 ft) and Sveto brdo (1753m / 5751 ft). The karst landscape contains a range of interesting geological formations, both above and below ground, and a diverse collection of plants and wildlife, many not found elsewhere.

Seven years ago, we hiked up Velika Paklenica, the big canyon, on a rather hot May afternoon. This time, we thought we’d explore Mala Paklenica, the more southerly, smaller valley. Unlike its larger neighbour, rock-climbing is not allowed, leaving a more peaceful natural environment for birds and other wildlife. It was a nice day for a walk, although the ranger was a touch discouraging about the state of the trail. He told us that the path is reasonably good for some way, but then it gets harder and becomes increasingly technical. If you have 7 hours to spare (and better equipment), you can hike up this valley, across the high plain and back round by Velika Paklenica.

Not for us today! We walked up as far as the path allows without wearing serious hiking boots. To our right was a dry stream-bed, unlike the other canyon with its tumbling stream and waterfalls. The path is mostly through pine forest, with terraced fields on one side. I’m glad to see so many Dalmatian black pines here, along with oaks and junipers. The harder section turned out to be an old rock fall, where we had to clamber over large boulders, following the Croatian mountaineering club trail red and white markers. After that, the path was fine again for a short while, but suddenly turned right across the stream-bed and became a vertical climb up the other side. OK then, that’s our turning point, back to the car!

The Magistrala heads roughly northeast in a series of sweeping curves. Off the coast we pass the exposed rocks of Pag and Rab, the bura winds keep these islands scoured of vegetation on this side. Next we see Goli otok (barren island), where political prisoners were kept. It’s an impressive sight, looking almost like a large whale out there. Past Senj, with its fortress overlooking the town, and then it’s the island of Krk off the coast. This island is nowhere near so barren, and even has a bridge at the northern end. We’re getting close to the city now, the bay at Bakar shows signs of industry. There once was a ship-building yard here, now refurbishing boats. A loop around the last peninsula and we arrive into Rijeka right on the waterfront to park next to our hotel. It’s a botel, the former ferry Marina, now docked permanently in the harbour. It’s in a great central location for exploring Rijeka!

Here’s my sketch of today’s walk up Mala Paklenica…

My sketch of Mala Paklenica

Next, we’ll be exploring Rijeka, though the weather forecast is not promising…

Find out more…

Paklenica National Park website

Croatian Mountaineering Association (Hrvatski Planinarski Savez) Interactive hiking map

Botel Marina, Rijeka

4 thoughts on “The Adriatic Highway and Mala Paklenica canyon

  1. In the early 70s I hitchhiked with a friend along this road from Trieste to Split. It was an endlessly fascinating journey. Nice to see it again! We didn’t manage to take side trips as we went along, so your side trips are very interesting.

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