Vaganski Vrh (1757m) and bear encounter
Our 6th and final hiking day in Croatia was also be the toughest – in terms of walking distance and vertical gain. We had checked into a hotel in Starigrad to get a fresh and early start for Vaganski Vrh – one of the highest peaks in Croatia. The Velebit mountain massif is the 4th highest in the country, succeeding Dinara (1831m), Kamešnica (1809m) and Biokovo (1762m).
The higher part of the Velebit range was covered in the fog this morning, but we had high hopes for a fog lift during the day. So after an early breakfast, we drove to the National Park entrance and purchased two tickets for the day (50 Kuna per person). Then we drove back into town and found the road towards Veliko Rujno (approx. 900m elev.).
One can drive almost 14km from Starigrad to Veliko Rujno, but only 8,4km is paved. We would not take any risk and end up with a flat tire high up in the mountains – the day before going back home to Norway.
At the end of the asphalt road (approx. 680m elev.) we decided not to continue on the gravel road. Instead, we drove 1,1 km back to the start of the path to Njive (just west of Vidakov kuk) and parked there.
The path to Njive was quite OK, but then it started raining. We decided to proceed and hope for better weather. A positive mind paid off because shortly after passing Njive, it stopped raining. From Njive, we headed into the Paklenica valley, and stayed between 650 and 750m elevation on this “transport leg” high above the valley.
In order to get on the main path to Vaganski Vrh from Planinarski Dom Paklenica hut, we had to turn east and descend from 740m to 590m and then ascend again to 670m before we descended down to the river at 490m. Being very close to the Planinarski Dom Paklenica hut – where the main ascent begins, we stopped by the river for lunch. We discussed our choice of route; would it have been better to start from the Paklenica valley? Although we hadn’t really saved any significant vertical gain up to now, we agteed on that our trailhead offered a more enjoyable round trip hike
After lunch, we proceeded to Planinarski Dom Paklenica and found signposts towards Vaganski Vrh. There were several huts nearby (Ivancev Dom being the next), all seemingly open but we didn’t pay anyone of them a visit. Our primary goal was Vaganski Vrh.
From the upper hut (Ramica Dvori?) the path went in the northwest direction. After 0,2km we arrived at a triple-path fork. We chose the northeast path – signposted Lipa Staza.
This path led us 2,1km up through the forest – to another fork at 740m. From this fork, we followed the path to the north and finally left the forest behind us. Ahead of us was a major, steep mixed scree and boulder field. As long as we could walk on boulder, we were OK. The scree was very cumbersome.
Finally, we topped out on the mountain plateau and had the summit in view – 0,8km to the north.
And 3pm sharp – we stood on top of Vaganski Vrh – 4h:40m, 10,2km and 1500 vertical meters after leaving the car. It was a great feeling to finally stand on this top, but we soon had to seek shelter for the cold wind. A couple of hikers arrived on the top shortly after us (they came from the direction we would be descending) but they were too busy with photographing each other so we didn’t make any contact.
We wanted to make it back to the hotel before it got too late, and as such, it was time to begin our descent. Our choice of trailhead gave us the option for a nice round trip hike and we chose the route to Veliko Rujno via the Struge hut. First, we followed the mountain ridge northwest and then the path descended to the Marasovac waterwell. We were not tempted to refill our water bottles from this well. We weren’t that thirsty…
From the well, the path turned southwest in the direction of the Struge hut. And on this leg, we had the most memorable moment on the entire hike. Bears!
It was Anne who saw them first. She yelled “Animals!”. “Sheep!”. “No, bears!!” before I saw them. Meanwhile, I had time to reflect on how she could mistake bears for sheep. We saw two bears, likely cubbies. Approx. 200m away – in open terrain. They seemed to be busy with – whatever they were doing – and our primary concern was: “where is the mommy?”
After two expeditions to Svalbard and Greenland, my brain automatically switched to polar bear protocol. Hence, I couldn’t understand what Anne was going on about when she said that it was unlikely that they would attack. But then it was the mother-thing. Were we between mummy and her cubbies? We agreed to walk normally, look tall and keep the distance between us as short as possible. The bears showed no interest of us anyway, but wow, what a great moment! I had not for a second contemplated running into bears on this hike…
Then we arrived at the Struge hut, where nothing was going on. From this hut, we followed the path across a meadow, southbound towards a mountain pass. We were now back in very rugged and fascinating terrain.
We took a break (picture below) before starting our descent and shortly after, an Austrian hiker arrived. He had hiked from Paklenica hut and his goal was Struge. We told him about our bear encounter – only 10 minutes beyond Struge. I wouldn’t be surprised if he took an extra walk after checking into Struge…
From the mountain pass, we headed towards a col between Golic (1260m) and the mountain massif. Along this path, we passed a fork where we could have followed a path back down to Planinarski Dom Paklenica. It was our guess that many hikers probably choose this route for ascent.
For a while, I had been tempted on descending via Golic, but I recognized the extra effort and time those vertical meters would have costed us. From Golic, we could have descended via Njive, but I was very happy with taking the shortest route to Veliko Rujno and head back to the trailhead via the mountain road.
Eventually, we reached a gravel road a bit before passing Veliko Rujno. As we passed the houses, we were surrounded by dogs and the owner was not to be seen. Fortunately, they were small dogs and didn’t pose a big threat. Had they been bigger and meaner, I would not have been so calm. In any case, we just turned our backs to them and proceeded as if they were not there.
From Veliko Rujno, we had 4,5km along the mountain road back to the asphalt road and 5,5km back to the car. But after checking our map, we found that there is a southbound path that would save us considerable distance. To be precise – 2,3km instead of 4,5km. We reckoned that this was the old access route to Veliko Rujno – before the mountain road was built.
It was very, very, very nice to finally reach the asphalt road! The end was now so near! A local couple were out walking the dog – which meant that they were driving their car while the dog was running next to it. They offered us a lift, but having just 1km to go, we politely declined.
We returned to the car at 7:24pm – pretty much exactly 9 hours after leaving it. The total distance was 24,2km and the vertical meters was approx. 1800m. It was a long, but rewarding day in the Velebit mountain range.
It was nice to return to Hotel Vicko and enjoy a dinner consisting of mixed sea food. What a great ending to a wonderful week in Croatia.
We had to get up early the next morning, drive to Split airport (along the motorway), fill up gas and return the rental car in due time before our flight. The Split airport was a disappointing experience. Way, way too underdimensioned for the number of travelers. And the prime tourist season hadn’t even begun! We were lucky and left on time. Other passengers were not so lucky. I could have ranted on about this airport, but I think you get the point. Be prepared!
Pictures from the trip: