Just a couple hours northwest of Ljubljana, tucked along the mountainous borders with Austria and Italy, sits Slovenia’s sole national park. First established as a protected area in 1924, Triglav National Park is actually one of Europe’s oldest reserves. Home to Slovenia’s swath of the Julian Alps, Triglav offers a host of activities for outdoor enthusiasts – extensive hiking and skiing trails, as well as kayaking, canyoning, rafting, and rock climbing. Adding to its appeal, Triglav National Park seems to see significantly fewer tourists than some of the other parks we’ve visited (this was only helped by the fact that we visited during the early autumn shoulder season).
The drive from the capital through the Slovenian countryside was just magnificent. Craggy peaks erupted from rolling, green hillsides, which were cut by twisting rivers and sprinkled with quaint, rustic churches. As we took in some of the best landscapes we’ve seen on the trip, Stephan suddenly inquired from the driver’s seat if we were in Italy. I looked at him with a perplexed look on my face and asked why the heck we’d be in Italy. Sure enough, though, only minutes later a big, blue sign flashing the EU flag announced our unexpected arrival in Slovenia’s western neighbor… a seemingly odd route selected by our trusty Google navigation app. We paused along a picturesque lake as we headed along the ~20 kilometers of northern Italy’s winding roads, and were warmly greeted by a leather-clad motorcycle rider with an exuberant, “Buongiorno!” After largely greeting people with some form of ‘dobra’ or ‘dobro dan’ for the last month, it caught me completely off-guard and I struggled to utter a delayed reply.
We arrived at our adorable little apartment in Bovec to find a spectacular view of the rugged eastern portion of the Julian Alps, and were immediately excited to hit the trails the following morning. During our four-night stay in the small village, we were able to fit in two full-day hikes, a couple of scenic drives up hairpin mountain passes, and a short, impromptu hike along Mount Mangart’s craggy slopes.
We even managed to indulge ourselves in a bit of Bovec cheese (Bovški sir), a locally-famous product that’s also an EU-protected ‘designation of origin’ food. The hard cheese is made from the milk of Bovec sheep, a breed of domestic sheep indigenous to the Soča Valley, that is thought to have inhabited the region for centuries. The breed is well-suited to the mountainous terrain it grazes upon, and the unsullied alpine grasses are thought to impart some of the cheese’s unique flavors. Prior to World War I, rearing Bovec sheep was one of the primary components of the local economy. Sadly, the sheep were nearly driven to extinction during the First World War, as their habitat was all but destroyed. The Bovec sheep faced a similar fate during WWII, when Serbian belligerents were determined to eradicate all local culture, including killing the culturally-significant animals and destroying their breeding archives. Ultimately, though, the sheep were able to make a remarkable recovery following the breakup of Yugoslavia, and today still churn out a product of local pride. We were fortunate to stumble upon a quiet, family house in Bovec, tucked back off the small main street, that sold their homemade Bovec cheese from a room at the back of the residence. A large, refrigerated chamber displayed dozens of giant cheese wheels, and Stephan watched eagerly as the woman hacked off a huge hunk of cheese for him.
SOČA RIVER TRAIL
Our first day in Triglav was spent along the shores of the Soča River, an alpine river forming part of the border with Italy, and the site of a number of significant WWI battles. The Soča River Trail follows the turquoise waters for ~25 kilometers, from Bovec to Trenta, and is undoubtedly one of the park’s most desirable walks. Because it was off-season, and we found no evidence of busses running between the two towns (there is regular bus service during the peak summer season), we wandered along the river’s edge to the hamlet of Soča, about half of the total trail length, and hitched a ride back to town. Our friends from Munich suggested the walk to us, as it’s one of their favorite features of the picturesque park. The flat, easy walk was definitely worth the time, as the river was just gorgeous. The crystalline water snaked across the landscape, occasionally carving deep canyons through the surrounding limestone rock. While the water level was quite low when we visited, persistent November rains can sometimes fill the 15-meter (50-foot) tall Soča River Gorge with sapphire water. Throughout the length of the trail, a number of swaying, wooden, hanging bridges span the narrow river, inviting hikers for a bouncy crossing as well as some lovely views up and downstream.
Total distance: 12.0 miles
Elevation gain: 1,066 feet
Always itching for some mountaintop panoramas, we set our sights on an out-and-back summit hike for our second day in the park. With Triglav, the park’s namesake and the country’s highest peak at 9,396 feet (2,864 meters), requiring climbing gear, we opted to tackle nearby Krn, standing at 7,365 feet (2,245 meters) high. Several trails lead up to Krn’s summit, and we opted for the one that passed by Krn Lake (Krnsko Jezero), Slovenia’s largest alpine lake. We began from the trailhead in Lapena Valley, which was tucked behind a small mountain lodge (Dom dr. Klementa Juga). With over 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) of elevation gain, the trail started climbing immediately, with the well-marked, dirt track hairpinning steeply up the densely-forested hillside. After just over an hour, the canopy abruptly opened, giving way to undulating meadows peppered with evergreen trees. From there, it was just a short walk further until we arrived at the lake – a large, cobalt pool surrounded by rocky peaks that tumbled to the shoreline. While a number of other hikers had stopped to enjoy a quiet morning along the lake’s sandy shores, these were, surprisingly, the last people we’d see until we arrived at Krn’s summit; once we continued up from the lake, we never saw another soul.
From Krnsko Jezero, the trail quickly transformed from well-packed soil to rock and scree, winding through a vast valley that showcased a number of neighboring peaks before, again, climbing steeply up Krn’s scenic slopes. It took us about 2.5 hours from the lake to arrive at the summit, and when we arrived we were treated to magnificent views of the surrounding Alps. While the morning sky had been largely clouded over, some warm sunshine awaited us atop Krn’s chilly crown. We shared the summit with only five or six other hikers, and were able to enjoy a tranquil lunch looking out over the layers of pointed crests in the distance. To the northeast, we peered deep into the valley at Krn Lake, now just a tiny, blue hourglass in the lush valley. Directly to our east, we were likewise entranced by the sandy, sun-drenched summit of neighboring Vrh nad Peski.
When we eventually forced ourselves to leave the sweeping panoramas behind, and head back down the mountain, we were sprinkled with a couple of quick sun-showers. At one point, as we passed alongside a towering, craggy slope, we heard a brief, hollow rumble in front of us. We stopped to inspect the hillside, as it sounded like a rock had come tumbling down. Stephan looked up towards the top of the hill and spotted a lone goat, perched precariously on a small outcropping. Likely the culprit of the falling rock, the goat watched us curiously, and intently, as we passed through his picturesque domain. Later that evening, we coincidentally learned of the local legend of Zlatorog (‘Goldenhorn’), a mountain goat with large, gilded horns that guarded a secret treasure on Mount Triglav. According to the legend, one day Zlatorog was shot by an unruly hunter out to claim the treasure for his own. Before the goat died, though, he fortuitously ate a cluster of magical, healing flowers growing on the mountainside, bestowing up on him the gift of eternal life. Hence, we had to wonder if we’d caught a glimpse of the majestic Zlatorog, granted with the power to forever roam the ridges around Triglav.
Total distance: 13.5 miles
Elevation gain: 5,206 feet
On our last day in Triglav, the forecast predicted some fairly abysmal weather for the afternoon and, at best, some iffy conditions for the morning hours. Not wanting to hike soaking wet (I know, I know… wimpy fair-weather fans here), we instead opted to head up Mangart Pass, the highest road in Slovenia. Mangart’s lofty summit (8,789 feet) straddles the border of Slovenia and Italy, and dominates the surrounding alpine landscape. The sky was shockingly blue when we left our apartment but, although delighted, we had no expectation for the glorious sunshine to last. Much to our surprise, though, it did, and our drive up Mangart’s sheer pass was just breathtaking. Here I present our ‘iffy’ morning weather:
After reaching the saddle, we pulled into a small parking lot and excitedly jumped out to snap some photos, as sweeping views stretched out before us everywhere we turned. We quickly spotted some trails leading up the rock-strewn hillside and, though completely unprepared for any significant hiking, seized the opportunity to enjoy the unexpectedly gorgeous weather. It seemed that the views got better with every step we took, and we soon found ourselves about halfway to Mangart’s summit, with the once imposing rock faces now well beneath us. With no water or food, and with some menacing clouds beginning to accumulate to the east, we headed back to the carpark at Mangart Saddle. Like everywhere else we’d been in the park, the drive and hike (albeit brief) were just spectacular, and we again were left wondering how we possibly could have been so fortunate to be met with more impeccable weather.
Total distance: 2.4 miles
Elevation gain: 1,430 feet
Before bidding farewell to Triglav, we were also able to fit in a drive up the scenic Vršič Pass. The narrow, tightly-coiled road led us up to a sweeping overlook at 1,611 meters (5,285 feet). While atop the pass, we were even able to make friends with a small herd of Bovec sheep, including the most adorable little lamb I’ve ever seen. As a passing storm had just rolled through, a handful of dark, lingering clouds clung resolutely to the soaring summits, creating an ominous backdrop, and a few rumbles of thunder echoed in the distance.
Alas, we were quite sad when we finally had to bid farewell to Slovenia’s sole national park. The small villages were charming and quiet, the mountain passes beautiful, and the hiking just incredible. It seems like such a livable location that I could picture myself setting down some roots at the foothills of the Slovenian Alps, perhaps even acquiring some cute, ovine friends to keep me company. Thanks for the lovely stay, Triglav – we were definitely enamored with all of your natural beauty.