Gorski Kotar (Highland District) is a mountainous plateau whose largely forested slopes have given the region the moniker of Croatia's green lungs. With the coastal city of Rijeka in the west and Karlovac to the east, Gorski Kotar is crudely bisected by the old D3 road (as opposed to the new A6 / E65 motorway) that connects the two cities, into Northern and Southern groupings of the HPO. A few exceptions lie close to the D3 or Lujzijana (Louisiana) road, a road built between 1803 and 1812, finished during Napoleon's French Empire, widened and surfaced in subsequent centuries.
The road is not the only history in the region. Before the French, the Romans built roads here too, and a grand wall comparable to Hadrian's Wall in the United Kingdom. The Liburnian Limes were part of the Claustra Alpaium Iuliarium military defence system, and defined the frontier (or limits) of Ancient province of Liburnia. Hike from the town of Studena to Obruč (HPO 9.11) and you'll pass remains of Rimski Zid (Roman Wall), along a line that is also close the 1920's Rapallo boarder between Italian annexed Istria and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. That imposed, early 20th century boarder explains the huge quantity of bunkers hidden on the mountain slopes of the Grobnik Alps and in Kastavska šuma (Kastav Forest) over which it looks. There is an armaments track up to the summit of Kamenjak (HPO 9.12) where gun platforms have been levelled into the rocks overlooking the Lujzijana road. A group of partisan soldiers hid from the Nazis during the winter of 1941/42 in Špilja Logor (Camp cave). You can visit the cave on a trip to Crni Vrh (HPO 9.9).
Those looking for more adventure can ascend (or descend) the Grobnik Alps from the hamlet of Podkilovac via the adrenaline pumping Mudna Dol canyon where a head for heights and physical fitness are required. The south ridge of Crni Vrh also offers some good and prolonged scrambling too. Whilst Fratar (HPO 9.10) offers a short scramble when also approached from the south.
Move eastwards past the ski resort of Platak, and you reach the wonderful Snježnik (HPO 9.7) before entering the Risnjak National Park, and Veliki Risnjak (HPO 9.6) to which there is a delightful ascent from Planinarski dom Schlosserov dom. Veliki is a common pre-fix in Croatia meaning big and there is often a neighbouring Mali meaning small, much in the same way that Wales has its fawr/mawr and fach / bach.
5.7 Km North of Snježnik (as the crow flies) lies Jelenc (HPO 9.8). It is a remote peak, and though it can be approached by an unpaved forestry track from Platak, a better day of it can be made by following the mostly grassy ridge northwards from Snježnik (1490 m), to Guslica and its telecommunications tower. A hard to navigate path passes through forest and meadow to bring you to the elegantly crescent like peak of Planina (1426 m). Delve back into forest for the final few kilometres to reach the dwarf pine covered Jelenc.
The virtual tours also follow several planinarska obilaznica (mountain bypass) and planinarska put (mountain way) as they pass through the area including the new Riječka planinarska obilaznica (RPO) and the long established Goranski planinarski put (GPP). Following a similar route as the RPO, the Via Adriatica (VA) passes through Gorski Kotar on its was from cape Kamenjak at the tip of the Istrian peninsular to cape Oštro near Prevlaka in the southeast.
The Grobnik Alps lie at the south western edge of Gorski Kotar, their grassy slopes make them clearly identifiable from as far as the Istrian Peninsular. Traversing these peaks provides broad views not only of the neighbouring mountains, but of the coast and islands, views often absent from the forested slopes elsewhere in the region.
The Grobnik Alps from Grobničko Polje.
Perhaps the best approach is from the south, is to start from the hamlet of Podkilovac. There is parking here for half a dozen cars, and it is the final stop on bus route 16A, 35 minutes from the city of Rijeka.
It was from Podkilovac that I started my hike up Obruč one hot sunny day in July 1997, aiming for the prominent peak that I had spied from the beaches of Opatija and Lovran. I knew little of what to expect, my map a black and white photocopy of a document near 25 years old. As expected it was a satisfying ascent; the route frequently waymarked by the traditional red and white targets painted on trees, the occasional sign with timings to the peak and hut helping me on my way. The final climb along fractured limestone blocks was extremely enjoyable, the views magnificent. On the descent I stopped by planinarski dom Hahlić, more out of curiosity rather than necessity.
In 1997 dom Hahlić was a smaller hut than that stands their now, an extension having since being added to the rear, and the facade re-clad. The elderly guardian (quite a legend I later learned) invited me to drink a cup of what I believe he called a "mountain tea", perhaps some blend of herbs and rose hip, I had passed many beautiful flowering examples of the latter within the last hour. And then it happened. My understanding of the Croatian tongue was, as it proved to remain, very poor, yet determined to share his local knowledge and ensure I did not miss out on something special, the guardian, suggested I make the remainder of my descent via Mudna Dol. With finger he pointed the way on my map, gesturing with his hands the sides of a canyon, and producing a collection of rubber control token stamps that gave further clues of what might lie in wait. So with thanks I went and followed his advice.
Planinarski dom Hahlić in 1997.
That first journey through Mudna Dol was full of trepidation. The sides of the canyon slowly closed in, steepening into cliffs. The first drop, not sheer, okay. Then some boulders, this was fun, but always at the back of my mind a warning from others; "beware of snakes". But there were no snakes, and never have I seen any in this area. If there were any, I suspect they heard me coming and retreated into cover. Suddenly ahead of me, a long vertical drop where the disappeared waters have wormed themselves into the limestone rock. It's almost like potholing but with daylight and a view of the sky. Thankfully there is a ladder, elsewhere wires. I clamber down, alone and nervous, but yes, excited too. Finally the longest drop, possibly ten or fifteen metres down a wide cliff face where, perhaps after heavy rain, there must be a spectacular waterfall. There is frayed wire rope to assist. Lowering myself down, my heart is in my mouth, far easier to climb up than down I reckon.
Ladder and cable in Mudnal Dol on my descent in 1997.
And so this proves to be the case. When I return one cold and foggy day in February 2000, already delayed because I had taken a late autobus to the town of Grobnik and walked many miles extra, the ascent was exhilarating. The walls of the canyon keeping me on course, but when I emerged from the underworld and joined the waymarked trail through the forest, it was only with patients and skill that I found my way to dom Hahlić. The fog was thick, the fallen leaves of the trees covered any trace of a route on the ground and somewhere I went of course. Constant checking the map, compass bearings, and estimates took me to the hut. With no signs of the weather clearing, I descended the forestry track to Podkilovac and continued on to the village of Dražice from where there are more frequent buses back into Rijeka.
The 360º panoramas for the tours here were shot on yet another trip, this time in August 2015 with my teenage son. He had grown out of going for walks with his parents, but I had promised him something different on this trip, something adventurous. In truth I had been waiting years to take him on this route, and now he was big enough, physically able to handle the climbs and mentally ready to handle the space beneath his feet.
I had to wait until August 2016 to climb Crni Vrh and Fratar, the remaining HPO peaks of the Grobnik Alps. An early start found me crossing the two meadows, Mali and Veliki Pribeniš, heading north away from dom Planik along the route of the neglected Riječka planinarska transverzala (Rijeka Mountain Traverse), abbreviated to RT. The open expanse provided great views of peaks to the east; Snježnik, Guslica, and Planina. Wild horses roamed free in the larger meadow, and at it tip I was greeted by a pair of massive dogs, snarling and barking, daring me to go closer to a shepherd’s compound a few hundred metres or so from the track. Braving their approach I continued along the track into the trees and the views disappeared from sight.
Much of the “Riječka planinarska transverzala” follows forestry tracks with shortcuts down narrower paths, the route marked from time to time with the faded red letters "RT", and the freshly painted letters "RPO" of the new 166 Km "Riječka Planinarska Obilaznica" that aims to supersede the older route around the skyline of the Kvarner bay from Lovran in the west to Crikenica in the east.
The ascent of Crni Vrh, my first peak of the day, is an optional diversion on the "RPO", and on the route of the "RT". On this hot summer's day I was thankfully that my ascent of was from the forested and shaded eastern approach. Breaking out towards the summit the views east, south, and west were fantastic; the mountains of Gorski Kotar, the sea, the islands of Krk and Cres, the sea, and then the mountain massifs of Učka and the Ćićarija. With a quick stop to stamp my HPO log book, the descent of the peak's south facing ridge was begun. I had not known what to expect and was thrilled by the easy scrambling, the down climbing that often required both hands and feet to scale the white limestone rock. With a pause for some route finding, the red and white markers entered the forest once more to be lost and then found as the path here appeared to be rarely trodden.
The summits of Crni Vrh, Fratar, and Obruč 2016.
The route to Fratar followed forestry tracks and paths, passed through forest and meadows. I joined tracks that I recognised, having walked them before on my ascent of Mudna Dol to Dom Halić. Then a quick change of direction, tacking back on myself but heading slightly northwards and uphill in the brilliant sunshine and with views all the way if one paused to look around. This southern approach to Fratar throws interesting challenges at the hiker, loose rock slopes, boulder fields, and small cliffs. Nothing too challenging, all good fun. At the summit time was made for photos and the log book stamp, then the descent down a rocky path along the fine western ridge before turning south into the forest above Dom Halić.
I would visit Dom Halić later, but first there was time for bagging Obruč the third HPO of the day. Whilst I had summited it successfully in 1997, I had neither the log book stamp nor the photos for the tour. Memory plays tricks, and the peak was further than I thought. I drank the last of my water and arrived at top with its cairn and stone cross. Then quickly, it was back to Dom Halić to refill my water bottles. But the hut was closed, the outside water tap broken. The bar at dom Planik when I returned three hours later was very very welcome.
The photos for the Mudna Dol tour were taken in 2015 using an iPhone 4S using Microsoft's Photosynth app. Those of the Fratar, Crni Vrh, and Obruč were taken in 2016 using a Ricoh Theta S.
Kamenjak is greater than it's 837m would suggest, indeed it is one of my favourite mountains. Multiple route provide interest, whilst the views from the summit are extensive. For those with only a little time on their hands, a morning or afternoon perhaps, Kamenjak is well worth exploration.
My first visit was during the spring of 1996. Miro, and I had taken a coach from Rijeka and disembarked as the road first bends between Kamenjak mountain on the right and the higher mountains on the left. The day was gorgeously sunny, dare I say a little too hot, for our route to the summit was an exposed scramble up the bare, white ribs of the mountain's western flank. Here the limestone boulders give way to steep white faces, carved by erosion into sharps flutes that provided excellent grip and hand holds that made tiny abrasions such that when one finally reached the summit, our hands where quite sore. On that route our way was barred by an unexpected gap in the ridgeline, a void that could only be crossed by some serious back tracking, or by a leap of faith from one exposed crag top to another.
The fluted limestone scramble up Kamenjak's western ridge.
Understandable when I returned to Kamenjak in 2012 with my young two sons, I took them on the easier, unexposed route that starts its way from the north and the heads up the mountains eastern flank. This route had once been a wide, well constructed trackway. Miro had explained to me that it had been built during World War II to a gun placement near Kamenjak's summit in order to guard the Rijeka-Zagreb road. He didn’t know at the time which army built it, but later I learned a little more.
Between World War I and World War II, the Istrian Peninsula and the city of Rijeka were annexed to Italy by the November 1920 Treaty of Rapallo. This established an unhappy boarder between the two countries along which two opposing defensive lines were later built. In 1931 the Italians began work on the Vallo Alpino (Alpine Wall) a 1851 Km long series of bunkers, tank traps, etc., along its entire northern boarder. The Yugoslavian’s began construction of counter fortification in 1937, and in total around 4,000 bunkers were built. The defensive line was named after one General Leon Rupnik. The military tracks built up Kamenjak were part of this system of defence, and a number of the so called Rupnik Bunkers are located on the mountain’s slopes. They are another reason to go exploring here.
One of the many Rupnik Bunkers on and near Kamenjak
The first photos for the tour were taken in 2012 on an iPhone 4S using Microsoft's Photosynth app. Since then it has been updated using photos from multiple visits, notably in 2022 and 2023. The camera on this occasion being an Insta 360 One X. Only a few of the 2012 panoramas remain.