Rock climbing in Paklenica, Croatia
As close as you can get to an outdoor climbing gym (not always a good thing)
Walk five minutes up the stone path through the canyon in Paklenica and you will get to a gift shop. Popaj, 6a/a+, climbs diagonally up and to the right above the shop. Around the fourth bolt, your feet pass over the hat rack next to the shop, and by the fifth bolt, you’ve passed above the yellow awning with “ice cream” written on it. I thought about doing the climb as a warm-up—but there were two shopkeepers right underneath smoking cigarettes and loudly jabbering on in Croatian, so it wasn’t exactly the chill first climb I was looking for.
We walked over to the Hidrogliser wall, which was properly shaded from the Croatian sun and slightly off the main park path, thinking we might get some quiet. But there was a mom and her toddler picnicking, while the toddler’s doll, perched on a boulder nearby, repeated a computerized wailing “cry” once every two seconds.
It started only once I had gotten halfway up was a nearby 6c. I asked for a take and looked down at Kelly, my friend who was belaying and who had accompanied me to this European sport-climbing mecca. I shook my head at her, then nodded over to the baby doll on the boulder.
Kelly called over to the mom: “Excuse me?” she inquired in her most unobtrusive English. “The bebé?” she said, pointing at the crying toy. The mom blessedly switched off the wailing, which prompted immediate complaints from the toddler.
We had come to Paklenica for its hundreds of bolted sport routes, easy approaches, and, if we were feeling spicy, its dozens of long, bolted multi-pitch routes. What we didn’t anticipate was just how developed it all was.
Paklenica is like a giant, outdoor climbing gym, except it is also a Croatian National Park with a lot of easily accessible hiking trails. Thus, it’s a nice afternoon out for families, and also a well-known stop for tourists passing through Dalmatia. Plus, there are the chatting shopkeepers, the crying dolls, the barking dogs, the groups of tourists taking climbing lessons, the guided tours, and the legions of Czechs and Germans drinking their beers, down for the warm weather and beaches.
Honestly, it wasn’t as bad as I’m making it out to be. Just busy.
Paklenica certainly deserves its place as a European sport-climbing mecca, albeit one less known to Americans. Paklenica and the nearby town of Starigrad are a great area to spend five days, as we did in August during the height of a record-breaking tourist surge. Croatia, like Greece, had decided that COVID presented an opportunity: open up, loosen restrictions, and the people will come. And so come we did.
A perfectly nice European sport climbing vacation
It wasn’t until early July that Kelly raised the idea of a Croatia climbing trip. That’s how planning went in the Summer of 2021. One-way plane tickets, last-minute bookings, and rapid antigen tests at the airport the day of the flight, and if you get a false positive, well then you try again or you head back to a hotel to quarantine.
Kelly and I met long ago: we went on a date, got drunk, made out on a street corner in DC, and talked about how we should climb together sometime. Probably a week later we had decided that the dating wouldn’t happen, but the climbing definitely would.
She became the social hub of my little Washington, D.C. climbing community. Texts from her went out, and groups of people came, first to Carderock, then to Great Falls, and, eventually, to Potrero Chico in Mexico. That was the last major trip I took with her. It was probably eight or ten of us there over an unseasonably cold and rainy New Year holiday. But the climbing still happened, as did the run-in with Alex Honold, who was not yet Alex Honold, but was still a minor celebrity amongst us climbers.
Potrero Chico and Paklenica have some things in common: very long, slabby bolted multi-pitch routes with relatively short approaches.
In at least a few other ways, they are not so alike. Portrero has a few large campgrounds and a growing handful of vacation rentals, but aside from that, the nearby town is essentially devoid of tourism. Meanwhile, Starigrad is a vacation destination in its own right, completely aside from the climbing: virtually every house or apartment complex there is requisitioned for visitors during the Summer months.
“Like Potrero, but…”
The weekend after we left Portrero all those many years ago one of our friends sent us a notice: authorities had discovered more than a dozen bodies with limbs severed dumped down the well that is on the way into the park, directly along the route we walked to get to the climbing every morning.
It was news in the climbing community.
So it was on day two of our Croatia trip that Kelly gave her assessment of Paklenica: “It’s like Potrero but with cafés instead of massacres.”
To be clear, the Portrero incident hadn’t involved any tourists. Hidalgo, besides being a town you don’t much want to be out in after dark, is in Northeast Mexico, in Nuevo León, which is pretty much right on major drug trafficking routes. The bodies dumped down the well had nothing to do with climbing—it just so happened to be a convenient place to dispose of yet more victims of the drug trade. Still, not exactly a gleaming advertisement for the place.
Meanwhile, Paklenica is about as far from a Mexican drug war as you can get.
A very busy outdoor climbing gym
Paklenica is easily the most developed climbing area I’ve ever been to, down to the bathrooms with running water dug into caves in the side of the cliff, the triangle plaques that conveniently mark the bottom of climbs, the gift shop with drinks and trinkets and snacks, and yes, even the cafe where you (and every tourist out for a hike) can stop and have a beer and watch the climbers.
A sport climbing crag this developed has a lot of advantages. Climbs are easy to find and easy to get to, and you can bring young kids. There are routes of all difficulties, although the easy routes get climbed so much that they are polished down to a slick marble. This can make even easier routes feel quite a bit more difficult than the grade would let on.
There are hundreds of single pitch bolted climbs all within a 5-10 minute walk of the parking lot, all spread within a safe, flat area you could let a small child wander around in (and many do!). Meanwhile, the really large cliffs are not more than 20-30 minutes up the canyon, and host dozens more multi-pitch climbing.
Though, I advise you to take the guidebook (and other online resources) seriously when they tell you that a small rack is probably a good idea even if a route is listed as bolted.
The highlight of our five days in Paklenica was climbing a seven-pitch, 600-foot 5b (Centralni kamin). This supposedly works out to 5.9 climbing, except they didn’t mention the 40-foot runouts up tricky chimneys and around exposed corners, out of sight and earshot from your partner. I had a set of four tricams and one sling, in addition to my quickdraws, and I put every single piece of that “rack” to extremely good use.
The final pitch is easy 5.7 climbing, but there wasn’t a single bolt the whole 50 feet. The main protection I used was to loop my one remaining sling around a rock wedged in a crack about halfway up.
Trip planning for Paklenica
After climbing Centralni kamin, I made my first multi-pitch contribution to Mountain Project (figured I’d warn some folks about that near-free solo 5.7—plus I do not agree you need to rappel down to a tree after pitch 6, as the book suggests).
So, by way of some more trip planning information:
Paklenica is about 45 minutes from Zadar airport, which has a surprising number of connections to many European destinations. If you’re flying to Croatia from the U.S. or outside of Europe, though, you’re likely to come in via Zagreb or Split. In either case: yes you will want to rent a car.
Starigrad, the town right outside the park, is a hopping little vacation town, and much more developed than it looks on Google maps (Though Seline, down the road, is exactly as sleepy as it looks). Starigrad has a long and busy strip of waterfront restaurants, and the Google reviews are not necessarily accurate. Our favorite restaurant in five nights there was this one (order the grilled scampi).
There were a lot of tourists there to enjoy the waterfront, especially families from Germany and Czech Republic, many of whom probably had no idea there was a major sport climbing destination just up the road. There are beaches, but they are all stone. No one seemed to mind much (except maybe Kelly).
There are apartments and vacation rentals everywhere, but Airbnb is not necessarily the cheapest way to go—many more are listed on Booking.com, where for our money there were slightly better deals.
The weather in August was hot, but as Paklenica is in a deep canyon, there is plenty of shade to go around. Meanwhile, the rock will dry quickly if you happen to get a passing rainstorm. In other words, don’t let hot Summer temperatures or an iffy rain forecast necessarily deter you.
And finally: be prepared for onlookers if you stick to climbing in the canyon. The real adventure—and solitude—can be found on those multi-pitch routes up on the gorgeous cliffs.