Highs & Lows: Off-Roading in Croatia

Following two excellent trips to Dubrovnik and the enchanting islands of the Dalmatian Coast, Croatia sits in top spot on my list of favourite European destinations. This laid-back country, steeped in medieval history and lapped by turquoise waters, is home to smooth tarmac roads that would make for a very pleasant road ride... if that had been what I was looking for!

This time however, would be different. Rather than being charmed by Dubrovnik's streets or enchanted by the islands off the coast, I was here to try some serious off-road mountain biking and put Croatia (and my bike!) through its paces!

I'd been to Croatia twice before and yet even I had not heard of my destination: Velebit National Park was definitely not on my radar. In fact, the only national park I’d heard of in Croatia was Plitvice Lakes, a UNESCO-protected park renowned for its 16 colourful lakes that cascade through towering limestone karsts.

Plitvice Lakes National Park Plitvice Lakes National Park

The initial introduction to Velebit was relatively tame; great twin tracks through forests which cloak the foothills, gentle inclines followed by declines; all very straightforward. However the 18km climb to the Zazvian mountain hut was what confirmed that we were on for some ‘proper’ mountain biking in Croatia after all.

Gasping for air at the top, our tough 1,100m ascent rewarded us with a view over the national park spanning as far as the islands punctuating the distant seascape. Here, the highest point of the trip, we spent the night in a humble mountain hut. Communal dorm – check; cold shower – check; simple food - check. Thankfully to be the only night of ‘roughing it’! In fact, all other nights of the trip are spent in relative luxury.

You can't fault the view from the hut though! You can't fault the view from the hut though!

After a questionable night’s sleep, the day started with an exciting 13km downhill track through the forest. Returning to tarmac for a short but steady climb, we traversed the edge of the mountain range on an off-road track skirting the imposing valleys before diving down through a few switchbacks.

After another punishing ascent, the sublime vistas of winding valleys engulfed by towering jagged peaks once again make it all worthwhile. Although by far the toughest day, by the time we were supping our hard-earned beers we were already recalling it through rose-tinted cycling specs.

Mali Halan pass summit Mali Halan pass summit

The third day through the Velebit mountain range started perfectly given the previous day’s exertion; a gentle ride along blissfully quiet roads winding parallel to the mountain range for about 40km.

However, before long the gradient changed and I was having to dig deep on the 10km twin track mountain climb. The rewards were jaw dropping at every bend of the gravel track. Snaking round the monolithic stone towers, I marvelled at the powerful beauty of nature from my two wheels.

Biking across the pass of Mali Halan Biking across the pass of Mali Halan

Stopping at the edge of the range to draw breath, I took a moment to check out the route down from the mountains to the ocean. An exhilarating 90-minute descent lay before me and I was soon tearing over rough twin tracks in a real test of control and nerve. Eventually, the terrain changed and I felt the welcome relief of tarmac under my tyres. The sweet smell of sea air filled my nostrils and a warm sense of achievement started to emerge.

Marcus on his way to the sea Marcus on his way to the sea

This feeling was short lived; it was to be another gruelling 30km before I reached the sanctuary of my comfy bed at the seaside hotel in Novigrad. You have been warned!

Has Marcus convinced you to try Mountain biking in Croatia yourself?


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