The drive to Zabljak is to put it simply, stunning. All of the mountain ranges in Montenegro are made up of the same limestone/Karst region that makes Croatia and Greece so spectacular. The other result of this is that most of the rainwater that falls simply percolates into the ground and then into underground rivers. This leaves the mountain ranges really confusing to hike because there is no way to navigate using the usual creeks and rivers because they are all underground. The upside to all of this is that the mountains resemble more of a moonscape with massive peaks divided by massive bowl shaped basins with a lake or sink hole in the bottom.
The best example of all of these is the UNESCO Durmitor National Park which Zabljak sits in the foothills. An old winter ski resort favoured by the Russians Zabljak sits at around 1600m and boasts being the highest city in Europe, even though it has largely been abandoned by the ski resorts in the last 15 years. The city is perfect for using as a base for the huge number of hikes that it’s possible to do the in the national park and these hikes can be done as either multi-day or broken up into a number of long day trips. We arrived with 2 full days and one half day dedicated to seeing the 3 main sights which can be done in the park; the twin lakes, ice cave hike and the highest summit in the park, Bobotov Peak.
By far the biggest attraction in the park is the ice cave and the hike to get up there is equally as incredible. The whole park is full of caves and sink holes but one of these is at the perfect elevation and shape to catch/fill up with ice and snow during winter. It then acts like a giant freezer during summer and remains frozen until late August. Starting early in the morning Aaron, Nate, our new friend Sam began the walk at the twin lakes and ascended for the next couple of hours until we broke through the tree line. From here the moonscape begins. The paths are well trodden but weave around limestone spires, sink holes and in parts it gets so steep that walking up the scree slopes are nearly impossible. After about 4 hours of climbing we walk around a bend and finally see the opening of the cave sitting around half way up a cliff face.
From the entrance the cave slopes downwards into the mountain at around 45 degrees, luckily someone was nice enough to bolt a rope into the wall to help walk up and down the ice floor. What’s most incredible about going into the cave is the temperature difference. After the hot hike it was actually cold enough inside to make steam rise off our bodies.
Our second day would be an even harder climb to the highest summit in the park and Montenegro’s highest mountain Bobotov Peak, at 2525m. Alex who owns Hikers Den Hostel was nice enough to drive us part of the way to help save us some time but it was still a grueling 4 hours of uphill hiking and rock scrambling. There are lots of ups and downs but the most intense part is a 600m cliff face which needs to be climbed and this takes over an hour just by itself. At the top of that section is a saddle between 2 peaks which we use to have a break before our last push to the top. From the saddle the peak is around 200m higher, but is almost completely going up a cliff face or scree. The one path is used by hikers going both up and down the mountain which can get pretty hairy at times with the path being around one shoe in width and having a 600m drop below. Just before the summit is the steepest section with rope bolted into the rock which is nice to help with vertigo. From the top the view is insane in all directions to the horizon and for a while all we could do was just sit there and take in the sight.
To date it is still the most rewarding hiking area that I’ve explored and would recommend adding it to any trip along the coast. The Durmitor National Park has 50 peaks over 2000 meters and the deepest river canyon in Europe so there is plenty to keep all hiking abilities busy. There are some tourists and hikers around but compared to other spots on the continent with parks as stunning it’s basically deserted.