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3 days in Montenegro’s playground: Durmitor National Park

1/25/18 by Helen Glenny

If you haven’t visited Montenegro yet, you’re not alone. Nestled just south of Croatia’s tourist-heavy towns, Montenegro hasn’t appeared on most Western travel radars yet. But with Italy’s climate and Greece’s coastline—without the crowds—it’s only a matter of time. Those who make the trip will find uncrowded beaches and unexplored hills.

The most dramatic of those hills cover 150 square miles in the far north of the country, close to the border with Bosnia-Herzegovina in Durmitor National Park. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is just 75 miles from Montenegro’s capital, Podgorica, and easy to get to by car or bus. As you approach, the Dinaric Alps rise up from the ground below, the temperature starts to cool, and the rivers carve deep into gorges.

Three days is a good amount of time to get a feel for the park. The weather here can turn wet and cold quickly and some of the hiking tracks feature exposed rock scrambles and scree fields that demand proper footwear, so be sure to pack warm layers, a waterproof shell, and hiking boots.

When it comes to deciding on what to do on your trip to northern Montenegro, there are plenty of options. We narrowed them down for you and put together this guide for making the best of a long weekend in Durmitor National Park.

Where to Stay

First things first—your base camp is going to be Žabljak, a small town that is fairly unremarkable except for its mountainous surroundings. It has a few hotels, a few more guesthouses, and one backpackers’ hostel—perfect for every travel budget. There are some restaurants to fill your hiking-hungry belly, a large supermarket and a bakery that opens early for eager adventurers. Pick up a map from the tourist office and treat yourself to local red wine on arrival—but not too much, you’ve got a lot of ground to cover in the morning.

Day One

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Locals say that Ćurevac offers the best views of the park. Helen Glenny

Black Lake (Crno Jezero) is your first destination. It’s 40 minutes out of town on foot, but if you hire a bike, it’s a 10-minute, slightly downhill roll. You’ll see Pekara Bakery on your way out, opposite the supermarket. It’s a great place to pick up breakfast on the go.

Black Lake is a moody, figure-eight-shaped lake surrounded by dense pine forest and rocky cliffs. Take about 90 minutes to walk the trail around the lake to see it from all sides. You can ride a bike, but only if you’re a confident mountain biker—the route gets rocky and difficult in places (it’s a breeze on foot).

After Black Lake, you’re off to Ćurevac for the best view in Durmitor, according to locals. Ćurevac is a 40-minute bike ride out of town. Drop your bike next to the Ćurevac sign, follow the cliffside path on foot and watch view slowly reveal itself. After about 15 minutes, the earth ends, and you’ve got a 270-degree view down into the lush, green Tara Gorge—the deepest canyon in Europe.

By now, you’ll start to feel a grumble in your stomach. Head downhill from Ćurevac and turn right onto the ski field access road that winds up a few exhausting hairpins to Restoran Momcilov Grad. Sit out on the expansive balcony and take in the distant mountains over coffee or a traditional Montenegrin spread of fresh bread, locally-grown vegetables, and tender roasted meats.

Once you’re fed and watered, head out to Tara Bridge (Djurdjevica), just outside the park. It’s about 30 minutes away by car, and buses run frequently. (You’ll want the bus to Pljevlja.) Walk the length of the lofty concrete arch bridge and peer down into the canyon below. Check out the memorial to Lazar Jauković, who blew up the bridge’s central arch during the Second World War to stall the Italian advance. Around the bridge are a few cafés, and a zip line runs across the gorge if you’re after a different view into the canyon.

Back in Zabljak, dine in one of the town’s cozy restaurants. Caffe Or’O is a good option for modern Montenegrin food. Try the Durmitor lamb, and follow it up with the chocolate cake.

Day Two

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The view while climbing Bobotov Kuk. Helen Glenny

Coming in at 8,278 feet and just 6.5 feet lower that Montenegro’s highest peak, Bobotov Kuk is the highest mountain in Durmitor National Park. Today, you’ll be climbing it. Pick up lunch before from the bakery or supermarket beforehand, enough to power you through a long day.

There are two main trails to the top of Bobotov Kuk: one from Sedlo pass and one from Zabljak. The track from Sedlo Pass is about three miles and takes about three hours one-way. It’s the easier route and is less exposed. The trail from Zabljak is around six miles, takes five hours one-way. You’ll be dealing with rocky, airy sections that should only be attempted if you’re confident with heights. If you’re keen for a whole-day adventure, climb up from Sedlo Pass, and hike down to Zabljak.

Start by taking a taxi to Sedlo Pass (20 mins, 15€). The route heads from the top of the pass into the mountains, and once you’ve climbed up and round your first rock buttress (with handrails), you’ll crest into a gorgeous green alpine valley. From here, the trail is well-marked, with Bobotov Kuk spray painted on large rocks, and red and white dots marking the path. That said, paths criss-cross all over the park, so be sure to bring your park map.

Enjoy the undulating trek past churned and folded mountain walls to the summit, and you might even find some lingering pockets of snow on the shady slopes in early summer. At the top, there’s a guestbook in a metal box, where you can record your ascent.

The long track down to Zabljak passes through spectacular scenery, but it’s steep and exposed in some areas, and has tiring sections of loose scree in others. If you’re confident with heights and have a reasonable level of fitness, go for it. If not, take the path you came up back to Sedlo Pass (arrange your transport beforehand).

When you get back in Žabljak, try another local restaurant for dinner. Hotel Soa and Lupo d’Argento serve a great range of local and European dishes.

Day Three

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Rafting the Tara River is an adventure not to be missed. Helen Glenny

Spend your last day in northwest Montenegro’s rafting the Tara River. You can raft in the park, but the rapids on the river are concentrated in the section of river that’s nestled up against the Bosnia-Herzegovina border.

There are a few rafting companies running on this part of the river (Tara Grab is a good one), and the camaraderie of the guides adds to the fun, with bumper-boat antics on the calmer sections.

After running a few warm-up rapids, you’ll bounce through heaviest rapids on the river, forward, backward, and sideways. Farther down, you’ll get a swim and a fun rock jump. In the early summer, it can be freezing cold—this water is running down from the Dinaric Alps, after all—but the companies will supply wetsuits.

You’ll enter and exit the river on the Montenegro side, but if you’ve never been to Bosnia-Herzegovina, here’s your opportunity. Just swim about 60 feet to the other side of the river and you’re there, no passport required.

If you’re after one last adrenaline rush, ask your guides about jumping off the bridge above your finish point. A heart-stopping 35-foot plunge into the icy no man’s land between Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina is the perfect way to round out three-day Durmitor trip.

Make your way back to the camp to fill up on bread and meat and fish spiced with pepper and garlic, all cooked fresh in a woodfire oven on site. Leave some space for a few flaky pastries before you head on your way.

Montenegro, being so small, is easy to explore on a short trip. Whichever direction you’re headed next, adventure won’t be far away.

Originally written by RootsRated for ExOfficio.