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Zasavska Koca, a mountain hut welcoming hikers overnight, overlooks the Seven Lakes Valley; Photograph by Kelley McMillian

Hiking in Slovenia’s Triglav National Park

As we topped out on Prehodavci Pass in Slovenia’s Triglav National Park, our guide, Ken Fuhrer from Ryder Walker Alpine Adventures, recounted the legend of Zlatorog, a celebrated Slovenian myth about a local girl who demanded that her suitor, a hunter from the neighboring Trenta Valley, fetch for her the golden horns of Zlatorog, a chamois with a gilded rack. The hunter tracked down and killed Zlatorog, but both man and beast were killed in the battle, and the blood that spilled from Slovenia’s most famous chamois scattered across the landscape and gave rise to the Triglav rose, a small, pink flower that now blankets the park’s hills and meadows. As Fuhrer finished the tale of unrequited love, a string of turquoise-colored lakes appeared below us in the Valley of Seven Lakes and the 8,000 and 9,000-foot peaks pierced the sky in every direction. There weren’t any other hikers in sight.

This was the forth day of an eight-day trek from Kranjska Gora, home of one of Slovenia’s best ski resorts, to Bohinj, a traditional Slovenian farming village, in the Julian Alps, a 1,700-square-mile stretch of mountains fanning from northeastern Italy to northwestern Slovenia. Spanning over 340-square miles in a corner of the country that borders Italy and Austria, Triglav National Park is one of the oldest national parks in Europe and an undiscovered hiker’s paradise—crowd-free and teeming with beauty, history and hiking options ranging from multi-day treks to single-day excursions. The Triglav Circuit is a 30-mile trek through the heart of the park where cobblestone paths meander through beech and larch forests, passing quaint farming villages and raging gorges, before climbing up into the alpine, where emerald-blue lakes and limestone peaks dot the skyline.

A century ago, these mountains formed the frontline of the Isonzo front, a 50-mile stretch of battleground that ran along the Soča River from Mt. Rombon to the Adriatic Sea, where the Italians faced the Austro-Hungarians and was the site of some of World War I’s bloodiest battles. Nearly two million soldiers were killed or wounded here from 1915 to 1917. Historical sites from the era litter the landscape—old forts and roads built by troops of the Great War and memorials to those lost in the conflict are frequently encountered on the trails. Hemmingway wrote A Farewell to Arms based on his experiences serving on the Italian front in the area and the book offers an interesting look into the region’s history.

Four years ago, Telluride, Colorado-based outfitter Ryder-Walker launched the Triglav Circuit trip in Slovenia in response to all of the requests and inquiries they were receiving about the region at the time. In the past ten years, Slovenia has seen a 62 percent increase in foreign visitors, and has emerged as an off-the-beaten track destination for outdoor enthusiasts. That’s largely because it offers much of the same charm and beauty of say, Switzerland or Austria—quaint villages, great hiking, insane mountain-scapes— but without the crowds, cost, and Disneyland-style development that has nearly ruined some of Europe’s most iconic mountain towns. The complete trip was eight days, but the heart of the trek was a three-night, four-day stretch from Kranjska Gora to Ukanc detailed below.

Kranjska Gora to Trenta
Dating back to the 11th century, Kranjska Gora is a 1,450-person village-turned-ski resort town in the northwest corner of Slovenia that borders Italy and Austria, where we began our trek. After spending a day exploring Kranjska Gora and hiking to Pec, a ridge where the borders of Italy, Austria and Slovenia meet, we headed off to Trenta, a tiny farming hamlet that dates back to the 14th century and sits along the Soča River.
Leaving Kranjska Gora, we followed a winding cobblestone street called the Russian Road that climbed up Vršič pass. The road was commissioned in 1915 by the Austrian army and was built by 10,000 Russian prisoners of war. In March 1916, a massive avalanche swept down from a neighboring mountain and killed about 300 Russian POWs, as well as 80 Austrian soldiers, who were working on the road. A year later, the surviving prisoners erected a wooden Russian Orthodox memorial chapel, called the Russian Chapel, to honor the deceased, which sits along the Russian Road and is surrounded by a small cemetery, filled with the tombstones of the fallen soldiers.

After passing the chapel, we walked to the top of Vršič pass, where a driver picked us up and transported us down the last leg to Trenta, where we stayed at Dom Trenta, a low-key lodge that features eight basic, self-catered apartments and is situated next to the Trenta Museum and a park information center.

Trenta to Zasavska Koča
Trenta sits in a 15-mile-long valley dotted with bucolic farms and quaint wooden-shuttered houses. The village has no real amenities except a small grocery store, where hikers can pick up picnic provisions—sandwiches, local cured meats, cheeses, and wine, which is dispensed by a tap which you can use to fill any container, from an old milk jug to a water bottle.

We followed the old World War I road that winds out of Trenta, past the Soča’s turquoise waters and through a fir forest to Cez dol, a pass at about 5,000 feet. From there, we climbed above tree-line toward Prehodavci Pass, where we first spotted 9,396-foot Triglav, Slovenia’s highest peak and an important symbol of Slovenian national identity that is featured on the country’s flag and is surrounded by more myth and legend than any other mountain in the Alps. Once on top of the pass, Ken recounted the Zlatorog myth and it was easy to picture the hunter and the mythic chamois battling it out on the lunar landscape we were crossing, with its otherworldly feel and high-alpine meadows covered in pools of pink Triglav roses. Finally, we arrived at Zasavska Koča, a cozy, but basic, 39-bed mountain hut with dormitory-style accommodations that serves up hot meals and stunning 360-degree views of the Seven Lakes Valley, the surrounding peaks, and Triglav.

After six miles of hiking and an ascent of 4,700 feet, I kicked back in the hut, taking in the views while sipping a hot chocolate. Others bantered with the hut-keepers at the bar and warmed up on homemade blueberry schnapps (the homemade liquor is a specialty of the country). Looking out over Triglav and the massive limestone faces that surround the peak, it was easy to understand why Dr. Thomas Longstaff, former president of the British Alpine Club and a preeminent mountaineer of the early 20th century, called the Julian Alps some of the most beautiful mountains in the world.

“Triglav reigns over a dreamworld, sundered from time, full of unbelievable hidden nooks, of unsuspected passages, of sudden visions of cliffs which cannot be real. Surely there is no other mountain land like this.” Longstaff was right—there is no other mountain land quite like this.

Zasavska Koča to Dom na Komni
Leaving the Zasavska Koca hut, the terrain bobbed through the alpine before heading down into the Seven Lakes Valley, where the trail hugged a series of turquoise blue lakes and meandered through knee-high wildflowers, pine forests and sinkholes. After a couple of hours, in which we saw only one other group of hikers, we reached the Seven Lakes hut, where we stopped for lunch and nipped home-brewed schnapps that the hut-keepers offered us. Across the valley, we spied our destination, the Dom na Komni, a 90-bed hut, sitting like a fortress on a far ridge. After nine miles of hiking, we reached the building, which offered warm showers, private double rooms, and incredible views of Lake Bohinj, a two-mile-long glacial lake that shimmered emerald blue in the distance. That was the next day’s destination.

Dom na Komni to Ukanc
On our final day on the trail, Lake Bohinj beckoned to us like a lighthouse in the distance. Leaving the hut, we traversed across alpine meadows, past grazing mountain goats, to Konjsko Sedlo Pass. Just before we began climbing the pass, we came across Govnjač, the dilapidated stone ruins of an Austrian WWI fort scattered across a meadow. Russian POWs helped build the facility, which was used to support the soldiers on the front lines, higher up on the ridges. Amongst the beauty of the landscape, it was hard to fathom that in just over a two-year span from 1915 to 1917, one million people—soldiers, women, and children—died in these mountains.

Atop the pass, Triglav peaked through the clouds in the south, casting a spell on the surrounding lands, and views of Lake Bohinj teased us around almost every corner. We strolled through alpine pastures and past herds of cows, toward Vogel, a ski resort that sits atop a massive box canyon overlooking Ukanc, a small farming village. After eight miles, we reached Vogel and its panoramic views of the lake and Austria’s peaks to the north. From Vogel, we took the cable car 5,000-feet down to Ukanc, population 40, on the western shore of Lake Bohinj, and made our way to Don Andros, a pizzeria that also has seven attractive apartments to rent. It’s the best spot—and deal—in town.

During WWI, Ukanc and the surrounding area was a transitional zone between the front line and hinterland, where wounded soldiers recuperated and fallen soldiers were buried. Just below the lower Vogel cable car station, above the road to the Savica waterfall, is a small military cemetery dedicated to the soldiers who died while defending Bohinj and its surroundings. 282 graves marked by wooden crosses surround a chapel built in honor of the deceased soldiers.

Despite its sad history, Ukanc is a charming farming village, made even more so by the Cow Ball festival that took place the day after we arrived. The Cow Ball is an annual festival held each September celebrating the return of the local cows from the high mountain summer pastures to the valley for autumn and winter. Villagers festoon the animals in wreaths, laurels and bells and parade them through the village park, while locals, dressed up in their finest traditional garb (picture dirndls and lederhosen with splashes of Eastern European flare like headscarves on the women), toast the healthy cows and dance traditional folk dances to fiddles and accordions. The best part? There weren’t any other tourists in sight.

From traditional festivals and authentic farming villages to jaw-dropping scenery and mountain panoramas, Slovenia is the perfect destination for the outdoor enthusiast who wants to step off the beaten path and taste authentic alpine culture in a place that time—and tourists—have forgotten. After a few days in Triglav National Park and the Julian Alps, you’ll most likely agree with Longstaff, who said of the Julian Alps, “They have become for me, after 40 years’ devotion to mountain scenery, the most desirable of all mountains.”