Škocjan caves with their subterranean canyon, primal beech forests in the reserves of the Krokar Primeval Forest and Snežnik-Ždrocle, Idrija with its once world-renowned mercury mine, and the Ljubljana Marshes with the heritage of an ancient pile-dweller culture – these are the special features of Slovenia included on the UNESCO World Heritage List, all truly worth a visit. Now I’m about to talk about the one mentioned already in the title, the magnificient Škocjan caves & the regional park.
This karst cave system has the largest subterranean canyon in Europe that is 146 m high and it also has many kilometres of trails for visitors with no less than 500 steps. The trail leads you across incredible bridges allowing you to see underground waterfalls (there are no less than 26 in this cave system), grand halls, giant stalactites and stalagmites that have grown to 15m in height and other underground creations made by the karst river. The area surrounding Škocjan Caves is a regional park – an area of protected natural and cultural heritage.
Discovered in 1815, the protected area in its current extension was only established in 1990, following earlier designation of roughly half the area as a Natural Monument. In an explicit effort to study and manage the outstanding geological and biological diversity, the paleontological and archaeological heritage, as well as the ethnological and architectural characteristics of the cultural landscape in an integrated manner, the Škocjan Caves Regional Park (Zakon o Regijskem parku Škocjanske jame) was published in the 1996 gazette. The caves are publicly owned, whereas the surface land is divided into public and private parcels. The public management authority became operational one year later, eventually introducing management planning. In 1999, large parts of the site also became a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention, in recognition of the outstanding value of these underground wetlands. A much larger landscape unit was designated as the Karst Biosphere Reserve under UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme in 2004. Three Sites of Community Importance under the European Union’s Natura 2000 overlap with most of Škocjan Caves Regional Park.
Three small villages, Škocjan, Betanja and Matavun, are located within the regional park, implying valuable local knowledge and a need to fully involve local residents in the management and benefit-sharing of the property. Other basic management needs encompass communication and public awareness activities. Scientific research in many fields, including geology, is an essential part of the conservation approach whilst also providing information for site management. Tourism and recreational activities require careful planning, control and impact monitoring in light of the limited overall size of the protected area, the localized concentration of access and the fragility of some of its attractions. As is common in protected area management, threats do not all stem from within the regional park, thus suggesting the need to take into account the broader landscape. The Reka River epitomizes this permanent challenge. Its water quality has been varying as a result of industrial pollution, sewage and agricultural waste among other external factors, strongly impacting on aquatic life. Likewise, past debates about possible impacts of proposed wind turbines on the nearby Vremscica Plateau serve as a reminder that conservation management is required to respond to inevitable change, to defend its position and to help balance competing demands.
The Škocjan Caves system is a massive (it’s really unbelievably huge!) and complicated one, consisting of numerous caves and passages, collapse dolines, natural bridges and sinkholes. The cave system is almost 6 kilometres long (there may be more that have not been discovered), and approximately 3 kilometres is open to visitors. There are 3 hiking trails available:
The first is a two-hour guided tour through the caves (the most popular option for visitors, called Through the Underground Canyon). Visitors walk in groups from the ticket office for about 600m down a gravel path to the main entrance in the Globočak Valley. Through a 116m-long tunnel built in 1933, you soon reach the head of the so-called Silent Cave, a dry branch of the underground canyon that stretches for 500m. The first section, called Paradise, is filled with beautiful stalactites, stalagmites and flowstones that look like snowdrifts; the second part (called Calvary) was once the riverbed. The Silent Cave ends at the Great Hall, 120m wide and 30m high. It’s a jungle of exotic dripstones and deposits; keep an eye out for the mighty stalagmites called the Giants and the Pipe Organ.
The sound of the Reka River heralds your entry into the Murmuring Cave, with walls 100m high. To get over the Reka and into Müller Hall, you must cross Cerkevnik Bridge, suspended nearly 50m above the riverbed and surely the highlight of the trip.
Schmidl Hall, the final section, emerges into the Velika Dolina (Big Valley). From here you walk past Tominč Cave, where finds from a prehistoric settlement have been unearthed, and over a walkway near the Natural Bridge. The tour ends at a funicular lift that takes you back to the entrance (or you can opt to walk, which takes about 30 minutes).
The caves are home to a surprising amount of flora and fauna; your guide will point out mounds of bat guano. The temperature is constant at 12°C so bring along a jacket or sweater. Also note the paths are sometimes slippery. In total, visitors walk 3km on this tour.
From April to October, visitors can choose a second tour option, called Following the Reka River Underground. This is a self-guided 2km walk following the path of the Reka River, entering the first part of the cave through the natural entrance carved by the river below the village of Škocjan. You can also combine this with Through the Underground Canyon tour.
The third option is following the Škocjan Educational Train. This 2km long trail takes about an hour but can take longer of course if you stop to admire the views along the way. A guide is available from the ticket office or just follow the signs yourself. You will be an expert on the phenomenon that is the Karst by reading the many information boards along the way. Look down to steep ravines and the disappearing Reka River. Also delight in the Karst fauna and flora. Birdwatching is also excellent along the path. Walk through the charming small village of Betanja and see some traditional old Karst homesteads before reaching Škocjan itself. The village has a few sights to keep you entertained like the Church, Cemetery and the Museum of Cave Exploration in the area (fee). Before heading back to the ticket office you’ll get to visit also the village of Motovun. This is a great addition to visiting the caves so don’t be in a hurry to drive off!
Where to go? Just follow the signs calling for “Škocjan” and “Divača”.
When to go? Anytime. But I’d recommend you to arrive already a few minutes before 10am, so you won’t need to stand in line. You’ll end around the midday and there’s a great, and surprisingly not even expensive, restaurant in the area!
Which trail would you choose, or would you want to try all? I went for the second option because fully shut and strait spaces are not my cup of tea, and it was so nice! Great option for every claustrophobic, because on one hand you see the cave and the canyon, but on the other hand you get to encounter only largest halls from the system. 😀 Loved it.
Have a great day!
//some content is taken from the UNESCO Heritage site. All photos are mine.