The Outside Blog

Adventure : Travel

Discover the Outdoors in America's Most Secret Town

Earlier this week, the tiny town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, won Liveability’s “Best Small Town” contest for its diversity, education, population growth, health, and civic engagement. Although we agree that the Atomic City scores well in these areas, it’s the area’s outdoor scene that really blows us away (no pun intended). In fact, Los Alamos scored a whopping 84 on Outside’s Best Towns index (see below for judging criteria), on par, per capita, with places such as Missoula and Anchorage.

Here’s what you need to know about America’s most secret town.

Thirty-five miles northwest of Santa Fe, Los Alamos straddles a series of canyons that feed into the Rio Grande Valley below. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains loom on the eastern horizon, and the rugged Jemez range towers immediately to the west. This landscape is particularly gorgeous at the beginning or end of the day, when the sun is rising or setting above one range and reflecting off the other.

It was on this high desert plateau that the atomic bomb was developed during World War II. The crowning achievement of Robert Oppenheimer, the bomb solidified the town’s place in history, and—as the Manhattan Project morphed into the famous Los Alamos National Laboratory—ensured that Los Alamos would remain shrouded in mystery. Today, it remains a town of secret nuclear experiments and over-the-top security, where plutonium is (falsely) rumored to seep into the drinking water and the local science museum boasts full-scale replicas of Fat Man and Little Boy.

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Eleven thousand of the world’s best scientists living together in the mountains makes for a very intelligent and diverse (not to mention socially awkward) community. But this culture and brilliance are exactly what set Los Alamos apart from anywhere else in New Mexico—and the world. Well, that and the fact that its location offers unparalleled opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts. You don’t have to be a scientist to appreciate the 37 percent grade of Pajarito Mountain or the volcanic-rock singletrack that is oh-so-good for mountain biking. 

Here are six Atomic City events to check out:

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Jemez Mountain Trail Runs

Held every Memorial Day weekend, the Jemez races—a half marathon, 50K, and 50-miler, now in their ninth year—are considered among the toughest in the country. Technical trails, substantial elevation changes, steep climbs, torturous descents, scree fields, stream crossings, and more—all at altitude—make for a tough but scenic race. Anton Krupicka, who won the 2014 50-miler, called the stretch between miles 45 and 50 “spectacular. A carpety trail traversed along the gently descending ridge for miles and miles at a grade perfectly suited for running downhill fast. Seriously, it is one of the more quality descents I’ve experienced in the sport.”

Runners can enjoy well-stocked aid stations along the way but should carry their own water—the only cups in this race are handmade pots from nearby Jemez Pueblo that runners can claim at the end. “The finish was a perfect example of the intimate, community feel to this event, which was a big reason I wanted to run it,” Krupicka wrote. “Selfless volunteers, tables and tables of very good Southwestern food, and general mirth defined the atmosphere.”

Out of town on Memorial Day? Save the date for Pajarito Trail Fest, held on the ski hill in October. Run 15 mile or 10K under golden aspen and, more often than not, snow.

Refuel: The deli at the Los Alamos Cooperative Market is full of fresh, local, organic options that range from breakfast burritos to green chile enchiladas. Be sure to check out the baked goods, which include tasty treats for vegan and gluten-free customers.

Co-op baked goods and coffee are also available at Fusion Multisport, the only bike and running shop in town.

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EnduroFest

If going downhill fast is your idea of a good time, the inaugural three-day Los Alamos Rock 'n Roll EnduroFest in early August is not to be missed. Start at the top of 10,440-foot Pajarito Mountain and zip down 7.5 miles and 3,900 vertical feet of free-ride and XC trails until you hit smooth singletrack. Then, catch the shuttle and do it all again, or just hang out on the ski hill and enjoy live music and local beer from Marble, Santa Fe Brewing, and La Cumbre Brewery.

Sponsored in part by the Los Alamos Tuffriders (the local IMBA chapter), the weekend also features clinics, guided rides, barbecue, and a kids’ race.

Road bikes more your thing? Don’t miss the Tour of Los Alamos, the oldest bicycle race in the Southwest. 

Refuel: On the ski hill, order a burger from the Pajarito Mountain Cafe and sit on the lodge deck to watch cyclists scream down the slopes. Back in town, stop by Pajarito Brewpub and Grill for a bison burger and one (or more) of the 30 beers on tap.

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Los Alamos Triathlon

Like a lot of things in the Secret City, the mid-August Los Alamos Triathon is just a little off: It starts with the bike. But no one seems to mind—now in its 40th year, the race is the oldest continuously run triathlon in the country. Riders start at 7,400 feet at the Walkup Aquatic Center and charge hard to “the back gate,” as locals call the end of lab property on the west side of town. Once back in the transition area, the swim is 400 meters in the highest-altitude Olympic-sized pool in the country, and the run is a mostly flat out-and-back 5K with stunning views of the Jemez on the out.  

Sound too watered down for you? Opt instead for the Atomic Man Duathlon, hosted by local multisport club the Triatomics, with two course options named Fat Man and Little Boy. (To geek out even more on World War II history, afterward visit the Bradbury Science Museum, which offers more than 40 interactive exhibits about the Manhattan Project and the lab’s role in national security.)

Refuel: Ruby K’s Bagel Cafe is just a half-mile walk from the race finish and offers plenty of homemade bagels, soups, and salads. Get the full Los Alamos experience: Order the “Up & Atom,” eggs and sausage topped with salsa and melted cheddar on a green chile bagel.

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If shredding powder instead of singletrack is more your style, keep Pajarito in mind during ski season. The snow has not been great lately, but on a good year the mountain has about 300 acres of skiable terrain, including tree, bump, and Nordic skiing. At the top of the mountain, take a rest in the giant blue chair. You’ll have a clear view of the Sangres to the east and the lab below—but that doesn’t mean you'll know what’s going on down there.

Los Alamos by the Numbers

(judging criteria for Outside’s Best Towns index)

  • Population: 18,191
  • Income: $124,335
  • House price: $296,597
  • Unemployment: 3.9%
  • Acres of greenspace within city limits: 84
  • Number of farmer’s markets and how many hours each are open: 1; 5.5 hours/week
  • Miles of trails in the city limits (paved an unpaved): 63
  • Number of breweries, yoga studios, and bike shops: 11
  • Miles of bike lanes within the city: 12.3

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Moonrise Kingdom for Adults

Ruschmeyer’s, a laid-back boutique hotel on the eastern tip of Long Island, looks like Wes Anderson’s idea of summer camp for adults.

The 19 cabin-like guest rooms are packed with carefully curated whimsy: Moroccan rugs, beds with ornate wicker headboards, cedar-planked walls, and Ruschmeyer’s-brand pencils and notepads placed just so on the nightstand. It’s twee and overly designed in the most charming way. (You can imagine all those fictional camp kids from Moonrise Kingdom staying here when they grow up.) 

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Originally built in 1952, the hotel was recently renovated to cater to New York City bohos looking for their own version of the Hamptons. Other highlights include the Magic Garden—a glorious outdoor patio with grills, hammocks, fire pits, picnic tables, and, yes, the requisite hipster teepee—and a clubby little dance lounge called the Electric Eel.

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Want to get out and explore the fishing village turned surfer enclave that is Montauk? Grab a complimentary cruiser bike from the lobby and pedal to town (be sure to get a cocktail and ceviche at local oceanside hang Navy Beach). Or stick around camp for a yoga lesson followed by a poached lobster egg sandwich at the hotel’s knockout sea-to-table restaurant.

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The details: Rooms from $547 a night. Stay five nights and get one night free.

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The Last of the True Cowboys?

It took six pairs of boots, 240 horseshoes, and 24 months for Filipe Leite to ride on horseback from Canada to Brazil. The cowboy traveled 10,000 miles through 10 countries to reach his home in South America, an epic journey that has earned him a spot in the historic Long Rider's Guild, an international association of equestrian explorers that requires its members to ride at least 1,000 continuous miles. 

We last caught up with Leite back in 2012, when he was only three states into his journey and about to cross the infamous and treacherous Million Dollar Highway in Colorado. Since then, the cowboy has snuck through jungles full of drug traffickers, ridden bulls, encountered endless bureaucratic obstacles, and experienced unending generosity on the trail. As he nears the final stretch of his journey, we asked him for an update.

OUTSIDE: Aside from countless miserable border crossings, what has been the most difficult part of the ride?
LEITE: Keeping my horses healthy. I have spent 24 hours a day, seven days a week with these animals for the past two years. As we made our way south, we created a bond only comparable to that of father and son. When I didn't have the basics to offer them, like water or a pasture to graze, it broke my heart. We crossed many countries where vets were extremely hard to find and medication for horses even more so. Keeping my animals healthy required me to work extremely hard and become a bit of a vet myself.

This Long Ride has also been full of dangers. We crossed paths with a grizzly in Montana. One of the horses (Bruiser) fell in a deep ditch in New Mexico. The other (Frenchie) was hit by a truck in Southern Mexico, and the third (Dude) walked into a cattle guard in Nicaragua—nearly breaking his leg. I remember having Dude's head on my lap after finally calming him down while he lay there with his front right hoof stuck in that cattle guard thinking I was going to lose him. These were by far the worst moments of the trip. These horses are an extension of my soul; they are my children, my heroes, my everything.

What type of schedule do you maintain to give the horses, and yourself, much-needed rest?
On a Long Ride like mine, there can be no set schedule. You must always listen to your horses and let them rest as they need it. I always try to ride no more than 30 kilometers [nearly 19 miles] daily and allow my ponies to rest for a day or two every four to five days of riding. This has been a good system for us. I have also stopped for a month at times in order to give them ample time to rest or recover from an injury.

Scariest moment of the ride?
Hearing a husband trying to kill his wife with five gunshots just outside my window in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. I will never forget her yells of desperation as the gunfire silenced her pleas.

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What about the loneliest moment of the trip?
The loneliest moment of the trip was crossing a mountain in southern Wyoming. I spent several days riding without seeing another human being. It was only the horses and I, and I had an extremely hard time finding water for them. I remember coming down that mountain into a town of 25 people, swallowing my tears. I ended up staying with an elderly gentleman who lives by himself in a ranch home. It's funny how life works out. It was one of the deepest connections I made on the journey.

You've traveled through jungles infested with drug traffickers and passed through dangerous cities. Was there ever a time you've been afraid for your life or the life of your horses?
My entrance into Honduras from Guatemala was with the protection of a major Honduran drug lord. He not only rode with me but also hosted me in his fortress for two days. His house was in a little village in the mountains and sat behind high walls and a thick metal gate. His house was a mansion with plasma TVs, a home gym, and even a small petting zoo. While trying to sleep the first night, I kept imagining the shootouts and killings happening at the hands of the drug cartels in town nearby. Needless to say, it made it hard to get some shut-eye.

You've been posting video segments throughout your journey. Tell us how you film while riding alone, edit footage, and post updates while on the trail?
Filming my Long Ride has been extremely difficult! I have to get off my horse, set up the tripod and turn on the camera, get back on, ride by the camera, then go back to stop filming and fold up the tripod—all while making sure all three horses are watched after. My girlfriend, Emma Brazier, has helped me a lot in this aspect. The moments she has traveled with me, we have been able to capture moments I couldn't otherwise. The dispatches are edited in Nashville by OutWildTV. I'm very thankful for having such an amazing group of professionals behind me. It makes all the difference.

Most of your nights are spent camping in a tent. What key items have made this possible for two years?
My Leatherman is always on my belt. Other items include a one-burner stove for preparing dinner, my MEC Tarn 3 tent, MEC Mirage sleeping bag, and peanut butter. I've also been carrying Naomi's ashes. In Colorado, a gentleman who hosted me asked if I would carry his sister's ashes to Brazil with me. He told me how she loved horses and adventure and had recently passed away. He felt as if faith brought me to his home and that Naomi had to go on one last ride. I have carried Naomi's ashes all the way to Brazil and will spread them in the field where the horses will be retired.

You're trying to pass through the largest rodeo in Latin America, the Festa do Peao de Barretos. Think you'll make it?
Definitely! Because I left from the largest rodeo in Canada, the Calgary Stampede, it has always been my goal to pass through Barretos. This past year, they began sponsoring my trip and are currently building a monument of the horses and I that will be forever in the rodeo grounds for people to visit. On August 23, I will ride into the rodeo's arena as more than 50,000 people watch from the stands. I imagine it will be a very emotional moment.

What are your plans for after you arrive?
I will retire my horses at my parents' farm in Espirito Santo do Pinhal, Sao Paulo, and work on a documentary on my ride. I will also be writing a book on my two-year journey from Canada to Brazil.

Can we expect to see a Journey America documentary from your travel?
Absolutely.

Catch all of Leite's Journey America videos at OutWildTV and follow along as he finishes his journey at @FilipeMasetti on Twitter and Instagram.

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Rwanda's Mountain-Misted Jungle Paradise

For fans of extra-large primates, there’s arguably no more coveted experience than viewing a mountain gorilla in its natural habitat. If you fall into this camp, consider a bucket-list trek to the upscale Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge in Rwanda’s northwest Volcanoes National Park—a mountainous, jungle-covered area made famous by the late naturalist Dian Fossey and her mountain gorilla pals.

Today, Rwanda is home to about 400 of the endangered apes, with another 400 to 600 spread between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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Sabyinyo’s eight stone cottages sit in the foothills of the Virunga Mountain range and just two miles from park headquarters. Each is decked out with a terracotta roof, fireplace, a spa-like bathroom, and sheltered veranda. You’ll find a restaurant and lounge in the main lodge, as well as an information center and small shop. In case you’re concerned about where your Rwandan francs are going, know that Sabyinyo isn’t just some fancy pet project for outsider investors. The lodge is owned by an area community trust that funnels some of its profits into local conservation and socioeconomic initiatives.

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The Details: Sabyinyo is a two-hour drive from the Rwandan capital of Kigali. Room rates vary depending on the season—right now, they range from $775 to $970 per person per night. Only 80 visitors per day are allowed in the park, so make your reservation early and be prepared to buy a $750 permit for the gorilla hike.

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A Balkan Journey: Slovenia to Croatia

Heavy storms and a 100-year flood battered the Balkans in May, but by the end of the month, the sun appeared and I was bound for Slovenia and the northern head of the new Via Dinarica hiking trail, which follows the Dinaric Alps, a 620-mile string of peaks spilling south and east from the Alps proper.

My goal: to walk several sections of the route, which, like the range, parallels the Adriatic Sea and connects countries down the length of the Balkan Peninsula. The main artery of the Via Dinarica—named Outside’s Best New Trail for 2014—is called the White Trail. It crosses, in geographic order, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, and Kosovo.

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For countries along the Via Dinarica, the hope is that this megatrail corridor—a project funded by the European Union, the United Nations Development Programme, and the U.S. Agency for International Development—will eventually showcase an underutilized mountain range to a global audience. The route would act as a vehicle to highlight the breadth of the region’s outdoor adventure possibilities and often-overlooked Old World culture and promote environmental awareness. With any luck, it could also ignite and galvanize camaraderie among the range’s historically contentious neighbors.

“Connecting the dots, combining resources and offers, and sharing a common visual identity will help put the Via Dinarica on the outdoor traveler’s radar,” Tim Clancy, media consultant for the project, wrote in an email. “It will provide sustainable incomes for mountain folks as well as youth (where unemployment is as high as 60 percent in many places), and it will force governments’ hands in establishing better channels of cross-border communication and cooperation because of tourism, border-crossing issues, and branding.”

But with all that the Western Balkans countries have endured the past 20 years—hell, the past 500 years—imagining that a trail could act as a tourism engine while also loosening the grip and memory of dictatorships, cross-border wars in the former Yugoslavia, and intolerant fate seems, at the start of our journey, mighty ambitious. The plan does possess one giant trump card: Few acts are as simple, straightforward, beautiful, and universal as a hike in the mountains. For visitors such as myself, this is the brand-spanking-new Via Dinarica’s hopeful, peaceful plea.

Driving through western Bosnia, however, nothing appeared brand spanking new. Old men in coveralls and women with kerchiefs scored black soil with hoes that looked as if they’d been handed down since the Habsburgs. A horse pulling a red wooden carriage filled with hay loped past the occasional burned-out building—souvenirs from the 1990s Yugoslav conflict. Villages were demarcated by symbols devoted to higher powers. The call to prayer, bellowing from a mosque’s minaret, gave way to clover-shaped Orthodox crosses, which morphed into Catholic churches taking shape on the next horizon. Everywhere, axes splitting wood paced the drive with a discordant, metronomic orchestra.

As we drove north, the two-month, six-part journey became real. My trek will begin in karst- and cave-filled Slovenia. Afterward, I will hike through Croatia, which, like Slovenia, is a member of the European Union. Known more for its coast, Croatia possesses a jagged relief of dramatic mountains, including the trail’s namesake: Mount Dinara. Some of the most epic hiking will take place across Bosnia and Herzegovina’s virgin forests and sweeping, untouched vistas.

Then, I’ll take part in a 500-kilometer bicycle ride across Bosnia to commemorate the anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre in 1995. Next, I move into Montenegro to experience the Tara Canyon, the deepest river canyon in Europe, and Durmitor National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Finally, I will hike into Albania, home to the rugged Prokletije Mountains and the 8,839-foot Maja Jezerce. I’ll end in Kosovo, one of the world’s newest countries and outdoor-adventure destinations. 

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During each stage, I will travel with a different cast of vagabonds—mountaineers, outdoor enthusiasts, and climbers—who will hike and bike with me and provide local expertise. The exception will be a Dutchman named Thierry Joubert, a friend and mountain guide with a these-aren’t-the-droids-you’re-looking-for demeanor, who runs the Bosnian-based eco-adventure outfitter Green Visions. Thierry has lived in the region for 22 years and will be my partner in crime throughout the journey. 

“The tagline of the Via Dinarica is ‘connecting naturally,’” Thierry said from the driver’s seat, resuming a sentence he’d started before he handed his passport to the border patrol officer. “But what the trail actually does is reconnect people across the Balkans from Slovenia to Albania.”

Though we won’t walk the path step for step, we will be pioneers of sorts. (Most expeditions will be about a week long, and we will occasionally use transfers along the way, due to time constraints.) The nascent trail, fully actualized conceptually, still lacks much in the way of signage, maps, and publicity—even here in the Balkans. Mountain associations along the route have started to jump on board, but for many locals the term Via Dinarica is as foreign as my mama’s homemade apple pie.

The part that won’t be foreign about the Via Dinarica for experienced through-hikers familiar with European trails: the rush of trekking from summit to summit, from hut to hut, from village to village. The difference for those who have hiked in Western Europe: This trail has some polishing yet to do. For folks who like to discover places while they’re still wet-paint-fresh, the time is right for a trans-Balkan jaunt.

I’ve hiked multicountry European megatrails before. In 2007, I walked from Trieste, Italy, up and over the Alps to Monaco on the well-groomed and tourist-heavy Via Alpina. Connecting eight nations, the Via Alpina was the inspiration for the Via Dinarica, which started to take shape on paper in 2010. The skeletal frame for the Via Dinarica, in the process of being fully marked, combines long-standing hiking paths, shepherds’ tracks, smugglers’ routes, and former World War II military trails carved by partisan soldiers while outmaneuvering Nazi regiments.

The populations spread across the Via Dinarica speak three distinct languages and observe four religions. Their histories were molded by the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western churches in 1054. Their empires were carved up by the Habsburgs, the Ottomans, and the Venetians. Their alliances are ancient. Their rifts are current.

Though the countries of the Balkans have a long history of mountaineering, for the most part people here don’t consider hiking a birthright like those in France or Switzerland might. With the exception of Slovenia and to a lesser degree Croatia, mountain huts aren’t evenly spaced the way they are in Western Europe. Trekking here can be untamed at times. Trail markings can be inconclusive. Maps are precious. Advice from locals and shepherds is even more so. A local human guide’s consultation is often necessary. If one gets lost, it could be for a while. Worst-case scenario: You end up in a Balkan village and take up residence. Best-case scenario: You find a Balkan wife and learn obedience.

“The Via Dinarica is challenging from a sport perspective,” continues mountaineer Kenan Muftić, who was the trail’s project manager during its original planning stages. “But it is removed, and the conditions aren’t perfect like in other places. And,” he looked at me with a mischievous glint in his eye, “it’s wild.”

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The reasons for that wildness are manifold. Some explanations are theoretical, and some are concrete. Theoretically, this isn’t Western Europe. People here are tough. Rare is the generation that hasn’t known hardship of the sort that most living Americans will hopefully never see. My people are from here (my paternal grandfather emigrated to the States), but by every definition I am a delicate flower in comparison.

More concretely, the great outdoors here are, by design, less developed. Massive swaths of the region are unsullied, unindustrialized, and nearly untouched. There are primordial forests. For decades, this region has bucked modernity—through communism and conflict—in an unwitting quest to remain one of the last wild places in Europe. Locals make their own cheese, concoct their own brandy (called rakija), and cook coffee on ancient iron stoves. Shepherds still wander remote hilltops and along craggy mountaintops. Hidden rivers, canyons, and lakes pop up from behind peaks as if a director had moments before called out, “Places!”

And then there’s the war. Folks here—including frequent tourists like me—are desperate to get past the war. At best, the subject is boring for locals. At worst, the fear is that by focusing on the war that splintered Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1995, visitors will continue to focus on the war. I won’t go too far down this rabbit hole then, except to say two things. First, the war was devastating in every way a war can be: physically, psychologically, governmentally, and economically. Second, tourists are absolutely safe here. Full stop.

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For the purposes of the Via Dinarica, the war had another, unexpected effect. Especially in Bosnia, the war changed the mountains conceptually. For many, mountains still represent the frontlines during the four-year conflict in the mid-1990s. Armies lobbed mortars into cities from peaks and ridges. Hilltop snipers aimed at children scurrying through streets carrying water.

“A generation of fathers and grandfathers stopped taking their kids into the mountains,” says Samer Hajrić, a Bosnian mountain guide, who was in our SUV on the way to Slovenia. “There is a gap in the tradition.”

And there are the landmines. Landmines are a big problem, especially in Bosnia, which was supposed to be mine-free by 2009. According to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Mine Action Center, mines still cover 2.4 percent of the country, and their complete removal is now projected for 2019. However, safety concerns for trekkers are minimal. Most mine-risk areas are clearly marked. The rule here is “if you don’t know, don’t go.” Translation: If you aren’t absolutely sure about where you’re about to hike, get a guide. You’ll learn more about the trail and the culture, and the price, relative to the United States, is cheap. 

Sound like a lot to digest before a hike in the mountains? It is. The Balkan Peninsula is a beautifully complicated place. Readers should think less about trekking here in terms of reaching lung-busting elevations and more from the perspective of achieving personal-best cultural interactions.

 

After leaving Sarajevo, we had one goal on our first day: get to the Postojnska Jama in Slovenia, the self-proclaimed “best-known cave in the world.” An admittedly tourism-heavy affair, the entrance to Postojna’s 21 kilometers of labyrinthine underground passages is a giant Secessionist-era manor with an apron of cafes, fast-food eateries, and trinket shops. The spot is, however, emblematic of the karst substrate that will cover much of my hike through the Balkan Peninsula’s western half. 

We arrived late in the day and zoomed through the cave on a train moving at a speed that could only be the result of a driver ready to go home to dinner with his wife. We whisked past the stalactites and stalagmites that are indicative of the subterranean level here. Much of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia is riddled with such caves—porous limestone carved by underground rivers—making it one of the largest karst fields on the planet.

The next day, we set off on the first of three days of hiking. We met up with Jernej Jež, a Slovene geologist working with the Geological Survey of Slovenia, appropriately, and a member of the nearby Mountaineering Club Podnanos. As we hiked to Veliki Snežnik, the highest peak in the region at 1,796 meters (5,892 feet), Jež explained that the Dinaric Alps, composed of carbonate rocks, were formed after the Adria microplate plate, moving north and east, collided with the European plate and was tucked underneath. He moved his hands to display a thrusting and folding motion as if he were making an invisible crust-and-mantle Dagwood sandwich.

We walked to the summit of Snežnik Mountain, strewn with patches of grass covering pocked limestone like bad teeth under an unkempt beard. We looked across the southern frontier of Slovenia, often called Little Switzerland. Jež stopped making his earthen hoagie and swung an arm, pointing in the near distance with Vanna White–like grace: “That is Croatia.”

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Coming down from the mountain, we walked past World War I bunkers and tank traps built to protect the border. A mama brown bear saw us and hurried her two cubs over the next ridge. “The Via Dinarica is a perfect plan,” Jež said a few kilometers later when we reached Sviščaki, the next mountain hut. We ordered beer. After a mandatory discussion with the hut’s owner about which of Slovenia’s main beers is better, Union or Laško, Jež continued, “It connects places with similar geographies and different cultures. With different but also the same histories.”

After leaving Jež, we debated our next move. We had originally planned to walk across the border to Croatia, but hiking through countries with relatively new political realities is a logistical challenge. Though both Slovenia and Croatia are EU members, the latter has yet to be admitted in the Schengen Area: a border-free zone that, according to the European Commission’s website, “guarantees free movement to more than 400 million EU citizens.” Rather than risk a large fine and the administrative headache of getting caught illegally crossing the border, we drove through passport control. (Croatia was admitted into the EU in 2013. Rumor is that it will be admitted into the Schengen Area in 2015.)

At around 11 p.m., after a teeth-shattering four-wheel-drive crawl that locals passionately warned us to avoid, we entered the Planinarski dom (mountain hut) Hahlić. We sat with Romina Vidrih, who, with two other families, runs the hut for a mountain association that boasts 200 members. The renovated, meticulously clean hut sleeps 40 and sits in the middle of 10 peaks—all a day hike away. Though Vidrih was a seasoned hiker and had bagged many of the summits I was planning over the next two months, she had not heard of the Via Dinarica.

The next morning, we took one of the day hikes to the nearby Obruč peak before setting off west to Risnjak, the northernmost of Croatia’s eight national parks. Designated a national park in 1953, Risnjak covers more than 24 square miles and forms a synapse between the coast and the continent. As we stared across the unmolested, undulating forested terrain, it became obvious how important protecting sensitive chunks of real estate can be, even—perhaps especially—in a small country about the size of West Virginia. The park provides habitat for more than 1,000 different plants, as well as wolves, bears, and lynx.

It’s a nine-hour hike from the Hahlić through the Platak ski center, across Snježnik—a peak inside the park’s western edge—to the Schlosser mountain hut, which sits just below the Risnjak’s highest point, the 1,528-meter (5,013 feet) Veliki Risnjak. While dining on bowls of polenta-and-beef goulash, we spoke with the proprietor Gari Devčić, who was, he proudly announced, named after Gary Cooper. Every day, Gari treks in daily supplies for the hut, recognized in 2013 as Croatia’s best.

“The Via Dinarica is a fantastic idea. We will build a new Yugoslavia,” Gari said and laughed. “It will be great for mountaineering all over the region. We need many more people to come walk around the mountains for us to stay open.”

We woke at five the next morning to summit Veliki Risnjak. From the peak, we—two Bosnians, a Croatian, a Dutchman, and an American—could see the sun rising over Western Europe. Behind us, the light inched across the park and began to illuminate the coast. “It is easy to feel small, isn’t it?” Thierry asked rhetorically as turned around to watch the Istrian Peninsula and Croatia’s northernmost islands, Cres and Krk, take shape in the dawn mist. Behind them, our next stage: a hike from Croatia’s Velebit Mountains to Paklenica National Park, famous for its climbing above the Adriatic Sea. “Past those waves, the mountains are waiting for us. We have a long way to go to get to Albania.”

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