A Karst fairytale valley.
Rakov Škocjan is an incredibly picturesque valley in southern Slovenia, which was formed by the river Rak and further reformed when the ceiling of a Karst cave collapsed and it caved in entirely. The entire area is full of interesting Karst phenomena and crazy rock formations, so it is definitely one of the spots that should be on your list if you’re planning to visit Slovenia.
Karst is a type of rocky limestone terrain, characterised by plenty of underground caves, sinkholes and somewhat barren ground, which is actually named after a region in Slovenia. Rakov Škocjan and the nearby intermittent lake Cerknica are perfect examples of what happens when geology decides to play around a bit and Slovenia has quite a lot of them.
There’s a marked, educational trail leading through the Rakov Škocjan valley, so the best way to explore it is to follow it on foot or by car following the dirt road from station to station. The trail runs through the whole valley, from the small natural bridge to the big one, and the major stops are marked on the signposted maps allover the trail. The whole thing takes about 4 hours and it will take you by all the important sights of Rakov Škocjan, although some may not be accessible if the water is high. The Rak river mostly dries out on the surface every year in the warmer months, but runs quite high during autumn, winter or heavier rain periods, so the path through through some of the stone formations may be submerged then. Expect it to be wet and slippery at all times though, so it’s best to bring proper walking shoes if you’re planning to poke your nose into every Karst cave and crevice (it’s certainly worth it!).
The small natural bridge
Both the small and the big natural bridges are stone-cold proofs (heh) that the entire Rakov Škocjan was once a cave, which collapsed inward between the bridges. Even though the small bridge is called small, it is still massive, with its walls reaching high up to the sky and both bridges give off a distinct solid vibe. You can see tiny me crossing under the big natural bridge on the photo below to get a feel for how big the bridges really are, as well as the river Rak in its low flow state in the photos in the same gallery.
The big natural bridge
Obviously we were visiting during the dry period, so we were able to walk under the big natural bridge on the riverbed and reach the Weaver’s cave (Tkalca jama), which is located just around the corner and forms the official end of Rakov Škocjan on the west side. The river Rak drains into the underground Karst cave system through a 400 m long narrow tunnel at the end of the cave, which eventually connects to the Planina cave.
The Weaver’s cave got its name from a curious rock formation, which inspired the local legend about a weaver, who chose to work even on holidays and hid into the cave to do his dirty work. He got turned to stone as divine punishment for his troubles. When the river is dry, you can reach the entrance hall of the Weaver’s cave, but be careful because the rocks on the riverbed are treacherous – slippery and overgrown with algae.
It’s cold inside and the cave feels a bit creepy with the chilly, stale air blowing from the underground. It’s easy to understand why the locals attributed such a sinister legend to it, but it is nonetheless well worth a visit, because the ceiling is full of gorgeous dripstones.
The educational trail actually runs on top of the big natural bridge in that part and you’ll be able to see the Weaver’s cave and the river with its lush green meadows from above. Right on top of a section of the big natural bridge you’ll also find the ruins of the Church of St. Kancian, which was built in the 16th century by refugees running from the Turks. Today it is no more than a pile of rubble with a small altar, but for us it also hid a secret.
We found a small painted rock, dedicated to a boy named Joe, who died when he was 12. On his 18th birthday his parents hid painted rocks around the world as a tribute, so that he would get to travel the world as he’d always wanted. The rocks instruct you to take a photo of their hiding place, post it in the Joe rocks the world Facebook group and then take them with you and rehide them in a new place (we did).
The ruins of the church of St. Kancian
Rakov Škocjan hides another gorgeous sight about halfway through the trail: the Kotliči springs, a lake consisting of multiple small springs. The name means kettles in Slovenian and the springs were so named, because water tends to erupt through them in such force during the wet period, that tiny little bubbles form and it looks like the entire lake is boiling. The Kotliči springs are fed by underground waters and their stream joins the river Rak a couple of hundred meters away. During the dry period Kotliči form two small, beautifully blue-green pools nicknamed the Eyes by the locals. They’re easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention, so keep your eyes open! 🙂
A bit further from Kotliči, you’ll find an ancient oak (dob), supposedly from the 17th century. The might tree is slowly dying, but it is expected to be around for another 100 years while nature takes its course. The dob sort of oak is quite common around Slovenia and its wood is considered high quality, so dob furniture is pretty pricey.
The ancient oak
On the way to the other end of the Rakov Škocjan valley we found some wooden picnic tables with benches, so we decided to have a break and eat the food I’d packed for us. This time we had gazpacho (Spanish cold tomato soup, recipe here) and wannabe sesame pancake wraps with grilled cheese, zucchini, leeks, fresh lettuce and kimchi (Korean fermented spicy cabbage), which I guess counts as one of my lockdown meal ideas, since Slovenia was still in the throes of corona crisis at the time of our visit. This was actually a completely zero waste picnic and it’s easier to do that than you think, although the important thing here is not leaving your trash around in nature and disposing of it in the proper bins.
After the picnic we finally made it to the real gem of Rakov Škocjan: the Zelše caves, which is where the river Rak comes flowing above ground and then runs back below ground at the Weaver’s cave. The small natural bridge is actually a part of the Zelše caves – since the ceiling of the original massive Karst cave collapsed to form the valley, you can see a part of the Zelše caves above ground and let me tell you, they’re absolutely gorgeous. You can visit the above ground section of the caves on foot by yourself, but if you want to see the underground cave system, you’ll need to book a guided tour with the local spelunking society.
You’ll see a small, steep path veering off from the educational trail towards the Zelše caves and there will be a sign informing you that the access to the caves is not maintained as a part of the educational trail. The path down to the caves is much narrower, quite steep and slippery at the bottom, so make sure you have proper shoes for this part of the visit, which includes walking through the caves on wet stones. There are two sections of the above ground Zelše caves you can walk through and there’s only a shallow lake inside the caves during the dry period.
After walking through the first section, there’s the prettiest stone bridge in a ravine hidden amongst the huge stone walls, which is straight out of the Lord of the Rings. So yes, in case you weren’t aware, the real life Rivendell (the Elves’ home) is actually located inside a Slovenian Karst valley. 🙂 This is probably the most beautiful part of Rakov Škocjan, although the big natural bridge is likely the most impressive one due to its size. Obviously the caves are a photography paradise and since we had a perfect sunny day, you can feast your eyes on some of my photography attempts in the gallery below.
I believe I’ve well proved my case that Rakov Škocjan is a true fairytale valley. There are tons of other small caves, nooks and crannies on the way if you follow the small forest paths along the river, so I really recommend that you take a bit of extra time for your visit and get lost in the woods (you can’t really get lost as long as you follow the river though). The area is protected as a part of the Notrajnska regional park, so you’ll be surrounded by pristine nature at all times and tons of flowers during the spring and summer. Personally I’ve never seen nettles grow as huge as they did there.
Know before you go: The trail technically starts at the parking lot near the small natural bridge, although when my boyfriend and I were there in May 2020 we started at the end of the trail, near the big natural bridge. Every station on the trail has a small parking space, so it really doesn’t matter where you start, but I guess the trail is easier to navigate if you start at the small natural bridge. You can also arrive by bike from a nearby town and it might be worth looking into it, if the parking lots are overcrowded in the summer. There’s no entrance fee for Rakov Škocjan and it can be easily reached by car on the A1 highway from Ljubljana by taking the Unec exit or from the other direction through Zelše. 🙂
Details of Rakov Škocjan
P.S.: I found a troll cave exactly my size.