Bijele i Samarske Stijene

Bijele i Samarske Stijene Strict Reserve, Croatia

Bijele i Samarske Stijene, in translation meanining “White and Samarske Cliffs”, is not known for its virgin forest, but rather as being one of Croatia’s most unique geological displays. Regions of Croatia’s coastal Dinaric Alps range have the Croatia’s most incredible geological sights, with cliffs, spires, peaks, sinkholes, caves, arches, canyons, and domes formed from white limestone. However, Bijele i Samarske Stijene are an outlier, because the region they are in is not actually known for karst formations, but rather for forests. Gorski Kotar is a mountainous area along Croatia’s northern coast which has on average the most forest cover of any region in Croatia. Rising above these forests however, there are occasional karst landscapes. Some other notable karst locations in this region of Croatia are the peaks of Risnjak, Klek, and Snježnik, as well as the Pakleno area and the cliffs around the Kupa River canyon. Yet, none of these are more extensive or preserved than Bijele i Samarske Stijene. Not only this, but none are quite so fantastical and intricate as the surreal spires and peaks of Bijele i Samarske Stijene, which along with the seemingly endless wilderness, make the area seem like something from a fairytale.

The white cliffs of Bijele i Samarske Stijene break through the otherwise forested mountains in a notable concentration of interesting geomorphological features. Old growth forests covering the peaks as well as ravines below the cliffs. Elevation is over 1300m

Bijele i Samarske Stijene Strict Reserve is one of two such reserves in Croatia, with a stricter protection than a national park. Located in a remote area of the Kapela Mountain, this region was not even explored until about 1899, and in addition to the chaotically impassable terrain this allowed its forest cover to remain completely untouched. There are still countless places here where humans have not yet set foot. The forests are mostly composed of fir (Abies alba), spruce (Picea abies), beech (Fagus sylvatica), and sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus). The dominant tree or tree cover also depends on location and exposure. Along the system of trails, there are three small mountain shelters. One mountain home was a dwelling place for Dragutin Hirc, a teacher and botanist who was also one of Croatia’s most famous poets and naturalists. Only some 50m away is the mountain shelter of Miroslav Hirtz, a naturalist, mountaineer, zoologist, and writer. Nearby there is also an ice cave and water source. In another part of Bijele i Samarske Stijene there is also Ratkovo mountain shelter which was built under a towering cliff and named after the alpinist Ratko Čapek. Of all this region’s sights, perhaps the most iconic landscape is the “fingers” rock formation (

Due to the terrain and the late exploration of this region, the forest growing on and at the base of the cliffs is untouched. Aside from small mountaineering objects and some cut trees next to the trails, the whole area is a pristine, primary old growth forest. The forests range from elevations of about 1000m all the way to the highest peak at 1335m. Bijele i Samarske Stijene covers some 1175 hectares, and climate data from nearby sites indicates an average annual temperature of about 4–5oC depending on elevation. Average annual precipitation is around 2000–2500mm. Only a small section of the virgin forest was explored for this report, and mainly along one trail leading to the peak of Bijele stijene. The trees almost always grow on either rocky soils or barren cliffs, but there is also a small area of forest growing in deeper soils and more sheltered sites in some locations below the cliffs. The trees at more exposed locations are stunted and twisted, while those on more sheltered locations with slightly better soil can be large and straight, but not of exceptionally great size or height. Still, there are many trees of surprising height and size given the conditions, with specimens well over 30–40m tall. The forest is incredibly photogenic, with its old trees growing amongst a geomorphological wonderland.

Photo right: An arch formed within a large cliff, covered by vegetation and dense forest cover. Elevation is ~1100m

Interestingly, there were also claims of a large dead fir tree located somewhere along the trail system. Despite growing out of relatively stony soil, its cbh (circumference at breast height) could be estimated at over 470cm based on the people in the photograph. It is unclear if this snag is still standing or where it is located, so one would have to hike all the trails to potentially find it. Regardless, some spots with the deepest soils have productive forest and the conditions needed to produce trees that can reach up to about 50m tall, but such sheltered sites are very rare. However, there is a considerable variation in tree development based on soil and exposure. Particularly interesting are the interactions of trees, cliffs, and winds at higher elevations. The contrast of deep and lush old growth forests to the stark limestone towers is fantastic, and the views from high peaks allow scenic points over much of the wild Gorski Kotar region, with little to no human influence in sight among the dark forests and never-ending ridges. Among the strange and jagged karst cliffs is chaotic wilderness, with a great display of pristine landscapes and life that thrives in this forgotten corner of the world.