Enchanting Velika Planina, Slovenia: Hiking to the Herdsmen Settlement on the Big Plateau
If you’re dreaming of hiking in one of the greenest destinations in the world or just love unique cultural adventures, a visit to Velika Planina, Slovenia should be high on your European bucket list. There are plenty of easy day trips from Ljubljana that will take you out from the capital city into one of the most scenic parts of the country, though sadly many travelers bypass the historic town of Kamnik altogether in their starry-eyed rush to get to romantic Lake Bled or Triglav National Park. But we went to Kamnik specifically to hike the mountain plateau to Velika Planina (literally big plateau) to see the incredible alpine views and the herdsmen settlement at the top — and you should too.
Located in the mountaintop pasture of the Slovenia mountains known as the Kamnik Slovenian Alps not far from south Styria in Austria, Velika Planina is an important part of Slovenian culture. In keeping with their cultural heritage, every June through September local herders march their cows up 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) from the valley below to the big pasture plateau to graze for the summer. They live in small uniquely styled wooden huts and continue a tradition started centuries ago. Though it was already the end September when we were there, the weather was perfect - warm and clear - and we were anxious to see the historic herdmen’s settlement here, considered to be the best preserved settlement in all of Europe.
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The Kamniška Bistrica River Valley
The incredible natural beauty of the Kamniška Bistrica River Valley near Kamnik, Slovenia is largely created by the crystal clear waters that tumble down the nearby mountains. The major water source of the Kamniška Bistrica River springs from moss-grown rocks and rests in an turquoise lake, a perfect place to sit near the river’s source. The thundering water has also carved the gorges of nearby Veliki Predaselj and Mali Predaselj, the narrowest parts of the Kamniška Bistrica riverbed. You can explore all of this scenery around the Kamnik valley before or after your hike to the plateau.
Getting to Velika Planina
The drive from Ljubljana to Kamnik takes less than 30 minutes (14 miles/23 km) if you plan to visit Velika Planina and the herdsmen settlement. Drive through Kamnik and follow the road to the parking lot in the Kamniška Bistrica River Valley, about 6 miles (10km) from town.
You can visit the settlement with a tour company or a local guide like we did (more info on our guide Grega at the end of the post), or you can hike it on your own but you’ll miss out on a good history lesson if you do. Seasoned hikers can reach the plateau on a steep 2+ hour hike, on trails that criss-cross the mountainside. If you’re like us and can’t imagine how much energy you’d have left after hiking up, you can take a cable car/gondola ride up the mountain.
Here’s where the fun begins!
The Velika Planina Gondola and Chair Lift
We met up with our local guide Grega in the parking lot to start the journey. The Velika Planina gondola is open year round and is by far the easiest way up the mountain. It carries a dozen or so passengers, though it wasn’t crowded in late September. It’s a steep ride up an equally steep mountainside and lasts only about five to ten minutes.
We generally don’t have a fear of heights, but this gondola is on one continuous cable that runs from bottom to top without intermediate towers along the way to support the cable, so the wind made the car swing a wee bit. Yikes. If you’re scared of heights and the idea of the cable car is intimidating you can either close your eyes and hold on, or tighten your boot laces and start the climb. Just be sure to give yourself enough time and pack enough water for everyone in your party.
TIP: Bring a refillable water bottle with you, which you can refill with fresh mountain water at the settlement.
As the gondola is pulled higher the view of the surrounding Kamnik-Savinja Alps opens up, and what an incredible view it is. And just when you think it couldn’t get any more spectacular…
Once you get off the gondola, it’s just a few steps to the double-seat chair lift that takes you to the top. This leg isn’t nearly as steep as the cable car and the chairs are not that high off the ground, just enough to clear the scrubby growth below. It’s a leisurely and quiet 10-minute ride up, over spruce forests, an occasional cabin, and views of the ski slopes. It’s a bit chilly up here (average elevation is nearly a mile) so dress warm.
The cable car runs every half hour from April through September, and every hour from October through March. If you’re on a tight schedule, be sure and arrive in plenty of time as the cable cars can take just 12-15 people per ride.
COST: The cost of the cable car is 13-17€ depending on the season ($15-20 USD). Every ticket includes the return trip on both the double-seat chair lift and the gondola.
From the chair lift it was a short walk that turned steep as we climbed to the highest point on the plateau, Mount Gradisce at 5,466 feet (1,666 meters). We never expected to see this is Slovenia - Switzerland and Austria of course, or the Andes in Peru. These views were amazing. The 360º panorama of the surrounding mountains and wispy clouds below were breathtaking, like a scene straight out of The Sound of Music.
At the summit, a large flat granite marker with wheel-like spokes carved into top points toward various directions in the region. There’s even a small guest book in a plastic bag for you to sign when you get there. It’s always fun to page through these - you never can tell, you might find someone you know.
Velika Planina is actually comprised of several smaller settlements with lovely Slovenian names like Small Mountain (Mala Planina) and Silent Valley (Tiha Dolina). As we turned to climb off the summit, we stood overlooking the herdsmen’s settlement below and the incredible view beyond, the collection of grey wooden huts sprinkled against the rolling plateau.
The village below us was quiet except for some hikers following the trail beside the narrow cow path. This was a postcard photo if there ever was one but there wasn’t a cow to be seen, although there was ample evidence they’d been here recently. The grazing season was over and all the herds except for a few had been taken to their winter pastures down below. For visitors, there’s a pretty little heart-shaped bench overlooking the huts and a photo here makes a perfect new profile pic!
Did we mention how quiet it is up here? Other than the wind, the only sounds were the jangle, clang, and thud of the different sized cow bells as this last herd was being shepherded along the trail to a lower level. It’s like a moving symphony, and the sound on the breeze was so relaxing.
The Herdsmen Settlement
The herder’s lifestyle of shepherding and living in wooden huts has existed for centuries and is alive and well today. Sadly, most of the original huts were burned by the Nazis during World War II, but were later rebuilt using a few more modern touches on the inside. Thankfully, the cultural tradition of moving cattle between the mountain plateau and the valley below still survives.
The huts have a distinct architectural design - steep wooden-shingled roofs with a metal chimney pipe - some with two - low wooden outside walls, and a small yard fenced with stones and wood. Beginning in September, many huts are closed for the winter, although in the past few years, some huts have become available for rent during the non-grazing season of September to June. What a unique way to experience Velika Planina - we might need to consider a winter trip!
There’s a small museum at the settlement, but it’s not always open. If you book a tour with Grega, he has a key so fortunately we were able to see inside. The Preskar Museum is the only preserved example of a typical herder’s hut in Slovenia. Along with the hut are artifacts and wooden implements to show how these herders lived for centuries. The small single inner room is surrounded by a narrow enclosed outer ring under the roof which housed cows - think of an oval shaped barn. There’s not much to the inner room and it’s more functional than anything else - with a built-in bunk bed, a small stone wood-burning stove, cooking area and a few shelves for storage. There was no chimney in the original huts and judging from the blackening around the fireplace, it was pretty smokey once the fire started. In fact there were no windows or furniture either, and no toilet. It was a tough existence indeed and no doubt a lot of time was spent outside.
To stay outside and watch over their cows, the herdsmen invented clothing that helped protect them in the ever-changing weather that comes with living on top of a mountain. They wore wooden clogs made from durable maple wood, big wide brimmed hats to protect them from both the sun and rain, and rain gear called pwajš made of long narrow strips from the inner bark of linden trees and tied to a strap which they wore around their neck.
Trnič, the Cheese of Love
Along with wooden knives and forks, ladles, and cookware, small pear-shaped figurines lined the shelves, which Grega explained were made of cheese. Trnič cheese is a traditional Slovenian food, and herders would make it during the summer pasturing season from cheese curd, cream and salt, then shape them to dry. Interestingly, Trnič was a symbol of love and fertility. The shape of the cheese, which were imprinted with carved wooden shingles called pisave, represents the female breast. But the cheese wasn’t for eating, it was made for love. According to tradition, a young herder would present two Trnič cheeses to a girl he was in love with (one for each breast) upon returning to the valley. If she accepted the cheeses, it meant that she agreed to his courtship or possibly to marriage. Who knew cheese could be so romantic!
The Chapel of Our Lady of the Snows
One of the most interesting structures on the hill above the settlement is the Chapel of Our Lady of the Snows. Slovenia is predominantly Roman Catholic so the herdsmen followed a traditional six day work week and attended Mass on Sundays. A church was built in 1939 and destroyed by the Nazis during WWII along with the surrounding huts. Construction of the new chapel was completed in 1988, and has since become known for its midnight Mass on Christmas Eve for those who are staying in the huts and near the ski slopes.
Other Things to See on Velika Planina
Explore the karst Veternica and Dovja Griča caves - Veternica cave is the most popular natural site on Velika Planina. It includes the Mala Jama cave and Velika Veternica, which was created when the roof of the cave collapsed from rock disintegration. Velika Veternica is more popular and is well known for the patches of snow which remain in the cave even during the summer.
The Kamnik wildflower Nigritella Lithopolitanica - In June, this purple wildflower decorates the green pastures of Velika Planina, and is considered a rare plant species in Slovenia.
Christmas Eve Midnight Service - The most visited event on Velika Planina is the midnight mass in the Snow Mary chapel in the herdsmen’s settlement. This unique event draws several thousands of visitors each year, who arrive to the chapel carrying torches and lanterns, creating an unforgettable atmosphere in the winter idyll of the mountain.
There are a lot of reasons to put Slovenia on your bucket list, and Velika Planina is a big one. It’s a unique cultural heritage experience, an outdoor lover’s paradise, and one of the best hikes in Slovenia. So as you’re planning all the great outdoor activities you’ll try when you visit the country like hiking, cycling, glamping, paddling, skiing, sledding, and so many more, remember to save room for Velika Planina. An excursion to this high mountain plateau and herdsmen settlement should absolutely be on your list!
Where to Eat and Sleep on Velika Planina
Rent a Hut of Your Own
The tourist settlement around Zeleni Rob near the top of the chair lift has a number of cottages which can be rented for overnight stays. Although they resemble the herdsmen huts, they were specifically built for tourists. How cool is that!
We found one hut just steps away from the herdsmen settlement that looks so enchanting, and comes complete with modern amenities to keep you comfy and warm. It’s called Koča Ojstrica. We can’t think of a more inviting way to spend the holidays.
There are several huts available for rent through booking(dot)com but they can be a little hard to find on their site. They list the huts under different towns (there are no towns on top of the mountain) even though they’re really all in the same area. Use this handy search bar to help you find over a dozen huts for rent on Velika Planina:
Gostisce Zeleni Rob
When you’re finished exploring the trails around Velika Planina, there’s a quaint pub waiting to serve you a hearty lunch and a refreshing beer or radler, and it’s just steps from the chair lift at Domzale mountain lodge, Gostisce Zeleni Rob. The Grapefruit Radler beer was seriously one of the best things I’ve ever drank after a hike! Guests can try some of the tasty soups and stews of Slovenian origin, such as “jota” “ričet”, or goulash with bread dumplings. Our lunch was yummy and just what we needed after hiking: we had Stukli, cottage cheese-like dumplings, and locally made sausage.
Where to Stay in Kamnik
Terme Snovik Eco Resort
If you’d rather stay overnight in the valley down below Velika Planina near Kamnik, the thermal spa and eco resort of Terme Snovik is a great choice — one of the best spa getaways in Slovenia. The natural beauty of the Tuhinjska Valley surrounds this resort from its beautiful evergreen forests on one side to the Kamnik-Savinja Alps on the other. The resort proudly lays claim to being the “highest lying thermal spa in Slovenia” and are committed to preserving the environment and coexistence with nature, a concept that’s dear to our hearts. In 2008 they received the international designation Ecolabel (Eco Label) and numerous awards for environmentally friendly behavior at home and abroad.
We were excited to be staying here after having spent the day hiking around the big plateau. Ohe of the first things you see as you drive up the hill to the resort is the giant indoor pool shining aqua blue like a glistening jewel. We could hardly wait to jump in, since our bodies was aching as much as our feet!
Besides the inviting and ginormous thermal pool with its mineral rich natural water and fun water features scattered throughout, there’s also a relaxing sauna, whirlpool, and an outdoor pool that’s like a small water park. Families will find a lot of things to do at Terme Snovik for kids, like horseback riding, an outdoor fitness course, climbing wall, and cycling. You can rent bikes and even have a guide accompany you for a day in the countryside. Or you can all simply relax and enjoy some spa services like massages, manis and pedis. One of the more interesting things we tried was a holistic therapy originated by Sebastian Kneipp in the 19th century: walking barefoot in the cold over a variety of natural textures - gravel, sticks, river stones, and even pine cones. A little odd but fun, and it felt great on our feet.
The onsite Potočka Restaurant serves three meals a day along with a nice selection of wine and beer. The food is largely local favorites sourced from local producers with herbs grown in the resort’s own garden. You can even pick your own herbs if you plan on cooking in your room’s kitchenette for the evening. We loved how secluded and quiet the property was. If you’ve spend the day hiking Velika Planina, this is the perfect way to end the day.
Accommodations at Terme Snovik range from studio apartments and larger apartments with kitchens for 2-6 people, to a superior apartment with a water bed, fireplace and its own jacuzzi and sauna.
Rates vary per person/per night and by accommodation type and range from 100-250€ (around $100-$285 USD). Check the latest rates, more details, and availability.
Many thanks to Visit Ljubljana for this introduction to Kamnik and Velika Planina. As always, all opinions are based on our firsthand experience.
If You Go
Local resident and expert guide Grega Ugovsek is super knowledgable and fun to travel with. He loves sharing his expertise with visitors about the local area, traditions, and history of Velika Planina. You can reach Grega via email at ugrega(at)gmail(dot)com.
What to Bring: Weather on Velika Planina can be unpredictable, so bring a light rain jacket along in your travel backpack. Regardless of the time of year, a fleece vest or jacket is a good idea, and most importantly comfortable shoes. Wear sturdy trail runners or a pair of good hiking shoes or boots. As always, Lori’s Blundstone boots were a great choice (she wore them all over Europe, for hiking and nice dinners), and Angelo wore the same low-cut Merrill hiking shoes with a gortex liner that he wears pretty much everywhere.