Trail Running through the Alpine Playground of Slovenia's Julian Alps

A multiday running trip using the traditional Slovenian mountain hut system.
I’m reading the grey gravel and gnarled caramel-coloured roots with my eyes, but my feet are doing the real work. They explore the textures of loose stone and sun-bleached sticks beneath my rubber running shoe soles, leaving half a second here, and a quick moment there, for my eyes to drink up the harsh limestone mountains that stretch into the distance like the folded bellows of a massive accordion. The Julian Alps extend from northeastern Italy into Slovenia, and include the highest peaks in the small, mountain-loving country, where the sole national park encircles ancient mountains, meadows, forests, and villages. This alpine playground has become my extended backyard – a place I can retreat to when the Canadian itch to be alone in the wilderness flares up. And simultaneously, a place where I can learn by immersion, about the rich history of exploration and adoration for these mountains that Slovenians sing, write, and tell stories about.

Unlike the mountain people in those fables, I’m traveling light - a luxury and necessity when on a trail running multi-day. A small pack bounces slightly with each step, reminding me that it could be much heavier. I carry just a thin sleeping bag, some layers, a water bladder and light snacks. Instead of a tent, camp stove and dehydrated meals, I’ve got some euros tucked into my hip pocket. Rather than depending on my survival skills in the mountains tonight, I’ll depend on the opulent Slovenian mountain tradition, and sleep in one of the country's many mountain huts. Every few hundred meters, the trail under me changes, winding through various micro habitats that make these mountains so rich in biodiversity. A cluster of dried brown pellets tells me a Chamois passed by recently. The haunting call of the raven pulls my eyes skyward to admire the ease in which they cover this rugged landscape. And a flash of silver near my shoe reminds me that even reptiles like the small Viviparous lizard can find a niche in the rocky environs to call home.

My mind skips from the dusty trail to thoughts of a cold beer, perspiring in the early September afternoon warmth. But I’m not there yet, I remind myself. I started yesterday from Soriška Planina, a mountain pasture tucked into the saddle of a mountain pass, easily accessible by car. These steep grassy hills alternate between meadows for grazing cows in the summer, and a small local ski hill in the winter. The gradual zig-zagging trail warmed me up for the steeper and more technical pitches to come, as I jogged beneath interchanging canopies of deep green beech and spruce branches and the spindly spires of a 1980s ski lift.

Above the treeline, the trail weaves around the concrete and stone ruins of a World War I Italian defence fortress, complete with barracks, observation dome and outbuilding for animals.

It’s a reminder that these mountains have witnessed dark scenes of war, which stands in stark contrast to the reason I’m traveling their mule paths today – pure enjoyment and exploration.

Last night I slept in a ‘zimska soba’ which means ‘winter room’, a small room off the side of each mountain hut. Even if the hut is closed for the season, as this one was, these rooms are always open offering shelter from the elements, a bunk to sleep on, and even a musty wool blanket or two.

Tonight, I’ll stay in one of the mountain huts that are still open for September weekends, nestled in the green bowl of Planina Razor, another mountain meadow that is the summer home for a hundred-some cows from the town of Tolmin, on the opposite side of the mountain range from where I started. The ridge I’m running represents a natural border between the coastal and the mountainous regions of Slovenia. To my left is Primorska, meaning ‘near the sea’ where vineyards are plentiful and the people lean towards a slower, almost seaside pace of life. To my right is Gorenjska, a name that references the many mountains, a region known for hard winters, mountaineering and hard-core mountain people. On day three, my final day, I’ll descend back down to the Gorenjska side, I’ll wash off the mountain dust in the cool blue waters of Bohinj Lake. Slovenia is a country of contrasts with vastly different landscapes scattered between the sharp alps of Austria and Italy, the flatlands of Hungary and the Mediterranean landscape of Croatia. The possibilities for mini adventures like this are almost endless here, the hut system and well-marked trails making it all the easier.

After a sandwich lunch stretched out in the sun, I’m back to the ridge running, picking my way up and down the undulations in the trail that traces the peaks. The sun is still high when I start my descent into the tight switchbacks that lead toward that cold beer. I play games with the terrain, trying to take each corner faster and smoother than the last. Amongst the layers of sounds – croaking of alpine choughs, the rhythm of my breath and crunch of gravel, I hear something else. Something that I don’t expect in this landscape of scraggly dwarf pines and grey boulders. The sound of an accordion. I focus my eyes down at the patch of trees separating the parched rocks and the green mountain meadow. There is an old 4X4 truck tucked neatly beside a wooden shed, doors open like a bird ready for flight. The radio is cranked, and the famous Slovenian musician Slavko Avsenik is completing the mountain orchestra with music that just fits this alps landscape.  

This is multi-day mountain running exploration in Slovenia. It is trail running decadence, steeped in tradition and yet still so wild, nurtured by people who have a deep respect for the mountains, flora and fauna, because they spend time amongst them. My connection with these roots, rocks, trees and visas is in its infancy. But I already feel quite at home.

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