Making our way inside and outside Škocjan Cave in Slovenia

Interior of the caves and the bridge. Photo from the UNESCO website (https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/390/)

While we were in Slovenia last year we had to choose between two very popular caves. The first was Postojna, a beautiful but somewhat touristy cave that has a large medieval castle nearby. Visitors enter on a little train before walking through a well lit cave full of stalagmites and stalactites.

The other was Skocjan, which is less visited but has some unique features inside. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1986, Škocjan is much larger and taller than Postojna and has a large underground river flowing through it. We decided to do Škocjan, as it was different from most caves we had visited in the past and looked more dramatic in the photos. We were not disappointed with our choice.

Doing a post about Škocjan Caves is tricky, because the best part of the cave can’t be photographed on the guided tours and this is strictly enforced by park staff. Most of the photos that exist online are from professional photographers and a few people who got away with surreptitiously taking photos during their tour. The photo I included above comes from the UNESCO website and is the only interior one I’ve included here aside from the cave exit.

Since we weren’t going to try to break the rules, the photos in this post focus on the second part of the tour going around the canyon as it was also quite memorable.

Škocjan Caves in south-western Slovenia. The border with Italy can be seen in the lower left corner of the map

Located near Slovenia’s border with Italy, we arrived in the small village of Divača by train from Ljubljana. There is a shuttle bus that leaves the train station but we just missed the 2 p.m. one and didn’t want to wait for the next one an hour later as it wouldn’t give us enough time to get back for the evening train.

So we decided to walk from Divača to the park entrance. The official website said this:

Get off the train at the Divača railway station. There is a map at the station showing a footpath to the Škocjan Caves. The path is around 3 kilometres long and well marked. It will take you around 35 minutes of walking.

So we got off, found a confusing map posted near the train station and tried to make our way from the town. We asked a few people in the town and they had little idea about the caves but after some conflicting directions we started to head out of town. Fortunately a local we had earlier talked with took pity on us and offered to drive us to the entrance. He was a really great help and we were very thankful for the assistance. It also saved us the possibility of getting there exhausted or too late in the day as it we were feeling the heat of August. Judging by the route he took, walking wouldn’t have been so easy at all.

Lineup at the ticket entrance. The caves were a short walk from here

When arriving at the ticket booth there are a couple options. There is the standard guided underground tour that takes about 1.5 hours. There is also a combination of the underground portion and another self-guided walk that follows the canyon inside and outside. This one takes an extra hour or two to do depending on your pace. In our case it cost just a few euros more and looked well worth it but we had a dilemma. Because we had arrived by mid-afternoon we had to worry about getting the last train back to Ljubljana leaving Divača at 6 p.m.

I figured we had about 30 minutes of wiggle room if we did both tours, and the second canyon tour sounded too good to miss so we decided to do it as well. It meant we had to keep a good pace for the self-guided part and I hoped it would be worth it since we weren’t likely to return. Fortunately it was.

For the guided portion the tour leader announced for us to assemble outside the ticket office and we made our way as a ground down a road and to a path that took us to the entrance of the cave at the bottom of a hill. Our group of about 30 people entered the cave and began the descent.

So for the first part of the journey, and perhaps the best part, the only way to see the interior is from professional photos such as these ones. The Slovenian park service has also put out an official video on Youtube showing the cave, outside canyon and the surrounding area.

Without photos I can only describe the experience of visiting one of the largest underground canyons in the world. Inside we travelled through huge underground chambers and crossed a high cave bridge that felt like something that dramatic Mines of Moria scene in Lord of the Rings. Crossing that high bridge and looking down did give us some butterflies!

Škocjan follows the Reka River as it makes its way underground before eventually exiting the cave and flowing towards the Italian coast. The sheer size of the interior coupled with the strong river flowing far below was impressive.

The exceptional volume of the underground canyon is what distinguishes Škocjan Caves from other caves and places it among the most famous underground features in the world. This underground channel is approximately 3.5 km long, 10 to 60 m wide and over 140 m high. At some points, it expands into huge underground chambers.

The largest of these is Martel’s Chamber with a volume of 2.2 million cubic m and it is considered the largest discovered underground chamber in Europe and one of the largest in the world. The canyon of such dimensions nevertheless ends with a relatively small siphon: one that cannot deal with the enormous volume of water that pours into the cave after heavy rainfall, causing major flooding, during which water levels can rise by more than one hundred metres.

Wiki entry on Skocjan

Eventually we went down a final set of stairs and reached a huge open cavern entrance. It was the end of a memorable cave tour, and now it was time for the second part of it. The guide said photos were allowed from this point onward and the cameras came out.

Looking back towards the cave where we had done the tour
Looking out at the start of the canyon tour

As we exited the people who only paid for the cave tour followed the guide back to the park entrance while the rest of us took a set of stairs up to the canyon portion. We showed our ticket to an attendant and started the walk.

The first part of the canyon walk went along the side of the rock hill that surrounded the cave. Except for the stairs the entire walk was on a well maintained concrete walkway and was easy to get through. Since it all goes in one direction there’s no chance of getting lost. There were a number of small waterfalls and pools we passed as we walked along the trail.

We also experienced some forested areas along the trail before we finished.

This was a great lookout spot

The trail moved inside and outside the rock, allowing us to enter sections of that had been worn away by erosion creating mini-caverns with direct access from outside.

Another great lookout spot

We didn’t know what to expect as we went along the staircases and pathways. Sometimes there were open spaces, other times there were mini-caverns or rivers. It was a great addition to the underground portion of the tour.

Eventually the tour ended. Instead of looping around to the park entrance, the canyon tour ends in a picturesque village named Matavun that is located next to the caves. From there we had to walk back to the main entrance following a well-marked trail.

We walked along stone walls and passed a small World War II memorial on our way back. It took about 20 minutes to return to the entrance.

We made it back at the entrance

Fortunately we did a good pace and returned with time to spare, so while waiting for the bus we had something in the park restaurant while we were waiting. The beer was made on the premises and was a refreshing end to the journey. Kim enjoyed the cream cake, a favourite of hers since we first tried it in Lake Bled.

Dark lager and cake at the park cafe

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