biggest disappearing lake in Europe.. Cerknica
Lake Cerknica is the largest disappearing lake in Europe.. In the winter it swells to almost 40km² and also becomes the biggest lake in Green Slovenia and then.. as if by magic.. over just a couple of days in the summer, the water disappears, leaving a Moon like landscape with numerous craters and empty sink holes to explore!
About this very special Lake..
The water hangs around for up to 9 months of the year and during this time the lake is absolutely full of birds and wildlife. Over 50% of ALL European bird species can be found somehwere around the lake!
When the water freezes, this lake becomes a massive ice skating rink. But when the water disappears the lake is transformed into a lush green paradise, covered with an abundance of plant life, wild flowers and butterflies whizzing around. In summer, when most visitors are in Slovenia you can find the massive sink holes and crusty, dusty craters to see the only evidence that water was here and was violently and ruthlessly sucked back underground into Green Slovenia's Karst labyrinth of underground caves and rivers.
The lake is home to several unique species of flora and fauna and there is even a "Cerknica Pike" fish species which gets washed under the ground with the water when the lake drains and can live underground in the cavernous Karst underbelly of the lake for up to a year!
Did you know.. When the lake decides to empty, it often drains SO FAST in places that local fishermen are on red alert to rush here and rescue the fish near the sink holes before they disappear for ever! They transport them to a much smaller lake that never disappears called Receto. You can get a permit to fish there.
Lake Cerknica is also home to one of Slovenia's only islands, a little village on a hill called Otok, which means "island" in Slovenian. In fact you could describe this place as a disappearing island too.. cos when the lake fills there is an island and when the lake is empty it's a hill!
As you drive or cycle out to the lake from the little town of Cerknica there is a long car park and a cafe. From here it is possible to walk out to either the shore of the lake or along dusty paths to some of the sink holes!
There may even be some water left in summer and there is even a beach here where you can go swimming! If there is a lot of rain then parts of the lake can also temporarily fill to create mini lakes..
In the summer of 2020, which sadly most visitors missed due to the virus, there was really quite unique rainfall that resulted in huge parts of the lake filling, so swimming and boating were possible in lots of other locations around the lake.. this is quite rare!
We were lucky enough to go to the lake at that time and we got some great photos in our library below of the water..
There is also a fantastic museum to tell you about in the village of Dolenje Vas which is between Cerknica and the car park.. It has an absolutely amazing and unique working model of the lake, so you can see the model as big as a room filling with water and draining to get an idea how the water comes and goes. It took us 3 attempts to find this museum open, so we jokingly nicknamed it the Disappearing Museum of Slovenia!
Did you know.. Slovenia's first travel guide was a great man called Valvasor and he was admitted to the British Royal Society in 1687 for bringing the world's attention to the magic of Lake Cerknica and Slovenia's other amazing Karst landscapes! He also wrote the first published vampire story and had a really cool castle that you can visit at Bogensperk!
What is the Corner Loop?
Please don't go to just the bit of the lake close to the car park, walk to see a sinkhole or the shoreline and then maybe drive to the first bridge and think you have seen this amazing lake.. you haven't.. the minimum that is required we would say is to do what we call the corner loop and consider too that you will miss seeing so much if you drive it.. much better to be on a bike to really get a feel for it all.
So when we say "corner loop", we are banging on about the far corner of the lake, closest to Cerknica and we recommend you do this loop to see some of the best bits..
It has a stone track road all around.. so it is perfect for biking.. a bit too far to hike for most mortals and you mght need a 4x4 if you drive as there are more pot holes in the road than in a village side street in Britain! Seriously, the road is attrocious.. but we also think this is great.. as why should we always make things easy for cars, when a bike is a greener option anyway?
The loop goes from Cerknica, past the car park, over the lake and the first bridge to a turn (you could do an even bigger loop and link tot the corner loop via OTOK village) that takes you into the forest, BUT most importantly the road hugs the lake in this particular corner and there are some fab little places to stop off and find!
There are wooden or metal signs with colours on them at three particular stops we would totally recommend along this route.. so if you see one of these and maybe an info board, hop off your bike and go down to the lake to explore.
The first stop is one of those new nature paths that take you down into the forest a bit and to the shoreline of the lake. There are some new wooden benches, but you need to head left here and you can find one of the massive cave sinkholes that pumps water into the lake.
Just on it's own as a cave it is beautiful, with slanted rocks and green nature outside, but if you consider it's function.. to fill the largest disappearing lake in Europe.. then this is a mighty magnificant find.. it is also a really good spot to have that picnic you might have packed in your rucksack or maybe even a little swim depending on time of year, temperature and if there is any water of course!!
The second stop is trickier to spot as you might go straight past it.. you will come to a series of big rocks on the right hand lake side of the road.. You wouldn't know it, but high up here, hidden behind these rocks is the the main artery of the lake far below, with the biggest sinkhole either feeding the lake or with the changing of the seasons, sucking the water out next summer.
You can climb around up on the rocks a bit for views, be careful and you need to look down over the cliff edge.. maybe you will see the water flowing out to the lake along a zig zaggy river. It would be easy to go straight past this viewpoint if you didn't know it was there!
The third spot is the ruins of the castle, which was built on huge rocks above the lake.. legend has it the lord who lived there left the castle to ruin when his good lady was swallowed whole by a lake sinkhole opening up and devouring her horse and carriage!
The forest is soooo green here you won't believe there could be so many greens, but also tread carefully here.. the only rock foundations left from the castle can be very slippery.. and you don't want to disappear down a sinkhole too!
The bumpy road now turns the corner of the lake and there are several country tracks leading left to Rakov Skocjan, (an uberamazing stone nature park with 2 massive stone arches and a secret stone valley), but also keep your eyes on the lake as well as from this side you can get perhaps the best lower level views of the lake that are possible to appreciate the sheer scale of this place.
Look carefully and in the distance you will see the hill of Otok.. then remember that this island hill is not even half way across the entire lake from this viewpoint!!
What is the best way to Explore the lake?
We love telling this story as hopefully it will make you realise how truly massive this lake is.. we had a couple of French marathon runners stay a few years ago and they wanted to go for a training run around the whole lake.. well we guessed they were good runners, but not superhuman, so we scratched our heads and got the maps of the whole lake for them..
..but just in case, we also showed them this CORNER LOOP, a far more explorable and manageable route around that big corner of the lake, with the stone track road all whole way..
They came back with big smiles on their faces and thanked us for the smaller map.. of course they had only managed this corner! But they had a fantastic run and were blown away by the beauty.. and size.. of the lake..
So there are THREE good reasons why you won't be able to do a complete loop of this lake, as you might do at Lake Bled!
1.. If you are here in summer the lake has disappeared!!! Every year when the water does come, it fills to different levels, so there is no defined shoreline around the whole lake anyway!
2.. It's massive.. if the French marathon runners didn't do it, then you won't either!
3.. There is NO path around the whole lake.. bits go into the forest, stone tracks shoot off in all directions with no signs, particularly in the wildest bits.. so even if you tried to drive you would either get lost, frustrated or eaten by a bear!
BUT DON'T WORRY.. there is absolutely no need to go around the whole lake.. there is plenty of lake still to explore with that stone road around it and here are some ways we recommend you to enjoy a visit to Slovenia's biggest AND smallest lake..
Fantastic news.. There are lots of NEW wooden SIGNS around the lake, with km distances and different routes marked with lake "characters". They have also built a wooden viewing tower and some nature paths into the forests, so we really want to congratulate the people of Cerknica for finally making this big corner of the lake accessible.. Now You can visit Cerknica lake!
So there is a regular stone track road that takes you right across the lake, direction Otok, to make this corner section very possible and where you could either turn early and do our "corner loop" back around to Cerknica or go all the way to Otok and do a much larger loop.
This would be our best tip.. this lake is absolutely perfect for E biking at any time of year. Most of the route is flat, but as you turn the huge corner to go through the forest and back to Cerknica it gets bumpy and the are a few hills. An E Bike would give you the boost to help with all this and the distances are just so big that you could add some reassurance and certainty to your day.. You may also be able to explore more than you thought possible.
COMBINE the lake with RAKOV SKOCJAN to make an absolutely sensational circle of 8 cycle.. this would be almost impossible on a regular bike, but you could start at the nearby nature park with the tricky name and do an amazing day's E Biking to and around the lake and back to Rakov Skocjan.. ALL COMPLETELY ON STONE TRACKS!
Rakov Skocjan is a 3km long stone nature park, covered in green.. it was a prehistoric cave where the roof collapsed millions of years ago to leave 2 massive natural stone arches at either end with a river flowing between them and lots of twists and turns along the way!
Most people who arrive in Slovenia to see a cave, a castle, a capital, a coast and a lake would have absolutely no clue they could have such an amazing day in green nature here at a completely different lake!! and all so close to the Lodge.. well, you can!
Due to the distances to cover, it would be a good idea to drive to the lake and bring your regular mountain bikes with you. There is no need to park at the start of the lake in the car park as there are lots of parking areas all around the lake. You can choose where to start your circuit! We had a German couple who did just this and managed it, but they were quite worried if they could get around in time.
PLEASE NOTE.. Cars are banned from the lakes roads on SUNDAYS.. brilliant.. we wish it was more days and happened more in the rest of Slovenia.. but anyway, on a Sunday you would only be able to park at the main car park at the start of the lake, just so you know.
Our advice here is to start early and stick to the main tracks.. even better to go with a local guide as these guys don't just know their way around the lake, they can also tell you so much about the wildlife, flora and fauna here.
Please do not try to take a short cut to get across the dry lake.. it is not a good idea at all. There might be wet bits, sink holes and long grass and it is much further than it might look on a map!
When there is water you can rent a canoe quite close to the car park and have a paddle around, depending how much water there is.
Witches mountain (Slivnica)
Another spectacular way to see the lake in all seasons is to hike up the nearby Witches (Slivnica) mountain, 1,114m.
There are some great viewing spots around the lake, but it is only from up here on the mountain you get to see the entire contour and sheer scale of the lake. You will see how the villages hug the rim of where the water fills the lake and if you are lucky you might bump into Ursula the witch, who lives in the cave at the top of the mountain! There is also a cafe on the top of the mountain to reward your hiking efforts!
When you consider the world is still only slowly waking up to the secrets of Green Slovenia even as a summer destination, we can tell you the most beautiful country in Europe is completely deserted in winter and COMPLETELY undiscovered.. ALL the caves and natural attractions are still open and the cellars are full of the new autumn wine.. but imagine this.. you would have the biggest disappearing lake all to yourself.. (apart from all those birds species, of course)!