Last updated 20 March 2021
A UNESCO world heritage site, the Skocjan Caves have some of the largest underground canyons in the world. Walking through these caves are truly spectacular, with breath-taking caverns, a rushing underground river and huge spaces beneath the earth.
You can explore the caves through taking an underground tour into their depths, following the path of the Reka River, or doing a circular walk above ground. For the best experience, do them all!
We arrived in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in the middle of a wine festival in the city centre. Not only was the festival a wonderful introduction to a beautiful, small city, but it was also the perfect time to get locals’ advice about what to see and do in the country.
One activity popped up again and again – visiting the Skocjan Caves. Coincidentally, the caves popped up in my social media newsfeed the next morning and it was decided… our first day trip out of the city would be to these caves.
We took a train and a bus to get to the caves – and discovered regular tours departed, so we signed up to the next one, and found ourselves entering the caves in just a few minutes. The temperature dropped immediately and the passage was narrow, with relatively low ceilings This was the man-made tunnel into the vast, underground caverns.
We stepped into the natural cave and entered a series of rooms connected by a winding path. All around us, stalactites dripped from the ceiling and stalagmites rose from the ground. The unique rock formations were shaped — and continue to be shaped — over thousands of years. As water seeps through the fissures in the porous cave ceiling, minerals are carried and deposited along the way, resulting in the icicle-like rocks. The largest stalagmite in Skocjan Cave stands 165 feet from the cave floor to the tip.
We moved from the smaller chambers into a vast, dark space and felt a rush of heavy, humid air. A melodious murmur rose from somewhere beyond and filled the shadowy space. We realized we were standing on the canyon’s edge. In the darkness, we felt the excitement of unearthing a great discovery, as if we were the first to view the primitive landscape designed by none other than Mother Nature herself. Looking down, the river below was barely visible through a thin layer of fog that hovered just above the water.
Peering down the length of the cave, we were stupefied by the enormity of it. The low light and foreign terrain altered our depth perception. The very few man-made instalments inside the natural cave provided a scale, but the sheer size of the cave was still difficult to determine. Remnants of a bridge destroyed in a 1965 flood resembled a miniature replica of the original. In elevated and recessed alcoves, giant tree trunks displaced by floods resembled mere sticks. The immense cave dwarfed everything that was in it.
We crossed the canyon at Cerkvenikov Most, a narrow bridge built in the 1930s that straddles the river, and leaned over the railing, watching the water move swiftly through the canyon and feeling the wind whip across our faces. Bats circled in the black space above us, hidden by the darkness and only detectable by the sound of their flapping wings.
As we neared the end of the cave, abrasive sunlight flooded the path. The natural cave opening formed a large archway that, for some reason, felt grand and triumphant, as if we had somehow conquered the cave. Tourism in the cave can be traced back to the early 1800s, and, although thousands of visitors have passed through Skocjan Cave since, the space is still rustic and raw. Inside the cave, nature still rules.
Visitors have three choices on how to experience the caves:
a guided tour through the underground canyon
following the Reka River underground
walking along the surface, following the Škocjan Education Trail.
Undoubtedly, the most popular way to experience the caves is by taking the 3km guided tour through the underground canyon. As you embark upon this tour, you will first come across the Silent Cave, a cavernous space dripping with stalactites. Next is the Great hall which contains two standout stalagmites called the “Giant” and the “Organ”. From there, it’s into Europe’s largest gorge – an enormous (300m long by 110m wide) chamber. Other highlights include the strange limestone shapes of Bowls Hall.
As an alternative, you can follow the Reka River underground. If you take this option, you can make the decision whether or not to walk with a guide. You will start this journey at the caves natural entrance, which was carved by the river right below the village of Škocjan. This walk is approximately 1.5km, and will take you through the Big Collapse Doline and the Tominc Cave where many significant archaeological discoveries were made. What’s a doline? A doline is a natural depression in the surface topography. The collapse dolines at Škocjan are particularly significant because they are home to a number of endangered birds and bat species.
If you’d prefer to stay above the surface, you can walk along the Škocjan Education Trail, which is a 2km circular walk around the Big and Little Collapse Dolines and through the villages of Betajna, Matavun and Škocjan. Similar to the Reka River Underground route, guided tours are on offer, or you are free to walk around at your own pace.
The Skocjan Caves are open to the public every day of the year. Guided tours are also available throughout the entire year, meaning that whenever you decide to visit, you’ll have an incredible experience.
The Škocjan Caves are four kilometres from the town of Divača and 28 kilometres from Trieste, just over the border in Italy. It’s possible to take a train to Divača and then walk the remaining three kilometres to the caves, following a sign-posted footpath. If you are travelling by car, follow the motorway and then take the exit for Divača. Head in the direction of Škocjan, and keep an eye out for a sign for the Village of Matavun.
The Reka river has carved out the impressive Škocjan cave system over a long period of time. Its source is some 55 kilometres (35 miles) away where it emerges from beneath the Snežnik plateau and flows along the surface until it reaches the Karst. Eventually the river enters the Škocjan grotto through a passage and travels for more than 35 kilometres (20 miles) underground. The Škocjan caves are one of the finest examples of karst, a distinctive topography that is largely shaped by the dissolving action of water.
Archaeological studies have revealed that the caves and the surrounding area have provided shelter for humans for more than five thousand years from the Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages right up to the Middle Ages