Skadar Lake National Park: Things to Do, Ecology and Landscape

Skadar Lake National Park invites you to pause from your schedule of hectic travel. Choose a craft and ease your way through its waters, a treasure of ecology; observe the curious landscape and struggle for an explanation of its origins; or simply rest your mind as you make your way around Skadar Lake National Park enjoying one of the many things to do.

An overview of the terrain of Skadar Lake National Park
Skadar Lake National Park features the lake, rivers and landscape

Skadar Lake National Park is home to the largest lake in the Balkans, Skadar Lake (or Lake Scutari). Skadar Lake is a UNESCO Heritage Site that Montenegro shares in the majority with Albania. This freshwater lake runs NW to SE and is approximately 45 km long and 15 km wide. Skadar Lake is rich in both fauna and flora. Many species have been studied, some have been found to be endemic, and many have been protected. The landscape surrounding Skadar Lake is also a physical treasure, where unstoppable tectonic forces produced an unforgettable vista.

Things to do Around Skadar Lake National Park

Things to do for the Active

The energetic among us will find plenty to do. You might like to get into a kayak or canoe and paddle along the waterways and onto the lake itself.

Water craft are available for hire at Rijeka grad to explore the waterways of Skadar Lake

Rijeka grad is a small town that is located on the upper reach of the Rijeka Crnojevica, one of the principal rivers that supply Skadar Lake. River-side businesses rent canoes, kayaks, canopied boats and other water craft.

There is also opportunity to windsurf, sail and fish within season on the lake itself. And, of course, there are plenty of opportunities to take a swim in the fresh water. Alternative things to do is to stay on dry land and cycle around the lake on a sealed road or enjoy one of the walking trails that cut through the lake’s bushy perimeter. Short trails at Rumija, Obod and Vranjina offer lovely views on completion.

Things to do for the Passive

Should your mood be more sedentary, Skadar Lake National Park is an ideal out-of-the-way venue to spend a quiet day. Take the drive around the Park, stop to enjoy key points of interest and spend some time relaxing in one of the restaurants or cafes.

Visit Rijeka grad – the Northern Entrance to Skadar Lake National Park

Rijeka grad is a small township which provides access to Skadar Lake National Park from the north.  Rijeka grad is an interesting town to walk around as many of the properties in the town echo memories of former times under Yugoslav rule. You can also enjoy a meal at one of the restaurants on either bank of the Rijeka Crnojevica.

Danilo’s Bridge Across the Rijeka Crnojevica

The Rijeka Crnojevica at Rijeka grad is straddled by Danilo’s Bridge which is the town’s major historical attraction. The bridge is double-arched, constructed from limestone and is about 45 metres in length. Some very friendly and articulate local economics students working off their holidays, impatient to graduate and move on, said it dated back to about 1850. Not bad. It was actually commissioned in 1853. The family Crnojevic was very important to the foundation of Montenegro and the establishment of Cetinje as its capital. You can read about it our post about Cetinje.

The bridge was completed in 1853 by the Montenegrin Prince Danilo, fully identified as Danilo I Petrovic-Njegos, who erected the bridge in memory of his father, Stanko Petrović. Prince Danilo secularised Montenegro during his rule from 1851 to 1860 and waived the ecclesiastical appointment that customarily complemented his position.

Danilo’s Bridge is located adjacent to the town of Rijeka grad and the water craft hire centre
A peek at Danilo’s Bridge across the canopied roofs of the boats for hire at Rijeka grad

When standing on Danilo’s Bridge you will pick up on some more things to do. You can see in the image that some of the water craft for hire at Rijeka grad have canopied roofs, so even if you aren’t feeling particularly energetic you can still enjoy a scenic boat ride along the Rijeka Crnojevica (river) by hiring one of these small motorised vessels.

A Better Thing to do – The Ferry Ride Along the Rijeka Crnojeviva

Tickets are available for the relaxing ride around Skadar Lake from the Rijeka Crnojeviva near Rijeka grad

A sealed road on the bank opposite the town of Rijeka grad leads from Rijeka grad to Virpazar, an important centre in Skadar Lake National Park. The road follows the bank of the Rijeka Crnojeviva along which, not far from Rijeka grad, is a terminus for the ferry journey around the Rijeka Crnojeviva through the Skadar Lake National Park. This is certainly a must.

Other things to do if you’re looking for a quieter day is to include a visit to the archaeological and cultural remnants of previous foreign occupations in the form of forts and religious buildings that are located around the lake. There are also old, traditional villages, the ruins of which speak of simple lives with dependence on the sea and lake.

Things to do for Nature Lovers

The final group who will find a visit to Skadar Lake National Park rewarding are those who are interested in its natural beauty, and that includes its ecology and landforms. Skadar Lake National Park is a living laboratory and if you have even limited knowledge of ecology or earth science then you will enjoy building a casual interpretation of the ecosystems and landscapes that you observe.

The Waters of Skadar Lake National Park

Skadar Lake is an open lake and the largest on the Balkan Peninsula. The area occupied by the lake is not static and varies with season. The lake acts as a natural catchment for the heavy rains during the colder months and swells in area to approximately 520 square kilometres. During the drier warmer seasons, although subject to storms, the lake reduces in area by 25% to less than 400 square kilometres.
The inflows and outflows of the lake can be inferred from Google Maps. The major inflow is the Moraca River which issues from the north-east of Podgorica. Other sources include the Cerni River, a tributary of the Moraca, and the Rijeka Crnojevica.

The Rijeka Crnojevica is one of the rivers that charge Skadar Lake

The Rijeka Crnojevica is important to the visual attraction of the area and as we have read, flows into the lake from the north through Rijeka grad. Skadar Lake is drained to the Adriatic by the 40 kilometre-long Buna River. The outflow simultaneously charges the substantive Drin River which flows through Albania.

The Landscape of Skadar Lake National Park and How it Formed

The Adriatic and its eastern and western land boundaries, Italy and the Balkan Peninsula, are well known for their seismicity. A record of earthquakes along the entire length of the Balkans has contributed to the histories of damage and destruction of many of the prominent coastal Balkan cities. One of the major causes of any earthquake and related events is the subduction or movement of crust along a tectonic boundary, and given the existence of a micro plate under the Adriatic, it is not unreasonable to assume that it influenced the shaping of Montenegro. And so it follows that the landforms that can ow be seen at the Skadar Lake National Park are the result of significant tectonic rearrangement.

We have already mentioned two examples of landscapes formed by rifting in previous posts – the rift of the Thessaly Plain in northern Greece (read about it in post here) and rifting in the Gulf of Corinth on the Peloponnese (post here). These rifts were described in terms of a local divergence of the earth’s crust. This means that the crust was pulled apart in opposite directions, although the cause is not always known. Skadar Lake National Park was subject to similar forces. A rift running approximately north-south produced significant faulting and folding along the rift. The faulting caused a large area to drop. Water, probably from the Adriatic, flowed across the sunken crust to form the lake. The walls down which the sunken block slipped formed the new walls of the lake. The sunken block at the bottom of Skadar Lake is what is referred to as a graben and it is filled with sediments from the Drin river. It is deepest where the Skadar Lake meets the valley of Rijeka Crnojevica.

A possible rift event along the Rijeka Crnojevica at Pavlova strana
The image of the Rijeka Crnojevica at Pavlova strana tantalisingly suggests evidence of rifting

The image of the landscape of the Rijeka Crnojevica certainly focuses our attention. Should Skadar Lake now occupy an area produced by a rift then it is only logical, given the landforms in the image, that this section of the landscape was also the result of the rift. The image of the Rijeka Crnojeviva at Pavlova strana tantalisingly suggests it. The ‘hills’ do not so easily invite an opinion. They may have been due to folding or faulting associated with the rift. These things happened over millions of years and interpreting structure from the surface is difficult.

The view from a distance of Skadar Lake and landscape
Overview of Skadar Lake National Park landscape with Skadar Lake in background

The major expanse of water known as Skadar Lake is in the distance beyond the ‘hills’.

Skadar Lake is no longer open to the Adriatic as is the case of say, Kotor. Regional tectonics during a later period may have isolated the lake from the Adriatic, explaining why the lake’s water level is up to a maximum of 10 metres above sea level even though is some places the bottom of the lake is below sea level.

The Iconic View of the Landscape from Pavlova strana and How to Find It

The graben that explains the landscape surrounding Skadar Lake is best observed from Pavlova strana near Sindon. If driving on the M2 between Cetinje and Podgorica, drop down to the Pavlova strana lookout using the turnoff near Meterizi.

Should you already be at Crnojevica grad, take the road which is on the M2 side of the river through Sindon. Either way, the two vantage points over the Rijeka Crnojevica will open up for you. This lovely vista over the Rijeka Crnojevica not only illustrates the physical history of the lake, but also recommends its tranquil beauty as a preferred contrast to the noisy activity of the coast.
The Pavlova strana lookout near Sindon provides a beautiful vista of the Rijeka Crnojevica landscape
The iconic view of the landscape of Rijeka Crnojevica at Pavlova strana

The Ecology of Skadar Lake

Skadar Lake and its tributaries have a rich ecology and form a natural laboratory to study many of the species that occupy the Lake. Fauna would typically include molluscs and gastropods, some of which woul be native to the environment, and the preserved continuity of the species over time allows a deep look at change and adaptation. The same applies to abundant populations of fish and small crustaceans. It would be reasonable to predict the presence of eels and carp in a fresh water lake, even though the latter in some aquatic environments is considered a threat to other fish species. The third major component of Skadar Lake’s biodiversity is bird life with over 250 species, apparent among which are the perennial occupants of fresh-water lakes; gulls, heron and pelicans.

The Rijeka Crnojevica at Skadar Lake features abundant flora
Flora on the Rijeka Crnojevica at Skadar Lake

It would be anticipated that many of the floras would also be common to most freshwater lake environments. The most visually dominant flora is water lilies which are abundantly distributed throughout the Lake. Algae, weeds, reeds and perennials can also be seen in the images and through photosynthesis they contribute to habitats by providing oxygen. The reeds and trees that are anchored in the water help to filter the water through their root systems, removing pollution and excess nutrients. Weeds tend to aggregate around the margins, often interweaving into a solid mat which feels like soft ground if walked upon. The overall perspective is one of wetlands.

The water of Skadar Lake National Park is likely alkaline as is the case of many static water courses within karst regions. The predominant rocks, limestone and dolomite, are composed of carbonate minerals, principally due to the pre-existent abundance of marine organisms. Limestone varieties include minerals of calcium carbonate, calcite and aragonite, and dolomite results from the substitution of magnesium ions for some of the calcium.

Water naturally absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and this is particularly the case in the presence of large expanses of water such as lakes and rivers. The presence of carbon dioxide promotes calcium bicarbonate which does well in an already alkaline environment. The bicarbonate form of the calcium is not only a factor in the etching of carbonate rocks resulting in the characteristic features we associate with limestone regions, but its cation also affects the hardness of the water. The alkaline nature of the water may not be an issue for the lake’s aquatic environment because a pH of 8.0 is considered to be within tolerance, but alkalinity can increase the toxicity of some pollutants.

Another important consideration to the health of the waters of Skadar Lake is temperature. Montenegro enjoys a moderately cool climate for much of the year apart from the summer months, and even then the heat is not excessive over long periods. These temperatures are advantageous to Skadar Lake’s ecology as water can better hold on to its oxygen at lower temperatures. Alternatively, a threat usually persists in the form of the inflow of nutrients. The Moraca river flows through Podgorica, and both the Moraca and Cerni rivers serve land use purposes along their lengths. Higher summer temperatures, should an imbalance of nutrients occur, may increase any potential that exists for algal blooming across the Lake.

The water at Skadar Lake is cleansed by anchored flora such as immersed trees and reeds
Flora with roots anchored in the lake filter the water of pollutants and superfluous nutrients

So, in conclusion, if you like to engage with your venues there is plenty of enjoyment waiting as you disentangle the biological and physical environments of Skadar Lake National Park. It doesn’t matter if you’re wrong – the fun is in the street science.

Getting To Skadar Lake National Park

There are several routes into the Skadar Lake National Park. If you’re travelling by car from Cetinje or Podgorica then the M2 runs between the two cities and continues down to the lake from Podgorica.
Lake Skadar is accessible inland from the Adriatic Coast via the M2 from Petrovac or the E80 from Sutomore, both routes passing through Virpazar which is located on the shores of the lake. This is where you will find the Lake Skadar National Park Visitors Centre and can equip yourselves with the information you require. Just along the road you will encounter small islands and a former fortress and prison.

Panorama of Budva on way to Skadar Lake

A journey originating in Kotor turns inland onto the M10 at Budva and then ascends the mountains adjacent to Montenegro’s Adriatic coast. The road climbs quickly, has many switchbacks, but is not uncomfortable to drive. You could expect a similar experience driving from Petrovac.

Use this Link to read the post about Kotor – See Kotor, Kotor Bay and Inside Kotor Old Town
Use this Link to read the post about Budva – Things to See and Do in Budva

The route from Skadar Lake continued to the outskirts of Cetinje, but instead of driving into Cetinje, continue on the M10 towards Podgorica as far as the Rijeka turn-off at Donji Ulici. It is here that you will have your first view of Skadar Lake. You can take the turn-off at Donjii Ulici or continue on towards Meterezi where you will find another route down to the lake and river.

Once off the main highway at Donji Ulici it is time to develop white knuckles by strangling the steering wheel and again enjoying the uncertainty that comes from creeping along very narrow lanes lined with hedgerows. The hedgerows, if left untrimmed, ensure sufficient ‘blind’ bends to set hearts racing. Keep well to the right and anticipate cars coming from the opposite direction.

A not very exciting video showing he many blind bends when driving around Skadar Lake National Park

We took time out to reduce our stress that comes from playing peekaboo around blind corners to taste the wares on display at a very colourful roadside stall. The smiling vendor happily served up samples of home-made rocket fuels that were made from local fruits and talked us through his display of conserves and cheeses.
The sampling process could best be described as an exercise in building the immune system. The wines were served in one cloudy glass of only three available and the cheeses were offered at the end of a discoloured tooth pick, similarly one of three. When we finished tasting we noticed there wasn’t any running water and it dawned on us why the glasses were cloudy and why the tooth picks had yellowed. We wondered with how many others we had literally shared the sampling. Anyway, our host’s generosity made it impossible to walk away empty-handed so we purchased a bottle of walnut wine. It was absolutely delicious, even if later when we sipped it in the safety of our accommodation our heads were severed from our bodies.

Final Thoughts on Skadar Lake National Park

There are plenty of things to do at Skadar Lake National Park. You can enjoy the waters in a variety of ways, seek out the scenery and visit remainders of prior habitation, interpret the ecoloby, or untangle the landscape that makes up the physical environment. Whichever choice is yours, it is certain to make your visit worthwhile.