Plitvice Lakes (or, in Croatian, Plitvička Jezera) regularly appears in travel lists with titles like “Most Amazing Places to Go Before You Die”. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site (and has been since 1979). It is understandable then, that Plitvice Lakes is one of the more popular tourist destinations in Croatia receiving more than 1.2 million visitors each year. I am not particularly a fan of travel lists (at least those which aren’t my own) but I had seen the famous Plitvice Lakes photo taken from above the wooden pathway snaking across the aquamarine lake below cascading waterfalls and it looked interesting (my attempt at that photo appears above). Having now been there I can report that the photos don’t do the entirety of the Park justice and it is well worth adding to any travel list.
What. There are 16 lakes in total over a distance of about 8km formed by a series of natural travertine dams. The lakes combine with a series of cascading waterfalls as the run off from the mountains descends through the lakes from an altitude of 636m to 503m above sea level. The whole effect is heightened by the colour of the lakes which can vary from green to blue to grey, dependent upon the mineral content and sunlight.
Where. Plitvice Lakes National Park lies roughly half way between Zadar on the coast and the inland capital of Croatia, Zagreb.
Getting there. Regular buses depart from both Zagreb and Zadar (about 2 and a half hours from either location). The buses should stop at each of the two entrances, but check with the conductor. Entrance 1 is closest to Zagreb. Entrance 2 is closest to Zadar and is the entrance you want if staying overnight in one of the park hotels. Once off the bus just follow the sign posts to the park (about a 5 to 10 minute walk). There is also a bus stop at Mukinje, where there is additional accommodation outside of the Park. Mukinje is located on the Zadar side of the Park about 5 minutes travel by bus before entrance 2. Again check with the conductor whether the bus will stop at the Mukinje bus stop.
Getting away. Buses can be flagged down at the bus stops to entrances 1 and 2. In theory there is also a ticket booth at entrance 2, but when we were there (which was outside of the high season) it wasn’t staffed. Tickets can be purchased on the bus, although this may be risky in the summer high season.
Bus timetables. Bus timetables can be found in the park, at the bus stops and online. We found that each of these sources gave different information, but that the most accurate was provided by the Zagreb bus station website.
Tour companies. As an alternative to public transport, various tour companies offer one day trips to Plitvice Lakes from Zadar, Zagreb and even Split. Whilst the tour companies reduce some of the hassle expect to pay about double the public transport cost (we paid about 40 AUD each to travel between Zadar and Plitvice and between Plitvice and Zagreb) and you won’t be able to walk the lakes at your own pace.
Accommodation. Accommodation is available both inside and outside of the Park. We stayed at Mukinje which was an easy 20 minute walk downhill through forest along a signposted track to the Park (those not used to walking may find the return trip uphill a bit difficult). If, however, we had our time over we would have spent more time in Zagreb which had far better value accommodation options and just visited the park by catching an early morning bus there and a late afternoon bus back.
Best time of year to visit. Most people visit the Park in the summer high season. This is, however, probably the worst time to visit given (a) no swimming is permitted; and (b) the crowds would make the place unbearable. Off season mid-week is probably the best time to visit. We went in mid October and had the advantage of good water flow over the waterfalls, autumn colours and a surprisingly sunny day.
Getting around the Park. No vehicles, other than official Park transport, are permitted in the Park. Accordingly getting around the park is a combination of walking, park buses and park boats. Park buses run regularly between stations 1 (the lower lakes), station 2 (entrance 2 and the hotels) and station 3 (the top of the upper lakes). To see the best of the lakes some walking is required, albeit none of it is particularly difficult.
Hiking in the Park. There are 7 marked walking trails around and over the upper and lower lakes – A, B, C, E, F, H and K and sign boards in the park which explain where each of the trails go. While some of the trail markings can be a bit confusing, it is pretty difficult to get lost – just keep heading in the general direction you want to go and cross the lakes on the wooden walkways as often as possible as they provide the best views.
We explored the Park in two parts. First, we took the bus from station 2 to station 1 and from there walked along the cliff tops above the lower lakes towards entrance 1 before we descendied down onto the lower lakes and followed the wooden walkways crossing back and forward over the lakes, including a short diversion to the “Great Waterfall”, until we reached the northern side of the major lake, Lake Kozjak, and ferry station 3. Instead, however, of taking the ferry back to ferry station 1 (bus station 2) we returned back over to the southern side of Lake Kozjak and walked along the lake’s edge back to bus station 2.
Secondly, back at bus station 2 we caught the bus up to bus station 3 and the top of the upper lakes and then followed the tracks and wooden walk ways back down the lakes, again crossing them as often as possible until we arrived at ferry station 2 to catch the ferry back to where we had started.
The park notes indicate that exploring the upper and lower lakes should take around 6 to 8 hours but we found that 5 hours was plenty of time to see all of the Park.
In addition to the walking paths there are hiking paths through the forest and peaks which surround the lakes. Given our limited time we didn’t try any of these hiking paths, but details can be found on the National Park website (Plitvička Jezera National Park).
Take with you. Whilst all of the walking paths are quite easy it is advisable to wear good water proof boots as on some of the walkways the water flows up and over the wooden boards. For those interested in photography a tripod and good zoom lens to capture the best shots are a must (we had neither of these but plenty of photographers were lined up on the walkways waiting for the best light).