Nestled in the mountainous Lika region, Plitvice Lakes National Park is the oldest and largest national park in Croatia, famous for its numerous turquoise-colored lakes separated by travertine barriers. Along with Dubrovnik, they are the two most visited sites in Croatia. It was designated as a national park in 1949, contains 16 interconnected large lakes and many smaller ones, the tallest waterfall in Croatia and over 90 waterfalls of varying sizes. We found it somewhat similar to Krka National Park, which we visited previously while staying in Split, but on a much larger and more impressive scale than Krka National Park.
Determining how we were going to get there was the biggest challenge. We read blogs, searched the internet and spoke to a travel agent to find the best option for our visit and it turns out that in April purchasing transport only was the best option. We were not bound to a group for the entire day, we had a scheduled arrival and departure time with guaranteed seats and could spend our time wandering freely about the park at our leisure, perfect!!
We arranged our transportation with Sime, who was our walking tour guide of Zadar, at a cost of 220 Kuna each (33.85 USD). This provided us with the 2 hours each way bus ride and 5 hours of free time in the park. Scouring the weather forecasts we found a day with 0% chance of rain with clear sunny skies, and boy did we get that!! The wind coming off the lakes had a chill to it but in the sunshine it was a perfect day.
Our day began at 7:50 am gathering everyone together at the travel office for the 2 hour journey to the park. Our transfer was in a comfortable 18 passenger mini-van, it must have been comfortable for I slept most of the way there and back! We were dropped off at Entrance #1 where we purchased our ticket to the park at a cost of 100 Kuna each (15.40 USD) and headed out from there.
Our travel agent Sime gave us a map of his suggested route around the park to minimize being caught up in crowds, he also suggested we pack our own lunch and drinks for the day with refreshments in the park being very expensive. Our lunch break ended up being on the boat trip down the lake, but I am getting ahead of myself here.
Back to the beginning, once inside the gates we followed the trail past the largest waterfall in Croatia, Veliki Slap, which is in the lower level of the park, continuing on for approx 15 minutes where we arrived at the wheeled train stop #1.
We boarded the train for the journey to stop #3 at the top of the trails surrounding the lakes. From there we slowly walked our way down through beautiful forests, past stunning cascading lakes and breathtaking waterfalls arriving at the mid-point of the park, this took us about 2 hours.
Then we boarded an electric boat for a short journey to the lower lakes region where we once again picked up the trails through the forest enjoying the magnificent scenery. The water is almost indescribable, crystal clear, ice cold and the most amazing colors – it is spectacular here!! The colors of the lakes change constantly depending on the quantity of minerals or organisms in the water and the angle of the sunlight, ranging from azure to green, grey or blue.
Our boat journey from P2 to P3 was uncrowded but the boats going in the opposite direction were jam packed with umbrella led tour groups. Looks like we are going the right direction!!
The lower third of the trail system ended up being the busiest, but we still managed some quiet intervals enjoying the peacefulness of the park.
Unfortunately the lower canyon boardwalk to the base of the large waterfall was closed for repairs so we could only walk along the lakeside for about 1 km before being diverted to a narrow and slippery staircase cut into the rocks through the Supljara Cave taking us up to the main walkway again. I don’t think this shortcut is on the recommended route but it allowed us to enjoy more time beside the lower lakes before reaching the closed section.
Even in April this place is relatively busy, possibly some of the crowds we saw had to do with the fact that the schools are on Easter break. We have read the park can have up to 25,000 visitors in one day during the summer season, that must be absolute hell for everyone!! We encountered a few large groups going both directions on the trails and were glad to step aside and let them rush through the park. By doing so we ended up with some much appreciated peace and quiet, for a few brief moments 🙂
I understand that Croatia needs the tourism dollars but I cannot believe anyone comes away from Plitvice National Park in the summer with a positive feeling. That quantity of visitors will no doubt have a negative impact on the park in the not too distant future, I don’t think the park can sustain that many visitors.
That said, back to the positive side of this visit. Aside from the designated tourist trails which are heavily used, there are a number of marked hiking trails which we caught bits and pieces of. With a little more research than we did, a person could get off the beaten track a bit more. Instead of taking the boat ride, we could have hiked along the lakeside had we more time.
Our bus was departing at 3:30pm so we had to time our visit to make this deadline. Once again, if we had a car we would have had more time to explore some of the less traveled trails. Which only means…we have to come back 🙂 Another option would be to stay at the hotel in the park itself potentially allowing you to get out hiking before the crowds arrive, and after they leave.
Getting to Plitvice National Park is easy from Zadar or even Zagreb however the distance to Split (280 kms) or Dubrovnik (460 kms) would make it much more inconvenient, so if you are visiting Zadar, be sure to plan your day trip to Plitvice. We can also recommend a transport only option, if available. A guaranteed bus ride to and from the park and complete freedom to tour the park at our leisure for 5 hours, for us was the best option.
For now we bid farewell from Plitvice National Park, an extraordinary place…
We booked our “transport only” ticket with Art & Nature Travel at this link. Per Sime’s suggestion we booked transport only because the park entrance tickets are inexpensive this time of year so the full tour is not worth the money.