Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia
When I started planning our trip to Croatia, I only knew I wanted to go to Dubrovnik. But I was really surprised at how many other awesome places Croatia is filled with! Dubrovnik was actually our least favorite, and it was fabulous so that says a lot about the other places.
One of those other places was the Plitvice (pronounced Plit’ veet seh) Lakes National Park. This UNESCO World Heritage site is about 2.5 hours southwest of Zagreb, near the border of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Wikipedia has a scientific explanation for why it’s so gorgeous but it might make more sense if I say it looks like something out of Middle Earth, or a high fantasy world. You can scan the wide expanse of the falls and just hear the epic theme music start up in your head.
Ants on a log! If you look closely you can see tourists crossing the lakes on one of the many wooden footpaths.
Back in 2016 the Plitvice Lakes were in danger of being removed from UNESCO’s world heritage list due to excessive construction and unchecked tourism. (I guess I am the last person to get the memo about this park.)
About 1.3 million visitors come here each year, sometimes as many as 15,000 a day in the peak months of July and August.
For a park made up of narrow trails and skinny boardwalks built across the waterways, this not only spells trouble for its world heritage designation, it makes for one terrible human traffic jam.
We came early and beat the crowds.
I read a lot about how to maximize our visit here and have put together some tips, gleaned from my research and from my own experience. I’m posting plenty of pictures, but don’t worry about spoiling your trip – you can’t beat seeing it in person.
How to Avoid the Crowds
If you can help it, avoid the peak tourist season of July and August.
We visited the Plitvice Lakes in September, which is considered the shoulder season. The weather hasn’t gotten too chilly but the summer crowds have thinned out considerably. In fact, the weather couldn’t have been better. It was a chilly 55 degrees in the morning but warmed up to a sunny 78 by afternoon.
I wore short sleeves and was kind of cold for a bit but once we started walking the lakes, I was fine. I actually wouldn’t have liked to be here if the weather was any warmer. There are some parts of the park that don’t have much shade and with the crowds and walking, you warm up quickly.
Pretending I was Frodo, having a drink of water after second breakfast.
Spend at least one night here, two for a more relaxed pace of travel.
The park hours vary by time of year but when we went they were open from 8am until 6pm which I think is still summer hours. They reduce their hours in the winter.
There are several day tours from Zagreb or Split but if you go by tour, you automatically come with a crowd. I recommend coming the night before and getting an early start at the park. You’ll get to experience it before the hordes arrive, around 11am.
The trails were still empty at 9 in the morning.
Brian and I stayed a second night so we could remain at the park until closing and head to a shower and a bed instead of traveling onward. Most of the tour buses left around 4pm and it cleared out significantly. By then we were completely wiped out so we didn’t stay to enjoy the peace. We’re not the most nature loving travelers though so your mileage may vary. Even so, unless you’re a botanist or something, you don’t need more than one day to explore.
I wonder if anyone has ever fallen in…
Start at the Lower Lakes.
I read that when you come early you should start at the lower lakes because all of the tours start here. So you can see these in a few hours before they arrive, then enjoy the upper lakes in the afternoon. However, we got confused and ended up starting at the upper lakes (there are two entrances – one to the upper lakes and one to the lower) so our timing was off. It didn’t seem to make much difference though as the park didn’t get crowded until around 2pm and by that time we were out of the main sightseeing spots. (The largest waterfall, Veliki Slap, is one of the main attractions and is right near entrance 1.) So really I guess, start where you want if you come early enough.
Veliki Slap! At 78 meters, it’s the highest waterfall in the park.
Brian and I came by bus. We bought our tickets online, from Arriva, for 170 kuna for both tickets (around $26). It takes about 2.5 hours to get here from Zagreb and the bus will drop you off at the Plitvice Lakes park entrance 1 or 2 or a nearby stop called Mukinje (pronounced Moo kin yeh). We stayed at an airbnb in the little village of Mukinje so that was our stop. If you have your own car, you can drive here yourself (obvs). But that’s about it for getting here.
No train, no airport, no subway, no hot air balloons.
There’s the Mukinje bus stop!
And right behind the bus stop is this crucifix. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one standing alone like this. Croatia is a predominantly Catholic country though, so it’s not surprising.
Where to Stay
A lot of what I read prior to coming here had me worried about where to stay. There is just one hotel inside the park and when you look at a map it seems like everywhere else is so far you need to drive. I actually frantically booked a room at Hotel Jezero, the park hotel, but kept researching as the reviews weren’t so great.
We ended up booking a very cute Airbnb in Mukinje, a small village near the park. I was skeptical at first because to me, staying “the next town over” does not sound very convenient. However, not only was it walkable to the park, the mile long path was beautiful, through serene, shady woods.
A walk in the park…to get to the park.
Here’s the view from our balcony. This is what I imagine a quaint Alpine ski village looks like.
We arrived in the late afternoon on a Sunday – not a great time as the village is TINY and the one grocery store was closed for the day. So we went to the sole restaurant in town, a pizza place that turned out to be pretty good – after we got over the rude service. A giant beer helped.
Mmmm, pizza with anchovies and olives.
What to Wear
You can’t go wrong if you stick to the golden rule: do unto others…wait, no…wear layers. I wore just a t-shirt and was chilly in the morning before the sun came out. If I could have a do-over, I’d definitely bring a light hoodie.
Sneakers are a must. If your tennies are ugly, just crop your feet out of photos. 🙂 Some trails are gravel, or possibly dirt/mud depending on the weather and there are a ton of trails that go over the water and are made of wooden planking. Any shoe that has a pointy heel will trip you up! Flip flops are bound to fall off when you least expect it and wearing any other kind of sandal will just ensure that you have dirty feet by the end of the day. I guess if you’re okay with that, then more power to you.
The walkways are made of rough cut wooden planks. Leave the stilletos at home!
Wear sunscreen. There is some shade but also lots of open space where the sun will get you.
As for bug/mosquito repellant – I didn’t really notice many mosquitoes but more importantly, they didn’t notice me. (Which means there probably weren’t many, as I’m a mosquito magnet.) It might be different in the summer though.
Tickets for the Plitvice Lakes are a little pricey at 150 kuna ($23) each. We bought ours and somehow managed to get into the park without anyone checking them. So technically we didn’t need to buy them but I would definitely recommend getting a ticket anyway because:
1) It’s honest
2) Proceeds go towards conserving this awesome wonder!
Anyone want to buy two tickets to the Plitvice Lakes? 😉
Pack a Picnic Lunch
There are plenty of gorgeous stops along the trails to rest, eat and enjoy the view. You can buy food and water in the park but there are only a couple of places, it’s not like you can grab water or a snack whenever you get the urge.
We were in Zagreb before we came here and bought some great picnic supplies from Dolac market, the huge open air marketplace in the city center. We brought bread, cheese, sausage, and figs. Just needed a bottle of red wine to make it a true Hemingway picnic spread.
We enjoyed our lunch with this view.
How to Find Your Way Around the Park
There are multiple trails you can take and they’re labeled with letters of the alphabet. Some are supposedly harder than others but we did the most difficult ones (H and K) and they weren’t harder, just longer.
There is a ferry that will take you across the lake. I’ve heard the lines can get astronomically long but thankfully we didn’t have to wait at all.
The park has lots of trail markers but hardly any comprehensive maps so it can be a little hard to orient yourself especially if you have an exact route you’d like to take. (I.e, you want to see Veliki Slap first or you want to head straight to a ferry, etc.)
You can buy a map at the information booth at the start of the park for about $2 or you can download the Plitvice Lakes Hiking Trails app for $3.99. There’s also tons of info on the Plitvice Lakes website.
Trails are well marked.
Too bad this wasn’t a glass bottom boat.
Sorry for the glare, I just took some quick photos of the giant map I bought when we were there. I couldn’t find anything like this online when I was planning and would have liked to get an overview of things before I got there. So, if you’re like me, and get nervous about not knowing the lay of the land in advance – here ya go!
Google maps will show you some of this but not with the routes marked up.
One last waterfall before I say good bye…