The Plitvice Lakes are probably one of Croatia’s best known national parks. We had long wanted to travel to this area and see these stunningly beautiful lakes and waterfalls and managed to weave it into our recent itinerary to Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia. The route wasn’t really optimal – it was quite a long way out of our way – but we were so keen to visit Plitvice, we felt it was worth the extra driving. Driving through the countryside in the region is straightforward and very beautiful, but not particularly speedy. We did have high expectations for Plitvice… and we weren’t disappointed. The Plitvice National park is located by the Zagreb–Split D1 national highway which runs between Slunj and Korenica. It is also close to the Bosnia Herzegovina border – it’s about a half hour drive to the lake region from the Bosnia-Croatia border. We had driven in from Jacje in Bosnia via Bihac to visit Plitvice Lakes.
Geography of Plitvice Lakes
The lakes are located across Lika-Senj and Karlovac counties and the area comprises sixteen lakes which are interconnected, cascading into each other via waterfalls within a karst topography, which is mainly limestone or dolomite. The highest lake is Prošćansko (639m above sea level) and the lowest is Novakovića Brod (503m above sea level). The region was designated a National Park and an area of outstanding natural beauty in 1949 and 30 years later became a UNESCO site. The lakes are fed by the Medica river which fills the Proscansko Lake and cascades through the lake system all the way down to the Korana river.
Staying in the Area
The area around Plitvice is largely dedicated to tourism so there are loads of hotels and guesthouses lining the main roads into the area. Some of these feel a little isolated, there aren’t really any significant towns nearby – there are a lot of villages – but there are lots of restaurants and mini-markets. There are also a bunch of companies that offer a number of different activities in the area – you will see the adverts from the roadside.
Plitvice Lakes National Park – Practicalities for the Visitor
You need a ticket to enter the park. It’s possible to buy these in advance and is definitely recommended if you are visiting in the high season in order to avoid the queues. Entrances are timed, you can arrive any time within the hour stated on your ticket.
The official website has all sorts of practical information for a visit to Plitvice Lakes.
There are options for visiting the park depending on how much time you have. Some people explore the area over a couple of days, visiting the lower lakes on one day and the upper lakes on the next. Others might visit the whole site in a day. We were short on time so decided to spend a full day in the park.
Our hotel was located around 4km from the park and we were driving a hire car, so we had a lot of flexibility, but there are busses that come in from all over Croatia, notably the cities – Split, Zagreb, Sibenik and Zadar amongst others. There are bus stops with ticket booths located on the road close to each entrance – they look like log cabins.
We chose to arrive for the 9:00am slot, at entrance number 1. The car parks are well marked from the road and are also ticketed – you pick up a ticket on arrival at the barrier then pay for the hours you use just before you exit. You have around 15 minutes to leave after you have paid. The car parks are located around a five minute walk from the park entrances. There’s a wooden bridge across the road.
Inevitably, as with many popular attractions, trails are crowded at the start of the route – even at 9am and in springtime. In retrospect we should have arrived earlier. Entrance 1 is located closest to the lower lakes and you generally follow the crowds along the paths.
There are a number of routes around the park which are clearly marked, depending on where you start and how energetic you are feeling. We recommend wearing comfortable shoes and making sure you have protection from the sun and possibly wet weather gear if the forecast suggests it might rain. Also, make sure you take water if you are planning on a long walk. There are facilities at both entrances as well as the P3 boat docking point. It’s fine to take a picnic with you but, of course, take all rubbish away with you. We did spot a number of park litter pickers along our walk – the site is absolutely pristine so it’s important to keep it that way.
Finally, you are not allowed to swim in any of the lakes, despite how utterly inviting they look on a warm spring day.
Visit Plitvice Lakes – The Lower Lakes
Entrance 1 follows a path that leads to the four lower lakes. The view from the top offered a taste for the day to come.
The boardwalk gets a bit congested as there are plentiful visitors and the route isn’t very wide. However, this was the only place we really had to queue, apart from waiting for a boat.
We saw a snake swimming through Kaluđerovo jezero, the second lowest lake.
The lowest lake is Novakovića Brod and at the end of the system you can see the Sastavci waterfall, an 87m drop.
There’s a little bit of doubling back to reach the upper lower lakes, Gavanovac and then Milanovac.
A Long Walk
Having explored the lower lakes we walked to Jezero Kozjak lake, which is actually the lowest of Upper Lakes and both the largest and deepest of all the lakes in the area. It has an area of 82 hectares and a depth of 47 meters at its deepest point. It also features the little island Stefanijin otok. When we arrived here, where we faced some choices. This is the lake which offers boat rides to the upper lake area. When we arrived there was already a queue forming. At the time it seemed as though there was only one boat every half hour and it looked like a pretty long wait. So we reviewed the trail maps and opted for Route K – to walk the entire perimeter of the park. It’s around 18km in total but, for us, it was the perfect choice.
We started off on the trail and the crowds soon melted away so that we could walk beside these stunningly beautiful lakes, virtually alone, save for a few others who had also decided to take a long walk. The trail skirted the edge of Kozjak lake and then took us into the woods on a climb to the upper lake area. The walking was generally easy, the trails well marked and the upward slopes weren’t challenging. It was also a glorious day.
Visit Plitvice Lakes – The Upper Lakes
The walk took us through a quiet, shady forest where we met a slow-worm sunning itself…
..and after an enjoyable walk through the trees we emerged back into the sunlight to get a spectacular view of the upper lakes.
The is the waterfall flowing into Lake Okrugljak from Lake Ciginovac.
The upper lakes are just as beautiful as the lower – crystal clear and with a gorgeous turquoise hue.
Just follow the boardwalk…
The route takes you very close to the waterfalls and cascades…
We also spotted some noisy frogs in the reeds.
The upper lakes weren’t as crowded as the lower lakes but there were a few bottlenecks at particularly pretty lakes or falls, when people blocked the boardwalk as they tried to take their perfect instagram shot.
An Unexpected Boat Ride
Initially we didn’t realise that, despite our intention for walking the entire circumference of the park, the trails don’t quite follow the perimeter of all the lakes. If following the K route there will be a need for a short – 5 minute – boat trip. Boats shuttle back and forth regularly and are included in the price of the ticket – just queue for the boat (hoping the queue isn’t too long) and hop on. The dock is very close to Entrance 2. (If you are parking at Entrance 2 this would be the perfect place to start/end the walk in the opposite – i.e. clockwise – direction.) We continued our walk along by the waterside of Jezero Kozjak towards our starting point at Entrance 1.
Other Places To Visit – The Caves of Barac
Due to the limestone geology of the area, Croatia has thousands of cave systems. The Caves of Barac, located about 20km drive from Plitvice are also worth visiting. You can have an hour-long guided tour of the upper cave. It’s a show cave which includes some impressive stalactites and stalagmites but also some has some interesting features on display.
The photo below shows the skeleton of a young bear that fell into a crevice during the Pleistocene era . The bones are the same size as you would expect of an adult bear but bears were enormous back then – an adult would have been 3m long and could have weighed up to 1000kg. They were also vegetarian apparently. This bear would likely have entered the cave to hibernate but sadly never emerged into the sunshine. (The helmet is an artefact from the species greater carelessius touristicus and dates from 2022!)
Similarly artefacts showing evidence of human habitation can be seen.
When inside the cave system our guide turned out the lights and we experienced total blackout. The caves are incredibly dark, even just tens of metres from the entrance, so it is very easy to understand how a bear or human could have wandered in, got lost and ended up falling into a canyon and not finding their way out.
There are around 100 bats living in the cave. We visited in the late afternoon, just as they were waking up. We caught a glimpse of one fluttering sleepily around the cavern before heading our to taste some delicious insects.
The caves are delightfully cool inside, a welcome relief from the heat of the day, but if you are likely to feel the cold, bring a jumper or jacket. The ticket salesman knew we were British the moment he suggested that we wear a coat inside and we thanked him but told him we didn’t need one!