For all Croatia’s pristine beaches and panoramic peaks, many consider the country’s greatest natural attraction to be the Plitvice Lakes. And although this National Park attracts over one million annual visitors, they are soon absorbed among the walkways, bridges and boardwalks that allow you to see the spectacular scenery right up close.
Plitvice is home to 1,146 species of plants, 140 types of birds and more than 50 mammals. Lynx, wild cats, brown bears and deer number among the mammals, as well as skunks, martens, weasels and wolves.
This natural wonder is just off the motorway between Split and Zagreb in Lika, a region known for its rustic lifestyles, unspoiled wilderness areas and fantastic roast lamb.
Most of all, though, people flock here for the series of 16 continually changing, cascading, crystal-clear lakes. The dimensions of these lakes have been created from centuries of calcium carbonate deposits, which find home in and on algae, moss and bacteria. This deposit-and-plant combination has created a sequence of travertine barriers or natural dams, each of which might grow by a couple of centimetres a year.
The water collects behind the dams, creating Plitvice’s distinctive landscape of interconnected lakes, the higher ones feeding the lower ones via a rushing, crashing series of rapids and cascades. This process, a singular occurrence and one of the main reasons Plitvice is included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, means the bodies of water and the waterfalls linking them are always evolving.
Plitvice has been a tourist attraction since the 19th century, with its first hotel set up in 1896. By then a conservation committee had been established, forerunner of the National Park authorities of today. The area was nationalised by the Communist authorities after World War II. Plitvice made the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1979.
For locals, Plitvice has added significance. The site of clashes between irregular Serb forces and Croatian police in spring 1991, this natural beauty spot witnessed the first deaths of what came to be known by Croats as the Homeland War. Overrun by Serb forces in 1991, the park did not return to Croatian control until 1995.
Exploring the park
Sightseeing in the National Park is a highly organised affair. There are two entrances, Entrance 1 at the northern end of the lake system and Entrance 2 a couple of kilometres further south.
From these access points trails descend through forest of beech, spruce and fir to the lakes themselves, where wooden boardwalks criss-cross the shallows, allowing for a close-up, fish-eye view of hissing waterfalls, reedy backwaters and fantastically clear, turquoise-tinged waters teeming with fish and traversed by the occasional water snake.
Electric bus-trains running at regular intervals link both of the main entrances and also take you up to the larger, upper lakes, allowing visitors to cover a lot of ground in a short space of time. There are also electric-powered boats to transport visitors across some of the larger lakes.
Although the water looks divine, its greenish-blue colours changing according to the sunlight, swimming is strictly forbidden. For those visitors who want to do their own thing, trails lead from the western side of the lakes up into the hills, taking you through exhilarating woodland walking territory that seems a long way away from the tourist hubbub of the most-visited, lakeside parts of the park.
Given the sheer scale of the trail network on the Lakes’ western side – a network that is still growing, by the way – you could spend days exploring the park and still feel that a new discovery was awaiting just round the next hillock.
For day-trippers who only have a few hours at their disposal, the best option is to start at Entrance 1 and descend towards the Veliki Slap waterfall, a 78-metre cascade that throws up clouds of mist and plays havoc with your camera lens. From here you can follow the boardwalk trails that criss-cross the lower lakes, Kaluđerovac, Gavanovac and Milovac, providing close-up views of the tumbling cataracts that divide them.
The northern end of Lake Milovac is marked by the impressive Milovac Falls. From here you can follow the popular trail along the western side of Lake Kozjak as far as the boat jetty, where you can catch the shuttle service across the lake to Entrance 2. From here, one of the national park’s panoramic electric bus-trains will bounce you back to Entrance 1.
The National Park is open daily from 7am to 8pm in summer, 8am to 4pm in winter. Entry fees change according to the time of year, ranging from 55kn (children 35kn) in the November-March period to 150kn (children 80kn) in July and August. Under sevens get in free. The fee covers all transport on the buses and boats inside the park – although these services don’t run in winter, hence the lower prices.
Best times to visit the park are spring and autumn, when the surrounding landscape reveals most in terms of bloom and colour. July and August can get very busy, and moving around the park’s boardwalk trails can be a slow process. Come in the depths of winter and you may well be treated to stunning scenes of frozen waterfalls and frosted plants and trees.