Considered one of the most beautiful natural sights in Europe, this park plays host to more than 1 million visitors each year. Rightfully so. With tips from our B & B manager and some luck, we explored this park in a different manner – we reached the best viewpoints and stayed away from the summer crowds for the most part.
In 1979, Plitvice Lakes National Park was added to the UNESCO World Heritage register.
The National Park covers a total area of 300 square km, whilst the lakes join over eight km.
It is world-famous for its lakes arranged in cascades, that are all interconnected and follow the water flow. The lakes are renowned for their distinctive colours, ranging from azure to green, grey or blue.
18km of wooden footbridges and pathways snake around the lakes’ edges and across the rumbling water.
General information and tips
Most people visit the park as a day trip from Zagreb or Split, so beware of crowds especially in summer months between 10 am and 5 pm. Ticket prices vary by month and can range from 110 kunas per adult during shoulder season (Apr-June, Sept-Oct) to 180 kunas per adult in the peak season of July and August. Entry for my 6-year old was free.
If you want to avoid taking a group tour to Plitvice, it is best to rent a car to reach the park and stay the night. There is no train service in the area, but several public buses ply from Zagreb and Split to the park. It is, however, a tad more difficult to figure the exact bus stops and timings from Plitvice to either Zagreb or Split. During my research, I found out that it was possible to book tickets online on the buses, but the logistics of carrying 3 suitcases with a child in tow dampened the idea of taking a public bus.
There are three hotels available inside: Hotel Jezero, Hotel Bellevue, and Hotel Plitvice. Staying inside the park is perfect for those who don’t have a car. There is another huge perk: hotel guests, after having purchased their park tickets once can have it extended at the hotel’s front desk for the entire length of their stay, for no extra charge.
Which route to take?
There are 8 different hiking routes – A, B, C, K1, E, F, H, K2 – that cover the entire park. They are not all unique; for example – Route E that only covers Upper Lakes from Entrance 2 is largely a sub-set of Route C (that starts from Entrance 1, Lower lakes area). Your route choice would depend on the distance you want to cover, easy vs moderate hiking options, whether you want to be closer to the lakes/waterfalls, your desire to be away from the crowds.
Upper Lakes: Access from Entrance 2
Having had a late start from Zagreb in the morning, and a leisurely lunch stop en route, we had arrived in Plitvice only by 5 pm. Even if we had reached earlier in the day, it was difficult to imagine covering the 8 km loop to see both the Upper Lakes and Lower lakes area, in one go, with my daughter.
If you were to explore only the Upper lakes area at a stretch, like we did, it is easy to access from Entrance 2. There are ample parking and a ticket counter (along with a souvenir shop). We got a 25% discount on buying tickets for consecutive days. Take the overhead bridge to cross the road, and you are instantly transported in a forest that only gets lusher as you walk ahead.
We took the Route E to explore the Upper lakes, this is 5.2 km long and takes about 2-3 hours. It is a beautiful walk, feels very intimate, and meanders around lakes, forests, and short waterfalls. There were few people on this trail in the evening, and the entire experience was serene. We kept crossing the same set of people – all as pleasantly surprised as us, to have the park to themselves. My daughter was exhausted after the 2-hour trek. Thankfully, there was a bus available to go back to the Entrance 2 parking.
Also read: Take a scenic walk in the Vintgar Gorge
Lower lakes area: Access from Entrance 1
You would find the Lower lakes area, very crowded relative to the Upper Lakes. Staying in a hotel within the park, or even within a 5 km radius, would make it easier to come early in the morning to beat the crowds. We reached Entrance 1 only after 830 am. There were already many people around, but the big tourist buses were yet to join.
Most people take the Route A or B from Entrance 1. We ended up doing a combination of several routes. The cheerful manager at the family-run Plitvice Miric Inn – where we stayed the night – had marked out the area map for us, indicating how to take the trails high above the lakes and to reach panoramic (secret!) spots where few people are to be found. This meant giving a miss to being close to the lakes/waterfalls, but it suited us fine. Armed with this information, we first headed to Veliki Slap, the tallest waterfall in Croatia (78 m).
How to reach marvellous views at Lower lakes
More to avoid the people admiring this fall than anything else, we climbed the steep, partially broken, uneven steps, located on one side of the waterfall (the park authorities close these steps, at times, especially during rainfalls). Hardly any crowd up here. You get to a private spot to view the Veliki Slap in shade, without having to jostle with other people for space. We wanted to get to another spot where, as the Miric Inn manager had gushed, the entire lower lakes and its cascading waterfalls lay beneath you. Some backtracking and much quibbling ensued but we finally reached the spot.
Here is what you should do to reach this spot –
– first, take the partially broken steps that are located on the side of the big waterfall,
– reach the asphalt road
– turn right there and walk straight for few minutes until you pass a wooden bridge,
– then turn right after the bridge into a narrow lane
– follow this lane, and when there is a split, stick to the lane to the right.
– keep listening to the sound of the falls to your right and you would reach the viewpoint
Hike in the forest
While trying to reach this viewpoint, we had crossed 3 men in yellow T-shirts, manning a large table groaning under the weight of many bottles and fruit slices. We got chatting with them – only one knew English and played the role of a translator – and got to know that it was the day of the Plitvice marathon. The water and fruit, which I had earlier assumed to be on sale, was for the runners. We passed many of the marathon runners, walking down the road, towards Upper lakes. This is part of Route K1 – the lakes are on the left and a lovely, lush forest all around. If you are up for a moderate hike meandering through the forest, with opportunities for stunning vistas, away from the maddening crowds, this route is for you.
The route culminated in Lake Kozjak, where my daughter insisted on taking the long boat ride back to the Upper Lakes. This long boat ride can be taken just once, and our plan was to take the bus back to Entrance 1. Alas, the bus was not operating due to the marathon that day. No choice but to walk back to Entrance 1. The last leg of the walk around the Lower lakes area was not enjoyable. It was quite hot by now, and the hordes of people in every direction didn’t help. I was glad to be out of the park by 1230.
The tranquil walk in the Upper Lakes along Route E, and the trail with gazebos high above – in the Lower Lakes area – would be my recommendation to experience the park’s beauty, away from the crowds.
Food and Stay in Plitvice
Plitvice Miric Inn is a great stop for a night stay. They served us a wonderful set-menu dinner – soup, choice of meat/fish/vegetables, followed with dessert. They stock some nice Croatian wines and beer as well. Breakfast spread here was decent, it was all part of a buffet, but nothing was available on order.
Our expectations for Licka Kuca, the restaurant at Entrance 1 where we had lunch, were not high. It was a convenient option right after 4/5 hours of walking. The food turned to be good and service slow.
One of the best meals we had was at Bistro Plum, just before entering Plitvice park area. The homemade ravioli and greek salad were perfect for a warm summer day.
Planning a trip to Croatia? Do read my two-week itinerary.
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