Plitvice Lakes National Park
By Beverly Atkinson, Girls Who Hike Pennsylvania Ambassador
If you’re anything like me, when it comes to vacation planning, there are always equal elements of relaxation and exploring involved. So, last year when I was scrolling through my Pinterest board and noticing all of the eye catching photos of Croatia with its gorgeous islands and amazing national parks I knew I had to go. That being said, I just got back from this incredible country and I was not disappointed.
One place I knew I would have to go was Plitvice Lakes National Park. Of the eight national parks in Croatia, Plitvice is the largest and the oldest. With the location being about 2 hours from the airport in Zagreb and about 2 hours from the airport in Split, it is an easy day trip from either of these main cities of Croatia. My travel partner and I decided to hop in a rental and make our way from Zagreb to Plitvice. Had we not been comfortable driving in another country though, there were plenty of guided tour options that we could have taken that would have taken care of the transportation from Zagreb or Split. So, there was really no reason not to see this beautiful place.
So like I said, my travel partner and I made our way to Plitvice by rental car with only paper directions at our disposal. Luckily the toll roads of Croatia were very easy to navigate and we had no issues. When we got there, we noticed there were two entrances to Plitvice from the main road. We ended up entering through the second entrance (across the street from Hotel Plitvice), just because it had looked slightly less crowded. So, we bought our tickets at the visitor center and relieved ourselves at the strangest women’s restroom I have yet to experience in all of my travels, (just forewarning you if you ever go). Afterwards, we made our way to the actual park which is only about a ¼ of a mile away from there. From here, we were asked to choose a route we would want to use to take us through the park. From “Entrance 2” there are 4 routes ranging from 4.6km to 18.3km. We chose “Route H” which is about 8.9km long, which is the second longest route after the 18.3km route. “Route H” offers the most efficient views of all of the major sites. Depending on which route you pick, you will either have to take a shuttle or a ferry to your starting point. To me, this is a nice option because not everyone is starting from the same point, and in a park like this you can appreciate that the crowds will be spread out amongst the park.
So anyway, we jumped on the shuttle that would take us to the “Route H” beginning and I closed my eyes as the shuttle bus zoomed its way up the winding, narrow roads of Plitvice. If you’re a nervous backseat driver, like myself, this will be the worst part of your day. But, when we had finally arrived, it was better than I could have imagined. Just seeing that first view of crystal blue water cascading through the beautiful mountains of Croatia made the two-hour drive, lines, and shuttle rides 100% worth it. And it only got better from there.
The first park of the trail led us through the upper lakes area which descends to Lake Kozjaka. All of the trails are very well marked and easy to follow. Since there is so much water everywhere most of the park is travelled by raised wooden walkways. So, it is very difficult to get lost. According to the park’s information, Plitvice is home to 1267 different species of plants including 75 endemic plants and 55 different species of orchids, so it is extremely lush and green all over the park. And then there are the waterfalls. SO MANY WATERFALLS. The park is literally forming natural waterfalls as we speak. The cascading waters of the upper lakes of Plitvice are constantly undergoing a process of tufa formation where porous carbonate rock is formed by the sedimentation of calcium carbonate from water. Which means natural barriers and sills are always being formed causing new waterways, waterfalls, and pools all over the park. It really is amazing to think about.
Once we descended onto Lake Kozjaka we were able to exchange our ticket for a ferry ride across the lake to the lower lakes section. The lower lakes section is home to some giant waterfalls. I’m talking about, some really big waterfalls. In the lower lakes area you will also catch a glimpse of some of the clearest, bluest water in the park. The wooden walkways of the park take you straight through the middle of the water so be sure to watch your step because one false move and you may go over the side. Not to worry though, the water is not deep and there really is no danger. However, should you be tempted, which I imagine everyone was, do not step off the walkways into the water. There is a strict no swimming policy in Plitvice. And as you can imagine, for good reason. It is very important for this park to try to maintain its ecological integrity with the thousands of people this beautiful place brings in every day. While you’re in the lower lakes section don’t miss out on climbing up the cave section. It is a little bit slippery and slightly more dangerous than the rest of the park but as long as you have the right footwear it should be a piece of cake.
When we closed in on the end of our trail there was a nice little stand in a picnic/shuttle bus waiting area with some light food and beverages. My travel partner and I enjoyed a glass of wine while we waited for the shuttle to bring us back to “Entrance 2”. It was here we were able to sit and take in what incredible sights we had just been able to experience.
The park was absolutely amazing. In Croatia, May is still technically the off season so the park wasn’t anywhere near what it might look like in June or July, but I can imagine the crowds and tour busses can get overwhelming in this area during the high season. We ended up not starting our hike until about 11am which left us with plenty of time to see just about all of the major sights in the park without having to rush, so there’s no need to wake up at the crack of dawn unless you are trying to avoid the large crowds or venture out to the less travelled portions of the park. Visiting Plitvice was the perfect way to start off our vacation in Croatia. If you ever get the opportunity I highly recommend visiting Plitvice!