Did you know that Croatia has probably some of THE most beautiful natural scenery of anywhere in the world?!
By Siri Kay Jostad
I am a girl who grew up backpacking in the National Parks of the United States and I had no idea how stunning the entire country of Croatia is! What an awakening it was for me. I got there and kept kicking myself saying 'how on earth was Croatia NOT on my radar before this?!
Spending 2 nights/3 days in Plitvice (pronounced Pleet-veet-suh) National Park merely whet my appetite for more. I wished I had scheduled time to go see KRKA National Park too where you can actually SWIM in the crazy beautiful turquoise waters, whereas in Plitvice you enjoy them from the safety of wooden boardwalks.....saving the swim for next trip!
Plitvice National Park
duration: 2 nights
accommodation: Etno Garden Exclusive Rooms
How Long Should You Stay?
This is a somewhat controversial subject. I originally booked 3 nights at the Etno Garden Exclusive Rooms then when my private driver strongly recommended we would not need more than a single day in the park itself, I took his word for it and cut us back to 2 nights. I sort of assumed that someone who shuttles tourists around would know. It was perfect if all you want to do is see the park. You can definitely get the skinny in a single day.
If you like to hike or bike, I recommend adding another day and either going back into the park or enjoying the peaceful areas outside the borders, where you can walk on quiet country roads with the sheep and goats. You could totally fill in many days in the area.
My biggest challenge was figuring out the best place to stay. I think I looked at hundreds of places and even booked Pansion Breza first then changed it. Because we didn't want to rent a car (you don't need to if you have Private Drivers between the big cities), I needed to know where our food was going to come from that was in walking distance from our hotel! Luckily, most of these cute little bed and breakfasts serve food...but you need to check. Not all of them do. And then read reviews.
The park is HUGE. It has 3 entrances and I'd heard that Entrance 3 wasn't open all the time...but getting info about when it closed was fruitless. I ended up just asking my hotel, who was SUPER helpful. The service was spectacular. When our driver from Octopus Transfers Croatia got our destination, he already knew of our hotel and told us we would be VERY happy. Anyone he'd ever driven there said it was great. Yay.
Etno Garden Exclusive Rooms was located an easy, 5-minute walk from Entrance 3--which meant we could avoid all the crowds entering at the more traditional Entrances 1 & 2. Our hotel procured our tickets for us (because you CAN'T buy the tickets at Entrance 3) and the morning of, the concierge gave us a map with hints on which direction to go first to avoid the throngs. His guidance was a huge blessing. Walking into Entrance 3 was like venturing through a forest alone. A teeny little guard shack was there with no one to even check our tickets.
Other Places to Stay in Plitvice Lakes
There are 3 big hotels owned and operated by the park itself. TBH they are kind of vintage in not the best way and seem geared towards massive tour groups, frankly. Also super expensive and they fully book up early. But if you must be IN the park, here they are:
This last hotel is kinda cool, because it was built in the 1950s by famous Croatian architect, Marijan Haberle. It did have some very interesting architectural features. We ran into the gift shop there to grab sweatshirts when we got caught in an astonishing downpour wearing not-rain-appropriate clothing. Ended up staying for an over-priced, not so tasty meal in a restaurant that felt like cafeteria dining, even though it was presented as 'service'. Grumpy waiters. But it was nice to be out of the rain for a bit to dry off (Prior to locating the hotel, we'd popped into a restroom to used the air hand dryers to shake off some of the sopping wetness from our soaked clothes--embarrassingly....see below).
Plitvice Lakes National Park
This is Croatia's largest national park, but don't expect solitude.
There are 12 Upper Lakes and 4 Lower Lakes.
You can see the water color from the photos--it's very distinctive azure to green/gray/blue. The color changes depending on the quantity of minerals and organisms in the water, as well as the angle of the sun.
I really loved exploring the park beginning with Entrance 3. We were able to hit up the most popular locations before the crowds.
above the Lower Lakes
Trail A starts and ends at this entrance
Can see: The Great Waterfall and Kozjaka Birdge
Trail B is similar but includes the boat trip across the lake (3-4 hours)
next to the Upper Lakes
Trail C is like a Trail B extension to include the Upper Lakes
Entrance 3 (can't by tickets at this entrance)
on Lake Kozjaka
Trail K will take 6-8 hours and explores the entire park
The entire park is experienced via a raised wooden boardwalk, which means there is essentially a predetermined 5-hour walking route.
I'm an explorer by nature so I sorta don't love being told what to do, even if it's just which way to walk. Because Plitvice is prone to horrendous crowds, even in low season, you will undoubtedly find yourself frustrated walking behind slow tourists. I am stunned more people don't just fall off the walkways and into the water!
Plitvice National Park History
In brief, it has been a popular tourist attraction since the late 19century, it became a National Park under the Yogoslavian communist regime in 1949, then a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
Tragically, in 1991, the park was the site of the first armed confrontation in the Croatian War for Independence. We heard about this first hand from all kinds of people we met there. Serbia came across the border into the park and held the place, using some hotels as military barracks until it was reclaimed by Croatia in 1995. During the Serbian occupation, besides a horrible massacre, the park was trashed and filled with countless land mines. I seriously can't believe they would do all this to such a beautiful place.
Plitvice Lakes park was only declared officially and completely free of land mines in 2018. 2018?! Holy cow.
About The Seasons
If you visit during the most crowded times of year (July/August) not only will you share the boardwalks with 14,000 other people, it will also be hot and the water levels will be low. The park is open all year long (in fact, it has even stayed open during the Coronavirus Pandemic).
Fall is spectacular as the leaves turn.
Winter is quiet, there is snow and the lakes are frozen.
There is some food in the park, but not much. In spite of it being a cold day, we got ice cream. My traveling companion and close friend Vaishali famously proclaimed we would get warm from chewing.
Admission Tickets to Plitvice Lakes Park
Prices vary based on time of year. Single day tickets, which include a ticket for the boat ride across the lake, inJune and July are the most expensive at 200 Kuna ($30USD). Other times of the year are roughly 85 Kuna ($13USD). Students get in for 50 Kuna in off-season ($7USD) and 125 Kuna during high season ($13). It's a bargain by any standards. Croatia as a whole is extremely affordable. I actually came home with money in my pocket from this trip (which NEVER happens!)
The park opens at 7am and really gets crowded starting at 9am when the tourist buses arrive from places like Zagreb or Split. Get there at 7am. You will be glad you did because for a brief moment it will feel like you have the park to yourself. The same is true for the late afternoon when the buses leave again. If you stay multiple days you can pop in and out of the park during the optimum times then hike the surrounding area while the crowds bump each other around. Count on the worst of the bus traffic between 11am-3pm. The park closes at 7pm.
Buses comes from Zagreb, Zadar and Split
Private Driver Transfers
Zagreb - Plitvice - €145
Plitvice Lakes - Split - €260
Split - Dubrovnik - €210
Most trails are not stroller nor wheelchair accessible