Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia is one of Croatia’s most visited tourist attractions and regularly tops Croatia’s ‘must see‘ list. Located in the northern central part of the country, away from the sunny coast, you do not ‘go past’ Plitvice – to visit, you have to make a special trip. With high entrance fees and a reputation for being overcrowded, some people wonder if visiting Plitvice Lakes is worth the trip?
I think it most definitely IS worth it and will give you tips to make your trip even more enjoyable.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
Plitvice National Park is Croatia’s’ oldest national park founded in 1949. Spanning an impressive 73,000 acres, the Unesco World Heritage park is most famous for its series of sixteen, mineral-rich lakes created by water cascading over naturally formed travertine dams through a towering limestone canyon. The ecologically sensitive dams have created the pretty waterfalls and picturesque lakes which over 1 million visitors a year travel to see, despite the lakes making up just 1% of the entire park area!
The remainder of the hilly, heavily wooded park is home to bears, wolves and rare birds.
However, this peaceful oasis has had a troubled past as it was Plitvice Lakes that suffered the first casualty of the 1991 war when Josip Jovic, a Croatian policeman, was killed when Serb forces took over the park on Easter Sunday in 1991.
Plitvice is open all year round; opening hours are 8 am till 8 pm in summer and 8 am till 4 pm in winter. Check before you visit for seasonal variations of opening times and which routes may be closed in winter.
Whatever time of year you visit, go as early as you can as coach tours start arriving around 10 am and the park soon gets very busy – and very hot in summer. Alternatively, consider going late in the day – see my footnote below!
The park is naturally divided into two sections – the Upper Lakes and the Lower Lakes. Each section has its own unique features and both provide stunning views.
There are seven walking routes of differing lengths throughout the park either along earthen paths or on sympathetically built wooden boardwalks. Make sure you wear comfortable shoes– flip flops are not ideal for these paths.
There are three cafes in the park (one at each entrance and one at Lake Kozjak) but you will need to bring plenty of water and snacks with you on your walk. Please remember to carry your rubbish out with you, there are no rubbish bins on the walks.
There is very little shade or rain cover in the park, particularly in the lower lakes, so take adequate precautions in summer, bring lots of sunscreen.
Getting Around Plitvice Park
Visitors are helped to get around the park by a ‘panorama train’ (more like a bus) that travels along the upper, outer rim of the park linking the upper and lower lakes sections. There is also a path following the same route so you can walk if you wish to. This elevated path provides welcome cool shade and has a few lookout points with fantastic views over the lakes below.
Furthermore, instead of walking around the large Lake Kozjak, you can enjoy a trip across the lake by electric boat. This large passenger boat leaves from the end of the lower lake path and traverses the entire lake, and vice versa.
At the far end of the lake, smaller boats travelling across the stretch of water linking the upper and lower lakes. The boats and ‘train’ are included in the entrance ticket. We travelled across the lake at sunset and surprisingly, everyone stayed quiet as we silently crossed the lake. It was a beautiful, serene trip and one of my favourite memories of Plitvice.
There are eight walking tours of the lakes called programs named A – H totalling 22 kilometres of trails. The walks range from 2 hours to 8 hours. For experienced hikers, there are a further four hiking trails. You will save a considerable amount of time if you research before you go which route you would like to do, and which route you have time for.
Plitvice Lower Lakes
From the main entrance, a sloping path zig zags its way down the hillside to join the lower lakes portion of the park. The majority of visitors to Plitvice stick to the pathways around these four lower lakes as these are the stunning views you will see in guidebooks and on postcards.
A narrow, wooden boardwalk winds its way alongside the lakes which change hue according to the time of day – at times the water appears grey, blue or even green. The water can be deep and as the busy boardwalks are not fenced in you need to watch your step!
The main attraction of this section is the 78 metre high Veliki Slap (Large Waterfall), Croatia’s’ highest waterfall, a wide cascading curtain of water. The access point is off the main boardwalk so look out for the signs.
Continuing along the lower lakes, each turn of the boardwalk brings more scenic, beautiful waterfalls and colour rich lakes. You are going to need lots of camera batteries!
A side path leads to a cave which you can enter via steep steps – beware of the bats! There are several caves within Plitvice National Park due to the karst geology of this region.
The lower lakes section eventually leads to dense reed bed where the path soon ends at a large cafe, toilets and the dock to catch the electric lake boat.
After the boat ride, at the far end of the lake you have access to start of the upper lakes walking routes or alternatively, walk up the hill to join the path back to the main entrance or catch the panorama train back.
The lower lakes are in full sun in the morning and although this means your walk may be more challenging in the heat your photos will have fantastic light giving you social media worthy photos!
Less visited than the lower lakes, the twelve upper lakes are no less beautiful. We found this part of Plitvice enchanting.
You can choose a short looped path leading you past small, fairytale-like pockets of lakes, surrounded by woodland, with pristine falls plunging into deep, crystal clear water. This is a good area to spot crayfish. It is also a popular photo spot and it can be frustrating waiting for someone to get their perfect, Instagram shot!
From here, you can return to the boats or follow the path up the hill to join the much longer path that circumnavigates the largest upper lakes.
The lakeside path is much quieter than the rest of the park and is a very pleasant walk but there are no shortcuts off it – you have to go all the way around or go back the way you came. Make sure you carefully read all the information on the walking routes to leave enough time for your chosen route.
Tempting though it is on a hot summers day, swimming is strictly prohibited throughout the park and rangers patrol the walks.
Plitvice Lakes Tickets
Plitvice Lakes entrance fees are not cheap but the money goes towards the upkeep of the park. Ticket prices vary according to the season with summer being the most expensive time to visit Plitvice – and the busiest. Current summer prices are for 250 kuna for adults and 120 kuna for children. Children under 7 are free.
However, after 4 pm the ticket prices drop by nearly 50% so if you are prepared to spend less time in the park, you can make a considerable saving. You can buy a ticket for one or two consecutive days.
How To Get To Plitvice
Zagreb to Plitvice Lakes
Self-driving is easy as roads are well signposted and well maintained. The journey will take around two hours depending on traffic and you will have to pay a toll on the A1 motorway. Plus, there is a fee for parking at Plitvice.
You can also take one of the frequent public buses from Zagreb bus station which take approximately 2 1/2 hours or join a tour. As with any tour, check carefully what is included in the price and how much time you will actually have in the park itself.
Split to Plitvice Lakes
Again, self-driving is easy. We hired a car in Split and drove the 2-3 hour scenic trip to Plitvice. After climbing steeply out of Split you enter the Sveti Rok tunnel and emerge into a completely different landscape to the rocky coast – green, rolling hills and farms, sweeping landscape with very little dwellings.
If you are planning to return to Split the same day, leave as early as you can as it will be a long day trip.
Plitvice Lakes Accommodation
If possible, I would recommend staying near or in the park either before or after your visit to make the most of your day trip. Staying the night before your visit allows you to get to the park at the opening time and staying late allows you to enjoy the park at sunset which is a much quieter time for visiting.
You can stay at a number of park owned hotels and campgrounds within the park itself, though some are not open all year round. More budget friendly options are surrounding hostels – some of which offer shuttles to the park – or self-catering accommodation such as an Airbnb. You can self drive to the park, catch a local bus or a taxi.
Plitvice with kids
I read a lot of comments in the run-up to our visit about how Plitvice was not suitable for children, though these were often written by people without children!
Our three children loved their visit but, as with any trip in Croatia with kids, Plitvice with children just requires a bit of forward planning.
Go early or late when it is cooler and quieter. Try to avoid high season if you can (very difficult to do if you are restrained by school holidays like we are)!
Plan your route in advance and aim for ‘lower’ than your abilities. That way, you can always choose to do something else if you have time left over, but if you overestimate your kids walking capabilities – which is easy to do on a hot day – you could end up carrying them around and enjoying continual moaning.
Wear suitable clothing and footwear for the weather. Bring plenty of snacks and water – more than you think you will need.
There are very few toilets in the park so when you see one, use one – especially with all the gushing water around!
I would also recommend bringing a basic first aid kit for grazed knees or hands.
The greatest challenge when visiting Plitvice with children are the walkways and how people behave on them! The boardwalks are narrow and very busy with people walking in both directions. Don’t rush, take your time and be prepared to let a crowd pass you by and wait for a quieter moment to continue your walking.
The walkways are not fenced in so don’t let your children run ahead or get out of arms reach. Some of the water is very deep. Move slowly and hold onto your child.
For very young children consider bringing a carrier. It is possible to use a stroller but there are several steps and the walkways would be bumpy for a pushchair or buggy.
And if the children are getting frustrated from having to stay close, there are a few spots in the park with open spaces for a good run around!
What we did…
I decided to write this footnote as we chose to do the opposite of what is recommended when visiting Plitvice!
We visited Plitvice in the middle of August. Temperatures in Croatia were very high and the main tourist sights we had already visited were crammed with people, sometimes uncomfortably so. I didn’t enjoy Split for this reason.
We hired a car in Split, drove to Plitvice and stayed two nights in a gorgeous chalet style self-catering apartment in nearby Korenica. The host family were very friendly and our children had a great time playing in their garden. We spent our extra time exploring the scenic area around Korenica but like anywhere in Croatia, did not stray from well used paths. This inland area is so different to the coast, it is worth spending time here if you can.
I had researched Plitvice Lakes in depth before our visit as it was going to be an expensive trip. The mixed reviews we read nearly put us off going. There were repeated complaints about the huge crowds, the heat and the jostling on the boardwalks. I read one post where the author had to wait for twenty minutes on the boardwalk to shuffle forward in order to see Veliki Slap.
So we decided to buy our Plitvice tickets after 4 pm – to risk less money for something we might not enjoy, to avoid the hottest part of the day and to avoid the worst of the crowds. As a family of five, we also saved a lot of money!
We found a parking spot easily and queued for just five minutes to buy our tickets. We planned our route in advance and chose to walk Program C but in reverse. This would leave the most popular locations until the end of the day when it would hopefully be quieter.
However, I do not think you could do this reverse route at peak time as you would be constantly walking against the flow of people.
We headed straight for the upper lakes as we knew it would be quieter than the lower lakes.
It was fantastic; the views were stunning, it was peaceful with very few walkers. We had time and space to even lie on the boardwalks to spot fish and crayfish.
We walked the lower lakes in reverse to the usual sightseeing route. The downside of this was that the waterfalls were mostly behind us but it didn’t take much effort to stop, turn around and look!
I was amazed at how empty the lower lakes were at sunset, even in peak season. We virtually had the lakes to ourselves and were the only people at Veliki Slap!
Walking the most popular route in reverse does not give you the best views but it gave us the opportunity to visit popular spots at quieter times.
Furthermore, walking the lower lakes in the afternoon means you do not have the perfect light for your photos but we had lots of space to enjoy the views.
Entering the park after 4 pm only gave us four hours to enjoy the park but I think if we had had to battle crowds in the hottest part of the day, we would not have lastest four hours anyway.
Our unconventional visit provided a serene, peaceful environment and a chance to savour the sights and sounds of this stunning national park.
I am happy I sacrificed great photos for a great experience!