Hiking the Plitvice Lakes: The Journey Really IS the Destination

The majesty of Croatia's Plitvice Lakes National Park is like nothing you've ever experienced.
Theresa Wylie
Experience Creator

The Plitvice Lakes National Park is one of Croatia's oldest and largest. Just two hours south of the capital, Zagreb, and a few hours inland from the coastal city of Split, the destination is often squeezed into itineraries as a day tour. But to really do justice to this vast swath of sixteen cascading lakes, an overnight stay is mandatory.

Crystal clear waters in the Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia. Photo by Theresa Wylie

Planning Makes Perfect

The Plitvice Lakes National Park receives up to 15,000 visitors per day during peak season. Needless to say, the abundant natural beauty of the park is hard to fully enjoy when you're concentrating on not getting shouldered from the narrow bridges and footpaths.

So if you intend to get a dose of natural beauty and fresh air, you'll need a plan:

1. Travel during the shoulder season of April/May or September/October if you can. This is when the weather is still likely to be beautiful but the summer crowds have thinned.

2. If you're coming by bus, plan to spend two nights here so you can get to the park first thing in the morning and won't be rushed to leave in the afternoon.

3. Long distance bus and car are the only reliable means to get to the park. It is not well serviced by a railway station.

The early bird catches the worm - and beats the crowds

As recently as 2016, the Plitvice Lakes National Park was in danger of losing its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site due to the unchecked influx of visitors. Those numbers have been controlled somewhat in the past years, but the lakes themselves are still massively crowded.

In order to get the most from this sparkling setting that looks like something from Tolkien's Middle Earth, it's imperative that you get an early start. Spend the night in one of the three hotels inside the park or at an apartment rental in the quaint enclave of Mukinje, just adjacent to it.

Enchanting waterfalls at the Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia. Photo by Theresa Wylie

In the morning when the park opens at 7am, head directly to Entrance 1 to explore the lower lakes and enjoy their quiet serenity. Take a moment to relish the sound of water rushing beneath the tap of your shoes as you cross the wooden bridges. These notes will dissipate as the day wears on and the hum of tourists drowns out nature.

Entrance 1 is the more popular of the two entrances so by the time the tour groups arrive in late morning, you will have moved on to the upper lakes and waterfalls that are closer to Entrance 2.

Wear flat soled shoes otherwise you risk catching a heel while crossing these rustic wooden bridges at the Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia. Photo by Theresa Wylie

A mosaic of well-marked trails leads you around and across the lakes, down trickling, verdant streams, and all the way up to several spectacular waterfalls. Don't miss the largest waterfall, Veliki Slap, at the very end of the lower lakes. There are boats and trams inside the park that can whisk you around or across the park if long hikes aren't your thing.

If hiking isn't your thing, you can always cross the Plitvice Lakes by boat. Photo by Theresa Wylie

Picnic in the park

While there are a few food options inside the park, there is no guarantee you'll be anywhere near them when lunchtime rolls around. Luckily, outside food and drink is allowed, so bring your own and stop for a picnic-with-a-view whenever your belly dictates.

A loaf of bakery fresh bread, some brined green olives, and a generous wedge of local pag cheese is the perfect meal for sharing between friends while sitting atop a rock and gazing out over the pristine turquoise and green landscape.

Have a picnic lunch and enjoy the views over the Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia. Photo by Theresa Wylie

As the lower lakes fill up with visitors, you'll have the added benefit of peering down at the footpaths - nearly empty just that morning - now peppered with late arriving tourists moving in ant-like columns.

This picture is from mid-morning. By the afternoon the bridges over the lakes will be overflowing with tourists and moving at a crawl. Photo by Theresa Wylie

Finish your afternoon with a leisurely stroll back, along one of the numerous side trails, avoiding the crowds heading the opposite direction.

You can't rush nature

To truly experience the Plitvice Lakes National Park, arrive early and plan to spend the day here. You'll find that there is no shortage of sites to see in this fairytale landscape where every view is ripe for a photograph or for simply a pause to breathe deeply and wonder at the grandeur of nature.

The majesty of the Plitvice Lakes cannot be overstated. Photo by Theresa Wylie

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