The boardwalk weaves through dense forest, crisscrossing gnarly tree roots, and hovering over thundering waterfalls and glistening lakes. I take care to navigate the haphazard wooden slats which intertwine to create 18km of trails that snake around and through the main lakes of Plitvice. All around, our eyes drink in glimpses of shimmering water, tiny streams and endless waterfalls cascading over the karst landscape. Plitvice Lakes is simply ‘heaven on Earth’.
Don’t be alarmed if you have never heard of Plitvice Lakes. Until a few years ago, neither had I, then I spotted a picture on Instagram and was instantly hooked. I quickly added it to my bucket list, desperate to visit this magnificent site which covers an area of 29,630 hectares and comprises 16 larger lakes plus innumerable smaller lakes.
Countless waterfalls cascade over the dolomite rocks cutting canyons through limestone deposits. The highest waterfall, Velika Slap crashes 78m to its base, spraying tourists with cooling mist. The park is utterly sublime and was designated a national park in 1949. In 1979 it became a UNESCO world heritage site and boy is it deserving of the accolade!!
So let me walk you through everything you need to know before you visit Plitvice Lakes. Failure to follow some of this advice could leave you in danger or disappointed.
What you need to know
Plitvice Lakes is located 140 km from Zagreb and 130 km from Zadar on the Dalmatian coast. We stay in the nearby village of Ostarski Stanovi on the D1 at Tourist Centre Marko. The centre is around 15 minutes from the park entrance in a lovely rural location. There’s a reasonable restaurant on site, an adventure park, swimming pool and other facilities. There are a few hotels within the park but you will need to book well in advance to secure a reasonable price.
From the hotel, the road to Plitvice is single file and it weaves through multiple twists and turns with little opportunity to overtake. You, therefore, need to plan your journey to ensure that you arrive for your allotted time.
The nearest airports for Plitvice Lakes are Zagreb (2.5 hours), Zadar (1 ¾ hours) and Split (2.5 hours). You can see all three locations on the map above but if you want a more detailed view, click on the map for an interactive experience.
Book flights with Skypicker and then hire a car or to take an organised tour (trust me you won’t have to look far!). I recommend the former and suggest you book the earliest slot of the day at 7 am. To visit the park, it takes 4 – 6 hours and the site gets much more crowded in the afternoon as hoards of tour buses arrive. If you book the earliest time slot, you should be ready to leave as the swarms of tour buses arrive. This will mean that you avoid the bottlenecks on the narrow wooden trails and bridges and will enjoy your visit all the more.
If you opt for this option, you will need to pre-book tickets on the Plitvice Lakes National Park website. This gives you the option of entrance via Entrance 1 or 2 and to reduce congestion, different walking routes are available from each. You can choose from four routes at both entrances and these are marked throughout the park.
This may work out considerably better value for those travelling solo but means you will have to contend with the masses. Herds of tour bus groups descend on the site later in the day causing bottlenecks and frustration.
If you opt for this mode of travel, book your tour using Get Your Guide. You can download their convenient app to make bookings and check prices from multiple operators. The app provides immediate confirmation and there is no need to print your tickets. You can also store all confirmations in one convenient place.
Take a bus from Zagreb airport to the main bus station. From here, you can jump on a bus to Plitvice. The bus will take around 2 hours and twenty minutes. Be sure to check the time of return buses as the park is quite remote and you do not want to get stranded.
Buses depart from 05:45 and the last bus returns at 18.05. Tickets cost around €22.
From Zadar airport, take a bus to Zadar bus station and then a connecting bus. Journey time is around two hours.
It is possible to do the trip on public transport in a day as buses run frequently. You will not however be able to get there for the opening time as the first bus is at 8am from Zadar and the last bus returns at 23:20. A return fare on Get By Bus is €25 per person.
Plitvice Lakes is entirely unsuitable for the disabled. It is impossible to push a wheelchair around the site due to narrow pathways, gnarled tree roots underfoot, stairways and bridges. Furthermore, if you have walking difficulties you will struggle in this park. Even if you opt for the shortest route between St3 and St2 and then take the boat, you will still need to walk a good distance over uneven ground.
Please think carefully about your physical ability as we did not see any rangers on the walking trails. If you get into difficulty you somehow need to make it back to base.
Visiting with children
Likewise the park is not suitable for pushchairs. We did see people pushing prams but honestly I thought they were bonkers. I cannot stress enough how narrow the pathways are and pushchairs simply add to the congestion. This is a tiring day (even if you are fit) in the heat of summer and with a pushchair you could easily succumb to heat exhaustion.
Book your tickets online at the Plitvice Lakes National Park website to avoid disappointment if you do not opt for an organised tour. You will need to select your time of arrival then arrive early. It is a trek from the car park to the bus pick up point where staff scan your tickets.
There’s no need to print tickets as they scan your electronic bar code on your phone. Signs urge you to have your tickets with you at all times but our tickets were scanned only twice. The first time was as we jumped on the bus from St2 to St3 and the second was when we jumped on the boat from P2 to P3.
Tickets cost 250kn for adults (approx £30), 160kn for students (approx £20), and 120kn for children (approx £15). Although initially this may seem pricey, it is definitely value for money given the amount of time you can take to explore and enjoy the surroundings.
If you arrive by car you will also need to pay for parking. This costs 7kn per hour (just less than a £1 per hour). You park in between the trees in a designated forested area so your car remains in the shade. However, note it can be easy to lose your bearings in the car park so you may wish to save the location on your phone or pay extra attention to where you leave the car.
If you have pre-booked tickets, there is no need to check in at the kiosks when you arrive. Just keep the tickets on your phone (or print copies) and follow the footpath past the souvenir stalls and over the bridge. Signposts clearly guide the way to St2.
Getting around Plitvice Lakes
The tourist bus travels almost the entire length of the southern side of the lakes from Station One (St1 on your map) to St2 and finally on to St3. The bus does not run in winter so you will need to allow a lot more time as this will add several miles to the tour. As we entered the park at entrance 2, we jumped on the bus at St2 and headed to St3. With hindsight, I would recommend that you follow the reverse route from St3 to St2 as you should be able to visit the Big Waterfall (Velika Slap) when there are fewer crowds.
We took the bus from St2 to St3 then followed the walking trail to P2 (simply following signs for P2). From there we hopped on the boat to P3 before walking to the big waterfall. From the waterfall you retrace your steps to St1 and board the bus to return to St2. We have better than average fitness but this still took around five hours including a lunch stop and a further refreshment pit stop.
As I say, I recommend following the reverse in the hope of avoiding the bottleneck at the big waterfall (which seemed to be where all the tour bus groups clumped together). This would mean taking the bus from St2 to St1 then walking to the waterfall before heading to P3. Jump on the boat to P2 and then walk to St3 where you board the return bus to St2.
I have also just discovered this Plitvice Lakes app which shows each trail in detail which could be worth downloading before your trip. I definitely think this would have helped us significantly during our trip.
Each station has snack bars and refreshment stops so there is no need to bring food. Avoid the coffee at all cost as it is expensive and tiny! One sip and it is gone but otherwise prices are reasonable. You can bring your own food and drink but bear in mind you will walk a LOT on this trip and may not enjoy that extra weight in your pack.
Refreshment stops are clearly marked on the maps that you can pick up at the information booth on arrival.
Detailed route of Plitvice Lakes
Bus from St2 to St3
The bus from St2 to St3 offers the first tantalising glimpses of the turquoise waters below. It winds through the forest high above the lakes and allows you to peek through the foliage at the stunning formations below. Natural barriers separate turquoise lakes and the park is jam packed with flora and fauna. It is also home to many endangered species and you will see dragon flies, birds and other creatures as you wander through the glorious scenery.
The Croatians have done a spectacular job of ensuring this national park remains untainted by civilisation. All the public areas have been designed to blend into nature using natural materials and staff regularly collect any stray waste that has been deposited in the park.
Walking trail from St3 to P2
If you simply follow the signs for the boat at P2 from S3, it is not as near as you might imagine. Whilst you can follow the southern shore entirely to P2, the signposts and park maps lack detail so we walked the much longer route that the signposts take (see note regarding the app above). This route zigzags back and forth across the lakes and through forestry and provides fabulous panoramic views of the lakes. If you are fit and enjoy a walk I recommend you do the same. If you are concerned about walking (especially if you are visiting in summer) you may prefer to ask Park staff what signs to follow to take the shortest route between the two points.
This section of the park offers vast panoramic views of shimmering lakes, and boardwalks that hover above lakes and waterfalls. It’s a heady mixture of sunshine and shade as you dip in and out of the woodland to traverse back and forth across the lakes. Eventually the path descends to the shore where you board the boat from a small pier.
Electric boat from P2 to P3
At the boat pier, you can opt to take the shuttle boat to P1 and return to your car at St2 or take the longer boat journey to P3. We opt for the twenty minute trip across the length of the biggest lake, our feet in desperate need of some respite. The only sounds are of the rippling water and chatter of tourists onboard as the boat glides across the lake. All too soon we disembark and grab some lunch at one of the two snack bars within the glen.
Walk from P3 to the big waterfall
This walk seems surprisingly short after the meandering route of the morning and I estimate it is little more than a kilometre. The final section is narrow and full of groups of tourists with selfie sticks. Be extremely careful with young children as oblivious tourists with huge backpacks jostle on the narrow pathways. It would be all too easy for a small child to stumble into the lakes.
The big waterfall is nestled in a narrow ravine and crashes into a turquoise pool before splashing over another cliff into a stunning gorge below. This is one place in the park where there is ample seating to sit and rest whilst admiring the power of Mother Nature.
Big waterfall to St1
Retrace your steps to the intersection and follow the signs for St1 (remember to reverse this if you opted for the reverse route I mentioned at the outset). Before long you will be at the bus stop to return to St2.
For a comprehensive guidebook for your trip opt for a Lonely Planet guide. You can either download the book or carry it with you depending on your preference.
Plitvice Lakes verdict
Having seen pictures of Plitvice lakes a few years ago, I was excited to visit the site. Sadly bucket list items can often be over-rated, but despite the crowds in the afternoon I can safely say that there is nothing remotely disappointing about Plitvice lakes. This destination is sublime and on that note, I will let the pictures do the talking. How can you resist?