Exploring Plitvice Lakes National Park

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exploringplitvice

Here at Outbound Adventurer, we’re always looking for moments and places that not only awe us, but teach us. One of our favorite places for these particular adventures are national parks. We’ve toured quite a few in the US, including Rocky Mountain National Park and Big Bend National Park, and we didn’t see any reason why that trend shouldn’t continue while abroad. During our recent travels we managed to squeeze in four different parks: Vesuvius National Park in Italy, Triglav National Park in Slovenia, and both Mljet National Park and Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia. Each of these parks offers a unique experience. Vesuvius has a volcano, Triglav has the Alps, Mljet has lakes.

Plitvice Lakes National Park?

Plitvice has waterfalls.

And not just any waterfalls. Some of the coolest waterfalls you’ll ever set your sights on.

plitvice7 Thanks to the porous limestone rock (also known as karst), the clear water flows freely here, bubbling in and out of the rock, weaving intricate paths around the trails and through the trees in ways I didn’t know was possible. The effect is magnificent, and it isn’t hard to see why this is on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.

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The water flows in and out of the stone, carving new pathways.

We visited the park from Croatia’s capital city of Zagreb. There are numerous tour companies offering trips to Plitvice, but we decided to forego the official offerings (which had prices soaring as high as 90-100 euros a head) and instead took the public bus. The trip took us a little over two hours, with a few stops on the way, and saved us a significant amount of money in the long run. Arriving in Plitvice around midday, we had just enough time to grab a quick bite to eat before heading out to the park. IMG_4016 IMG_4068 Our trail options were pretty limited. As it turns out, there are only five main paths at Plitvice, and the trails follow a pretty linear path through the lakes (or jezera). IMG_4017 We didn’t have a ton of time, so we opted to take trail ‘E’, which was one of the shortest hikes.According to the map, we would be walking for 2-3 hours total. In truth, we finished in about an hour and a half and could have completed it much faster. We’re pretty sure that the times listed on the maps are taking into account the primary slowdown. The crowds. This was Plitvice in the middle of July, the height of tourism season. And the pathways aren’t exactly wide. IMG_8489 At Plitvice, staying on the path is crucial. There are some side trails that amount to the ‘back-country’, but since much of the park is waterlogged, the main trails are wooden boardwalk-like structures, designed to keep you dry. Often times the path is all that is keeping you from a chilly (and illegal) dip.

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Don’t be fooled by the plants. They’re growing in what amounts to at least three feet of water.

On crowded days this can become quite frustrating, especially when an entire group stops to take twenty different pictures in front of the same waterfall. On this particular trip, my inherent dislike of crowds did get the better of me, and, feeling slightly claustrophobic, Tara and I did our best to weave through them and find moments of solitude.

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What you don’t see is the massive horde of people, just around the corner, waiting to descend upon us.

I’m glad we managed to get away, because once we distanced ourselves from the constant cacophony of other visitors, Plitvice turned out to be an amazing place. Even pictures don’t truly do it justice, but that didn’t stop us from trying! The water is completely clear, which makes it easy to spot finned friends under the surface. On a larger scale, the effect of the clear water and limestone rock gives everything a blue-green hue. plitvice3 plitvice6 IMG_4055 The main reason to visit Plitvice is, of course, for the waterfalls. The park is literally full of hundreds, appearing out of nowhere and creating scenery like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The water followed no discernible pattern, other than finding the quickest pathway down. plitvice4 To my eternal amusement, the trail map followed a similar pattern. Unlike the topographical maps that we’re accustomed to, the trail markers were incredibly straightforward. No twists and turns here. You start at the top lake and work your way down. The arrow lets you know how far you’ve descended on the single path. IMG_8470 At least you won’t get lost? Honestly, the single-path setup worked great for us (minus the crowds), given the limited amount of time we had. We didn’t want to worry about finding our way and potentially missing something. This allowed us more time to marvel at the beauty of the park, literally right beneath our feet.

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Don’t step off the path!

IMG_8546 plitvice1 By the time we reached the end of the trail we had seen a total of half of the park. This, plus the fact that I’m sure it is a completely different experience during the fall and winter, gives us plenty of reasons to return. As it stands, even seeing only half of it, Plitvice is probably one of the most striking places we’ve ever visited, and is a stunning example of the fascinating role of geology in our world.

What’s the most memorable national park you’ve ever been to? Let us know in the comments!

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Staying connected while on the road, Part I: Contacting home
Balkan culinary adventures: What does squid ink taste like?
  • What a great park! So this is near the border of Croatia and Bosnia? I love all the hiking trails running alongside the water. Some of those trails look challenging.

    • It’s fairly close to the border, yeah, but not near any big cities in Bosnia. Bihać is probably the nearest large town/small city and it’s about an hour away.

  • Those waterfalls are so incredible! So beautiful. I would love to see it with my own eyes!!! Thank you for sharing!

  • We went to Croatia so long ago, it was still Yugoslavia. So, definitely ripe for a revisit. Especially to hike which is one of our favourite activities.

    • I’m sure it would be a vastly different experience now, though the natural beauty is still the same! I was surprised by how many great hiking areas the country has to offer. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

  • Vid

    Lovely pictures Jessi. Plitvice was one of our favourite part of Croatia when we drove from Zagreb to Dubrovnik 🙂 We’d love to return in winter.

    • Thank you! That sounds like a lovely drive. We flew from Zagreb to Dubrovnik since we were short on time. I would love to go back and drive it, though. There are so many other, smaller cities that we wanted to stop at.

  • Donna Tennant

    I have been to many parks in the U.S., and this ranks as one of the top. We arrived there too late to hike, but we hit the trail right after breakfast the next morning. We hiked up rather than taking the shuttle and hiking down, and we had the west half of the park to ourselves until we began meeting tourists on the way down at about 10 am. Then we caught the shuttle down to the east end and walked down the trail a little ways, but we had a bus to catch. We were headed to Zagreb (we came from Rovinj) that afternoon. The water higher up to the west is more shades of green, while the lower lakes are flat-out bright turquoise! It is unreal and I was reminded of the little pond near North Shore High School that they manage to dye the same color, only this was natural! Next time, we will plan to spend at least two nights! Definitely one of the most beautiful places on earth.

    • I remember that lake! My students would always complain about how fake it looked. I wish I had these pictures then to show them that nature can achieve what manmade chemicals only try to mimic. It was such a beautiful place. I can’t wait to go back and explore the other side. I think next time we’ll do what you did and hike the opposite direction of traffic. We’ll probably go at a less busy time of year, too. It was just too packed on those tiny walkways!

  • Most memorable park you ask? Well… I’d have to say Plitvice! The place is truly amazing and seems to change as the sun moves through the sky or even if you look at it from a different angle. And as you said, it’s so hard to even see half of it on a day trip! I hear there’s budget accommodation options around there now, so I’m sure many of the day trippers will start turning into overnighters as Croatia gets more and more popular. Thanks for sharing!

    • That’s great to know, Ryan! I’d love to spend several days exploring the park, instead of having to keep track of the bus schedule. In general I prefer longer day hikes, and some of the options we were unable to do were 6-8 hour hikes.