Plitvice Lakes National Park is a must-see in Croatia. Located between Zagreb and Split, it is home to some of the most beautiful lakes and abundant waterfalls we’ve ever seen. Waterfalls are seemingly everywhere – above you and below your feet as your walk across boardwalks, and where there aren’t waterfalls there are lakes of pristine and clear water. You can imagine that this is not a roam around at will kind of place, rather, people are guided en masse through the park on paths and raised boardwalks, between the two entrances with shuttle buses, and across the lake with shuttle boats.
I’ve read a little about the geology of the park, which has been described as a perfect storm of geological, climatic, and biological features found in very few places on earth. The mineral, calcium carbonate, which is a deposit from limestone creates, much of the magic. The water flows over the limestone and dissolves the rock, creating spaces for the water to flow through. Travertine is created, which thickens, forming new waterfalls. Lastly, because the water calcifies everything it touches, it prevents the creation of mud, thus creating the incredibly clear water in the lakes.
For many reasons, Plitvice is one of the most complex places to plan a trip to that I’ve encountered. Don’t even consider waking up some morning in Zagreb or Split and saying, “I think I’ll visit Plitvice Lakes National Park today.” It simply requires a lot more planning.
So, why is this so complicated?
Plitvice Lakes is 2.5 hours from Zagreb or 3.5 hours from Split. If you don’t have a car, there are bus connections from both which, taking an early bus from either would allow you to arrive at Plitvice at 10:00 or 11:00. At that point, there may or may not be timed entry tickets available. You can purchase timed-entry tickets in advance, which are available online, but must be purchased at least three days in advance and must be printed on paper, not always easy for someone who is travelling. There are two entrances, so it’s important that you know which entrance your ticket is for because you can only enter through that gate.
We met a woman from Australia when we were in Lake Bled who had taken a bus from Split and just showed up at Plitvice with no ticket. She got to the park only to find that she would have to wait until later in the day for a timed-entry ticket to become available. She waited for several hours and was eventually sold a ticket, but by then it was so late that she only got to see part of the park before services began to shut down at the end of the day and she had to leave, disappointed at not getting to see everything.
The other issue with arriving same-day by bus or by car is that, unless you drive and leave in the pre-dawn hours, you will likely get to the park around the same time as the dreaded tour bus crowds. Given the limited space for getting around – in many cases you are on the boardwalks with no guard rails – we wonder how many people are accidentally pushed into the lakes and waterfalls as they make their way through the walkways.
The only way to avoid the tour bus crowds, which dominate the park between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., is to arrive the day before and stay overnight. If you are relying on a bus for transportation (which we were), this means staying at a park hotel. We were pleasantly surprised to find that we were able to book a park hotel only a week in advance for an affordable price – this is totally foreign to those of us who know that, in the U.S., lodges on park properties must be booked a year in advance. The Bellevue, where we had our reservation, has been described as a ‘Tito-era leftover’ but it was convenient and had good, free breakfast.
Experiencing Plitvice Lakes in spite of our mistakes
Despite numerous mistakes made in the complex task of planning our to visit Plitvice Lakes we somehow, ended up at the correct entrance, on the correct day, precisely at 7:30 a.m. in our 7:00 to 8:00 a.m. time slot, on a beautiful late August day, ready to see the park. We had an excellent experience overall. Yes, there were people, but not an overwhelming number, and, despite a few bottlenecks in places where everyone wanted to take pictures, we had an easy and enjoyable walk through the falls.
My advice for this park is to definitely go, but do your homework first. Book a park hotel and plan to visit between your time in Zagreb and Split, if these are two of your destinations. Book your ticket for the day that you arrive to sleep in your park hotel. Arrive after 4:00 or so and visit the park until closing, stay overnight and then, guess what?? The park hotel can extend your visit to the next day so if you’d like to do a two-fer, get up early the next morning and take another stroll through.