Several years ago, I stumbled across a photo of a waterfall that looked like it was in the middle of an enchanted forest. The waterfall cascaded from terraces into a crystal clear blue-green lake. I was sure the picture was fabricated because the scene looked too angelic and surreal; it was the type of picture that belonged as desktop wallpaper. Some time a while later I learned that this place was real and it was called Plitvice Lakes in Croatia so I promptly added it to my “must see” list when I was planning my Croatia trip.
First things first. Plitvice Lakes is kind of in the middle of no where and the only options to get to it are: car, day trip tour, or bus. I passed on the day trip and the public bus options because the day trip tour itinerary seemed exhausting and limited the amount of time I could spend at the falls, and the public busses tend to fill up fast so there’s a chance that I wouldn’t be able to take a bus out of Plitvice Lakes as planned. The easiest option was to drive.
Kimmy and I picked up our rental car after exploring Zagreb for the day. I was nervous about driving in Croatia but with the help of GPS, I easily navigated out of the city and onto the highway. From there on out, the drive was just like driving in the U.S.
Along the way, we stopped in Rastoke, a small town known as “the small lakes of Plitvice”. There’s not much to do in Rastoke except admire the picturesque town.
We hoped to find a cool local dinner spot but there were only a couple of restaurants along the one street that runs through town and neither restaurant seemed particularly appetizing so we opted to continue onto Plitvice and find a spot by our hotel instead.
Plitvice is a huge tourist attraction and tour busses shuttle hundreds of tourists through in the mid morning so our plan was to get there early enough to see the falls before it succumbed to the crowds. To do so, we woke up bright in early the next day so that we could get to the park by 8-8:30am. Clearly, we weren’t the only ones with this game plan because there were already families filling the parking lots!
This national park is actually the largest in Croatia and consists of 16 lakes separated into the “upper lakes” and the “lower lakes”. Besides the obvious attraction of the waterfalls, there are also caves, streams, and lookout points. The park has several hiking trails that take you past the many falls as well. We chose to take one of the trails that would allow us to see the most waterfalls and ended up spending the whole day exploring the park because we backtracked several times while trying to find the best look out points, but a more efficient visitor could see everything we saw in about 5-6 hours. Visitors who wish to linger in the park could spend the whole day or even the following day on one of the longer hiking trails that wind all the way up through the “upper lakes”.
Everywhere we looked, we were surrounded by the roar of the waterfalls around us!
The park is set up nicely for walking because there are platforms that wind you past the waterfalls. As the morning wore on, however, the platforms quickly became congested with more and more tourists.
While it I really enjoyed meandering through the park, the best views of the park are seen when you’re on the trail back to the entrance since the entrance is at a higher elevation point.
I’ve seen some of the most impressive falls in the world (Niagara, Iguazu, and Victoria are top of mind) but hands down – Plitvice is, without a doubt, the prettiest set of waterfalls of them all. Seriously. That gorgeous jewel-toned water? The plethora of cascades over limestone terraces? And the ability to walk right next to the falls? Excuse me while I pick up my jaw off the floor.
If you’re planning to go:
- Wear walking shoes and bug spray.
- Get there when the park opens to avoid crowds. The park is way more pleasant when you don’t have to shove elbows to enjoy it.
- There are two “official” entrances to the park. I can’t recall the entrance we used but there is a shuttle that brings you back to your starting point so either entrance is fine. We also stumbled upon an unofficial way to enter the park from the backroads when we were searching for a high viewpoint to see the waterfall…but anyone without a ticket to the park would not be able to take the boat that links the lower and upper lakes so you’re going to need to buy a ticket to enjoy everything anyway.
- Swimming is not allowed in the park.
- At a minimum, plan to spend half a day at Plitvice, but if you’ll be better off if you allot a whole day there at least to see all the falls. If you want to see more, you can allot two days to explore.