Plitvice Lakes National Park: The Complete Guide

Aerial view of Plitvice Lakes

 TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre 

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Plitvice Lakes National Park

Address
Croatia
Phone +385 53 751 015

It sounds oxymoronic to describe a place that attracts 1 million annual visitors as a perfect place to detox and revel in nature, but that is exactly the feeling this UNESCO world heritage site in Croatia evokes. With staggering limestone cliffs, turquoise blue lakes, and hiking trails that take you through forests, heaths, and caves, Plitvice Lakes’ 73,000 acres put biodiversity and ecological conservation on epic display.

Most tourists make the trek to this isolated destination to see its karst landscape and crystal-clear lakes, but Croatia’s largest park has even more environmental intrigue, with roots in the prehistoric era and legends of fairy queens. You could feasibly see the highlights as a day trip from Zagreb or Zadar, but once you step into this mythical, mountainside terrain where cave bear bones were once found and many endangered species currently live, you won’t want to leave.

Things to Do

The park is divided into three main sections: the four lower lakes; the 12 upper lakes; and the hiking trails through woodlands, grasslands, and small peaks. Every lake is different and the interconnecting wooden pathways make it easy to meander and take in their different forms of vegetation and aquatic life. Self-guided tours are best for experienced hikers and budget travelers since you have the freedom of choosing your own pace and path—of which there are many possible options—but you can also opt for a paid guided tour to get more history.

If you have to prioritize specific areas, the best viewpoint is around the park’s largest waterfall, Veliki Slap, and the best place for unique fauna is Šupljara cavern, both of which are located at the lower lakes. If you’re seeking an untamed and quieter environment, the upper lakes—especially Okrugljak with its long cave, Labudovac waterfall, and Galovac with its chain of cascades and surplus of emerald foliage—are your best bet. The upper lakes are closed in winter, but you can go skiing and sledding in the nearby village of Mukinje.

The lakes may be the most Instagrammed attraction, but hikers, birders, botanists, geologists, and animal enthusiasts should also explore the surrounding woodlands to admire the varied ecosystems thriving within them. In addition to 1,400 plant species, including 60 types of orchids and 800 types of fungi, the park is home to 250 types of animals. Some wildlife you may come across include a herd of indigenous sheep and some of the last remaining wild wolves and brown bears in Europe. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a wildcat or lynx, stumble upon a protected settlement building, or witness butterfly clouds in the treetops.

Best Hikes & Trails

It's easy to stroll around the wooden pathways and take in the park's beauty while you casually explore, but those looking for more strenuous hikes also have various options. You can reach the peaks of Plitvice's mountains or wander the rugged upper lakes area, but don't stray from the marked trails; you don't want to get lost in this expansive park.

  • Medvedak Trail: This trail reaches the summits of the three mountains known as the Medvedak peaks, and it takes about an hour and a half to two and a half hours depending on where you start. The trail is well-maintained but steep, so should be prepared for a strenuous ascent.
  • Čorkova Bay Trail: This trail is a whopping 21 kilometers, or about 13 miles, long. It begins at the Labudovac waterfall, which can be reached via the panoramic train in the park.
  • Plitvica Trail: The trail also begins at the Labudovac waterfalls but splits off from the Čorkova trail and is only 9 kilometers long, or just under 6 miles. It ends at the Kozjačka fishing dock, which is also a scenic spot worth visiting on its own.
High Angle View Of people walking on a curving path over water with autumn trees
Umberto Leporini / EyeEm / Getty Images

Where to Camp

Camping out in another country isn't always logistically easy since most travelers aren't lugging around a tent and camping gear, but in Croatia, it's wholly possible. If you do have access to camping supplies, then Korana and Borje are the two park-run campgrounds where you can pitch a tent and spend the night. However, there are also a number of other nearby campgrounds with non-tent camping options, such as small bungalows or rustic cabins.

  • Korana Campsite: This massive campground is located along the scenic Korana River and has space for 2,500 campers. There are no marked campsites, so visitors can pitch a tent wherever they find a free space. There are also 47 bungalows available to rent for those who want the experience of nature while sleeping in a bed. There is free roundtrip transportation available for campers to the park entrance, which is only about 10 minutes away.
  • Borje Campsite: This campsite is nestled in an old-growth pine forest and is much smaller than Korana, making it ideal for campers who are looking for solitude. It's about 10 miles away from the park entrance, but a free shuttle is available for campers to move around.
  • Camping Plitvice: This privately-run campground isn't quite as rustic as the options offered by the national park, but the campsites are more developed and there are also cabin options available with the same amenities you'd find in a boutique hotel.

Where to Stay Nearby

Accommodation within the actual park is limited to just a couple of hotels, which are all about proximity and less about luxury or value. These options are slightly pricier than staying outside the park (an extra $30-50 a night), but they are more convenient and economical if you don’t have a car since most other places are several miles away and lack public transportation or reliable taxi service. If seeing as much park as possible is paramount, these hotels allow next-door access to the lakes and two days of park entrance for the price of one.

The only village walkable from the park is Plitvica Selo (20 minutes), but for more varied and modern accommodation options, check out nearby towns like Jezerce, Grabovac, or Korana. 

  • Hotel Jezero: Jezero is one of the hotels located within the park and is just a few minutes' walking distance away from Lake Kozjak, the biggest lake at Plitvice. Rooms with lakeside balconies are available and if you're coming all the way to Plitvice, it's worth splurging on the nice view.
  • Hotel Plitvice: This hotel is located in the heart of the park and the location is second to none. The hotel restaurant serves authentic local cuisine, which guests can enjoy on the outdoor terrace listening to the birds and with views of the nearby waterfalls.
  • Rustic Lodge Plitvice: Not located inside the park but just a couple of minutes away from the entrance by car, this lodge stands out for its charming cabins, rustic feel, and the highly-rated meals that come out of the kitchen.

How to Get There

Croatia’s airports aren’t very close to the park, so if you aren’t driving, the cheapest and most convenient way to visit is by flying into Zagreb or Zadar and taking a bus. Zagreb is Croatia's capital city and by far the bigger airport, so you'll likely fly into there and then take a two and a half hour bus ride. The Plitvice buses make their last stop at the park, but the end of the line isn’t always obvious. The park doesn’t have a major bus terminal and stops aren’t always announced, so check with the driver before disembarking.

If you’re staying in Zagreb or Zadar, the park could be a long day trip via the bus or an organized tour, but you’ll run into more crowd traffic and likely only have time to see the lakes. If you want to really explore the park and take it in, you should plan to spend at least one night.

Parking is very cheap and accessible if you decide to drive, but beware it’s not the easiest route to navigate if you don’t have patience, a good GPS, and tolerance of windy roads.

Accessibility

Most of the park isn’t accessibility-friendly and requires lots of walking to traverse, mostly on steep gravel pathways or uneven wooden platforms with no railing. However, one of the most impressive sights in the park—the roaring Veliki Slap waterfall—can be reached in a wheelchair. Make sure you arrive at the park at Entrance 1, where there's a paved road from the street all the way to the scenic lookout point. The hotels in the park also have rooms available that are accessible for guests with disabilities.

Visitors with mobility challenges who want to explore Croatia's natural beauty can also head to Krka National Park in the southern part of the country, closer to Split. Krka is much better designed with wheelchair users in mind, and many of the trails to the scenic waterfalls are fully accessible.

Tips for Your Visit

  • The park is open daily, apart from the upper lakes in winter. Summer draws the most visitors. 
  • Despite the tourist appeal of this park, English isn’t always a reliable common language crutch. Memorizing a few key phrases or having a Croatian translation guide on hand is helpful. 
  • The wooden pathways around and through the lakes are small and often without railings. Visiting right when the park opens is ideal for more leisurely walks without crowded pathways.
  • The park has limited restaurants and facilities and what exists is clustered by the lakes. Pack a picnic, snacks, water, and emergency toilet paper if you go for an all-day hike.
  • If you do venture beyond the lakes, bring proper hiking shoes and layers of weather-resistant clothing. There are steep altitude differences depending on where you go, so temperature, precipitation, and traction can change quickly. It’s also very easy to go off-piste, and data signals aren’t consistent, so never go alone and have paper maps handy.  
  • Swimming anywhere in the park is forbidden. 
  • Walking around both the upper and lower lakes takes six to seven hours. Save time by using the park’s free boats and shuttles between the two. 
  • If you leave by bus, look for the wooden huts near either of the park entrances. These are the bus stops and you can verify the times at the entrance.
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A Complete Guide to Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia