Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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The water of the lakes is so clear that you wonder if it’s even there. Croatia offers many beautiful national parks, but Plitvice Lakes tops everybody’s list. Plitvice Lakes World Heritage Site is a true delight for outdoors lovers and it’s super family-friendly. Turquoise lakes, waterfalls and elevated boardwalks make this park a great day trip with the kids. Having explored the park with my girls, I bring you this handy guide to Plitvice Lakes National Park.
Plitvice Lakes is a couple hours drive from the coastal city of Zadar, from Zagreb and a bit more from Split. There are many buses that can drop you off for the day, but we decided to rent a car and stay overnight close to the park entrance. The next morning, all we had to do was eat a hearty Croatian breakfast and drive 10 minutes to the park entrance. Parking at Entrance 2 was a breeze.
No need to book in advance. You just line up at the ticket counter and buy on the spot. Kids under 7 get in free and kids from 7 to 18 get discounted prices. Also, good to know: the day ticket includes a one-time boat ride from P3 to P2 and a one-time tramway ride in the park. We used both, saving the tramway ride to return to the visitor center after a long day.
We saw three different cafeterias at various spots in the park, but we love picnics more than cafeteria food. We shopped for our picnic lunch at the entrance shop and were surprised to find that they sold fresh bread behind a counter – but no fresh veggies or fruits. Our lunch was cooked ham and fresh bread that we sandwiched with butter, and fig Newtons and dark chocolate bars for dessert. At tea time, we stopped at one of the cafeterias and enjoyed a yummy apple strudel and a sweet cheese strudel (a local delicacy, I had to try).
The bad news. The park is really on everybody’s top list! The good news? Large groups that follow flags and wear city shoes (or high heels) aren’t geared up for full-day walking. And they’re slower-moving than small family groups with active kids. If you’re willing to walk a bit, you can avoid the uninterrupted line of human beings, or at least, have a lot less selfie-sticks in your face.
Also worth remembering, if the crowds are too much around the lakes. Some trails lead to view points in the mountains. Guaranteed solitude up high, and amazing views on the surrounding mountains.
You can’t always get sunny skies. When we arrived in the morning, it was drizzling and the sky was completely grey. People wonder if the lakes are worth the trip in “bad” weather? Well, this is one of the first photos I took and the day improved to become completely sunny and warm. Yes, it’s very much worth it.
Where to Walk
At the visitor entrance shop, we purchased a trail map of the park showing various loops – A being the shortest (2-3 hours) and K being the longest (6-8 hours). We had the whole day ahead of us, so the K loop sounded like our best “taster” option. To bypass the least exciting (or flooded) trail sections, we opted for two shortcuts–the “day ticket” boat trip across Jezero Kozjak and the “day ticket” tramway return from ST4. All told, we walked about 6 hours and that includes a gazillion photo stops and a picnic.
If you look at the map above, we started at the tiny green dot in the lower right quadrant and ended at the red dot on the upper left side, visiting every single lake and waterfall in between. If you do that, count roughly 6 hours to complete the whole thing at a reasonable pace.
What to Bring
I would love to say that everything was pink unicorns and sugar clouds but it wasn’t. The day started as a wet overcast winter day and that was a bit of a downer. What of the beautiful sunny pics I’d seen in National Geographic! The first item I bought at the shop was an umbrella. That says it all. Lucky for us, the weather cleared up through the day.
Also, I did’t realize that no trees would have leaves yet in April. Bare branches all around. No foliage on my pics? In fact, that proved to be a blessing. Many of the views we enjoyed would have been hidden behind a green curtain of trees in the summer. Winter trees ain’t so bad!
My last gripe (I swear it’s the last), at least for the lower section of the lakes, was dealing with the crowds. Ah, the human chain going down the only path to the lookout for the mighty Veliski Slap waterfall. Too many people for me! Should I Photoshop them from my pics? Ah, what a relief when I saw them rush to picnic tables by the P3 boat pier–where they stayed forever and ever. So long, crowds!
Besides these surprises, I was like a kid in a candy store. Such beautiful nature! Tis a shame that swimming is forbidden but I understand why park officials would want to keep nasty sunscreens and chemicals out of the water. The visibility is amazing! The park was a never-ending series of waterfalls hiding lakes in which upstream waterfalls riotously fell, water gushing and trickling through sunken forests and mossy rock terraces. Oh my!
Sometimes, the water was so transparent that we weren’t sure where it started. Rounding a bend in the trail, we saw the reflection of the sun on the water surface gradually fade to reveal dozens and dozens of junior trouts encircling a bag daddy trout underwater. Go fish!
During the boat ride, we were sitting on a bench with my girls and my dad when a large group of Koreans around us burst out in laughter. Oh, all of them were laughing their heart out. Was our underwear showing? Had we a misplaced noodle in our hair? No. Clearly, everyone but us was in on a juicy Korean joke and it was damn funny. In the end, we couldn’t resist joining in the fun, half-wondering if we were (secretly) the butt of the joke. I guess that we shall never know. On an unrelated note, electric boats are super silent.
Past the big large lake, the landscape changed. As much as the lower lakes had been waterfalls, the upper lakes were intertwined circular water creatures with larger lakes getting lost in distant mountains. Adapting to the terrain, boardwalks became stairs and bridges. They hug the vegetation closer and on more than one occasion, we stopped in our tracks to take in the views.
Fortunately, each new waterfall and lake were signposted with basic sketches and dimensions. That was a great idea because we lost count of the lake names fairly quickly.
No lake is complete without resident wild nesting ducks! These guys spent the whole time wile we were having lunch navigating around us and probably hoping for crumbs to fall. Lucky for their health, we now know that bread is harmful to wild ducks and we never feed wildlife anyway, so that was that. All that staring was futile!
Next to our picnic spot, a sign warned of flooded trails. I took off my shoes, rolled up my trousers and went exploring barefoot. It was a poor excuse to enjoy cold water on my feet, but it was quite delicious and fresh. The small gravel on the flooded path was a bit rough to walk on barefoot, but it didn’t bother me much. In fact, it was pretty cool to see how far the path was submerged.
Signs of spring were all around us and colorful wildflowers the hills with their lush yellows, purples and pinks. Actually, spring was really in full bloom as we noticed an odd-looking branch under the water from a boardwalk. Look at this.
Happy toads! They were so focused that we were able to spy on them at length. At the end of the lake, we noticed another oddity, a ball-shaped bubble thing underwater. I extracted my GoPro from my backpack and put the camera underwater to get a better view.
Frog or toad eggs, clustered around a branch in the water! That was extraordinary. My girls thought it was gross but really, the coincidence was quite interesting. Mating toads half a lake away from possibly-toad eggs? Way to go for the live nature science show.
We went up the hill to a viewpoint and on the way back, my father pointed to a hole in the ground. It was right in the root system of a tree and rushing water was disappearing through it in whirlpools. A natural sink hole! Or more likely, a hole connecting this lake to the next. That was a great illustration of how porous limestone makes Gruyere-cheese landscapes.
Our last views on the lakes came when the afternoon sun was already casting shadows on the north-facing side of the valley. From up high, the waterfalls looked like miniature landscapes with ant-size figurines walking on boardwalks.
Beautiful Plitvice Lakes. By the time our day was up, we’d seen dozens of lakes, lost count of waterfalls and cascades, hiked around 6 to 8 miles, and enjoyed a fine day outside. For my girls, I’m sure that the boardwalks and variety of landscapes made this park a winner for a day trip. It was almost like a small natural Disneyland – boardwalks, pristine lakes, gushing waterfalls, occasional food spots, electric boats and tramway rides. How could they not like it?
I looked at the map and realized that the lakes only cover 5% or so of the whole park. I’ve heard that the forests are amazing as well. Oh well. Another time?