Plitvice Lakes National Park – The ultimate guide for independent and responsible travellers

Plitvice Lakes – Your ultimate guide to beat the crowds and find the best trails

Sandra Rosenau Last Updated: Sunday 1 March 2020 Croatia Leave a Comment

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A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, Plitvice Lakes National Park is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Croatia. And for good reason: the lake terraces are easy to explore and stunning – Mother Nature at her best.

Like Dubrovnik though, the park does get (over)crowded during the summer months, which can result in a less than pleasurable experience. If you’d like to visit Plitvice Lakes National Park independently, and wonder how to organise your trip avoiding the big tourist crowds, this guide is for you. We give you all the tools you need to have a terrific experience. And if you have a question we didn’t answer just leave a comment, and we’ll try our best to help.

The Plitvice Lakes National Park is easy to visit independently. We give you all the tools you need to organise your trip and avoid the tourist crowds - We offer the ultimate guide for independent and responsible travellers
The Plitvice Lakes are easy to visit independently. We give you all the tools you need to organise your trip and avoid the tourist crowds.

Why is Plitvice Lakes National Park so popular?

Admittedly, we have a soft spot for waterfalls. We swam in Semuc Champey in Guatemala, admired Iguazu Falls from both the Argentinian and Brazilian sides and have visited many other beautiful waterfalls around the world.

So trust us when we say: Plitvice Lakes National Park is very special. The park’s waterfalls connecting the 12 upper and 4 lower lakes are astounding. Of amazing emerald green to turquoise colour (depending on the time of year and day), the lake terraces end in yet another impressive waterfall, Sastavci Slap, and from there, the gushing water continues to flow as the Korana River.

This is what so many people come to see: the emerald green waters of the lakes and waterfalls at Plitvice Plitvice Lakes - We offer the ultimate guide for independent and responsible travellers
This is what so many people come to see: the emerald green waters of the lakes and waterfalls at Plitvice

Just under 300 square kilometres in size, Plitvice Lakes National Park is Croatia’s largest National Park. It is also its oldest, and with over 1.5 million visitors a year, one of Croatia’s most visited. Plitvice Lakes together with Dubrovnik’s city walls are probably THE most well-known (and most photographed) tourist attractions in Croatia. The lakes are not only incredibly picturesque but also reasonably accessible, with day tours available from Zagreb (~2 hours drive) and even from Split (~3 hours drive).

While you can visit Plitvice Lakes National Park on one of these day trips we strongly advise against it. Not only will you spend more time travelling on the bus than in the park, but you will experience the park when its most crowded, and you will only have the chance to see a small portion of the park. Do yourself the favour and take your time. The park is worth it.

Take your time exploring the park. There is so much to see at Plitvice Lakes National Park - We offer the ultimate guide for independent and responsible travellers
Take your time exploring the park. There is so much to see.

Which National Park is better – Plitvice Lakes or Krka?

Both parks are very different, and we don’t think they are comparable. If you have time to visit both do so. If you’ve only got time for one we recommend to start with Plitvice Lakes and visit Krka National Park another time.

Why? The main sights in Krka National Park are more spread out, and if you want to explore most of the park you need more time (especially if you don’t have a car). Plitvice Lakes National Park is easy to explore as the main sights are concentrated in a single area. And apart from well-maintained trails, visitors can use special road trains and electric boats to explore the park. The downsides of Plitvice Lakes National Park (at least for some visitors):

  • You can’t bathe in any of the lakes.
  • Cycling is not allowed in the park.
  • For such a long-running tourist attraction, there is a surprising lack of sustainable and affordable food options in the park.

If you want to visit both (during the same trip) and are looking for an order we suggest visiting Krka first and then Plitvice Lakes National Park.

Plitvice Lakes is easier to explore than Krka National Park but some activities you can do at Krka are prohibited at Plitvice Lakes - We offer the ultimate guide for independent and responsible travellers
Plitvice Lakes is easier to explore than Krka National Park but some activities you can do at Krka are prohibited at Plitvice Lakes

When is the best time to visit Plitvice Lakes?

We already mentioned it: avoid the busy summer months, especially July and August, if you can. Not only is it very hot. In the summer months, over 14,000 visitors explore Plitvice Lakes National Park every day. Entry prices are also the highest between June and September.

Entry tickets are cheapest in the winter months between November and March. If you’re after more pleasant temperatures and fewer crowds we suggest to visit in the shoulder season, April/May and October.

Plitvice Lakes National Park is worth a visit any time of the year, even in winter | Photo by Shawn Appel on Unsplash
Plitvice Lakes National Park is worth a visit any time of the year, even in winter | Photo by Shawn Appel on Unsplash

How to get to Plitvice Lakes National Park (without a car)?

Plitvice Lakes National Park is located in the centre of Croatia, close to the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, another state of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY).

Buses from Zagreb or Zadar take about 2-2.5 hours. Buses stop at either entrance (more on that below). You can buy your onward/return bus ticket/s from the little huts at either bus stop.

From south to north, and descending from 636 to 502 metres above sea level, the lake terraces that make up the most visited portion of the Plitvice Lakes National Park span 8 kilometres.

Spanning 8km from south to north, the lake terraces descend from 636 to 502 metres above sea level at Plitvice Lakes National Park - We offer the ultimate guide for independent and responsible travellers
Spanning 8km from south to north, the lake terraces descend from 636 to 502 metres above sea level

The park has two official entrances, about 3 kilometres apart from each other along state road #1:

  • Entrance 1 is the park’s northern entrance. It is closest to the lower lakes section of the park.
  • Entrance 2 is the park’s southern entrance. It is closest to the upper lakes section.

Both entrances have large parking lots. However, most tour buses park at (and thus most day visitors enter through) entrance 1. In other words: entrance 2 is the slightly less busy one.

How to get around the park, and what are the trails like?

Plitvice Lakes National Park has more than 20 kilometres of well-maintained board walks and hiking trails, connecting all 16 lakes (and there are heaps more trails in the remoter parts of the park):

  • The board walks allow visitors to see the fascinating waterfalls close up. Essentially interconnected wooden platforms on stilts, built over the lakes and waterfalls, the board walks have (largely) no side barriers. If you misstep you’re in the water. So watch your steps, especially when taking photos.
  • Hiking trails allow visitors to walk/hike along the lakes, sometimes right along the lake shores, sometimes high above on cliffs that provide stunning vistas over the lakes. The hiking trails lead through forest but are narrow and can be uneven and muddy during rainy periods.
The Plitvice Lakes National Park Boardwalk platforms with side barriers like this are rare, so watch your steps - We offer the ultimate guide for independent and responsible travellers
Boardwalk platforms with side barriers like this are rare, so watch your steps

The park management provides a number of trail options (or programs) from both entrances for visitors exploring the main sights of the park on their website, with trails ranging from 2-3 kilometres (programs A and E) to over 18 kilometres (program K).

Choose the most suitable one/s out of those trails OR follow our tried and tested route – more on that below.

Trail markers like this one are dotted all around the park, so you can't get lost at Plitvice Lakes National Park - We offer the ultimate guide for independent and responsible travellers
Trail markers like this one are dotted all around the park, so you can't get lost

Due to the nature of the board walks and trails, accessibility by wheelchair or with a stroller is limited. If you are visiting with infants or toddlers and want to see more of the park we recommend to carry them in a baby carrier backpack.

The Plitvice Lakes National Park Trails around the lakes can be muddy during and after rainy periods - We offer the ultimate guide for independent and responsible travellers
Trails around the lakes can be muddy during and after rainy periods

If you’re not a big walker/hiker, have mobility issues or limited time, there are also

  • electric boats that cross the largest of the lakes (Lake Kozjak), and
  • road trains that connect the most remote upper lakes with the two entrances.

Note that the boats and road trains may have different operating hours to the park.

A frequent electric boat service connects Plitvice Lakes National Park upper and lower lakes
A frequent electric boat service connects Plitvice Lakes upper and lower lakes

How much time does it take to visit Plitvice Lakes?

We recommend to stay at least one night to experience the park in the early morning. That’s when you have the park almost to yourself and may even get to see some local wildlife. Weigh up between

  • staying two nights and buying a one day pass (which gives you a full day), and
  • staying one night and buying a two-day pass (which means you could go into the park on the afternoon of your arrival and again the next morning).

We explain the accommodation and ticketing options in more depth below.

If you do decide to explore Plitvice Lakes during a day visit (for example on your way from Zagreb to Split): You can leave your luggage at either entrance while you explore the park.

Are there entrance fees? How does the ticketing work?

To protect the fragile ecology of the park, the park management has restricted the number of visitors allowed in the park at any given time. Entry tickets are therefore valid only for a specific day (or days) AND for a specific entry time (on the first day of your visit if you bought a ticket for multiple days).

Especially during peak periods, advance online booking is recommended to avoid missing out. When we visited mid-June, people without online booking started queuing for tickets before the park had even opened. Others who arrived later in the morning had to wait for several hours for the next available time slot. You can check ticket availability for the following 24 hours on the Park Management’s website.

Make sure you stay at least one night as in the early morning, you have the Plitvice Lakes National Park almost to yourself | Photo by RGY23 on Pixabay
Make sure you stay at least one night as in the early morning, you have the park almost to yourself | Photo by RGY23 on Pixabay

If you book your tickets online please note:

  • Your booking confirmation is not a ticket. You still have to exchange the confirmation for the actual ticket at the entrance/the parking lot office.
  • You have to pick up your ticket/s from 1/2 hour before the time stated in your confirmation to one hour after the time stated in your confirmation. If you’re travelling by bus make sure you factor in potential delays when you decide on the time slot. Our bus from Zagreb was delayed by over 1/2 hour.
Book your tickets online in advance to avoid having to queue or wait for the next available time slot at the Plitvice Lakes National Park
Book your tickets online in advance to avoid having to queue or wait for the next available time slot

Where to stay/eat at Plitvice Lakes National Park (without a car)?

Within the National Park

There are three hotels within the perimeters of the park. All are situated at entrance 2: Hotel Bellevue, Hotel Plitvice and Hotel Jezero. Dining options are limited to the three hotel restaurants and Restaurant Poljana.

The park lacks decent food options and water fountains. Bring your own snacks and water bottle. Bins are only located at the boat and road train stops, so make sure you carry your rubbish until you can dispose of it.

.

In walking distance from entrance 1 (settlement of Rastovača)

The nearest accommodation option outside the National Park, at around 10 minutes’ walk from entrance 1, are the guest houses and apartments in the settlement of Rastovača, for example

We found Rastovača offered the best value for money (of the close-by options). Dining options are limited to:

  • a small (seasonal) garden restaurant at House Katrina (Rastovača 14),
  • Restaurant Lička Kuća (by the parking lot of entrance 1); and
  • Restaurant Petar (a 1.5 kilometre or 20 minutes’ walk north from entrance 1 along the state road #1).

There is no supermarket nearby. So make sure you bring your own food with you (from Zagreb or wherever you travel from) if you want to self-cater.

At the Plitvice Lakes National Park, we stayed in Rastovača near entrance 1 with self-catered breakfast, some snacks for lunch and delicious dinner at nearby House Katrina
We stayed in Rastovača near entrance 1 with self-catered breakfast, some snacks for lunch and delicious dinner at nearby House Katrina

In walking distance from entrance 2 (settlement of Plitvička Jezera)

A bit further away, at around 20 minutes’ walk, are the guest houses and apartments in the settlement of Plitvička Jezera, for example

Dining options again are limited, with Bistro Vučnica the only viable option. However, there is a small supermarket for those who want to self-cater.

In Plitvica Selo (small settlement to the south-west of the Great Waterfall)

We mention this option for completeness only. We do not recommended staying in Plitvica Selo if you don’t have a car. It is more cumbersome to get to/from and more expensive. Dining options there are also limited, with the Etno Garden Restaurant and Restaurant Kozjak the most viable (but expensive) options. There is no supermarket nearby.

Bring enough food for your visit - The Plitvice Lakes National Park lacks decent food options and the only grocery store in walking distance is in Plitvička Jezera - We offer the ultimate guide for independent and responsible travellers
Bring enough food for your visit - The park lacks decent food options and the only grocery store in walking distance is in Plitvička Jezera

Croatia’s other major National Park – Krka can also get packed. But you can avoid the tourist crowds. And you can visit without a car too. We show you how in this guide.

How to see most of Plitvice Lakes without the big tourist crowds?

We explored Plitvice Lakes National Park over two days and walked all the different trails around the lakes (that’s 21km). Don’t worry you don’t need to walk that much (unless you really want to). We’ve put together below recommendations picking out what we would have done with the benefit of hindsight.

Our route includes all the important sights (and photo opportunities) the National Park has to offer while avoiding the worst of the crowds and limiting backtracking.

It also includes an (optional) quiet, relaxing early morning walk along the western lake shore that allows you to observe the park’s wildlife: We saw turtles sunbathing, mice foraging, as well as frogs, birds (beyond the omnipresent ducks), crayfish, and too many dragon flies to keep count of.

Observe Plitvice Lakes' wildlife - like this sunbathing turtle - on a quiet, early morning walk along the western lakeshore - We offer the ultimate guide for independent and responsible travellers
Observe Plitvice Lakes' wildlife - like this sunbathing turtle - on a quiet, early morning walk along the western lakeshore

Best route from entrance 1

One full day

Total length: 13.6km (9.8km minus optional component)
Minimum walking time: ~4 hours (~3 hours)

  • Follow program B/C from entrance 1 to P3 (2.4km), skipping the Great Waterfall but travelling along the boardwalk and over the bridge. Optional: Follow program K from P3 along the western lake shore and join program C/E just before P2 (3.8km). If you don’t do the optional route, take the boat from P3 to P2.
  • Follow program C/E to St3 (3.8km).
  • Take the road train from St3 all the way to St1. Walk from St1 down the path towards P3, cross the bridge (the same one you crossed in the morning) but then turn right at the earliest opportunity.
  • Walk up the road, then turn right onto the western ridge trail which overlooks the lower lakes. Re-join the road just before you reach the Great Waterfall and cross the wooden bridge above the Great Waterfall. Turn right after the bridge and walk to the viewpoint.
  • Return back over the wooden bridge and left onto the western ridge trail. Then take the steps down to the bottom of the Great Waterfall.
  • Return from the Great Waterfall straight back to entrance 1 (3.6km).

Two half days

Afternoon
Total length: 4.7km
Minimum walking time: ~1.5 hours

  • Walk from entrance 1 straight towards P3 along the eastern ridge trail, cross the bridge but then turn right at the earliest opportunity.
  • Walk up the road, then turn right onto the western ridge trail which overlooks the lower lakes. Re-join the road just before you reach the Great Waterfall and cross the wooden bridge above the Great Waterfall. Turn right after the bridge and walk to the viewpoint.
  • Return back over the wooden bridge and left onto the western ridge trail. Then take the steps down to the bottom of the Great Waterfall.
  • Return from the Great Waterfall to entrance 1, following (reverse) programs A/B/C.

Morning
Total length: 11km (7.2km minus optional component)
Minimum walking time: 3-3.5 hours (2-2.5 hours)

  • Follow program B/C from entrance 1 to P3 (2.4km), skipping the Great Waterfall. Optional: Follow program K from P3 along the western lake shore and join program C/E just before P2 (3.8km). If you don’t do the optional route, take the boat from P3 to P2.
  • Follow program C/E to St3 (3.8km).
  • Take the road train from St3 all the way back to St1, and walk from there back to entrance 1 (1km).
Walk along the western ridge trail for breathtaking views of the Lower Lakes at Plitvice Lakes National Park - We offer the ultimate guide for independent and responsible travellers
Walk along the western ridge trail for breathtaking views of the Lower Lakes

Best route from entrance 2

One full day

Total length: 12.5km (8.7km minus optional component)
Minimum walking time: 3-4 hours (~2.5 hours)

  • From entrance 2, head to P1 (0.5km) and take the boat across to P2. Optional: Join program C/E but then turn right to follow (reverse) program K along the western lake shore to P3 (3.8km). Then take the boat from P3 back to P2.
  • (Re)Join program C/E to St3 (3.8km).
  • Take the road train from St3 all the way to St1. Walk from St1 down the path towards P3, cross the bridge but then turn right at the earliest opportunity.
  • Walk up the road, then turn right onto the western ridge trail which overlooks the lower lakes. Re-join the road just before you reach the Great Waterfall and cross the wooden bridge above the Great Waterfall. Turn right after the bridge and walk to the viewpoint.
  • Return back over the wooden bridge and left onto the western ridge trail. Then take the steps down to the bottom of the Great Waterfall.
  • Follow program A back to St1 (4.4km). Then take the road train from St1 back to St2 (and entrance 2).

Two half days

Afternoon
Total length: 4.5km
Minimum walking time: ~1.5 hours

  • Walk from entrance 2 to P1 (0.5km), take the boat to P2 and another boat to P3.
  • From P3, walk up the road, then turn right onto the western ridge trail which overlooks the lower lakes. Re-join the road just before you reach the Great Waterfall and cross the wooden bridge above the Great Waterfall. Turn right after the bridge and walk to the viewpoint.
  • Return back over the wooden bridge and left onto the western ridge trail. Then take the steps down to the bottom of the Great Waterfall.
  • Follow program A to St1 (4km). Then take the road train from St1 back to St2 (and entrance 2).

Morning
Total length: 8.1km (4.3km minus optional component)
Minimum walking time: ~2.5 hours (~1.5 hours)

  • Walk from entrance 2 to P1 (0.5km) and take the boat across to P2. Optional: Join program C/E but then turn right to follow (reverse) program K along the western lake shore to P3 (3.8km). Then take the boat from P3 back to P2.
  • (Re)Join program C/E to St3 (3.8km).
  • Then take the road train from St3 back to St2 (and entrance 2).
Cross the wooden bridge above the Great Waterfall, turn right and voila, you've got this postcard view at Plitvice Lakes National Park - We offer the ultimate guide for independent and responsible travellers
Cross the wooden bridge above the Great Waterfall, turn right and voila, you've got this postcard view

What many people don’t know about Plitvice Lakes National Park

Plitvice Lakes, due to its importance as a tourist attraction was heavily fought over during the Croatian War of Independence in the early 1990s. The first victims of the war died at Plitvice Lakes on 31 March 1991. A monument near entrance 2 commemorates the event.

During the war, the villages around Plitvice Lakes witnessed some very tragic events, and those travelling along state route #1 from/to Zagreb will pass through an area (between Karlovac and Plitvice) which was under heavy fire during the war. Even almost 30 years later, you can still see bullet hole covered facades. You also pass a memorial/museum that is being built in the former Austrian military barracks on the outskirts of Karlovac (in the suburb of Turanj).

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Got a question we didn’t answer? Leave a comment, and we’ll try our best to help. And if you’ve been to Plitvice Lakes and have any other great tips please share them below.

Feature photo by Artemis on Pixabay

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Plitvice Lakes – The ultimate guide for independent and responsible travellers
Plitvice Lakes – The ultimate guide for independent and responsible travellers
Plitvice Lakes – The ultimate guide for independent and responsible travellers

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