Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia is one of those places that absolutely and totally lives up to its hype—it is stunning. Just stunning. When I visited there, my Croatia Lonely Planet at the time used a photo of this UNESCO World Heritage site as the main image to promote tourism to Croatia. It’s changed now, but at the time of my first visit to Croatia, the country was only just entering the public mind and the captivating blue waterfalls of Plitvice were enough to compel most curious travelers to at least consider visiting Croatia.
But Plitvice Lakes was just the start of the reasons I wanted to backpack the country. Croatia boasts miles of coastline, other gorgeous waterfalls like Krka National Park, and the stunning city of Dubrovnik. Truth be told, after skimming images of Plitvice Lakes, I didn’t even need the nitty-gritty travel planning details to know that I was adding Croatia to my round the world route, and I knew for sure that the country’s gorgeous waterfalls would be a highlight of my time there.
Getting to Plitvice Lakes National Park
The bus from Krka National Park dropped us off in the middle of dense and verdant forest—what a change from the gray and rocky coastline! It shocked my senses to find myself in the middle of such lush forest environment after weeks on an island near split soaking in the coastal waters and sunshine. The last time I had hiked in a forested area was traveling through Nepal a month earlier when my cousin and I trekked in the Annapurna range.
The bus dropped us two kilometers from our guesthouse, but we were saved the hike by our kind guesthouse owner at Villa Jezerka—which is truly one of the best guesthouses in Plitvice and comes highly, highly recommneded. The owner zipped up to the curb just as the bus pulled away. We had taken several cramped buses all day, so it was a relief to drop our bags at the guesthouse and then frolic through the forest for a bit before dinner.
Yes, I said frolic.
With a bit of fresh, cool forest air cleaning out our lungs, we all slept soundly. Visiting Plitvice is a trip into nature before you even arrive, and part of why we slept so well was due to the peaceful town and quiet atmosphere.
Exploring Plitvice (And Avoiding Scams!)
The next morning, my friends and I packed healthy snacks we had snagged at the store so that we could bring our own lunch into the National Park. As a vegetarian traveler, preparing my own food is not only easier, but cheaper, too. Plitvice is larger than Krka, so we packed a hearty lunch: hard boiled eggs, bread, cheese, and an apple.
With our lunches stowed in daypacks, and with a bit of an adventurous skip in our step, we hiked to the entrance to the park on foot.
And we nearly got had by scalpers at the entrance. The scammers surrounded my cousin and pushed me and Jenn to the fringes while they tried to pressure her into buying a park ticket. Each one shared a sob story and a reason we should buy their ticket.
My cousin was overwhelmed—they had isolated her and bombarded her senses with too much information. But Jenn and I shook our heads when she looked at us with a questioning look. It didn’t feel right and we were all feeling hemmed in by their tactics, so Jenn and I grabbed my cousin’s arm, pulling her from their circle and refusing to make eye contact or respond to the scammers.
Quick Tip: The only way past the scammers at the Plitvice Lakes park entrance was to completely ignore the scalpers until we were safely ensconced in the ticket office.
Once safely inside, we breathed deeply and calmed down. It’s nerve-wracking when they bombard with stories while entering your personal space. The ticket lady, however, was great. She helped us pick the four- to six-hour loop around the park, which was advertised as mildly strenuous but with beautiful viewpoints.
Like Krka, boardwalks zig-zag throughout the entire park as a way to minimize the potential negative impact of the park’s growing tourism industry. Also like Krka, tourists fill every inch of the National Park during the summer months. But for good reason.
Plitvice Lakes is indescribably pretty.
Each lake and waterfall dotting the park is distinctly different in color than the others because the living karst rocks and travertine dams shift and change.
Blindingly brilliant blue hues filled our walk. Vivid green plant-life and deep, blue-gray waters contrasted with azure lakes and turquoise waterfalls shimmering in the sunshine.
At the end of the hike, which was mostly flat for hours, the path changed abruptly. We took a strenuous uphill ascent to the top of the park, and the views proved beyond worthwhile. One side of the peak contained a view over the largest waterfall in Plitvice Lakes. The other side provided dramatic views of several of the lakes in succession. All of the shots that look down on the lakes from above are a result of putting in the hard work of hiking to the top!
Since we were traveling other areas of Croatia, it was a long journey into the center of Croatia. It’s far removed from the beaches and coastline that many prioritize when visiting Croatia, but it’s stunning. When we decided to take the time to visit, we didn’t know if it was worth visiting Plitvice Lakes National Park. A lot of places on this planet are pretty, but should you take the three-day break from beaches and sunshine to visit?
A resounding yes.
We walked back to our guesthouse in a daze after such a fun and pretty day. We made a pit-stop for ice cream and then ate it silently as we processed the brain overload of such blatantly gorgeous scenery.
Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
Most travelers will stay in Jezerce, which is 2km from the park. Of those many places there, Villa Jezerka is a great place for anyone visiting the area on a budget. They had a triple room, which sealed the deal for us, along with the free wifi and the assurance that we could walk to the park entrance. If you’re more of a mid-range traveler, B&B Millennium was our runner-up choice and just gorgeous.
Rick Steves’ Croatia Guide is the best for an interesting history and neat activities—perfect if you are planning a mid-range trip or luxury. Rick Steves’ guides for Europe are usually spot on. That being said, backpackers might want to stick with Lonely Planet Croatia. This guide has a better list handle on the nuts and bolt—train times, hostels, and budget travel to get you to and fro.
Pick up a copy of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Part travelogue with a strong slice of the region’s history, you’ll enjoy insights from the region right as World War II began. This is a compelling way to read about Balkan history, though it can be hard to distinguish fact from fiction throughout.