The Plitvice Lakes National Park is one of the oldest and largest national parks in Croatia. First thing’s first – it’s pronounced split-Vitz-eh. We know, it’s a tricky one.
Now, Plitvice is one of those places that makes the country seem like a proper untouched paradise. Beautiful waterfalls pour over lush greenery. Turquoise water winds through mountains, which roll as far as the eye can see. Mountain wagtails and white-backed woodpeckers break the silence of morning by singing old Croatian folk songs (probably). Sounds alright, right? Wrong. It sounds better than alright. Plitvice Lakes National Park is spectacular.
It’s for that reason, and many more, that the Plitvice Lakes National Park has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. So there. That’s the absolute basics.
Now we’re going to get into a few more of the specifics regarding Plitvice and the Plitvice Lakes National Park. Like explaining why one reason you should be excited to go is to get a good few slaps when you get there! ‘Slap’ is the Croatian for the waterfall, by the way, just to avoid any early confusion. Please don’t slap anyone in the National Park. Or anywhere else. You can’t just go about slapping people. Now back to Plitvice.
Where is the Plitvice Lakes National Park?
The Plitvice Lakes National Park is in the center of Croatia. It’s part of the mountainous karst area which borders the eastern boundaries of Bosnia and Herzegovina (a country that is also super beautiful). It measures 296.85 square kilometers and, as the crow flies, it’s 34 miles away from the Adriatic Sea at its nearest point. There’s a map right above this paragraph though, so if you want to know exactly where it is, we don’t know what you’re doing reading this.
There are various ways to get to Plitvice Lakes National Park. The nearest airports are Zadar, Zagreb, and Rijeka. On the map, the national park is about halfway between Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, and Zadar, which is on the Dalmatian Coast. So going from either of these cities, even on a day trip, is doable. From Zagreb or Zadar it’s about a 2-3 hour bus depending on traffic. From Split, it’s a bit further at 3-4 hours, and if you’re coming from Dubrovnik you’re looking at 4-6 hours.
Why should I go here?
You should go because we can guarantee you a good slap if you do! That’s our way of testing whether you read the introduction to this piece or not. If you didn’t, you’re probably very confused right now. A ‘slap’ is the Croatian word for a waterfall – and Plitvice Lakes National Park is famous for its waterfalls. The waterfalls have made it the most popular tourist attraction in Croatia, and the best thing to do when you get there is just… to explore. It’s stunning.
The focal point of the Plitvice Lakes National Park lies in the name. It’s based around 16 lakes stretching eight kilometers in total. The lakes are connected by any number of waterfalls and are deep set in the lush green forest which is home to everything from wild boars to bears and wolves. Don’t leave your porridge unattended and the bears shouldn’t be a problem.
There’s a lot of hiking potential in the area. The lowest point is 380 meters, whereas the summit is way up at 1280m. The height difference between the lakes themselves is only 135 meters though, so a lot of the best or most popular hiking routes focus on areas around this level. Perhaps the best viewpoint of the lake, and certainly the most famous, is that from Veliki Slap. It’ll probably be the picture on your entry ticket, or if you get confused, just stick ‘Veliki Slap’ into your phone. Remember that photograph from the very top of this article? We’ve been on such a journey since then, I know! But yup, that was taken from Veliki Slap, or nearby.
What’s the downside?
See those little ants on that bridge above? Yup. The detectives among you will already have worked this one out. When we wrote that the Plitvice Lakes National Park is the “most popular tourist attraction in Croatia”, that’s not necessarily a good thing. Especially if you’ve been to Dubrovnik, you’ll know all about overtourism in Croatia, and particularly in summer, this is a bit of an issue in the Plitvice Lakes National Park. That Veliki Slap lookout spot we mentioned above? That’ll be super crowded in June, July, and August. Summer can get crazy busy.
Another potential downside, depending on your outlook, is that swimming in Plitvice Lakes National Park is strictly forbidden. That can be a bit of a nuisance when you’re staring at postcard-perfect lakes in 30 degrees of heat. Swimming has been banned since 2006. Before then, swimming had been allowed in Lake Kozjak. Long story short, it’s because of water contamination.
There’s also an entry fee to access the Plitvice Lakes, National Park. It differs depending on how many days you’re staying. The absolute peak price is 250 HRK for an adult (approx £28.50) for one day. There are also various concession prices, though, and the use of the ferries and trains within the park are included in the price of your ticket.
Finally, it can get a bit crowded at the entry point. There are two entrances to Plitvice Lakes National Park. The second entrance, near the upper lakes, is nearly always less crowded.
Worth a Plitvice trip in winter or spring?
Absolutely! We’d go as far as recommending it. Sure, in summer you get the beauty of the greenery and turquoise water, but you also get those crowds we mentioned. In winter the place is arguably even more beautiful, covered in snow with the lakes frozen over. In late summer and early Spring, the natural beauty remains, while the crowds are much more manageable, and in Autumn… well, have you seen the picture about two centimeters above this text? Seriously. Look at that. Just look at that. To quote the cult 2001 hit ‘All Rise’ by the now disbanded boyband Blue, “I rest my case”.
Protection and management requirements
The creation of the “Association for the Conservation and Enhancement of the Plitvice Lakes” in 1893 illustrates a long history of dedication to the best possible conservation of what today constitutes a World Heritage property. Early conservation efforts were formalized when Plitvice Lakes became a national park in 1949. In 1997, the national park was enlarged on the grounds of protecting the entire catchment area of the lakes and most of the groundwater system. Since the extension of the World Heritage property in 2000, the surface area of Plitvice Lakes National Park and the World Heritage property are identical. The majority of the land is state-owned. Legally, the property falls under the Nature Protection Act and complementary legislation. A specialized public institution established by the Croatian Government and under the supervision of the Ministry responsible for nature protection implements management of the national park. Staff, infrastructure, and activities are funded from the park’s resources. Regularly updated, participatory physical and management planning guides all aspects of management and use. An adequately staffed and equipped research center carries out important research, providing important insights for both science and management.
Plitvice Lakes National Park is well-managed in line with its long history of conservation. The legal, administrative, and financial conditions in place need to be maintained and, if needed, consolidated and adapted to respond to the visitation, which is constantly growing. While this puts Plitvice in a privileged position from economic and educational perspectives, the well-documented downsides of tourism require careful consideration. Beyond the risk of direct physical damage to the highly sensitive system, tourism also bears indirect risks stemming from water contamination and excess nutrients through wastewater. As high water quality of the entire freshwater system is a crucial foundation of fundamental processes that underlie the OUV of the property, physical and management planning, education of stakeholders, and surveillance of the property are indispensable. A permanent monitoring of the water quality and aquatic organisms.