Tips & tricks: Plitvice lakes National Park
The oldest, largest and most visited of seven Croatian National Parks, Plitvice Lakes became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. It is a complex of sixteen lakes linked together with a series of travertine waterfalls. Although the lakes surface covers only two square kilometers, the park area stretches over 200 km2 to surrounding mountains and adjoining rivers. Bears (the symbol of the lakes) still roam proudly through the forests, as do their wolf comrades, deer, wild boar, foxes and occasional mountain lions. However, animals prefer their privilege of peace and privacy, maintaining low profile from the clicks of ever seeking cameras.
The travertine barriers
Though all the spotlights are on the lakes, it is barriers that should take most of the fame. Travertine is a light, porous material made of mineralized calcium, algae, biotic residue from fallen trees & leaves and particular microorganism found in natural water. Lakes are full of dissolved calcium from surrounding limestone mountains. All these elements, with the right amount of air and temperature form a crust called “sedra” or travertine. The crust may form on any object in water. In adequate conditions it may grow from 1-3 cm per year, occasionally forming a barrier that may rise up to thirty meters in height, with a stunning waterfall over it. However, if only one of the elements is missing, the force of water will slowly destruct the barriers.
The park is open throughout the year, with a benefit of visiting to each season. Most popular (read overcrowded) time is during the summer in July and August, when most tourists detour to visit the lakes on their way to or from the coast. The yellow, red, brown & green leaves and trees colors are just stunning in the autumn. During the winter the lakes surface freezes, though the water keeps running underneath. It is truly magical (it is not overestimated to use this corky, warn-out adjective here) to walk around frozen cascades and sparkling waterfalls. In winter the trails are limited, but fear not of having lesser of experience. Springtime is a prime-time nature’s show off when all the flowers bloom, young ducks peek out for the first time, and shades of green tint the frame.
There are two main entrances to the park from the same road, intuitively named Entrance No1 and No2. Entrance No1 is two kilometers north from Entrance No2. There are parking lots on both entrances with tickets booths, restrooms and small but well stocked shops. There are another two “hidden” entrances on the opposite side of the lakes. If you park at “Plitvica Selo” village, the trail will lead you to “Kozjačka Draga” plateau where the boats leave from. In this case, you must buy the ticket when you are technically already within the park. Without a ticket you can’t board the boat, and there are regular check-ups on the exit of the parks. There is also a trail from “Plitvički Leskovac” village to the lakes, but I’d recommend using this one only if you have plenty of time to walk and know how to read a map.
Working hours / admission
Generally, from May to October the park is open from 8AM-7PM, whilst from November to April it closes earlier at 4PM. However, please check the official site www.np-plitvicka-jezera.hr site for the detailed info. Some entrances may be closed during the winter period.
Tickets & admission fee
Park tickets prices depend on the season of visit, age and number of persons in the group. The ticket price includes a panoramic train and electric boat ride, tourist insurance and VAT. The individual adult person’s ticket price ranges from 8€ from January to March and November to December; 15€ from April to June and September to October; and 24€ in July and August. It is possible to purchase two-day tickets for approximately 60% surcharge, valid for two consecutive days starting from the date of purchase. Visitors accommodated within NP Plitvice directed hotels may validate their ticket for the second day visit at the hotels reception, without an extra charge.
Where to park & fees
Parking lots are situated at Entrance No1 & No2. Guests of hotels Jezero, Plitvice and Bellevue may park in front of their hotels (these three hotels are situated within the walking distance to the lake area). Hotel parking lots are usually open for other visitors, except for in July and August when they accept hotel guests only.
Trails & trail suggestions
Narrow wooden trails are laid over and around the lakes. It is common curtesy (and a park rule) to walk on a right side of the trails, so people coming from the opposite direction may pass by.
If you are on a snatch & run kind of a trip, you may visit the lakes in 3-4 hours. There are several suggested trails to choose from, marked and printed on the back side of the park ticket. We are always glad to suggest you your own trail according to your interest, time and physical ability.
From the park entrance No1 you may descend serpentines through the canyon to reach the lake level, continue to the great waterfall, and then walk upstream to the boat pier (1h). After the break, take the boat across the Kozjak lake (25 min, not counting the break time and queuing time at the boat pier). Proceed walking upstream over and around magnificent lakes next to stunning waterfalls, to reach the train station No3 (1h30’-1h45’). Return with a train to train station No1 (30 min). Walk back to your car (20 min).
If you are limited with time or you want to skip long queuing at the boat pier No1 at Kozjacka Draga, I suggest parking at the entrance No2 (or even better at Hotel Jezero if allowed at the time of visit). Walk to the train station No2 (15 min), take the train to station No3 (20 min). Start walking downstream towards the boat pier No2 (1h30’) only for a short ride (5 min, not including the queuing time) to get back at train station No2 below the hotel Jezero. Walk back to your car (15 min).
Should you hire a local guide?
If you have a good sense of direction, know how to read maps and don’t travel on a clock, generally you don’t need a local guide. A knowledgeable guide will help you see more in less time; provide plenty of interesting facts, present local lifestyle habits & anecdotes, suggest dining options, and most valuably detour around crowded or flooded areas.
Crowds & avoiding them
Fortunately or not, Plitvice lakes are one of most popular travel destinations in Croatia. Since Adriatic Sea is the closest Mediterranean for most central-European countries, millions of passengers herd to spend their vacation here in July and August, many of whom like to detour and visit the lakes. Crowds are inevitable at this time of the season. Queues form at the ticket booths, and in line to board the boats. For incomprehensible reason, NP administration still hasn’t introduced an on-line ticket purchase, with no possibility of making individual ticket reservations either. Therefore, one must queue and wait up to an hour on most crowded days. As travel agents, we can make advance ticket reservations and issue voucher which you may exchange for tickets at the ticket booth, or our guide can wait for you with the tickets. We can’t cut the waiting time for the boats, but we can configure alternative trails to avoid using the boat if your time is limited. It is natural that everyone wants to memorize the experience by taking photos & selfies. Just by doing so, keep in mind not to stand for too long on one spot, since people behind you are queuing up while waiting.
Dining options & gastronomy
The lakes lay in Lika region, a remote and sparsely populated area situated on an elevated plateau. The summers are fresh and short here, and winters cold with plenty of snow. Traditionally it was the land of small seminomadic herding villages which used to be a part of the Ottoman Empire. Gastronomy of the area is simple, sufficient and substantial: Lika style roasted lamb, veal under Peka (an iron bell used to cover meat, potatoes and vegetables, overlay them with hot ashes leave to simmer & bake slowly), sausages with sauerkraut, sheep & cow cheese, skewers and kebabs. Potatoes from Lika are a brand itself, fresh they are exported throughout the country, or roasted Lika style with butter they are a common delicacy.
The largest restaurant is “Lička Kuća” at park entrance No1. They offer traditional style meals. It is a large venue built to accept large groups, several coaches at once. It is a safe bet, decent offer and good value.
Restaurant “Poljana” is next to hotel Bellevue, close to Entrance No2. It consists of two parts: a canteen restaurant with twenty simple, tasty and affordable dishes; and a-la-carte restaurant with mostly local style barbecue dishes.
Within the park, there is a restaurant “Kozjacka draga” at the boat pier. They offer fast food dishes, apple and berry strudel, sandwiches, and only from July to September barbecue meals.
There are three simple diners’ at all three train stations, offering refreshments, ice-cream and sandwiches.
Once inside the park, there are no food & grocery shops, but there is one before the Entrance No1.
Outside the park, there are plenty restaurants along the main road. Most of them offer traditional, local style food. I suggest you to taste roasted lamb at “Vila Velebita” restaurant on route to South and Zadar, or restaurant “Fenix” on route to North and Zagreb. They are very simple places far from being fancy or stylish, but they are clean, food is tasty, portions decent and of good value.
Demand for accommodation usually surpasses the offer, so it may be quite a challenge to find a suitable place to stay. Several hotels are under the direction of the National Park. However, there are no 4* or 5* hotels within the lakes area. Their flagship hotel Jezero is only a 3*, and keen to get refurbished, but it is well situated, close to a park entrance and to the lakes itself, with a decent restaurant. Hotel Plitvice 2* is actually a much better hotel than the starring suggests. It is well positioned, very well refurbished, on a peaceful location and close to the lake and close to the restaurant “Poljana”. It would be my first choice among NP directed hotels. Hotel Bellevue 2* is next to the hotel Plitvice. If you wonder how socialism seemed at its best (and I mean this in a good way), visit this hotel. Built and designed in ’70-es, it is well maintained and remains as a living time capsule. It is simple, clean and affordable. Hotel Grabovac 3* is 10 minute drive from North from the entrance No1. It is of good value, yet nothing to get excited about.
There are several private 4* hotels in the area within 10-15 minutes’ drive from the park entrances. Hotel Degenija 4* is a very good choice, they cherish family atmosphere, and same owners run a general public restaurant nearby. Other 4* hotels are of good quality, but very small with only several rooms to let, so I’ll skip them in this article.
Alternative to hotel accommodation, there are dozens of private apartments to choose from, or several well organized camp-sites as Camp Korana, Kamp Turist Grabovac and Camp Borje. They have good facilities, restaurants, shops and bungalows to hire.
Plitvice lakes NP is not wheelchair accessible. The trails over and around the lakes were not designed for any wheelchair traffic. However, operating on a special request, we do provide services for our disabled guests. This takes extra effort as there are no “off the shelf” services to book, but we gladly meet special requirements so not to deprive our challenged mobility clients of natural beauties. Access is limited and may require additional costs.
What to do in a case of poor weather?
Due to its particular microclimate, it often rains at Plitvice Lakes. Rain doesn’t need to ruin your experience, and one shouldn’t miss the opportunity to visit the lakes because of rain. After all, it’s all about the water, isn’t it? Umbrellas are of limited use; with narrow wooden footpaths laid over the lakes, there is little space to let people coming from opposite direction pass, and umbrellas make it even clumsier to do so. And instead of holding on to a rail, one hand is always holding the umbrella. Therefore, raincoats are better solution. Equipped with a good raincoat and a pair of boots, nothing can stop you from sheer enjoying the park. If rain caught by surprise, there are disposable raincoats to get at shops at both main entrances.
Shopping: maps, raincoats, chocolate
The lakes area is definitely not a shopping area. Seldom souvenirs are sold at both main entrances, and at “Kozjacka draga” souvenir shop at the boat pier. You can get umbrellas or raincoats there, NP logo imprinted t-shirts & baseball hats, bottles of plum liqueur & spirits, snacks & chocolates, water & soft drinks. Park maps are sold at ticket booths at both main park entrances.