Plitvice National Park - a stunning waterfall paradise
I stepped carefully on the wooden walkway as it crossed directly over and alongside the cascading water. The skies were grey and the light rain continued. It had drizzled off and on most of the morning. The heavier rains, from the previous night, increased the water level to the point it was cresting the walkways in many areas. Six foot boards were strategically placed at spots that were a few inches deep in water to make them easier to pass. Many of the dirt pathways, which run along the sides of each lake, were muddy from the rising waters and in some areas had large puddles. I got the sense that the “flooded trail” signs were brought out frequently – especially since it’s been a wet year for this area.
As I walked along, I was clicking off photos at a dizzying rate while trying to keep the lens dry with the umbrella that I was carrying in my off hand. Was my media card big enough or would I run out of space I remember thinking. There were so many shots to capture – each one seemed better than the last. I needed one eye to absorb the incredible scenery while the other looked out for the pathway perils. The wooden walkways, wet from the fast-flowing water and the constant drizzle, had periodic steps that were hard to see - especially when distracted by such amazing views. The occasional wondering where the walkway had gone only to discover it a fraction of a second later as my foot touched down a little lower than the previous step created a few heart palpitations.
In addition to navigating the occasional steps, the walkway, comprised of logs about 4 feet long and connected together, had no railings. This isn’t a big deal because you’re not high off the ground. I just needed to make sure I didn’t wander off the edge of the walkway and into the water. Trying to navigate around people who have stopped to take a photo or through oncoming traffic was competing with my desire to just gawk at the scenery.
As I hiked along the dirt paths that bordered the lakes, I carefully navigated the large puddles. At times, I felt like a kid playing hopscotch trying to keep my shoes dry. As I approached the larger waterfalls, I could feel the cool spray floating into my face, making it a challenge to keep the camera lens dry. The layout of the paths and walkways, in the park, was fantastic I thought. It allowed you to get down to where the action is and at other times stand back and get a panoramic view of the lake and multiple waterfalls in a single glance.
I had arrived in Plitvice (PLEET-veet-say) National Park, one of Croatia’s natural wonders and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979, on a bus from Pula after transferring in Karlovac. Normally, I like to purchase bus tickets in advance; however, the lady at the station in Pula suggested I get the second bus ticket once I arrive in Karlovac. I took her advice and it worked out well - catching a bus after waiting a mere 10 minutes. The morning and early afternoon rains had stopped by the time I arrived in Plitvice. The sun was breaking through and it was somewhat humid from the lingering clouds. There isn’t a bus station there, per se – just a series of bus stops – each one with a wooden kiosk. Those at entrances 1 and 2 sell bus tickets for those catching a bus to their next destination.
We were heading south on highway 1. I requested the bus driver to drop me at the last bus stop - Mukinje (pronounced moo–KIN-yay). The family-owned and operated Plitvice Miric Inn, my home for the next two nights, e-mailed a map to me with pretty simple instructions – after getting off the bus, continue walking down the highway for seven minutes. In about six minutes (I’m a fast walker) after keeping a weary eye out for cars coming down the highway, I turned the bend and in front of me was a huge sign with the name of the inn on it.
After checking in with and getting all the pertinent park information from Lili, the youngest daughter, I settled in and then took off on a hike to find entrance #2 - about a 30-minute walk from the Inn through the villages of Jezerce and Mukinje. After a little up, it’s downhill, through a quiet and serene forested area, until reaching the entrance. Being somewhat intelligent, my mind told me that it’s then primarily uphill, back to the inn, after walking around the park all day long. That’s fine. I’m in pretty good shape and enjoy hiking. I didn’t go into the park on the day of arrival because I didn’t want to use a day’s ticket with just a few hours left. I seemed to find enough time though to walk about six miles before getting back to the inn.
As described on the map that’s sold in the park, Plitvice has a series of 16 blue and green lakes, large and small, one underneath the other. They’re linked together with foaming cascades and pounding waterfalls that are supplied with water from numerous little brooks and streams.
The most popularly visited areas of the park are divided into two sections – the upper lakes and the lower lakes. Paths border each side of the upper three lakes. On one side, at lake level, is either a dirt path, separated from the lake by a series of rocks, or a wooden walkway that acts as a bridge across any cascades. When the water rises, sections of the dirt path flood, making it difficult to pass without getting your shoes or feet wet. On the opposite side of the lake is a dirt path, higher up, providing a panoramic view of the lake and all of its waterfalls and cascades. In between the lakes, wooden walkways cross from one side to the other and are strategically placed to get you as close as possible to the action – either directly below the waterfalls or crossing over the cascading water. When the water rises due to the amount of rain, the cascading water sometimes crests the wooden walkways as it did when I walked through the park. It’s like being on an E-attraction at Disneyland – there’s action on all sides of you. At the top of the last lake, there is a park tram that will return you to the starting point to help save time. Or you can take the tram to the top initially and then hike down. Or you can hike up along one side of each lake crossing over each time in between lakes and then walk down the opposite side of each lake on your return.
As I departed from entrance 2, I took the lower path, on the left side, of the first lake. The water was cascading over the boulders that were in its way. The wooden paths were right next to the fast flowing water or directly over it. It was like being in an IMAX theatre with surround sound. There was action all around you. You could hear the pounding of the water from all sides. With no railing, I was able to get low to the water, reach out and take close-up photos of the water barreling towards me.
At the end of the first lake, crossing to the other side, on the wooden walkways, provides close up views of the high waterfalls, which connect the first two lakes. There are several groups of falls, each one pounding into the lake below it. Each set of falls stretches for 15 to 20 meters across. As I steadied my camera, the mist was just hammering me. Crossing over to the other side allowed me to take the higher route along the second and the third lakes.
The upper trails are shrouded with beech and fir trees blocking out much of the drizzle. The paths snake along hugging the mountainside. As I stopped at the tree clearings, I had a glimpse of the entire lake and the various waterfalls dropping into it from the lake above it. At the top, I took the tram back down to entrance #2 in order to start on the lower lakes section.
The lower lakes also have trails that run along the sides of each lake. Most people take the park’s boat from entrance 2 to the end of the largest of these lakes – primarily to save time and because there are, for the most part, no waterfalls along this stretch. The drizzle continued as we waited in a crowded line for the next available boat. It was chilly when the wind came up as we crossed the lake. I was glad to only have my Adidas polyester shirt on. It dries much faster than most other tops.
Upon exiting the boat, I proceeded towards the next three lakes, which are much smaller in size, but where the action is. The altitude difference between these lakes varies. Some are just slightly lower than the previous one, which creates one long cascade across the entire lake. Others are much lower allowing for an incredible high waterfall drop. The big crescendo is the Veliki Slap – called the “big waterfall” on the park map. And it does not disappoint. You can feel the water spray as you round the corner and come upon it. Off to the side is a series of stone steps that leads through a tunnel to a high vantage point that’s almost even with the top of the falls.
While crossing over a number of fast flowing cascades, I came upon a cave that had its own walkway across the small, turquoise-colored lagoon in front of it. The steps into the cave were high, wet and a little slippery from the constant rain. After navigating my way into the cave, I noticed there was a back entrance to the trail that leads to the upper ridge. It was pretty cool inside. It was quiet - a respite from all the action going on outside.
From here, you cross over a series of cascades to the other side of the lake and can either continue on the lake-level trail back to entrance 2, or you can climb the trail to the top and either walk to entrance 1 or take the tram to entrance 2. In addition, there are some back trails away from the main lakes that provide additional hiking opportunities.
After a long day of hiking up and down trails and waiting in lines to get your photo at the big falls (and yes, during high season, it can be like Disneyland on a busy day), it’s great to arrive back at your place of lodging for a delicious hot meal if they provide one.
In the evening, there’s not much to do in Plitvice. I’m so glad I stayed at the Plitvice Miric Inn. It’s newly renovated and comprised of two lodges housing 13 guestrooms. It’s owned and operated by the very friendly Miric Family (Milan, Bozica, Milana and Lili) who have hosted guests for the better part of 20 years. I love the cabin feel to the inn. I remember lying in my bed one night listening to the rain hitting the roof above me. They have a large dining/lobby area on the ground floor where they serve breakfast with fruit, juice, eggs, meat, cereal, bread and of course coffee. What I loved most during my stay was the delicious prix fixe meal they serve in the evening. Seatings are at 7, 8 and 9 pm. They have an enclosed patio with about seven tables with another three or four available under a covered patio area.
After a long day of hiking seemingly covering the entire park area, and then a shower and a couple of cold beers upon my return to the inn, I was hungry and ready for dinner. Before any food is served, a small carafe of Sljivovica is placed on the table. This is a traditional Croatian alcoholic drink made from plums. Lili said it helps with digestion and has no sugar so hangovers should not occur. We’ll see. Throughout the evening on many nights, a local friend of the family plays his guitar and sings whatever song you want (as long as he knows it). One of my two nights, he had the whole group singing American country songs well past dinner. It was so much fun after a long day.
Dinner consisted of quite a few courses. The first was a cabbage salad with a light dressing followed, literally, by a pot of chicken soup. I had about three bowls and didn’t finish the pot. Next, comes the entrée, which can be chicken cordon bleu (which I had my first night), or a whole trout, caught in a local river, (which I had my second night) or mixed grilled meats. Served with the meat or fish is a large platter of potatoes, vegetables and rice. There was way more food than I could handle although I felt like I held my own. Now that I was stuffed, I learned we weren’t finished yet. All of this is topped off with a homemade dessert – cherry streudel one night and chocolate mousse the next. After completely stuffing myself, I had some mint tea and decided to see if Lili’s words of advice were true. I sat back and enjoyed a few tiny cups of Sljivovica. Wow (like James Garner and Steve McQueen said in The Great Escape when they distilled their own whiskey before the 4th of July), it's definitely strong. The total for the whole meal - 20 Euros – a great price for such a tasty and filling home-cooked meal. Fast-forwarding slightly, I had no issues with digestion, no need for Tums and I did not have a hangover in the morning. Good call Lili!
To date, I’ve been in Croatia for three and a half weeks. I am so glad that I worked in a few days at this incredible natural wonder – Plitvice. I wish I could’ve stayed a little longer.
Plitvice National Park is located on highway 1 in central Croatia. It is easily reached by car or bus from Zagreb and Karlovac in the north and Zadar and Split in the south.
There are two entrances to the Park - entrance 1 is at the north end. Entrance 2 is near the south end.
There are adult one-day (180 kn) and two-day (280 kn) tickets. Cheaper tickets are available for children and students with ID. Payment can be cash (Kuna) or certain major credit cards. See the Plitvice National Park’s website for more information about operating hours and prices.
Parking is available at both entrances 1 and 2. If heading there by bus, purchase your bus ticket to "Plitvice". The bus stops at entrance 1 and entrance 2. If you need to stop at Mukinje, just ask your bus driver when you board the bus. They do it all the time. You can purchase your exit bus ticket from either of the kiosks located at entrances 1 and 2. Buses depart Plitvice throughout the day so you can “play in the park” on the day of your departure and then catch a late afternoon bus to your next destination. There are bag storage locations at each entrance.
Plitvice is open year round; however, many guesthouses are not. For example, the Plitvice Miric Inn is open from April through October. During the summer, the park is open from 7 am to 8 pm. Get there early or stay late to avoid the crowds.
The Park has suggested trail itineraries based on the amount of time you want to spend. In addition to online, they are posted on large boards at both entrances.
There are hotels and guesthouses in the area. Use a website such as TripAdvisor to find the right one for you - or just stay at my favorite – the Plitvice Miric Inn.