Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia
Misty waterfalls, lush forests, pristine pathways
Shh! This hidden Croatian gem rarely makes it onto American travelers’ wish lists – but it should, says travel writer Rick Steves. Read why Plitvice Lakes National Park, a lush land of unique geology and lacy waterfalls should be on your bucket list.
In Croatia’s rugged interior, a stone’s throw from the Bosnian border, hides one of Europe’s most exotic hikes: through Plitvice (PLEET-veet-seh) Lakes National Park. There’s nothing like this leafy valley of 16 terraced lakes, laced together by waterfalls and miles of pleasant plank walks. Years ago, after a dozen or so visits, I thought I really knew Europe. Then I discovered Plitvice and realized you can never exhaust Europe of its surprises.
From the entry, I belly up to a viewpoint for a panoramic orientation. Stretching before me is a European Niagara Falls, diced and sprinkled over a heavily forested Grand Canyon. Heading down the steep zigzag path, I leave cars and concrete behind and enter a lush wonderland. It’s a pristine world of waterfalls, lakes, and trees, populated with Croatian families at play.
The boardwalk trail carries me across the middle of a lake for an up-close view of a row of gurgling waterfalls. Then I walk past Šupljara Cave, the location of a German “spaghetti western” filmed here in the 1960s and still beloved by German tourists today.
As I continue along a path leading to more picturesque cascades, I ponder the strange juxtaposition of Plitvice’s overwhelming natural beauty with its wartime misfortunes. On Easter Sunday in 1991, the first shots of Croatia’s war of independence from Yugoslavia were fired in this park. The predominantly Serbian Yugoslav army occupied Plitvice and the surrounding region until 1995, and most of the Croatians you’ll meet here were evacuated and lived near the coastline as refugees.
Just a couple decades later, there’s not a hint of the recent war and the park is again a popular tourist destination. On a busy day, the park welcomes 15,000 hikers – mostly Croatians and other Europeans, plus in-the-know Americans seeking Plitvice’s charms.
Silent, pollution-free electric boats shuttle hikers across the park’s biggest lake. While waiting for the boat, I chat with the industrious grandmas who sell strudel and wheels of homemade cheese along the lake. Watching these humble yet happy Croatians at work, I feel thankful that the 21st century has brought peace, prosperity, freedom, and stability to this corner of Europe.
At the far side of the lake, more boardwalks lead to the most spectacular stretch of the trail – a wonderland of sleepy trout, Monet greenery, and frisky falls. There are a million ways to catch tiny rainbows in the mist as boardwalks wind around and above the bridal fair of lacy waterfalls. The lazy trout seem to understand that fishing is forbidden – they’re huge, plentiful, and oblivious to the many visitors. As I hike, I watch for the park’s fabled wildlife. The park boasts of hosting deer, wolves, wildcats, lynx, wild boar, otters, and more than 160 species of birds – though on this visit, apart from the throngs of trout, I find only mice. Plitvice is also home to the highly endangered European brown bear … but they have the good sense to stay far from the hiking paths.
Geologists are fascinated by Plitvice. This fantasy world of lakes separated by natural limestone dams – constantly built up by deposits of calcium carbonate, even as they’re eroded by the flow of water – is a “perfect storm” of unique geological features you’ll rarely find elsewhere on earth.
Plitvice is open daily year-round and is on most Croatia bus-tour itineraries. The park limits the number of daily visitors, so it’s wise to buy tickets in advance. It’s possible to get there by public or express bus (two hours from Zagreb, departing several times each day), but is easier by car. Because the park is so well organized for an efficient visit, most visitors find that a few hours to hike the trails is plenty – arrive in the evening, spend the night, hike right after breakfast, and move on after lunch. If the park’s three hotels feel like they were built for big tour groups during the communist era … it’s because they were. To save money and enjoy a more intimate experience, try one of the many sobe (rooms in a private home, like B&Bs) dotting the countryside around the park.
After a few hours of strolling the Plitvice boardwalks, I have a personal ritual: dropping by the rustic park restaurant – with its heavy-timber beams and open wood-fired grill – and dining on one of those trout that have been grinning at me all day. As I review my photos from the day, I marvel that Europe has treats of this scenic caliber that don’t even make it onto most American travelers’ wish lists.
PHOTO CAPTION, ABOVE: Plitvice became Croatia’s first national park in 1949, and it continues to dazzle visitors today with its accessible walkways and otherworldly vistas. CREDIT: RICK STEVES.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours. This column revisits some of Rick’s favorite places over the past two decades. Read more European adventures in his book, For the Love of Europe. Other books include numerous destination-specific travel guides and Travel As a Political Act. You can email Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his blog on Facebook.
©2023 RICK STEVES
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