The Wrong Way to Visit Plitvice Lakes National Park

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Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia is picture-perfect and undeniably beautiful.  This is Croatia’s largest national park and is known for it’s turquoise waters throughout sixteen cascading lakes.  Each lake is interconnected, separated by travertines and waterfalls, so no matter where you are in the park, you’ll hear the sounds of water and likely see it as well (or will see it just around a bend).

Any of these lakes in isolation would be beautiful, but the sheer number of them is what really makes Plitvice Lakes special. The park is well-deserving of a visit, but it’s easy to do it the wrong way.  Here’s a few things NOT to do on your visit.

Gorgeous vantage point of Plitvice Lakes National Park Croatia
Gorgeous vantage point of Plitvice Lakes National Park Croatia

Don’t Underestimate the Distance To Plitvice Lakes National Park

If you’re already in Croatia, you might be fooled into thinking that Plitvice is just around the corner.  It’s not, and I can say that with authority because it’s really in the middle of nowhere.

The park is roughly a 2.5 hour bus ride from Zagreb and even farther from other tourist bases in Split or Istria.  If you decide to go visit Plitvice while you’re in Croatia — and I think you should — be aware that it’ll take some time to get there.

You can absolutely visit by public transportation as a day trip from Zagreb, but from Split the bus schedules are infrequent, so I’d recommend booking a tour instead. You can also start in Zagreb, stop in Plitvice for the day, and continue to Split (or vice versa) — saving you the extra train, bus, or flight!

Don’t Expect Solitude

Being such a popular park, there are a lot of visitors and it seemed reminiscent of the crowds in Yosemite Valley.  Additionally, because there is so much water everywhere, people are restricted to walking on boardwalks so there’s no way to spread out.

Summer is high season, but it’s popular year-round for its changing looks: spring has the highest flow waterfalls, fall brings changing colors in the trees, and winter may just freeze over some of the smaller lakes and falls.  Getting here first thing in the morning or in the evening are the best way to avoid crowds, but you still won’t be here by yourself.

plitvice lakes national park crowds
Midday crowds on the boardwalk
plitvice lakes national park tour groups
It was too easy to get stuck behind tour groups

You can avoid the crowds by going first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon, although that will require you to spend a night in the area.  Officially the park closes for the night, in the evening, but if you drive OUTSIDE of park boundaries to Plitvice Selo, there’s a lovely overlook.  After crossing a small bridge, look for the “Veliki Slap” sign.  Park the car and walk a few minutes to the viewpoint.  I imagine it would be even more spectacular at sunset or under the glow of a full moon!

plitvice lakes overlook
A quiet evening overlooking Plitvice Lakes

Don’t Think You Can Squeeze the Park into An Hour or Two

Perhaps as a side effect of not realizing how far away it is, people only schedule a short visit to the park and pack too much into a single day.  With the crowds, it can take a lot longer to get where you want to be and set up for a photograph on the relatively narrow boardwalks, even if you only want to see one or two things.

plitvice lakes national park waterfall croatia
One of many waterfalls to capture your attention

Remember how I said this is the largest national park in Croatia with sixteen lakes to view?  The main trail between upper and lower lakes is roughly five miles one-way and there are other trails through the surrounding woods as well.  I’d plan on a solid 4-5 hours to see the highlights; more if you’re a serious hiker or photographer.

Don’t Plan on a Swim

All of the lakes are an inviting shade of blue-green, with the hue depending on the angle and intensity of sunlight.  These colors are a result of dissolved limestone and other rock being carried from the mountains and coating the lake floor in a white dust which then reflects the sunlight and sky.

No swimming, but no fishing either.
No swimming, but no fishing either.

To protect this natural setting and keep the lakes in their brilliant colors, swimming is strictly forbidden.  By all means, enjoy the lake from the boardwalks, from an electric boat ride, or paddle yourself in a rental rowboat, but don’t swim.

For swimming, hit the Croatian coastline in Istria.  This FAQ on the Istrian Peninsula will help you organize your stay along the coastline.  (post opens in new window)

More Information on Plitvice Lakes National Park Croatia…

Park hours vary by season, but you can expect gates to be open from roughly 8am until sunset.  Tickets are required and cost 110 kuna (~$20 US) for one-day adult admission or 180 kuna for a two-day ticket, with discounts in the winter.  Services within the park are substantial, with buses, boats, and basic restaurants available.

Cruising from the lower to upper lakes
Cruising from the lower to upper lakes

There are three hotels right at the entrance of the park: Hotel Jezero, Hotel Plitvice, and Hotel Bellevue.  They are convenient for anyone traveling without a car, but otherwise overpriced for the amenities offered.

If you’re willing to drive roughly ten minutes from the entrance, you’ll find locals offering rooms for the night at low prices and a few hotels with either lower prices or better amenities.  We can highly recommend House Nina for a comfortable stay and accommodating host.

Read More: 6 Tips for Finding Hotel Deals (opens in new window)

More Photos of Plitvice Lakes National Park Croatia

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30 thoughts on “The Wrong Way to Visit Plitvice Lakes National Park”

  1. We first visited Plitvice in 1985 (yes, not a typo) and it was still somewhat unvisited. What stood out to us, other than the amazing scenery, is that the park buildings and layout were suprisingly familiar as they looked a lot like US Park Service buildings. I seem to recall seeing a sign at the park at the time that indicated that the US Park Service helped construct the buildings, but I cannot find anything on the web that talks about that.

    We stayed in a guest house just outside the boundaries which was quite an adventure as the family didn’t speak a lick of english. We could barely communicate; we sat in our room for an hour not knowing dinner was ready because they were too shy to come tell us.

    1. @Willy, what great memories those must be! I agree that Plitvice’s infrastructure looked familiar, but I also can’t confirm anything about the US NPS helping to construct it.

  2. What a beautiful place it is! Was there two summers ago, stayed at Hotel Jezero the night before and then spent the entire day in the park. Definitely worth a visit!

  3. Wow, that park sure gets crowded. But it is pretty famous in Europe, though most in US don’t know about it. Your photography is amazing BTW

  4. @Leana, Yes it was quite crowded. My photography skills aren’t great, but in such a beautiful park it’s hard to take a bad picture.

    @Linda, glad you enjoyed it also!

  5. Great post! I was wondering if you rented a car. Do think that is the best option to see the park? Or could one get around and see a lot of it by foot/bus? I was going to stay at Hotel Bellevue and take the bus from Split, but am wondering if the distances to get to areas of the park are too far to comfortably walk and see them. I like to hike, but hiking to get to a hike can be a drag. 😉 Car rentals are pretty pricey in Split. Anyways, enjoyed your post and thought it was pretty informative with nice photos.

    1. @Sheri, I rented a car, which provided a lot of flexibility. Driving/navigating in Croatia is straightforward, but I think in the summer only there are several buses in the area if you prefer.

  6. My husband and I are planning to work our way by car from Dubrovnik to Istra for two weeks in mid July. After reading reviews it seems Plitnice are very crowded. If we stay overnight are we able to walk into the park from hotel (save us looking for parking)and do you still pay entrance fee?
    That way we can start very early to perhaps avoid at least for a few hours the overcrowding.
    Vesna from Australia

    1. @Vesna, If you choose a nearby hotel, it is possible to walk in and avoid parking fees. You will still pay an entrance fee unless you stay at one of the park-operated hotels (which are more expensive). Starting early is a great strategy!

  7. Hey,
    I am travelling tomorrow wirh my two kids yo Croatia, without my husband. After spending about two days in Zagreb, we want to go to Plitvice. I can reach there by bus, it will be a more reasonable option. My question is, within the National Park, do we hike all the time or are there mini buses or cars / vans that can take us aroubd,when we are tired and not willing to walk further? I am a little nervous about this hiking thing, kids are 10 and 12 and they might get tired. Are the hiking trails clearly marked all the way to the lakes?

    Thanks a lot in advance.

    1. @Gaury, All the trails are very well-marked. Doing the entire loop will take ~5 hours, more if you linger and less if you hustle! There are bus/boat transfers on SOME of the trails but not all of them, so be sure to get a map when you arrive at the park and plan your day accordingly.

  8. Hi!

    The pictures showing the crowds pretty well say it all, and I’m seriously thinking of giving the place a miss.

    Earliest bus from Zagreb arrives at Plitviće at about 8:15 a.m. and I expect by then the lineups have already started. (Not about to shell out cash to stay overnight at overpriced accommodation.)

    Two Questions:

    1. The top photo in your article – the first photo the reader sees on the cover – is really stunning. Was it taken in the upper lakes area (Entrance 2??) or in the lower lakes area (Entrance 1??).

    2. Which would you say is the better month to visit Plitviće: October or November? I’m talking in terms of crowds and predicted weather. (I know Entrance 2 is closed in November.)

    The other shots in the article are terrific but the thought of ALL those people there is turning me off faster than a speeding bullet. ???

    1. @Jay, I wouldn’t write off spending the night at Plitvice. The official park hotels are expensive, but there are many guesthouses in the area for 20-60 euros.

      1. You are testing my memory from 3 years ago, but I believe that photo is in the lower lakes area. If you go, please come back and provide an official update.

      2. I would choose October just so there is still some foliage on the trees. The colors would be spectacular, whether they are green against the lakes or oranges/yellows before falling. I think the amazing winter views don’t start until later in the season (but are beautiful in their own way).

      For fall, I imagine a weekday visit would be okay and without terrible crowds, especially if you were there on the 8:15am bus. Many of the tourists are there in summer and are on day trips arriving 10-11am. You’d probably have a little bit of peace. Late afternoon was also manageable and probably my favorite time in the park since the light was changing.

  9. It was spectacular today. We arrived at 7:50 and we were virtually alone until 11AM because we were ahead of the tour buses. We did route H which is C in reverse and avoided almost all crowds for all the Lower Lakes. We did the Upper Lakes last. It was cold -1 at 8AM but perfectly clear and sunny. I would not give this a miss, just get there early. We stayed at a sobe for 25€ in Radovica about 10 min north of Entrance 2.

    1. thanks for sharing! Because of the crowd, it’s important to have strategic planning, I guess.

      you said you did upper lake last which means we should do upper lake when we first arrive in the midday? I think other than the regular program, there are other tracks that most people won’t have time to do?

      We will arrive the park in the midday from Zadar at the end of June, which means the time when the park is very crowded. What should we visit and see first to avoid most of the crowd? then late afternoon when people start to leave, what should we visit? the next morning, we have about 2-3 hours before we drive to Lake Bled in which we will have relatively alone time. Thanks!

      would like to hear your suggestion. Thanks!

      1. @Camille, The entire park gets crowded as the day goes on, so my recommendation is to head first to whichever part you want to see the most. Then work your way through the rest of the park and return to anywhere you want a second look at toward the end of the day or next morning.

  10. thanks. I wonder except the 9 program to explore the lake area. are there other trails and hiking that is worth trying? it’s around the upper lakes or lower lakes?

  11. I plan to visit Plitvice lakes as a part of a tour with Sun Island tours.( we only spend half a day at the lakes on the tour) They offer a boat ride on the Emerald Lakes. Has anyone done this and is this a good way to see a lot of the waterfalls. We are going in September. Another of their tours offer 4 hours of walking tour. Which is the best way to see this area if one only has half a day, which are the highlights?

    1. @Jill, If at all possible, I recommend visiting Plitvice independently if you have limited time. That way, you can go directly to what interests you and ideally go early morning to avoid crowds.

      That said — I think the highlight is Trail C. It can be done in 4 hours if you are a fast hiker and don’t stop a thousand times along the way.

  12. Hi Becky

    You have a easy to read blog and your answers immediately touch upon details of what a potential visitor would like to find out. This is indeed useful for someone like me who is planning a first time family vacation to Croatia.

  13. Hi, my husband and I and our two kids (3yrs and 9months) are ending our 5 weeks long Europe trip in Zagreb end of May. We have 3 days in Zagreb before we fly out. We really would love to visit Plitvice. Any tips on best way to travel and how to prioritise what to see. I was thinking if we should get a private tour or should we hire a car and drive? With two kids we may not be able to cover all there’s to see but let say we have a few hours what do you suggest we see. Happy to hike but nothing to exhaustive.

    1. @Rumana, I think a private tour would be expensive and driving in the area is not hard (and gives you full freedom to start, stop, or pause at any time if the little ones need a break!). The toll road will take 2 hours from Zagreb.

      The hiking is mostly flat, on wooden boardwalks, and very easy. The boats run every 30 minutes and can help you cover ground if you have tired feet. There are also trams, but seemed to have very long waits when I went. Maybe you will have better luck in May (I went in July).

      Most people visit the “Lower Lakes” and Veliki Slap waterfall. The Upper Lakes are different scenery, very beautiful in their own way. In a perfect world, start at entrance 1 and hike Trail B through the Lower Lakes and waterfall. Take a boat ride from the Lower Lakes to Upper Lakes (Pier 3 to P1), then take a tram from Station 2 to ST1 to get back to where you started. It’ll take about 4 hours, depending on how many stops you make and how long you have to wait for a boat/tram.

      Taking the C trip is even better, but will take twice as long so it can be difficult on a day trip once you factor in the driving times.

      The park is open 8am-7pm, and I recommend going as early or as late as possible to avoid crowds.

  14. We are good hikers and also avid photographers, so my preference is to catch early morning and late day light. what routes would you recommended if we did one section the afternoon we arrive and the second section the next morning?

    Also, we prefer to get our tickets when we get there on September 11. Is there any downside to doing that? Does one just go to either Entrance 1 or 2 to get tickets? Same with online tickets?

    1. @Bobbie, I’m not enough of a photographer to be able to help on the best spots for light, etc. But, I’d be tempted to see what you can of the lower lakes on the first afternoon, hoping that most people have cleared that area by late in the day. The next morning, I’d head straight to the section between Lake Galovac and Lake Gradinsko (upper lakes), which is gorgeous and has a lot of variety. Surely since there are so many options for scenes, somewhere will have a lovely morning glow.

      Yes, you can buy tickets on-site. Ask about buying both days at once to save time in line.

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