Plitvice National Park in Croatia is considered to be one of the most beautiful natural sights in Europe. Due to its natural beauty and significance, this system of 16 interlinked lakes and a large forest complex around it were set aside as a national park in 1949. In 1979 the park was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Humans have inhabited the Plitvice Lakes area for thousands of years. It has been settled in turn by Illyrians, Thracians, Celts, Japods, Romans, Avars, Slavs and Turks. In 1528 the area fell to the Ottomans before being retaken by the Austrian Empire 150 years later. The Austrians subsequently incorporated it into their Military Frontier and, in addition to the native Croats who already inhabited the region, Serbs who had fled Ottoman repression settled there.
The Plitvice Lakes had became a major tourist attraction in the late 19th century. The first hotel was built there in 1896, and as early as 1893 it already had a conservation committee - the predecessor of today's national park authority. In 1949 the communist government of Yugoslavia nationalized the lakes and made them a national park. The park was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979 in recognition of its "outstanding natural beauty, and the undisturbed production of travertine (tuff) through chemical and biological action".
The park soon became one of Yugoslavia's most popular tourist attractions. However, in March 1991 it became the scene of the Plitvice Lakes incident - the first armed confrontation of the Croatian War of Independence that resulted in fatalities. The park was held by forces of the Republic of Serbian Krajina during the conflict and suffered some damage in the process, with hotels and other facilities being used as barracks. At auto-camp Grabovac there was massacre of civilians (three children) by the Yugoslav Army in September of 1991. It was retaken by the Croatian Army in August 1995 during Operation Storm, which ended the Croatian war.
The war led UNESCO to add the park to its List of World Heritage in Danger. Due to the economic importance of the park, the Croatian government made it a priority for its de-mining efforts, and in December 1998 UNESCO recognised the park's newly mine-free status by removing it from the list of endangered sites. However, the surrounding Plitvice municipality outside the park boundary still has some problems with mine contamination.
The lakes are situated on the eponymous Plitvice plateau, between the mountains of Lička Plješevica (Gornja Plješevica peak 1,640 m), Mala Kapela (Seliški Vrh peak at 1,280 m) and Medveđak (884 m). The sixteen lakes are separated into an upper and lower cluster formed by runoff from the mountains, descending from an altitude of 636 m to 503 m over a distance of some eight km, aligned in a south-north direction. The lakes collectively cover an area of about two km², with the water exiting from the lowest lake to form the Korana River.
The Plitvice Lakes lie in a basin of karstic rock, mainly dolomite and limestone, which has given rise to their most distinctive feature. The lakes are separated by natural dams of travertine, which is deposited by the action of moss, algae and bacteria. The encrusted plants and bacteria accumulate on top of each other, forming travertine barriers which grow at the rate of about 1 cm per year.
The lakes are renowned for their distinctive colours, ranging from azure to green, grey or blue. The colours change constantly depending on the quantity of minerals or organisms in the water and the angle of sunlight.
The lakes are divided into the 12 Upper Lakes (Gornja jezera) and the four Lower Lakes.
Flora and fauna
The Plitvice Lakes national park is heavily forested, mainly with beech, spruce, and fir trees, and features a mixture of Alpine and Mediterranean vegetation. It has a notably wide variety of plant communities, due to its range of microclimates, differing soils and varying levels of altitude.
The area is also home to an extremely wide variety of animal and bird species. Rare fauna such as the European brown bear, wolf, eagle, owl, lynx, wild cat and capercaillie can be found there, along with many more common species. At least 126 species of birds have been recorded there, of which 70 have been recorded as breeding there.
Buses between Zagreb and Zadar or Split will stop at the entrance to the National Park if you ask the driver beforehand. (Cost from Zadar 83 kn) Keep in mind that buses in Croatia often do not run on time. They can come early or late, and either way they stop only long enough to pick up riders and then continue on their way. Especially in a place like Plitvice, which is quite a distance from a stopping point on a bus route, get to the bus stop early and plan on waiting for awhile.
A ticket is required to enter the park (there are ticket offices on the paths as you enter the park). The tickets also entitle you to free travel on the boats which run on the lakes.
The price for a non-student ticket is 110 KN. An ISIC student card is required to get a student discount.
The paths near the entrance of the park are extremely well maintained and it is a relatively short walk (about 1 hour) around the nearest lake. Boats also operate on the lakes and there are small buses (which are useful to take you up hills). The cost of all of these is included in the entrance price.
Paths, mostly made of wooden planks or gravel, will take you through the whole park. In most places they are wide, but since the park is extremely well visited they can feel very crowded during the day. The park have made some different routes through the park so it is easy to choose how much you want to or have time to see. A walk from one end of the park to the other normally takes around 4h, but due to the unique views the park offers it is a shame to be in a hurry. Take your time and enjoy it. As told elsewhere both buses and boats are free so it is possible to plan a walk zig-zagging up or down the lakes and the many waterfalls, and then not have to walk back the same way.
Many of the paths can be used by disabled persons, but since there is a few steps here and there is some height differences between the lower and the upper lakes it will take a strong helper to get around with a wheelchair.
Plitvice Lakes National Park is perhaps the most beautiful natural wonder in Croatia. In addition to the numerous waterfalls, a bevy of wildlife can be seen, including fish, frogs and a variety of bird species. Special attractions at Plitvice include the Veliki Splat, a 100 foot waterfall surrounded by nearby boulders to which tourists have access. There is also a large waterfall complex that can be access via a cave in the surrounding rock face.
The main attraction is obviously the hiking and walking in the area. Keep in mind that swimming is not allowed anywhere in the park.
Tip: If you arrive at the same time as a big group, walk one of the very well established routes in reverse. You'll probably be walking uphill for most of the trek, but you'll probably not see another person for a few hours.
There are souvenir shops at the main entrance of the park.
In addition to snack shops at the entrance and exit of the park, there is a large picnic area with various food stands which can be reached via ferry across the main lake.
There is a travel agency at the entrance to the park. From here, you can organize for a homestay. There are numerous locals who will rent bedrooms in their house and provide food for a competitive price.
Several large hotels have been built by the entrance to the park. These largely cater to older European tourists. If you are looking for less expensive lodging, ask around- some local apartment owners rent out rooms for low prices, in the range of $10/person.
There is also a camping site in the nearby town, mostly used by people visiting the park. Facilities are fine, good clean toilets, a small shop, and a couple of dining places. Camping can be made wherever you want; it is possible to choose a place between the trees, or a cosy hole in the hills or a more open place with a magnificent view.
As long as you are staying at the camping site, your ticket to the park can be renewed for free at the information office. It’s a good way to spend more time at the park and visit it outside the busier hours. Parking at the park is free, but if you don't want to drive the camping site arranges buses to and from the park in the main season.
It's worth noting that this area is one of the only remaining regions of Europe where bears roam. It would probably more interesting than dangerous to see a bear, but were you to surprise a mother and her cub because you did not expect to see bears at all, you could be in danger. A lone bear is more frightened of you than you are of it. Yell and bang something that makes loud noises, and the bear will almost always run off. Bears can run and climb faster than you can, and running signals “prey,” so don’t run.
Buses to and from Zagreb, Zadar, and Split will stop at bus stations near park entrances 1 and 2. If the bus is not full it will take on more people. Bus schedules are posted at information stations near entrances to the park, although the buses do not always run exactly on schedule, and the times listed reflect the bus schedule during peak tourist season. During low season fewer buses run - it is important to ask.
The bus schedule will be available in the ticket office at the entrances, also, taxi drivers will await near the bus stations and will offer to drive for the same price of the bus ticket if around 10 persons are willing to take the taxi. It costs the same, takes an hour less and most probably they wouldn't charge for the extra baggage (The bus service charges extra). If the taxi driver is kind enough, he will also provide something like a tour guide and will leave you close enough to your destination.
If for example you are waiting for the Zadar bus at 5pm, a taxi driver will be waiting 15 minutes early to attract customers, and when arriving at Zadar, if your are going to take the ferry, the driver might leave you near the pier.