No trip to Croatia would be complete without a visit to Plitvice Lakes National Park, which is regularly heralded as one of the most gorgeous natural landscapes in Europe and, possibly, the world.
Other words used to describe Plitvice include “otherworldly” and “magical.” Convinced yet? There’s a lot to understand about this natural wonder, so read on for what you need to know before you visit Plitvice Lakes National Park.
What Is Plitvice Lakes National Park?
As the name suggests, Plitvice Lakes is a Croatian national park. In fact, it’s the oldest and largest national park in Croatia — the country gave it that designation in 1949. What’s more, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Today, the park spans a little more than 115 square miles (300 square kilometers) and straddles Lika-Senj and Karlovac counties.
It’s located not far from Croatia’s eastern border with Bosnia and Herzegovina between two mountain ranges: the Lička Plješivica range to the southeast and the Mala Kapela range to the west.
Though the park is best known for its stunning lakes, they actually make up just one percent of the terrain here. The majority of the park is forest, with a little bit of grassland mixed in.
What Makes It Unique?
Hands down, the 16 awe-inspiring lakes within the park are what set it apart — they’re breathtakingly gorgeous, and you’ll want to have your camera ready at all times. It’s not just the lakes’ rich emerald green color and crystal-clear waters — it’s also the geography itself that makes them so beautiful. The lakes, which cascade into one another, are divided into the Upper Lakes and Lower Lakes, all leading down to a picturesque set of Plitvice waterfalls.
The lakes were formed by a quirky process known as “tufa formation,” which occurs when plants, algae and mosses harden into rock formations. There’s so much calcium carbonate in the water here that it essentially sticks to the plants and microorganisms and hardens. These petrified mosses form the barriers in and around the lakes.
Ways To Explore
There are 36 kilometers of hiking trails and 22 kilometers of walking trails for exploring the lakes. Some of the pre-determined lake walking routes involve riding electric boats and visitor trains, but you can also do that on your own by showing your park entrance ticket. The lake walking routes range in length from two hours to eight hours, but they’re all loops, so you don’t have to worry about getting lost and you’ll finish where you started.
Unfortunately, you can’t swim in any of the lakes, nor can you hike off the designated paths and trails. As tempted as you might be, you can’t take any plants or other “natural souvenirs” home with you, either. The park also asks all visitors to abide by the “leave no trace” philosophy, meaning that the park should look exactly as you found it when you leave.
Depending on the time of year, you’ll want to bring an umbrella and a raincoat, or sunglasses, sunscreen and a hat. If it rains during your visit, don’t fret — some visitors say the park is even more beautiful in the rain. As you might imagine, it’s also lovely during the winter months.
There are 12 restaurants and bistros within the park (also known as hospitality facilities).
What You Will See
Aside from the obvious main attractions — the lakes and waterfalls — you should keep your eyes peeled for a diverse group of animal and plant species at the park. Just to name a few of the trees that grow here, you’ll find spruce, silver pine, alpine beech, beech-fir and hop hornbeam.
Bring your binoculars (if you have room in your suitcase), because a number of bird species call the park home (168 to be exact), including eight types of owls, nine types of woodpeckers and 12 types of raptors. Interestingly, there are also 37 nesting birds in the park who are listed as vulnerable, near-threatened, endangered or critically endangered species, including the honey buzzard, the Eurasian pygmy owl, the black stork and the peregrine falcon.
Of course, birds aren’t the only living creatures here. You may also spot one of the 50 species of mammals who live in or visit the park, such as deer, brown bears, lynx, grey wolves, bats and otters. There are also hundreds of types of insects in the park, including an impressive 321 butterfly species. You may also see lizards, fish, snakes and salamanders.
Sarah is an award-winning writer and editor based in Longmont, Colorado. She regularly writes about travel, nature, food, fitness, education, personal finance and other topics.