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Lying midway between Zagreb and Zadar, and in Licko-Senjska county, Plitvice Lakes National Park , composed of 19.5 hectares of woods, lakes and waterfalls, is one of Croatia's top sights, its most popular National Park and a World Heritage Site. The 16 lakes are a stunning turquoise and spill over into waterfalls and bubbling streams. See details on Plitvice's lakes and waterfalls.
Plitvice maintains a pristine environment that is nearly primeval in its beauty. The unique ecology of the lakes is fascinating. The travertine that has evolved over the ages provides a home for endemic plant species while the vast forested areas are alive with birds, flowers, mammals and insects. With 120 species of birds, Plitvice is a paradise for ornithologists. You might even spot a bear, wolf lynx or wildcat in the forest but those animals are shy. Deer, badgers and fox are more visible. More on the travartine, plants and animals of Plitvice.
There's no wrong season to visit Plitvice Lakes. In winter the frozen falls are magnificent; in summer the lush greenery is relaxing; in spring and fall the water volume is highest. Bear in mind that Plitvice Lakes has a "transitional" climate between the continental climate of Zagreb and the coastal climate of Split. The weather is most predictable in summer which is when you'll get the most sunshine and an average midday temperature of 24°C. Summers is also when most visitors arrive. Visiting the park in spring and autumn is a more tranquil experience but it can be rainy, particularly in November. Winter is cold! Bundle up and get ready for some snow. January is the coldest month (-3°C) while February is a dryer month before the spring rains.
The truth is that Plitvice Lakes is one of Croatia's most visited sites and it can become unbearably crowded at the height of the summer season. If you're dreaming of communing with nature in a peaceful environment, I would recommend Paklenica, Risnjak or northern Velebit national parks. The wooden walkways that link the lakes and waterfalls can be elbow-to-elbow in the summer which is why it takes longer than you might think to visit the park. The busiest hours on the walkways are between 10am and noon. Avoid those hours if possible.
The situation is a quieter on the trails which weave through the forest away from the crowded lake area. There are five well-marked hiking trails and two "instructional" trails with panels explaining the flora and fauna, habitats and cultural points of interest. There's also an extensive network of cycling trails which are equally relaxed. Also relatively unvisited is Golubnjaca Cave in the Lower Lakes area.
So how do you visit the lakes and waterfalls? A well-laid out system of wooden walkways allows you to pass all around and sometimes through the water. There are two entrances to Plitvice Lakes National Park with a tourist office at each entrance which will provide you with your tickets and a map. Entrance 1 is the north entrance and Entrance 2 is the south entrance. Buses stop at both entrances.
There are a series of walks of varying durations mapped out from either entrance and all involve walking on wooden walkways, an electric boat ride across Kozjak lake and a sightseeing train. The sightseeing train runs on a road along the eastern side of the lakes, starting from Entrance I up to Lake Okrugljak (ST3). Along the way it stops at Kozjak lake for the boatride (ST2). It is possible to get an overview of the lakes and waterfalls in a rushed half-day but I strongly recommend a full day at least.
The walks recommended by the national park are distinguished by letter and color. From each entrance it's possible to choose a "K" walk in which you can visit all the lakes on foot or one of the shorter walks. There's no advantage to starting from one entrance rather than another. Just choose the most convenient one. The walking trails are clearly signposted making it easy to get around and impossible to get lost. See the park's list of suggested walks.
As the lake and waterfalls district only comprises 1% of the park, there's a great deal to explore if you have the time. Getting away from the crowds allows a full appreciation of the park's incredible biodiversity and even the possibility of glimpsing one of the rarer animals. The park has mapped out several hiking routes with instructive panels explaining the habitats. For more of a workout, try the trails leading to the Medvedak peaks east of the lake district. The trails lead from Entrance I to Entrance 2 and the views over the lakes are unforgettable.
Another trail system explores the Corkova Uvala primeval forest. There are two possible hikes: one of 21km and one of 9km. For all hikes, it's important to have the appropriate gear and adequate water. Pick up maps of the hikes at the tourist office.
There are several cycling trails within and around the national park including a trail that begins at the Korana river, climbs past Kozjak lake and circles around Proscansko lake before descending to Ciginovac. A number of other cycling trails radiate out from the village of Korenica. See a map of cycling trails here.
Rowboats can be rented where the sightseeing train stops (ST2) on the shores of Kozjak lake. The coast is 50Kn/hr.
The two largest restaurants are Poljana near Entrance 2 and Licka Kuca opposite Entrance 1. Both are open long hours, have open hearth fireplaces and serve up meaty regional dishes to individuals and large groups. Kozjacka Draga Buffet and Kupalista Buffet offer more casual snacking along the shores of Kozjak lake. Hladovina Buffet is another casual open-air snack place near Entrance 2 while Slap Cafe offers a similar menu at Entrance 1. There are a couple of cafe-bars at ST1 and ST2 train stops. At the last sightseeing train stop (ST3) along Proscansko lake is Labudovac Buffet which also offers snacks and drinks.
Nothing beats an overnight stay in or near the national park if beating the crowds is a priority. Within the park itself there are only three hotels but for rooms, apartments and bed-and-breakfasts, you'll be spoiled for choice. Prices are reasonable and the quality is good. More.
Plitvice is on the main road between Zagreb and Zadar. There are regular buses from both places and you can book online at Autotrans. Combining a visit to Plitvice with a stay along the Croatian coast is possible but I don't recommend it unless you can stay overnight as the round-trip driving time is a minimum of four hours. Another spectacular national park with waterfalls you can conveniently visit on the Croatian coast is Krka Waterfalls National Park. Plitvice does make a stellar day trip from Zagreb however and, with your own car and an early start, you can spend a day in Plitvice on the way between Zagreb and the coast. See more about getting to Plitvice Lakes.
The unique ecology of the park makes it easy to damage the flora and fauna which is why it is strictly forbidden to stray from the marked trails. As the lakes serve as a reservoir of drinking water for the surrounding communities, swimming, wading and fishing in the lakes are prohibited. Other rules prohibit unleashed animals, campfires, interacting with the animal population, defacing the trees, littering and picking the plants.
The Plitvice National Park tourist office (tel 053-751 015) is just inside entrance #1. There's another information office at entrance #2 where the hotels are. There are information centers at each entrance with large panoramic maps displaying the trails and lookout points as well as hotels, restaurants and boarding points for the sightseeing train and boat. In addition to the tourist offices at each entrances, there are information offices at the dock of Lake Kozjak and at Labudovac falls. Another good source of information is the Plitvice Lakes Tourist Board (tel 053 776 798) based in Korenica.
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