When I’m with a group of people who I have started to get to know, my favorite question is, “What is the most beautiful place you have ever seen?” My answer has always been Wudang Mountain in China. Plitvice Lakes National Park gives it a run for its money.
I cannot begin to describe to you the beauty of this place. There is a reason it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. From their site:
“The waters flowing over the limestone and chalk have, over thousands of years, deposited travertine barriers, creating natural dams which in turn have created a series of beautiful lakes, caves and waterfalls. These geological processes continue today. The forests in the park are home to bears, wolves and many rare bird species.”
If you decide to go, there are a few decisions to be made which can feel a little overwhelming at first. I am here to help.
Decision #1 – Day trip vs stay the night
You can stay the night near Plitvice Lakes National Park or make a day trip out of it. We opted for the day trip because we were already stretching to fit this in. It is about two hours plus and minus some depending on traffic, number of bus stops, routes, etc from Zadar and Zagreb. It was a long day, compounded by transportation issues. By the time we made it back, we were exhausted. But happy with our decision because heading to our next destination that evening made the most sense for our travel plans.
Depending on your time and what you plan to do in the park, it may make sense for you to stay a night. Just know, you don’t have to.
The other big decisions- what entrance do you use, what hiking trail do you take, do you combine multiple hiking trails? Do you go to both the upper and lower lakes? It can all be very confusing, so let’s figure it out.
Decision #2 – Which lakes to visit
Both the lower and upper lakes are a must. The Upper Lakes have boardwalk trails that wind through the park and around the lakes and lots and lost of more waterfalls! The Lower Lakes has lots of waterfalls including the big waterfall, Veliki Slap. This is through Entrance 1.
You have traveled all the way here. Please take the time to go see both. That decision was easy!
Decision #3 – What hiking trails do I take?
Earth Trekkers has great information on what hiking trails to take at Plitvice Lakes National Park, which are called Programs. Here is what they say:
This trail starts at Entrance 1, goes downhill to the boardwalk trails where you will see Veliki Slap and waterfalls along the lower lakes. At Kozjak Bridge you turn around and then walk or take the shuttle back to Entrance 1. 2 – 3 hours, 3.5 km, easy.
This is Program A but you cross Kozjak Bridge, take the boat to the other side of Kozjak Lake, and return to Entrance 1 by shuttle or by the walking trail along the lake. 3 – 4 hours, 4 km, easy.
Program C is a continuation of Program B. Once you disembark the boat on the far side of Kozjak Lake, you walk the boardwalk trails along the upper lakes and waterfalls. Take the shuttle back to Entrance 1. 4 – 6 hours, 8 km, easy.
This is the one we did! It was perfect! We got done in a little over 4 hours even though we stopped to take plenty of pictures and really took our time!
Starting at Entrance 2, you ride the boat across Kojzak Lake and walk the trails through the upper lakes and waterfalls, ending back at Entrance 2. 2 – 3 hours, 5.1 km, easy.
From Entrance 2, take the boat across Kozjak Lake and walk the trails around the lower lakes. To get back to Entrance 2 take the shuttle or walk the hiking trail. 3 – 4 hours, 4.6 km, easy.
Take the shuttle from Entrance 2 to the top of the upper lakes (St3). Walk the boardwalk trails along the upper lakes until you get back to Kozjak Lake. Ride the boat across Kozjak Lake and walk the trails along the lower lakes. From Entrance 1, ride the shuttle back to Entrance 2. 4 – 6 hours, 9 km, easy.
This is an 18.6 km walk through all of the lakes of the park. Basically, you are hiking around all of the lakes without taking the boat or shuttle.
Decision #4 – How to get there and leave
Your options are renting a car or taking a bus. We read everywhere that the buses in Croatia were better than the trains because they are privately owned. This was not our experience. We constantly had issues with the buses and no issues with the trains. Maybe it was just our luck, I’m not sure.
We took a bus. The way there, no problem. The way back, is a different story.
Our bus story
We had pre-purchased tickets to Zagreb with seats assigned. We picked a late time because we knew we wanted to have the whole day at the park. To ensure we didn’t miss our bus, we got to the bus stop with ample time. It was the last one of the day. It was very important that we made it on that bus.
Finally, it arrived, hooray! As we tried to put our luggage on, we were told by the bus driver there was no room. What do you mean there is no room? We purchased a ticket. We have assigned seats. He said, “No room” and wouldn’t open the luggage area under the bus for us. He tried to close the door and drive off. My friend and I wedged our bodies between the door so it couldn’t close. We were getting on that bus.
We had nowhere to stay and would be stranded. There are places to stay around Plitvice. We had no clue if they had vacancies and we already had a hotel paid for in Zagreb waiting for us. Not to mention, we had to make it on a train the next day to our next destination. Not getting on that bus, was not an option. The bus driver told us to move. We asked if there were any more buses coming that day, he said, “No.” We didn’t move.
There was a considerable length of time where we went back and forth. Eventually, he just gave up arguing with us. We got on the bus and yes, you guessed it, it was full. We sat down right in the aisle for the 2.5 hour bus ride to Zagreb.
Yes, it was uncomfortable sitting on the floor of the aisle, and yes, we had been walking for hours and hours that day and were exhausted, tired, and frustrated. But we were on the bus. We weren’t stranded, we were headed to our destination. As we sat there on the dirty aisle of the bus (did I mention that I was pregnant at the time?), I felt almost accomplished that we had made it. Like we had won, but then I also like we had lose. I wondered what cultural misstep we had made.
Were we the annoying Americans who didn’t understand a cultural norm? Were we standing there waiting for a bus like idiots, when everyone else knew there was no way we were getting on that bus? I had read countless blogs and hadn’t seen any mention of the possibility of something like this. I don’t know the answer to this.
As we got into the city and people started to get off, passengers on the bus started motioning for us to sit with them. It was very nice and they must have felt bad for us sitting in the aisle. We met so may wonderful people while we were in Croatia even on that bus ride!
There’s Plitvice Lakes National Park! I would love to hear about your experience there or any “fun” bus rides you have had.
Photos by Jennifer Smith