Pristine, natural & untouched beauty. Words that easily describe Plitviče Lakes National Park in the middle of Croatia. Just a few hours southeast of Croatia’s capital city, Zagreb, sits the 295-sq.-km reserve of lakes interlocked by waterfalls.
We set off to Plitviče from Zagreb, our entry point to Croatia from our previous destination of Belgrade. Zagreb itself is beautiful for a capital although if you can avoid the day train from Belgrade in the hottest days of summer, do so - think 7 hours in 100+ degree weather no air-conditioning, but I digress. Once you make it to Zagreb, it’s worth a day or two stay. We had some great dinners, enjoyed the free walking tour (a staple of ours), & were ready to move on to the cooler mountains of inner Croatia.
In Plitviče dozens of hiking trails weave around the limestone caverns, the minerals rushing in through the streams gives the water its milky appearance, reflecting the blues of the sky & the greens of the lush trees.
You could easily spend hours trekking across the lower & upper lakes, 16 in total, or take one of the several ferries that connect the various park entrances. It’s a serene place to sit & reflect on the grandness of nature in one the region’s most beautiful natural attraction. A reminder of how wonderful the world can be.
Taking time to reflect & enjoy the scenery would be the ideal scenario, however in the height of the summer season, you’re more likely to be dodging selfie sticks & weaving around gawking tourists than be able to appreciate the lakes for what they are.
Don’t get us wrong, Plitviče is amazing & every bit worth the visit, but it is one of those places that's quickly losing its luster among the throngs of tourists. Visiting Croatia in August we knew what we were getting ourselves into, we knew what we had signed up for, but it is the way it lined up & we weren't going to miss our chance for a visit.
Like so many other visiting & local tourists, we headed out of the city to grab some cooler temperatures in the mountains around the national parks. If you are going to visit Plitviče, the absolute best way to do so is to stay in the actual park itself. You can find a few lodges close to the entrances & most provide dinner & breakfast since there aren't exactly a lot of restaurants around.
Our little place was excellent, they cooked up a big communal dinner where your options were basically 1 of 2 things they had in stock that day & if the weather is good you sit out by the open stone oven, sipping on the amazing Croatian wines while you wait.
But the main reason for staying in the park is to rise & shine, bright & early, reaching the entrances before the seemingly unending swarm of day-trippers arrive on their tour buses. If you can imagine a swarm of locusts invading an area, it begins to give you a sense of what the parks look like in the afternoon, only they are worse.
We managed to get in soon after opening & began to make our way to the mac daddy of the falls - the big one which is everyone's first go-to spot. Even early in the day I couldn't believe the amount of people we were already passing & lining up behind to get a shot of the falls & the lower lakes around it. At the time, it felt like everybody had the same idea to get there early - we had no idea how bad the crowds would become.
Luckily, if you are willing to look (& climb a few extra stairs) there are side paths that aren't as heavily marked or traveled. A few friendly tourists pointed us up a hike & short pathway which led to a view point overlooking the lower lakes. It’s a gorgeous view, best we had all day, & hardly anyone bothers to trek up there. Anything off the beaten path is often left overlooked by your average sightseer.
The upper lakes are more numerous, 12 in total, & boast numerous small & midrange waterfalls. If you aren't up for the hike up to the top you can grab a tram & take the 20-minute ride up to the trail’s highest point. From there you weave your way down along the terraced lakes.
Here we began to feel the full brunt of the other visitors. Many times, we came to a full stop, single file along the pathways. At one point, we came to a crossroads, we could stand with hundreds of others in an unmoving line to walk up to the base of a midsize fall or we could just take a slightly different path & walk past them. Just a few steps out we had a far better view of the fall in its entirety, just out from the under the nose of all the other tourists.
Leaving the park, we hopped the ferry to cut across one of the largest of the lakes, bringing us back to our original entry point. By now the lines for the ferries must have been hours long, just to wait & avoid walking through the beautiful, shaded pathways.
As we drove away from the park, thousands were still flooding in. Plitviče is beautiful, everyone should be lucky enough to enjoy it. But, as in so many other places, it may be in as much danger from well-meaning tourists as any natural threat.