Covering nearly 115 square miles of mountain lakes in central Croatia, Plitvice Lakes National Park is the country’s largest protected park area and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Due to their unique geography, the many pools, cataracts, and small cascades of the Plitvice Lakes are constantly evolving. Because vegetation around the lakes is preserved by the constant cascading of mineral-rich water from the limestone bedrock, it eventually becomes part of the shoreline, rather than simply dying and slowly dissolving. Thus, unlike most rivers committing to a path through stone and retaining a constant form, the Plitvice Lakes constantly shift with the creation of raised shorelines, dams, or channels, as well as the appearance or disappearance of waterfalls as the mineral content changes.
Additionally, the abundance of dissolved minerals gives the lakes their ever-changing blue and green hues, which vary depending on the season, recent weather, and even time of day. Perhaps equally stunning, though, is the complete lack of sediment in the water, which provides perfect visibility, often all the way to the bottom. This affords a flawlessly clear view of the underwater flora and fauna, not to mention the dramatic, mineral-encrusted trees resting at the bottoms of the lakes.
Over the course of the two days we spent there, we covered virtually every trail around the main park area. And while the accessible trails, convenience of nearby amenities, and spectacular sights make this an extremely popular destination, simply arriving when the park gates opened guaranteed us a couple hours of surprisingly serene sightseeing, even at the most popular spots. Furthermore, an early morning visit, which left much of the lower lakes in shadows, provided a great opportunity to photograph the falls using long shutter speeds to smooth out the water. While a ferry offers a quick, 15-minute cruise across the largest lake (separating the upper and lower lake areas), a thin winding path threads its way along either side of the turquoise lake. The paths along the lake were all but deserted as day-trippers from Zagreb or the coast largely opted for the time-saving boat ride, which promised us a peaceful walk, lots of unobstructed photography, and an assortment of colorful wildflowers and twittering birds along the way.
If you’re interested in hiking around the park, you should be able to fit just about all the trails into a single day, for a total distance of about 15 miles (24 km) and 1,200 feet (365 m) of elevation gain, including all of the circuits. While the main boardwalks across the lakes and in front of the iconic falls can be rather crowded, it is surprisingly possible to escape the hoards of pedestrians. By arriving early you avoid the throngs of tourists being bused in from the city (usually the buses don’t arrive until after 10 a.m.), and by venturing to some of the longer, outer trails and aforementioned lake paths you avoid the many tourists rushing to see the park in just a few hours. Our strategy was to begin one morning at Entrance 1 (lower lakes) and the second morning at Entrance 2 (upper lakes), ensuring we got some tranquility and favorable conditions for photography at both locations (especially if you’re shooting on a tripod, which becomes challenging when the wooden boardwalks vibrate relentlessly under constant foot traffic).
Total distance: 13.9 miles
Elevation gain: 1,218 feet
Total distance: 11.7 miles
Elevation gain: 1,086 feet