Both Jenn and I were extremely excited to see Plitvice Lakes National Park, a place that many don’t know by name, but often recognize from photos in travel articles that frequently start with the words, “Top 10 Most Beautiful…” The national park covers nearly 115 square miles of mountain lakes in central Croatia, making it the largest park in the country. It is even home to Croatia’s largest waterfall, Veliki Slap (‘Large Waterfall’), which is over 78 meters (256 feet) in height.
The lakes are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, thanks in part to the unique process which forms the small lakes, cascades, and waterfalls. Limestone causes the water to have a very high mineral content, and the cascading water creates a significant amount of foam and splashing, which coat the surrounding dense vegetation with the minerals. When the plants eventually die and fall into the water (or, in the case of mosses and lichens, simply remain on the shoreline), instead of slowly dissolving, the mineral deposits preserve the vegetation and cause it to become part of the shoreline. Over time, this creates raised shorelines, dams, and channels in the lakes, causing the entire area to regularly change shape and flow. Unlike most rivers carving through limestone bedrock, which typically remain in a stable shape once they’ve committed to a path through the stone, the Plitvice Lakes are constantly shifting, with small cascades and larger cataracts appearing and disappearing as the buildup of minerals 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. Jenn and I were particularly amused by the constant presence of large, apparently very laid-back trout, who appeared unperturbed by the crowds wandering by mere feet from them, and were content to simply drift along in the light currents beside the shores.
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. We also opted for a ferry ride one afternoon (a 15-minute cruise in a full boat through the middle of the largest lake). While we found it pleasant enough, it was much less enjoyable than the few kilometers of trail that it bypasses – a thin, winding path that threads its way along the banks of the turquoise lake, covered with wildflowers and twittering birds. The ferry (and a tram available elsewhere in the park) ensures that some of the connecting trails to the popular areas are virtually empty, promising lots of unobstructed photography and a peaceful walk around the lakeshore. Despite often sharing the views with many other visitors, though, we found the Plitvice Lakes to be an absolutely stunning place, and definitely well worth a visit.
Total distance: 13.9 miles
Elevation gain: 1,218 feet
Total distance: 11.7 miles
Elevation gain: 1,086 feet