Visiting Plitvice Lake National Park (and the best route to do so!)
While many people associated Croatia with the beaches, there are eight national parks to explore in the country.One of those is Plitvice Lake National Park, arguably one of the most popular of the eight in the country due to its enormous scale and beautiful lakes and waterfalls.
There is lots of info out there on visiting this park but without much context, it was hard to understand the park completely. It took me reviewing many travel blogs and combining them to figure out the best route for this trip (this one was great). Basically, the park is made up of various boardwalk and trail routes that take guests through the park. There is also a network of boats and trams to transport guests – price of admission includes one ride on each. There are two major areas – the upper and the lower lakes. The suggested routes are represented by various letters and organized by lengths of time:
- Lower Lakes (Entrance 1)
- Route A – 3.5 km, 3 hours, easy
- Route B – 4 km, 3 – 4 hours, easy
- Route C – 8 km, 4 – 6 hours, easy
- Route K – 18.6 km, 6 – 8 hours, easy
- Upper Lakes (Entrance 2)
- Route E – 5.1 km, 2 – 3 hours, easy
- Route F – 4.6 km , 3 – 4 hours, easy
- Route H – 9 km, 4 – 6 hours, easy
- Route K – 18.6 km, 6 – 8 hours, easy
I wanted to make sure we saw everything so at first I had us set on doing to Route K and to just do the entire thing. But after reading a bit more (this link), it seemed that there was a good combination of everything. This combination included the lower lakes and the upper lakes, and also included a ride on the Tram and the Boat. While it will look a bit complicated than simply following one route, I have every step laid out and took lots of pictures along the way to explain.
Some fun facts before we dive into the details. Tickets are bought online and the price varies based on the time of year. Summer is high season and the most expensive (200 kuna) but the hours for visiting are longer. The wintertime is not only cheaper (80 kuna, also has free parking) but less crowded and apparently gorgeous since the lakes and waterfalls are frozen. While many people visit for a day trip (either by car or a tour), there are accommodations in the park that can be utilized.
Our day started at 3AM in order to drive the 3.5 hours from Rovinj to Plitvice Lake National Park. It was a tough morning and Kevin did a great job. As we got withing a half hour of the park, we went from rural countryside to dense forest. I expected to see something that indicated we were at the lakes but as we got closer, it was evident we were at the top of the gorge and the lakes would be below us.
When we purchased the tickets in advance, we had to do two things.
- First, you had to select an entrance time. From everything I read, getting there as early as possible meant a more positive experience. Visiting the lakes is very popular in Croatia and those boardwalks can only comfortably fit so many people before it is less pleasant experience. It was unclear how much COVID would impact the crowds and I did not want to take any chances- 7 AM it was.
- Second, you had to select an entrance. This determined where you would start and end your visit. Entrance 1 is at the lower lakes and entrance 2 is at the upper lakes. How on earth do you determine which entrance to select? Based on what I read, it is determined by where you plan on being for the visit and which route you plan on taking. At the time I booked, I had planned on doing the K route so I selected Entrance 1. Even with the change of plans with our route, Entrance 1 worked out. I think if you do not know what your plans will be, selecting Entrance 1 is the safer option as it is the main entrance to the park. Note that there is 10 kuna per hour charge for parking and it has to be paid in cash. If you do not have a car, there are day trips from the surrounding cities that provide transportation as an excursion.
Ok, time to explore the park!
The perfect route for exploring the best parts of Plitvice Lake National Park: Overview
Entrance 1 –> C Route –> take Veliki slap detour –> continue on route C –> do not cross the bridge –> instead take the ramp on the left up to ST1 Tram stop –> stay on until ST3 Tram stop –> H Route / P2 –> when reach P2 take Boat to P3 –> when you get off the Boat take the trail on the left going up –> continue going up until you hit a park stand and the road with cars –> follow road until there is an obvious trail bend off to the right –> there are four viewpoints with little trails like this –> Continue over the bridge on the road for the best view point –> then cross back over the bridge and go down the stair case –> stairs lead back to the Veliki slap detour –> follow signs back to Entrance 1
This took us 4.5 hours to complete. I will break down each of the steps above and highlight exactly how our visit went.
Entrance 1: Follow the signs and park at Entrance 1.
We arrived to Entrance 1 to a rather empty parking lot (yay). After Kevin took a ten minute power nap and I, a much need bathroom stop, we were ready to enter the park. We still had no sight of the lakes so I was quite curious where these massive lakes were hiding. In our bag we had our water bottles, some snacks, and our lunches. We both wore our Xero trail sandals – even thought it was a lot of walking, it did not strike me as hiking and while we saw plenty of intense hiking shoes, they were not necessary and we were fine with our Xero trail sandals.
Before we entered, I took pictures of the trails we planned on exploring. Pro Tip: make this a habit for any trail you encounter – it can be a figurative and literal lifesaver.
After we scanned our tickets, we could validate that we were indeed at the top of the lakes. We could visualize a viewing platform ahead – this was the view we had been waiting for.
Absolutely stunning! We could not wait for this day of exploring these lakes and waterfalls.To the left of the viewing platform is a series of switchbacks down to the bottom of the lower lakes.
Route C : At the bottom of the switchbacks is there the signs with letters begin to appear.
We followed Route C to cross over the lower lake. The water is such a brilliant blue color and and crystal clear – the perfect mirror lakes.
The boardwalk here is a bit uneven so just be careful where you step – these were all placed by hand!
Take the Veliki Slap Detour : After crossing the lake, there is a split in the boardwalk – to the left to continue on Route C and to the right to visit the Veliki Slap (Slap in Croatian is waterfall!) – take the right to visit the Veliki Slap.
The crowd level this early was really low so we knew we were here at a good time – visiting the Veliki Slap is very popular. There is a portion of the boardwalk that goes over several falls for a really cool view.
The Veliki Slap is massive! And we had it all to ourselves. I wonder if the flow of water is high or low for this time of year (fact check). Do not be tempted by the staircase to the left – we will come back to that later with more views of the Veliki Slap from high above.
Continue Route C : Once you are finished admiring Veliki Slap, turn around and go back the way your came. You will come to a split in the road – go left will take you back to Entrance 1, go right and you will continue on Route C – go right.
Now time to enjoy a relaxing walk around the lake!
Shortly starting back on Route C, you will see a sign and set of stairs to the left that takes you to a cave – this was closed when we visited but this is an optional detour while on this route.
Do not cross the bridge : Eventually, there will be a fork in the road – left is for Tram stop ST1, right continues on Route C over a bridge. Take the left for Route K and Tram stop ST1.
While most people (for us, everyone) will continue on Route C, it is time to switch gears and travel to the upper lakes. The road goes up a bit through a few switch backs to get back to the top of the gorge. At the end of this road is the Tram stop ST1. We arrived here at 8:40AM and the sign indicated that the first shuttles began at 9AM with service every 20-30 minutes. I had not incorporated waiting for transportation into our day and began to think just walking Route K would have been easier. But alas, within seconds a tram pulled up and aboard we went. You need your tickets to board the tram as only one ride is included per ticket.
Stay on the Tram until stop ST3 : There are only three tram stops at the park so enjoy your leisurely ride to ST3.
Follow Route H / P2 : When you disembark from the Tram, follow signs for Route H / P2
This part of the park mimics where we started since ST3 is where Entrance 2 is located. We snapped a quick photo of Route H’s map and off we went to explore the upper lakes. Note that Route H and P2 are often on the same trail sign – P2 is the boat stop and will actually be your ultimate ending destination in the upper lakes.
We really enjoyed this section of the lakes – it was quiet and tranquil through the forest and then walkways took us right alongside the lakes. And there are some lovely waterfalls! I certainly did not expect to see many more of these after leaving the lower lakes given what I read but these falls certainly make at trip to the upper lakes worth it.
Keep following Route H / P2 : This will be a long, relaxing walk – just keep following the Route H / P2 signs.
Take the Boat to stop P3 : Once you reach the P2 boat stop, make sure you are on the correct side to board a boat to P3 (one side is for P1, the other is for P3) and if you are confused, there is a ranger there to assist in making sure you board the correct boat. But I will say, it is pretty difficult to mess up because you can visualize the P3 boat stop right across the lake – P1 is going to take you back to the lower lakes.
We took the opportunity to eat our lunch at the dock while we waited for the boat to arrive. There are many scenic places to stop and enjoy but this was a stop of convenience. Make sure you pack out everything you bring!
I am so glad we went for this hybrid option so that we could take a boat ride on this peaceful lake. I will say, the boats are quite slow – they must be electric to be eco-friendly but enjoy the time off your feet.
When you disembark from the boat, go right : Mostly likely you will be getting off the boat with a bunch of other people. There are a bunch of buildings (presumably food and bathrooms) but we did not stop to check them out. We kept right along the water.
When you reach the fork, go left and up : After a short walk from the boat, there is a fork in the road – left and up (which is unmarked) and right towards the letter’ed routes. Continue left on the pavement (do not be nervous if you are the only ones going that direction).
This was certainly the most unclear part of our journey and I am happy to clear it up. Going left and up at this point brings you to multiple viewpoints on the lakes that are well worth the detour. By this time of the day, the boardwalks are more crowded so by doing these viewpoints the in afternoon, you will most likely had them to our selves like we did.
Continue going up until you hit a small park stand and a road for cars : There was a point that the road forked for the left going up and the right going down – we continued left and up which was the right call. There was a ranger posted at a small park stand that we confirmed our journey and even gave us a bonus viewpoint we did not know about.
Follow the road until there is an obvious trail on the right that bends down : We were not sure when we started walking down this road how obvious a trail would be – it is obvious.
There are four viewpoints with littler trails like this : Once on the dirt trail, follow it until you reach all four viewpoints. The view points will have viewing platforms.
The first viewpoint was epic – we could not believe what we seeing! The first viewpoint is so incredible.
There are three more viewpoint platforms along this dirt trail – take your time and enjoy each of these.
Continue over the bridge on the road for the best viewpoint : The fourth view point is where you will see the areial view of the Veliki Slap – go back to the main road and cross over the bridge.
The blogs I was reading indicated that there were the four viewpoints that we just visited. It was the ranger that we spoke with on our way up this portion that mentioned the best viewpoint is actually over the bridge. There is a very obvious dirt trail and viewpoint waiting for you! We were giddy searching for this hiddne gme.
And that ranger was right – this viewpoint is epic.
Cross back over the bridge and go down the staircase : Reverse over the bridge back to the fourth viewpoint of the Veliki Slap. There is a staircase that will put you right back at the bottom of the Veliki Slap where the route started. The stairs also give a great view of the Veliki Slap on the way down.
I was happy to be going down these stairs instead of up. In fact, when we got to the bottom, these stairs were only one direction – going up was not permitted (mostly likely a COVID precaution).
It was much more crowded at the Veliki Slap than it was earlier in the day! This route was definitely paying off.
Follow signs back to Entrance 1 : This will feel familiar because you this repeats some of the first parts of the route in the morning.
But instead of following Route C, turn left to follow the signs to Entrance 1. One benefit of revisiting this area later in the day is the opportunity to see the falls with a different, midday light.
Go up the switchbacks back to Entrance 1 : Do not forget to stop back at that first viewpoint for one final view before heading to the car.
And just like that, we explored Plitvice Lakes National Park – and way under the amount of time I budgeted. This route took us 4.5 hours to complete and that is with a Tram ride, a Boat ride, lunch stop, and plenty of picture taking. While the 3AM wake up for this trip was painful, it was well worth the journey. I could not have been more happy with this route in seeing all the Plitvice Lakes has to offer. Highly recommend adding this to your Croatia itinerary if possible and definitely complete this route.