If the Dalmatian coast provides one of the most spectacular sailing adventure destinations, Plitvice Lakes National Park offers one of Europe’s best outdoor adventure travel, back-to-nature experiences. Located inland near the Bosnian border and about a 2-hr. drive south of Zagreb, this Croatian jewel is a richly vegetated and visually elaborate canvas of 16 lakes, waterfalls, streams, caves, springs and brilliantly colored water.
Driving on the old road between Zagreb and Zadar, a dense mixture of Alpine-Mediterranean landscape takes over. As the sound of rushing water obliterates every other noise, you know you’ve arrived at Plitvice Lakes. The park, a lush 8 km square, heavily forested plateau and valley features beech, spruce and fir trees and is home to rare wildlife, such as the European brown bear, wolves, eagles, owls, lynx, wild cats and capercailzies. More than 70 bird species breed here as well. The breathtaking turquoise, azure, gray and blue crystal-clear waters of the 12 Upper Lakes (Gornja Jezera) and four Lower Lakes (Donja Jezera) are strung together by cascading waterfalls created through sedimentation of travertine, a particular type of limestone, and miles of pleasant walks.
Put on your hiking shoes to get up close to the park’s breathtaking beauty: A system of wood-planked walkways, stairways and dirt trails lead you along the lakes, past the cascades, natural barriers, pools, springs, caves and crags. The paths literally lead right up to the middle of the waterfalls, where you’ll get great views of the travertine formations. Climb through the slippery caves to the top of the Plitvice plateau for stunning vistas of the forested lakes.
The park offers several hiking routes: For those limited on time, the shortest one runs through the park within 90 minutes. For enthusiasts wanting to experience nature at its best, the longest and most spectacular trail takes 6-8 hrs. Be sure to take the boat ride along Lake Kozjak, the park’s largest lake, connecting the Upper Lakes and Lower Lakes, the lower part of the Upper Lakes being the most striking area of the park.
After a full day of wandering through the mist, stop at one of the wooden strukli (strudel) stalls at the park entrance for a slice of apple, cheese or berry strudel, or enjoy great grilled trout at the Licka Kuca restaurant. If you want to spend a few days in this Garden of Eden, there are hotels within the park limits, and affordable local villas and apartments for rent in the nearby vicinity. To get to know the locals, lodging in a local Sobe (room for rent) is most affordable and highly recommended. This area was involved in the beginnings of the Bosnian war and finding out about the region’s history from a local resident is a priceless education! Sobes are everywhere and are easily found – all you need to do is drive up to one.
Plitvice Lakes National Park is a great active holiday and one of the best family vacation destinations when traveling in Croatia, especially with youngsters. The spectacular wild scenery, the great hiking and back-to-nature adventure outdoors experience is not to be missed.