Plitvice Lakes: Should you go in Summer?
Plitvice Lakes Primer
If you’ve not yet heard of Plitvice Lakes National Park, allow me to give you a quick rundown. Located in north-central Croatia, it is Croatia’s largest and oldest national park. Created in 1949, it was designated a UNESCO site in 1971. It is open year-round, with hours and prices varying by season. It is comprised of 16 lakes, famous for their intense turquoise hue. This amazing color is due largely to the karstic limestone in the area. The jewel-like lakes are the main draw, but cover just 1% of the park’s area. It’s much easier to drive to the area, but it is also possible to arrive by bus or part of a tour.
This famous Croatian National Park was besieged by a whopping 1.77 million visitors in 2019! In 2020 that number fell dramatically to just 446,000, but numbers are rapidly rebounding. Tickets are timed, and if you miss your window you’re out of luck. Hopefully this will help moderate the visitor numbers, since pre-2020 levels of tourism were just too much for the park.
Despite being almost 74,000 acres, many visitors arrive on day tours from Split or Zadar. They really pack in for the main attractions between about 10:00am and 4:00pm. The wooden boardwalks in the most popular areas are thick with day trippers during this time. Even though there were still fewer August visitors to Croatia than prior years, Split had seemed packed to gills. This left me wondering if I’d be able to enjoy the uniquely stunning scenery.
Personally, I try to avoid crowds as much as possible. Especially in nature, it’s just more enjoyable when there as few humans as possible around. At the time, I was torn between Plitvice Lakes or Krka National Park. Krka is also stunning, with impressive falls of its own. Up until January of 2020 you could swim below the falls at Krka but no longer. I would likely have ended up at Krka if swimming were an option. Plitvice is easily reached from Split. If you are short on time it would be an ideal choice for a day trip from Split.
I was driving from Zadar, which is less than 2 hours from Plitvice. If you can rent a car (from Zadar or Split) to visit either park I absolutely recommend doing so. You can arrive right at opening, well before the day tour buses. This will allow you to really enjoy the parks at your leisure, dodging the crowds. After far too much hemming and hawing, I caved and decided to visit Plitvice Lakes.
I wanted to see as much of the park as possible, so I shelled out the 350 Kuna (about 55 USD) for the 2 day ticket option. Tickets were also timed entrance, but you can stay in the park as long as you like.
Tickets are most expensive in the summer (prices vary by season), but parking isn’t that bad at 10HRK/hr (about 1.55 USD). There aren’t really easy/cheap options to avoid the official parking (nor free parking close by), but if you are traveling in a group it’s not bad. Alternatively, you can choose lodging inside the park area and walk, take the shuttle, or hire a taxi. Park either before 8AM or after 3PM to avoid parking in Timbuktu or circling for 20 minutes.
Amazingly I was able to book a room for the night about 15 minutes from the north park entrance off the 42. It was simple and about $40. Considering the it was last minute in peak season, I felt pretty lucky. There are numerous guest houses and apartments in the area around the park. As long as you plan in advance or are traveling outside of peak season, you shouldn’t have any problem finding cheap accommodation.
Near the south park entrance, Hotel Jezero is reasonably priced (considering the location) and positively rated overall. The restaurants immediately around the park are fine in a pinch, but don’t expect too much. South of the park there are even more hotels and a shuttle bus to take you directly to the park’s entrance, or you can walk the 1.5 miles instead.
Plitvice Lakes Day 1
On day one I was able to check in early before heading to the park. I arrived at the north parking lot (the main one) around 2:00PM and didn’t have too much trouble parking. People spending a half day in the park are leaving around this time, so you have a decent shot at a spot. Driving a small car helped, as I was able to wedge into a scrap of space alongside a tree. There is dedicated RV parking, but you cannot park overnight so don’t plan on it. Also, they do not accept cash to pay for parking. Keep your ticket somewhere safe as you’ll pay at a kiosk before heading back to your car and exiting.
Signs from the lot (there are a restaurant, convenience shop, and restrooms) point you to the elevated walkway to the park entrance. Entrance was easy – I just showed my ticket on my phone. Park staff are friendly and helpful. They suggested itinerary options, are there are numerous trails throughout the park. Itinerary B is the most popular (and crowded), which takes you past some of the most famous sights in the park.
From the Veliki overlook, you’ll head downhill and along the famous boardwalks to an up-close view of Veliki. This route gets very crowded. Not just because of popularity, but as there are major intersections. If you do stop for photos (it’s impossible to resist), do try to be quick and stay aware of your surroundings. Many of the worst traffic jams were caused by oblivious visitors blocking the flow. You have about 5-10 seconds tops before you are the cause of a rather obnoxious problem. They’re quite narrow in this area of the park, so it’s impossible to get completely out of the way in all but a few areas.
Despite the crowds, it’s hard not to be wowed by such a dramatic introduction to the park. I found myself wondering if I needed the two day ticket or the best stuff was indeed at the beginning, in the lower lakes. I was also hoping the crowds would thin out, or at least wouldn’t increase. Most people were pretty good about being aware of the limited space and traffic flow, but the few that weren’t meant calling upon some zen techniques. No sense in letting a handful of fools ruin a good time! If you are short on time, this would likely be the finishing point of your visit.
Leaving the Lower Lakes
At Milanovac (download this Plitvice Lakes Map for your visit), things feel a bit calmer. Since there are no big “stars” on this stretch, most people keep moving. Cross just before Kozjac Lake, where it’s a short hop along the trail to the main ferry crossing. Here, you’ll find an abundance of picnic tables, restrooms, and a simple cantina. This is the “long” ferry, which while included on your ticket only gives you one use. The short shuttle ferry you can use as often as needed. After a little time lakeside, I got in line for the ferry. It runs often enough that you won’t have to wait more than 10-15 minutes in most cases.
The ride itself is delightful. Since I was one of the first in line, I was able to choose an outside seat. This, allowed me to marvel at the insane neon blue of the water. So far, even with crowds, Plitvice Lakes was living up to the hype. I found myself nearly doing the cartoon eye rub-double take. The intensity and richness of the blue – a shade of blue I can’t say I’ve seen anywhere else – is truly incredible. During peak season the ferry takes you to the opposite shore. From there you can head south on the eastern trails. However, I recommend taking the short shuttle ferry across, as those trails provide some of the best views of the upper lakes.
The Upper Lakes
By this point it was already 5:00PM, and with the park closing at 8:00PM, I wouldn’t have time to explore everything. I also wanted to get back to the Veliki Slap overlook in hopes of sunset coming through and providing amazing photo opps. I had enough time to explore the trails around Gradinsko and Milino Jezero. Since I couldn’t take the long ferry back to where I started, I would have to walk all the way back to the main overlook. The falls and trails around Gradinsko and Milino are fabulous. Especially at this point, as there weren’t very many people lingering in the park.
Wrapping up Day 1
I did have to hustle a bit on the return to the lower lakes, as time has a way of disappearing rapidly here. As I walked along the near-deserted paths, I found myself deciding that summer is indeed an excellent time to visit. Even in the middle of the day the temperatures weren’t terribly hot. With more hours of daylight, it would absolutely be possible to spend an entire day in the park. You would need to arrive at first opening and stay until close, but you could conceivably see almost the entire park this way. Indeed, it would be a lot of miles but if you’re used to that, then no biggie!
Happy but tired an hungry, I paid for my parking and headed home for the night. A tip on dining near Plitvice Lakes: many restaurants were very busy as most visitors tend to eat around the same time. I chose a place near my b&b that had a respectable rating and grabbed one of the last available tables. The food was simple and hearty, and reasonably priced for an area that could probably get away with gouging. Pleasantly full, I headed home with plans to arrive at the south entrance at opening.
Plitvice Lakes Day 2
I struggled to get up early, as I’d had problems with my cellular plan. Word to the wise: Plitvice and its surrounds are but a stone’s throw from Bosnia. I was using Vodafone Italia, and it suddenly decided I was in Bosnia. Without warning, it “helpfully” charged 12 euros since Bosnia isn’t part of the “all Europe” plan. Make sure you have plenty of money on your account if you are using a provider this way. If you’re on a short trip, you can order a travel SIM card ahead of time. Just make sure your phone is unlocked, otherwise you won’t be able to use it.
In addition to the previous night’s scramble to ensure I didn’t wind up phone-less, the sky was heavy with incoming rain clouds. I would just have to hope any serious rain held off until after lunch time, when I planned to be headed back to the coast to stay on the island of Krk. My plan was to park at the main parking area and hit the Veliki Slap overlook, hoping to photography a unique sky.
Even though the clouds blocked the early morning sun from showing off the water’s color, they clouds had great color and layers. The only other improvement I could have asked for, would be more water flow.
Even though I had arrived shortly after the park opened at 7:00AM, I wasn’t the only early bird. There aren’t many angles to be had from the overlook, so I was only there about 10 minutes. There used to be a trail alongside Veliki Slap, which allowed you to hike above the falls. Unfortunately, when I visited the park this trail was closed.
With the number of visitors still relatively sparse, I decided to re-explore the iconic boardwalks in this section. I knew I wouldn’t have time to come back to this area later. The crowds yesterday had been so thick, it was difficult to get the shots I wanted. I was also able to explore the Supljara Cave. The cave is also a great place to cool off on especially hot days. I had attempted it yesterday, but it was very crowded so I didn’t go all the way up. Today, I made the endless climb upwards, popping out on the trail that would take me back to the entrance.
A Wrench in the Works
I must confess I was was feeling borderline smug as I headed back to my car. It wasn’t even 8:30! Naturally, the Travel Gods put me back in my place quickly enough. As I approached the kiosk to pay for my parking, I realized to my horror I did not have my wallet. I had left it on the bed last night, when trying to top up my Vodafone SIM. My face flushed with embarrassment as I approached a staff member. He was a young kid, and seemed baffled by this woman shakily trying to explain she had no money for parking.
I was directed to the payment desk, where I tried to explain again. Unfortunately, she spoke almost no English (or Italian. Or Spanish), and Croatian is not in my toolbox as yet. Google translate didn’t seem accurate, which left her regarding me with a mixture of irritation and apathy. I offered to leave an item behind and return to pay the parking debt, but she waved me off. I guess she figured if someone was going to scam her for parking, it would be for more than $4 worth. Let my error be a lesson – keep a small amount of cash squirreled away somewhere besides your wallet.
I raced back to grab my wallet, ensuring I had cash to pay for my next round of parking. Parking was starting to fill up by now, as it was after 9:00AM by now. It’s a much longer walk from parking area 2 to the park entrance here. Rain was starting to spit down, and I hoped we wouldn’t get a downpour. This entrance puts you by the ferry shuttle, which is convenient for exploring the upper lakes.
Back on Track
Evidently I was not the only person planning to start at the upper lakes. I retraced some of yesterday’s route, but this time I was able to explore the small cluster of lakes up to Proscansko, the last and biggest lake on this end. In this area there are more “regular” trails through wooded areas. Unfortunately, there were a number of people ignoring signs to stay on-trail. The crowds also grew thick in certain spots, proving that not only the famous lower lakes get most of the visitors.
This time I took a trail that climbs up through the woods. I was hoping for elusive and unique viewpoints over these less famous lakes. The rain had increased from spit to light drizzle, so being amongst the trees helped. I’ve since added a lightweight packable poncho to my travel bag. It’s hardly stylish but much more convenient than an umbrella.
I was able to cover most of the upper lakes by noon, and would have stayed a bit longer but the rain was increasing. Fog was rolling in almost as thick as the growing crowd of visitors, and I can’t say I was sorry to leave. Even though I needed to get on the road to Krk, I had one more view to hunt down – fog be damned!
Just One More
There is a short trail off the road to the Ethno Houses. There are trails on this side, and if you want to explore those, park at the junction just before the Polana parking area. At the time, part of the trail was damaged and closed for repairs. If you would like to visit, be prepared that it may still be closed. Please don’t hike closed trails, as it may cause damage and/or be very dangerous. Not to mention you could be fined heavily for doing so if caught. I did get to enjoy some beautiful views southward, although by the time I visited the weather had turned pretty crappy.
Time to Go
I waved goodbye to beautiful Plitvice Lakes and its surrounds. While I would still very much like to visit Krka National Park, I plan to return to Plitvice. It won’t be in the summertime, but I’ve been told Fall in the park is absolutely spectacular. The golds and oranges of the trees contract brilliantly with the azure waters, and crowds aren’t as heavy. If you’re truly hard core and want to park virtually all to yourself, consider a wintertime visit. Snow coats the trees, and icicles form around the falls. It becomes the very definition of a Winter Wonderland!
If I were asked now whether someone should visit Plitvice Lakes in summertime, I’d say yes. However, I’d say it with caveats. Don’t do a summer visit on a day tour. Either rent a car and drive yourself. Bring a picnic, and leave from Split if you want to do it as a day trip. Arrive absolutely no later than 8AM, and take your time. Return to Split in time for dinner or detour to Sibenik and have dinner there instead.
If you have a bit more time, spend two night in the area. Arrive mid-day to check and and enter the park in the afternoon. Return the following morning, and take that day to explore lesser known areas of the park. This would also be a great idea in Fall, since the gorgeous leaves would be stunning on the forested trails.
Have you been to Plitvice? Share your favorite memories or unexpected surprises in the comments below!