Plitvice – where unicorns, rainbows and fairies are born.

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A few years ago, my brother told me about a national park in Croatia. He showed me some photos online and I could not believe that a place like Plitvice Lakes National Park existed. From the photos it looked fake. It looked like a place where unicorns, rainbows and fairies are born. I had to see it for myself.

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Listed as Croatia’s most popular tourist attraction, each year more than 1 million visitors head to this UNESCO World heritage site.  Most visit in the summer, but the park is open year round and after experiencing Plitvice, I want to revisit the magic of this place in autumn. The color of the trees set against that water must be incredible.

Plitvice is located in the mountains of central Croatia, near the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, and, between Croatian capital city Zagreb and Zadar.  We purposefully chose the Dalmatian region for our trip due to its central location to a number of national parks that we wanted to explore. Pltivice was the last park we visited at the end of our stay and we almost didn’t make it. I am so glad that we made the time. The park is a must-see destination in Croatia.

The park is made up of a series of cascading lakes which result from several small rivers flowing into one another. Fortunately, due to the protections provided by its UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, Plitvice has been allowed to flourish and maintain its natural Garden of Eden-esque status. The topography is varied. The flora and fauna, lush.

The origin of the name Plitvice has two incarnations. One version states that a priest named Dominik Vukasović, named the lakes pličina or plitvak, meaning shallow, because the lakes were formed by river water flowing and shaping shallow travertine basins  over time.

Another version of the name stems from the fact that the river Plitvica and the adjacent village of the same name gave origin to the name. It seems most logical to me that the 2 stories are both true. The name may have come from the Croatian word for shallow and then the river and village took on the same name given their proximity. What is interesting, however, is that reference to “shallow” may not be apropos forever. The travertine basins are living entities consisting of bacteria, algae, sediment and minerals which, much like coral in the oceans, are growing continuously. The travertine accumulates and grows at a rate of about 1 cm (0.4 in) per year. Ok, so maybe the “shallow” moniker still stands, but over time the entire area is growing which I find fascinating.

Things To Do
Plitvice has something to offer every outdoor enthusiast. One can leisurely stroll along the planked walkways, hike, boat, canyon climb, cycle or ski and sled in the winter.  The only thing one is not allowed to do at Plitvice, is swim. Sorry to you swimmers out there, but there’s no swimming allowed because of the need to protect the travertine and the plant and animal life which makes the places so enchanting . If you must get as close to the gorgeous water as you can,  small row boats are available to rent for 50kn/hour (7 euros or 8 US dollars ).  You can also take a ride on an electric boat to the 12 upper and 4 lower lakes. The electric boat rides are included with your admission ticket.

There are approximately 300 square kilometers, forest trails, 16 lakes, limestone canyons and waterfalls to explore.  There were so many waterfalls that we lost count.  Many people spend a few days at Plitvice, and there are plenty of accommodation choices available – everything from luxury lodging to camping. Sadly, we were only able to carve out a day trip from Zadar.

Things Not To Do
When visiting the park, it is critical to know that one cannot:

  • Collect plant materials or take any “souvenirs” of natural origin
  • Feed, disturb, touch the animals
  • Swim in the lakes (that part is the most disappointing as it was hot as Hades and the water looks sooooooo inviting).
  • Throw litter along the trails or elsewhere, except in the garbage bins installed throughout the park. It is shocking that this is even something one needs to be reminded of, but . . .
  • Stray off of the marked trails
  • Fish
  • Yell or be loud
  • Cycle or camp within the park’s borders

The Water Really Is That Color
The lakes are renowned for their distinctive bright colors. And, the water color changes from emerald green, turquoise blue, and grey depending on the quantity of minerals, the number of organisms in the water, the season, and, the angle of sunlight.

We saw bright turquoise, emerald green and crystal clear streams. The fact that the water color changes at just about every turn, adds another element of otherworldliness to the place. This park had all my senses engaged and stimulated my imagination. I was imagining children’s books where the places were named for the different locations and colors. The fairies live at Emerald Lake, while the unicorns hide behind the rushing falls of Turquoise Lagoon. And, of course rainbows are made on top of Oštri Medveđak, the park’s highest peak. Silly? Maybe. The magic of Plitvice got me.

Practical Stuff
There are two entrances to the park. When planning your trip, check out the trail options before you go in order to know where to park.

We opted for Entrance 2 (South Gate and Upper lakes) as it was closer to the waterfalls that I wanted to see. When visiting, be advised, the park is crowded, the walkways are simple uneven wooden planks with no railings. I cannot tell you the number of times I almost was jostled into the water. Advice, take a waterproof camera and/or phone case for your smartphone in case of an accidental fall into the water.

From entrance 2, there are 4 trail options to suit every level of difficulty and time.

  • Trail E (2-3 hours – 5.2 km – easy) upper lakes to Proscansko Jezero starting with a short boat ride across the Kozjak Lake.
  • Trail F (3-4 hours – 4.6km – easy) walk the upper lakes and sail across lake Kozjaka, then visit the lower lakes – take shuttle back
  • Trail H (4-6 hours – 8.9km – moderate) starts with a bus ride to your starting point, walk the upper lakes then sail across lake Kozjaka, to the lower lakes – take shuttle bus back.
  • Trail K-2 (6-8 hours – 18.3km -difficult) like Trail K-1 – explore the whole park.

Another option if you are looking for a moderate hike, is Trail C from Entrance No 1. This path starts with an uphill climb and allows you to see both lakes. A stop at the upper lakes is also a perfect spot to rest, drink some water and enjoy a picnic.

If you go in the summer, try arrive early as it gets VERY crowded.  We were told that the majority of tour busses usually arrive between 11:30 – 12:30.  If you get there early enough, you can avoid the majority of the tour bus crowds.  Another option for a visit during the summer, is to arrive in the afternoon when most tour groups have finished their guided walks. Summer days are long with light and a peaceful afternoon in Plitvice would be heavenly.

I would also recommend packing a lunch. We made the mistake of not bringing food and were disappointed with our options. The food inside the park is bland, overpriced and poor quality. It would have been much nicer to have had a nice picnic overlooking this:

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My family loved everything about Croatia, but Plitvice was definitely one of the highlights. If you visit Croatia, you simply must visit Plitvice. And, please, let me know if you spot any fairies, unicorns or rainbows.

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