Watery Heaven? Or Crowding Hell? Exploring and Avoiding the Crowds at Plitvice Lakes National Park in Crotia
By Scott Dicken
Watery Heaven or Crowded Hell?
Exploring and Avoiding the Crowds at Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia
We had been told to expect startling, other-worldly, turquoise, blue and green waters. We’d been told to expect stunning landscapes and autumnal foliage. We’d been told to expect cascading waterfalls in numbers that belie the size of the National Park we were visiting. What we hadn’t been told was to expect tourists in numbers more akin to New Year’s Eve in Times Square.
Welcome to Plitvice Lakes National Park: Not Always Suitable for Enochlophobics.
Our trip to Plitvice, which is Croatia’s second most popular tourist sight (the most popular being Dubrovnik), took place in October (not during the pandemic, just to be clear!). One would think that October would be a fairly safe month to choose. After all, we had avoided the summer rush and were well into Croatia’s ‘shoulder’ season – so much so that the weather had started to turn noticeably colder at Plitvice’s elevation. All signs pointed to a relaxed hike in what is billed as one of the most picturesque national parks in Europe: home of 16 lakes, hundreds of waterfalls, brown bears, wolves, and the elusive lynx.
Unfortunately, our early optimism rapidly diminished when we were greeted at the park’s entrance by more coaches than would typically be seen at Disney in the height of summer.
We brushed aside our immediate concerns (along with ten selfie-stick wielding tourists) as we breezed through the ticket counters (due to our guide’s influence, and apparently not possible in the summer months). Our hike started from Entrance 1, and it was immediately obvious that Plitvice is undeniably stunning. The color of the water is genuinely otherworldly (hopefully my photos do it some justice) and known to change throughout the year based on mineral deposit levels. Put simply, the lakes and waterfalls make for fantastic photo opportunities that any Instagram Junkie would be proud of.
But that is where the problems begin to arise.
In many places, the lakes of Plitvice are traversable by wooden walkways which allow you to stroll out into the heart of the action and capture photos of the emerald green, crystal clear waters cascading over the myriad falls.
So far, so good!
However, the walkways are narrow and the tour groups can be large and seemingly hungry for “instagramable” photo ops. Thus, you could find yourself caught in the unenviable position of being unable to stop and capture anything resembling a decent photo (let alone set up a tripod to capture the dream-like waterfall shots Croatian tour companies use). Instead you’ll find yourself being ushered forward by streams of visitors like a salmon mid-migration. Now I know what you’re thinking; ‘if I just stop and create a tailback then people will just have to deal with it’. Unfortunately, even those of us with a complete and unassailing disregard for our fellow travelers won’t successfully achieve this feat because the walkways don’t have side railings and the people just don’t stop. My wife wiped out approximately ten selfie-stick wielding tourists – the gloves were definitely off! However, if you’re brave enough to give that approach a try, there’s a strong chance you’ll end up in the lake rather than on the walkway……. and swimming is prohibited at Plitvice (and as my wife points out, also supremely cold). I imagine many an intrepid explorer has been lost to the murky depths of the lakes having been pushed by a selfie stick-wielding tourist in an ‘I Heart Croatia’ T-Shirt.
So what are the options to escape the crowds and enjoy the beauty of Plitvice in relative solitude?! In no short order:
Pick the right month: We visited in October and although my wife had minor heart palpitations crossing the walkways around Entrance 1 due to crowd surge, we had the path largely to ourselves the deeper into the park we ventured. Of course, crowds aside, you’re going to want to consider the relative virtues of the scenery across the 4 seasons. The colors are about to pop into life in the Spring; in Fall, you get the amazing reds, yellows and browns of the foliage; winter lends itself to spectacular frozen landscapes; and in summer you’ll begin to strongly question your life choices as the primary scenery will be the backpack of the person in front of you. Basically, I’d steer clear of July and August!
Pick the right time of day: Plitvice is located in the north of Croatia (close to the border with Bosnia) and is a fairly easy 2-3 hour drive from Zagreb, Zadar, and Split. This means that it is within an easy distance for day-trippers. Therein lies the problem. However, be forewarned – day-trippers tend to arrive at the park after 10am and depart between 3 and 5pm. Be mindful of the saying, ‘the early bird catches the worm’. Rather than being just one of the hordes of day-trippers, your best bet is to overnight in the area surrounding the park and enter the park as early as possible. Once the coaches roll up, head out for a long lunch and then re-enter after they all leave. This approach also means you’ll be in the park during the ‘golden hours’ of sunlight which is perfect for photography!
Explore Beyond the Entrances: You’ll encounter the majority of the crowds at the two main park entrances. In particular, Entrance 1 can become a bit of a zoo during peak hours, and you’ll find yourself having to fight your way across the walkways as well as jockey for decent views of Veliki Slap (the highest waterfall in the park). The further you head away from these entrances, and the further into the upper lakes area you reach, the more the crowds will disperse. You may, just may, find yourself in a position of relative solitude. The longest walking route around the entire park is Route ‘K’. If you have the energy to hike the whole trail then you will definitely find moments of solitude in the 6-8 hours the route takes to accomplish.
With some stern management of your own expectations, and by taking some practical steps to plan your visit, Plitvice can be a pretty magical place.
Read more about our time in Croatia on the takephotosleavefootprints.com website!