Plitvice Lakes, Croatia: 9 Planning Tips for the First Timer

by | Last updated Aug 3, 2023 | Best Hiking Europe, Croatia

Yes, this is a real place! Plitvice Lakes National Park is the oldest and largest national park in Croatia, and it is absolutely stunning! It was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. You will get to enjoy all of its cascading waterfalls, green forests, and 16 terraced lakes up close as you navigate the winding wooden walkways across the park.

A little planning goes a long way to get the most out of your park experience. With 2 entrances and 7 different routes to choose from, it helps to know what you want to do ahead of time. My husband and I do some serious trip planning, so let me help you make your visit seamless. Here are the 9 things to know before you go.

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01- How to Get to Plitvice Lakes 

Map of Location of Plitvice Lakes National Park

Map of Location of Plitvice Lakes National Park

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FIRST, PICK YOUR BASE CITY: ZAGREB, ZADAR, OR SPLIT

Most people will access Plitvice Lakes National Park through the cities of Zagreb, Zadar, or Split in Croatia.

We chose to make Zagreb our base and did the park as a day trip. If you choose not to drive, there are several options by bus and tour group from all three of these cities.

However, Zagreb has the most buses running to the park.

Here is the time it will take from these 3 cities if you are self-driving to the park:

Zagreb: 2 hours (130 km or 80.7 miles)

Zadar: 1.5 hours (119 km or 73.9 miles)

Split: 2.5 hours (243 km or 150.1 miles)

If you are doing a road trip through Croatia, driving from Dubrovnik will take you 5 hours to get to the park. Obviously, you cannot do this as a day trip if coming from Dubrovnik.

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BY CAR

If we were not on such a tight schedule, we would have considered renting a car.

Why does this matter?

Because you can make sure you are there right at opening time. This is critical because the crowds will continue to increase the later you arrive. Plus, you then have flexibility if you want to stay longer, leave early, or even spend the night if you break up visiting the park into two days.

Arrive early because I heard the parking lots do fill up quickly, especially during high season.

The cost of parking is 5 -10 Croatian Kuna/hour depending on the season.

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BY BUS

Alright, I admit I try to pack in way too much on our vacations.

I do have a fear of missing out, so I try to do “all the things.” After a full day of travel from the United States, we arrived in Zagreb at 11:15 pm.

We booked a bus ride out at 6:45 am the following day to Plitvice Lakes National Park. The bus ride from Zagreb took us 2.5 hours.

There was no way I would have been able to drive on a few hours of sleep, so letting someone else drive was imperative. Plus, then I could sleep more on the bus and try to shake off some of that jet lag.

We went to Plitvice Lakes National Park in May, when the opening time is 8 am. We arrived at 9 am, and the crowds were already starting to flow in. By the time we left the park around 2 pm, it was near impossible to squeeze past the large tour groups on the walkways.

There was an earlier bus that left at 5:45 am and arrived at opening time. We would have taken that bus, but since we got in so late the night before, sleep > earlier arrival.

Overall, we enjoyed taking the bus because you could relax and let someone else do the driving.

We bought bus tickets here.

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BY PLITVICE LAKES TOUR

There are tours to Plitvice Lakes National Park. From what I researched, it appeared the group tours arrive well past opening time (9:30/10 am).

Later you arrive = more crowds.

Get Your Guide offers many group tours that will transport you to Plitvice Lakes National Park from Zagreb, Zadar, or Split.

In my opinion, a group tour is not needed. This is definitely a DIY destination.

02- Best Time to Visit 

Each season has its pros and cons.

We went in the spring (May) when the waterfalls were at their fullest.

If you go in the winter, the park transforms into an enchanting snowy wonderland.

Expect lush forests in the summer and beautiful reds, oranges, and yellows in the fall.

Summer months especially July and August will be the busiest, so plan accordingly and find your Inner Zen if you go during this time. You will need it!

Spring (April/May) and fall (September/October) are considered the best though because the temperatures are still pleasant but with fewer crowds.

The park is open year-round. Check the official website for current hours.

03- Entrance 1 or 2

Map of Plitvice Lakes National Park

Map of Plitvice Lakes National Park 

Start at Entrance 1 or 2? Does it matter?

There are two main entrances to access the park.

Entrance 1 is next to the Lower Lakes and is open year-round.

Entrance 2 is next to the Upper Lakes and is closed from November – March.

Some say Entrance 2 is a little less congested. What I did observe is the Lower Lakes (near Entrance 1) were by far busier than the Upper Lakes (near Entrance 2). Crowds will continue to build throughout the day.

We chose Entrance 1 and got there early in the morning, so we could experience the Lower Lakes before the bulk of the crowds arrived.

Also, if you start from Entrance 1, you will be facing the Lower Lakes waterfalls as you walk versus having them at your back if you go in the opposite direction.

04- Best Hiking Route (Hint: Route C)

Routes for Plitvice Lakes National Park

Routes for Plitvice Lakes National Park

Ah, so many choices. A, B, C, D, E, F, H, or  K? Your route (aka program as the park labels it) will be dictated by:

1) How much time you have, and

2) Your fitness level.

We chose route C for 2 reasons:

1) It included both the Upper and Lower Lakes and started from Entrance 1.

2) It was just the right amount of time and distance since we were visiting Plitvice Lakes National Park as a day trip.

Here are the highlights from this incredible hiking route:

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LOWER LAKES AT PLITVICE LAKES

Lower Lakes at Plitvice Lakes National Park

Lower Lakes at Plitvice Lakes National Park

We arrived at Entrance 1 at 9 am, 1 hour after the park opened.

In May, the park opens at 8 am. I would HIGHLY advise getting there right at opening time. We had already purchased the tickets online, so we avoided the queue at the ticket booth.

Plitvice Lakes National Park is divided into 12 Upper and 4 Lower Lakes. These two lake systems are separated by Lake Kozjak.

We went on a day where we had intermittent rain, but that still did not detract from our experience. It created this mysterious, misty vibe.

We zigzagged our way from Entrance 1 at the top down to the Lower Lakes. Shortly into the walk, we were blown away by this incredibly breathtaking view!

Great first impression.

When you reach the bottom of the zigzag path, the boardwalk trail starts. The park is super easy to navigate along the wooden walkways and really can be enjoyed by people of all fitness levels.

Walking the boardwalks at Lower Lakes in Plitvice Lakes National Park

Walking the boardwalks at the Lower Lakes in Plitvice Lakes National Park

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Veliki Slap & Sastavci Waterfalls

Sastavci Waterfalls are one of the most famous waterfalls in Plitvice Lakes National Park, probably second to Veliki Slap.

You can view them best during the walk along the zigzag path from Entrance 1 before you hit the first boardwalk.

They are in the foreground in the quintessential photo you get right at the beginning of the walk through the park. Veliki Slap is in the background.

Veliki slap and Sastavci waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes

Veliki slap (in the background to the right) and Sastavci waterfalls (in the foreground to the left) at Plitvice Lakes

We continued on the first boardwalk to cross the Korana River. At the end of the boardwalk, take the first detour to the right.

You will be witness to one of the biggest showstoppers, Veliki Slap aka the Great Waterfall!

This is the highest waterfall in Croatia! If you go in the winter, it almost completely freezes over.

Veliki slap at Plitvice Lakes National Park

Veliki Slap aka the “Great Waterfall”

After you take the small detour to see the Great Waterfall, there are 3 route options to choose from here.

See the map below.

Map of the 3 Route Options for the Lower Lakes in the Plitvice Lakes National Park

Map of Lower Lakes Routes

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Option 1: Continue on Route C

After doing the Veliki Slap detour, continue following the signs for Route C and head past Velike Kaskade Waterfall towards Supljara Cave.

To get a birds-eye view of Velike Kaskade Waterfall, you can take another detour into the Supljara Cave.

This detour involves walking up some slippery steps into the cave and taking a trail out on the cliffs to get a great view at the top.

Unfortunately, it was closed while we were there. I did include a courtesy Getty Image below to show that spectacular view you can expect.

birds eye view of Velike Kaskade Waterfall at Plitvice Lakes National Park

Birds-eye view of Velike Kaskade Waterfall at Plitvice Lakes National Park

Close up of Velike Kaskade Waterfall at Plitvice Lakes

Close up of Velike Kaskade Waterfall

View of Velike Kaskade Waterfall and Supljara Cave as seen from the Cliff Walk at Plitvice Lakes National Park

View of Velike Kaskade Waterfall and Supljara Cave as seen from the Cliff Walk. If you look close, you can see a pole blocking off the entrance into the cave.

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Option 2: Take the Alternative "Cliff Walk"

We were planning on doing Option 1 (and doing Options 2 and 3 on our way back), but the crowds were already getting too crazy. Again, I cannot emphasize enough arriving right at opening time!

To bypass the crowds, we decided to take what I call the “Cliff Walk,” where we came across some great viewpoints of the lakes and waterfalls below.

To access the Cliff Walk, we took the steep staircase that is located left of Velike Slap (Great Waterfall) if you are facing the waterfall. When we reached the top, we turned left and hiked along the cliff until we reached the pier for Kozjak Lake.

See my map again for orientation.

Views of the Lower Lakes as seen from the Cliff Walk at Plitvice Lakes National Park

Views of the Lower Lakes as seen from the Cliff Walk

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Option 3: Find the Postcard View

We tried to find this viewpoint but got a little turned around and then gave up. I’m not sure how I missed it, but here are the directions:

Once you reach the top of the steep staircase next to Velike Slap, instead of turning left to go along the Cliff Walk, turn right back towards the road and cross a small bridge.

Refer back to my map earlier to get oriented.

Once you cross the wooden bridge, you will see a signpost for Restaurant Kozjak pointing you towards the left. Take the trailhead to the right, which is located right in front of that signpost.

The “Postcard View” view also known as “Vidikova Sightseeing Point” is only a few minutes walk on that trail.

Here is a courtesy image from Getty to show what you can expect from this spectacular viewpoint. Ah, so sad I missed it! Next time.

Alternatively, you can drive to the side trail leading to the viewpoint. GPS coordinates: 44°54’09.1″N 15°36’26.4″E

Vidikova Sightseeing Point at Plitvice Lakes National Park

“Postcard View” If you look closely, you can see the steep staircase you have to climb to get to this viewpoint in the middle of this photo.

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Milanovacki Slap

Towards the end of our Cliff Walk, we saw another gorgeous waterfall, Milanovacki Slap. It is created from Kozjak Lake (part of the Upper Lakes system) spilling over into the Milanovacki Lake (part of the Lower Lakes system).

Milanovacki Slap as seen from the Cliff Walk at Plitvice Lakes

Milanovacki Slap as seen from the Cliff Walk at Plitvice Lakes

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Boat Ride Across Kozjak Lake

Boat ride across at Kozjak Lake at Plitvice Lakes National Park

Electric boat ride across Kozjak Lake

Once we ended our Cliff Walk, we arrived at Kozjak Lake. We took the electric boat ride from Pier P3 to Pier P2 to start our journey of discovering the Upper Lakes.

This boat ride runs every 60 minutes, so if a boat just left, you may be waiting for a while.

By the time we got on the boat, the line was really starting to back up!

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UPPER LAKES AT PLITVICE LAKES

Gorgeous emerald green water at Plitvice Lakes in Croatia

Gorgeous emerald green water lakes at Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia

Although not as grand as the Lower Lakes, the Upper Lakes section still offers some spectacular waterfalls and gorgeous emerald-green pools.

The color of the water was similar in appearance to what we witnessed at Vintgar Gorge and Kozjak Waterfall in neighboring Slovenia.

Gorgeous emerald green lakes in the Upper Lakes at Plitvice Lakes National Park

Even in the rain, Plitvice Lakes National Park is absolutely stunning!

Navigating the Upper Lakes was incredibly easy and straight forward. Just follow the boardwalks for Route C.

Walking the boardwalk in the Upper Lakes Section in Plitvice Lakes National Park

You cannot get lost! Just keep following the boardwalks and signs for Route C.

Walking in the rain in the Upper Lakes section at Plitvice Lakes National Park

Walking in the rain in the Upper Lakes section at Plitvice Lakes National Park

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Veliki Prstavac Waterfall

This was one of my favorite waterfalls in the Upper Lakes section. It is the second highest waterfall in the park.

Veliki Prstavac Waterfall in the Upper Lakes at Plitvice Lakes National Park

Veliki Prstavac Waterfall

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Galovacki Buk Waterfall & Gradinsko Lake

Yet another gorgeous waterfall! The emerald green water was mesmerizing and so clear!

Galovacki Buk Waterfall at Plitvice Lakes National Park

Galovacki Buk Waterfall

As we continued to navigate the wooden walkways, we witnessed more gorgeous views of the cascading waterfalls and lakes.

Cliff views in the Upper Lakes section at Plitvice Lakes National Park

Upper Lakes section as seen from the cliff

Eventually, we saw signs for the St3 station. Continue to follow those signs until you reach the St3 station to take the shuttle via St2 to St1 station.

The shuttle runs every 30 minutes. Once we arrived back at the St1 station, we walked along the eastern side of the Lower Lakes back to Entrance 1.

It took us 5 hours to complete Route C.

Even with the rain and crowds, I am super happy we experienced the Plitvice Lakes National Park! It is certainly worth the effort.

05- Day Trip vs. Overnight 

It depends.

If you are short on time, do a day trip. This is what we did since we only had a few days in Croatia before taking a train to Ljubljana, Slovenia.

If you arrive right at the park’s opening time, you can easily hike the trails as a day trip from Zagreb, Zadar, or Split.

If you have several leisure days, then consider overnighting near the park. Drive down the day before and visit the Upper Lakes in the mid to late afternoon.

Then wake up early the next day to visit the Lower Lakes right at the opening time.

06- Best Hotels Near Plitvice Lakes 

You can stay in the park, but from what I understand the accommodations are average at best.

There are, however, 3 highly-rated accommodations right outside the park that we were considering when we were trying to figure out whether we should overnight or not.

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HOTEL DEGENIJA

Hotel Degenija Pool

Hotel Degenija pool 

Hotel Degenija is located only 2 minutes from the park by car, or you can use the rental bicycles. It also has a pool for those hot summer months.

Booking.com: 9.2

TripAdvisor: 4.5

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ZRINKA HOUSE

Zrinka House Room

Zrinka House Room

This charming accommodation has a rating of 10 with verified users on booking.com, which is hard to come by! Zrinka House is only a 6-minute drive from the entrance of the park.

Booking.com: An incredible 10

TripAdvisor: 5

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B&B VILLA IRENE PLITVICE LAKES

B&B Villa Irene Plitvice Lakes

B&B Villa Irene Plitvice Lakes

The adorable B&B Villa Irene is located only 4 minutes from the park. Great views from the rooms!

Booking.com: 9.7

TripAdvisor: 5

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ALTERNATIVE OPTION: HOTEL CAPITAL IN ZAGREB

Gorgeous bar at Hotel Capital in Zagreb Croatia

Gorgeous bar at Hotel Capital in Zagreb, Croatia

The other option is to stay in Zagreb and do a day trip to the park. Due to our tight schedule, this is what we did.

We stayed at Hotel Capital, which is gorgeous!

It is located in the heart of Zagreb with elegant Art Deco and Art Nouveau architecture and a beautiful modern interior.

The hotel used to be a bank, and it still has the original vault in the basement. The warm, friendly staff truly made our experience exceptional.

Booking.com: 9.3

TripAdvisor: 4.5

07- Lunch Options in the Park

There are restaurants in the park, but I had heard the food was not very good and overpriced.

We ate a big breakfast in the morning and then packed a few protein bars and fruit in our daypack to carry us over.

We were also saving our appetites for our dinner reservation at the 1-starred Michelin restaurant Noel in Zagreb, which was amazing by the way!

08- Plitvice Lakes Tickets- Book in Advance! 

Buy your tickets online in advance, and then you can avoid the queue at the ticket booth.

Ticket costs are based on the time of the year you go.

Check the official website for current prices for 2023.

When we purchased our tickets, we did not have to specify a certain time we would be entering the park. They have changed that.

You now must select a time slot when you purchase your tickets online (8 am, 9 am, 10 am, etc. ) and arrive at that designated time.

They are limiting the number of daily visitors (max of 10,000 per day!), so only a certain number of tickets are sold per time slot. If you only have one day to visit the Plitvice Lakes National Park and you want a specific time slot, BOOK IN ADVANCE!

Once the tickets are sold, you are out of luck and must try for another day.

Once you click on your desired time slot, it will show how many tickets are left at each entrance for your time slot. See the screenshot below.

Plitvice Lakes National Park Ticket Number at Each Entrance

Number of tickets left at Entrance 1 and 2

The official website states that if the tickets online are sold out, check this link for the current number of tickets available.

You can then purchase them in person at Entrance 1 or 2 assuming they do not suddenly sell out by people also buying them on the spot.

09- What to Bring

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COMFORTABLE SHOES

Although the hiking trails are not strenuous, you will still need some type of athletic shoes that you do not mind getting wet. Leave the flip flops home. I was so thankful I wore my trail runners as I navigated the wet boardwalks throughout the park.

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WATER BOTTLE

You will be walking around for hours navigating the park and crowds. Bring your water bottle. You’ll be thankful for the extra hydration.

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UMBRELLA

The park is lush and green for a reason. Prepare for rain. I brought my umbrella and was glad I did. It rained the majority of the time while we were there in May.

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SMALL DAYPACK

We heard the food was not that great in the park, so we packed some snacks and a water bottle in our Zomake daypack. Love this daypack! It’s small, folds down nicely when not in use, and is well constructed. No rips or tears yet, and it’s been all over the world. 

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SUNSCREEN

Even if it is cloudy, you will still get sun. You will be walking a lot in areas that are not always shaded. I personally use Elta MD UV Clear Sunscreen.

Final Thoughts

Here are my final thoughts on making the most out of your time at this incredible park!

1. Get there at opening time.

2. Use the restroom at the beginning of your hike because there are not many bathrooms throughout the park.

3. Buy tickets online in advance and pick the first time slot.

4. Plan your route ahead of time. My suggestion is to start at Entrance 1 and pick Route C to enjoy both the Upper and Lower Lakes.

5. Take the optional detours for the “Money Viewpoint,” “Cliff Walk,” and the “Viewpoint above the Supljara Cave.”

6. Bring a positive attitude. Expect crowds at some point during your hike. Just realize everyone is here to enjoy the same experience as you are. Enjoy!

Enchanting Upper Lakes in Plitvice Lakes National Park

Enchanting Upper Lakes in Plitvice Lakes National Park

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