Hiking the Plitvice Lakes
Updated: Dec 8, 2022
A “Bavarian” Village and More Peka
After spending the last month on the water, it was a strange sensation driving up and over the coastal mountains into the rolling hills of central Croatia. No more sweeping Adriatic views and salt air, but inland Croatia has its own unique beauty. In particular, our “home” for the next two nights struck us as part rural Croatia, part Bavaria.
To really experience Plitvice, everyone recommended spending a full day there, so we figured two nights made sense. There are a few places to stay in the surrounding countryside. We opted for the tiny village/hamlet/community of Rastovača - close enough to walk to the park’s gate, and we found a guesthouse where we could rent a room for pennies on the dollar.
Pulling off the main drag and winding our way along a single-lane road, surrounded by alpine meadows covered in wildflowers, we couldn’t ignore that foothills-of-the-Alps vibe. Combine this landscape with the Bavarian-style architecture of the homes dotting those meadows, and you could’ve dropped us off somewhere south of Munich. Only the Croatian writing on the picturesque guesthouses told a different story.
Another selling point for the area, albeit one we just stumbled upon - more peka! Our meal in Sibenik exposed us to this “under-the-bell,” slow-cooked Croatian deliciousness. But, a roadside konoba just outside Rastovača gave us the full, lamb-y experience. From watching the chef tend the coals on top of the bell to enjoying enough slow-roasted lamb and vegetables to feed an army, peka absolutely lived up to its reputation.
Wash it all down with a dark Croatian beer (or several), and you’ve got a recipe for a true food coma!
The Plitvice Lakes
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Plitvice Lakes National Park lives up to the designation. But, whereas Dubrovnik earned the UNESCO title for its man made beauty, Plitvice’s natural wonders take center stage.
Like Krka, Plitvice includes stunning, travertine cascades and crystal-clear, turquoise waters. However, comprising 16 lakes and nearly 300 square kilometers - nearly three times larger than Krka - Plitvice offers visitors a far grander scale.
Tributaries shaded with lush vegetation interrupted only by these travertine falls connect each of these 16 lakes. And, a combination of wooden-plank paths over the waters and hiking trails along the shores provides access to this spectacular environment.
The park also allows for a variety of ways to experience the area. A shuttle travels a paved-road on the east side of the gorge - convenient if you have limited time and want to hop between the main vistas. Electric boats ferry visitors across some of the larger lakes - nice shortcut and way to get out on the water. Or, you can just hoof it, following the miles and miles of trails that weave throughout the park.
Hiking Plitvice - Plans vs Reality (aka Chipp Hates Lines)
Doing some research, we planned on a hybrid approach - little hiking, little boating, little shuttling. With a full day, we knew we had the luxury to see the majority of the park, and taking advantage of the various modes of transportation would help.
Setting out on the 20ish minute walk from our guesthouse to Plitvice’s Entrance 1, we immediately lucked out. A German couple passed in their car and pulled over to the side of the road. Between a combination of charades and Jenna’s high school German, we told them that, yes, we were going to Plitvice, and yes, we’d love a ride. Auspicious start!
The Plitvice visitor guide recommends a handful of routes, depending on time, energy, and what you want to see. We opted for “Route C,” a 4-to-6 hour hike winding back-and-forth through most of the park’s 16 lakes - and including a ferry trip across one of the larger ones.
As expected with the prohibition on swimming (also like Krka), the water flowing through Plitvice was immaculate. The only time we saw any sediment clouding the lakes was after a goofy-pawed, golden retriever puppy dove in after a bird - swimming exceptions clearly made for our four-legged friends!
Veliki Slap - a central Plitvice draw - sits just inside Entrance 1 at the far northern point of the park. Croatian for the “Great Waterfall,” Jenna was quick to point out that calling it the “Big Slap” made no sense... Chipp’s poor puns aside, Veliki Slap is incredible - water pours over the edge of a towering gorge then descends through a tiered series of lower falls.
From the initial vista on the opposite rim of the gorge from Veliki Slap, we climbed down to the water. Plan was to follow the footpaths through the first three smaller lakes then hop a ferry across the largest.
Good plan, but the hour-long line for a spot on the ferry called for a change. Option 1: bake in the hot sun surrounded by a ton of people for an hour. Option 2: continue walking through some of the most beautiful trails in the world, with essentially no one near you. Between Chipp’s hatred of lines and the allure of a shaded trail to escape the hot sun, going with Option 2 was a no brainer.
The Beauty of Post-Lunch Naps
After our audible, we reached the far side of the lake an hour or so later, parched and ready for a bite. Fortunately, this area happened to be the midway point of the park and concession/picnic area, so we headed straight to a cafe.
After big sandwiches, a spritzer (Jenna), and a local beer (Chipp), we embraced a true vacation hallmark - post-lunch naps! Sprawled out on the grass in a little patch of shade by the shore, we both passed out for a solid 30 minutes. Amazing what a little restorative can do - woke up feeling like a million bucks and ready to continue our hike.
For the next few hours, we followed a series of footpaths over and around Plitvice’s remaining lakes, seeing fewer and fewer people the further we traveled from the park’s central areas. Physically, we (maybe?) could’ve made the return journey on foot, but we were smoked and ready to sit down. So, rather than slog it back to Entrance 1, we hopped in the shuttle at the outermost pick-up point for a far quicker trip.
Back at our starting point, we grabbed a coffee and took in some final Veliki Slap views before strolling home. Plitvice is a truly amazing place - highly recommended for anyone exploring Croatia.
Swimming in Slunj
The next morning, we woke to a day that, if even possible, seemed hotter than the one prior. We were off to Zagreb and, forbidden from diving into Plitivce’s cool waters, Chipp insisted on finding a place to take a dip on our drive back to the capital.
Chatting with our host, we learned about a good spot. 30 minutes up the road from Rastovača en route to Zagreb, the town of Slunj sits on the banks of the Korana River. Taking full advantage of this location, the town has plenty of grassy parks along the river.
Making a quick detour, we pulled off at one of these parks. Not interested in wading through marsh grasses on the banks of the river, Jenna opted for a seat in the shade. Committed to the dip, Chipp jumped right in - perfect way to cool down on a scorching day!