What do wolves, Milka chocolate and president Tito have in common? They all found a place for themselves among crystal blue lakes and a hundred waterfalls of Croatian National Park – the Plitvice lakes.
Without any long intro, because I’m sure everyone who has explored Croatia so far or was planning a visit, had already heard of Plitvice (in Croatian we say Plitvička jezera, jezera = lakes). And for those who didn’t, I hope this little FAQ / unknown facts / guide will help you get to know more.
1. What is & where is Plitvice lakes?
Plitvice Lakes is a National Park in the ”center” of Croatia. Considering Croatia’s unique shape it’s hard to tell what the center is, so let’s look at the map.
Plitvice lakes lie in the mountainous region called Lika (pronounced Lee-kah). The park’s not the highest point in Croatia and being that large, it’s elevation varies from approximately 400 to 1200 meters.
This doesn’t mean you’ll have to hike 800 meters from one point to another. The ”touristy” part is very easy and quite straight for walking, but there are different paths you can take. So, if you want to stretch your legs a bit more, continue reading or skip to ‘entrance, routes & timing‘ section.
Croatia has 8 national parks in total and Plitvice is the oldest (1949), the largest and the most popular one. In 1979, Plitvice Lakes National Park was added to the UNESCO World Heritage register.
2. Is Plitvice worth visiting?
I’m not saying this because I’m Croatian AND a guide – but honestly, I’ve never heard a single person saying it was anything less than beautiful and definitely worth it. Let’s be real:
The only regret some people had after visiting Plitvice was that it was crowded, a.k.a. they didn’t get there early enough.
Luckily, this problem was dealt with by Plitvice administration. They limited the number of people that can enter the park within the given time. This move cracked the crowdedness, but this also means that, once you choose your time of arrival, you can’t be more than one hour late.
More than million visitors per year can’t be wrong 😊
Few historical facts about Plitvice
3. Lika, the land of wolves & Plitvice as ”the devil’s garden” by the BBC
Once you arrive to the Plitvice area, you are in what we call ”the land of the wolves”. This fact was even featured even in BBC documentary about Plitvice lakes, where Plitvice was referred to as ”the Devil’s garden” (at least in its premodern form) and the ”land of the falling lakes”.
Plitvice belongs to a region officially known as Lika. Not very populated – the climate is harsh and the soil is poor, so it’s still mostly ”just” a perfect place for your activities in nature.
As for the wolves, they hide deeper in the woods so it’s unlikely you’ll see them near the lakes. They are protected by law in Croatia, as they make a population of only around 200. But, who knows, maybe you just happen to meet our little Krešo.
4. Milka waterfalls, opera singer – and chocolate?
Walking around the lakes you’ll notice wooden signs with their names and information about their depth. Among them, you’ll also see a sign ”Milka Trnina’s waterfalls” near the Plitvice big cave. The waterfalls are petite and cute, bursting between round rocks and chunks of greenery. You will be able to touch them as you will be walking right above and near them on wooden stairs.
If the name Milka rings a bell, it’s probably because of the famous Milka chocolate and its purple cow. The story says that the chocolate manufacturer Carl Russ-Suchard was such a big fan of Milka Trnina, the famous Croatian 19th-century opera singer, that he dedicated one of his chocolates to her (sure, conveniently her name has ”milk” in it, which is only a reason more).
But why the waterfalls? Milka gained wealth performing throughout Europe and America and gave a lot of money to charity. She also contributed to Plitvice Lakes Society, which is why they rewarded her with this beautiful tribute.
5. Plitvice Bloody Easter of 1991
Unfortunately, not everything was always divine in Plitvice.
If you already know a bit of Croatian modern history (or if you don’t, here’s a little guide), you might have heard about the Homeland War in the 1990s. It was a war with Serbia, and during that time, parts of Croatia with a huge Serbian population (at least rebelled Serb forces loyal to Serbian regime in Belgrade) became self-proclaimed Serbian territory. The area around Plitvice lakes was one of them.
March of 1991 was when the first armed confrontation resulted in killed on both sides. On the Croatian side, it was the policeman Josip Jović who was only 22 at the time. We call this tragic incident the ”Plitvice Bloody Easter”.
Immediately after the fighting, 400 tourists were evacuated from Plitvice lakes. They were saved, but the ethnic tensions escalated in a war that will last for years. During the war that lasted from 1991 to 1995, some buildings, facilities, hotels, and barracks were destroyed or burned down.
The region was liberated by the Croatian army in 1995 and the area was cleared of mines. The killed policeman has been posthumously promoted to the rank of major and his memorial site is now there.
6. Which color we use to paint the lakes a.k.a. why are Plitvice so blue?
I am not kidding, and they weren’t too. One time my guests asked me which color do we use to paint Plitvice lakes. I am an optimist so I took it as a compliment in Plitvice’s name, but the real reason for the emerald green and azure blue colors of the lake is completely natural.
It’s the result of an interplay between water pouring down over travertine (a form of limestone), moss, bacteria, and algae. Then add a sunlight angle and reflections of the sky and voila:
Also, the color of the lakes keeps changing from season to season, together with the organisms and mineral content of the water.
Fun fact: Did you know that the actual lakes (surface waters) make less than 1% of the National park? Everything else is woods and meadows.
7. Waterfalls, lakes & some weird history behind their names
There are 16 lakes in Plitvice. They are on different ”floors”, most of them connected with waterfalls. There are 12 upper lakes and 4 lower lakes.
Also, there are more than 90 waterfalls in Plitvice lakes.
The biggest waterfall in Plitvice is also the biggest waterfall in Croatia and it’s imaginatively called – the Great Waterfall. It’s 78 meters tall. Here you can see how it usually looks like, but sometimes after the heavy rain, it goes completely wild, like it did in 2019.
Bizzare stories tell us some of the lakes got their name after the person who drowned in them. Ciganovac lake got its name after a Gypsy who fell in while fishing, Galovac lake after a bandit chief Gal who defeated the Turks and was shot down in this lake, Kozjak lake after the goats who ran aways from wolves and fell through the thick ice…
Of course, these are just not-so-urban legends from a long time ago and a warning to respect the power of nature and the paths of the park. Walk carefully and don’t try getting a lake named after you or your superb new iPhone, they are already taken :D
As for the Plitvice Lakes, the name comes from the Croatian word for shallow (plitak). Nature formed shallow basins that have been filled with water. Just a reminder – those basins aren’t that shallow anymore.
8. From owls and trouts to bears and snakes
The first thing that usually comes to the visitor’s mind are bears, snakes, and wolves. Luckily for you (or not if you were looking forward seeing them) – it’s highly unlikely you’ll see huge mammals like wolves, lynx, or a bear, whom you’ll probably only see on a 5 kuna coin (kuna is Croatian currency, no Euro – yet).
Fun fact: Our coins are inspired by Croatian nature. We actually nicknamed 5 kuna coin ”medo” (which means bear in Croatian) because of the bear on it. Plus, it’s a fatty round coin, the bear of all coins. As for KUNA, in Croatian language, it means a pine marten. Croatians used its fur for trading before they had any actual money, which is why today it’s called after this weasel-looking cutie. One kuna equals 100 lipas. Lipa is a Croatian word for a linden tree.
Snakes can be seen in the summer, and often I’ve seen them swimming in the water (by often I mean 7 out of 10 times, out of 100 times I’ve been to the lakes). Of course, all of the time I haven’t been quick with my camera, but others were. For example:
Most common snake is the poisonous viper snake.
Although viper has a small evil looking face and that horn on the head, keep in mind – if you are afraid of snakes – that it only uses the poison for the hunt (small animals) and is quite peaceful. Even if attacked, it will only use its poison as the last weapon. If you see a viper, just walk by and don’t try to touch it or even worse – kill it. It’s forbidden by Croatian laws.
Animals that you’ll definitely see are trouts, lizards, birds like woodpeckers and hawks, butterflies, possibly a hedgehog, fox, rabbit, or a marten.
One thing I learned from a local living in Plitvice is a fun fact about beloved owls: Although called wise, in reality, your dear Hedwig is… well, just not that bright. The reason is – it doesn’t have to be. The owl is one of the greatest woods hunters and has no natural enemies (although, they kind of hate squirrels and hiss at them to prevent them from settling in their tunnels). Being that powerful, an owl just didn’t have the need for any intellectual extras – in men’s world it would be your regular school bully. In India for example, owls are a symbol of foolishness! Still, those big eyes, smirky face, and nightlife in solitude makes it cute and wise-looking, which is where its reputation probably comes from. It’s all about how you present yourself, man.
Did you knows & extra things to do
9. Two counties – and counting!
Although Croatia is a small country (less than 1% of the USA and ¼ of the UK), that didn’t stop us from having … :drumrolls: … 21 county!
Plitvice itself stretches through two counties. Most of the park (91%) is in the Lika-Senj County, while the rest is in the Karlovac county.
If you are coming to Plitvice from Zagreb, you’ll pass through four counties – don’t worry, you’ll pass smoothly and won’t even know it. It’s on the other levels of living here where it gets fun. Mmmm… the smell of paper!
10. Yugoslav president Tito’s abandoned villa
Ex-Yugoslav president, marshal Tito, knew how to enjoy finer things in life. During his presidency, he had mansions all over Yugoslavia at disposal. They were mostly used for accepting and entertaining guests such as other presidents, kings, and queens, famous actors and singers, etc.
One of them was called Vila Izvor (izvor means well, spring) and it is placed here, near the lakes. He obviously enjoyed the lakes, but he also had respect for ”the land of the wolves” because his wife, Jovanka, was born in this area, too.
The villa was built by the prisoners from WWII and was made of stone imported from the north of Croatia. It had a cinema, conference rooms, apartments for guests, offices, and even secret underground tunnels. Some of the special officers around were German Shepherds too.
Did you know that during WWII, Tito had a German Shepherd called Lux, who followed him in every battle? A German fighting Germans! Lux even saved Tito’s life in the battle of Sutjeska in 1943 when it threw itself on him to protect him from the German bomb. Unfortunately, Lux didn’t survive the attack, but Tito did and the love for German Shepherds remained.
Villa got destroyed in the Homeland war of the ’90s and most of the furniture was stolen from inside. Since then, it deteriorated a lot, as you can see.
11. Things to do around Plitvice lakes
There are other things too if you’re planning to spend more time in Lika / around Plitvice lakes. Some additional activities include:
- a luxury accommodation Fenomen Plitvice where you can enjoy outdoor activities like trekking, nordic walking, personalized trips, planting, shooting bow and arrow, yoga, etc.
- Camping Plitvice
- Barać caves
- Una river rafting
- visiting small village Rastoke near Plitvice lakes – it’s called ”Little Plitvice” for a reason, you can enjoy old wooden houses with mills and waterfalls, have lunch and let your kids play around
- Adrenalin park Plitvice
- swimming in the Korana river
- riding horses in the ranch like this or this
- tour the ranch, feed the deers and enjoy their company on a Ranch Deer Valley
- Tito’s villa, as mentioned, for those into obscure sights
- if that’s not enough, you can visit abandoned Željava airbase near Croatian-Bosnian border (on your own responsibility, keep in mind there are still mines left there and you have to be careful not to wander around too far)
12. Can I swim in Plitvice & please, leave your flip flops at home
Good for nature, bad for you – you can’t swim in Plitvice and you’ll get fined if you try to.
As for clothing, I would recommend sporty and layered clothes. The park is on a higher altitude and it’s always a bit fresher there than in Zagreb or on the coast, depending on where you’re coming from.
Throw on some snickers and save your flip flops or heels for the beach or cocktail night because it can get slippery and the uneven wooden planks have cracks in between.
13. Children, pets, wheelchair accessibility, toilet, restaurants
CHILDREN: Should you bring your kids to Plitvice? Definitely. Just put them in some comfy clothes and keep an eye on them, especially if it’s crowded because wooden paths over the lake don’t have any handrails. If you have a toddler, I would recommend carrying them in a baby carrier instead of a stroller – it will be a mess trying to push them over wooden planks.
PETS: They are allowed. You can bring your dog but only on a leash. A cat too – if you dare :D
WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBILITY: Unfortunately, Plitvice is not wheelchair friendly. Some things are possible – like seeing a few lakes and the Grand waterfall from the viewpoint at entrance number 1 or taking a bit rocky – but doable – path to panoramic train. You can find more details on this blog.
TOILET & RESTAURANTS: Toilets can be found at both entrances and two ports (P1 and P2), so, before and after entering and while in the park. There are two restaurants within the park, both at P1 (it’s a port and a meadow where people usually take a break). But! My honest recommendation is to bring your own food. These restaurants are mostly overpriced fast food that’s ”not good, not terrible”. I’d say it’s better to prepare some sandwiches.
Entrance, routes & timing
14. Finding your way around Plitvice lakes and choosing the best route
On the official site of Plitvice, you can see there are 8 different paths you can take, sorted by length. The shortest path takes 2-3 hours, and the longest one 6-8 hours.
Usually, my groups take path B, because we are on a schedule, it’s easy enough for everyone and you get to see most of the attractions (Lower lakes, Great waterfall, the cave, and a boat ride). It takes us around 4 hours with a slow walk, taking pictures, and a one hour break.
But if you’re going solo and you have enough time, I would recommend taking a step further and taking a path C or K, depending on your hiking aspirations and time. It combines both Lower and Upper lakes, boat ride, Grand waterfall, cave, and a ride with the panoramic train if you wish.
(Both panoramic train and a boat ride are included in the price of your ticket)
15. What is the best time to visit Plitvice lakes?
Plitvice gets crowdier during the summer, and August is the peak season. So, to make sure the weather is still nice and that there aren’t hundreds of people, I would recommend coming in spring (March, April) or autumn (September).
Still, you can’t go wrong with any other season, because each one carries a different look of the lakes. If you visit Plitvice in winter, you’ll experience a white and blue fairytale with its frozen waterfalls and barely any people inside the park – it’s all yours! I took these winter pictures in February when everything was still under snow, and the weather was fresh and sunny.
As for the time of the day, I would recommend coming as early as possible, before 9 or 10 am. It will leave you enough time to explore the lakes (it gets crowdier around 11 am). During winter this is even more important because the park is open only during daylight.
Last question: do I need a guide for Plitvice?
Plitvice lakes is easy to handle by yourself, you just have to follow the signs.
Yet, if you want to know more – not only about Plitvice but also about this part of Croatia – I would always recommend getting a guide and having a local buddy around who will always know some extra details that you can’t find in books or online guides, will help you with your stay and add an extra value to your trip.
For further research, here is the link to the official website of Plitvice lakes.
I hope this helped and if you have any more questions, feel free to ask. I would be happy to help or recommend my Plitvice colleagues if you will be needing them 😊