The Ultimate Guide to Avoiding the Crowds at Plitvice National Park

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One of the countless waterfalls that make Plitvice National Park in Croatia such a beautiful place to visit.

No trip to Croatia is complete without a visit to the gem of this country, Plitvice National Park (Pronounced plit-veetz-ah). Situated in the middle of the country near the border of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the park is accessible from most of the major cities as a day trip. It’s a two-hour bus ride from Zadar, Rijeka or Zagreb, so it gets an influx of tourists who decide to visit the park as a day trip from one of those cities. The park is open from 7AM to 8PM and tour buses arrive around 10AM and leave around 5PM. This means the park is relatively empty from 5PM to 8PM and again in the morning from 7AM to 10AM.

In order to avoid the crowds at Plitvice I recommend taking a bus in the early afternoon, aiming to arrive at the park around 4PM or 5PM. By this time the weather is cooler, most of the large tour groups have vacated the area, and you’ll have an opportunity to explore an almost empty park during the golden hour. You can then stay the night in nearby accommodations and have the park to yourself again in the morning from 7AM-10AM.

During mid-season you can buy a two-day pass for 180 Kuna (it’s 110 Kuna for a one day pass) or approximately $27. In my opinion this park and the surrounding area definitely deserve at least two days of your time. If you cannot spare two days for this absolutely majestic National Park then you are traveling too fast and you need to seriously reconsider your travel style.

My strategy, and I think it’s a sound one, was to take a bus from Zadar to Entrance 1 of Plitvice. Entrance 1 is at the downstream end of the park, and from the rim of the valley here you have the most breathtaking views upstream to a few of the lakes and some of the waterfalls. Arriving around 5PM at Entrance 1 I slowly made my way down into the valley to follow the path around the lakes to the large waterfall, taking my time to soak in the quiet majesty of this natural formation.

As the sun lowered and cast a shadow into the Plitvice valley I walked alone down the trail towards the water. From the ridge looking down I was struck by the scale and majesty of the lakes and view below, and as I entered the valley I was surprised by the clarity of water and the cool mist from the waterfalls. Following the path of wooden planks, hugging the cliff side, I could see straight down into the turquoise water, where the fish were lazily meandering above a bed of dusty grey and decomposing plant material. I made my way, happily snapping photos, at times laying on the path to get just the right angle, taking advantage of the empty park. At the end of the path I arrived at what the Croatians have so creatively named the “Big Waterfall.” All of the sudden I was washed with feelings of gratitude and appreciation for everything that it took to get me here. This moment, alone with this waterfall, felt like the culmination of a couple of years of hard work, both professionally and physically. It reminded me of some tough decisions that I’ve made and I allowed myself for a moment to appreciate how far I’ve come. Not every moment on the road is spent in blissful reverie, some moments are more special than others, and I made sure to appreciate the hell out of this one.

Shortly afterwards I made my way back out Entrance 1 and headed up through the nearby village area called Rastovača to find a place to spend the night.

Rastovača is a winding country road dotted by ‘Sobes’ which you can walk up to and inquire if they have rooms available. Some of the Sobes offer dinner and breakfast in outdoor seating areas, and most of them are set up for groups of 2 or 3 people. It’s apartment style accommodation, so you’re likely to get a bedroom, a living area with a kitchen, and a private bathroom. I found one for $30 a night and if this were a different style of trip I could see myself staying there for a week or more, taking time to rent a bike and explore the surrounding countryside. You cannot swim at Plitvice but I’m sure there are countless waterfalls and swimming holes outside the boundaries of the national park. I think the accommodation at Rastovača is far nicer than what you’d get at the nearby hotels, which seem to cater to the masses and are not going to be able offer that special quiet countryside vibe.

In the morning I awoke around 6AM, had breakfast, and headed straight back into the park through Entrance 1. Since I had already explored the area around Entrance 1 I decided I was going to walk along the bus path to Entrance 2, a distance of at least a mile. I still don’t know if you’re allowed to walk along this path as there is not much of a shoulder, however, I did not have any buses pass me during my walk so it was a peaceful trek to the other gate. I imagine you could hire a taxi to take you along the main road from Entrance 1 to Entrance 2, and I’d probably search out this option next time, especially if I were with a group. Regardless, I arrived at Entrance 2 around 8AM and had that portion of the park to myself for a couple of hours.

It was during this part of the morning, as I rounded a corner of the lake I came across a slender white crane resting in the edge of the water about 100 yards away. As soon as he saw me he lifted his body heavily into the air and landed far away, putting distance between us. I wanted a photo, but I had the wrong lens on my camera for the shot. I thought if I could just get a little closer I would swap lenses and see if I could get him in frame. Approaching him once again he nervously took to the sky, slowly making a tight loop around the corner of the lake, gaining elevation, only to disappear over a V shaped break in the tree canopy above. I missed the shot but will remember the moment.

As time wore on and the tourists piled in I came to realize why the park is so popular during the middle of the day. Since it is situated in a valley, the lake water is cast in shadow during the early morning and evening. With the sun directly overhead during the middle of the day, the lake water glows a deep, stunning turquoise. This gives the park a whole different feel and had me racing around to take some of the same photos all over again with the new colors. I ended up hiking over 27 miles in the 2 days I was in the park, and took over 1,000 photos.

Plitvice is majestic on both the macro and micro scale. From the sweeping vistas with countless waterfalls to the tiny zipping dragonflies and lazy fish it’s a uniquely unforgettable natural space. I hope you all get a chance to visit sometime in your life – and if you do I hope you’ll make it a point to stay at least one night and give yourself a chance to see it in all its glory.

If you’d like to see more photos from Plitvice as well as the rest of my trip go check out my ‘Life Reengineered’ Facebook page.

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  • matafoca

    We hiked the whole k trail and avoided the ferries. It worked out pretty great but was gnarly distance in all about 15 miles. Amazing place though!

    • Very cool! any particular reason for avoiding the ferries? seems like a nice shortcut. I guess you get to see more by foot, huh?

  • matafoca

    Yeah the ferry lines were 2-3 hours long in some spots. Its Case BTW, we were there a few days ago it was so hot that standing in line was impossible. We also parked on the main road and walked into the park in a random spot so didn’t pay, thus were without ferry ticket even if we had chosen to wait. The walk was great though, pretty much had no crowd and got back to the Entrance one area around 6 o’clock so the big groups had left. It took about 6 hours to hike it.

    • Ahhh I see. Yeah I was wondering about that as I hiked along the bus line, looking up at the main road 20 meters away, seeing no fence or guards, you could easily “stumble” into the park. I did see a guy on one of the trails checking tickets in the afternoon on my second day, however.