Forty kilometres south of Slunj, the Plitvice Lakes National Park (Nacionalni park plitvička jezera) is the country’s most popular single natural attraction, and with some justification. The 8km string of sixteen lakes, hemmed in by densely forested hills, presents some of the most eye-catching scenery in mainland Croatia, with water rushing down from the upper lakes via a sequence of waterfalls and cataracts. This unique landscape was created by the movement of travertine, calcium-rich material picked up by the river and then deposited downstream – a process which, when repeated over the course of several millennia, produced a terraced sequence of barriers behind which lakes formed. Nowadays these lakes – a bewitching turquoise when seen from a distance – teem with fish and watersnakes, while herons frequent the shores of the quieter, northern part of the system, and deer, bears, wolves and wild boar throng the wooded heights above.
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A visit to the park is a highly organized affair, with well-laid-out paths, and regular shuttle buses and boats ferrying visitors to major points of interest. It is also very busy, especially in summer – visitors who want to savour genuine wilderness should take their time and explore some of the lesser-trodden trails on the park’s fringes. The park can be entered from two points on the main Zagreb–Split road: Entrance 1 (Ulaz jedan) is at the northern (lower) end of the lake system, while Entrance 2 (Ulaz dva) is 2.5km further south.
Entrance 1, situated at the point where the lake waters flow off into the Korana gorge, is ten minutes’ walk away from Veliki slap (literally “the big waterfall”) – with a drop of some 78m, it is the park’s single most dramatic feature. Paths lead to the foot of the waterfall, passing alongside the top of the smaller Sastavci fall, which empties into the cliff-lined Korana gorge. From Veliki slap you can proceed south on foot towards the lower group of cataracts, where wooden walkways traverse the foaming waters. Beyond lies Kozjak, the largest of Plitvice’s lakes. Enthusiastically croaking frogs provide an enjoyable soundtrack from spring to autumn, while shoals of fish can be observed moving through the crystal-clear waters. By sticking to the western side of Kozjak, you’ll eventually emerge at the northern terminus of the shuttle ferry service (included in entrance ticket), which will take you south towards Entrance 2. Otherwise you can walk to Entrance 2 along the eastern bank of Kozjak, or take the bus from the road just above the lakeside path.
Entrance 2 is the best jumping-off point for the biggest group of cataracts, where waters from the highest of the Plitvice Lakes, Prošćansko, tumble down into a succession of smaller pools and tarns before reaching Kozjak lower down. The tumbling waters emit an impressively thunderous roar when you get up close, throwing off a refreshing blanket of mist. Exploring this part of the system can easily absorb at least half a day; to save time, you can take the shuttle bus (cost included in entrance ticket) to the southernmost stop (Labudovac Falls) and take a stroll around the upper cataracts from there. Labudovac Falls are also the jumping-off point for woodland walks that cross the rolling hills west of the lakes – clearly displayed maps at the shuttle-bus terminal will allow you to choose a suitable itinerary.