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Look at any photo album of Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes National Park and without a doubt you’ll want to add a visit to the park to your travel list.

I don’t know what it was about those photos that indelibly etched themselves on my list. Was it the sheer beauty of the landscape? Or perhaps it was the opportunity to hike on wooden walkways snaking their way among so many waterfalls. It might have been rooted in regret from travels through Yugoslavia forty years ago when Plitvice Lakes National Park wasn’t on my radar. I didn’t even know it existed. In any case, those pictures jumping off the pages of the internet in 2010 became the catalyst for a visit to Croatia.

A visit to the park became feasible when planning a bike and barge tour of the Danube for the spring of 2013. In spring the landscape in and around the park is bursting with colour, the waterfalls and waterways are swollen with water and there are fewer tourists.

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Adding a flight to Split and a rental car to those travel plans allowed me to not only experience the wonders of Plitvice Lakes National Park but also incorporate the beautiful coastal drive between Split and Zadar that I remembered so fondly from the seventies.

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A rental car is the most convenient way to reach Plitvice Lakes National Park, located approximately 150 km from Zagreb and 120 km from Zadar.

It’s understandable why the park attracts more than a million visitors each year. However, the swell of visitors competing for space on the narrow boardwalks can be overwhelming, especially during the busiest months of summer. Many tourists come for the day, arriving on tour buses coming from Zagreb or the coast. With the flexibility of a rental car, we were able to avoid the crowds by timing our arrival and departure times, and hike the less visited sections of the park during the busiest time of day. Having your own vehicle also means staying in reasonably priced accommodation outside the park, and experiencing the hospitality of locals offering private accommodation.

It’s possible to experience the wonders of the park in a day. If you’re interested in capturing photographs in various shades of light or planning routes and rest stops to avoid the throngs of tourists, then two days is a better option. Allocating two days means avoiding being rushed and allowing adequate time to savour the park’s 4,856 hectares (12,000 acres) of natural splendour.

Plitvice Lakes National Park is considered one of the most beautiful natural phenomena in Europe. In 1979 it earned its rightful place on the UNESCO register of world natural heritage sites. Its lake system is divided into an upper and lower cluster covering a distance of eight kilometres in a north-south direction.

The twelve upper lakes lie in a dolomite valley surrounded by dense forest. Consisting of predominantly beech complemented by fir, it’s one of the most ecologically efficient forests in the region. To a lesser extent, there are stands of spruce, pine, oak, hornbeam, ironwood and sycamore. The four lower lakes, smaller and shallower, lie on limestone bedrock.

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The park is home to lakes, caves and waterfalls formed by processes typical of karst landscapes. Over thousands of years, water pouring into Plitvice from the mountains eroded the surrounding limestone and dolomite rocks. Moss and algae acted as catalysts to turn the dissolved rock (calcium carbonate) into the porous stone known as travertine, which was then deposited in the water.

When the travertine sinks to the lake floor, it coats vegetation and the bottom of the lake in white mineral “dust.” The bottom reflects sunlight and sky creating the brilliant colours for which Plitvice is famous. Nature is still manufacturing travertine and the dissolve-and-deposit process builds to the point where it creates natural dams between the lakes. These barriers eventually become tall enough to create the waterfalls that are the essence of Plitvice’s constantly shifting landscape.

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The lakes are very much alive. They’re teeming with marine life from fish to crayfish to frogs. And the travertine dams grow at a rate of one centimetre per year as a result of the interaction of moss, algae and bacteria with the air and water.

Animal life flourishes in the unspoiled conditions – European brown bear, wolves, deer, boar, rabbits, foxes, badgers, Eurasian otter, snakes and long-fingered bats. There are records of 126 species of birds such as hawks, owls, cuckoos, thrushes, starlings, kingfishers, ducks, herons, wood grouse, black storks and ospreys.

The stars of the park are the majestic waterfalls and cascades linking sixteen lakes.

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There are so many streams, cascades and waterfalls it’s impossible to keep count. All are unique.

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There were many more tour groups on our second day in the park – the International Day of Biodiversity celebrated on May 22. The day commemorates the adoption of the text of the Convention signed at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. This gave us a taste of what it could be like in the busier summer months when visitors clog the trails and boardwalks. People constantly stop to photograph the take-a-breath jaw-dropping views in one of the most picturesque natural landscapes on earth.

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Boardwalks twist like serpentines around and between lakes. They’re quite narrow, presumably crafted from trees that fall across the trails. Otherwise, trees are left to grow, die and decay without human interference.

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The park beckons visitors throughout the year. From what I’ve seen from photographs on the internet, the colours of autumn are stunning, and the snow-covered landscape and frozen waterfalls in winter are spectacular. Spring boasts lush green mosses and foliage, and spring-blooming wild flowers.

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Also in spring, the volume of water is at its highest, occasionally spilling over the trails and boardwalks.

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On the second day, we took one of the ecologically friendly low-noise electric boats across Lake Kozjak to begin exploring the lower lakes.

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With more time on the second day, we alternated between being “up close and personal” with the pristine water, and climbing to higher trails and vantage points for the spectacular views high above the rock face.

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After the close-up views of the lakes, cascades and waterfalls, it was interesting to see how they all interconnected from vista points along the cliff’s edge.

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Logistics

For the car rental, we booked online with the brokerage service Economy Car Rentals. The price was more competitive than most, documentation was clear and thorough, and we received excellent service from the local rental agency Sixt at the Split airport.

Having a rental car enabled us to book accommodation at interesting locations that would have been difficult to reach with public transportation. We were a group of four friends and finding accommodation with four beds was a challenge. Not far from the Split airport and the historic city of Trogir, we stayed at the impressive Villa Mediterana (ten metres from the Adriatic). On our way back from Plitvice we booked a beautiful apartment at Villa Adria next to the sea in the port of Vodice. In Plitvička Jezera about 3 kilometres from Plitvice Lakes National Park, our duplex apartment at Plitvice House Pox came with extraordinary home-cooked meals.

Admission fees to the Plitvice Lakes National Park are payable at Entrances 1 and 2. The entrance fee includes bus service, electric ferry ride, insurance and taxes. There are two different types of entrance tickets (daily and two-day tickets), and different fees for adults, students and children that fluctuate in cost according to the season. In spring, we each paid 180Kn ($26 USD) for two days.

For a memorable visit to Croatia, include Plitvice Lakes National Park on your itinerary. You won’t be disappointed.

Have you been to Plitvice Lakes National Park? If so, please include a link to your blog and/or photographs in the comments.

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