Plitvice Lakes and Krka National Park: Chasing Waterfalls in Croatia

This post is part of a series of stories from my October 2021 travels in Croatia.
Click here for all posts.

Sometimes, all you need is a change of scenery.

Early last summer as I absentmindedly scrolled through my Pinterest feed, a tiny thumbnail stopped me. I clicked through — and it took my breath away. Plitvice Lakes. Pictures of this place are the reason I bought a ticket to Croatia. I knew I had to see it in person.

With a little homework, I found Plitvice’s little sister, Krka National Park — and the waterfall chase was officially on.

There’s just something about waterfalls that feels beautiful and overwhelming and a little magical. They are truly one of my favorite tricks up Mother Nature’s sleeve. And Croatian waterfalls are as beautiful as I’d hoped.

As I am constantly reminded with every adventure and every natural wonder — photos could never do any of it justice, but it doesn’t stop me from trying.

Photo c/o Jenni Dinger

Krka National Park: Waterfalls in the Sunshine

Just north of Split, Krka National Park is an easy day trip or – in our case – a perfect stop along our road trip north.

I love a good day in the city and I can be dazzled by architecture and artwork as much as anyone — but I’ve long been a sucker for the natural beauty of the places I travel. Sometimes hiking or kayaking, nearly always walking — and always – always – photography.

So with comfy shoes and camera in-hand, we bought tickets for a day in Krka National Park.

Like many National Parks in the US, Krka was off the beaten path, but signs made it easy to find. As had become normal during our travels that week, it was pretty quiet in the shoulder season — we were nearly the only people on the shuttle from the Visitors Center to the trailhead.

There are two main entrances to the park: Lozovac and Skradin. Which entrance makes sense for you will depend on the time of year and how you plan to see the park (on foot or by boat). We wanted to spend about a half-day on foot and we were visiting in October – at the tail end of ‘the season’. So Lozovac entrance made sense for us. Trails and boat routes crisscross the park, and we chose the Skradinski buk trail for a good introduction to the park and the best viewpoint of Skradinski buk Waterfall — the park’s most iconic point.

A quick shuttle from Lozovac to the Skradinski buk trailhead and we were ready to go. The trail itself was primarily raised platforms above the river and surrounding wetland. My fear of bridges has lessened over time, but I still don’t love them — and this network of platforms was juuuust wide enough to make me certain one of us would end up in the water in no time. Luckily, the path was intended to be one-way traffic and it was anything but crowded, so that certainly helped. I can’t imagine visiting in the height of summer with these platforms packed with shoulder-to-shoulder people.

Every time we were brave enough to take a fork in the path, we were rewarded with a clearing through the trees and a breathtaking view.

But eventually, we started to hear the roar of what could only be Skradinski buk Falls, and the path opened to the biggest crowd we’d seen all day. The platform stretched across the Krka River and let us take in the falls from below.

Photo c/o Jenni Dinger
Skradinski buk Waterfall | Krka National Park, Croatia

We climbed around above the falls a bit before heading along to the end of our loop. We knew we had a long next day ahead of us at Plitvice, and a drive to Zadar ahead of us that evening — so we didn’t milk every last drop out of Krka National Park. But what a gorgeous day — chasing waterfalls in the sunshine.

Quick Tips for a visit to Krka National Park:

  • Early! Always arrive early! Crowds are smaller earlier in the day and you’ll be able to get your bearings without navigating a pile of people on the platforms.
  • Plan to spend the entire day. We didn’t take a boat tour and wished we’d had time to do that. You want to know you have ample time to wander and explore — so plan to be there when the gates open and stay until dark.
  • Wear layers and comfortable shoes. It was October for this trip, so fall weather. We were comfortable in the sunshine in a light jacket. I’ve read the park allows swimming in Skradinski buk in the summer, but that may be going away altogether after this year in order to preserve the area. Still – shoes that can get wet aren’t a bad idea.

Plitvice Lakes in the Fall: A First-Timer’s Guide

Ok. The reason I bought a ticket to Croatia in the first place. Plitvice Lakes.

A day at Krka National Park was the perfect warm up for this gem that draws visitors from all over the world. Plitvice is as inland as we went during our entire trip — it’s just this side of the Bosnian border as Croatia starts to widen to the north.

If you Google Plitvice, most of the photos you’ll find are lush and green — and taken during the spring and summer months. We would be there in the fall, so I was looking forward to seeing that breathtaking landscape I fell in love with online — in gorgeous fall colors instead.

I’d done my homework and had a handle on the general layout of the park. There are upper lakes and lower lakes — and I knew I wanted to see both. Then there are trail options they call “programs” and they’re labeled A, B, C, E, F, H and K. We decided to start with a manageable route – Program B, lower lakes only.

We followed the route marked in red: hike from Entrance 1 to P3, ferry from P3 to P2 to P1. And RIGHT at the trailhead, as we started our morning — was THE view. The view I’d drooled over on the internet months before and hoped would be as beautiful in real life.

Plitvice Lakes National Park | Croatia

Our view was dripping in fall color instead of lush summer green, the sky was moody and cold that day, and I really(!) need a drone, but WOW.

Croatia, you are such a show off.

Much of the trail was similar to Krka National Park — raised wooden platforms above the water. What a beautiful way to carve a path and still blend into the landscape as much as possible.

Photo c/o Jenni Dinger

The path winds up and down through the park — raised platforms across the water, trails carved into the mountain for a better view of the falls, stairs that seem to go up forever then reveal an incredible view back down on the lakes. And yes — the water really looks like that.

At Veliki Slap, “The Great Fall”

We were overwhelmed by it all, and we were taking our sweet time taking it all in. Every step forward meant a new angle on the view, and every single square inch of the park is a 360 view of unbelievable beauty. There is no rushing it.

Photo c/o Jenni Dinger

After a morning of hiking, we made it “halfway” to a large picnic area with a handful of food options and plenty of picnic tables to rest. We stopped for lunch and a regroup on our plan.

Our rethought plan required a VERY close inspection of the trail options, three separate visits to the poor, patient man inside this information booth, and a little creativity.

Instead of continuing the back-half of program B, as we’d started — we decided to part ways. I wanted to hike a little more and see the upper lakes, but Jenni was ready to take the tram back down and do some hiking closer to the entrance. So we opted for a hybrid of Program B and Program K-ish. We had just spent the morning hiking from Entrance 1 to P3 on this map. We were about to take the ferry from P3 to P2 then P1 then hike or ride the tram back down to Entrance 1. Instead! Once we got off the ferry at P1 I walked over to Station 2 and took the tram UP the hill instead of hiking. So I hiked the red line from (roughly) Station 3 back down to P2.

All that to say, I used the tram to get uphill and hike back down rather than the other way around. (There was plenty of hilly hiking in between – don’t worry!) And if you’re headed to Plitvice yourself – the moral of the story is the programs aren’t rigid. They’re quite modular — the tram goes up and down, and the ferry goes back and forth from P2 to P1 with no problem, so you’re able to put together a route that makes sense for your desired energy level — and time. We started to run out of daylight before we met back up at the end of the day, but we both had good cell reception throughout the park so we felt good about finding each other and the exit.

The upper lakes were as beautiful as the lower lakes, and there’s no way I could choose upper OR lower if I had to.

Waterfalls, brilliant colors, gorgeous views. All of it.

Jenni said later it felt like the colors were literally changing before our eyes — the colors got more vibrant as the day went on. We saw photos from friends we’d met earlier in the week in Split — they were at Plitvice just one day after us and the colors in their photos were more golden still. We were there for the literal peak of the colors in many places — and within days I’m sure they were gone and brown. What a perfect window to visit. Perfect.

Thank you for luring me to Croatia, Plitvice Lakes. You were every bit as beautiful and majestic as advertised — and truly a highlight of a week of cross-country adventure.

Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.
— Anita Desai

This post is part of a series of stories from my October 2021 travels in Croatia.
Click here for all posts.

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