The view that greeted me as I arrived at Plitvice

Croatia’s National Parks

I had read about some of Croatia’s national parks before my trip but even then, I could not be prepared for what I saw when I rounded the corner at Plitvice Lakes National Park.

Croatia is a country that has become a must visit destination in the last few years. The costal cities of Dubrovnik and Split have seen explosions in tourist numbers, as have many of the islands such as Hvar and Vis. These have been the home to multiple films and TV shows over the last decade, most notably Game of Thrones and Mamma Mia 2. However, situated across the country are a number of national parks that many visitors miss out. The most famous of these are Plitvice Lakes and Krka waterfalls. Both can be visited by a day trip from the capital of Zagreb or the popular coastal city of Split and are certainly worth a visit.

Plitvice Lakes was busy when I went. I had woken up early on a July morning to get on a designated bus from Zagreb bus station. It was a very spontaneous choice for me to go that day. I had read before I went interrailing that Croatia had some of the most underrated National Parks in the whole of Europe, but I wasn’t sure exactly how good they would be. However, that morning I had woken up in my Zagreb hostel with no real plan and decided that I might as well take a trip to Plitvice.

One of Plitvice’s many waterfalls

It is very easy to do a day trip from Zagreb. There are plenty of different companies that offer tours, but I thought that I would go myself so that I could have more flexibility over my own plans. The bus itself was quite cheap, the equivalent of about 130 Kuna ($20) for a return. So, I bought my ticket and set off on the 3 hour journey to the National Park.

I arrived in the early afternoon and there was a long queue to get into the park. I had not prebooked my ticket so had to join that queue. The entry cost for Plitvice is quite a lot in summer, 180 Kuna ($26), per person. It is much cheaper if you visit during the winter or spring months, but the weather is obviously not as good.

The tickets all had times of entry on. I arrived at around 11.30 and was able to get the last ticket with the entry time of 12.00, otherwise I would have had to wait another half hour. It was an incredibly hot July day and there was not much shade for the people in the queue.

At this point I was stood in the queue in the baking sun really questioning whether it was the right decision to come to Plitvice. It had cost me a large amount of my budget to go, and I was just standing and sweating.

Fortunately, 12.00 came around quickly and the gates were opened up. I went quickly to make sure that I was one of the first few to get through, really this was just so that I could take some photos without people in! As I rounded the corner, I was blown away by what I saw. A cascading waterfall known as Veliki slap (Large Waterfall) dominated the view. There was a rush between people, all with cameras in hand, to snake down the walkways and get to the waterfall first. As I got close, I began to feel the spray from the waterfall. It was a welcome relief from the heat of the day.

There is a walkway constructed right up to the bottom of the waterfall which is the perfect vantage point for a photo. This is the most impressive individual waterfall of the whole park, so it was the busiest point of the whole day. I managed to get right to the front to get my photos and then just stood there for a while. I realised that I had made the right choice to come to Plitvice at this point and the day only got better.

The walkways further into the park were much quieter

The walkways continue all the way around Plitvice but after that first waterfall they were much quieter. It was now that the real beauty of Plitvice became apparent. For hundreds of metres these walkways were lined by waterfalls and the most beautiful lakes and pools of water. Here there were times when I could have waterfalls to myself, rather than fight with crowds, something that meant I took a LOT of photos.

I finished my visit by reaching the top end of the National Park. I was all ready to start the long walk back to the entrance, only to find that there is a little train that runs along the side of the park transporting tourists. Back at the entrance I went straight to the bus stop. This was when I became aware of the big mistake that I had made earlier in the day.

It turned out that I had only booked a ticket for a specific bus company, rather than any bus between Zagreb and Plitvice. Therefore, I spent the next 2 hours at the bus stop asking every bus that went by if that was my one, only to find out that it was one of the last buses of the day. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t very stressed out at this point, planning out how I would get back to Zagreb in a taxi if the worst came to the worst. Luckily for me, the bus arrived, only about 20 minutes after the scheduled time, and I was safely back to Zagreb.

After the success of my trip to Plitvice, I decided when I was in Split to make the trip to my second Croatian National Park: Krka Waterfalls. It is only around an hour from Split so I decided that I would again take the bus and go alone. Learning from my previous mistake, I booked a single way ticket this time so that I could get back on any bus that was available.

Again, I set off early from Split bus station this time and headed to Krka. The big difference between Krka and Plitvice is the size. Krka is much smaller than Plitvice, but the entry cost is fairly similar. The only way to enter the park itself is by boat, something that was really quite enjoyable. After further queuing, I was able to sit on the top deck of one of the boats. The top deck is open topped and has a great view of the journey on the way up to the waterfalls.

I was lucky with the weather. The sun was out in full and many of my fellow tourists were wearing only swimwear in preparation for a day of sunbathing and swimming in the waterfalls. So, after getting off the boat I headed straight to the waterfall for a swim. Swimming in a waterfall is an experience that I did not realise was on my bucket list until it happened. There was a large rope along the bottom of the waterfall preventing people from getting right underneath, but you could still swim right up close to it. I am a very confident swimmer, so I had no trouble swimming through the water, but there was a strong current as I got close to the waterfall itself.

It was quite busy in the water, and I had to watch out for numerous people who were struggling. However, with that being said, the experience of swimming in a waterfall is one that I can certainly boast to my friends about and one that I am glad I had. The most dangerous part of the whole experience for me was trying to get back out of the water. The rocks that lined the shore area were covered in the most ridiculously slippery algae that I have ever felt. One step on the rock and I was sliding all over the place. At one point I slipped and grazed my leg as I fought through the rocks back to the shore.

The waterfalls that I swam in at Krka

After somehow surviving such a treacherous experience, I went for a walk around the rest of the park. As I mentioned, it is nowhere near as large as Plitvice but still offers countless waterfalls on the stroll around. Much like in Plitvice, I thought that I was a National Geographic photographer taking photos at every single opportunity that I had.

I left the park to go back on the boat to the bus station. Sitting on the top deck is certainly the place to be, as on the way back I was stuck in the middle with a very limited view back across the park. Luckily, this time I had no trouble with the buses. I was able to buy a single ticket straight back to Split with no problem and hop on the next available bus.

The view along my walk through Krka Waterfalls

These are just the two most visited national parks in Croatia. There are others such as Paklenica and Brijuni which go even further under the radar of international tourists. With Croatia looking as though it will continue its popularity as a summer destination after the pandemic, these national parks are places that should be on the radar of all travellers. They are both within day trip distance from Split and Zagreb and easily accessible, if you book the right bus ticket! Plitvice Lakes is one of the most beautiful areas that I have ever spent an afternoon walking around and even if you can’t swim at Krka waterfalls anymore it is still certainly worth a visit. Croatia has countless stunning beaches and islands, but don’t miss out on its other natural beauty: the national parks.