Read any ‘best of’ or ‘must see’ list about Croatia and you will almost certainly find Plitvice Lakes in the top five. It was one of the few places I had actually heard of before we came here.
What are the Plitviče Lakes?
The Plitvice Lakes National Park is an area of sixteen stunningly beautiful lakes set within a protected area of nearly 300 square kilometres in northern Croatia. The water in the lakes tumbles down from one to the next via a series of waterfalls and cascades and the whole area is surrounded by mature forested hills.
Plitvice Lakes became a world heritage site in 1979 and it is the biggest of Croatia’s 8 national parks. It is so big that it has two entrances: Entrance 1 is near the bottom of the lower lakes and Entrance 2 is near the centre of the park. You get around the park on miles of wooden boardwalks that snake in and around the waterfalls and paths that skirt around the lakes or along the hillsides above them.
There are also electric boats that traverse the biggest lake and a ‘sightseeing train’ that runs between the two entrances and up to the top of the upper lakes, allowing you to fully explore all of the different areas without having to walk it all. The use of both the train and boats are included in your entrance fee. There are some areas with steps to climb, but mostly it is easy walking.
There are lots of rivers and waterfalls in Croatia, but what makes Plitvice so special is the sheer number of them and the beauty of the interconnected lakes. One or two on their own would be stunning, but so many together is simply breathtaking.
I had seen photographs online before our visit, but nothing really prepared me for the size and beauty of what you experience at Plitvice. The lakes are more turquoise than you think is possible and the water clearer than any I had ever seen. Then there is the ever-present sound of the water as it thunders and splashes around you. In places it passes right underneath the wooden boardwalk and you can FEEL it gushing beneath your feet, such is the speed and volume of the water passing through.
The paths and wooden boardwalks blend perfectly and harmoniously with the scenery, causing the minimal visual impact and not detracting from the beauty of the landscape at all. They take you right up close to the falls, crossing over the top of some and near to the base of others to give you different viewpoints and perspectives.
In places, we got soaked by the spray coming off the falls, especially at the base of the Great Waterfall (Veliki Slap). Here the Plitvica river tumbles over 78 metres from the limestone cliffs above, joining with the water coming from the rest of the system of lakes, forming a dramatic two-step waterfall.
Sometimes we found the park was busy with coach parties and tour groups but at other times we felt like we had it to ourselves, especially in the more remote upper lakes later on in the day.
We had some frustrations: we turned up at one of the ferry points only to find that hundreds of other people had had the same idea and we were faced with a long wait or a long walk to get to the other end of the lake. We chose to keep moving and the walk around the lake was easy, but we didn’t get the chance to sit down and rest for a while as we would’ve done on the boat. Then when it does get busy, the boardwalks are tricky as they are fairly narrow and have no handrail or sides to them. How more people don’t end up falling off I have no idea!
We got around to see most of the park during our day, making use of the sightseeing train and the boat across the lake to get to the different areas. We started out following one of the recommended trails, but soon discovered that virtually everyone else seemed to be on the same path, so we abandoned it and made up our own route.
As it got later in the day the crowds thinned and the upper lakes area was the quietist of all. Here we were virtually alone on the boardwalks and got to enjoy the park’s beauty in a quieter, more natural way.
The thing that really blew my mind about Plitvice however wasn’t the clear turquoise lakes. It wasn’t the incredibly beautiful waterfalls or the dramatic limestone cliffs, although these were undoubtedly spectacular. What really impressed me was discovering how this unique landscape had formed and how long it had taken to do so.
How did the Plitvice Lakes Form?
As always, the landscape starts with the underlying geology and this area is mostly made up of limestone and dolomite rocks. Over the years, rivers have cut through the limestone creating deep canyons. Eventually the river has reached the dolomite rock below, which is less readily dissolved and eroded and so this has halted the downward erosion of the river. Then an incredible process of the creation of a material called tufa has effectively dammed the river into multiple lakes as it passes down the valley. This tufa has formed barriers at the edges of the lakes, holding the water back and creating the incredible waterfalls we see today. At Plitvice, most of these ‘cliffs’ over which the water cascades have actually grown up from the bottom a bit like a huge wall of stalagmites, although its formation is more complex than this. Let me (try to) explain.
The formation of the tufa barriers at Plitvice started some 6,000 – 7,000 years ago and they are still being created today. The first step in their formation is that when water flows through the carbonate rocks of this area (limestone and dolomite), it dissolves the carbonate and becomes supersaturated with calcium bicarbonate. The second step involves the moss and algae growing within the water. When water flows over the moss, it splashes and foams and as it does so it releases carbon dioxide. Without the carbon dioxide, the carbonate is also released (precipitated) from the water and tiny crystals of calcium carbonate (calcite) are deposited, thus forming the tufa barriers. The algae and bacteria growing on the moss and rocks also secrete a mucus and this acts like a glue, helping to bind the calcite crystals to the algae and to each other. The deposited calcite effectively encases the moss, which then becomes part of the tufa barrier. If you look at the tufa closely, you can see the texture of the plants and mosses within it. Some of these giant tufa barriers at Plitvice are now over 70 metres high.
This is a delicately balanced ecosystem: changes in the physical, chemical or biological make-up of the lakes would threaten the formation of the tufa and therefore this amazing landscape itself. This is one of the reasons why swimming isn’t allowed in any of the lakes at Plitvice.
The diagram below clearly illustrates where the tufa barriers have formed and how they hold back the water in the lakes.
The calcite has also formed on the fallen trees and branches that are underneath the water in the lakes, creating eerie-looking submerged worlds. We picked a loose branch out of the water for a closer look and it was as though it was encased in stone – amazing!
This is an incredible national park and is one of Croatia’s top tourist destinations. You can buy one- or two-day tickets for the park and some people recommend exploring the upper lakes on one day and the lower lakes on another. We found that one day was enough for us though. We had seen a huge number of waterfalls at close quarters and had also got some spectacular views from high above the canyon and went away tired but happy with our day. What I shall remember more than anything else of our visit to Plitvice is the incredible turquoise of the lakes with their crystal clear water and the fascinating geological processes that have created this unique and stunning landscape.