The rush of water. Tinkle of ice on the branches. Cold December air nipping at your cheeks. A murmur of people that suddenly appeared close by. You wouldn’t think Plitvice Lakes, one of the most famous National parks of Croatia, could be this quiet. But they can. And they are. All you have to do is visit in wintertime.
Last year we spent Christmas in Croatia with my family. Our usual trips to Croatia (excluding summer 2020) tend to be more focused on family and seeing friends than travelling around. This Christmas, however, I had a bit of the traveling bug fever. Plus I was also annoyed that my husband, who I’ve been together with for about 11 years at that point had been to Croatia so many times but hasn’t seen any of the National parks (there’s 8 of them)! And then there was my mother who likes to point out that “she too had not seen Plitvice in decades”.
It was a bright Friday morning. There were no clouds in the sky which meant it was going to be a cold day. As we left my home town, we hoped there would be some snow at the Lakes (them being in the more mountainous region that my town). It would have made for a perfect winter mood and excellent photos, you know the ones you see online with everything covered in snow and not a living soul in sight?
Once we got to Plitvice, it took a bit of figuring out where we pick up our tickets (booked online). The parking lots, restaurant, toilets and a few shops are on one side of the road. To get to the actual lakes, you need to cross the road over an overpass made of round wooden beams that kinda remind me of forest lodges you see in American movies. Once across, the path leads pass the gift shops and by a tiny hut – the ticket “office”.
There were no barriers, no queues. We got our tickets and our map that showed different paths we could take. One downside of visiting in winter is that the Upper Lakes, with the biggest Prošćansko lake, are closed for safety reasons and you can only see the Lower Lakes.
The rushing sound of water lead us to the viewing platform overlooking Veliki Slap (it is genuinely called The Big Waterfall or Plitvice Waterfall). It is the highest waterfall in the park, falling from a height of 78 meters. Where it meets Sastavci, another smaller waterfall, is the spring of one of Croatia’s bigger rivers, Korana.
We had only been out of the car for about 20 minutes and I was already so grateful for my big, soft scarf. There was no snow, but it was still cold. Thinking on it now, no snow meant no ice and a safer passage for my family and me. The winding path led downwards, rays of sunlight pushing through the bare branches leaving shadows playing under our feet. At the bottom, the path continued next to clear turquoise water leading us to the picture point under Veliki Slap.
Usually packed with people and impossible to get a clear shot, it was almost empty. A few other tourists, mostly members of an Asian travelling group, were dotted around taking photos and admiring the untouched nature of Plitvice. The low December sun would not reach high enough to bathe this little spot in sunlight, but at the the top of the waterfalls the droplets were sparkling in sunshine, leaving a faint rainbow in the mist.
The wet wooden footpath led us by the lakes and other waterfalls, high and low, grouped and alone. The water level was quite high and at places coming through the slatted path, foaming around our feet. There is no railing on any of the paths; if you wanted to (and you shouldn’t!!) you could just step into the crystal clear water and fall into its depths. Winding away we followed it by shallow caves and bare trees. Suddenly, we got to firm ground. This muddy path led to the restaurant (more of a quick food stop) on the banks of Kozjak lake.
Here we had a quick stop – having some coffee to warm us up and roast pork sandwiches my mother prepared in the morning (it was Christmas time, everything has roast pork in it during Christmas time :D). If you’re from the Balkans, you’ll know exactly what I’m taking about! We waited for our boat.
The other side
The day was passing and it was getting colder. The sun helped keep us warm while we stood on the banks and waited for our boat that would take us over the lake. The boat ride was very pleasant. There is no indoor seating so you are exposed to the elements, but it was so serene, gliding through water, the only sounds were from the nearby waterfalls, an occasional bird and delighted gasps from our fellow tourists. The ride took us by the beautiful waterfalls that mark the border between Lower and Upper Lakes and left us on the deserted other side.
The shop on this side was closed. We were greeted only by a chunky tabby cat hoping to get attention and food from tourists. On one side the muddy paths led deeper into the wooded area. Bushes that would usually cover the view of the waterfalls on the other side were naked in the winter, images of falling water pushing through the thin bare branches.
On the other side, stone paths led upwards, towards a big restaurant (closed in winter) and the parking lot where we took the minibus towards our entrance (now exit). We wanted to walk which is completely possible, but it would have taken us a good hour and at that point the sun was dipping lower and lower on the horizon. Another thing to take into account is that you cannot see any waterfalls or water for that matter from the road you need to take.
The minibus left us at a little stop close to several viewpoints and a short walk from our entrance/exit. We could see the hurried steps from other tourists trying to get back before it got even colder. We took our time and enjoyed the views of the falls from high points.
Edging closer to the exit, we realised it was time to go. The sun was on its way down, its low rays sending their feeble warmth. No matter, there’s heating in the car.
Keep in mind
- Upper Lakes are usually closed from November to Spring.
- In winter days are shorter so you will have less time to see the lakes. But then again, half of them are closed off.
- The restaurants is open but is serving a very limited menu. There is no indoor seating, only outdoor and, trust me, winters are cold in the mountain region of Croatia.
- If you’re lucky enough to catch the lakes in snow, be careful of slippery paths. There are almost no railings for you t
It’s not all bad!
- The tourist season in Croatia is from mid May to about mid October. There are almost no tourists at the lakes in winter.
- The entry price is a quarter of the price in high season
- If you’re going with kids, gift shops are closed so you won’t be pushed into buying crap that will end up in a corner after a few days.
- So many good photo opportunities without other people making a guest appearance!
There are 8 national parks in Croatia. Have you visited any of them yet? Let us know in the comments!