Crystalline lakes and endless waterfalls at Plitvice National Park
Updated: Jul 31, 2021
We are soaked. Completely, utterly, down-to-our-undergarments drenched!
The shoes I opted to wear today - comfy sneakers with a wool interior that are entirely unsuited to the current wet weather - are making rhythmic squelching noises, and every step I take in them is accompanied by a little wave around my ankles as the water leaks over the brim.
They are, quite literally, overflowing.
My sated jeans weigh twice what they did when I pulled them on this morning, and my t-shirt is clinging like a second skin.
We have done what little we can to counteract the rain: As we eyed the menacing storm clouds moving in earlier, we each bought one of those lightweight use-it-once plastic ponchos sold by intrepid vendors at tourist sites the world over.
Largely in vain, it would quickly become apparent. This is the kind of downpour that will not be denied. We are wet through.
Plitvice National Park - Lower Lakes
In hindsight though, this is not the worst thing that could have happened...
In fact, it has turned out to be almost a good thing, all things considered, despite appearances. For we are visiting the incredible, and nevertheless still somewhat lesser-known, Plitvice Lakes in central Croatia's Plitvicka Jezera National Park.
Despite flying a bit under the radar compared to Croatia's bigger hitting coastal tourist sites - like Split, or cruiseship-crowded Dubrovnik - the Plitvice Lakes are popular enough to be busy during the high season. Couple that with the fact that most of the Plitvice site is rivers and lakes and unpassable forest, and the result is often queues for the boats crossing the lakes, and a shuffling scrum during the peak tourist periods as visitors criss-cross the narrow wooden walkways.
So much so that in recent times UNESCO has even considered removing from Plitvice its coveted World Heritage Site designation, in response to the potential damage caused to the natural environment by overtourism.
We have had none of that to contend with today though. In fact, given the weather we're having, most other visitors seem to have stayed away, and we only periodically pass other small groups similarly braving the deluge.
For the most part, we just about have the place to ourselves.
And what an incredible place it is! The Plitvice Lakes are a vision of interconnecting rivulets and ponds and streams, and waterfalls and forest paths and wet walkways, set to the background soundtrack of chirping birds and pattering raindrops.
Even better, the unseasonably large amount of rainfall has lasted for a couple of weeks now, and as a result the lakelands are at the height of their splendour. Streams that were gurgling are gushing, rivers are rushing at full force and the lakes are filled to bursting. And the hundreds of waterfalls that permeate the park are gleefully showing what they're capable of with a near-limitless water supply.
On the downside, while we've been trying to take photos to capture the magnificence all around us, it has been a bit of a lost cause.
Put 'Plitvice Lakes' into any google image search and you will find endless stunning photos of turquoise ponds among lush greenery beneath blue skies. Our photos are more misty than clear, more washed-out grey than sparkling blue.
In addition, the unexpected rains have come close to submerging some of the pathways in the park, and as a result a few have been closed off. The Plitvice National Park is split into 2 main areas: the Lower Lakes and the Upper Lakes, and much of the latter has been closed today due to the higher-than-usual water levels.
As a result, we're spending our afternoon exploring the Plitvice Lower Lakes. The Lower sites consist of a chain of successive lakes framed by canyon walls - the water plunging from one to the next, creating a network of seemingly endless waterfalls around every corner. For those who are keenest on the cascades, the Lower Lakes are for you - boasting the park's biggest falls.
And so as the weather slowly changes from a cloudburst to a light afternoon drizzle, we wander from boardwalk to boardwalk as we take in the beautiful nature on all sides.
We amble along forest paths beside crystalline mountain lakes, beneath a tree canopy still shaking loose the bounty of the recent rainfall. A fun boat ride - electric and silent - shuttles us across Lake Kozjak (no queues to navigate today!), before we slowly make our way back to the park entrance.
And by the end of the first half-day of our visit, Croatia's Plitvice Lakes has us thoroughly charmed.
Plitvice National Park - Upper Lakes
The next morning, after a 1-night stay at our charming, if unassuming, local B&B accommodation - the incredibly reasonably-priced House Zupan in the nearby town of Rakovica - we are back at the Plitvice lakes.
And as luck would have it, we've awoken to a weather prediction that includes no more rain. Even better, the Upper Lakes have been gradually draining their excess water supply overnight, and are slowly but surely being reopened to visitors.
Possibly because access to the Upper Lakes was far from guaranteed, and neither was decent weather, comparatively few visitors have turned up again this morning. We hop on the visitor bus that takes us to the Upper sites of the National Park, where we find ourselves among more waterlogged loveliness.
Where the Lower Lakes are constrained by the walls of the flanking canyons, the Upper Lakes - larger and more numerous - have the freedom to spread out. The waterfalls are less eye-catching here, but the Upper Lakes are a wide landscape of striking beauty.
This system of crystal clear lakes - home to lazily swimming trout and interconnected watercourses surrounded by thick forests - combine to make this one of the most beautiful national parks in Eastern Europe.
We spend another 2 or 3 happy morning hours discovering the Upper Lakes, following trails across vibrant pools and over cool woodland hills, treated to scenes of nature's masterpieces all the way, in what was absolutely one the highlights of our roadtrip across Croatia.
Plitvice Lakes, Croatia - final review
An easy 2 hour drive south from the capital Zagreb, on Croatia's excellently maintained motorways, the Plitvice Lakes are an attraction often passed over by tourists planning their Croatian escape.
And while Croatia's gorgeous wild coast, with its countless nearby islands, and game-of-thrones-famous Dubrovnik are all more than worthy of attention, we honestly came away from our trip thinking that Plitvice was the attraction that most exceeded our expectations.
Visiting Plitvice - set in Croatia's largest national park - does need a bit of planning, set as it is in the country's interior between Zagreb and Split, near the Bosnian border.
It also requires a full day, or two half-days as we did it, to fully do it justice. But it is absolutely worth the effort.
It's astonishing to us that this national park, with its lush valley and its stunning natural beauty, is not more widely known, and it just goes to show that there are many wonders to be discovered beyond the world's most famous sights.
Plitvice Lakes - with its turquoise pools, tinkling waterfalls and mesmerising vistas around each boardwalk bend - is a picturesque natural wonder. And the fact that it does not yet appear on every Croatian holiday must-see list makes it all the more precious.