Exploring Croatia’s National Parks

There are 8 stunning National Parks in Croatia; Krka, Plitvice Lakes, Mljet, Brijuni Islands, Kornati, Paklenica, Risnjak and Northern Velebit. On our two week trip to Croatia, we were able to visit both Krka and Plitvice - these are the most popular and perhaps accessible of the national parks in Croatia.

Krka National Park

Krka is one of the most visited parks in Croatia, due to its location - only 50 minutes from Zadar, and one hour from Split. It’s an easy drive if you have your own car, but if not, there are many day trips you can book onto and even public transport links directly to the park. We had our own car and drove from Split to Krka, spent the day here, then continued driving onto Zadar.

There are five entrances to the park, the two main ones are Skradin and Lozovac, where there is free parking. These two entrances are the closest to the Skradinski Buk waterfall, which is the most famous in the park as you can swim in the base of the falls.

Swimming in the base of Skradinski Buk Waterfall

Swimming is allowed in the base of Skradinski Buk Waterfall

The main walking trail in the park is around Skradinski Buk, and follows wooden platforms over the water. It is an easy walk, suitable for all fitness levels, and surpisingly they weren't too busy. We started from Lozovac entrance, and instead of going directly to Skradinski Buk waterfall, we continued straight and walked through the forest and network of paths and bridges, until we arrived at the waterfalls for a swim. The walk only took a couple of hours at a leisurely pace.

Wooden raised paths create the trail through Krka National Park

Wooden raised paths create the trail through Krka National Park

The area around the Skradinski Buk waterfall is quite commercialised, with food outlets, picnic benches and lockers to store your belongings whilst you go for a swim. It was nice and refreshing to swim in the waterfalls, but it is very busy, almost like a swimming pool to be honest, just one with gorgeous natural surroundings!

As we made our way back to the entrance at Lozovac from Skradinski Buk falls, we passed St Nicholas church and the Old Watermills which looked like a scene from a fairytale.

The Old Watermill near Skradinski Buk

The Old Watermill near Skradinski Buk

The other main attractions in the park are the Roski Slap waterfalls and Visovac Island, where a Franciscan Monastery sits in the centre. You can only visit Visovac Island by booking a boat excursion from Skradinski Buk, however if you have your own car, there is a viewpoint where you can look down onto Visovac Island from above.

Before we left Krka National Park, we visited the Oziđana pećina cave. The cave, which sits at the top of the canyon, above Roski Slap waterfall, is only 59m long but you can walk inside, following the raised platform.

The view over Roski Slap and inside Ozidana pacina cave

If you're looking for an off-the-beaten track national park, where you can really get away from the crowds, then Krka definitely isn't for you. However, it is a nice way to spend a few hours. I would recommend getting there as early as possible and pre-purchasing your tickets online to avoid the bulk of the queues.

Plitvice Lakes

Plitvice Lakes is one of Croatia’s most popular tourist attractions and was given UNESCO world heritage status in 1979. It’s location is between Zagreb and Zadar, and although it can be done as a day excursion from either of these two places, there are many hotels surrounding the park for those, like us, who decided to stay overnight. We did this to ensure that we had a full day exploring the park without having to drive afterwards.

You really do need a whole day here if you want to explore most of the park. The whole of the National Park covers 300 square kilometres, but the main area around the 16 inter-connected lakes covers 8 kilometres.

I would recommend starting your visit from Entrance 1 as from here there is a viewpoint with stunning views down to the lakes and waterfalls.

The viewpoint from Entrance 1 of Plitvice is stunning

The viewpoint from Entrance 1

There are 8 ‘Lake programs’ (walking routes) around the lakes, 4 of which start at Entrance 1 and the other 4 start at entrance 2. (Note that the Lake Programs and Hiking trails are different - the hiking trails refer to the trails away from the lake and into the forest, whereas the lake programs are well sign-posted and you don't need a map for these).

We chose Lake program C, which was an 8km trail, including a boat ride across the lake. Halfway through our walk, we stopped following this route and picked up Program K, walking back to Entrance 1 along the shoreline of the Upper Lakes. We did this as we wanted to get off the wooden paths for a bit, away from the crowds, and it was much more peaceful here - it did also mean that we inadvertently extended our walk to 19km!

Veliki Slap - a 78m high waterfall is right at the start of the trail from Entrance 1

Veliki Slap - a 78m high waterfall is right at the start of the trail from Entrance 1

As the park can get very busy, there is almost a one way system in place, with everyone walking in the same direction. Whilst this does help, there is still some congestion as the wooden paths over the lakes can be narrow, so when it is busy, expect to have to wait for people in front of you to take their photo before the line starts moving again. There are big queues for the boat ride across the lake too, so it can sometimes feel a bit like a theme park, rather than a national park.

Despite how busy the park was, I really enjoyed visiting here, the lakes and waterfalls really are beautiful. You just need to have some patience and be aware just how busy it can get so that you can manage your expectations.

One of the many lakes and waterfalls in Plitvice National Park

One of the many lakes and waterfalls in Plitvice National Park

Most people just come to Plitvice for the lakes, but there are more hiking and biking trails within the national park, so if you wanted to really explore the whole area, I would recommend at least two days here.

Again, as with Krka, pre-book your entry tickets online to avoid the big queue at the entrance of the park and get here as early as possible.

Other National Parks in Croatia

If you want to get away from the crowds and visit a quieter national park, or perhaps you have longer in Croatia to explore, you might want to consider one of these instead:

Mljet National Park

Mljet Island is best accessed by boat from Dubrovnik and about a third of the island is designated as a National Park, surrounded by salt water lakes. One of the main attractions within Mljet National Park is the Benedictine Monastery on the small island of St Mary. This National Park is quieter and more peaceful, therefore if you are wanting to get away from the crowds, this is a good option.

Brijuni Islands

Off the shores of Pula in Croatia’s Istrian peninsula, the Brijuni islands can only be reached by taking a boat from the small town of Fazana. Sights within national park include the ruins of a 1st century Roman villa, as well as a safari park. Activities on the island include cycling, golf, kayaking and scuba diving. There are also a few hotels on the island if you wanted to spend the night here.

Kornati National Park

The Kornati islands consist of 140 islands and islets, 89 of which form the Kornati National Park. This is perhaps the most difficult national park to visit, with no regular ferries servicing the islands. You can book onto a boat excursion from Zadar, however you are limited to how much time you can spend on the islands. If you can stretch to charter a boat, this would be the best option. It’s probably no surprise that this national park is the least visited, with the islands here amongst the most untouched in Croatia.

Paklenica National Park

Just a one hour drive from Zadar, the Paklenica National Park is most popular with climbers and hiking enthusiasts. There are several hiking trails, ranging from 2 hours to 8 hours long - for the longer hikes, you can split them over two days, taking advantage of the mountain shelters. Paklenica is the most popular centre for climbers in Croatia and has over 500 marked routes of varying difficulty.

Risnjak National Park

Located right in the North of the country, the Risnjak National Park is more mountainous, with several woodland hiking trails and mountain bike routes. Due to its location, you would need your own transport, as it is very difficult to reach by public transport.

Northern Velebit

Similar to Paklenica, the Northern Velebit is still relatively wild and mountainous, which makes it popular with more experienced hikers.

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