Plitvice Lakes was on our must-see list while in Split despite being 150 miles away. We weighed the benefits of renting a car or taking transit, but opted for a day tour with a local company. Despite the “Lakes” in the name, we found the park is mostly about waterfalls. I was glad to be able to get out and hike, and the unusually early spring and bright April day were bonuses.
At the park entrance, we boarded a tram running through the woodlands to the Upper Lakes. The beech trees and low mountains reminded me of the eastern U.S., but it quickly became something entirely different.
The unique landscape of Plitvice Lakes is created by the relationship of water and the local geology. The phenomena centers on alkali water leeching out calcium carbonate. Anything underwater, like branches and leaves, slowly gets coated in tufa stone. Where water mixes with air, this calcification happens faster. Edges of waterfalls slowly build themselves higher – as much as half an inch a year. Even mosses clinging amid the streams are encased in travertine stone as the years pass.
Water seeps down through a series of 16 lakes, trickling down dozens of cascades with each drop in height. The courses change constantly and run through undergrowth and tree roots.
The farther we walked, the prettier the scenery got. The lakes changed color depending on the sunlight and depth from gray to aquamarine to deep blue. All sorts of flowers were blooming and mosses were draped on many of the falls.
Picturesque wooden walkways connect the lakes and cascades. Flows meander under the boards, even vanishing into the earth in spots. Though it creates new rock, the water also dissolves the limestone under our feet creating sinkholes of all sizes. The waterfalls and lakes are constantly in flux; new areas are submerged while others dry out after having been flooded for years.
I was surprised to discover that fish live in the lakes. They especially seem to thrive in the largest lake, Kozjak, which also has a ferry across it. The boat ride was one of the few times waterfalls were not visible, but the shoreline was bright green with new leaves and small mountains rising in the background.
Our hike ended with a climb up through a water-created sinkhole. A narrow chasm at the base, it opened into a large skylight roofed with trees. It must have been a 6- or 7-story climb to the top. The remaining rock was shaped into graceful curving structures and small caves that made it feel like we were inside the roots of a tree.
Our hike only totaled about three miles, but it was through a landscape unlike anything we’d experienced before. Plitvice seems like a place right out of a fairy tale. We’d gladly repeat the 14-hour day for a chance to visit again.