Croatia is certainly an up-and-coming vacation destination, with gorgeous islands like Hvar and Pag drawing both beach goers and hardcore partiers alike. But there is much more to this country than rugged coastline and beautiful beaches, and many tourists miss out by not exploring Croatia’s national parks. You could easily spend a few weeks touring all eight of them, but here are the three that capture the essence of Croatia’s natural beauty the best.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
If you visit no other national park in Croatia, you must visit Plitvice Lakes National Park. It is easily the most popular, and for good reason. This gorgeous park is filled with lush foliage, crystal clear lagoons and rushing waterfalls that will make you feel like you’ve been transported into a fairytale.
The best part? The park is paved with a planked pathway that’s accessible to all. More adventurous hikers might be tempted to shun the ease of the nature walk, but for those who don’t love hiking or who have nearly killed themselves hiking in Risnjak National Park the day before (*cough cough*), Plitvice is perfect. If you can, try to visit in May or June before the tourists descend.
Paklenica National Park
Paklenica National Park offers scenery unlike any other you’ll find in Croatia. This park is located near the beach town of Starigrad (not to be confused with Stari Grad, which is on the island of Hvar), and its main draw is its jaw-dropping limestone gorges. There isn’t much in the way of lush greenery here – Paklenica’s terrain is spare and rocky, yet impressive in its own right. And if you happen to be into rock climbing, this is the place to go.
For a quick, relatively easy hike, follow the trail to Manita Pec Cave. It only takes a couple hours out and back, and gives a good sense of Paklenica’s unique landscape.
Risnjak National Park
Unlike Plitvice, Risnjak National Park will make you work for its beautiful views. The rugged terrain leading to the top of the Veliki Risnjak (Mount Risnjak) is not for the faint of heart – this is a serious hike, and will take roughly six hours out and back. Much of the trail is shaded, so if even if you’re hiking in the middle of summer, be sure to wear layers.
If you’re feeling too tired to make this trek all in one day, there is a small mountain house located near the top where you can spend the night. You’ll also find a small restaurant offering no-frills fare like beef stew, soup, and bread to hikers who need some energy for the trip back down.
For those who still want to explore Risnjak but aren’t quite up to the task of climbing the mountain, try the Educational “Leski” Path instead. This 4.5 kilometer (2.8 mile) loop is much more manageable, but still offers a good sense of the varied terrain of this park.