Friends who learned about our plans to visit Croatia were quick to recommend the Plitvice Lakes, easily Croatia's most famous national park. On an area of only a few km² are 16 of the most beautiful lakes and I don't know how many waterfalls. Too much to count! The national park is a lot bigger, but let's be honest, you're only coming for the lakes.
While the lakes were indeed wonderful (more on that later), there were a few things that irked us, so let's get those out of the way first:
This place is way too crowded. The lakes get close to 1.5 million visitors a year, most of which come in the summer. We were here in August, smack in the middle of the tourist season, and the walkways around and over the lakes were very crowded. And while I do love crowds, they're not really what I'm looking for when exploring nature. Despite the crowds, I would still recommend the lakes, but in the off-season.
There's nothing around here once it gets dark. While this is a well-frequented tourist attraction, this ain't exactly Disney World. Once you're done with your tour around the lakes, there's literally nothing left to do - there's barely any bar or restaurant around here. Sure, if you have a car, you could drive for half an hour to a good restaurant, but we didn't. We stayed at Hotel Jezero for 2 days (we were coming from Split by bus & left to catch our flight in Zagreb 2 days later.) While there was nothing wrong with the hotel, I'd recommend a day tour from Zadar (about 1.5h away) or Zagreb (about 2h) instead.
Weather was bad. When we were in Split and Dubrovnik, we'd had nothing but sun all week and temperatures that were off the charts. Because of the difference in altitude, I had have expected Plitvice to be slighter cooler (and it was), but it also rained! To be fair, it also rained in Split & Dubrovnik that day - just our luck!
Alright, enough with the whining, because despite these little remarks, I have exactly zero regrets of coming here. This park is very well kept and there are these nice wooden walkways that lead you around the lakes. These walkways could be a turnoff for anyone looking to do serious hiking, but that can be done elsewhere in the park, and these walkways form a few nice trails to get as close to the lakes and waterfalls as possible. I have no idea how long the trail is, but - once it had almost stopped raining - we've been walking them for about 5 hours and believe we've seen just about everything. If you don't feel like walking the entire trail, you can rely on the ferry & bus services (included in the entrance fee) to take you around the park. But then you're guaranteed to miss some sights.
You'd expect that, after a while, all of the lakes start to look similar. Once you've seen a few of them, you've seen them all, right? No! These lakes come in every hue between green and blue (that rhymes!) and they all have features that set them apart. Some are shallow and clear enough that you can see sunken trees at the bottom. One has an enormous waterfall whereas the other is a long cascade of smaller falls. And another one you can cross on that wooden walkway, right next to a series of smaller falls.
But there's no need to pack your swimming gear: as inviting as they look, it's actually forbidden to swim in the lakes in order to protect the fragile ecosystem. If you're looking for waterfalls to swim near, you should look into Krka National Park.
Just don't forget to also find a higher vantage point for a great overview of the valley: there's an old, almost hidden away, staircase near Veliki Slap (the largest waterfall at 78 m, or 255 ft.)