National parks in Croatia

What are Croatia's national parks like?

Croatians are immensely proud of their national parks, and with good reason. Although Croatia is a relatively small country, its national parks () – which range from mountainous wildernesses, to island archipelagos to cascading waterfalls – cover more than 10% of the surface of the country.

While the focus of mainstream tourism falls squarely on , each of the other national parks has something unique to offer, and in contrast to Plitvice, which is famously busy year-round, the other parks typically provide plentiful opportunity to find calm and quiet and ... (with a bit of luck) escape from the range of your mobile phone operator.

How many national parks are there in Croatia?

There are 8 national parks spread across – primarily the western side of – Croatia:

Croatian also has 11 nature reserves (): Biokovo, Dinara, Kopački rit, Lonjsko polje, Medvednica, Papuk, Telašćica, Velebit, Vransko jezero, Učka, Žumberak – Samoborsko gorje and Lastovsko otočje.

You can find a map of Croatia's parks and reserves here, provided by the Croatian Parks Association (Parkovi Hrvatske).

Differences between national parks and nature reserves

A national park () is a large, mostly unaltered area of ​​extraordinary natural value which includes one or more ecosystems. A national park has a scientific, cultural, educational and recreational purpose. While activities that do not endanger the originality of nature are allowed, the economic use of natural resources is prohibited.

A nature reserve () is defined as a natural (or partially cultivated) area of land/sea with ecological features of international or national importance, and which has aesthetic, ecological, educational, cultural-historical and tourist-recreational value. Within a nature reserve activities and actions are permitted that do not endanger its essential features and role.

Brijuni National Park

Brijuni National ParkRoman Ruins in Brijuni National Park

About the park

The Brijuni Islands (also known as the Brionian Islands from the Italian name Brioni) are an archipelago of fourteen small islands, located of the western Istrian coast, about 5km from the city of Pula. The islands are both a popular holiday destination and a national park.

The two largest islands are also the most well-known:

  • Veliki Brijun (also known as Brioni Grande in Italian or Veli Brijun in Croatian) is the largest
  • Mali Brijun is the second largest island – and surrounded by twelve smaller islands

History

Brijuni was designated as a national park and memorial area on October 27, 1983.

The park covers 3635 hectares and include the islands Veliki Brijun, Mali Brijun, Sv. Marko, Gaz, Obljak, Supin, Supinic, Galija, Grunj, Vanga, Madona (Pusti), Vrsar, Jerolim, and Kotez are among the 14 islands that make up Istria's most indented and intriguing island group. They cover a total area of 734.6 hectares.

Most of the area of the national park belongs to the surrounding sea (2900 ha).

Learn Croatian Insider Tip

Following World War II Veliki Brijun became the summer residence of Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito. He had his own zoo on the island, which is now a safari park, and one of the island’s main attractions. He also received visits from countless celebrities on Brijuni, such as Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Sophia Loren.

Visiting Veliki Brijun

While the majority of the islands are off-limits to tourists, Veliki Brijun welcomes and caters to them. As with most of Croatia's national parks, visiting Brijuni itself is free, however since it's an island, you'll need help getting there!

Regular daytrip cruises from Pula give visitors a chance to spend a few hours on the island, it's also possible to stay overnight in the Hotel Neptun.

On the island there are bikes to rent – and bike paths to ride them on – as well as a safari park, there is also the chance to play golf, archery and tennis.

Further reading

Plitvice Lakes National Park

Plitvice Lakes National ParkWaterfall cascades in Plitvice Lakes National Park

About the park

The Plitvice Lakes () are one of Croatia's oldest national parks, and certainly the most famous. It's also the most visited, and receives over a million visitors a year, keen to see – and walk among – the cascading waterfalls with their own eyes.

Plitvice is situated in eastern Lika, between the mountain ranges of Mala Kapela and Lika Pljeivica, and is accessible only by smaller, local roads. It's located in relative isolation about 10km from the Bosnian border and 50km from the nearest motorway (E71 Zagreb-Split).

The Plitvice Lakes are known for their unique colors, which range from azure to green and depend on the season, the weather and the amount of plantlife and minerals in the water at that moment.

Scientists have recorded over 1,200 different plant species within the national park, of which 75 are native. In addition, if you search hard enough, you can also find brown bears, wolves and eagles amongst the snakes, lizards and turtles.

The area around Plitvice makes great effort to preserve its historical customs and traditions:

  • In terms of architecture, the Lika region is notable for its wooden cottages with straw or shingle roofs.
  • Local clothing reflected many aspects of the traditional way of life and revealed a lot about the people who wore them, including their regional affiliations and social status.
  • It was once common to organise "prelo" – social events held during the winter months, when no agricultural tasks could be carried out, which were a mix of communal work (e.g. textile making) with drinking and dancing.

Learn Croatian Insider Tip

Have you heard of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand? The filmmakers tasked with "recreating the Wild West" on location in Europe chose Plitvice and the surrounding area of Lika – with it's barren plateaus, rocky valleys and cascading waterfalls – to create the perfect setting for the filming of Karl May's Western novels in the 1960's.

History

On April 8, 1949, following the end of World War II, an area of 19,479 around the Plitvice Lakes was designated as Croatia's first national park, in recognition of its status as one of Europe's most spectacular natural wonders.

During the 1960s a modern road connection to the Plitvice Lakes was built, which resulted in increased traffic volumes. Several hotels and other structures were built during this time period based designs by various Croatian architects.

In 1979 the park was added to the UNESCO World Natural Heritage List for its "exceptional natural beauty".

Visiting Plitvice Lakes

Plitvice is a common daytrip destination from Zagreb or Zadar, and can easily be visited and experienced in a single day.

Avoiding the rush hour

We recommend you arrive as early as possible to be able to enjoy Plitvice in relative quiet and calm – in the afternoons the park is typically very busy. Alternatively it's worth considering staying a night to get a better feeling for the region, and then making an early start!

The quickest and easiest way to get to Plitvice is to take a tourist bus or private transfer from any nearby city. While the park is gorgeous all year, the ideal seasons to visit are spring and fall. In the spring the falls are at their fullest as snow melts upstream, and in the fall the colours of leaves are spectacular.

Further reading

The Kornati archipelago

Kornati National ParkView toward the Adriatic from Kornati National Park

About the park

The National Park makes up a part of Croatia's largest island archipelago, which is located in northern Dalmatia midway between Zadar and Šibenik.

The Kornati archipelago consists of 140 islands, 89 of which form the Kornati National Park, which is administered by the nearby town of Murter, a town on the island of Murter that is connected to the mainland by a drawbridge at Tisno.

In Kornati, there are no towns or permanent settlements. Mainland landowners utilize simple cottages in well-protected coves like Vrulje, Kravjaica, Lavsa, and others as temporary shelters. The majority of the landowners come from Murter and Dugi Otok islands.

The largest of the islands is Kornat, which accounts for two-thirds of the national park's land area. Despite its length of 25.2 kilometers (15.7 miles), the island is only 2.5 kilometers wide (2 mi).

Learn Croatian Insider Tip

How on earth did the islands Babina Guzica and Kurba Vela, which in Croatian refer to buttocks and prostitution, get their names? When Austrian surveyors came to chart the archipelago at the end of the 19th century, local guides made fun of them by inventing rude names ... which have been the official names ever since!

History

In 1980 the southernmost 89 islands of the archipelago were named a national park, Nacionalni Park Kornati, to safeguard the islands and their marine environment. It is the Lower Kornati Islands (Donji Kornati), which contains the island of Kornat which is primarily covered by the National Park.

Kornati once had many vineyards, however a catastrophic disease of local grapevines forced residents to turn instead to olives groves. Today there are over 18,000 olive trees across the islands.

Visiting Kornati

Daily boat trips to Kornati are organised from a variety of locations, including from Murter and Zadar, and this is the only way to visit the park (unless you have your own boat).

For those that would like to sail through the national park on your own, you'll need to buy a permit, the proceeds from which go toward the area's preservation, upkeep, and promotion.

If you like diving, don't forget to bring your snorkel and mask – Kornati has nine designated scuba diving locations which can be visited as part of an organised diving excursion.

Further reading

Mljet National Park

Mljet National ParkThe beatiful coastline of Mljet National Park

About the park

is the 8th biggest island in Croatia – however the Mljet National Park comprises only one part of the island: the Great Lake () the Small Lake (), Soline Bay () and about 500 metres of sea around those parts.

In the Great Bay, you can find the island of St. Mary () as well as numerous fortifications and well-preserved tombs.

The biggest town is Babino Polje () which has a police station and a school, unlike the rest of the towns on the island.

History

On November 12, 1960, Mljet was designated as a national park. The park covers 3,100 hectares. It encompasses the northern portion of Mljet, one of the major south Dalmatian islands (10,000 ha).

The island has a long history of environmental damage:

  • To improve transportation, monks constructed a waterway from Veliko Jezero to the south coast of the island, inadvertently converting both freshwater lakes to seawater lakes in the process
  • In the early twentieth century, small Asian mongooses were introduced to the island to help control the deadly snake population. Unfortunately, the mongooses also wiped out almost all of the island's birdlife.

Learn Croatian Insider Tip

The island of Mljet was first discovered by Greco-Roman geographers in the 6th century BC. Ancient Greeks referred to the island as Melita, which means honey (). This name evolved over time to become the Slavic name Mljet.

Visiting Mljet

You can walk or cycle along the beautiful, shaded footpaths around both lakes, which are well-marked paths throughout. If needs be, you can rent a bicycle in the nearby towns of Pomena, Polae, and Mali Most.

Swimming and sunbathing within the park is permitted, and recommended! The water is much warmer than on the island's seashores, which also makes it possible to swim later in the season.

Further reading

Northern Velebit National Park

Northern Velebit National ParkA traditional hiking hut in Northern Velebit National Park

About the park

The rugged and rocky landscape of the Northern Velebit () National Park is perfect for hiking. This is also the youngest national park in Croatia, established in 1999.

Northern Velebit is part of the Velebit mountain range, stretching along the inner side of the mountain range along the Kvarner Gulf for 150 kilometres. Its diversity of dense forests and pastures offers fantastic views for tourists and hikers, but it’s also an important habitat for brown bears, lynx and wolves.

Learn Croatian Insider Tip

The Croatian Mountain Rescue Service will gladly advise you on "surviving" your holiday in Croatia :-) Among other things, they emphatically recommend bringing and drinking plenty of water, not wearing flip-flops while climbing and not taking selfies. In case of emergency call 112!

History

In May 1999, Croatia's National Parliament passed a law proclaiming Northern Velebit Croatia's youngest national park. Thus the National Park was formed, within the boundaries of the Velebit Nature Reserve.

Visiting Northern Velebit

Numerous hiking and mountain trails run through the national park, leading to the peaks and through the valleys of Velebit - including some breathtaking views from the top.

Even though there are no designated cycling routes in Northern Velebit, there is a wide network of forest paths that can be used as cycling routes.

Further reading

Paklenica National Park

Paklenica National ParkThe view into the canyon from Paklenica National Park

About the park

The Velebit mountain range contains not one, but two national parks! National Park is located near Starigrad in northern Dalmatia, on the southern slopes of Velebit mountain, not far from Zadar.

Paklenica is the name of a river canyon at the centre of the park, and here you will find many native animal and plant species, and also enjoy one of many sports offerings including climbing, trekking, organized daytrips and many more.

History

On October 19, 1949, Paklenica was designated a national park. The park covers 3617 hectares.

In actual fact Paklenica, along with numerous other sites, was designated a national park as far back as 1928, but only by way of an ineffective law which had limited validity.

Learn Croatian Insider Tip

An artificial tunnel complex near the Velika Paklenica entrance was erected for Josip Broz Tito during the tensions between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Visiting Paklenica

The only way to truly get to know Paklenica is to go hiking. There are 150–200 km of trails and paths in the Park area, ranging from those designed for tourists, to those designed for mountaineers, such as those leading to Velebit's highest peaks.

In fact, Paklenica National Park is Croatia's most popular climbing destination and Southeast Europe's largest. The nearby sea lends a distinct beauty to this climbing site, making Paklenica Riviera a great location for combining climbing with water activities.

Further reading

Krka National Park

Krka National ParkThe Roški Slap within the Krka National Park

About the park

The National Park is widely known for the magnificent waterfalls of the Krka river, and is located 15km from Šibenik in the Šibenik-Knin County.

The Krka river itself is 72km long, from its source at the foot of the Krčić waterfall until it flows into the Adriatic Sea. It has seven waterfalls and several active water mills in between.

The is the most impressive waterfall, made of cascades that form the lake.

The National Park Krka is also home to five medieval fortresses, of which the fortress is the largest and best preserved.

Learn Croatian Insider Tip

In 1895 Šibenik became the first town in the world to have city-wide electricity thanks to Nikola Tesla and his inventions.

History

The region around what is now the national park has been under state protection since 1948.

On January 24, 1985, Krka National Park was officially made Croatia's seventh national park. The park covers 14,200 hectares, with 2,600 hectares of aquatic features.

Visiting Krka

Even though the most famous sights can be visited in a single day, a visit of several days should be considered for a comprehensive experience of Krka.

There are numerous well-marked walking and hiking trails that will take you to the most beautiful viewpoints and waterfalls.

Even though, unfortunately, you can't swim at the waterfalls in Krka national park, numerous excursion boats take you to the most important sights, such as the monastery island of Visovac.

Further reading

Risnjak National Park

Risnjak National ParkHiking back down through Risnjak National Park

About the park

National Park is one of the least known parks in Croatia, ranging from its lowest point at the source of the river Kupa (50m above sea level) to the peak of the Great Risnjak () mountain (1528m above sea level).

Although Risnjak is located in the most forested part of Croatia, Gorski Kotar, it is only 20 miles (32km) northeast of Rijeka and easily accessible by car via the town of Delnice. The main train line between Zagreb and Rijeka also passes through Delnice directly.

Learn Croatian Insider Tip

There are two theories to the etymology of the name Risnjak:

  • The Croatian word for lynx ().
  • A local word for a type of grass found in the area.

History

On September 15, 1953, Risnjak was designated a national park. Since then the size and border of the protected area has changed multiple times, but the massive Risnjak has always been included.

In 1997, the Croatian parliament voted to increase the park's area to its current size of 3,198 hectares, to include the Snjenik and Kupa river sources, as well as inhabited villages of Razloge, Razloki Okrug, and Kraevica villages.

Visiting Risnjak

Despite the abundance of natural treasures on offer, tourists are rarely to be found visiting Risnjak National Park. This means you'll have a large portion of the park to yourself to explore, and to enjoy the gorgeous and tranquil surroundings.

Risnjak is great for walking, skiing, fishing and a variety of other outdoors activities. The peak of Veliki Risnjak can be reached only on foot, starting from Crni Lug (3h) or on an unpaved road which begins in Gornje Jelenje (1h).

Further reading

Final thoughts

Before exploring all the national parks:

Do you know these words in Croatian?

→ island → peninsula
→ vacation or holiday → excursion or day trip
→ olive tree → olive grove
→ grapevine → sheep
→ elephant → lynx
→ wolf → bear
→ sea → gulf
→ cove → coast
→ mountain → mountain peak
→ lake → waterfall
→ forest → fortress