Plitvice Lakes National Park (Croatian: Nacionalni park Plitvička jezera, colloquial Plitvice,) is the oldest national park in Southeast Europe and the largest national park in Croatia.
The national park was founded in 1949 and is situated in the mountainous karst area of central Croatia, at the border to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The important north-south road connection, which passes through the national park area, connects the Croatian inland with the Adriatic coastal region.
The protected area extends over 296.85 square kilometres (73,350 acres). About 90% of this area is part of Lika-Senj County, while the remaining 10% is part of Karlovac County.
In 1979, Plitvice Lakes National Park was added to the UNESCO World Heritage register among the first natural sites worldwide.Each year, more than 1,200,000 visitors are recorded. Entrance is subject to variable charges, up to 180 kuna or around $32USD per adult in peak season.Strict regulations apply.
The national park is world famous for its lakes arranged in cascades. Currently, 16 lakes can be seen from the surface. These lakes are a result of the confluence of several small rivers and subterranean karst rivers. The lakes are all interconnected and follow the water flow. They are separated by natural dams of travertine, which is deposited by the action of moss, algae, and bacteria. The particularly sensitive travertine barriers are the result of an interplay between water, air and plants. The encrusted plants and bacteria accumulate on top of each other, forming travertine barriers which grow at the rate of about 1 cm (0.4 in) per year.
The sixteen lakes are separated into an upper and lower cluster formed by runoff from the mountains, descending from an altitude of 636 to 503 m (2,087 to 1,650 ft) over a distance of some eight km, aligned in a south-north direction. The lakes collectively cover an area of about two square kilometres (0.77 square miles), with the water exiting from the lowest lake forming the Korana River.
The lakes are renowned for their distinctive colors, ranging from azure to green, grey or blue. The colors change constantly depending on the quantity of minerals or organisms in the water and the angle of sunlight.
Through different climatic influences and the large difference in elevation within the protected area, a multifaceted flora and fauna has been created. The national park area is home to many endemic species. Those species that prevailed at the lakes before the arrival of man still exist.
The name Plitvice was first mentioned in a written document in 1777 by Dominik Vukasović, the priest of Otočac. This name was designated due to natural phenomena that have created the lakes. Nature formed shallow basins (Croatian pličina or plitvak, plitko means shallow), which have been filled with water. For centuries, water has changed the limestone and thus the landscape of this area. The emerging travertine barriers decelerated and retained the flowing water. The height of these dams is continuously growing.
Some scientists refer to the river Plitvica as origin of the name. This little river flows into the Plitvice Lakes at the lower and final part of the lakes. A nearby village bears the same name. The water masses of the Plitvice Lakes continue as Korana river in northern direction.
The national park has become famous during the 1960s and 1970s through several Western film productions of Karl May novels. Many scenes have been shot at the lakes or waterfalls.
The area of Plitvice Lakes National Park extends across two political subdivisions or counties (Croatian županija). Its 296.85 square kilometres (114.61 sq mi) area is divided between Lika-Senj County (90.7 percent) and Karlovac County (9.3 percent). Hence the national park authority is under national jurisdiction. The overall water body area is about 2 km2 (0.77 sq mi). The two largest lakes, Prošćansko jezero and Kozjak, cover about 80 percent of the overall water body area. These lakes are also the deepest, with a depth of 37 and 47 metres (121 and 154 ft) respectively. On Lake Kozjak, low-noise and ecologically-friendly electric boats are being used. None of the other lakes in the park exceeds 25 metres (82 feet) in depth. The altitude drop from the first lake to the last is 133 metres (436 feet).
The 16 lakes that can be seen from the surface are grouped into the 12 Upper Lakes (Gornja jezera) and the four Lower Lakes (Donja jezera).
The highest waterfalls are the Large Waterfall (kroat. Veliki slap) at the end of the Lower Lakes, over which the Plitvica river falls, and Galovački buk at the Upper Lakes.
Within the national park area there are 19 small settlements. Altogether they form the Plitvice Lakes municipality (Croatian općina Plitvička Jezera). The municipality is part of Lika-Senj County. The seat is located in Korenica.
The Plitvice Lakes area has always been regarded as part of the historic regions of Lika and Kordun. During the Ottoman Wars, the region was part of the Croatian Military Frontier that was under direct control of the Habsburg Council of War.
The particular geographic position of the Plitvice Lakes and the specific climate features contributed to the emergence of many natural phenomena and a rich biodiversity within this area. Despite the vicinity to the Mediterranean climatic region, a moderate mountainous climate prevails at the Plitvice Lakes. These climatic conditions prevail due to the Velebit mountain range, which acts as a climatic separator between the coastal region and the Lika high plateau. For centuries, legends have been created about this mythic mountain range.
The availability of water, influenced by the configuration of the terrain, has a great impact on the biodiversity of this area. The Plitvice Lakes are surrounded by various mountains. The western side of the national park area is enclosed by the Mala Kapela mountain, while the eastern side is enclosed by the Plješevica mountain, which also represents the border to Bosnia and Hercegovina. Plitvice Lakes National Park is situated in the Plitvice plateau which is surrounded by three mountains that are part of the Dinaric Alps: Plješevica mountain (Gornja Plješevica peak 1,640 m), Mala Kapela mountain (Seliški Vrh peak at 1,280 m), and Medveđak (884 m).
The afforested mountain slopes serve as water reservoirs. They are also a refuge for many animal species. The large difference in altitude in a narrow space between the mountains in the south and the Korana river in the north also represents a significant criterion for biodiversity in this region. The overall difference in altitude within the national park area is 912 m (the highest elevation is Seliški vrh at 1279 m, the lowest elevation is reached at 367 m at the bridge across the Korana river).
The national Park is underlain by karstic rock, mainly dolomite and limestone with associated lakes and caves, this has given rise to the most distinctive feature of the lakes. Right at the lakes, the Golubnjača Cave (145 m) before the second Korana waterfall and Šupljara Cave (68 m) above Lake Kaluđerovac can be visited. Other caves e.g. are Mračna Cave (160 m), Vila Jezerkinje Cave (104 m) and Golubnjača at Homoljačko Field (153 m). Within the national park, several pit-caves exist, such as the Čudinka pit-cave (-203 m) or Jama on Vršić (-154 m, length 110 m). In Rodića Cave at Sertić Poljana and in Mračna Cave at the Lower Lakes, cave bear bones were found, so these sites may be considered paleontologically significant.
The underground configuration of the Plitvice Lakes consists of various geologic features. Generally, the whole area of Plitvice Lakes National Park can be attributed to the South-East European karst area. The typical feature of this karst area is brittle or porous rock, mostly limestone or dolomite. This configuration creates different geomorphological phenomena being referred to as dolina (sinkhole), polje, uvala, ponor, etc.
In the future, the analysis of underground water courses could be an interesting field of research for speleologists. Up to now, little has been known about these unexplored courses. At first sight, a lack of water in the karst region could be ascertained. However, this is only the case on the surface. The major part of natural phenomena takes place underground, where an abundance of water exists.
Due to the features of limestone, many rivers drain away into the rock. Therefore, extensive underground river systems exist. Upon reaching hard rock, rivers emerge on the surface. This phenomenon of underground karst rivers (Croatian rijeka ponornica) can also be observed at the Plitvice Lakes.
Tufa sediments have been formed from the Pleistocene onwards in sinkholes or depressed areas between the surrounding mountains. Generally seen, the underground of the Plitvice Lakes could be categorized into two zones. The Upper Lakes in the south predominantly consist of dolomite rock. The Lower lakes in the north predominantly consist of limestone rock. Dolomite rock is slightly harder than limestone. Though fragile upon physical influence, dolomite rock has lower water permeability properties. In contrast, limestone rock is more compact and massive, but has a higher water permeability.
From an aerial perspective, significant differences between the terrain of the Upper and the Lower Plitvice Lakes can be observed. At the Upper Lakes several little lakes have formed parallel to each other and a rather shallow water flow can be observed. The Lower Lakes, however, are much larger and virtually drill their path through the rock. Furthermore, there are only a few lakes at the Lower Lakes. They have formed a canyon, which continues as river Korana.
With regard to plant and animal diversity, the area of the Plitvice Lakes belongs to the most significant areas of Croatia. On the one hand, this is due to climatic conditions and on the other hand due to the location of this area, since the lakes are far away from polluted and noisy cities or industrial plants. For reasons of the poor industrial development of this region and early introduced protection measures, a nearly untouched landscape has been preserved. In the partially primeval beech and fir forests various rare species, such as the brown bear, have survived. At the Plitvice Lakes, all species continue to exist that have already existed before the coming of man. This is a rare case worldwide.
The preservation of old customs and traditions is of high significance for the local population. The local culture has also been detected as an important factor for tourism. As regards architecture, the region of Lika is well known for its low wooden houses with roofs made of rye straw or shingles. Many features of the ancient living style are mirrored in local costumes. They tell a lot about regional affiliations or social standings of those who have worn those costumes. Under French rule, men were allowed to wear their costumes during military service.
Up until the 20th century, social gatherings during the winter months, when no agricultural activities could be performed, called "prelo" represented a typical tradition of this region. These gatherings served for the joint production of textiles or butter or for the further processing of harvest products (production of flour, etc.). These activities used to be accompanied by drinks and dances, particularly during the evenings. A well-known dance of this region is the round dance (Croatian kolo).
Local cuisine consists of drinks, such as Slivovitz (Croatian šljivovica), wine and coffee or dishes, such as soft cheese (Croatian vrhnje), polenta, pršut, sausages, (as for example the paprika sausage), roasted suckling pig (Croatian: odojak) or lamb (Croatian: janjetina).