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Get to know Croatia's natural beauty by visiting its national parks © Andrey Omelyanchuk / 500pxCroatia’s appeal is grounded in nature – its waterfalls, forests, mountains and the dazzling Adriatic coast. Thankfully, much of it is protected – there are eight national parks covering 371 sq miles (961 sq km).
There are plenty of outdoors activities to suit all levels of fitness and ambition – you could sail through blue waters, hike rugged terrain, go wildlife-watching, or simply enjoy a leisurely walk or cycle around a lake. Here's everything you need to know about the national parks in Croatia.
Discover Croatia's national parks
Strolling the lakeside paths of Plitvice – preferably when it's not too busy – is a highlight of a visit to Croatia. This startling natural phenomenon of forested hills and turquoise lakes is exquisitely scenic – so much so that in 1979 Unesco proclaimed it a World Heritage Site. Here, there are 16 crystalline lakes that tumble into each other via a series of waterfalls and cascades. Clouds of butterflies drift above the 18km of wooden footbridges and pathways that snake around the edges and across the rumbling water.
Fall is one of the best times to visit the waterfalls of Plitvice National Park © Fesus Robert / Shutterstock
The extraordinary beauty of the park merits a full day's exploration, but you can still experience a lot on a half-day trip from Zadar or Zagreb. You must be able to walk a fair distance to get the most out of the place, and you can take advantage of the park's free boats and buses.
While the park is beautiful year-round, spring and fall are the best times to visit. In spring and early summer the falls are flush with water, while in fall the changing leaves put on a colorful display. Winter is also spectacular, although snow can limit access and the free park transport doesn't operate. Unquestionably the worst time to visit is in the peak months of July and August, when the falls reduce to a trickle, parking is problematic and the sheer volume of visitors can turn the walking tracks into a conga line and cause lengthy waits for the buses and boats that ferry people around the park.
Risnjak is home to brown bears, wolves and the Eurasian lynx © GoranStimac / Getty Images
Relatively isolated and rarely visited, despite being only 20 miles (32km) northeast of Rijeka, Risnjak National Park covers an area of 24 sq miles (63 sq km) and rises up to 5013ft (1528m) at its highest peak, Veliki Risnjak. The landscape linking the Alps with the Balkan ranges is thickly forested with beech and pine trees, and carpeted with meadows and wildflowers. The bracing alpine breezes make it the perfect hideaway when the coastal heat and crowds become overpowering.
Most of the park is virgin forest, with only a few settlements. Wildlife-watching is a highlight here, and the park is home to three charismatic mammal species: the brown bear, wolf and Eurasian lynx. All three animals are difficult to see and you'll need to visit with a guide or camp overnight over a number of days to stand any chance. At last count, 114 bird species have been recorded in Risnjak; birders get particularly excited about the capercaillie, peregrine falcon, pygmy owl, Ural owl, tawny owl, white-backed woodpecker and three-toed woodpecker.
Most visitors come here to hike, with the easy Leska Path of most appeal to day visitors – the trail can get busy on summer weekends in particular. To hike further in to scale the minor summits of Risnjak or Snježnik, contact the Park Information Office for advice. Trekking to the aquamarine Kupa Spring is another highlight. Sport fishing and mountain biking are also possible.
Follow the boardwalks to Krka's largest waterfall © Dennis van de Water / Shutterstock
Extending along the 45-mile (73km) Krka River, Krka National Park runs from the Adriatic near Šibenik inland to the mountains of the Croatian interior. It’s a magical place of waterfalls and gorges, with the river gushing through a canyon 656ft (200m) deep. Swimming, boat trips and walking are the main activities here.
The highlight is Skradinski Buk, the park's largest waterfall. Its 0.5-mile-long (800m) cascade descends by almost 150ft (46m) before crashing into the lower lake, which is a popular swimming spot. Follow the hour-long loop of boardwalks that connect little islands in the emerald-green, fish-filled river. Nearby, a cluster of historic mill cottages have been converted into craft workshops, souvenir stores and places to eat.
Sights built by humans are also a major draw of the region, the area’s remoteness attracting monks who constructed their monasteries here. This includes the most important site of the Serbian Orthodox faith, Krka Monastery. Featuring a unique combination of Byzantine and Mediterranean architecture, it occupies a peaceful position above the river and a small lake. Upstream from Skradinski Buk, where the river broadens into Lake Viskovac, is a tree-fringed island, home to the Mother of Mercy Franciscan Monastery, founded in the 14th century by Augustinian hermits.
The whole area gets insanely busy in summer. The park has five main entrances, at Skradin, Lozovac, Roški Slap, Krka Monastery and Burnum – all are accessible by car.
Paklenica National Park is a hiking and rock-climbing hot spot © diamirstudio / Getty Images
Stretching for 90 miles (145km) and creating a natural barrier between inland and coastal Croatia, the rugged peaks of the Velebit Range are an impressive sight. Paklenica National Park takes up 36 sq miles (95 sq km) of these limestone mountains and boasts some of Croatia’s most dramatic alpine vistas. It’s a superb place to trek gorges, do a bit of climbing, explore a vast cave, or just amble along one of the many streams. The park's two biggest attractions are the gorges of Velika Paklenica (Great Paklenica) and Mala Paklenica (Small Paklenica), where cliffs rise 400m into the azure skies. Animals you might spot along the way include golden eagles, striped eagles, peregrine falcons and, if you're extremely lucky, lynx and bears. Chamois gather near the park entrances.
Most hikes in the park are one-day affairs from either of the two main park entrances (accessed from Starigrad-Paklenica on the coast), or from one of the mountain huts. Given the nature of the terrain, most hikes are reasonably challenging, but there are shorter routes suitable for novices. The park's website has an overview of nine popular hikes, and a visit to the park office before setting out is recommended.
Paklenica has rock-climbing routes ranging from beginner level to extremely dangerous. The firm, occasionally sharp limestone offers graded climbs, including 72 short sports routes and 250 longer routes. You’ll see beginners' routes at the entrances to the park, with cliffs reaching about 40m, but the best and most advanced climbing is on Anića Kuk. Most of the routes are bolted.
Northern Velebit National Park has impressive hiking trails © GoranStimac / Getty Images
At the other end of the same mountain range, rugged Northern Velebit National Park is a beautiful patchwork of forests, peaks, ravines and ridges that backs the coast on the mainland opposite the island of Rab. Its known for its diverse habitats – the country’s richest plant life is found in the Velebit Range – and the botanical garden with the national park is home to around 300 different plant species.
Northern Velebit is primarily a hiking destination with 2-hour to full day routes available, each one taking in at least one mountain peak. The Premužić Trail is a day hike that goes through some of the most rugged and inaccessible parts of north Velebit, but with very few steep sections, making it suitable for less experienced mountain hikers.
The land and surrounding sea at Kornati National Park are protected areas © Laura Edwards / Lonely Planet
Composed of 89 of the Kornati's 140 islands, Kornati National Park shelters part of the largest and densest archipelago in the Adriatic. Due to the typically karstic terrain, the islands are riddled with cracks, caves, grottoes and rugged cliffs. The evergreens and holm oaks that used to be found here were long ago burned down. Far from stripping the islands of their beauty, the deforestation has highlighted startling rock formations, whose stark whiteness against the deep-blue Adriatic is an eerie and wonderful sight.
The two series of islands facing the open sea comprise Kornati National Park and have the most dramatically rugged coastline. Kornat is by far the largest island in the park, extending 15 miles (25km) in length but only 1.5 miles (2.5km) in width. The island of Piškera, also within the park, was inhabited during the Middle Ages and served as a fishing collection and storage point.
The Kornati National Park Office is located in Murter, and is well stocked with information. Unless you have your own boat, you’ll have to book an excursion from Zadar, Sali, Šibenik, Split or another coastal city, or arrange a private transfer from Sali or Murter.
Cycle the rugged coastline of Mljet © zm_photo / Getty Images
Covering 5400 hectares of land and sea at the western end of the island of Mljet, this national park offers shady walking and cycling tracks, a ruggedly beautiful coastline, ancient ruins and saltwater lakes. The main hubs are the villages of Pomena and Polače, which buzz with visitors on summer days but quieten down again once all the boats leave.
The centerpieces of the national park are forest-fringed Malo Jezero (Little Lake) and Veliko Jezero (Big Lake), a pair of saltwater lakes connected to each other by a short channel. The larger lake then empties into the sea via the much longer Soline Canal, which makes the lakes subject to tidal flows. The area around Mali Most (Little Bridge) is the busiest swimming spot in the national park. It's a lovely place for a dip, but we suggest that you stroll along the shore of Malo Jezero until you find a quiet nook of your own.
Bikes are available to rent from various locations in Pomena and Polače. Cycling is an excellent way to explore but be aware that the two villages are separated by a steep hill. The lakeside bike path is an easier pedal and very scenic.
Veli Brijun is home to historic sites and a safari park © rusm / Getty Images
The Brijuni archipelago consists of two main pine-covered islands and 12 islets off the coast of Istria, just northwest of Pula across the Fažana Channel. Covered by meadows, parks, and oak and laurel forests (including rare plants such as wild cucumber and marine poppy) the islands were pronounced a national park in 1983.
The largest island, Veli Brijun, can be visited on boats booked through the National Park Office in Fažana. A tour of Veli Brijun on a miniature tourist train begins with a visit to the 9-hectare Safari Park containing animals given to Yugoslav leader Tito, who made these islands his private retreat. Other stops on the tour include the ruins of a Roman Country House, dating from the 1st century BC, an Archaeological Museum inside a 16th-century Venetian summerhouse, and St Germain Church (1481), now a gallery displaying copies of medieval frescoes in Istrian churches.
After the tour, most summertime visitors head to the beaches. Snorkelling and scuba diving are on offer, and there's a golf course that's open to the public. Mali Brijun can only be visited during the summertime Ulysses Theatre season, when performances are staged in an abandoned fort. Note that most boat tours departing from Pula dock at the islet of Sveti Jerolim for a picnic lunch but then only cruise around the main islands, as they're not permitted to land.
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