Home Features Plitvice National Park: Exploring the upper lakes in summer and autumn

Plitvice National Park: Exploring the upper lakes in summer and autumn

Climbing the barrier to Burgeti Lake

The Plitvice Lakes National Park in central Croatia covers an area of nearly 300 square kilometres and is renowned internationally for its beautiful lakes and waterfalls. This is the second in a series of articles describing my explorations, this time summer and autumn visits to the upper lakes area.

As the name suggests, the park’s main attraction is the range of sixteen lakes descending through its central area. Over millennia, the limestone deposited from the water flowing out of the surrounding hills formed barriers behind which the lakes were held. It is said that the barriers continue to rise at the rate of ten millimetres a year.

Click any image in this article to enlarge – and to enable a slideshow of all pictures

Geographically, the lakes flow from south to north — firstly twelve upper lakes in a wide valley and then four lower lakes in a narrow gorge. In 1949, the Plitvice lakes were listed by the Croatian government as a national park and, in 1979, the park was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I first visited the park briefly in the summer of 2015 and returned that autumn and in early 2016, spending many days walking and photographing. In summer, the boardwalks beside the lakes were crowded but few ventured into the park beyond the lakes. In winter the park was largely deserted.

These articles are arranged geographically, with the initial travelogues covering my explorations around the lakes and the later ones describing my visits to other areas of the park. The first, published in May this year, described my search for the lakes’ sources. This time I cover my visits in the summer and autumn of 2015 to the upper lakes. Most of the photographs were taken with a Leica X Vario with its fixed 28-70mm zoom; I have indicated those taken with a Leica X1 with its fixed 35mm lens.

A quiet summer afternoon

Disembarking from the shuttle bus into the warm late afternoon air, we gathered our wits and consulted the map. We had arrived at the top of the upper lakes.

That morning we had left Split on the coast and driven over the spectacular Velebit Mountains to a lunch stop at a local restaurant in Udbina, sharing it with logging and roadwork crews.

Finding and checking in to our hotel, we decided there was enough time at 4pm to take the shuttle bus to the top of the upper lakes and walk back down on the boardwalks. We planned to catch a ferry back across Lake Kozjak before the service stopped around 8pm. And the next day we would explore the lower lakes before returning to the coast.

Being late in the afternoon, the tourist buses had long returned to Zagreb or on towards the coast. The few people who had accompanied us on the bus quietly wandered off to the café or into the woods around. We were standing on a broad limestone barrier called the Swan, over which the waters from Prošćansko lake flowed into the lakes Ciginovac, Okrugljak and Batinovac.

We followed the boardwalks as they wove around the lakes and past waterfalls, enjoying the tranquillity of the park and the late-afternoon reflections. In the warm summer weather, the water flow was reduced and, with the leaves on the trees, the valley felt enclosed. But when I returned later in the year, with more water and less foliage, the waterfalls were more visible and spectacular. Summertime and the park was at its most gentle.

After relaxing and taking our time to photograph the lakes and waterfalls, we realised that we might miss the last ferry of the evening. The next half hour was spent hurrying down the boardwalks towards the lake in the increasingly fading light. Arriving at the dockside, we were relieved to find we had a few minutes to spare before the ferry came to take us across.

Autumn return

I returned a few months later, flying from London into Zagreb. After a frustrating three-hour wait for my rental car (“it’s being washed”), I had lunch and went back to the desk: “It’s having winter tyres fitted”. I had coffee in the terminal and finally set off for Plitvice Lakes. I was concerned about driving to the hotel in the dark as this would be my first time into the hills from Zagreb. However, after a two-hour drive up through the hills, I was relieved to arrive just before sunset.

The next morning was bright and sunny and, on leaving the hotel, I was struck by the change in the park since the summer. Most of the leaves had fallen and the air was crisp and clear. Crossing Kozjak Lake on the ferry, I made my way up the boardwalks rising over the limestone barrier and rushing waters to Burgeti Lake.

My journal entry for that day reads, ‘the morning light shone through the water. I noticed the autumn leaves and the crystal clear water. Also, without the leaves on the trees, I was more aware of the rocks and the general layout of the place’. The waters were a beautiful aquamarine; I was told that they changed colour depending on the amount of water flowing through the lakes.

Treasures at my feet

The beech trees around the lakes had shed most of their leaves and my notes at the time mentioned that many of the beech leaves were still moist and elastic with nice colour and definition to their ribs. There was a sense of the seasons passing and the expectation that in a few weeks the weather would cool further and the leaves dry and curl.

As well as walking on the paths and boardwalks around the lakes, I ventured higher into the woods on trails that made their way up the northern side of the valley. I met very few people on the trails the whole time I was in the park so was able to appreciate the woods more or less alone.

The trails were marked with small roundels nailed to the trees and the park’s literature gave a very clear warning to stay on the trails. I learnt that this was because the karst limestone hills have many fissures at ground level, leading to caves deep in the rocks beneath. If uncovered, they could usually be seen but snow would hide them and falling into one would probably mark the end of one’s time on earth. And if the hotel room had been paid for in advance it would be a real heartbreaker!

Putting such thoughts aside, I made my way up through the beech woods. The morning sun shining through the trees warmed my face and, reflecting off the ground, brought the stones, leaves and bark around me to life. Intrigued, I stopped, slipped off my backpack and settled onto the woodland floor. Gently fingering the leaves, I felt the smoothness of their blades and firmness of their ribs. But here there were no layers of leaves rotting down into deep rich soil. The rock, never far below the surface, made its hard presence felt and the leaves above the thin soil exuded a soft woodland smell. I played with compositions, taking pleasure in the forms, colours and textures, reawakening memories and pleasures of childhood.

Back on the boardwalk I saw what I took to be a bird’s feather, although I was bemused by how it had landed there. On closer examination it turned out to be a leaf, beautifully arranged by nature without any assistance from me and I took pleasure in recording it.

On a technical note the metadata shows that some of the photos above, as referenced in the captions, were taken with the Leica X1. I found the way contrast was displayed on the screen helped when focusing manually, a useful quirk of the X1 even with its relatively low-resolution screen. The camera produces pleasantly contrasted black and white JPGs but whether or not the two are related I cannot say. What I would stress is that the detail captured by the X1 merits enlarging these photos, and those later in the article of leaves in the water, to full size on a screen.

The Great Prštavci

Following the paths beside the waters of Gradinsko Lake, I came to the Galovac barrier at the northern end of Galovac Lake with The Great Prštavci waterfall, the highest on the upper lakes. In the autumn and winter, I was able to view and photograph the waterfalls from a distance which would have been impossible through the leaves in summer.

Coming closer, I was impressed by the way the roaring water caught the sunlight. The boardwalk was at the base of the waterfall and walking through the spray meant it was definitely time to cover the camera.

Return to the Swan Barrier

The walk up the northern side of the lakes continued until I overlooked Prošćansko Lake at the Swan Barrier, with the waters flowing into Ciginovac and Okrugljak lakes. Descending carefully on the steep gravel path, again grateful that I was wearing my mountain boots and feeling my ankles pressing against their thick leather tongues, I crossed the boardwalk over the water flowing from Ciginovac Lake into Okrugljak.

I enjoyed playing around with the X Vario’s shutter speeds (easily done with the top-mounted dials) to capture the rushing waters as I wanted. I avoided very long exposures, turning water into milk, and wanted texture to give a sense of the water’s energy and power. To my taste (literally) milk goes well with biscuits (…cookies) — ‘milk and biscuits’ – but ‘milk and rocks’, never.

The image above was taken at 1/8s, f/16 at ISO 100. I sometimes used a 3-stop ND filter when the sun was very bright. I occasionally used a circular polarising filter to see beyond the surface glare into the water beneath.

The polarising filter proved useful when, further on, I found quiet patches of water with the woodland’s leaves settled in their watery grave. The water was so clear that I found it hard to capture a sense of separation between the leaves below and the surface above. So I gently dropped leaves onto the surface. I recommend viewing the photos full size and as large as possible to see the lovely textures of the leaves.

Following the boardwalk across the end of Prošćansko Lake, I headed to the café but found it closed for renovation. Thankfully the shuttle bus was still operating so I took it down the valley and went for lunch elsewhere.

Winter arrives

Days later, winter arrived in Plitvice Lakes, with the first snow falling in the third week of November. The upper lakes changed their appearance again, the park closed to visitors and the shuttle buses and ferries stopped until spring. The next article in the series will describe my explorations in that coldest and wettest season.

Read the first article in this series on the Plitvice Lakes

Read more from Kevin Armstrong


  1. More ‘Slaps’. Well done Kevin. I hope you didn’t get into trouble with the police, like we did in Slovenia. The Balkan uplands are truly an undiscovered gem of Europe. Perfect for social distancing. Great photos as usual.


    • Thanks William,
      No, I had no trouble apart from a speeding ticket on the only straight bit of road between Plitvice and Karlovac. Perfectly pleasant police and, although I hate to admit it, I deserved the ticket.

  2. Wonderful article and photos Kevin. The images of clouds reflections and waterfalls with slow shutter speed are pretty stunning. Looking forward to moreof your Croatian articles.
    Stay safe

    • Thanks Jean,
      We were very fortunate to be there on such a lovely afternoon. It’s a beautiful place. Glad you liked the photos.

  3. So enjoyable! I read the article to get oriented in time and space, but I really liked the way you set things up so that it is possible to have a slide show “just looking”. I absolutely agree with you about not turning water into milk (yuk!) and feel you have got it just right. What speed(s) did you use? I also noted your combination of cameras. I have an XV and an X2, but I’ve never taken them out together. I really would be interested to know what you felt the X1 gave you in addition to the XV.

    • Hi John,

      I’m glad you enjoyed it and thanks for you kind comments.

      Regarding the shutter speeds for the waterfalls the second photo was taken at 1 second and the last waterfall photo was taken at 1/8 second. My choice depended on what I thought looked right given how the waterfall fell.

      I generally took the X Vario on a long neck strap with the X1 in the rucksack. However if it was raining hard I would keep the X1, with its hand strap, in an inside jacket pocket and the X Vario would stay in the rucksack. The only technical advantage of using the X1 over the X Vario was, and is, the 2.8 maximum aperture instead of the X Vario’s 3.5 which proved useful in particular circumstances. However the weather was usually the principal factor in choice of camera.

  4. Thank you for sharing this Kevin, it is a wonderful journey. And a wonderful area to spend time exploring.

    I must confess that at this time on a Friday night, that Prošćansko Lake initially registered as Prosecco lake. Sorry, its been a long week. lol.

    The X1 and X Vario have done you proud though, and there are some wonderful images, proving that you dont need the latest and allegedly greatest to produce decent shots.

    • Thanks David,

      The idea of Plitvice Lakes flowing with Prosecco brings a whole new meaning to the term ‘sparkling waters’. In our dreams!

      I appreciate your comments about the cameras and photos, thanks.

  5. Love the photographs Kevin. I especially liked your Swan Barrier and waterfall and the boardwalk composition. It does look wonderful enlarged. So you carry around a tripod or handhold it at ⅛ sec?

    • Thanks Farhiz,

      The boardwalk photo with the leaf is one of my favourites and one day I might get it printed and framed.

      I carried a lightweight aluminium tripod in the side pocket of my rucksack to use when I wanted to use a slower (less than 1/125 or perhaps 1/60) shutter speed. The other reason would be if I was using a circular polarising filter so I could see the polarisation changing on the rear screen as I rotated the filter.

      • As a PS the photo of the leaf on the boardwalk reminds me of the magical moment when, walking down the stairs, I realised what it was and how lovely it looked. The photo takes me back to that moment and the pleasant memory remains with me.

        Some of the photos record a beautiful sight that I captured and moved on. However those of the leaf, the last waterfall and the leaves under the crystal clear waters remind me of particularly special moments.

  6. Kevin love the photos and appreciate knowing which was which camera. My only problem is trying to pick the one I like best. Might as well shoot myself I can’t choose! You really had a time, and I hope you have many ore and selfishly share with us, thank you.

    • Thanks John I’m pleased you liked them. But please don’t shoot yourself – although some of the photos coming up may heighten your discontent about which to chose!

  7. Thanks for sharing the journey with us. The nearest I have been is Trieste, so good to see another part of the world I would like to explore.

    As to being more about travel than photography – sure! The interesting thing is what you saw and how you saw it, not the camera you used or the settings you employed. Stick with the storytelling and let some other site bloviate about settings, lens softness at f1.4 and weak jpegs.

    • Plitvice Lakes and other places in Croatia are well worth a visit. From next month we in the UK should be able to visit it again freely but that will be cold comfort for you. Thanks for your comment and I’m glad you liked the article.

  8. Thoroughly enjoyed that Kevin!
    Writ large on the screen, the “Unexpected Tree Root” first looked like pi (3.141..).
    On closer inspection, it looks just like my (recently) extracted molar. Definitely evokes several emotions…

    • Ha! I hadn’t thought of that but you are right. Hope you have no more trouble in the tooth department. Glad you liked the article.

  9. Thanks Kevin, for showing this gallery of images.
    I particularly like the X1 shots, Their textures and colours, and an interesting “see” on your part to take notice of them while amid wide landscapes.

  10. Kevin, so much of interest in your travel notes and photo-essay. Although beautiful in your settings, your pictorial abstracts of nature can often be found anywhere if you are prepared to isolate them. A really delightful excursion which I am enjoying on a rainy day.

  11. Hi David, I’m pleased you liked it. And I agree about the abstracts, they are all around us and there to be seen.


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