Home Features Plitvice Lakes National Park: Visiting the Upper Lakes in Winter and Spring.

Plitvice Lakes National Park: Visiting the Upper Lakes in Winter and Spring.

Gradinsko lake reflections

Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes National Park covers an area of nearly 300 square kilometres in the centre of the country. It is renowned internationally for its beautiful lakes and waterfalls and it is a firm favourite of mine, somewhere I have now returned to on many occasions.

Previously I’ve written about other aspects of the park (the links are at the foot of the article) but this article covers my visits to the Upper Lakes in Winter and early Spring.

As the name suggests, the park’s main attraction is the sixteen lakes which flow from south to north—firstly the twelve Upper Lakes in a wide valley and then the four Lower Lakes in a narrow gorge. In 1949 the lakes were listed by the Croatian government as a national park and, in 1979, the park was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Theses articles are arranged geographically with the initial ones covering my explorations around the lakes and later ones describing my visits to other areas of the park. The first described my searches for the sources of the lakes’ water and the second my visits to the upper lakes in the summer and autumn of 2015. This describes my visits to the upper lakes in the winter of 2015 and spring of 2016.

The photographs were taken with a Leica X Vario with its fixed 28-70mm zoom. The amount of detail captured by the lens is extraordinary and I recommend viewing the pictures in as large a size as possible. You can click on any image and go to a slide show of larger versions covering all the pictures in the article.

Winter Arrives

I wrote in my journal that Thursday 19th November 2015 was a perfect autumn day with a clear blue sky. But on the morning of the twenty-first, light rain turned to sleet. Then, at lunchtime as the temperature dropped, to snow. The next day my car was covered in two feet of it. Winter had come to the hills, hard and fast.

Winter Walk

When the snow had melted a bit on the trails and boardwalks, I walked the road around the south side of Kozjak lake towards the upper lakes, the ferry service having stopped for the winter. Leaving the road where it met the path beside the lakes, I continued up the valley with the views obscured by the light rain and mist. But I had on my mountain boots and waterproof jacket, I was out in the woods warm and dry; it was going to be a good afternoon.

As the rain struck the hood of my jacket, I lowered my head to the path in front of me. I was in for a surprise; the rain had washed the dust off the path and the tree roots were revealed. Many times I had stepped on or over these roots covered in dust to the point of invisibility and I’d never seen them like this. Bending down to take a closer look, I marvelled at their colours and patterns; the contrast between what they had looked like before and how they looked now was striking. However, as they dried the colours faded and they shrank back into the dust.

The roots brought to mind an incident during my time at university. My childhood was fortunately spent in the south-east of England, among its beautiful countryside, and I was studying on a campus in the Midlands that had previously been part of a country park. Taking a few days away to visit a friend in Manchester, my first time there, I found it grey and bleak in comparison to what I was used to. Dark satanic mills came to mind.

Walking into town, my friend halted unexpectedly and exclaimed excitedly “look at that!” “Look at what?” “That—isn’t it beautiful?”—pointing emphatically to the floor. At the side of the asphalt, under the park railings, was a small yellow flower. An insignificant flower, next to the grubby grey asphalt. And yet, when I took the time to stop and put my doubts and prejudices back in my pocket, I had to agree with him. It was beautiful, fresh and bright, and I’d learnt a lesson for life.

Although I digress, I never cease to be amazed at the beauty of the world around us. I have seen beautiful man-made fabrics with vibrant colours shimmering in the light. Yet none has compared with the exquisite colours, lit from within by a living light, of the tropical fish that I have dived among.

Moving along the trail, my eye was caught by the purple colour of small flowers on the bank beside the rushing waters. I made my way across the bank and, with camera on tripod, played with shutter speeds to juxtapose the stillness of the flowers with the movement of the water behind.

Further up in the woods, I noticed the sun bringing a small section of grubby and nondescript ice momentarily to life. I was fortunate to see and be able to capture it. After a few minutes the sun moved on, leaving the ice in the gloom of the woods to silently melt back into the water.

Light in the ice. 1/8 second, f/6.4, ISO 100
Light in the ice. 1/8 second, f/6.4, ISO 100

Although the water between the lakes was running freely, parts of the lakes were frozen and the boardwalks were slippery. In many places the lakes spilled over the paths, making progress intermittent or impossible. Nevertheless, the closeness of the water to solid ground brought opportunities to see the leaves held captive in the ice.

As I reached the frozen Galovački Buk, the barrier above Galovac lake, I saw a dramatic change from its appearance in the Summer. This one view seemed to epitomise the park in winter; quiet, still and patiently waiting for the inevitable thaw.

Winter Sunsets

Deepest winter saw me leaving for warmer climes on a short assignment. When I returned in the New Year the waterfalls were still frozen. As I descended on the boardwalks beside Gradinsko lake one early evening the ice reflected the clouds lit by the setting sun.

A month later and the ice had melted. A long walk in the hills brought me back down to Gradinsko lake in the late afternoon. I paused, in two minds; should I push on down the road to the hotel before dark or wait and see what would happen as the sky was becoming more colourful by the minute?

I decided to wait and descended from the road to the path beside the lake. I set up my tripod and camera and waited. I soon realised that I had made the right decision because the colours in the sky grew in intensity and were duly reflected by the calm waters of the lake.

The colours reached a climax and then, as dusk fell, the sky darkened to a blue grey. Feeling very privileged to have witnessed such a beautiful sight, I continued to the hotel. This photograph hangs on a wall at home.

Plitvice Lace

As spring approached and the snow on the surrounding hills melted, Plitvice Lakes saw weeks of dull, overcast rainy weather. One cold, wet and overcast afternoon I trudged up the trail on the northern side of the upper lakes. I made my way beside, and sometimes through, the freezing lake water covering the paths. I was not expecting much from the afternoon so was surprised to hear the falls roaring, growing louder the higher I climbed.

Turning a rocky corner, I was struck by the view of Galovac Lake and the valley above as the normally orderly streams noisily rioted across the valley floor glistening in the weak wintry light. The view was in stark contrast to that of a few weeks before when the lakes and waterfalls were quiet and frozen. Now they had been released from winter’s icy grip.

I felt very fortunate and rewarded to have witnessed this occasional phenomenon that faded after a day or two; one of the park’s staff told me that they call this phenomenon ‘lace’. To me it was ‘Plitvice lace’.

The phenomenon continued down the barriers between the lakes and the water pouring—the lace draping—over the Galovac barrier and Veliki Prštavac into Gradinsko Lake was visible from the hotel.

Pevalek Waterfall light

One afternoon in early spring I walked up beside the upper lakes, noting in my journal that after days without sun the clouds had finally lifted. Many times I had passed the Pevalek waterfall along the Galovac barrier from Veliki Prštavac. But that afternoon the combination of the melting snow, rain pouring from the hills and the low sun presented me with a sight that enchanted me and delights me to this day. I had downloaded onto my iPhone the Photographers Ephemeris App but knew from experience approximately where the sun would be when I would arrive at the waterfall.

However, baffled, I still couldn’t work out how this wonderful display of water and light had come about. I was very fortunate to be able to experience and capture it, all alone with just my camera and tripod. This is a another photo that hangs on my wall and that of a friend to whom I gifted a print.

Future articles

I hope you have enjoyed my descriptions of my wanderings around the upper lakes in their broad valley and will join me in the next article in my explorations of Kozjak Lake, the lower lakes in their narrow gorge and in other areas of the park.

Read more of Kevin Armstrong’s articles at Macfilos


  1. What a wonderful article and images. You’ve captured those autumn and winter atmosphere beautifully. There’s a quality of light to those winter sunsets, frozen grounds and muted tones. These lakes are really amazing and you’ve made your Xvario shine. Once again you’ve aroused my GAS syndrome. Thanks for sharing

  2. Thanks Jean, I’m pleased you liked them. Most of the quality of the images resulted from being in front of beautiful scenes. A glass or two of nice French wine should help with the GAS.

  3. Kevin, I look forward to your interesting accounts of touring in Croatia and, once again, I am not disappointed. Challenging landscapes, which are changing constantly, all captured during your travels. I wish you were able to have an article from this series published in LFI Leica fotographie. It would be a wonderful promotion of that misunderstood gem, the Leica XVario and landscape pictures to enjoy.

    One picture of moving water really stood out for me. ‘Flowers by water’ demonstrates, quite powerfully, that long exposures of several seconds can distort the image to the extent that water takes on the appearance of milk giving a very false impression of reality. Your treatment, in contrast, is quite stunning. One for my wall!

  4. Thanks David, I appreciate your comments. Yes the X Vario was and remains a very useful camera with an excellent marriage of lens, sensor and software. If you want a larger resolution copy of the photo you like I expect Mike can give you my contact details.

    • Kevin, that is kind of you. I was writing metaphorically in terms of rating my pictures, where only the very best make it to the wall. Which reminds me that I must get some more of my own pictures printed. They must join the queue, however, after my photo book.

  5. An excellent article , and beaut photo’s ,Kevin.

    I too really love “Flowers by Water”. The 1/15 shutter produces a perfect amount of motion /detail and it all comes together like brush strokes in a painted scene. Coupled with slightly under exposed colours, it all works so well because the water texture is the star here. Lovely work.

  6. Excellent images Kevin. While the X Vario Initially received criticism for its slow lens, you have made its quality a feature in your images.
    We’ll all have favourites, for me it’s the light in Water and Light, the last image. And the textures in The Park Road to the Hotel, the second image.

    • Thanks Wayne, the Water and Light image works very well when viewed on a large scale as the sparkling light at the base of the falls becomes more visible. It’s my favourite image from the whole series.

  7. Lovely photos and article as ever, Kevin. I love the one of the ‘Frozen Slaps’. Very dramatic indeed and it shows that travelling to a place like Croatia in Wintertime is like going to a whole new country. Your use of the Winter light is outstanding.


    • Thanks William, winter reveals a very different character of the lakes and is a good time to visit. I was told that in past winters there was much more snow; a consequence I suppose of global warming.

  8. That X Vario has served you well, it makes this leg of your Croatian journey standout well. I took a bit of time to think about the images that standout to me.

    So I have scanned back and forwards through the whole set. I settled on a top three of – flowing water, sunset above and the last one water and light.

    However my well known love of those challenging light shots shine through, and I would have to say that the Sunset above image, is truly exceptional, but something I would genuinely expect of the X Vario sensor, after all I would, and have pulled images in this type of light out of my X. I often use the X images as a light metre to dial in my Nikon Df the settings for my sunset images. Naturally once dialled in, the Df does take over, but the light metre in the X is far better in my opinion.

    I look forward to seeing more from this series.


    • Thanks Dave I’m glad you liked them. Your comment made me think about my processing and specifically how much I had adjusted the exposure in the image Sunset Above Gradinsko Lake. I didn’t want to present the image as the work of the camera if I had processed it heavily.

      Reading the settings in Lightroom 5.7 as I write I see that overall I reduced the exposure by 0.55 with a minus 22 on the highlights and plus 12 on the shadows which did increase the saturation slightly but I made no adjustments to either the overall saturation or vibrance. The sunset really was that special. However I brushed the central portion of the image with an increase in exposure of 1.98 and an increase in clarity of 42 as I wanted to bring out the Veliki Prštavac waterfall.

      The X Vario is a wonderful little camera with an exceptional zoom and these images show how versatile it is. Even the limits of its dynamic range can generally be accommodated with some judicial metering and post processing. Of course it has its limits but overall I have been very pleased with it. As an aside my X1 is also pretty good with exposure metering and colour rendition so perhaps they are constants in the X range. Is the Leica colour rendition an under-celebrated brand strength?

      Regarding the images of the Gradinsko Lake Reflections I found the RAW output flat and muddy. That of the detail showing the clouds reflected in the ice required quite a bit of processing (blacks to minus 71 [which made a huge difference to the muddiness] clarity to plus 35 and vibrance to plus 37) before I achieved the colours I wanted. Which in its own way is a testament to the sensor and software in as much as I was able to pull so much from the image.

      Anyway thanks again and I am stirred to start on the next article!

  9. Love the article and photographs, Kevin. I think you’ve done a wonderful job describing the Lakes and the light. If I were to pick a favourite, it would be a tough call but I’d choose “Veliki Prštavac from the hotel” just for the tones of burnt umber and emerald. Look forward to your next lake.

    • Thanks Farhiz,
      The lakes change colour with the light; the cloudier and overcast the sky the more emerald the lakes appear. Glad you liked it.

  10. So sorry late to the party, can only plead been out of WiFi internet range.. WHY IN HELL ARE YOU NOT A NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTOGRAPHER? ACtually now that I think about that I think any contributor here should be employed by them! You folks are that good and like Jean earlier today, he gave me GAS. I was surprised to not see some Winter enthusiast not climbing those wAter ice cliffs, and like you the color of those roots are great and I see a beaver in the first and a long seahorse in the second,but that sunset is what I want on my wall! Man you know how to make me jealous.

    • Hi John,
      Reading your comment first thing on a Monday morning made me smile. I would definitely like to be sent for weeks on an all expenses paid foreign assignment but I couldn’t promise to bring back the goods.
      Glad you enjoyed the photos of the roots, which I took pleasure in seeing, and of course the sunset.

  11. Leaves me wondering why Leica discontinued such an excellent camera, when all user reviews I have read praise it unequivocally and only the very first specification-based comments tore it apart. But it’s the use tha counts – not least in your hands !

      • I suspect it wouldn’t be a small zoom. The Q and Q2 both have a fast f/1.7 lens, so I could see a family fit with a zoom slower than f2/8. And this, I suspect, would be large enough to remove the Q2’s credentials as a small camera. Still, who knows what they are up to at Wetzlar and your guess is as good as mine.


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