The Plitvice Lakes National Park is Croatia's most touted natural wonder: Its majestic waterfalls, lakes, and forests have earned it a place on the UNESCO register of world natural heritage sites and made it Croatia's second-biggest tourist attraction, after the Adriatic coast and islands. The park's most compelling features are the waterfalls that interconnect its 16 turquoise lakes, which are set amid soaring rock formations in dense forests of beech, fir, and spruce. The park’s 4,856-hectares (12,000 acres) break down into 3,642 hectares (9,000 acres) of forest, 1,133 hectares (2,800 acres) of grassy areas and villages, and 36 hectares (88 acres) of water. Everywhere the water is crystal-clear thanks to the deposits of travertine (powdery white limestone rock, see “Waterfall Chemistry”) under the water. The regular distribution of travertine creates the underwater mounds responsible for the waterfalls. The park is also rich with caves, springs, flowering meadows, the source of the River Korana (a gorge that looks like a green branch of the Grand Canyon), and several animal species including deer, wolves, wild boar, and the increasingly rare brown bear (though these animals rarely make an appearance during the hours when the park is open to visitors).
Plitvice became a national park in 1949. One of the Serb-Croat war's first casualties was a park policeman who was killed in an incident that is sometimes cited as one of the flashpoints for the 1991 war. The park was occupied for most of the war by Serb troops, who stayed until 1995. During that time, park offices and hotels were trashed, but the park itself was undamaged. Since then, the hotels and other buildings have been restored, and visitors have returned to the park in droves. Plitvice now lures nearly a million visitors annually, with acreage crisscrossed by well-marked gravel paths and boardwalks that allow visitors to wander for anywhere from 2 to 8 hrs. per outing, depending on how they structure their routes.
Park signs at the trailheads suggest itineraries and lengths of time each would take, but in reality, you can make your own path and stay as long or as short a time as you like—provided you don't take a wrong turn and miss one of the bus or ferry stops (the in-park transportation system runs on eco-friendly fuel, whisking visitors between sights.)