Looking to visit the top Croatian national parks? Croatia’s natural wonders range from rugged alpine scenery to brilliant jeweled islands to fairytale cascades hidden within the dense forest. This guide to the top eight Croatian national parks includes the location of each park and how to get there, as well as what the park is famous for, be it flora, fauna, history, or geography. Whether you’re looking for wildlife, botany, a picture-perfect view, an off-the-beaten-path experience, or modern-to-ancient history, Croatia’s national parks offer a little something for everyone.
Top Croatian National Parks To Visit
These are some of Croatia’s National Parks to visit during your visit to Croatia. They make wonderful day trips from most parts of Croatia. If you are traveling during the summer months then expect some crowds as this is the high season in Croatia.
1. Risnjak National Park, Gorski-Kotar
Risnjak National Park is Croatia’s northernmost national park, located in Gorski-Kotar, the most mountainous and densely forested region in the country. The highest point in the park is Veliki Risnjak, peaking at 1,528 meters above sea level.
The park lies at an interesting geographical intersection, marking the divide between the Adriatic and Black Sea watersheds, where Adriatic and continental weather patterns collide. Similarly, due to the park’s proximity to major road connections, such as the motorway between Zagreb and Rijeka, in addition to major tourist destinations, Risnjak is Croatia’s most visited national park.
Situated around 15 kilometers inland from the Adriatic Sea, the park expands to 63.5 square kilometers, which covers the central area of the Risnjak and Snježnik massif, including the source of the Kupa River. The name Risnjak is thought to either come from the Croatian word for lynx (ris) or a local word for a type of grass (risje).
The park is known for its diverse flora and the Risnjak area was designated a national park in 1949 after botanist Ivo Horvat suggested that the area be protected. In particular, the rocky peak of Risnjak is home to rare and endangered flora, including edelweiss, black vanilla orchid, and hairy alpine rose.
Likewise, there is a wide variety of fauna. Mammal species to look out for include brown bear, red deer, wild boar, and wolf. The population of aforementioned lynx was sadly exterminated in the 19th century, but after a successful reintroduction project in nearby Slovenia, the animal has since returned to Risnjak.
The administrative center and visitor center for the park can be found in the village of Cmi Lug, on the eastern edge of Risnjak National Park. There is a 4.5-kilometer loop walk that starts and ends at the visitor center, which passes through different environments and showcases the floral diversity and karstic landscapes of the national park.
2. Brijuni Islands National Park, Istria
Also known as the Brionian Islands, this small archipelago is comprised of 14 small islets in the Croatian part of the Adriatic Sea, just off the west coast of the Istrian Peninsula. Separated from the mainland by the Fažana Strait, the easiest way to visit the Brijuni Islands is via the regular boat service from Fažana to Veliki Brijun, the largest of the islands. The journey takes around 20 minutes.
The two largest Brijuni Islands are Veliki Brijun (5.6 square kilometers) and Mali Brijun (1.07 square kilometers). Scenically beautiful, the flora and fauna found on the islands are a mix of indigenous species and imported species, introduced by the archipelago’s long history of human habitation.
Rare flora to look out for include marine poppy and wild cucumber (both endangered in Istria, but abundant on the islands), while fauna include the Istrian ox, chital deer, and mouflon. Offshore, the wildlife continues, as the seas around the Brijuni Islands are significant hatching grounds for marine life. Sea turtles and dolphins can sometimes be spotted here, as well as endemic species, such as black tang, tunicate, and certain varieties of soft coral and sea sponges.
However, the Brijuni Islands’ main tourism draw is its exceptional history. Over 200 dinosaur footprints, dating back to the Cretaceous Period, were found in four separate sites on Veliki Brijun. Skipping forward to human history, there are archeological sites, such as Roman villas, a Byzantine fort, a 13th-century church built by the Knights Templar, and a Bronze Age settlement.
In more modern history, the islands have changed hands several times. Belonging to Venice since the Middle Ages, they became part of the French Illyrian Provinces after Napoleon’s annexation. Next, they switched to the Austrian Empire (when they were once used as a base for malaria eradication experiments), then to Italy, then after World War II were part of Yugoslavia and President Marshal Josip Broz Tito made the islands his personal summer residence. In 1991, Croatia gained independence and the isles have been part of the country ever since.
3. Plitvice Lakes National Park, Lika-Senj
One of the oldest and largest national parks in the country, Plitvice Lakes National Park in Lika-Senj is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, due to its collection of tufa lakes, caves, and waterfalls.
Located in central Croatia, next to the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, the park is around two hours by car from Zagreb and three hours from Split. Buses and day tours are available. Around a million people visit Plitvice Lakes National Park every year. Entrance costs 250 kuna (€34) for a day pass, but rates are subject to change.
The national park covers just under 300 square kilometers, with its 16 interconnected lakes (12 Upper Lakes called Gornja Jezera, and four lower lakes called Donja Jezera) being the main attractions. The lakes are formed by runoff from the mountains and are separated by natural travertine dams made of moss, algae, and bacteria deposits. These lakes are famous for their vivid green and blue hues, which change depending on the minerals and/or organisms in the water, as well as sunlight.
The name Plitvice is in reference to the lakes (plitvak means shallow in Croatian) and the Plitvica River, which flows into the lower part of the lakes. The highest waterfall is the Veliki Slap (Large Waterfall), which plummets 78 meters into the lagoon below.
Around 75% of the park is forest and some of the beech and fir trees in the large virgin forest in the northwest of the park are estimated to be around 700 years old. In terms of fauna, there are brown bears, grey wolves, golden eagles, Eurasian lynx, European wildcats, and capercaillies, plus 321 identified species of butterfly, 157 species of bird (70 of which breed at the park), 20 bat species, as well as autochthonous trout species.
4. Northern Velebit (Sjeverni Velebit) National Park, Lika-Senj
Northern Velebit National Park, known locally as Sjeverni Velebit National Park, is located in the northern Velebit mountains range, which is the largest in the country. Although the whole Velebit range is a designated nature park (a lower category than national park), the northern area was upgraded in 1999, in acknowledgement of the diverse flora in the area.
The national park covers 109 square kilometers and the best way to get to the park is by car from the town of Otočac, off the Zagreb-Split highway. An alternative route is to come from the southwest via Štirovača, but the road is very narrow. There are no direct buses to Northern Velebit National Park, but the closest city is Senj.
Northern Velebit is best known for its hiking trails, with 30 marked trails to choose from, which offer amazing views of the Adriatic Sea from the mountaintops. The park provides half and full day hiking programs with a guide, which is a great option, especially to gain more insight about the park’s natural history.
5. Paklenica National Park, Dalmatia
Paklenica is a karst river canyon in northern Dalmatia, located on the southern slopes of the Velebit Mountain. There is a small (Mala) and a big (Velika) canyon. The valleys were historically home rivers, but today no water runs through the Mala Paklenica, though there are some small streams in the area.
Paklenica National Park is best accessed via Zadar, which is less than an hour away by bus and car, and is home to the Zadar Airport Zemunik (ZAD). It’s also possible to reach the national park along the Zagreb-Split Highway, the Rijeka-Maslenica Highways, or the Split-Dugopolje-Maslenica Highway, depending which direction you are coming from.
The region has a long history of human habitation, dating back to prehistoric times, the last ice age, and Paleolithic hunters. Mesolithic flint tools have been found in some of the underground caves at the park. Other peoples who made the park their home over the millennia include Liburian people in the Bronze Age, Romans from the first century AD, then Croats since the Middle Ages.
Aside from the picturesque canyons, the park is noted for its speleological features, including 39 pits and 37 caves. In modern history, an artificial tunnel complex was built at the entrance to the Velika Paklenica by in the late 1940s and early 1950s by Josip Broz Tito, when tensions were flaring between Yugoslavia and the USSR.
6. Kornati National Park, Dalmatia
Also known as the Stomorski Islands, the Kornati archipelago is a national park located in the north of Dalmatia, south of Zadar and west of Šibenik. The best way to visit the islands is on an organised tour from Zadar, Sibernik, or Murter, which includes return boat rides and the national park entrance fee.
Kornati’s 140 islands spread over 320 square kilometers make the archipelago the densest in the Mediterranean, and the 109 southernmost islands are the designated national park, which is set up to protect the islands and the marine life around them. The Gornji Kornati (Upper Kornati) are closer to the mainland, while the Donji Kornati (Lower Kornati) face out to the sea in the southwest of the archipelago.
The largest island is Kornat, but many of the islands have very rude sounding names e.g. Babina Guzica (buttocks) and Kurba Vela (prostitution). This is because when Austrian surveyors visited the islands in the late 19th century, their local guides made up vulgar names for their own amusement!
7. Krka National Park, Dalmatia
Krka National Park in Šibenik-Knin County, central Dalmatia, is named for the Krka River that runs through the region. If you don’t have your own transport, the best way to visit Krka National Park is from the town of Sibernik, from which you can catch a bus to the entrances to the park, in Lozavac or Skradin, the latter of which includes a boat ride into the park that arrives close to Skradinski Buk Waterfall.
Skradinski Buk is the park’s main feature and there are plenty of walking trails around it, plus you can even swim in the river below the waterfall. Other sites of note include the Roški Slap waterfall and Visovac Island, which is home to a 15th-century monastery.
Covering 109 square kilometers, the national park is noted for its unchanged, multifaceted natural ecosystems. There are 860 species of plant, including endemic Illyrian-Adriatic species, such as stone bellflower and Illirian iris. The Krka Waterfalls area has the second-highest abundance of lavender in Europe, which also attracts a large population of bees and wasps.
In terms of fauna, of the 18 species of fish in the Krka, 10 are endemic. The 222 species of bird that call the national park home include osprey, eagles, falcons, and vultures. The ria is the mouth of the river as it flows into the sea, which is considered to be a natural phenomenon with an abundance of shellfish, freshwater fish, and saltwater fish.
8. Mljet National Park, Dalmatia
Mljet is the southernmost and easternmost of the Adriatic Islands of Dalmatia, though not all of it is national park. The 54-square-kilometer designated national park covers most of the west of the islands, but only a small section of it is ticketed: the saltwater lakes of Malo Jezero (Little Lake) and Veliko Jezero (Big Lake), which are connected by a short channel, while the larger lake empties into the sea via the Soline Channel.
Mljet National Park is accessible via ferry from Dubrovnik, as well as tourist charter boasts from Split, Hvar, and Korčula, which dock in Polače and Pomena.
In addition to the picturesque lakes, there is a 12th-century Benedictine monastery located on the small islet of Melita (or Sveta Marija).