The boardwalk trail carries me across the middle of a lake for an up-close view of a row of gurgling waterfalls. Then I walk past Šupljara Cave, the location of a German “Spaghetti Western” filmed here in the 1960s and still beloved by German tourists today.

As I continue along a path leading to more picturesque cascades, I ponder the strange juxtaposition of Plitvice’s overwhelming natural beauty with its recent misfortunes. On Easter Sunday in 1991, the first shots of Croatia’s war with Yugoslavia were fired in this park. The Serbs occupied Plitvice and the surrounding region until 1995 and most of the Croatians you’ll meet here were evacuated and lived near the coastline as refugees.

Today there’s not a hint of the recent war, and the park is again a popular tourist destination. On a busy day, the park welcomes 10,000 hikers — mostly Croatians and other Europeans. Americans, meanwhile, are still mostly oblivious to Plitvice’s charms.

Silent, pollution-free electric boats shuttle hikers across the park’s biggest lake. While waiting for the boat, I chat with the industrious local grandmas who sell strudel and wheels of homemade cheese with the sophistication of a kid at a lemonade stand. Watching these humble yet happy Croatians at work, I feel thankful that this corner of Europe is finally enjoying peace, prosperity, freedom and stability.

At the far side of the lake, more boardwalks take me to the most spectacular stretch of the trail — a wonderland of sleepy trout, Monet greenery, and frisky falls. There are a million ways to catch tiny rainbows in the mist as boardwalks wind around and above the bridal fair of lacy waterfalls. As I hike, I watch for the park’s fabled wildlife. It claims to host deer, wolves, wildcats, lynx, wild boar, voles, otters and more than 160 species of birds — but, apart from the throngs of trout, I find only mice. Plitvice is also home to about 50 highly endangered European brown bears…but they have the good sense to stay far from the hiking paths.

A geologist would be less disappointed. This fantasy world of natural limestone dams — constantly built up by deposits of calcium carbonate, even as they’re eroded by the flow of water — is a “perfect storm” of unique geological features you’ll rarely find elsewhere on earth.

The park is on most Croatia bus-tour itineraries. It’s possible to get there by public bus (two hours from Zagreb, departing several times each day), but is easier by car. Because the park is so well-organized for an efficient visit, most visitors find that a few hours to hike the trails is plenty — arrive in the evening, spend the night, hike after breakfast and move on after lunch. If the park’s three hotels feel like they were built for big tour groups during the communist era…it’s because they were. To save money and enjoy a more intimate experience, try one of the many sobe (rooms in a private home, like B&Bs) dotting the countryside around the park.

After a few hours of strolling the Plitvice boardwalks, I have a personal ritual: Dropping by the rustic park restaurant — with its heavy-timber beams, open wood-fired grill and Croatian chefs wearing tall hats — and dining on one of those trout that have been grinning at me all day. As I review the photos on my camera, I marvel that Europe has treats of such scenic caliber…and still some with so few American visitors.

Rick Steves ( writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and follow his blog on Facebook.