It is very easy and convenient to visit Plitvice if you are staying in Zadar. You can join an organized day tour, take local public transport or rent a car and drive. The shortest distance between Zadar and Plitvice Lakes is just under 120 km, which takes about 1.5 hrs by car or 1.45 by local bus.
The only public transport from Zadar to Plitvice is a bus. There are no trains or flights that connect these two places.
If you are visiting between April and October, getting by bus there is easy. Currently, there are at least 7 buses daily that are running from 8 am to 11 pm. The journey takes between 1 hour and 45 minutes and 2 hrs 50 minutes depending on the route the bus takes.
The ticket price is 13 euros one way or 25 Euros for a return.
The shortest route takes you from Zadar main bus station via Udbina and Korenica to Plitvice entrance 1 and entrance 2 (Slunj, Mukinje). You will be there in less than 2 hours.
The longest route will take almost 3 hours and will drive you from Zadar’s main bus station via several places before you reach your destination.
Try to avoid this route as it is simply too long and unless you particularly enjoy bus riding there is no reason to get on this one.
My suggestion is that you can take the morning one at 8:30 am. You will be in Plitvice at 10:15 am and have plenty of time to visit the lakes even if you are visiting just as a day trip.
Tip: Take the bus all the way up to the top of the lakes (Entrance 1) and walk down from this point to explore. It is an easier walk. (map)
If you are visiting in wintertime, it is not as convenient as there are only 3 buses that cover this route and all are leaving in the afternoons from Zadar so you can’t really do a day trip at this time of the year. And also, all of them are taking the longer route that lasts about 3 hrs which is another disadvantage.
At this time of the year, you just have to at least overnight on the Lakes which is fine, there is plenty of available accommodation here that is not expensive at this time of the year if you have enough time.
In the period April to October buses from Plitvice to Zadar starts at 9:30. The last one is at 23:40. There are at least 6 daily regular buses running on the same routes as explained above.
Ticket prices are starting from 11 Euro (80 Hrk)
If you are visiting the Park on a day trip, the best bus is the one departing at 17 or 17:30. You will be in Zadar main bus station around 19:30. So, from 10:30 in the morning to 17:30 in the afternoon, you have about 7 hours, plenty of time to explore the park.
Yes, you can, if you wish to join the pre-organized private day tour but in my opinion, it is not something that I would consider. The simple reason is that you can do a day trip to the Park in your own arrangements, booking your morning bus ticket well in advance and return ticket for late afternoon. You will then have plenty of time to explore the Park all in one day and still be back in Zadar by early evening. The best website to book your bus ticket is here. If, for any reason, you prefer to be driven, here is a link to book a tour. Also, check if Uber offers a better deal.
The same is valid for the car hire option – no real reason for that with such convenient bus schedules and prices. However, if you are visiting out of season, then car hire is a good option if you don’t have enough time to overnight in the Lakes.
Bear in mind that in the winter, roads to Plitvice are often closed due to heavy snowfall and icy roads. Still worth a try especially if you are keen to see the lovely frozen lakes.
This is a map of the shortest route to Plitvice from Zadar (about 135 kilometers) the one via Udbine and Korenica. It will take you about 1 hour and 45 minutes if the roads are fine, with no traffic jams or difficult weather conditions.