We have been travelling to Poland and visiting the Tatras for around 20 years now, and it continues to remain one of our very favourite destinations. So simple is it these days to organise a trip there, we find ourselves returning every year or two to the relaxed ambience of Zakopane for a quick fix of mountain fun. And, with a plethora of low-cost flight options now available from across the UK, it is almost the perfect destination for a quick getaway.
In fact Poland was the first country in the region that we ever visited. Quite why Eastern Europe has exerted such a pull on us, I don’t know, but as children growing up in the 1970s and 80s the spectre of the Cold War was never far away, and I suppose the mystique surrounding Soviet Russia and the eastern Bloc made a lasting impression on us during those formative years.
Whatever the reasons, the interest has remained, and our determination to visit was finally rewarded in the mid-1990s after a one-and-a-half-day coach journey and a 5-hour wait at the border on a freezing cold winter’s night.
Since then, we have had a number of memorable trips there, both winter and summer. Over the years we've enjoyed great hospitality and on occasion a little too much vodka, ushered in the New Year to the accompaniment of a mammoth firework display, introduced old friends to the country and made new ones there, and recently had the pleasure of passing on the baton of interest to the next generation of our family as well.
The gateway to the Polish Tatras is the vibrant mountain resort of Zakopane. Situated at the foot of the range, Zakopane (900m) has loads of accommodation, good transport connections and all the facilities you could need from a holiday base. The town itself spreads over quite a large area, but most of it lies within a 10-15-minute walk from the busy main thoroughfare and centre of activities, ul Krupowki, a buzzing kilometre-long pedestrianised street lined with, shops, stalls, restaurants and bars that has a wonderfully convivial and relaxed après-hike vibe.
The Tatra National Park (Tratrzanski Park Narodowy) lies immediately to the south of Zakopane. From gentle valley walking to precipitous mountain hikes, there are over 250km of marked paths in the Park, covering everything from relaxed ambles beside rushing mountain streams to full-on hikes along airy ridges and protected scrambles to jagged summits. The scenery is glorious and the views stupendous, and despite the compact nature of the range there is a sense of remoteness and wilderness at odds with the actual size.
Don’t expect it to be quiet, though. The High Tatras are perhaps relatively unknown to UK hikers, but make no mistake – these hills are popular! It can get seriously busy in the summer months and on nice weekends in the shoulder seasons, and you will more than likely be sharing the more popular trails, summits and huts with others. There always seems to be a great friendliness and camaraderie amongst hikers that makes for a highly enjoyable experience, but if you are seeking solitude and seldom-used paths please bear in mind that other destinations featured on this website may be better suited to that.
Wild camping is strictly prohibited in the Tatras NP. So, if you want to spend the night in the mountains, the best option is to use one of the huts/refuges that dot the park. These are sociable places, where a bed and a hot meal can be had at the end of each day, and breakfast provided to set you on your way next morning. There are 8 in all, and booking is advisable as they do get very busy.
Until quite recently, cross-border trekking was either completely prohibited or allowed only at a handful of manned checkpoints at locations of little actual benefit to hikers. However, the situation changed in 2007/8 when both countries accessed to the Schengen Area.
It is now possible to cross the border freely at any point as long as there are connecting paths, giving access to a further 230 square miles of mountainous territory and 350km of waymarked paths, and opening up new opportunities to combine both countries and enjoy the generally quieter Slovak side of the mountains – just remember to take your passport with you!
The Main Hiking Areas
For such a compact area, there are loads of options for hiking in the Tatras. Whether you want gentle ambles or full-on mountain days, the choice is huge.
Because of the numerous trails and network of mountain huts, many of the areas listed below can be connected in the course of one-day- or multi-day hikes, but as they can be reached by public transport and represent the main access points and trailheads for the various hikes, it is worth looking at them individually.
Probably the key jumping off point in the area, Kuznice is a small settlement a couple of kilometres south of Zakopane which can be easily reached by taxi, minibus or on foot. There is a cable car up to Kasprowy Wierch on the border ridge (see later) and a web of trails radiates out along the ridges and valleys.
From here, routes lead off towards the main attractions of the area; Giewont, the Kondratowa and Jaworzynka valleys, Murowaniec and the Hala Gasienicowa, the border ridge and beyond the Zawrat pass to the Valley of the Five Polish Lakes. There is plenty of opportunity for walks of all degrees of difficulty, and circuits can be made by connecting adjacent valleys.
Morskie Oko - the "Eye of the Sea" - is the largest lake in the Tatras and another of the key hiking spots hereabouts. Surrounded by high peaks, including Poland's highest summit, Rysy, it is another immensely beautiful area, and also one of it's busiest.
Unless entering Poland from across the Slovak border via Rysy's summit, the two main approches are from the carpark at Palenica Polana or through the Valley of the Five Polish Lakes.
As the latter routes are quite strenuous, most people arrive from Palenica Polana. From the carpark, there is a metalled road leading approximately 7km to the lake: you can either walk, which is quite pleasant, or take a horse-drawn "bus" (or sleigh in winter).
Once at the lake, there is a large mountain hut that is usually crowded with people who have come to simply admire the view. However, there are a number of opportunities to escape the crowds including a path right round the lake, off which a steep path leads up to another lake, Czarny Staw pod Rysami and further, on an increasingly steep trail, to the summit of Rysy.
You can also explore the Valley of the Five Polish Lakes from Morskie Oko, and there are routes that lead to the passes on the main ridge and on to the Hala Gasienicowa.
Although there are paths up from Kuznice, Hala Gasienicowa and the Slovakian side of the ridge, most people arrive at Kasprowy Wierch on the cable car from Kuznice.
Once out of the confines of the cable car terminal, the full glory of the location can be properly appreciated. Sitting atop the clearly-defined ridge that separates Poland and Slovakia, Kasprowy Wierch is the starting point for walks along the ridge.
Heading westwards, routes lead towards Kondracka Kopa, Malolaczniak, Ciemniak and Giewont, from where descents can be made via ridge and valley to the trailheads at the foot of the mountains.
Eastwards the path wends towards Lillowe and Swinica, with connecting paths down to the Valley of the Five Polish Lakes on one side of the ridge and to the Hala Gasienicowa on the other, or on to the fearsome Orla Perc (Eagles’ Edge) path to Krzyzne, one of the toughest routes in the entire Tatras with chains, rails and lots of exposure over the course of its 8-hour/5.5km route.
Which ever way you head, and regardless of how long you walk for, the views are exceptional, and worth the trip to Kasprowy Wierch even if all you do is sit and gaze at the awesome panorama.
The Chocholowska & Koscieliska Valleys
Chocholowska and Koscieliska are two of the main valleys lying to the west of Zakopane and accessed from the road to Witow and Chocholow. Both valleys are scenic, relatively flat and traffic-free, with well-graded surfaces underfoot ideal for walking and cycling, and each has a conveniently placed hut around 7 or 8 kilometres in.
Consequently, they are very busy! Throughout the summer and on other nice days there will be walkers, cyclists and picnickers in abundance. However, the valleys are very beautiful, and the glory of the scenery is usually sufficient to outweigh the intrusion of crowds.
The usual objective for hikers are the huts at the end of the level sections of the valleys, with the Schronisko Ornak in particular being a worthwhile destination, from where a short side-trip leads to the Smreczynski Staw lake.
The two valleys can be connected via the Sciezka nad Reglami path, and both form the starting point for longer routes leading into the higher mountains and summits on the main ridge such as Jarzabczy Wierch, Konczysty Wierch, Starorobocianski Wierch, Blyszcz, Ciemniak, Kondracka Kopa and Giewont.
Gubalowka is a low ridge on the north side of Zakopane which can be reached either on foot or by the funicular railway accessed through the market beyond the lower end of ul Krupowki.
Gubalowka is ideal for a gentle stroll on easy ground. There is a level road running along the top, lined with food and craft stalls, restaurants and activities. There are a couple of paths and two chair-lifts leading back down into the valley, and the gentle walk along the ridge to Butorowy Wierch has some spectacular views to Giewont and the High Tatras on a clear day. You can also take the path from Butorowy Wierch to Kiry to connect with the Koscieliska Valley.