Where: the Poland-Slovakia border
Best season: December to May for skiing or May to September for hiking
Best sights: Climb Rysy Peak for spectacular lake view, go skiing down Mt. Kasprowy Wierch or spot mountain goats
Remember to bring: high topped hiking boots, a rain coat and water
The Tatra Mountains are part of the Carpathian Range and run across the Polish-Slovakian border with about one quarter of the mountains in Poland. This beautiful area is geographically diverse and offers a wide range of recreational activities in all seasons. The granite peaks provide a wide variety of hikes as well as good skiing in the winter. Surrounded by picturesque valleys with the emerald Lake Morskie Oko nearby, many are content to enjoy the views of the alpine-like mountains as they cycle around the town or simply sit beside a pool in the summer. For those who are seeking a bit more of an adventure, the Tatras are full of accessible trails for all different levels of trekking, along with guided mountaineering tours and paragliding operations for the fearless.
Where to Go and How to Get There
The Polish side of the mountains can be reached most easily from the lively town of Zakopane, which is about two hours by car from Krakow, and provides a myriad of resources for exploring the area. There are minibuses that go from the town to the trails and valleys in the Tatras, as well as a range of accommodations and restaurants.
Zakopane is the most crowded during holiday periods and winter weekends. If you want to avoid the crowds, there are also lodging options in the surrounding villages. On the Slovakian side, Stary Smokovec is the place from which to base your adventure and also has hotels and campsites available. To get there, you can take the train via Poprad from Bratislava.
When To Go
The time of year you decide to go to the Tatras depends on what activities you want to do there. From December to May is ski season and from May to September is the time to go hiking or just relax around the lakes.
Most important for hiking is a pair of high-topped hiking boots. Most injuries that occur in the Tatras are reportedly a result of inadequate footwear. Protecting yourself against the cold is also a concern in the colder months so a hat, coat, and enough liquid and food are essential. In summer, you should also have a windbreaker or raincoat with you.
Things to See and Do
There is a wide range of hikes in the Tatras, for everyone from families to the expert trekker. The trails are generally well marked and often have metal bars, ladders and chains in areas that may be a bit more difficult to navigate. This allows even those who are not experienced hikers to enjoy many of the trails with scenic views. There is also a cable car that runs from Kuznice, which is two miles south of Zakopane, to the summit of Mt. Kaspowy Wierch for a spectacular view in the winter or summer. If you take the cable car up during the summer, you can explore the area at the top for most of the day which includes a lot of the great mountain ridges as well as the beautiful Orla Perc (Eagle’s Path). Be warned though, that the summer months bring a hot sun and long lines for the cable car.
For those who want a relaxing, easy hike surrounded by scenic views and wildlife, try exploring the Chocholowska and Koscieliska Valleys or the Dolina Strazyska and the Regle dales. If hiking in the Dolina Strazyska, there is the waterfall Siklawa which rushes down rocks from the direction of the Giewont Peak, which can be used as a destination point. The Morskie Oko (Sea Eye) lake and the Czarny Staw Lake are also great areas for hiking, climbing and gorgeous views. If you want a greater challenge, you can tackle the Rysy Peak, the highest peak in Poland for a view of hundreds of peaks and twelve major lakes. This is a more serious climb and hikers should pay attention to equipment and weather conditions. The trek can be done in one day or you can stay at a mountain hut on the way. If you want to attempt the highest peak in the Tatras, which is in Slovakia, you have to be with a guide or be an “organized climber,” which entails going to the mountain guides in Slovakia and registering as someone who is part of a mountaineering club and has experience. You also must have the correct gear.
In the winter, there are four major ski operations in the Zakopane area that have an extended ski season which runs into early May. Mt. Kasprowy Wierch is the most famous ski area in Poland while Antalowka and Gubalowka are good for beginners. Mt. Nosal has a well known slalom slope for advanced skiers and there is a natural ski jump at Wielka Krokiew which has smaller jumps off to the side. Cross country skiing is also available and is usually done on the Droga pod Reglami trail or on the slopes of the Gubalowka and Cyrhla hills.
If you want to do something active other than hiking, there are caves to explore in the Koscieliska Valley and paragliding and biking are also available in the region. Zakopane, besides being a source of accommodation, is also a Gorale cultural center.
This area is well known in Poland for the Polish highlander’s unique culture which is seen in their traditional clothing, music, wood carvings, and ornately carved wooden houses. If wandering around town or taking a break from the cold, stop in a local haunt to sample some oscypek(cheese made from sheep’s milk) and Goral tea (tea with spirits). In the winter, you can take sleigh rides on top of the mountain ridges.
It is important to note that although you can physically cross from Poland into Slovakia through the mountains, it is officially illegal and you could cause yourself a lot of immigration problems if you are not a European Union citizen. Also, the national parks in both countries are very strict about their many rules, and only organized climbers on either side are allowed to go off the marked trails.
Information on accommodation and activities in the Tatras as well as more information on the wildlife in the area
Vysoke Tatry National Park
For extensive information on the Slovakia side of the Tatras
By Bethany Sousa