A scenic range of the Carpathian Mountains, Poland’s High Tatras offer a wealth of pristine summer hiking trails within Tatra National Park, a gorgeous UNESCO-protected preserve just a couple hours south of the city of Krakow. We traveled by bus to Zakopane, the small village that serves as a gateway to the national park, anxious to spend a few days hiking in the picturesque highlands. One summit hike that particularly caught our eye was Swinica, a 7,549-foot (2,301-meter) massif of the Eastern Tatras. Having hiked Giewont the previous day, we were interested in a slightly longer and more challenging route for our second day in the park. Thus, we settled on a hike up Swinica via the neighboring high pass of Zawrat. The trailhead (like many others) was over in Kuznice, which was about a 6-mile (10-km) bike ride from our lodge in Koscielisko. While we were thrilled that it was one, big downhill ‘whoosh’ for the first three miles (5 km) to Zakopane, we were quickly dismayed as the second half of the trip was entirely uphill to Kuznice. Annoyingly, a marginally-operative derailleur left my 21-speed with about 3 functional gears, and I was a tad sweaty and cranky by the time we reached the trailhead (I’m really no prize at 6 a.m. as it is, let alone with a malfunctioning bicycle on an uphill climb).
When we finally hit the trail around 6:45 a.m., we were met with an immediate ascent through a thick, pine forest. After only a couple of miles under the dark canopy, we emerged at Skupinow Uplaz, a scenic ridge that rose and twisted between two immense valleys. On either side of us, the exposed spine was flanked by the glowing green vegetation of Dolina Olczyska and Dolina Kasprowa. Eventually, the ridge sloped downward, leading us through some lush foliage and out into picturesque Dolina Gasienicowa (‘Valley Track’). In front of us, verdant evergreen forests ambled to the foothills of jagged, sunlit peaks, which soared majestically into the clear, blue sky. Magenta wildflowers peppered the monochromatic countryside, rustling and swaying softly in the cool, morning breeze. The scenery was breathtaking, and only improved as we made our way through the valley to Czarny Staw Gasienicowy (‘Black Caterpillar Pond’), a shimmering teal lake with crystal-clear waters and steep cliffs dropping sharply to its shoreline.
The trail continued along the perimeter of the tarn’s northern and eastern shores before rising abruptly over a rocky ridge. Looking back down, the lake had now taken on a deep, sapphire hue. Once we crested the ridge, and lost sight of the intense water, we made our way through Zawratowy Zleb, a steep couloir (gulley) that boasted another jewel-toned, montane lake. From here we looked up at the trail, rising incredibly steeply toward the top of Zawrat. The entire last portion of trail was fitted with fixed chains, and occasionally metal steps, which were necessary for hauling yourself up a number of the steepest sections. Our GPS data suggests that through this section we gained about 1,500 feet (460 meters) of elevation over roughly 0.6 miles (1 km) – about a 46% grade. For me, one section of chains in particular was so steep and awkwardly placed (making a short free climb the seemingly better option), that I began to psych myself out and questioned whether I could actually make it to the top. Ultimately, though, I found the nerve to keep going, and we reached Zawrat’s 7,080’ (2,158 m) crest shortly thereafter. The reward was definitely worth the effort, with sweeping panoramas and warm sunshine enveloping us. To one side of Zawrat, we peered back down at the precipitous and vertigo-inducing slope to Zawratowy Zleb and, now just a speck in the distance from here, Czarny Staw Gasienicowy. On the other side of Zawrat Pass, we were treated to our first look at the stunning ‘Valley of the Five Polish Lakes,’ with a birds-eye view of Zadni Staw.
From the high pass of Zawrat, we walked just a short distance west along the ridge toward Swinica, stopping about every two feet to snap photos and admire the staggering view of Zadni Staw Polski, the uppermost of the five Polish lakes, and its surrounding summits. When we reached the last short climb up to Swinica’s summit (only about 500 feet (150 m) higher than Zawrat), we were greeted by more fixed chains and steps anchored to steep rock faces, though seemingly more tame than that one special section on Zawrat. With less difficulty here, we pulled ourselves to the top of the 7,549’ (2,301 m) Swinica. Again, the views from atop the rugged crest were just incredible, showcasing the unbelievable beauty of the vast Ticha Dolina (‘Silent Valley’), the serrated peaks of the Slovakian Tatras, and the western expanse of Dolina Gasienicowa.
From the top, it was an exceedingly steep climb down the other side of Swinica’s craggy slopes to the saddle, again with a significant stretch of chains descending the summit. We stopped to admire some more views at the saddle, before concluding the hike with a return through scenic Dolina Gasienicowa, though this time by first crossing the more western swath of the valley, dotted with the small, azure pools of the Gasienicowe Ponds – Dlugi Staw (Long Tarn), Kurtkowiec Lake, and Zielony Staw (Green Tarn). Finally, after retracing our steps along the Skupinow Uplaz ridge, we arrived back at our bicycles nearly nine hours later. While our calves were somewhat burning from the long, vertical descent, and we weren’t particularly looking forward to the ride back to town, the hike was definitely well worth it. In fact, I think we’d both rank it near the top of the list for best day hikes we’ve ever done… just spectacular.
Total distance: 11.8 miles
Elevation gain: 4,547 feet
Thoughts on hiking in the Tatras:
- While the trails were not unbearably crowded, Zakopane township was. Although all of summer is likely pretty packed, some of the hoards can be avoided by visiting in the shoulder months of June and September, rather than the peak of July and August. Additionally, if you can get on the trails before 7 a.m. (within about an hour of sunrise), you’ll find much more peace and solitude.
- Reasonable topo maps are available at the tourist booths in the center of town, and only cost about 9 zloty ($2.50 USD) each. While the trails are well-marked, we thought it was an essential resource to have.
- With that… the trails are, in fact, really well-marked (and also really well-maintained). The various trails are colored in red, blue, yellow, and black (no correlation with difficulty level), and signposts with time estimates and geographical markers stand at all trail intersections.
- The trail network in the Polish Tatras is pretty fantastic. While we hiked only about 10% of the total length of the park’s tracks, we really enjoyed that basically any hike could be turned into some sort of loop. Personally, I’m not a big fan of out-and-back trails – I’d much rather have the opportunity to see something new on the return, even if it turns out to be less exciting.