Nestled at the foothills of the imposing Tatra Mountains, the largest range of the Carpathians, sits the small alpine village of Zakopane. Just a couple hours south of Krakow, the ‘winter capital of Poland’ is a popular holiday destination for locals, boasting prime skiing in the winter months, and offering over 270 km of hiking and climbing trails in the summer. We learned about the locale from yet another friendly traveler we met along our journey – Linda, an outdoor enthusiast from Norway who was on our Gubeikou to Jinshanling hike along China’s Great Wall. As she zealously recounted her beautiful hikes in the Tatras, we eagerly added it to our mental list for Poland. As excited as we were to city hop through Europe, we both seem to find our greatest joy out in the middle of nature, and we were thrilled to be able to add some more national park time to our ever-expanding itinerary.
Aside from a bit of traffic along the small, rural roads to Zakopane, our bus ride was pretty quick and enjoyable. Once outside of Krakow, the landscape transformed into what I had always pictured as the quintessential Polish countryside. Quaint, wooden houses with steeply-sloping gables, stone chimneys, rustic balusters, and window boxes exploding with vibrant petunias and geraniums speckled the rolling, green hillside. When we pulled into Zakopane, we were greeted by an almost too-adorable little village, albeit swarming with visitors. Because the trail system is only open in its entirety from essentially June to September (it’s not atypical for patches of snow and ice to persist year-round), July and August tend to see heaps of local summer vacationers. We were immediately grateful that our ski lodge retreat was about five kilometers from town, in the significantly less-crowded and even smaller hamlet of Koscielisko.
We were even more grateful when we swung open the door to our suite, only to find one of the nicest apartments we’d seen the entire trip. The lodge was almost new – having opened not even a year ago – and was beautifully appointed, with a small kitchen, what could be the most comfortable sectional in the world, and a magnificent view of the mountainside. Large glass doors opened onto a balcony offering a sweeping view of Giewont, one of Poland’s most sacred peaks. The craggy crest bears the profile of a reclining man and, according to legend, the sleeping knight is a quiescent protector of the land, who will one day awaken from his slumber when the nation is in dire straits. And just so no one thinks we’ve been knockin’ off liquor stores along our trail to afford some swanky housing, I should mention that this lovely flat cost a mere $45/night. Perfection? I think so.
To access the trailheads (and anything else we may need back in town), we decided to rent a couple of bicycles for our stay. While a shuttle bus runs from Zakopane to a handful of trailheads in neighboring Kuznice for only a few zloty (about $1 USD one-way), we wanted the full flexibility that the cycles offered (access to any trailhead at any time). Additionally, because most of the trailheads were within a mere 10-kilometer (6-mile) radius of our apartment, we were convinced that the two-wheeled transport was indeed the best option.
One of the summit hikes that Linda had recommended to us was Giewont, the slumbering knight who lay in silhouette just outside our window. Giewont’s ridge is actually comprised of three distinct crests – Small (Maly), Great (Wielki, the highest), and Long (Dlugi) – with the summit trail leading to a steel cross atop Great Giewont. Because Giewont is an important national symbol, and one of the more classic (i.e. popular) hikes in the Tatras, we got an early start to try to avoid the high-season crowds. After a quick, 1.5-mile bike ride through the crisp morning air, we arrived at an all but deserted trailhead around 6:30 a.m. Starting out on the north side of the peak, the well-marked track snaked through Dolina Malej Laki (‘Small Meadow Valley’). As the trail transitioned from thick forest to open meadow, we were welcomed with our first glimpse of the soaring summits. The rugged, limestone and dolomite ridges were blanketed with dazzling evergreens, aglow in the early morning sunlight. As we climbed gradually toward Giewont’s summit, the trail twisted through the dark shadows of the towering mountainsides, regularly giving way to views of the brightly-illuminated valleys.
After reaching the saddle, all that remained was a short, slightly-steeper ascent to the top. While the first part of the trek was nearly devoid of people, the convergence of several trails atop this ridge yielded a surprising surge in the number of hikers, most likely coming from the more popular (and accessible) route originating in Kuznice. We made our way toward the top, which was only a brief clamber up a few hundred meters of rock to the summit at 6,214’ (1,894 meters). Although we shared the summit with a reasonable number of other climbers at this point, there was still plenty of room to relax beneath the 15-meter steel cross and enjoy a quick snack while taking in the extensive views. The towns of Zakopane and Koscielisko lay before us along Giewont’s northern face, while, to the south, the undulating peaks and verdant valleys that formed the border with Slovakia stretched as far as the eye could see.
I checked my watch and was somewhat shocked to find that we’d made it to the top in a mere two hours. Having anticipated a full day of hiking (oops), we pulled out our topo map to figure out a way to extend the trip. We could see a trail leading up a lush ridge to the south, which looked particularly inviting, and we ultimately chose this route to continue the hike. The exposed pass, Wielkie Szerokie, ascended the neighboring peak, Kopa Kondracka, that straddled the Poland/Slovakia border. After a moderate grade and a distance of only about 2 km (1.3 miles), we reached Kopa Kondracka’s less-crowded summit at 6,575 feet (2,004 m). As we gazed back upon the iconic cross atop Giewont, a chilly breeze and patches of low-hanging clouds starting to roll in, intermittently obscuring our impressive view.
We ultimately opted to head back down a slightly different route, for a change of scenery. After descending back down the ridge and crossing the saddle towards Giewont, we followed a track just a bit further east, winding along the montane hill of Grzybowiec before finally rejoining part of our original track through Dolina Malej Laki.
Total distance: 9.4 miles
Elevation gain: 3,990 feet
ZAWRAT & SWINICA
While we enjoyed our Giewont trek, we were really interested in a slightly longer and more challenging route for our second day in the park. Thus, we settled on a hike up Swinica. The trailhead (like many others) was over in Kuznice, which was about a 6-mile (10-km) bike ride from our lodge, so we additionally were able to tack on about three times the cycling miles as the previous day. We were thrilled that it was one, big downhill ‘woosh’ for the first three miles (5 km) to Zakopane, but 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., about the same start time as the previous day, 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 summit 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) summit 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, we were treated to our first look at the stunning ‘Valley of the Five Polish Lakes.’
From Zawrat’s summit, 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 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 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 crossing the more western swath of the valley, dotted with small, azure pools. 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
Unfortunately, our third full day in the High Tatras ended up being a total washout, with the mountains socked in by dense fog and clouds, and a steady rain persisting throughout the daylight hours. However, since it was really only our third real rainout of the entire trip (seriously… in seven months!), we figured we couldn’t really kick at that. And as some wise vocalist once suggested, ‘two out of three ain’t bad.’ I agree, Meatloaf… I agree.
If anyone ever finds themselves in Krakow, I think we’d both whole-heartedly recommend some hiking in Tatra National Park – the gorgeous mountain scenery and extensive, impeccable trail networks are absolutely well worth the trip.
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 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.