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Under two hours by car from the historic city of Krakow, visitors to Poland will find the rugged peaks of the High Tatra mountains. They rise against the southern plains of the country in a sudden bulwark of chiselled granite, soaring to snow-topped pinnacles. It’s these great massifs that have made skiing in Poland such a popular activity during the winter. But when the warmer months come around and the meadows bloom with alpine flowers, it’s the hiking trails that take centre stage.
Mark the town of Zakopane on the map. Hailed as the winter capital of Poland, this small city between the valleys of the Tatras is the base point for most all of the best hikes in the region. It’s easy to get to. Regular buses and trains depart from Krakow’s main station every 15 minutes, taking two hours by road and just over three by rail. Beware of major holiday periods and weekends in the high summer. Hiking in the Tatras is one of the most popular summertime activities for Polish folk in the south, and the traffic can get pretty hefty during the peak season.
Perhaps the single best thing about the Tatra Mountains is just how accessible they are. Compared to the more technical summits and treks of Slovakia’s Carpathians just over the border, this stretch of peaks has plenty for every type of walker.
Of course, getting the right equipment is essential. This will naturally depend on the sort of walk you want to do. In the summer, most of the trails can be conquered with just a sturdy set of boots and a walking stick. However, there are some more challenging sections that, if you chose to head their way, might just require harnesses and ropes. For the late summer, winter and early spring, it’s wise to consider taking crampons for the high-altitude trails. In short, just be sure to check ahead and see what gear you’re likely to need for the routes you’re looking at doing.
There are countless trekking trails crisscrossing through the Polish Tatra Mountains, far too many to address in one single article. Before setting out on an adventure in the Slavic hills, it would be wise to get a local trail map. This will have all the marked routes across the mountains on it, and provide helpful timing estimations for each.
For beginner walkers, a popular choice is the easy route to the beautiful lake of Morskie Oko. This veritable wonder of Zakopane can be reached on a really well maintained tarmac path that goes from the base station of Palenica Białczańska to the alpine waters above. Some travelers will even ride local horse and carts some of the way. In all, the trek takes six hours, and it’s recommended to start as early as possible because the route gets busy during the summer.
A slightly more challenging walk is the one that goes deep into the forest of Dolina Strazyska. In the shadow of one of Zakopane’s most iconic peaks, the Giewont, this trek weaves past babbling rivers and occasionally opens out onto hidden little plateaus beneath the high Tatras. One section of the walk is even accessible in winter, when the winding ascent is powdered with snow. You’ll also get the opportunity to diverge off to summit the mighty peak of Giewont itself (only open in summer), but be prepared for some scrambling and chain sections if you do that!
One of the harder treks in the Polish Tatras goes through the impossibly beautiful fir dressed valleys south out of Kuznice village. Walkers begin their trek at the base station of the great Kasprowy cable car and stroll past alpine farmer huts. Then it’s up the hairpin paths and to the col of Kasprowy itself. Finally, you’ll come out into the gorgeous Valley of Five Lakes (you can guess what’s there!) and face the steep scramble to the top summit of Kasprowy. It’s then possible to add on sections along the narrow ridge that defines the Polish border with Slovakia. Just be sure to leave yourself enough time if you want to do that!