Small in area but grand in stature, the Tatra mountains of Poland and Slovakia boast superb alpine walking in a national park where nature conservation is taken seriously
By Andrew McCloy
The stern public notice beside the path was in Polish and indecipherable, but the picture above of a very large brown bear told us all we needed to know. This was a walk into somewhere exciting but unknown, where the top predator is considerably bigger than your average rambler.
Exploring the Tatra mountains of southern Poland and Slovakia presents many new experiences, not least working out where they are in the first place. Located at the northern end of the Carpathian chain which arcs across central and eastern Europe, this compact and shapely range is only around 80km long and often as little as 10km wide. But don't let the fact that they're less than half the size of the Lake District and sport seemingly familiar jagged rocky peaks and deep glaciated valleys fool you. With nearly 100 summits over 2,000m there's an alpine ring to the Tatras, no more so than in the upland core known as the High Tatras where the jagged 2,655m of Gerlach marks the highest point in Europe north of the Alps. They're flanked either side by the soaring grassy ridges of the Western Tatras and the rocky limestone tops of the so-called White Tatras.
So where do you begin? Like most first-time visitors, our walking group was based in Zakopane, a former mountain village turned all-year-round resort that has long been a magnet for summer hillwalking and winter sports in Poland. Less than two hours' drive from Krakow, it provided easy access to the national park gateway at Kuznice for our first walk.
Virtually the whole mountain range is covered by the Tatras National Park, founded 60 years ago and straddling both Poland and Slovakia, where it's administered separately. To our mild surprise we found that to enter Tatrzanski Park Narodowy for the day we had to pay 5 zloty (about one pound) per person; and rules require visitors to stay on marked paths and take all litter home, not to bring dogs into the national park or swim in rivers or lakes, and to refrain from making loud noises that might disturb wild animals. On the higher ground these include marmot, lynx and eagles, as well as the 60 or so bears that roam the park. They generally feed on berries, seeds and grasses and keep away from humans, but since adult males can weigh in at over 300kg the sign before us was a reminder to stay alert.
A series of deep wooded valleys penetrate the Tatras' northern edge and we climbed steadily and steeply on hard and stony paths through dense conifers, where the scent of pine and larch filled the air. Although we had a knowledgeable leader and walkers' maps are readily available, the 600km network of colour-coded walking trails that criss-cross the Tatras are relatively easy to follow, with regular waymarks and signs at most path junctions showing destinations and timings.
As we rose higher the dense spruce was replaced with dwarf pine, carpeting the hillside to quite high levels, until bare rock and scree took over. The huge craggy peaks of the High Tatras rose before us in a series of rough granite spires, but our goal on the first day was the large glacial tarn of Czarny Slaw that glittered a dazzling blue-green at the feet of the cliffs and proved the perfect place for a picnic lunch.
Peaks and ridges
The paths that explore the High Tatras include plenty of strenuous high level routes that involve some scrambling and a good head for heights – this is proper mountain walking. You need to be well equipped and know what you're doing; but even on the slightly lower and more accessible peaks (which tended to be our goals) there was a palpable sense of adventure. We scaled one of the best known, called Giewont (1,894m), on the second day. This distinctive rocky pinnacle overlooking Zakopane is topped by a large metal cross and is a highly symbolic mountain for Poles (a large 'Solidarity' flag was once flown from the top by anti-Communist protesters). It's also a place of pilgrimage, so don't be surprised to encounter nuns in full habit leading school parties! Such is its popularity that there's a one-way system at the top and national park rangers limit numbers in peak periods, as sheer drops surround the small summit area; but it's definitely worth the effort, not just for the spectacular views but also for the exciting ascent involving the use of fixed steel chains as aids on the steeper sections.
However, what became clear as the week unfolded is that you don't need to grapple with the really high stuff to enjoy the Tatras. Indeed, some of the finest walking turned out to be along the broad, switchback ridges that link a succession of rounded summits and where the straightforward, well-walked paths follow low stone posts marking the border between Poland and Slovakia. In the far Western Tatras, where we bagged tops called Razon and Wolowiec, the views back into the heart of the range were stunning; while further east the undoubted highlight is the elevated and undulating ridge path that crests the airy border from the cable car station at Kasprowy Wierch, via other summits with equally unpronounceable names.
A walk on the quiet side
Since the Poles flock to the Tatras in large numbers during the summer holidays and some paths can get very busy, we opted for a quieter day out on the Slovakian side, about an hour's coach ride from Zakopane. Our walk began amid some young and open forest still recovering following the hurricane winds of November 2004 (the 'Tatranska Bora') that in one day wiped out over half of the tree cover in Slovakia's Tatra National Park. After an hour's peaceful walking we reached the picture postcard scene of a huge natural amphitheatre of mountains fringing a pristine and sparkling lake called Zelene Pleso (the 'Green Tarn'). Beside it perched an inviting mountain hut or chalet, one of many well-equipped traditional buildings dotted around the Tatras that offer refreshments and beds for visiting walkers and climbers. We sat outside with coffees and huge slices of calorie-busting tray bakes and soaked up the grand surroundings.
After a long plod up to the 1,750m pass of Kopske Sedlo we descended a lush valley simply bursting with mountain flowers. Gentians, kidney vetch, round-headed rampion and orchids carpeted the hillside, but we heeded the national park's request not to pick any – ‘touch nature by your heart only’ is their well-crafted advice.
Like other trails through the Tatras, this path is off limits between November and June each year for conservation reasons, and although winter walking and skiing is allowed elsewhere access is carefully controlled. At the start of the week we thought rules like staying on the path were over proscriptive, but by the end we realised that protecting this sensitive habitat (a UNESCO-designated Biosphere reserve) benefits everyone.
On the final day, high above the Chocholowska valley, our local guide pointed out a small group of chamois grazing on a steep grassy slope just 100m away. These attractive, curly-horned mountain goats, which are the symbol of the Tatra National Park, stick to the high ground and remain uncommon. ‘However, because we stay on the paths,’ explained Maciej, ‘the chamois know where we are and where to expect us; and because of this we can get quite close to these lovely animals and it makes our Tatra walking experience richer. Perhaps not the bears, though.’
In the end we didn't see a bear, although plenty of walkers do, but despite this the Tatras laid on a feast of superb mountain walking for us and proved that, even in a delicate upland habitat, responsible rambling and nature conservation can go hand in hand.
TIME/DISTANCE: Ride the cable car from Kuznice, on the edge of Zakopane, up to Kasprowy Wierch (pre-book to avoid the queues) and so begin your walk with 1,940m already under your belt. From here a broad and well-walked ridge path stretches westwards along the Polish/Slovakian border for 9km via the 2,000m tops of Kopa Kondracka and Krezesanica to Ciemniak. It's easy to follow, mostly stony and firm underfoot, and the panoramic views down into each country are spectacular. Return the same way (5-6 hours total), refreshments at the cable car top station cafe.
TRAVEL: Andrew travelled with HF Holidays (hfholidays.co.uk) on its Polish Tatras Mountains tour: Guided Walking at Zakopane, 7 nights from £749 per person. A new High Routes at Zakopane tour has been introduced for 2017 that tackles the more challenging High Tatra paths.
FURTHER INFO: For details of the Tatras National Park go to tanap.org/english and tpn.pl. The only English-language walking guidebook is The High Tatras by Colin Saunders & Renata Narozna (Cicerone).