A hiker’s guide to the Tatra Mountains

The Tatra Mountains may not be as famous as the Swiss Alps or the Italian Dolomites, but they are among the best mountain ranges in Europe.

Much of the Tatra Mountains rises over 2,000m above sea level, offering experienced hikers with a multitude of challenging, diverse trails serving up incredible views – and it won’t break the bank getting to or staying in the region.

The Tatra Mountains straddle the border between Poland and Slovakia and can be approached from either country with dozens of hiking trails to choose from in the summer months. You could be roaming the trails for a month and still not do it all!

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When to go

The best time to hike in the Tatra Mountains is during the European summer months. Outside of summer, you are likely to encounter snow on high altitude peaks requiring specialist gear such as crampons. The summer months offer long hours of daylight, handy for hikes spanning more than 10 hours, and the most stable weather – although thunderstorms are possible so be prepared and keep an eye on the weather. While the summer months are busy, you’ll see the crowds thin out the higher you go and the earlier in the day you start.

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Where to stay

If you love hiking, you will probably want to spend some time on both sides of the Tatra Mountains. Slovakia is home to more than 75% of the Tatra Mountains, so you are likely to spend more time on the Slovak side than the Polish side. I hiked for three days on the Polish side, and four days on the Slovak side.

If you’re wanting to hike on the Polish side, base yourself in Zakopane – but don’t expect to be alone in the town or on the trails. The tourist town is teeming with people during the summer months – but don’t worry, there’s plenty of guesthouses to choose from at very affordable prices, as well as a couple of hostels.

In Slovakia, you have a few more options to base yourself. You can stay in Zdiar, a sleepy but beautiful town that’s home to one of my favourite hostels (The Ginger Monkey) – or stay in the High Tatras town of Stary Smokovec, where many of the hiking trails from the Slovakian side begin. You can also stay in nearby Tatranska Lomnica or Strebske Pleso, where a number of trails also start from.

If you would prefer to come back to a city each night, you can also stay in Poprad.

What to know

The majority of the hikes listed below are suited to experienced hikers only. People have died while hiking in the Tatra Mountains so it’s important you are suitably experienced and have the right gear such as proper hiking boots and warm clothing. Even in summer you can experience below zero temperatures on som summits in the Tatra Mountains.

All the hikes below are full day hikes, and you should expect to be hiking between 6-12 hours. Trails are rugged and rocky, and many involve rock scrambling supported by chains. Many sections of trails are also very exposed and narrow with steep drop-offs.

The majority of mountain summits or passes in the Tatra Mountains are located above 2,400m, and many hikes involve an elevation gain of between 1,000m to 1,500m.

Entry to the national park on the Polish sides costs 5 PLN (€1) per day, cash only. Entry on the Slovak side is free.

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What to bring

My equipment list below is only for hiking in the summer months.

Hiking shoes are highly recommended for all hikes, and hiking poles will aid ascent and descents on the steep and rocky slopes.

Make sure you bring plenty of snacks, a minimum of 2-3 litres of water (there are minimal water sources on all routes, sometimes none), a hat and sunscreen.

The weather can change quickly in the mountains, and cloud cover is possible on the high altitude summits so a rain/wind jacket is also recommended.

You may also want to bring gloves to tackle the chains on some of the routes listed below.

I recommend obtaining a map of the Tatra Mountains before you start heading out on the trails. Look for maps showing the colour of the trail markers, and also the timings for each section. Maps are readily available in many souvenir shops and book stores in Zakopane.

The Maps.me mobile app will also come in very handy. Make sure you bring a fully charged phone and a battery pack.

Also check the weather forecast before you go. If rain is forecast, consider postponing your hike. All of the hikes listed below will be slippery and very dangerous in the wet.

Below I’ve listed my pick of the hikes in the Tatra Mountains. It’s not even close to an exhaustive list, but it provides you with a good starting point for a week in the mountains.

Day hikes – Poland

Giewont

Duration: 5-6 hours

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For many visitors to Zakopane, 1,895m Giewont is the only peak they will hike up. It’s not as high as some of the other peaks in the area and it’s accessible from Zakopane itself. But this makes the trail extremely busy so be sure to get an early start to beat the crowds.

The trail is well marked and starts on a dirt trail before getting more rocky as you wind your way up the peak. The last section is supported by chains to help you up the very smooth and slippery rocks. Don’t attempt this one when it’s wet.

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Starting Point: Trailheads are located in several locations off Krzeptowki Street on the western end of Zakopane. You can see the trails on Maps.me

You can do this one as a loop track or return the way you came. If doing the loop track, follow the signs back to Kuznice from the saddle below the peak. You will finish in the carpark for the cable car and it’s possible to take a bus back to Zakopane, or take the easy one hour walk back to Zakopane.

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Lake Morskie Oko and Rysy

Duration: 10-12 hours

Rysy is the highest peak in Poland standing at 2,499m high. It straddles the border between Poland and Slovakia, and can be approached from both the Polish or Slovak side.

The Polish side is considered to be the harder, but more beautiful approach, but it is also very long.

Rysy should only be undertaken by experienced hikers. Many people have died on this mountain.

This very challenging hike starts from the carpark of Lake Morskie Oko and I recommend starting no later than 8.30am. The start of the hike involves a long 8km hike to the lake along a road, however cars are not allowed so you either go on foot or pay to go on a horse drawn cart. We walked, and it took just under two hours.

Once at Morskie Oko, take the path along the left side of the lake, and then follow the signs to the next lake Czarny Staw pod Rysami, which involves a short but steep uphill section.

Head around the left side of the second lake and then it’s the really hard uphill slog from here for 3-4 hours to reach the summit of Rysy. There’s great views on the uphill so there’s plenty of places to take a rest and enjoy the scenery.

It does get very exhausting during the stretch up to the summit of Rysy, as you negotiate the slippery gravel trail, snow patches, and a long rock scrambling section aided by chains. This section is very steep and exposed, and you must be comfortable with rock scrambling and heights.

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Once on the summit, return the way you came as going back down the Slovak side will pop you out at Strebske Pleso. The route back from here involves a very slow train, and then a bus from Stary Smokovec, however buses are infrequent after 7pm. If you want to tackle the Slovak side, it’s better to start from that side as buses are more frequent back to Zakopane from the Morskie Oko carpark.

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Starting Point: Palenica Bialczanska (Carpark for Lake Morskie Oko). Buses leave regularly from the Zakopane Bus Station to the carpark and the journey takes about 30 minutes. The bus costs 10 PLN one way. Buses run frequently until sunset from the carpark for the return journey back to Zakopane.

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Zawrat

Duration: 6-8 hours

The hike to the 2,159m Zawrat peak is only for experienced hikers due to very steep, exposed sections aided by chains.

The trail begins at Kuznice, and the first 90 minutes of the hike is on a gradual uphill trail first through forest, then an exposed dirt path.

You will reach a hut, and then continue another 30 minutes to Lake Czarny Staw Gasienicowy. Stop here for a break and enjoy the views, maybe even take a dip in the lake.

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From the lake, head around it’s left side and then start heading uphill along a rocky path. Pay attention to the trail markers and follow the signs to Zawrat, which will gradually lead you up the right side of the peak.

After about 30 minutes uphill, you will reach a series of chains to aid the rock scramble up to a viewpoint. You can then return the way you came, or if you’re comfortable with heights, continue along the ridgeline for about 90 minutes until you go down a very exposed ladder and reach another trail leading back down.

This ridgeline is lined with chains and ladders and is extremely narrow in some sections. Extreme care is needed, and its strictly only for very experienced hikers, but the views are incredible.

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If you take the latter route, you will link up with the trail you came up after about a 45 minute descent. Return the way you came back to Kuznice.

Starting Point: The hike to Zawrat starts from Kuznice. Buses depart Zakopane regularly from the bus stop on the other side of the roundabout from the bus station, where the city buses depart from. It’s right outside a kebab shop. The trip takes about 15 minutes. From Kuznice, follow the signs to Gasienicowa, then to Czarny Staw Gasienicowy. From the lake, you head around the left side and then follow the path to the right leading to Zawrat.

Day hikes – Slovakia

Big & Small Cold Valley

Duration: 10-12 hours

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The Cold Valley is made up of two valleys – a big one and a small one. The hike traversing both these valleys is a beautiful, but long and exhausting day so make sure you have an early start.

The hike starts from Stary Smokovec, but you can shorten the hike by taking the funicular to and from Hriebeniok. Cost is €11 return and the funicular runs frequently throughout the day. I highly recommend this option as it saves you an hour each way and I guarantee you will be exhausted at the end of the hike.

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The trailhead for this hike from Hriebiniok is shared with many other hikes and it is likely to be congested at the start as you head into the valley, past a series of waterfalls.

First you need to follow the green trail to Teryho Chata hut. The trail starts off with a steady uphill for about 90 minutes, and is pretty easygoing up to the first hut, Zamkovskeho. The trail gets much steeper as you start the approach to Teryho Chata. Take a break at this chata and enjoy the views of the surrounding mountains and the lakes.

From here, you’re going uphill again, then it flattens out briefly, before a couple of snow patches and a rock scramble aided by chains to cross from the Small Valley into the Big Valley. If you’re scared of heights, this is not the hike for you.

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Make sure you stick to the chained area, as going off track may cause loose rocks to fall on hikers below.

The highest point you’ll reach on this pass is 2,352 metres.

From the pass, you head downhill slowly on a scree slope, before a slow descent over a very rocky path to Zboinicka chata.

This chata is another great spot for a rest (you will need it) before another two hours on a rocky trail back to Hriebienok.

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Starting Point: The trail start and ends at Stary Smokovec following the green trail up and blue trail down from the Zbojnicka chata back to Hriebienok. You can shorten the hike by taking the funicular to and from Hriebinok.

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Bystra Lavka

Duration: 6-8 hours

The Bystra Lavka trail is a beautiful, diverse hike serving up a waterfall, deep blue lakes, a mountain pass and gorgeous views of the Tatra Mountains from 2,314m up.

The hike starts from the town of Strebske Pleso on the yellow trail. First you head up through beautiful forest, and then you enter a valley. Head to the waterfall and scramble up the left side of it and then you’ll be treated to picturesque lake views. Continue past the lakes, and then it’s a steep hike up to get a view of the lakes.

You’ll climb up to a saddle via a short section of chained rock to cross from one valley into another. From the top you get amazing 360 degree views including across to the Polish side of the Tatra Mountains. It’s a slow, slippery descent from the saddle due to a gravel path, then you move onto a rocky trail, before heading onto a narrow dirt trail.

Follow the signs back to Strebske Pleso and you’ll pass the town’s lake on the way back into town – which offers up more amazing views of the mountains.

Starting Point: You’ll need an early start to do Bystra Lavka as it takes some time to get to. The trail starts at Strebske Pleso, which is one of the last stations on the High Tatras train line. The train is very slow. The train starts in Poprad, and passes a number of stations, including Stary Smokovec and Tatranska Lomnica.

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Slavkovsky Stit

Duration: 6-8 hours

The hike up to the top of the 2,452m Slavkovsky Stit is not as technical as some of the other peaks in the area, but it is steep.

The hike starts from Stary Smokovec up a dirt path, before entering into a short stretch of forest. After you exit the forest and a fabulous viewpoint, it starts to get steep as you wind up the mountain.

The final stretch is the most difficult up a very steep but gravelly path, and care is needed.

The views from the top make it worth it as you look out onto the surrounding mountains and down to Stary Smokovec.

Starting Point: The trailhead starts from Stary Smokovec on the blue trail. Return the way you came.

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Green Lake

Duration: 4-8 hours depending on your route

The hike to the Green Lake (Zelene Pleso) is one of the easier hikes in the Tatra Mountains and can also be done in winter.

The hike is up a rocky path that winds gradually uphill, with the latter path leading you adjacent to the river, and takes you to the Chata pri Zelenom plese opposite the Green Lake.

The return hike takes 4-5 hours.

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A harder alternative to this hike starts from Zdiar, and takes you across ‘The Saddle’.

From Zdiar, you walk uphill for about three hours to reach the saddle, and over to the highest point of the hike, 1826m Siroke Sedlo. Here you’ll get spectacular views of the Tatra Mountains. Continue another 40 minutes and you’ll reach Kopske sedlo, before heading into a meadow, a lake and along a rocky path to the chata.

From the chata, you take the yellow trail to the Biela Voda carpark.

The longer trail will take about 6-8 hours.

Starting Point: If you want to only do the hike to the Green Lake and back, start and finish at the Biela Voda carpark. All buses going to Poprad or Zdiar/Zakopane pass this carpark.

To do the longer hike via The Saddle, start from the abandoned hotel near the Zdiar – Tatry bus stop in Zdiar.

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