Hiking the Tatra Mountains, Poland – This year it was one of the coldest, snowiest and most whimsical May’s in decades. The trails in the Tatra mountains were still largely covered in a thick layer of snow, and there was a risk of avalanches at the higher elevations. I went to the Tatras for a spring hike, but instead I got something better: a true winter wonderland with pristine frozen lakes, snow-capped jagged peaks, and animal tracking fun in the snow. During my short solo adventure I had the opportunity to explore parts of the 300 km of hiking trails, while staying in cozy mountain huts on the way.
As always, I took some photos and notes. Here’s everything you want to know about hiking the Tatra mountains in Poland.
Hiking the Tatra mountains in Poland
Introduction to the Tatra mountains
The rugged peaks of the Tatra mountains (Tatry in Polish) form the natural border between Poland and Slovakia. The Tatra mountains became a National Park in 1955 and was also established as an official UNESCO biosphere reserve. The park is rich in flora and fauna with flowers, pinewood trees, bears, wolfs, wild cats, and marmots. It’s the only alpine mountain range in Poland. Located only two hours by car from Krakow, the Tatra National Park is easily accessible to hikers and skiers. During my visit, I mostly met Polish hikers from Krakow, and I was kind of jealous that they live so close to the mountains!
When to hike the Tatra mountains?
The best time to hike the Tatra mountains in Poland is from July to October when most trails are open. However, this period is also by far the busiest time, and Zakopane is completely overrun by tourists. My guide in Zakopane recommended September and early October as the best time to visit when it’s quieter. May is also a good time to visit, but some of the trails in the high Tatras may still be closed and there is a chance you end up with a bit of winter hiking or mountaineering.
In winter, Zakopane and the Tatra mountains are a perfect place for skiing. Even in May, I saw some people skiing and snowboarding of some pretty high and rugged peaks. Crazy stuff!
A three-day hike in the Tatra mountains: The Forest itinerary
During my visit, the trails in the high Tatras were still closed because of snow and avalanche risk, so I opted for this alternative route which takes you past some beautiful lower-level forested areas. It was a pleasant and easy-going hike without steep ascents or descents. In some places the snow was quite deep, which made the hike tougher. Also, quite a few paths were turned into rivers, so you had to hop from stone to stone. Really enjoyed it!!
Day 1: Brzeziny to Murowaniec (2,5 hours)
Day 2: Murowaniec to Czarny straw (lake) and back (took me about 1,5-2 hours including taking some photos). After that, I hiked from Murowaniec via Psia Trawka and Rowien Waksmundzka to Morskie Oko (6 hours).
Day 3: Hiked around Morskie Oko and after that to Palencia Bialczanska.
From Palencia Bialczanska, you can take a bus to Zakopane. The buses leave regularly. To get to Brzeziny, I was lucky my Zakopane guide offered me a lift. Otherwise, you can take a bus, taxi, or go hitchhiking.
A three-day hike in the Tatra mountains: the Five Lakes itinerary
I originally planned to follow this Five Lakes itinerary! However, unfortunately this route was not possible due to bad weather on day one and because some of the trails were still closed. This trail will take you through the Five Lake Valley. It’s the trail with the most beautiful scenery. It’s supposedly a medium difficult trail, but if you are in reasonably good shape and not afraid of some ladders, you should be able to do it!
Day 1: Cable car to Kasprowy Wierch, hike from Kasprowy Wierch to Murowaniec
Day 2: From Murowaniec via Czarny Staw (Black lake), Zmarly Staw (Little lake), Wielki Staw (Great lake), Przedni Staw Polski (foremost Lake) to Morskie Oko
Day 3: Hike around Morskie Oko and after that to Palencia Bialczanska.
One-day hikes in the Tatra mountains
There are plenty of beautiful one day hikes you can do in the Tatra mountains. Here are some of my own suggestions:
- Take the cable car up to Kasprowy Wierch, hike to Murowaniec and then through the forest to Brzeziny
- Take the cable car up to Kasprowy Wierch, hike to Murowaniec and Czarny Staw and then back to Kasprowy Wierch
- Hike to/from Palencia Bielczanska to Morskie Oko. This track is partly on the main road, and there is a chance you will hike together with dozens of other tourists. If you do this trail: do it early! You can also hike around Morskie Oko and even hike to Czarny Staw.
The trails and routes in the Tatra mountains
The Tatra trails were excellently prepared with plenty of markings. At every crossing, there was a wooden signpost with directions and the number of minutes it takes to get there. Still, make sure to also bring a paper map and a GPS map.
Personally, I always use MapOut for my GPS map. It has nice graphics, also works offline, and is very accurate. Here is how to use MapsOut.
- Download the MapOut app on your phone
- Download the region you’re visiting in MapOut
- In case of the Tatras in Poland, go to Mapa Turystyczna and create your own route
- Download the GPX file into MapOut
- The route is now available in MapOut!
Staying in the Tatra mountain huts
Whether you only do a day hike, or a multiple day trekking in the Polish Tatra mountains, I would highly recommend to stay in a mountain hut. They are beautifully located in the middle of the mountains, very affordable, and you have a chance to explore the lakes without the day crowds. I stayed in two mountain huts: ‘Schronisko PTTK Murowaniec‘ and ‘Morskie Oko‘. I was positively surprised by the cleanliness and comfort of the rooms and shared bathrooms. Both huts have a restaurant, a small shop, reception, and electricity to charge your phone or camera. You can sleep in a dormitory or a private room. As it is a hiker’s hut, the lights go out early. The Morskie Oko mountain hut is located directly on the lake side and you can have your morning breakfast with superb views. Make sure to try a Zapiekankie (Polish pizza) in het Morskie Oko mountain hut. It’s not on the menu, but it is avalaible if you ask and absolutely delicious.
Please note that during high season, some of the mountains huts can be fully booked months in advance (especially Morskie Oko)! However, during my visit in May, most of the mountain huts still had beds available.
How to prepare for your hike in the Tatra mountains?
- Ask about the current weather conditions in Zakopane and especially in the mountain huts. They will also know which trails are open and closed.
- Have the number of the mountain rescue service in your phone.
- Be prepared for all kind of weather conditions. In only three days, I experienced snow, heavy rain and strong sun!
- Don’t underestimate the Tatra mountains. Even though plenty of hikers visit every year: it’s still the mountains!
- Consider to bring your crampons.
- Please note that camping is not allowed in the Tatra mountains in Poland.
- Learn some Polish before you go!
- This is my packing list for regular backpacking trips, which is pretty much use for every trip including this one. I will soon publish an additional mountaineering / hiking packing list.
Example costs of hiking the Tatrys
- Bus airport to bus station Krakow: about 2 euro
- Bus Krakow to Zakopane: 4-5 euro
- Lenin hostel private room: 30 euro
- Entrance Tatra National Park: 1 euro
- Breakfast mountain hut: 4-5 euro
- Dinner mountain hut: 5-6 euro
- Night in mountain hut: 8-20 euro
How to get to Zakopane and to the Tatra mountains from Krakow?
By bus: As a backpacker, this is probably the easiest way to get to Zakopane. Buses leave regularly from the Krakow Glowny station. You can just show-up or book beforehand. There are several bus companies, but this one was recommend by the tourism organization: Szwagropol. It takes about 2,5 hours by bus depending on traffic and a bus ticket is about 5 euro per person.
By car: If you have your own car, it only takes about 2 hours from Krakow.
In Zakopane, you can use local buses or taxies.
Bears in Poland / Tatra National Park
Bears in Poland? While preparing for this trip, I discovered the Tatra National Park houses a small population of about 20 brown bears. They are sometimes even spotted in the city! I’m 99.9% sure I saw some bear tracks in the snow.
So, what to do if you encounter a bear (although chances are extremely small)? Here are three tips:
- Carry bear spray (I forgot to buy some)
- Stick to the trail and make noise on the trail.
- Make sure you don’t leave food and keep your food packed up tight.
What to do in Zakopane?
Zakopane is the gateway town to Tatra National Park. It’s com pleasant city with lots of outdoor shops, restaurants, and guesthouses. Even if you’re not into skiing or hiking, there is plenty to do in Zakopane. You can board the Kasprowy Wierch cable car which takes you all the way up to Kasprowy Wierch at 1987 meters and offers you amazing views over the city. In high season and during some times of the day, it can be quite busy and tickets must be booked at least the day beforehand. You could also go shopping, admire the traditional architecture, or visit Zakopane’s interesting museum. Make sure to visit Koscieliska street, where you can find the most beautiful wooden houses and churches in Zakopane. If you’re looking for something quirky, you can visit the interesting upside down house.
Recommended guide in Zakopane: Ewa Rzeszut (send me a message for her phone number).
Where to stay in Zakopane? – Goodbye Lenin Hostel
Located in the middle of the forest, there is a small wooden cabin which houses the Goodbye Lenin hostel. It’s a highly sociable place with a cozy living room perfect for playing games, reading a book, or simply talking to fellow travelers. They also have a playful cat. Only minutes after I arrived, I was already invited by fellow backpackers to join a card game.
In the Goodbye Lenin Hostel, I stayed in a private room, which was big and had a modern bathroom attached. Unfortunately, there was a problem with the heating in my room, but they tried to fix this as much as possible. Also, I found the location to be a bit out of the city, but I stayed too short to find out whether this was really a problem. If you’re a (solo) backpacker, I think this will probably be one of your favorite hostels in Poland!
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Good luck with your hike and let me know how it goes!
P.s. If you enjoy hiking also check out the Sudeten mountains in Poland!