The Tatra Mountains. Mountains in the heart of every Pole
Already at the beginning of the 20th century, they became an almost mythical place to which Poles from all partitions came to rest, to treat tuberculosis, to challenge the unclimbed peaks and walls, to create works of art often inspired by Tatra experiences and Podhale culture, to plot for a free Poland. Today, between 5 and 6 million people make the pilgrimage here every year.
The Tatras are divided into: the West Tatras – the highest peak is Bystra, on the Polish side Starorobociański Wierch; the High Tatras – the highest peak is Gerlach, on the Polish side Rysy; and the Belianske Tatras – the highest peak is Hawrań. The Tatra Mountains in Poland are a unique place; only here we can find a high-mountain area characterised, among other things, by wild nature and the exclusion of many areas from tourist traffic. In turn, some of the marked trails lead through demanding, often exposed terrain. According to many, anyone who visits the Tatras at least once will come back to them again and again. If you want to get to know the real beauty of the Tatra Mountains, you should plan your trip in advance. The most beautiful time to come to the mountains is September – then there are far fewer tourists than, for example, during the summer holidays. This year’s summer is absolutely record-breaking in terms of attendance on the Tatra trails. In July, 900,000 people entered the Tatra National Park – 200,000 more than in 2017. It is therefore worth planning your stay in the mountains in such a way that you can enjoy the beauty of these unique mountains in peace and quiet.
The history of Poland’s most famous alpine mountains
For many years, the Polish part of the Tatra Mountains was inaccessible and only rarely visited by people. Only flocks of sheep appeared in the Tatra clearings, and hunters ventured higher up in search of worthy prey. According to historical sources, animal herding and Wallachian culture have been present here only since the 13th century. The industrial development of the Zakopane area was mainly metallurgy. This industry, mainly furnaces located in today’s Kuźnice, left its mark on the nature of the mountains. It was the wanton felling of trees that caused the uniform spruce forests to replace the mixed forests. The Tatra National Park is currently trying to restore the former balance of species as part of the so-called stand reconstruction. This is done by, among other things, planting deciduous trees where possible.
At the turn of the 18th and 19th century, the Tatra Mountains became an attractive tourist region. The main contributor to this popularity was Dr Tytus Chałubiński, a doctor from Warsaw, who, enchanted by the beauty of the mountains, promoted recreation in the ‘Polish Alps’. Today, the place is still unique in many respects, not least in terms of its wildlife. Among others, brown bears, Tatra chamois and marmots – species under strict protection – live here in their natural environment. Other extremely valuable species are wolves, lynxes, and eagles, whose nests are located precisely in the high mountain zone.
A bit of topography – peaks that every tourist simply must know
There are many famous peaks in the Tatras – the most recognisable are: Rysy, Mięguszowiecki Grand Peak (Mięguszowiecki Szczyt Wielki), Kasper Peak (Kasprowy Wierch), Świnica, Red Peaks (Czerwone Wierchy) and Wołowiec. Next on the Polish side of the Tatra Mountains are Mnich and Kościelec, Kominiarski Wierch and the most popular, most characteristic peak perfectly visible from Zakopane Giewont – with the legendary steel cross put up years ago by the highlanders. It is worth mentioning that the highest peak of the Tatra Mountains is Gerlach, 2,655 metres a.s.l., located completely on the Slovakian side, and on the Polish side, the north-western peak of Rysy, 2,499 metres a.s.l., with the Polish-Slovakian border running through it.
Tourism in the Tatra National Park
In terms of tourism, the Tatras are also one of the most beautiful corners of Poland. They attract crowds of tourists from Poland and abroad every year. They are one of the most visited regions in the country thanks to the sustained number of tourists in recent years – 3 million per year. Visitors to the Tatra National Park can take advantage of 275 kilometres of marked hiking trails of varying difficulty: from very easy to very difficult and equipped with safety devices such as chains, buckles and ladders. The trails can be hiked individually or with a guide; however, organised groups and trips involving schoolchildren must be led by authorised Tatra guides. Most hiking trails are two-way. There are only some sections with one-way traffic, where specific rules have been introduced to improve the comfort of movement and increase safety. Tourist routes are marked. Five colours are used: black, red, green, blue, and yellow. The colours do not indicate the difficulty of the trail, but only serve to identify the trail in the field. Terrain conditions often prevent signs from being placed along a section of the trail, but those are usually very short. Before each hike, however, it is advisable to familiarise yourself with the route of the trails you intend to hike from a map or guidebook, and to take these publications with you. A wide selection of publications on the Tatra National Park is offered by the park’s Tourist Information Centres.
Practical information for those going to the Tatras
Hiking trails in the Tatras are marked by direction signs, usually located at the beginning and at the end, but also at trail junctions. Directional signs show the name of the destination and the time needed to get there. Please note that the time given on the direction indicator may increase in the case of long rests on the route as well as deteriorating weather conditions.
There is a fee for entry to the Tatra National Park: a regular ticket currently costs PLN 7 and a discounted ticket costs PLN 3.50. Tickets can be purchased electronically on the Tatra National Park website, www.tpn.pl, and directly at the entrance to the trails at points of sale. It is worth remembering that cycling is only possible on selected trails in the Polish Tatra Mountains – e.g., it is possible in the Chochołowska Valley. Bicycles can be rented in numerous rental shops at the entrance to this Tatra valley. Lovers of hiking with their four-legged friends must remember that, with few exceptions (including the Chochołowska Valley), bringing dogs into the TPN area is prohibited due to the protection of wild animals.
At most entrances to the trails, there are paid private car parks for motorised tourists. Those going to Morskie Oko and wishing to leave their car on Palenica Białczańska must purchase a space for their vehicle in advance via www.tpn.pl. Cars left in unauthorised places and in a way that blocks traffic are towed by the police and road service.
High-mountain trail, for eagles only
The most demanding route is the legendary Eagle’s Path (Orla Perć), which leads along the ridge of many peaks. In many places, the safety of tourists is further enhanced by artificial safeguards. It is also possible to use the so-called auto-belay if the tourist is appropriately equipped in advance. Contrary to appearances, considerable skills, equipment and experience are also required from tourists on the Rysy trail, which is covered with snow and ice for most of the year in many sections. In addition to the difficult trails, there are also places of equal beauty, but much easier and safer.
Places to stay in the Tatras
On the Polish side of the Tatra Mountains in the area of the Tatra National Park there are currently eight tourist hostels that belong to the Polish Tourist and Sightseeing Society (PTTK). According to park regulations, these are the only places in the Polish Tatras where tourists can stay overnight. The most popular hostel is located at Morskie Oko Lake, others include the hostel in the Roztoka Valley in the Valley of Five Polish Lakes, Murowaniec on Hala Gąsienicowa, Mountain Hotel on Kalatówki, a small one on Hala Kondratowa, on Hala Ornak in the Kościeliska Valley and in the Chochołowska Valley. Please note that, especially in the tourist season, accommodation in practically all hostels should be booked well in advance. In selected facilities, such as the Five Polish Lakes Valley hostel in the so-called high season, accommodation must be booked even six months in advance. In principle, all hostels have basic standard rooms for a smaller or larger numbers of people. They also have kitchens that serve hot drinks and meals at specific times.
Tatra mountains for beginners the most beautiful Polish valleys
The most charming Tatra valleys are Dolina Chochołowska, Kościeliska and Mała Łąka. Other Tatra valleys include the Bystra, Sucha Woda (Dry Water), Valley of Five Polish Lakes, and Fish Brook (Rybi Potok) Valleys. The place most frequently visited by tourists, however, remains Morskie Oko Lake – the largest (approx. 35 ha) and one of the most famous lakes in the Tatra Mountains. The lake is situated in the upper parts of the Rybi Potok Valley, which is part of the walna (one that runs from the foot of the mountains to the main ridge) Białka Valley. During the season, the road to Morskie Oko Lake, which is also accessible for disabled people, is travelled by more than 10,000 people a day. The other Tatra valleys we mentioned are only slightly less popular. The Chochołowska and Kościeliska Valleys are also available for cycling enthusiasts.
Tatra caves and lakes
Some of the Tatra caves are also open for tourists, where maximum care has been taken to ensure the safety of visitors. It is worth mentioning here that the lakes in the Tatra Mountains are traditionally called ponds and there are almost 200 of them in the whole area. The largest is of course Morskie Oko (Marine Eye) with an area of almost 35 hectares, not much smaller is Wielki Staw Polski (Great Polish Pond) or Smreczyński Staw (Pond) in the Western Tatra Mountains. Streams and brooks of various sizes flow through almost all the Tatra valleys. They are generally short in length, not exceeding 15 kilometres, and have a steep gradient (up to 20 per cent in the main streams and over 40 per cent in the tributaries). The flow of water is generally turbulent, rapid, and there is often a partial channel shift after floods. The total length of permanent surface watercourses in the Polish part of the Tatras is about 175 km; in the Slovak Tatras, it is more than five times longer. The volume of flowing water is highly dependent on rainfall recharge. For example, Potok Chochołowski flows along the bottom of the largest walna valley in the Polish part of the Tatra Mountains. The total length of the creek within the Tatras is 8.86 km. On its way through the Tatra Mountains, it crosses almost all types of rocks building the Tatra massif. In the southern areas, the stream flows along traces of glacial activity. Where the stream bed crosses limestone rocks, some of the water is lost in karst ponors, only to emerge in Wywierzysko Chochołowskie a dozen or so hours later. There is also a large number of waterfalls in the Tatra Mountains, although most of them remain nameless due to their small size. Many are not visible from hiking trails and are known only to a few. The most frequently associated waterfalls in the Polish part of the Tatra Mountains are Wielka Siklawa and Wodogrzmoty Mickiewicza on the Roztoka stream. Wielka Siklawa is the largest waterfall in Poland. Walking from Morskie Oko to Czarny Staw pod Rysami, we can also see the Czarnostawiańska Siklawa – a beautiful, cascading waterfall falling from the threshold of the Czarnostawiański Kocioł in the Rybi Potok Valley, above Morskie Oko. Another phenomenal waterfall in the Polish West Tatras is the Siklawica. It is located in the upper part of Strążyska Valley, under the northern wall of Giewont, falling from two almost vertical walls.
The world of plants and animals
It is estimated that there are about 1,300 plant species in the Tatra Mountains 200 of which can only be found in this mountain range. In addition, the Tatra flora is very diverse and during one trip, you can encounter many vegetation communities differing in composition. Some of the interesting Tatra plants include edelweiss, Martagon lily, stemless carline thistle, giant crocus, and Norwegian angelica. In turn, the animal-filled world of the forests resembles the original lowland fauna, with species such as roe deer, red deer, fox, badger, lynx, and brown bear. The birds include the golden eagle, eagle owl, capercaillie, and hazel grouse. Among the fish, you can find brook trout. Higher up, there are species for which the Tatras are famous: the chamois and the marmot.
In the footsteps of Andrzej Bargiel
In winter, on the other hand, the ski slopes in the Kasprowy Wierch area are open. Here you can get to the top all year round via one of the biggest attractions – the cable car. Chairlifts operate in Goryczkowy and Gąsienicowy cirques, where ski trails are located. The Polish Tatra Mountains in winter also offer the possibility of ski touring. This is done along designated official hiking trails, with few exceptions. The period of the pandemic caused the number of skiers practising this winter activity to increase several-fold. Depending on your skills, you will find a route that suits you. Of course, it should be added that winter tourism is associated with certain dangers, such as the risk of avalanche. Everyone setting off to the Tatra Mountains in winter should have an avalanche kit, the ability to use it and, most importantly, the knowledge and experience of being in a high mountain zone. After all, this is where Andrzej Bargiel – who is currently making solo descents from the highest Himalayan peaks – took his first steps.
Walls and caves
The Tatras are also a favourite place for seasoned mountaineering thrill seekers. It is here that you will find many legendary walls of varying difficulty. In their area there are climbing routes, cave that have still not been fully explored, and outstandingly difficult ski slopes. Mountaineering can be practised in designated areas covering the walls from the foothills to the ridge or the summit. The vast majority of areas available for mountaineering are in the High Tatras, i.e., in the Fish Brook and Five Polish Lakes Valleys as well as Hala Gąsienicowa. Detailed maps of the accessible places and walls can be found in the Tatra National Park. The areas accessible for mountaineering in the High Tatras are situated in the belt of crystalline rocks, mainly granites. In the West Tatras, on the other hand, the areas available for mountaineering are mostly limestone.
Cave-climbing in the Tatra National Park can be practised only in accessible caves. Several dozens of the caves, out of about 800 cave sites, are accessible for mountaineers – the total length of their corridors is 58 kilometres, which makes for 50 percent of the length of all the caves. The caves available for tourists include Mroźna, False (Mylna), Raptawicka, Obłazkowa, and Dragon’s Den (Smocza Jama). Others are accessible only to cave climbers.
The Tatras are full of magical, mysterious places. Many of them are shrouded in legends, having their origins in the history of the exploration of this part of Poland. The highlander culture also has a great influence on the uniqueness of the region, which is one of the most distinctive in Poland. Numerous legends tell stories about Morskie Oko – according to some of them, this Tatra pond is connected with the sea. Other stories report that there are sunken treasures at its bottom. However, there are also true stories connected with the Tatra Mountains, although often little-known. Few people know that a uranium mine operated here, albeit only for a short time.
The Tatra Mountains Volunteer Search and Rescue Service (Tatrzańskie Ochotnicze Pogotowie Ratunkowe) provides help to people injured in accidents and incidents in the Tatra Mountains. Rescue and assistance are provided free of charge in Poland.
Emergency telephone number +48 601 100 300.
However, you have to remember that in case of crossing to the Slovak side of the Tatras, the rescue actions carried out by the Horská Zachrana Service are paid, and in order to avoid high costs of rescue actions, it is necessary to buy appropriate mountain equipment.
How to be safe in the Tatra Mountains?
The Małopolska Tourist Organisation has prepared the #NajważniejszeWrócić (#ComingBackIsWhatMatters) campaign – a series of educational films about the dangers that await each of us during our mountain hikes. Together with the Tatra Mountains Volunteer Search and Rescue Service a series of films promoting safe behaviour for every true tourist was created. Planning trips, checking the weather forecast, and matching the route to our abilities is essential. Don’t forget the right shoes, clothing, and necessary equipment, as well as most importantly, knowledge and skills.