Trekking in the High Tatras

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A Polish Adventure: Trekking in the High Tatras

This is a guest post by fellow travel writer Charlie from Charlie on Travel.

trekking in the high tatras

Never in my life have my bum cheeks felt so much like ice as when I was standing, triumphantly, at the top of Kościelec.

Kościelec is a mountain in the High Tatras, which sits on the Polish side of the Poland-Slovakia border. It’s so close in fact, that our couchsurfing hosts, down in the nearby town of Zakopane, told us that if you can make it to the top of Kościelec, then you would be able to throw a snowball into Slovakia.

hiking the high tatras

Hiking Kościelec, especially in icy weather, is no walk in the park. The Poles recommend hiking in September when the weather is good and there are slightly fewer tourists. Naturally, in a spontaneous and unplanned trip to Poland, my partner and I were preparing to trek up through the mountains in March. In March, the hiking routes are still covered in solid sheets of ice and so there are absolutely no tourists to be seen. Except for us, we were there.

We hiked for five hours through white forests and across frozen streams, scrambled up steep slopes with only ice-slicked rocks to use as footholds, and staggered through mountain mist. At one point, the fog was so heavy that I couldn’t even see my own hand when I stretched it out in front of me. I had darted a terrified look to my partner, Luke, only to find him already disappearing into the mist like a ghost.

trekking the high tatras

When we finally made it to cloud level, a small yellow painted signpost stuck out from the snow, pointing toward a quaint settlement of wooden huts with chimneys and snow covered roofs. Behind the huts, Kościelec stood tall.

My reaction, of course, was to whimper at the mountain and run into a little hut for a mug of coffee. Luke dragged me back out into the wintery wilderness. The climb turned into a vertical face of snow. We dug our hiking shoes in, leaving yeti-sized footprints behind us. Then, the snow gave way, and we stumbled and tumbled down. I fell, bum first, into a soft, snowy wet abyss. My leggings were soaked and my bum was freezing. Fortunately, we noticed a sketchy little chairlift above us. Unable to continue the climb further in that amount of snow, we clambered on thankfully.

On top of Kościelec, we overlooked dozens of mountains all capped with snow. A pink glow of sun was sinking into the pit between them, scattering a warm light across the rocky bases. We clamped hands, we had made it.

trekking the high tatras

Fancy trekking up Kościelec, even after that story? Here are some directions:

Zakopane is the nearest town to the Tatra Mountains. You can get there by bus from Krakow, which takes a couple of hours. It’s a good idea to plan a few days in the town so that you can make the most of the hiking and scenery.

To get to Kościelec, grab a map and head up the road out of the town. This will take you to the entrance of the Tatra Mountains National Park, where you will need to pay a small fee at a little wooden hut to use the hiking routes.

From here, you can follow the yellow or blue trail. We accidentally took the harder of the two (the yellow one) because we didn’t follow our map properly. The small settlement on the way is called Murowaniec, so head for there first.

There’s a gondola at the top of Kościelec, which is mostly used by skiers. It’s a good way to get down if the hike up takes you a long time.

 trekking the high tatras

My top tips for surviving the trek

  • Check the weather forecast. If there’s a snow storm, you really can’t go.
  • Take a map – when everything’s a white-out you’ll regret not having one.
  • Take a huge bottle of water and plenty of food – it will be hours before you find anywhere to stop.
  • Wear waterproof gloves – if you can, wear waterproof everything. You’ll likely get soaked from the snow at some stage.
  • Take a walking pole if you have one – I didn’t and I wish I had.
  • Don’t go alone unless you’re a trekking master.

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43 Comments

  1. Jess

    May 10, 2014 at 7:53 PM

    It’s certainly beautiful – but I admit, the idea of icy bum cheeks just doesn’t appeal. Guess I’d better invest in top of the line thermal underwear if I want to try this trek.

    • Charlie

      May 11, 2014 at 7:54 AM

      Icy bum cheeks definitely isn’t the best feeling in the world!! I had thermal long-johns on too, but they just absorbed even more water haha!

  2. Travis

    May 10, 2014 at 10:47 PM

    Sounds like a great (and very cold!) adventure Charlie! We loved Poland, but unfortunately didn’t have the time to get into the nature of the country. It looks absolutely spectacular though…thanks for sharing! Safe travels.

    • Charlie

      May 11, 2014 at 7:55 AM

      Thanks, Travis! It certainly was 🙂 Glad to hear you also loved Poland. Hopefully you’ll be able to go back again sometime. Happy travels to you too.

  3. Dave Cole

    May 11, 2014 at 1:32 AM

    As a lover of fall/winter hikes, this looks like an awesome experience. And a wonderful memory of grasping hands when you finished the trek.

    • Charlie

      May 11, 2014 at 7:56 AM

      Thanks for commenting, Dave. It certainly was 🙂

  4. Molly S

    May 11, 2014 at 1:52 AM

    It looks like a wonderful hike – but one that I think I’d save for the summer or autumn! Frozen bum cheeks don’t really appeal…..;). Although it must have been a great feeling to finally stand on the top!

    • Charlie

      May 11, 2014 at 3:00 PM

      Super awesome! I think the Summer would be a gorgeous time to do it, though apparently the route is a lot busier with tourists then.

  5. Emma

    May 11, 2014 at 3:06 AM

    Wow, what beautiful scenery! Must have been worth the all that cold! 🙂

    • Charlie

      May 11, 2014 at 3:01 PM

      Thanks, Emma! Yes, it was totally worth it once I was dragged up there haha =)

  6. Margherita @The Crowded Planet

    May 11, 2014 at 4:40 AM

    What a cool story. I often trek in the alps and have had a few similar experiences. There’s nothing like trekking in the winter, even when the weather is not the best. The scenery is amazing!

    • Charlie

      May 11, 2014 at 3:02 PM

      It was my first time trekking in wintery conditions, and you’re right it’s very different. The scenery is amazing. Are the treks in the Alps tough? Or are there a variety of routes for all level of hikers?

  7. Caitlyn

    May 11, 2014 at 7:21 AM

    Gorgeous! I wish I was a hiker, I’ve always had to admire the Tatras from down in Zakopane, they look incredible and I’d love to cross the border so high up and on foot 🙂

    • Charlie

      May 11, 2014 at 3:03 PM

      Are you not keen on hiking, Caitlyn? I’m not a very good hiker I have to say, certainly not as fit as most, but I always give it a good go and fortunately I have my partner to help me out.

  8. Michele {Malaysian Meanders}

    May 11, 2014 at 9:03 AM

    The view in your photos is magnificent, but I think that I’ll stick to enjoying it through your story instead of in person. I do think that I’d be up to huddling with a cup of hot coffee in one of those huts, though. I really like that photo with the sliver of sky showing through the layers of clouds.

    • Charlie

      May 11, 2014 at 3:05 PM

      Thank you, Michele. The hot coffee was so needed! I’m definitely fond of huddling up with a hot coffee whenever possible =) and thanks!

  9. Angela Travels

    May 11, 2014 at 2:38 PM

    What a beautiful place to hike! I would love to hike when the mountains are still covered in snow and ice if that means having the trail to myself.

    • Charlie

      May 11, 2014 at 3:04 PM

      Thanks for commenting, Angela! It’s really slippery though, I wish I’d been a little more prepared – but yes, the snow and ice make it really gorgeous and quiet, you’re right.

  10. Dennis Kopp

    May 11, 2014 at 3:27 PM

    Charlie, that looks like a beautiful trek, but I am not sure if I would like to do it in snow and ice. I guess I am much more of a sunshine hiker, but judging by your photos you managed at least to avoid the crowds on the trail of the summertime. And on top of that, the snowy, foggy view from the top is actually really pretty, even it came to the price of icy bum cheeks… 😉

    • Charlie

      May 12, 2014 at 1:00 AM

      Hi Dennis, the snow and ice is really tricky and slippy. I’m also more of a sunshine hiker, but that just happened to be the season we were there. Haha, thanks! 🙂

  11. Katrina

    May 12, 2014 at 12:59 PM

    It’s 90’F here in Richmond, VA, and this story helped cool me down a bit! The views look terrific!

    • Charlie

      May 12, 2014 at 1:07 PM

      Wooahh! Envious of those hot temperatures for sure 🙂

    • Ashley Hubbard

      May 13, 2014 at 3:29 PM

      It’s about the same here in TN so I know what you mean!

    • Charlie

      May 17, 2014 at 12:36 PM

      Wow! I’m envious of those temps 🙂

  12. SJ @ Chasing the Donkey

    May 13, 2014 at 3:23 PM

    Brrrrrrr seems so icy, but fab shots and I am sure I’d love it (once I was done).

    • Charlie

      May 17, 2014 at 12:39 PM

      For sure! I had a lot of layers on!!

  13. Corinne

    May 14, 2014 at 11:30 AM

    I would love to hike up the mountain, but maybe when there’s no snow…I’m not a fan of either being too hot or too cold…such a wuss!

    • Charlie

      May 17, 2014 at 12:41 PM

      Me neither really! Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on perspective) for me, my partner is much more an intrepid explorer and so wants to hike wherever whatever the weather! I’ve seem some incredible things as a result though.

  14. Adelina | PackMeTo

    May 14, 2014 at 4:57 PM

    I was in the High Tatras mountains on the Slovakia for some skiing. I think I’d take that over the hiking. I don’t like hiking at the best of times and in the cold + snow sounds miserable. Good on you for making it through!

    • Charlie

      May 17, 2014 at 12:39 PM

      Sounds awesome! I’ve never skiied and am too nervous to try =/ Thanksm, Adelina!

  15. Mary {The World IS A Book}

    May 16, 2014 at 10:10 AM

    I got tired just reading this post. 🙂 I can certainly see the appeal and wow..those views are worth the hike. Beautiful photos and thanks for the virtual trek. Love that first photo!

    • Charlie

      May 17, 2014 at 12:37 PM

      Tired from the idea of the hike, I hope, rather than the length of the post =/ Thanks, the views really were gorgeous.

  16. frankaboutcroatia

    May 16, 2014 at 11:15 PM

    Ah, I’ve skied for the first time in my life at the high Tatras. Don’t remember any more what was the name of the village where we’ve stayed, but I still remember the mountains, how untalented I was for skiing, and that every dish contained lots of cumin. Great memories! Lovely photos.

    • Charlie

      May 17, 2014 at 12:35 PM

      That’s awesome! There were quite a few skiers when we got to the top. It’s probably the same place. Thanks, Frank 🙂

  17. Nina

    May 17, 2014 at 4:32 AM

    Looks like a great but cold and challenging adventure!

    • Charlie

      May 17, 2014 at 12:35 PM

      Exactly how it was! 🙂

  18. Syd

    May 17, 2014 at 6:08 PM

    Beauuuuutiful photos. And I will be honest, I knew almost nothing about Poland (and only a very little about Slovakia…) and frankly this is not what I imagined it looking like…

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  20. The Guy

    June 21, 2014 at 9:45 PM

    Throwing snowballs across borders. Hehe I love it, we could have an international snow ball fight or would that qualify as an international incident.

    Fabulous pictures. I think you’ve done really well to bring them out with so much white around and the risk of being blinded by white.

    • Charlie

      June 22, 2014 at 6:34 AM

      We laughed when our hosts said it! And thank you, I was worried about the pictures not looking too great because I don’t have the best editing software and I was worried they looked washed out – so I appreciate your comments.

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  23. Bob Dixon

    May 5, 2015 at 9:12 AM

    Hi Charlie,
    I am going with a group to the Slovakian Tatras.Originally three days hut to hut then hotel based for the remainder of the week but now it is unfortunately only one night in the hut.The thing is I haven’t done anything like this before.I have done plenty of hill walking in England but never abroad.I was wondering what gear to take as I want to travel as light as possible.
    Any recommendations welcome.
    Bob

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