There are a multitude of hiking trails in the Polish Tatra mountains near Zakopane. A loop taking in the popular Giewont massif before traversing to Kasprowsky Wierch (Peak) makes a perfect day walk.
It’s my last walk on this Europe trip, and I’m heading out to Zakopane and the nearby Polish Tatra Mountains. A town in the extreme south of Poland, Zakopane is located in the southern part of Podhale (the name of this region being derived from the phrase “pod hole”, which refers to the terrain that stretches out at the foot of the mountains).
While there is a train line from Krakow to Zakopane, I couldn’t actually find a train… the only way to get there seemed to be a bus that leaves every half an hour or so (from the train station, ironically!). As we get closer, it gets increasingly foggy and I question my decision of heading to the mountains! From Zakopane there’s another short bus ride to Kuźnice, where the trails are clearly marked.
I’m sticking to the plan of hiking up to Giemont, considered one of the most famous peaks in the area, despite visibility being very limited. The fog does intensify the autumn colours, although I’m doubting I’ll have much of a vew from the top.
The first part of the walk is along a cobbled road (closed to traffic) which is not very steep. It’s more a stroll up the road then a hike! Along the path there’s a small shrine in the rocks by the road and a memorial in a small glade, both of which I fail to find any explanation of on-line (at least in English) after my walk.
After about a kilometre there’s a small hut where an entry fee is payable, and another 800m further is the PTTK Kalatówki Mountain Hotel (1,198m above sea level) in the Bystra Valley. Built in 1938 for the FIS World Ski Championships, it was erected in a record time of 150 days. Apparently there are “stunning views of the surrounding mountains”. I can barely see the end of the glade. But I take the opportunity to buy a few snacks and have a mid-morning coffee!
From here the sign-post shows 2:45min to the Giemont peak, and the trail is now much narrower as it traverses the Kondratowa Valley. Despite the poor visibility, it’s pleasant walking and in some ways nicer with the fog in the tall forest (although I have no idea what views I’m missing out on).
After another half an hour I reach the PTTK Mountain Hut (PTTK Hala Kondratowa), which has some accommodation and offers meals – although I didn’t stop here.
From here the track starts to get gradually steeper as it climbs up through the Valley of Malego Szerokiego, with the path become a bit rockier. There’s a few streams that look like you cold drink from, although I’ve got plenty of water and don’t want to take the risk.
I also start seeing a few more people along the track as it gets steeper and winds up the valley.
What’s more encouraging is that the fog is starting to lift, and there are views in the distance of multiple ridges and mountain peaks. It would be spectacular without the clouds, and is still pretty impressive with fog filling the valleys.
The track finally reaches a Kondracka Przełęcz (1,725m), in the middle of the ridge that joins Kopa Kondracka and Giemont, my first destination. Looking west from the ridge, there’s just a sea of clouds… and to the north is the spiny peak of Giemont.
I continue from the pass up the cobbled trail towards the Giemont summit, with its distinctive cross. The pasth is pretty flat initially as it goes passes through low heath.
Looking back down the track towards Kondracka Przełęcz, you can clearly see the track continuing up the other side of the ridge towards Kopa Kondracka (that’s where I’m going next).
The path gradually gets steeper, and the final ascent is very steep with a few sections aided by chains. There’s a big school group ahead of me, which is hard to overtake on the last section – I can see why my guide book warns that on summer weekends there can be a long queue to reach the summit!
Fortunately while the ability to overtake is limited, it’s only the last 500m or so where you need to go single-file, and I soon reach the summit. The view from the Giemont summit (1,894m asl) is almost anti-climactic after the rocky climb and the views from along the path. To the west there’s still just clouds; looking east you can see the long ridge that forms the border between Poland and Slovakia. What’s impressive is the 15m high steel cross on the Giemont peak, erected in 1901. Weighing about 1900kg, all the material was carted by hand to the summit and the cross was erected over a week. It’s now a site of religious pilgrimages and a listed monument of architecture – and a massive lightning conductor! I wouldn’t want to be standing here durign a thunderstorm.
I don’t stay long at the top – it’s a litle crowded and the views are just as good from the path. I head down the same way I came up – I read afterwards there is a different path for the descent, to avoid passing people on the steeper sections.
As I near the Kondracka Przełęcz pass again, some of the clouds clear and there’s blue sky – I can now see some of the valley floor to the west, where before there were just clouds.
It’s an impressive view from the the pass, looking up the ridge towards Giemont.
I figure I’ve got enough time to extend the walk, rather than returning directly to Kuźnice (there are some alternate routes back suggested by my guide book). Instead I continue up the ridge to Kopa Kondracka, which will take me from 1,725m above sea level at the pass below Giemont to 2,004m. There’s nice views down the valley towards Kuźnice to the left (north-east), and Giemont with its prominent cross is visible (and still above me) to the north.
The trail climbs steeply up to Kopa Kondracka, which at 2,004m is the highest point on the walk. I then follow the main ridge across to Kasprowy Wierch (Peak) – on one side is Poland, and on the other, Slovakia. Not so long ago there were border checks between Poland and Slovakia and some challenges for hikers with trails straddling or crossing the border, but with both countries now being part of the Schengen Agreement you can wander anywhere through the Tatra mountains without fear of arrest!
The views are not extensive due to the clouds, but it does make it a very dramatic and constantly-changing landscape.
At times the views are almost completely obscured by cloud; occasionally they lift a little and you can see the trail stretching out along the ridge.
The first half of the path along the ridge is fairly easy walking. About half-way between Kopa Kondracka and Kasprowy Wierch, it descends steeply (though not for long) and becomes much more undulating as the ridge narrows.
This section is the most strenous and the most dramatic: the path follows the top of the narrow ridge, with steep drops on both sides.
This entire section is spectacular with the clouds shrouding both sides of the ridge, offering the occasional glimpse of the valley below and the peaks in the distance.
Eventually I see my destination – the metereological observatory on top of Kasprowy Wierch, in the distance. (At 1,987m above sea level, it’s the highest inhabited building in Poland.)
Before I get there, I’ve got a few more ups and downs as the path follows the contours of the ridge, and a bit more time to enjoy the view from the track. As the clouds shift I get a glimpse of Tichá dolina (The Silent Valley) below, as well as some of the surrounding peaks.
An increase in the numbers of walkers indicates my proximity to Kasprowy Wierch – where a cable-car transports walkers up and down the mountain
I’m taking the cable-car down; I would have been happy to walk but it’s almost 3pm, and I still need to get back down the mountain and Zakopane to catch a bus to Krakow. As well as the cable-car, there’s a couple of chairlifts that are used for skiing in the winter months.
The cable-car runs every 20min, so it’s a fairly short wait before I’m whisked down the mountain. It’s a 12min trip down, from 1,987m at Kasprowy Wierch to 999m at Kuźnice where the cable car terminates, with a stop in the middle where we swap cars. There would probably be magnificent views on a clear day – but alas, not today. Although I’m not complaining. It’s a lot easier than walking down! And I suspect on a clear day the tails and Giemont summit would be fairly crowded, even outside peak season.
It’s been a magnificent walk – far better than I expected, having not done much research (I saw a guidebook on Zakopane two days prior and throught, “that looks good”!). The trails are extensive and well-marked, and the scenery spectacular even with the fog and cloud. I’d love to spend a few days here – with a bit of planning you could some amazing walks between mountain huts.
|Location||Starting point is the village of Kuźnice (10min by bus or taxi from Zakapone). About two hours from Krakow by public transport|
|Distance||Approx 15km one-way|
|Grade||Moderate (total ascent 1200m). Track steep/rough in parts|
|Season/s||May-November (skiing activities in winter). Cable car operates year-round|
|Resources||Zakapone and the Tatra Mountains guidebook (available in multiple languages) from local bookshops|