A challenging day trek crossing the Eagle’s Path in the Polish High Tatras
Starting point: Five Lakes Valley Refuge (1673 m)
Highest point: Zawrat Pass (2158 m)
Destination: Murowaniec Refuge (1500 m)
Total distance: ~8 km
Net duration: 3 h (highly dependent on the weather and your fitness)
Thanks to the network of high mountain refuges in the Polish High Tatras, you can easily make shorter or longer treks between the valleys and ridges. As I mentioned earlier, most of the hiking trails are in use on this side of the border though you definitely need proper winter equipment.
If you arrange to stay in the two mountain refuges at the two ends of this trek, it can be done in half a day. However, if you don’t want to sleep on the mountain, you’ll have to calculate with around 4 extra hours to reach the starting point and then get back to civilization at the end. Even then it is perfectly doable in one day.
After a sleepless night
We stayed in the Five Lakes Valley refuge (Schronisko Pięciu Stawów). This is one of the 8 similar hostels located in the Polish Tatras and the one that lies at the highest altitude. This time there was a huge crowd and people were sleeping everywhere: on the floor, on tables, on the window sills, in the corridors and even in the tourists’ kitchen. Unfortunately, some guys didn’t have a sense of time and kept chatting by a table after midnight when we all wanted to sleep…
It was a short night but we felt surprisingly fresh and fit at 6.15 when the noise woke us. The thermometer showed -19 °C outside the house. It is not generally that cold but you can expect around -10 degrees on an average winter day.
Yellow and blue to the Zawrat
From the house, you follow the yellow (and only) trail on the right hand side of the lake. This section is fairly easy as you gradually gain altitude. You can enjoy the view of the lakes as you pass them and the ridge of spiky peaks that separate the Five Lakes Valley from the valley of Morskie Oko.
As usual, the path does not follow the same line in winter as in summer but it’s hard to get lost. You walk past two fork-offs on the right: first the black trail leading to Kozi Wierch and then the yellow to Kozi Pass. If you carry on, you soon see the signpost showing the direction to Zawrat (blue trail).
This is where the harder part of the ascend starts and the last 1 km to the top can easily take more than an hour in the snow. After a short stop for a photo (or dozens of photos in good weather) you continue steeply downhill on the other side of the ridge. Zawrat is the point where the famous Eagle’s Path (Orla Perć) starts and intrepid trekkers venture on it even in winter. But don’t forget that this king of trekking paths is dangerous even in ideal summer conditions so think twice before turning right.
Before you start descending carefully along the steep path into the valley, take a look at the Madonna statue in the rock face on the right. It was placed there by priest Walenty Gadowski, father of the Eagle’s Path, to commemorate the successful completion of the path in the early 20th century.
Yes, it’s tiring for your knees and thighs but within an 25 minutes you can look back at the pass from the bottom of the valley. Because the most popular mountain refuge is so close, this trail can be crowded even in winter. There are mountaineers checking their equipment before heading to the nearby rock faces.
After the steep section you cross (or walk around in summer) a small lake (Black Lake) before you enter the pine forest again. This path is also very popular with ski tourers so be prepared to step aside when they reach you from behind!
Arriving at Murowaniec Refuge
After only 2 kilometres across the forest you arrive at the impressive building of Murowaniec Refuge, where you can enjoy a cold beer and a hot meal. Often to the sounds of a spontaneous concert!
Hiking in this part of the Tatras became popular in the mid-19th century. A simple refuge already existed on the bank of a nearby lake but it couldn’t satisfy the growing demand. The imposing house we can see today opened in 1925 after four years’ building. It can now provide accommodation for 116 people in rooms with 2-12 beds for 32-45 PLN/person/night. Unlike some other similar institutions, Murowaniec doesn’t let you sleep on the floor when all beds are taken.
This is probably because this refuge is relatively easy to access. After a little break you can follow the yellow or blue signs to Kuznice, south of Zakopane (2 hours) or take the black trail to the Brzeziny parking area (2 h 20 min). From there you can take a bus to the Morskie Oko parking area if you left your car there.
Other possible destinations
If you stay in Murowaniec refuge, you can spend another day exploring the peaks and ridges of the High Tatras. For example, Kasprowy Wierch is only about 1 hour away and from there you can take a breathtaking excursion along the ridge that follows the border between Poland and Slovakia.
Just don’t forget that the weather can change rapidly and unexpectedly any time of the year. You should always be properly equipped and informed about the area and the actual conditions (avalanche risk, for example). Don’t take unnecessary risks and always respect the mountain!