A winter trek in the High Tatras

Medium to hard winter hike in the High Tatras

Starting point: Palenica Białczańska (car park)
Destination: Szpyglasowy Wierch, High Tatras (2172 m)
Total distance: ~20 km
Net duration: 7-8 h (highly dependent on the weather and your fitness)

(The map shows our second day when we hiked up Szpyglasowy Wierch from the mountain refuge and then descended back to the car park)

The High Tatras

Zawrat, the peak where the Eagle's Path begins. But not in winter!
Zawrat, the peak where the Eagle’s Path begins. Not recommended in winter!

The High Tatras are the highest section of the Carpathian Mountains and the world’s smallest high mountain range. Its full area belongs to national parks on the two sides of the border. Only one third belongs to Poland (with the rest in Slovakia). It’s a popular destination for nature lovers, hikers and mountaineers all year round, thanks to the dozens of hiking trails, friendly refuges and magical vistas.

Ski tourers in the Five Lakes Valley
Ski tourers in the Five Lakes Valley

During the winter months the higher parts of the High Tatras are closed for ordinary hikers (in fact, the alpine trails are closed from early November to mid-June). Polish regulations are more reasonable in my opinion as they only close those routes that are too exposed or where there is a danger of avalanche. I personally love winter treks: you can feel so small when everything is covered in snow and ice and it’s great to be surrounded by similarly crazy people.

From the car park to the mountain refuge

The trail starts from a car park and bus stop (Palenica Białczańska) only a few hundred metres from the Slovak border. There are regular buses to and from Zakopane. If you come from Slovakia, you can take a train (electricka) to Tatranska Lomnica and then a bus to Lysa Polana. From there it’s only a short walk. Parking costs somewhere between 20 and 50 PLN (I see no logic in their charges).

If you arrive at daytime you pay a small amount at the gate and then follow the red sign towards Morskie Oko (a lake with a refuge next to it). The lake is one of the top attractions of the region so don’t expect solitude on this first section. Horse sleighs take less vigorous tourists to Morskie Oko and a car passes by now and then. Exactly after 3 easy km you reach the waterfall named after the Polish poet, Mickiewicz. There are some benches and tables on the left and a trail (green signs) forks off on the right.

Hundreds of thousands of pine trees were destroyed in the High Tatras in the early 2000s and you can see the damage.
Hundreds of thousands of pine trees were destroyed in the High Tatras in the early 2000s and you can still see the damage.

Hikers and ski tourers share the same route though the two paths sometimes part (hikers take the shortcuts). You walk about 3.5 km mostly uphill in the pine forest with much less traffic. The difficulty of this section is easy-medium with few steep hills. The path follows a mountain brook with a couple of picturesque bridges over the water that meanders around mounds of snow. Then you’ll notice a small hut on the right – it’s the lower station of the cable lift that takes supplies to the mountain refuge some 240 m higher.

Get out of the basket, it doesn’t take passengers. Turn left instead and follow the black sign uphill. The house with hot drinks and food is less than one km away but it can take more than an hour. It’s a really hard steep crawl, especially in winter when knee-deep snow alternates with icy sections thanks to skiers. It’s not a bad idea to put on your crampons here. The winter trail is a little different from what you see on your map. It veers to the left and when you reach the highest point you actually take the green trail that goes to Morskie Oko (closed in winter) for the last hundred or so metres.

Five Lakes Valley Refuge

Hiking and mountaineering has long traditions in the Tatras. The first refuges for tourists were built in the late 19th century. Today there are 8 of them catering for a youthful crowd at altitudes between 1031 and 1673 m.Most of them were built in traditional style, using natural materials (stone and wood).

Inviting lights of the mountain shelter on a cold winter day
Inviting lights of the mountain shelter on a cold winter day

After 6.5 km you have just arrived at the highest – and most remote – Polish refuge, lying by one of the five lakes in the Five Lakes Valley (Schronisko Pięciu Stawów). It offers accommodation in rooms for 2, 4, 8 or 10 people (68 beds in total) for 30-45 PLN per bed. You can book online but don’t worry if you don’t succeed. I saw a man in the middle of January reserving a room for the last weekend in May. But the good news is that you can still stay if all the rooms are full. For 20 PLN you can sleep on the floor (or a bench or a window sill) from 11 pm till about 6 am.

A room for 4 with basic but comfy beds
A room for 4 with basic but comfy beds
You can sleep in the restaurant after 10 pm if all the beds are taken.
You can sleep in the restaurant after 11 pm if all the beds are taken.

There are shared but surprisingly clean showers and toilets and you can use a simple kitchen if you want to prepare your own food. Hot water is available for free. But if I were you, I wouldn’t miss the excellent soups and dishes made right there by an enthusiastic chef. You won’t complain about the taste or the prices. (My tip would be bigos, a Polish pork and sauerkraut stew). The restaurant is open from 8 am to 9 pm (with two short breaks). In addition, they have a small shop, a drying room and free storage of baggage.

The yellow trail to the Slovak border

We arrived at the refuge in the dark so we spent the night there and did the last section of the trek the following morning. But the whole trip can easily be done in one long day. From the shelter, you have to take the yellow trail that follows the valley and then climbs up to a pass before leading down to Morskie Oko on the other side.

The main building of the Five Lakes refuge
The main building of the Five Lakes refuge

Only in winter this path has a different route, too. You have to turn left right after the first lake and walk uphill until you almost reach the first rocks. Look for the footsteps of other trekkers. It’s not impossible if you’re the first one but it will take much longer in the deep snow. Otherwise, this part is still only medium hard as you gain altitude gradually. Then after around 1.6 km you turn left and don’t be surprised if you have to climb the next 300 m on all fours. It’s a really steep slope where crampons are essential. It took us 40 minutes to reach the pass (Szpiglasowa Przełęcz, 2110 m).

This is what you can see of Five Lakes Valley on a cloudy day (if you are lucky)
This is what you can see of Five Lakes Valley on a cloudy day (if you are lucky)

You can take a deep breath there and enjoy the views of the two magnificent valleys. If you are luckier than we were the last time when all we saw was the clouds. If you still feel energetic, continue to the peak, less than 100 metres away. Mind you, this last section includes some exposed ridges with deadly precipices on both sides so don’t go if you have vertigo.

If you reach the saddle, you can see something like this: Morskie Oko and a smaller lake a bit higher.
If you reach the saddle, you can see something like this: Morskie Oko and a smaller lake a bit higher.

Other possible destinations

Apart from the steep drop below the path, where you have to mind every step, it’s a much easier hour back to the refuge. Depending on your speed, you can be back at your car in less than another 2 hours.

The Five Lakes Valley offers a number of hiking trails that all promise stunning views from the top of the High Tatras. It takes about one hour to 90 minutes to reach Zawrat, Kozi Wierch or Kozia Przełęcz, all three along the famous Eagle’s Path (Orla Perć), without question the most difficult and dangerous public path in the Tatras. While the treacherous route itself is off limits in winter, you can visit these three points.

The western range of the High Tatras and one of the five lakes from Szpyglasowy Wierch
The western range of the High Tatras and one of the five lakes from Szpyglasowy Wierch

Finally, a few words about safety. That the trails are open in winter doesn’t mean they are entirely safe, far from it. You should check the weather conditions and the avalanche risk level (here) before you set off. Invest on proper winter trekking gear (crampons, waterproof boots, gaiters, possibly ice axe and helmet, map, cellphone, head torch, sunglasses, etc.). Always adapt to the weather conditions and respect the mountain. Do not take unnecessary risks – that dream view can wait.

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