Hiking in the High Tatras

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Here is the continuation, Part #3, of Alex’ and my “exploring Slovakia with a backpack” trip that took place in the Fall of 2011. We started by through-hiking the Low Tatras, a mountain range in central Slovakia full of beautiful vistas, above-the-tree-line ridge lines, and mountain huts offering beer to the thirsty hikers.

After completing the 5 day hike, we took a bus to Poprad, a town in the foothills of the High Tatras. High Tatras (Vysoké Tatry) form an imposing border between Slovakia and Poland. While the views in the Low Tatras are dominated by grass-covered hills and snaking ridge lines, the High Tatras offer vistas worthy of California’s Sierra Nevadas. In fact, our hike very much reminded me of the 16-day backpacking trip in the California wilderness along the John Muir Trail that I took with friends back in 2007 (when I still had hair).

August 21st, 2011 (Sunday)

But before we would put the hiking shoes back on, we needed some much needed rest. After a night in a real bed in the Tatra Hotel and the included buffet breakfast (where we ate some 3 hot dogs, 2 eggs, 2 sausages, a yoghurt, and numerous pastries each), we decided to spend the day relaxing at Poprad’s Aquacity. One of the first things that any foreign visitor to Slovakia (and to a large extent all neighboring post-communist countries) will notice is the general apathy about upkeep. In order to get to this park, we had to walk along some run-down garages covered in graffiti, and take a sketchy foot path under a bridge. Since Slovakia does not have a sea, water parks like this are common throughout Slovakia – and well visited in the hot summer months. This one was no exception, despite charging a rather high fee by Slovak standards, some 17 EUR per person for an all-day pass.

downtown poprad slovakia
The picturesque Poprad town square

It’s quite interesting to people-watch at places like this. It was really crowded with people of all shapes. One thing we noticed was that the stomachs of Slovak guys are sort of like the rings in a tree trunk – you can estimate somebody’s age by the size of the overhang. We Slovak guys tend to be (as Alex called it) skinny fat guys: they have skinny legs and arms, but a big belly. The same seems to be true about the girls. They are very cute at the young age, but then all of a sudden balloon up and cut their hair short. Another curiosity was a really hairy “Russian-bear” character parading around in tiger-stripped speedos. At the park we grabbed some beers and langoše and relaxed in the water. The park also has a nice cafeteria which actually serves decent food. We had Hungarian goulash there. From the park we headed to the picturesque downtown Poprad. Since it was a Sunday, many shops were closed, but this did not extend to the town square restaurants. We passed a group of folks singing by the historical Church of St. Egidius and then stopped by pizza at the CafeRAZY hotel.

August 22nd, 2011

The next morning we took a bus to Štrbské Pleso, a resort town in the High Tatras. The word pleso means a tarn or a mountain lake. The town is named after an equally named tarn the town sits next to. This town contains many luxury hotels, including the Grand Hotel Kempinski. It is also the starting point for a large number of hikes. If you enjoy challenging hiking you will find yourself right at home in the High Tatras! You can easily spend few weeks here exploring the various trails. There is even a High Tatras version of the Low Tatras magistrála. We contemplated hiking up Rysy, but settled for the “yellow” loop, which you can see on this map. This circular route goes up Mlynická Dolina (dolina means a valley), crosses the Bystrá Lávka saddle, and returns through the Furkotská Dolina.

This is one heck of a hike! One thing you will quickly notice while hiking in Slovakia is that the level of difficult for a normal, stroll-in-the-woods type of hike is much higher than in the US. While in the US you may find switchbacks, in Slovakia you will go straight up. And while you will hardly ever have to take the hands out of your packets on US trails, chains and ladders make a common travel companion in Slovakia (such trails are called via ferrata). This trail is no exception. About half-way up the first valley you will arrive at the vodopád Skok (waterfall Jump). Here you will encounter the first set of chains. These are not particularly challenging. The view from the top of the waterfall is amazing. You can see all the way back to town, and can even see the prominent ski/bungee jumping platform.

mlynicka dolina high tatras vistas solisko peak in high tatras
These are some of the amazing views you will get as you make your way up Mlynická Dolina. The second peak is Solisko. You can take an aerial tram up to the ridge line from town.

waterfall skok view of poprad from skok
Here is the waterfall Skok. The trail, protected by chains, goes up to the left of it. You will get a nice view from the top.

This waterfall is fed by the first large tarn (pleso) you will encounter as you make your way up the valley. The trail follows this general stair-case pattern: you climb up a headwall, then arrive at a flat land with a lake. The final tarn is called Capie Pleso. Here the trail veers left and heads for a “saddle” on the ridge. It really is more of a notch than a saddle. This is where the trail gets rather sketchy. There are several chains leading to the top and the route is rather exposed. Getting to the saddle requires you to basically pull yourself up on chains. But the view you get from the top is absolutely spectacular. The other side looks much more like moonscape, with a large mountain eye, Vyšné Pleso (higher tarn) peeking back at you. This area really reminded me of the Sierra Nevadas. Alex, the climber he is, decided to make his way up the rock formations to the absolute top, while I sort of hang out and hoped not to fall over into the abyss. This section is intended to be one way (the way we came), but in reality there were few people making their way up from the other side. We descended into the valley and then continued down the Furkotská Dolina back into the shrubs (kosodrevina) and finally an evergreen forest (ihličnatý les). We met up with the red-blazed magistrála, which we took back to town.

mountain tarn hiker in high tatras
Here is a view of one of the several tarns you will encounter on this hike. The second picture shows the trail and some hiker.

alex in hihg tatras slovak alpine scenery
As you make your way up, the scenery will become more and more alpine. Trees will turn into shrubs, which will turn into grasses, which will finally give way to mosses and barren rocks.

mountain rescue accident memorial capie pleso
Along the way you will also encounter a memorial dedicated to mountain rescue team which perished during a failed rescue attempt in 1979. The second photo is a look back at Capie Pleso from the route as it starts making it’s way up to the saddle.

bystra lavka trail chains scrambling up bystra lavka
And here are two shots of what the ascent up to the saddle looks like. Right before you get to the ridge you will get to a section where you basically have to pull yourself up on chains.

vysne pleso high tatras brook
But the scramble is totally worth it – the view from the top to Furkotská Dolina is absolutely astounding. Not too long later you will find yourself back among vegetation and bubbly mountain brooks.

amanita red fly agaric red blazed high tatras magistrala
Along the way we found another beautiful fly agaric, or red amanita (muchotrávka červená). Don’t eat these. Although not as toxic as its deadly cousins, the white and green amanita (known as destroying angel and death cap in English), they can still mess you up. The trail back to town still shows evidence of the winter storm that struck Slovakia in the Fall of 2004.

In Štrbské Pleso we took a metro-like electric train back to Poprad. It was really nice and much better than the bus from the morning. An elderly woman from Košice sat down next to us and starting telling us about her handiworks. She is part of a team of grandmas that get together to make handicrafts and then she travels here to sell them to tourists. She had a variety of items: crocheted cloths, Christmas decorations, Easter eggs, table cloths. But I wasn’t too impressed with them. The Easter egss were just painted, I am used to seeing them decorated with hot wax or pieces of straw. She also carried an assortment of herbs for ailments like headache and “women problems”. Alex ended up buying few Christmas tree angel decorations.

strbske pleso kofola and electric train
Štrbské Pleso from which the town took its name. The second picture is of Alex drinking the super popular Cola drink Kofola right before we boarded our train back to Poprad.

We returned back to the High Tatras the following day. But that is a topic of a future post. Continue onto our second hike, Hrebienok to Skalnaté Pleso.