Hiking the High Tatras in Winter

While Slovakia itself is pretty small, it certainly boasts a lot of epic scenery.  Commonly nicknamed the “Little Big Country”, Slovakia varies widely in natural landscapes as you move west to east in the country.  The flat plains to the east along the winding Danube, give way to breathtaking peaks in the central region before becoming rolling hills and valleys that are found in the far east.

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The most scenic valley along the trial to Zamkovskeho Chata

The High Tatras create a natural border between Poland and Slovakia and are Slovakia’s highest and most epic peaks.  These craggy mountains will keep photographers, mountaineers, and hikers occupied for days despite the parks rather small size of 64 km in length and 15 km in width.  Due to snow and risk of avalanches, all of the peaks within the park are closed until June, meaning you cannot expect to do any summiting during the winter months. While skiing and other winter activities take precedent over hiking during the winter months, hikers can still enjoy a plethora of hikes during the coldest months of the year.

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Craggy peaks can be spotted throughout the entire National Park

Don’t let the limited access during the winter months deter you if you are a hiker.  Claire and I spent several days in the park that becomes a winter wonderland of sorts during the snowy months.  Even with the peaks closed, there are plenty of open trails that will satisfy your elevation fix for the day.  Below I have detailed the hikes we completed during our stay in the region and also some tips for how to get around and where to stay.

Hike 1: Popradske Pleso

Distance: 8.2 km (5 miles)

Highlight: Beautiful Lake surrounded by snowy peaks

elevation Gain: 270 meters (820 feet)

Popradske Pleso
The scenery around Popradske Pleso is incredible and it is easily accessible.

This is a great, short little hike to Lake Popradske.  The lake is surrounded by mountains offering some of the great scenery and is easily accessible.  There is a Chata (mountain house) on the lake where you can buy lunch and warm drinks at very affordable prices.  While covered in snow, the route up to the lake is a road, with a layer of snow kept for Cross Country skiers and is a gradual accent for most of the way up.

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The lodge up by the lake is a good place to warm up, grab some food, and have a drink

To get here, take the electric train from where you are staying to Popradske Pleso station.  From the station, follow the signs that lead you to the road and from here it is a 4.1km hike to the lake.

Popradski Pleso
The lake frozen over and covered with snow

Hike 2: Vysoke Tatry – Zamkovskeho Chata

Distance: 12 kilometers (7.4 miles)

Highlight: 3 Waterfalls, and excellent viewpoints of the most famous valley in the Tatras.

Elevation Gain: 450 meters (1,476 feet)

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The first waterfall continues to tumble down the valley

This is the best winter hike in all of the Tatras that is accessible to most people.  The trail is beat down by cross country skiers making it easy to find and much easier to hike with snow on the ground.  The hike is rather mundane in the beginning as you hike your way up to Hrebienok from Vysoke Tatry.  If needed, there is a cog train that will take you up to Hrbienok, but it is rather expensive considering how easy the walk up is.  Once you reach the top, the area offers you great views into the valley and an excellent panorama of mountains, including Slavkovsky Stit.  From here, take the train down into the valley that heads towards Bilikova Chata.  Keep walking past the Chata and follow the signs to the waterfalls.

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Valley views heading back down into the valley

 

The first waterfall is most certainly the best, so be sure to spend some extra time here.  The view of the river and subsequent falls down into the valley are a great place to take a break and take some photos.  Once you’ve had enough, head back up the trail and continue to the next set of falls, Vodopady Studeneho Potoka.  Follow the trail towards Rainerova Chata and then take the trail across the stream towards Zamkovskeho Chata.  You will soon pass your third waterfall and begin your steepest accent of the day towards Zamkovskeho.  This section of the trail offers incredible views as you zig zag your way up the mountain valley.

Zamkovskeho Chata
Zamkovskeho Chata

Once at the Chata, take a break with the other hikers and skiiers, grab something warm and have your well deserved lunch.  From here you have two options.  You can either head back the way you came or continue on to Skalnate Pleso from where you can take chair lifts down to the town Tatranska.  The town has a train stop from where you can catch a ride back to your accommodation.  Skalante Pleso is 3.2 km from Zamkovskeho.

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Mountain views all day

Hike 3: Vysoke Tatry – Zbojnicka Chata

Distance: 16 km (10 miles)

Highlight: Challenging hike that brings you through pine forests and then up into the rocky valley that narrows as you approach Zbojnicka

Elevation Gain: 930 meters (3,051 feet)

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The valley offers views all the way up

This hike should only be completed by those who are physically fit and requires hikers to traverse through heavy snow fall.  Due to elevation and less traffic, the upper parts of this hike are covered in several feet of snow, which you will have to push through.  It is a great hike but you need to be prepared for this one.

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Getting snowy up at the top

The hike begins the same way as hike 2, but branches off the left at Rainerova Chata (follow the signs to Zbojnicka).  The next leg of the hike is rather peaceful, as the grade is fairly easy and you are surrounded by towering pines and piles of white snow.  Once you pass the tree line, the trail gradually becomes more steeper and barren.  The last 2.5 kilometers is rather steep, and takes a lot of effort given the amount of snow.  After fighting with the snow, wind, and cold, the Chata will be a comforting sight to see.  Head inside to warm up and dry off your boots by the fire.  You deserve it after this one.

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Looking back down into the valley

The way back down is perhaps more difficult than the way up but in a different way.  Given the grade at the top of the hike and the amount of snow, you feel like you are skiing down the hill at times rather than hiking.  If you’re uncomfortable with slipping, you will have to take it extremely slow on the way back.  If you’re like me, take advantage of the slick snow and slide most of the way down on your feet! (I fell a few times, but hey, a couple of feet of snow makes a good cushion to fall on).  On your way down, be mindful of skiers as they come whizzing past without much warning.

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Looming peaks towering over you

What to Bring

This region of Slovakia is very cold in the winter months and up in the mountains is even colder.  Expect weather to be between -20c (-5F) and not getting much above 0c (32F).  Add in the possible windchill factor and it can get pretty cold.  As with cold weather hiking anywhere, layers are key.  Double layer socks, and multiple layers of clothing (no cotton!) are a must.  Some parts of the hikes I was wearing nothing but a thermal, while other times I was bundled up like the kid in Christmas Story.

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Sun setting as we finish our Popradske Pleso hike

Foot warmers are also a great to throw in your bag.  After a few hours out in the cold, you feet might need them and will be very happy that you brought them along.

If your boots are not waterproof, be sure to buy some waterproofing spray before you hike.  It will keep your feet from getting wet and causing a serious problem.

There is a basic supermarket in Vysoke Tatry, so you can buy most of your food, drinks, and snacks here.

It may be cold, but you still need water.  Bring some with you and drink frequently.

First Aid kit as always.

Where to Stay

The most central location is Vysoke Tatry.  It is located near many of the starting points of treks and has good amenities but retains that alpine town feel.  Claire and I choose to stay in Sibir which is just a 1 km walk from the Vysoke Tatry station.  We had a mini apartment in an old mountain house with a view for about $20 a night.

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Popradske Pleso hike

How to Get Around

To get to different hiking trails, there is an excellent electric train the runs along the main areas and trail heads.  In the winter it only runs about once an hour so be sure to pick up a schedule to see when you need to be at the stations.  You can also not buy tickets on the train itself, so you need to buy them before hand.  Many stations are simply just a platform, so you need to buy them at a main station such as Vysoke Tatry.  While we never saw ticket inspectors on the trains, you never know.

A Great Winter Get Away to Relax

The alpine vibe, the craggy peaks towering overhead, and looking out into the surrounding valley makes for a incredible winter getaway at a really affordable price.  The hikes, while not intense for those who love to hike, are enough to keep you happy but the views look like something taken out of National Geographic.  while you won’t be climbing any peaks, it is hard not to enjoy the atmosphere and epic surroundings of this “Little Big” mountain range.

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Claire being a Jerk

 

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