Slovakia’s most spectacular national park, the High Tatras, celebrates its 70th birthday in 2019, and it’s time for you to head to this unique adventure site. The snowy peaks and peace of this paradise make these mountains a must; you can choose to spy on the continent’s most amazing wildlife or satisfy your thirst for adrenaline on the snowy and rugged slopes.
Having said that, this is the least extended mountain range in the world at this altitude, only 55 km, but it manages to combine natural environments and an eclectic mix of outdoor activities: hut to hut excursions, skijoring (cross-country skiing pulled by horses or other animals), husky sleighs and rafting in the gorge below. While in the intermediate stretches of forest you can take part in a tour to safely observe the brown bear-watching.
One of the characteristics that make this park so interesting is the abundance of peaks that reach 2500 meters, twenty-five in all. The High Tatras are one of the rare places in Europe, outside the Alps, that maintain the Alpine characteristics and the topographical range that welcomes potential visitors is dynamic and is distributed in five different scenarios.
You can distinguish lush hills at 700-800 meters high, dark forests of Carpathian beeches or fir that reach 1500 meters, pale green expanses of kosodrevina or dwarf pine at the turn of 1500-1700 meters, high altitude prairies known as luky that can reach 2000 meters, while from 2000 meters to the top is a band, rich in mountain lakes, called tatry, a barren and rocky terrain from which it is thought to derive the word “tatra”.
Thanks to the proximity of these different areas, each landscape can include the grey, white and black of the tatry, the deep blue of the alpine lakes, the attractive shades of luky, kosodrevina and the forest below. A single walk can catapult you through all five ecosystems in just a few hours.
The diversity of the landscape on the one hand pushes humans to explore these areas, on the other hand it attracts many wild animals, including three of the five main European species: the brown bear, the wolf and the Eurasian lynx, which could peep out on your day of adventure.
Long-term protection has impeccably preserved the environment, as the authorities, from both the Slovak and Polish sides of the mountain, have been working together since the early 1950s to form the first transnational protected region here.
Hiking and climbing
Nothing can show you the beauty of the High Tatras as an excursion. There are routes of all kinds: red (difficult or long), blue (intermediate) or green and yellow (connections) that wind along the slopes. It is also possible to organize trekking for several days thanks to the presence of shelters at intervals of about a day’s walk. Traditional food is served in these shelters and the accommodation can be surprisingly sophisticated considering that these shelters are located in the middle of nature. Sleeping in the mountains, instead of having to return to the valley base for the night, is a very inviting prospect. For fans, the real experience is the Tatraská Magistrala, a 45 km long route that takes three full days of walking along the entire mountain range below the highest peaks between 1200 and 2000 m.
Those who have neither the time nor the inclination to complete the entire route can try one of its most spectacular parts: Štrbské pleso, a 20-hectare lake very often mentioned in the list of the most beautiful places in the world, offers a three-hour round trip that emerges from the forest and then walk around the lake Popradské pleso, which is even more surprising. Here, a refuge can offer you a pleasant and well-deserved refreshment, while the natural spur climbs up to the Sedlo pod Ostrvou that looms from above. Go back to the touching symbolický cintorin, a memorial dedicated to those who lost their lives in these mountains.
Some of the longer trails also include challenging climbing passages, and if you want to raise the stakes and try a serious climb, there are some interesting slopes to tackle. For more difficult climbs, you must either be accompanied by a guide or register with the Slovak Mountaineering Association first.
You may be lucky enough to have a chance encounter with one of the last great European carnivores to roam the wild in these areas, but it is safer (and the chance to see them is even higher) to opt for a guided adventure.
A brown bear on top of a sheer drop in the High Tatras mountains in Slovakia
Adventoura organizes special excursions between June and October to observe brown bears, but also other activities such as sledding tours from December to March, where you can pamper your husky suit and skijoring, where you will be pulled on skis by a horse.
Other interesting creatures to observe in the area are the Tatra chamois, with its distinctive curved horns, the Alpine marmot and adorable mountain squirrels that fill the air with the echo of their verses.
In the depths of the earth
If you get tired of the dizzying and snowy peaks, the region also offers an interesting dimension at a lower level. The Belianska cave, not far from Tatranská Kotlina, offers underground emotions thanks to its walls rich in stalactites. Take advantage of the 1.5 km tour to explore its shape and hidden lakes.
The light-lit Belianska cave has stalactites, stalagmites and underground lakes.
From the eastern border of the High Tatras, a 30 km journey is enough to be in the heart of another national park, this time that of Pieniny. In this beautiful place you can experience one of the most special activities in the region: from the village of Červený Kláštore you can descend the river on wooden rafts with flat bottoms, pushed by poles and accompanied by guides in traditional costumes.
Franz Kafka may have stayed here in the past, but today the most interesting inhabitants of the High Tatras are the Goral Mountains. This population has remained strongly anchored in its pastoral traditions and communities, such as those in Ždiar, which are famous for their decorated wooden cottages, their musical culture and their previously embroidered clothes.
How to reach the High Tatras
The accessibility of the High Tatras is one of its strong points. Poprad, the city at the base of the mountains, has international flights to London and is connected by train to Bratislava, which is 330 km southwest. From Poprad, a combination of mountain railways, funiculars and gondolas can conveniently take passengers to the reliefs in 30-90 minutes, depending on the altitude you want to reach.