Tatra Mountains: Hiking the Disappearing Border

When I moved to Kraków a couple of years ago, I didn’t expect that I would be able to spend so much time hiking in the mountains.  What I hadn’t realized was that the breathtaking Tatra mountains are just a short drive away. I couldn’t believe that such pristine natural settings were only a couple of hours away from my home. That is how the Tatra range has become my personal retreat into crude mountain silence.

Each venture would start in the town of Zakopane which I passed through not only for the stunning mountains, but also the culture of the Polish highlands that I’ve learned to enjoy a lot. Over my visits I found myself liking the local music, the wooden architecture and even the initially reserved attitude of the indigenous Gorals more and more.

Rapt in Yellow in Western Tatra 

Last fall, I embarked on another trip that turned out to be one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had in the Tatra mountains. The combination of red and yellow leaves standing out against the gray rocks and shimmering streams was simply unforgettable.

But that’s not what I found particularly striking about that trip.

My hiking trip to Wołowiec, during which I passed through Grześ and Rakoń was amazing and deserves a special place in my memory.

Let’s start with some down to earth information. The trip to that location is excellent for people of all ages. I learned that the route is also frequented by enthusiasts of High Tatras, especially the ones who would like to get away for a moment from the rocks, chains, and ladders that are part of their usual experience.

It’s smart to start the journey from the mountain hostel managed by PTTK on the Chochołowska Glade (1148 m) which automatically saves a few hours of hiking that you can instead spend high on the trail. I remember my surprise when I first visited a traditional mountain hostel in Poland.

These hostels are part of the Polish tradition of mountaineering. I can’t even remember how many times I felt the utmost relief when that I saw the roof of such a hostel in front of me after very long and tiring hike. There is a reason why it’s called ‘shelter’ in Polish. It always feels cozy and welcoming, with warm dishes available for exhausted wanderers – the atmosphere in a mountain hostel is simply one-of-a-kind.

But let’s go back to my hiking trip. Reaching Grześ (located at 1653 m) takes approximately one hour and 10 minutes. It’s a yellow trail and the views are simply breathtaking.

Having reached the hostel on the Chochołowska Glade, I turned right and began to walk following the yellow trail. A few moments later, I saw the signpost for Grześ and Wołowiec. At that point, I knew I was on the right track.

Following the Wavelike Path

Entering the forest, I marched along a comfortable path and admired the scenery, taking in the amazing smells of the forest. On my left side, I could see the dried riverbed reminding me of the landscape’s history.

That’s when I began to hike the trail in earnest. A very comfortable path took me through the forest, but soon the trail began to climb up, and after a while, I reached a crossroads.

I decided to turn right in order to check out the Bobrowiecka Pass. It takes just five worthwhile minutes to reach the spot which allows for a closer look at Bobrowiec, the majestic mountain standing right above the valley.

After some rest, I resumed my journey, returning to the crossroads where I turned left to continue following the yellow trail.  The path wound through the forest, wrapping around several times before leading me out of the woods.

Within a quarter of an hour, I was able to see my first destination, Grześ. I remember the amazing smell of the mountain pine and cowberry. I could finally take a real full breath, a sharp and welcome contrast to the suffocating feeling of being in the city.

My next stop was Rakoń (1879 m). This time I followed the blue trail, and it was quite spectacular.  The path starts out easy, beginning with a slight descent before shifting back to a climb. When the pine forest disappeared, I knew I was close to Rakoń – but I had to pass several hills first.

A Calming Emptiness

Once I reached Rakoń, I decided to take a few moments and reflect on the view in front of my eyes. It is worth spending a couple minutes here before going forward to Wołowiec, the final destination on the hiking trail.

The panoramic view of the Slovak part of the West Tatra is breathtaking. But the continuity visible in the landscape also reminded me that boundaries are constructed by humans. Nature knows no boundaries. In the eyes of nature, what I saw was a single ecosystem, a single entity.

The contrast between nature and human civilization reminded me once again how humanity shapes and defines boundaries; how we establish borders and decide to guard them, even when they’re invisible. We need them to order the natural environment, to differentiate between one territory and another.

But then another thought occurred to me – that boundaries are also disappearing. The European Union’s way of governing these man-made boundaries is an example of that process. Can it be that the geographical borders only represent our own limitations?

From Rakoń I continued my hike to Zawarcie, and finally reached my destination – the majestic mountain of Wołowiec.

Standing at over 2000 m, it was quite a sight to behold. I had to be careful because the path leading to Wołowiec was located in a rocky chasm. It’s quite a climb, and the wind blows hard, so travelers need to be extra cautious when walking through that trail.

Return to Good Old Civilization

To return, you can go either through Chochołowska Valley and further to the Chocholowska Glade, or simply continue down to the Kończysty Wierch and turn to the spectacular Trzydniowiański Wierch. The second route offers an opportunity to bypass the Chocholowska Glade from which I departed.

The second option was attractive, but I was tired and I had no energy left for taking in more spectacular mountain sights. So I decided to stick to the simpler trail and head back home, admiring the autumn leaves mingling with the unique mountain views.

I’m sure that I’ll visit that trail the next time fall rolls around, or whenever I feel that my mind needs a purifying goneness.

The Western part of the Tatra mountains offers variability during each and every season. I’ve never been to the mountains in autumn before, and my trip only convinced me further that there is no right or wrong period to hike in the Polish mountains.

No matter when you go, or how many times you hike through, you can count on a different experience each time – while the Tatra are always beautiful, they never look the same.