Hiking in Zakopane is one of the best adventures that we think you can plan in southern Poland. In just two hours (traffic willing, which it rarely is!) from the City of Kings, you can be cruising into a town that sits in a stunning bowl in the Tatra Mountains. It’s the hub of an area that has trails for all levels, no matter if you’re after chilled walks through wooded valleys or more hardcore romps up the highest peak of Poland (that’s Rysy, in case you were wondering).
In this guide, we’ll take a look at all the ins and outs of hiking in Zakopane to help first-time travelers with the boots in tow plan their jaunt to the southern peaks of Polska. It’s got all you need to know, from what to expect from the hiking on a general level to how to get to the town in the first place, along with tips on the best seasons for walking holidays in Zakopane and what hotels will get you close to the trailheads. Let’s begin…
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This guide to hiking in Zako is just one part of our complete guide to Zakopane
What’s in this guide to hiking in Zakopane?
The hiking in Zakopane – a quick overview
The hiking in Zakopane is probably the best hiking in Poland. We say that as veterans of several regions, including the much-vaulted hills of Silesia along the Czech border and the more easterly Bieszczady mountains nearer Ukraine. Both of those mentioned, along with plenty of other regions in Poland, certainly have their draws. However, there’s something about the drama of the Tatras that surround Zakopane that elevates it to the very top, no pun intended.
Adding to that, it’s difficult to overstate the sheer variety of hiking routes that are on the menu here. There are simple valley routes that leave from the town at one of the spectrum, matched by hard-going scrambles to 2,700-meter-high summits on the other. There are even routes for total pros, requiring special gear and via ferrata experience to complete.
The mountains around Zakopane
Naturally, most of the hiking in Zakopane focuses on the mountains. The mountains in question are the High Tatras. That’s the northernmost belt of the Tatra range, which extends from here across the Slovakian border. The Tatras themselves are a small part of the greater Carpathian range, a squiggle of peaks that runs in an S-bend from the edges of the Czech Republic all the way into the heart of the Balkans.
The most-vaunted part of the Zakopane mountains for hikers has to be the bit that’s included within the Tatra National Park. They lie immediately to the south, starting in earnest about 2km/1.3 miles from the city center and ending on a high ridge that runs alongside Slovakia (yep, you can hike up and hop over the border!). This is the area you’ll want to grab maps for if you’re serious about hiking in Zako, but more on those later.
There are also some mountains on the north side of the city, though we’re tempted to downgrade that moniker to hills. Why? They are but a fraction of the height of their compadres over the far side, rising to a few hundred meters above sea level. Oddly, this is the string of hills that host most of the smaller ski slopes in Zakopane, along with a web of easier hiking paths that level out with stunning panoramas of the distant Carpathians – the views there are fantastic, even if the hiking isn’t.
The town of Zakopane is probably most famed as the winter capital of Poland. It sits in a relatively high-altitude valley in the midst of the Polish Tatra Mountains, just a stone’s throw (literally at some points) from the Slovak border.
It’s a charming place with a very distinct look – expect to see wood-carved highlander cottages with high chimney stacks and overhanging gables that grow massive icicles in the wintertime. The main drag is Krupowki Street and we love it. The whole thing is a mass of outdoors shops selling walking boots and gear, but also hearty taverns with cold Polish beer and vodka by the bucket load.
How to get to Zakopane
Located just 50 miles south of Krakow itself, the city – which is now hailed as the unofficial winter capital of Poland – is one of the most accessible day-tip or multi-day-trip destinations in the region. There are buses, trains, and improving road links on offer, which should help you complete the trip in something like 2-3 hours maximum.
One caveat: Those renting a car for their hiking trip in Zakopane will have more freedom to escape to more distant hikes deeper in the national park and the areas around Zakopane. However, traffic can be a NIGHTMARE on the road down from Krakow, particularly in the peak summer months of July and August (and in the flip winter season when skiing in Zakopane takes over from the walking). We’ve been stuck in traffic for upwards of three hours in the past. Not good.
When to hike in Zakopane?
There’s no best time to go hiking in Zakopane. Truth is, every season has its ups and its downs. There’s no doubt that most people think the summer reigns supreme, and we’d have to agree that there’s nothing quite like seeing the Valley of the Five Lakes on a balmy July morning with butterflies and wildflowers in abundance. Then again, the winter can also be spectacular, though there’s a significantly depleted range of routes that are open on account of heightened avalanche warnings. Here’s a look at each of the seasons in turn…
Second only to autumn on the line up of the best times to hike in Zakopane, the spring begins in earnest around the end of March. A real transition period, thermometers can easily hover around just 43 F/6 C at the start of spring but be soaring at 63 F/16 C towards the end.
The real drawcard for hikers in Zakopane at this time is the crocus bloom. It happens in the second or third week of March and lasts until the start of April, turning some of the outer Zakopane valleys – Koscelisko, Kiry – into seas of pinkish flowers that looks positively lovely.
If we had to come up with a downside of spring, we’d say it’s the rain. Unpredictable is the keyword. We’ve been walking in the high Tatra in March and not felt a drop of rain in two days. We’ve also been in May and returned to our hotel drenched from top to bottom. Some years, you’ll also catch the tail end of the Zakopane snow season in early spring, which can make hiking at higher altitudes a little harder.
Don’t assume that the summer – because it’s the hottest and driest season in south Poland – is the best time of all for hiking. You’ll certainly have a great time if you come between June and August, since thermometers stick to above 68 F/20C most days and there’s plenty of daylight to fit in those longer treks and multi-day hikes. The forests are also in full bloom and there’s life in the wilderness to witness.
There are caveats to a hiking trip in Summer, though. First, it’s busy. This is the main issue for us. We’ve done several jaunts to the Tatra in July and promised we’d never try it again – think two-hour queues on the roadway into town and then trails that were nothing short of rammed. Second, it can be too hot. Contrary to Poland’s rep as a place of dank winters and snow, the summers here can get scorching. Leaving early for your hikes is key at this time.
We’re inclined to agree with most of the locals that the autumn is the best time of all to come hiking in Zakopane. The Poles call it the Golden Autumn (Zlota Jesien), because it’s the season when the trees begin to change color, doing a fine impression of the forests of New England as they go ochre and orange and yellow.
Weather in the fall also aligns nicely for hikers. Early on, it can still be balmy (around 60 F/16 C) in the day and with plenty of sunshine. By the end of the season, it’s crisper and cooler. Hit Zako right in the middle to find a sweet spot, balancing dry hiking paths with long-ish days.
Another bonus: The crowds of the summer have gone and Zakopane is nowhere near as busy as it was in August. That brings down the cost of hotels and travel, but also means you can experience the Tatras without jostling for space, especially at key hiking spots like Morskie Oko.
We’ve already mentioned how Zakopane is the winter capital of Poland. That means snow. Lots of it. Even the name of the town roughly translates to “buried,” referring to the thick blankets of the white stuff that come when December swings around. That’s matched by positively freezing – literally! – conditions that can sometimes hit -25 C or more.
Naturally, the weather at this time of year will have a huge impact on the nature of the hiking. For one, lots of trails are totally closed due to increased avalanche risk. Others are open but present a considerable challenge compared to what they do in the summer months.
On the flip side, you can expect the hiking paths to be relatively empty, and there are some seriously gorgeous moments to be had in pristine valleys filled with snowdrift when you’re the only one around. Zakopane itself is also super-duper cozy – think taverns serving hot soups and warmed by crackling fires.
The best Zakopane hikes
As we’ve mentioned, there are countless hiking paths to enjoy in this charming hill town of south Poland. There are also some that we think stand head and shoulders above the rest for their unrivaled views and whatnot. Those are the ones we’ll focus on here…
If you only have time to pick one hiking path in Zakopane, make it the route to the top of Kasprowy Wierch. This is a 8/9-hour up and back that leads to the towering peak that keeps watch over Zakopane itself. You can do it in either direction, but we like the way that begins with the wooded valley of Dolina Gąsienicowa after leaving the base station in Kuznice. That takes you through a charming plateau with dwarf pines and a glistening lake up a steep slope to the summit. It’s the same route you’d take to the iconic Giewont – the most prominent mountain looming over Zakopane. At the top, you can peer over into Slovakia and see the main ski station (which has a ridiculously expensive restaurant). The way back goes straight off the front of the mountain, zigzagging on exposed ridges back to the treeline and then the town.
Dolina Pieciu Stawów
Dolina Pieciu Stawów translates roughly to the valley of the five lakes. That’s the goal on this 2/3-hour hike circuit, which can also be extended to let you stay a night in the High Tatras. The start of the path takes you past the famous lake of Morskie Oko. That will be busy no matter the time of the year. Push on through and keep going when you reach the Wodogrzmoty Mickiwicza waterfall and you’ll come to the valley entrance in about 30 minutes. There are – you guessed it! – five lakes in there to see, each more see-through than the last. You can also survey the sometimes-snow-topped ridges of Kasprowy Wierch from the southeast.
The route that everyone and their grandma must do in Zakopane, at the very least, is Morskie Oko. It’s not hard at all. Park up at the Palenica Białczańska lot on the eastern side of town and press on up the slightly sloping tarmac road. Taking just 2 hours in all, the path is well kept and protected, mainly weaving through thick pine woods. The finale is the sighting of one of the most famous lakes in the Tatras, Morskie Oko – the eye of the sea. It’s like a mirror under the peaks.
Get up early to conquer the circular route that runs along the knife-edge ridge between Kresanica and Kasprowy Wierch. Starting in the west, you head up Dolina Małej Łąki and then ascend over exposed tussock ridges the first summit. From there, you follow the line of the international border between Slovakia and Poland to the next mountain along. There are one or two light scrambling sections here and steep drops on both sides. The views of both countries are truly exceptional, though.
Gubałówka probably wouldn’t make it onto many lists of the best hiking in Zakopane, but we include it here because it’s a great choice for novice walkers who don’t want anything too strenuous. Remember we mentioned that the mountains on the north side of town are lower? Well…here they are. You can take a path from the bottom of Krupowki street to reach the top and have it done in 45 minutes if you’re quick. It’s softly sloped and easy going, with some tree coverage. You can ease things up even more by taking the funicular back down. There’s a bar at the top with great views of the Tatras.
Level: Very hard
Rysy is the highest peak in Poland and one of the most challenging ascents in the Tatras around Zakopane. It’s a whole-day thing, taking 6.5 hours just to the summit. First, you must complete the route to Morskie Oko, then you push on to an even higher lake (Czarny Staw) and hit very steep routes on the slopes beyond. It requires good fitness and experience but promises to put you at the highest point in Poland!
What to take hiking in Zakopane?
This all depends on what time of year you’re going to be hiking. You can check above more detailed info on what it’s like to walk here at different times of the year but suffice to say it varies A LOT. From heavy snowdrifts and ice-caked ascents to sunbaked ridge walks that are totally exposed, there’s plenty to consider when you pack.
Where to stay when hiking in Zakopane
We’d actually say that picking a good hotel for your Zakopane walking jaunt is one of the most important things. Some will get you close to the start of the trails. Others put you in the thick of the town center, which is better for dining and drinking once you’ve completed your day walks. What’s more, the south side of the city is closest to the highest mountains, while the northern side is nearer the lower hills for more casual walkers.
Here are just a handful of our top recommendations and the reason why we love them so much for hiking trips to Zako:
Best for: Authentic Gorale mountain feel
Nestled in the woods on the fringe of the mountains, Willa Weronika is a charming mountain cottage that’s done in the hearty style of Zakopane. Outside, it’s all steep roofs and overhanging gables. Inside, the wood-carved walls give way to roaring fires and beds draped in faux furs. Come here if you want something uber cozy that’s just a few steps outside of the national park.
Grand Nosalowy Dwór
Best for: Some luxury right on the cusp of the mountains
This hotel is a relatively new addition to the line up of options in Zakopane. The location is pretty darn fantastic if your main priority is getting on the trails, since the Tatra National Park starts literally just over the road – we’d say that’s about 15 minutes’ walking from the major trailheads at Kuznice village.
We’ve stayed here twice for hiking and have to say we sometimes feel it’s a little stale (a touch modern, a touch distant from the taverns in the center). However, the facilities are second to none. There’s an indoor pool, saunas, steam rooms, stunning suites with mountain views. You can’t really go wrong if that’s the sort of thing you want.
Good Bye Lenin Hostel Zakopane
Best for: Budget hiking trips
We can’t sing the praises of Good Bye Lenin Hostel enough. This hostel chain first made its name in Krakow (we think) before setting up shop in Zakopane. And they set up shop in real style, choosing a cozy little cabin on the south side of town, closer to the mountains than to the bars. Accordingly, it’s risen to become a real haunt of adventure types. On any given day, you’ll encounter trail runners and long-distance trekkers bedding down here, and we’ve had some pretty fun (read: beer-heavy) evenings meeting, mingling, and chatting through the Tatras with said folks. Beds are cheap and rooms are all dorms, but it’s all clean and the location is top.