Morskie Oko is one of the true highlights of a trip to the Polish Tatra Mountains and the town of Zakopane. It’s a jaw-dropping alpine lake that sits in a deep valley right on the edge of the country, with the soaring peak of Rysy (the highest in Poland) keeping watch overhead.
This guide outlines everything you need to know about planning a visit, the hike to get there, alternative hikes in the region, and a whole load more. Let’s begin…
This article may contain affiliate links to hotels, services, and other extras that will earn us something if you click through and book. It’s what helps us keep offering great info on Krakow, so thanks for that!
This is just one part of a complete guide to the town of Zakopane
What’s in this guide?
What is Morskie Oko?
First thing’s first: What exactly is Morskie Oko? Morskie Oko is one of the most famous lakes in Poland. It’s set deep inside the Tatra National Park under a series of mountains, including Rysy, the highest peak in the country. It’s famed for its natural beauty and is now one of the most popular places to visit in and around the southern mountain town of Zakopane, largely because it’s both spectacularly beautiful but also very accessible. It draws thousands of visitors each year with its clear alpine water and wonderful setting amid the Carpathian range. We’d say it should be close to the top of your to-do list if you’re planning on visiting the highlands south of Krakow.
Where is Morskie Oko?
Morskie Oko is in the valley of Rybi Potok that cuts through the far eastern end of the Polish Tatra Mountains. Only a stone’s throw from the Slovak border on two sides, it’s about 40 minutes’ drive by public bus out of Zakopane, which is the nearest major town. More generally speaking, the lake is within the Podhale region, the southernmost region in Poland, some 60 miles south of Krakow as the crow flies. It sits at 1,393 meters above sea level in a gap between the peaks above, one of which – Rysy – is the highest mountain in the country.
How to get to Morskie Oko?
We’ll assume you’re already in Zakopane. From there, it’s super easy to get to Morskie Oko by car, bus, or even private taxi. Here’s a detailed look at all the transport options:
- Car – The best way to get to Morskie Oko is to drive yourself. Go early if that’s the plan because the parking at the trailhead will fill up fast. Set the sat nav to Palenica Bialczanska or Łysa Polana. It costs 30 PLN to leave the car there for the whole day.
- Public buses – These leave super regularly from directly opposite the main bus station in Zakopane, located at Kosciuszki 22. You’re looking for the buses that go to Palenica Bialczanska or Łysa Polana (either will do), which is the start of the trail for the lake. The trip is 40 minutes in total and costs 10 PLN per person.
- Taxi – A one-way taxi to Morskie Oko usually costs 120 PLN or even more. We don’t recommend them all that much. Drivers in Zakopane can be unscrupulous and the buses are generally more reliable anyhow.
Remember that when we talk about getting to Morskie Oko from Zakopane, what we’re really talking about is getting to the trailhead for the walk to Morskie Oko. You can’t drive or get a bus all the way to the lake itself because it’s inside the Tatra National Park.
Getting to Morskie Oko from Krakow is a little harder, mainly because it usually involves changing over in Zakopane anyway. You can check our guide on traveling to Zakopane from Krakow to plan that trip, which usually takes two hours or so on the bus or a little more on the train. If you decide to plan each leg yourself like this, it’s usually better to stay at least a night in Zakopane before or visiting the lake itself. That should help you get there early before the crowds and means you’ll get to see the so-called winter capital of Poland in the process.
The other option here is to book yourself onto a planned guided tour that leaves from Krakow and includes Morskie Oko as part of the trip.
We’ll take a more detailed look at some of the best of those a little later on. Suffice to say here they make everything super simple, offering a pick-up at your hotel in Krakow and a transfer straight to the attraction, plus other points of interest along the way. The downside is that they can be a bit rushed and will cost extra. Check out the best on offer right now using Viator.
When to visit Morskie Oko?
Your experience of Morskie Oko lake will change depending on the month you choose to visit. We don’t think that there’s ever really a bad time to go. That said, the summer is certainly the top season because it usually offers the best weather and the highest visibility, though crowds can be a bit of an issue. Here’s a closer look at what to expect from each quarter of the year…
- Summer (June-August) – The peak time to come visit Morskie Oko, the months from June to August are the warmest in the Tatra Mountains and the best overall for hiking, since 100% of the trails will be open and there’s zero risk of avalanches. You’re most likely to have clear views of the valley and the peaks around the lake at this time, but be wary of crowds. AKA: You certainly won’t have the trails to yourself. Another downside is the risk of thunderstorms. It’s common for things to cloud over by the early afternoon. That’s why early morning visits are usually the best.
- Autumn (September-October) – Probably our personal favorite time of year to visit Morskie Oko. Autumns see a fast drop in visitor numbers all over the Zakopane valley, so the trails around the lake get way emptier. September can also have some of the best weather of the year for walkers, offering steady temps in the 70s (20s) and plenty of clear, crisp days.
- Winter (November-February) – Winter means one thing in Morskie Oko: Snow. The white stuff falls in heaps all around Zakopane town. That makes the hike up to the lake a little trickier, especially since you’ll have shorter daylight hours. However, it means you’ll get to see it at its least busy and – here’s the real joy – frozen over. It’s a fantastic sight to behold, but be sure to pack the thermals. Things can hit -20 C in December and Jan!
- Spring (March-May) – Spring is a glorious time to be in the Polish mountains. There’s a peak in crowd numbers for the crocus blooms in Zakopane around April but things are generally pretty quiet. There’s a fair risk of rain but if you time it right you could have fresh, clear days for snapping lovely shots of the lake as the flowers start to come out and there’s still a dusting of snow on the peaks overhead.
The hike to Morskie Oko
The hike to Morskie Oko is one of the most spectacular hikes in Poland. Period. It’s a super-popular route that takes you into the eastern end of the Tatra National Park and through thick groves of pines to gaze upon the highest peaks in the whole country. At around 10 miles (16km) in total (or 8km each way), it’s not a short walk by any estimation. But it is truly accessible, mostly going on paved road and then following well-marked tracks right to the side of the lake.
There are two main parking areas and drop-off points for the buses. The best is the one at Palenica Białczańska because it gets you just a little farther along the trail. However, that will fill up fast so you might need to head back a little to Łysa Polana if you have your own wheels. Once in either of the parking lots, the trail is really easy to find since it’s pretty much the only route that runs southwards into the national park. Be sure to buy your entry ticket to the reserve from the kiosks in the carpark. They cost just 5 PLN ($1) per person but are mandatory.
The initial sections of the hike are on wide asphalt roadway. It’s not steep here, but rather snaking as it moves south through the dense evergreen woods parallel to the Slovakian-Poland border. You’ll cross a bridge over a riverbed that’s usually dried up in the summer months and then pass by the Niżni Glade, a charming alpine meadow on the eastern side of the trail (that’s a lovely spot for a rest if you like).
Around a mile further down the track, the path will bend once or twice and then fork off to the right. The good news is that this is the ONLY fork the whole way. It’s well signposted, directing you to Dolina Roztoki, which is a gorgeous valley in its own right and the way into the legendary Valley of the Five Lakes (another of the region’s top hiking areas). It’s not the way you want to go today, though, so push on through on the road marked for Włosienica.
It’s along the next two miles of walking that the trees will begin to thin out and the outline of the Tatra Mountains start to dominate the horizon. Eventually, you reach the mountain hut at Włosienica, which is where folks on the horse-drawn carriages (more on those below) will need to disembark. This is the last POI before Morskie Oko itself. The lake is about 15 minutes further down the line.
Horse-drawn carriages to Morskie Oko
If you’re not too sure you can make the 16km hike up from the parking lot to the lake then there is an alternative: Horse-drawn carriages. These have been running the route up from the entrance to the national park to Morskie Oko since the early 1990s, though the drivers might tell you that the traditional is even older than that. Truth is, they have long been a source of controversy here. People have questioned the ethics of using horse carriages and the good treatment of the animals themselves. There are many rumors that 2023 will finally see the end of the practice.
Officially, though, they remain on offer. We’ll leave it up to you to decide if they are something you’d like to do. Suffice to say they cost 50 PLN ($10) per person for the ride up and a little less for the ride down. The carriages leave from the parking lot at Palenica Białczańska. You can also choose to ride the carriages one way if you like.
Alternative hikes to Morskie Oko
While the hike to Morskie Oko is fantastic, there’s no doubt that it’s not for everyone. The path is wide and easy for the whole way, and there’s not all that much to satisfy the most dedicated and seasoned ramblers out there. Thankfully, this is the Tatra National Park and that means there’s always an alternative route, provided you don’t mind a few more hours on the trail. We especially like the following routes:
- Valley of the Five Lakes – Arguably the best hike in the whole Zakopane region, this one takes you into the valley right next door to Morskie Oko. It’s filled with lakes (five, in fact!) and has front-on views of mountains like Kozi Wierch. It’s a long trek, taking at least three hours if you add on the extension to Morskie Oko at the end. What’s really great is that it’s on proper mountain trials, not the concrete path that you take to Morskie Oko directly. Plus, the crowds are nowhere near the same.
- Szpiglasowy Wierch – For a real challenge, head into the Valley of the Five lakes but take the Szpiglasowy Ridge around and then into the south side of the Morskie Oko valley. This is a ganrly hike with scrambling sections and other parts that need wire assistance. It takes 5-7 hours and isn’t open in the winter months.
The hike around Morskie Oko
One of the best things to do once you reach the lakeside of Morskie Oko is to take the route that encircles the whole thing. This will add nearly two miles to the total hiking distance but is well worth it because you’ll get to appreciate the lake from all angles. The path isn’t quite the wide tarmac road that brings you to Morskie Oko from the carpark but it’s very well maintained. It’s also riddled with mini beaches and clusters of pine trees on the lakeshore, which are perfect for settling in for a picnic.
Where to stay for visiting Morskie Oko
The way we see it, you have two choices when it comes to visiting Morskie Oko.
1) Stay in Zakopane. and make the trip over to the hiking path when it suits you. You’ll need to leave early to avoid the crowds, so it means a 6am breakfast ideally. On the plus side, you’ll get to enjoy all that Zakopane has to offer, which is considerably.
2) Stay near to the trailhead for Morskie Oko so you can get hiking before anyone else. This is a great option if you’re after those empty Insta shots or want to experience the Tatras without the crowds.
We have a complete guide to the best hotels in Zakopane that we update regularly if you preferred option number one. To sum that up quick, we’d say that there’s really nothing that can beat a proper Polish mountain spa hotel, and the five-star Grand Stamary is super, super close to the buses for connecting to Morskie Oko. We really can’t recompense that enough. It’s got a stunning pool and spa area, plus is steps from the station.
If you prefer the sound of option two, then you’re in a for a treat. Staying out of Zakopane has its downside (no bars, no nightlife, fewer restaurants), but also its upsides. You’ll be immersed in Polish countryside, have views of the mountains, and get to stay in traditional highland taverns and cottages. There are some very nice places close to the entrance to Morskie Oko….
- Domki na Głodówce – A set of luxury highland chalets with traditional wooden architecture, all doe out beuatifullyy with self-catering kitchens and family lounges. These are the closest of all hotels listed here to Morskie Oko. You can even hike straight from your door if you don’t mind adding a kilometer to the trek.
- Szymkówka – Even more classic Zakopane-style cabins. These are a little too far to hike from directly but have epic mountain views. They’re also proper rustic, pioneer stuff.
- Hotel BUKOVINA – Hotel BUKOVINA is the hotel that’s attached the region’s famous spa baths. Guests get access to heated indoor and outdoor pools with head-on views of the Tatras. They’re pretty special.
Where to eat at Morskie Oko?
The PTTK Morskie Oko Mountain Hut offers a lovely place to settle in for a bite to eat, right on the edge of the waters. It’s an historic mountain refuge that dates back over 100 years. There’s an on-site restaurant that serves traditional Polish food. You can check out the menu here. For us, the highlights have to be the crispy potato pancakes and the pierogi dumplings filled with mashed potato. Get there early if you want to score outdoor seating – it filled up very fast indeed!
The best photo spots around Morskie Oko
There’s a fine view of Morskie Oko to be had at the end of the main trail, that’s for sure. You’ll be able to gaze straight across the lake southwards at the jagged tops of the Mięguszowiecki massif. It’s riddled with peaks and troughs, and the glowing green-blue water of the water makes for some fantastic viewing right in front. Sadly, the crowds can be overwhelming there unless you get in really early, so it’s almost impossible to get a shot without someone else in the frame.
A better view and without so many people around can be had if you push on to the extension up to Czarny Staw (details on that above). That trail veers off from Morskie Oko and climbs another 200m up. From there, you can turn back and take in the whole length of the valley behind. It’s great because Morskie Oko opens up right in front of you
Day tours to Morskie Oko from Krakow
You don’t have to be staying in Zakopane to visit this wonder of the Tatras. We think it’s the better way of doing things, not least of all because the Zakopane itself is certainly worth seeing. However, there are also day trips out of Krakow that can whisk you south to the Tatras, up to Morskie Oko, and then back to the big city in as little as 12 hours.
Here are some of the highest-rated packages:
- From Krakow: Morskie Oko, Zakopane & Thermal Baths (from $180 per person) – At a full 14 hours, this tour is likely to be a tiring one. Then again it includes a stop in one of the region’s famous thermal baths to unwind after you’ve done the hike to Morskie Oko. You’ll also visit Zakopane town itself.
- Morskie Oko – private tour from Krakow (from $124 per person) – Get yourself a private tour of the mountain lake by booking onto this well-rated package. It includes all the basics, from pick-up in Krakow to a fully guided hike with commentary.
- From Krakow: Morskie Oko in the Tatra Mountains and Slovakia Treetop Walk (from $166 per person) – We love this tour, which includes a trip to the Polish and the Slovakian Tatras, with a treetop walk and the hike to Morskie Oko itself.