The Tatra National Park – or the Tatrzański Park Narodowy in Polish – is the national park that covers the majority of the highest mountains around the town of Zakopane in southern Poland. We’d say it’s by far the number one attraction in the so-called Winter Capital of Poland, where people go to hike by summer and to ski by winter. To put it another way – it’s not to be missed if you’re heading to Zakopane for a spell during your trip to Krakow.
In this ultimate guide to the Tatra National Park, we’ll talk about all the ins and the outs of the Tatra National Park. We’ll deal with all the practicalities of planning a trip there, and look at the top things to do in the famous reserve. Let’s go…
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What’s in this guide to the Tatras?
What is the Tatra National Park?
The Tatra National Park is the designated nature reserve that covers the highest mountains in all of Poland. It’s protects a large swathe of the country’s stunning highlands immediately south of the town of Zakopane. It’s a major draw for hikers in the warmer months and skiers in the winter months, though much of the skiing in Zakopane actually takes place on slopes outside of the national park itself due to regulations on what can and can’t be built.
Where is the Tatra National Park?
The Tatra National Park is in the far south of Poland. It’s officially a part of the Lesser Poland Voivodeship—Małopolska region, the same as both Krakow and the town of Zakopane. In fact, the town of Zakopane sits immediately to the north of the reserve, marking the boundary between the hills and the mountains proper. The Slovakia-Poland national border is actually situated within the Tatra National Park. It runs along a high ridge and marks the beginning of an adjoining nature reserve on the Slovak side.
How to get to the Tatra National Park?
Don’t ask how to get to the Tatra National Park. Ask how to get to Zakopane. This town is very much the steppingstone into the reserve. Thankfully, it’s extremely well-linked to Krakow. We have a complete guide on all the ways you can arrive (our favorite is the train), which outlines the various travel times and whatnot.
Once you’ve reached Zakopane, it’s actually possible to walk to the entrance to the Tatra National Park. There are a few separate gates, the most popular being the one in the village of Kuznice (30 minutes by foot or 10 minutes by bus from the center of Zakopane). Quieter entry points await at Leśniczówka and Kościelisko, but you’ll be better having your own car to reach those.
What’s in the Tatra National Park?
The Tatra National Park encompasses a whole run of various mountain valleys – known locally as Dolina. They go from Łysa Polana in the east to the remote Dolina Chochołowska in the west. As they creep southwards, those valleys eventually meet the front range of the Tatras themselves, which very suddenly get to over 2,500 meters above sea level at the summit of Rysy, the tallest mountain in Poland.
Rysy is actually one of the easternmost summits here. Off its craggy top spans a whole ridge that runs the length of the Slovakian border. That links up some of the most inconic mountains in the region, from Kasprowy Wierch – the home of the only ski resort in the High Tatras of southern Poland – to Gaborowa Przełęcz Wyżnia.
At lower levels, you can expect to see beautiful forests of spruce and fir, all cut through by gurgling rivers that will almost completely freeze over in winter to showcase icicle-filled waterfalls. Go higher and you can leave behind the woods to reach exposed ridges that have stunning views into Slovakia and across the Polish foothills to the north.
Hiking in the Tatra National Park
The hiking season in the Tatra National Park is a long one. It runs from the first snowmelt in spring to the first snowfall, usually in November, though there are some shorter hiking routes that are open all year round. There are a whopping 99 individual trails to get through, which is plenty – we’ve been coming on and off for the best part of a decade and still have loads to conquer.
The most popular of the bunch are probably:
- The ascent of Kasprowy Wierch – This can be done from Kuznice town and extended to include a mountain lake a long ridge walk on top of Slovakia.
- The Valley of the Five Lakes/ Dolina Pieciu Stawów – This is a seriously gorgeous walk that takes 2+ hours in all. It goes through one of the eastern valleys under Rysy mountain, which hosts five stunning lakes.
- Morskie Oko – This one almost certainly deserves its own sub-section it’s that popular. Suffice to say this is certainly the most-trodden route in the park. It’s relatively easy, takes about an hour and culminates with a view of a beautiful lake under the hulking top of Mnich mountain.
Skiing in the Tatra National Park
There’s only one place where you can ski in the Tatra National Park: Kasprowy. This was one of the original ski fields in south Poland and it’s served by the Kolej Kasprowy Wierch Kuźnice cable car, which is one of the oldest in the country. Since that was built, the law has changed and the park has been expanded, which has limited the size of the ski resort and stopped it from using artificial snowmaking. Thankfully, there’s usually plenty of the white stuff from December onwards, and skiers here get an array of high-altitude runs that are the closest thing you’ll get to proper Alpine skiing if you ask us.
It’s super-important to be there early because the cable car (more on it below) always has a queue from 9am onwards.
Other things to do in the Tatra National Park
The vast majority of people come to the Tatra National Park to hike or to ski. Those are the two main attractions here, and they happen at opposite times of the year, almost (skiing by winter, hiking by summer). It all helps to keep the nearby town of Zakopane pretty darn lively no matter the season. There are a few other little draws that you might want to think about. We’ll look at the whole lot in detail right here…
- The Kasprowy Wierch Cable Car – There’s a vintage cable car that can whisk you to the top of Kasprowy Weirch. It’s an amazing ride that skims the top of the fir forests and then tops out right by the Slovak border some 2,000 meters above sea level. Tickets are 149 PLN ($32 return).
- Waterfalls – The Tatras are unusually blessed with waterfalls on their north side. Our favourite is probably the Siklawica Waterfall at the end of Dolina Strążyska. Come in winter and you can see it completely frozen.
- Zakopane town – While not technically in the Tatra National Park, Zakopane town is unmissable. It’s got lovely spa hotels and some great mountain taverns to dine in. Cozy by winter and lively by summer, it’s a beauty. Check out bustling Krupowki Street for the best bars and hotels and restaurants.
Tatra National Park ticket and opening times
Everyone who wants to enter the Tatra National Park must buy a ticket. They are available from the booths at the main entry points to the reserve, which are more often than not staffed by a rather grumpy person who will grunt and hand you your stub when you pass over the money. Keep those stubs safe – they say they periodically check that you’ve paid but we’ve never been approached by a ranger.
The prices are as follows:
- Full admission for a day: 9 PLN ($2)
- Reduced entry: 4.5 PLN ($1)
- Week ticket for multiple entries: 45 PLN ($10)
The Tatra National Park doesn’t have strict opening times in that people aren’t ushered out at a certain hour. Instead, you’ll be limited to what time you can enter because of when the ticket booths close, which is 2pm in the winter and 3pm in the spring, and then 4pm for the summer and fall. Don’t worry, either – they don’t seal off the exits and whatnot, so you can still get back to town if your hike passes those times.