We spent a week doing various day hikes in the High Tatras of Slovakia and Rysy was our favourite.
You may not be familiar with the High Tatras of Slovakia or their most famous mountain called Rysy. We ourselves weren’t just a few months prior to going. However, having had an awesome time there, we now feel obliged to acquaint you with this beautiful mountain range and their most iconic peak.
The High Tatras are part of the Carpathian Mountain Range. If you have never heard about those, don’t fret, almost no one have. We are currently working on a complete guide to the High Tatras, which will include all you need to know. For this post, it suffices to say that the interesting part of the High Tatras are located in Tatra National Park, right on the border between Poland and Slovakia. It is a great place for skiing in the winter and an even better place for hiking in the summer. Filled to the brim with day hikes, let’s quickly get started telling you about our favourite one:
The Hike to the Top of Rysy – the Tallest Mountain in Poland.
That’s right. Even though you will be hiking up from Slovakia, your end-goal for the day is reaching the tallest peak in all of Poland. At 2,500 metres, that happens to be Rysy. That’s pretty cool, right? There’s not a whole lot of countries in which we have reached the absolute highest point. We guarantee that when you stand up there on the summit, that fact will help the climb feel like one hell of an achievement (did we say climb? oops, we meant hike. sort of).
Hiking from Poland or Slovakia
Rysy can be hiked from both Poland and Slovakia. In Poland, you start from the resort town of Zakopane, take a bus to Palenica and make your way to the famous (and beautiful) lake of Morskie Oko. From here the trail starts for real. Expect a very long day of around 12 hours to make this work.
If you hike from Slovakia, on the other hand, the hike can be done in 8-10 hours. Reportedly, it is not just shorter, but also slightly easier in that you are less exposed towards the top. Hence, we suggest choosing Slovakia as your base, also because the other day hikes there are more interesting and varied. As a final nail in the coffin, Slovakia seemed slightly cheaper than Poland to us, and there are fewer people (although the trail can still be crowded on weekends and in sunny weather).
Rysy Trailhead in the High Tatras of Slovakia
The trail starts in a town known as Štrbské pleso located right at a beautiful alpine lake of the same name. You can drive there yourself, which is what we did, or you can take the train. To shave an hour or so from the hike, we suggest you park right near the train station called Popradske pleso. This is located on a small access road that leads directly to Popradske pleso itself, another beautiful alpine lake located further up the mountain. Several paths are leading up there, but the quickest is an asphalt road used by the local lodges. While you didn’t travel all the way to the remote High Tatras to walk around on asphalt roads, it is a really good idea to save your energy for the later part of the trail and get a bit of a headstart.
Taking the access road also means you won’t get to see Strbske pleso in all its glory on this day – do that on another occasion instead. One where you have time to wander around. This could, for example, be on a day with a sketchy weather forecast. You are also very likely to pass by Strbske pleso on any other day hike that you choose to do in the area, so you’ll definitely find yourself at that particular lake sooner or later.
Parking and Train Station
It just so happens that the best parking spot is located right next to the train station. Get there early, as later in the day the place will be packed with cars. We suggest getting up and going at sunrise – not just for parking accessibility, but also because crowds on the trail are smaller and the weather tends to be better. More about that later.
You just park alongside the road and pay the gentleman in the yellow vest around 4 EUR. If you are taking the train, check the schedule beforehand or just figure out the specifics when you arrive in the area. Websites in Eastern Europe are not always as helpful as one would hope. There will be plenty of information available at the train stations, so don’t worry about this upfront.
Here you’ll find your parking spot for the day:
These are the GPS coordinates. Just copy/paste them into Google Maps: 49°07’33.6″N 20°04’29.8″E
Rysy Hike Quick Stats
Here are a few quick stats about the full hike to pique your interest.
Now let’s break it up and get into a bit more detail. It’s just nice to know exactly what you can expect, right?
Rysy Trail Part 1 - Strbske Pleso to Popradske Pleso
Length: 4 km Time: 1h – 1h 15m Start: 1,250 m End: 1,500 m Ascent: 250 m
The first part of the trail is on the tarmac road leading from the train station called Popradske pleso to the actual town and lake of the same name. It is 4 kilometres uphill, starting with some beautiful views of a large valley and distant mountains. Later the trail moves through a dense forest and does become a bit repetitive in places. Luckily, as the tarmac road offers no obstacles, you will get through it quickly. When you reach Popradske pleso after about 1 hour, you have already completed a large chunk of today’s mileage. Of course, it only gets harder from there.
In Popradske pleso, consider getting some breakfast and buying a sandwich to bring with you for lunch. You should also borrow the toilet. There is a path leading around the beautiful lake, but we suggest you keep this for later in the day if you still have the energy. It’s better to get moving up the mountain as early as possible.
Rysy Trail Part 2 – Blue Route through Mengusovská Valley
Length: 1.5 km Time: 45m – 1h Start: 1,500 m End: 1,580 m Ascent: 80 m
At Popradske pleso, you find yourself at an altitude of around 1.500 metres. Just 1,000 to go from here! Now you will follow the blue route into Mengusovská Valley. The trail first takes you through another forest before opening up into the lush valley with beautiful mountain views (cloud cover allowing). The hike is still relatively easy, with little elevation gain. Don’t worry that is soon going to change.
Sooner than you’d expect, you find yourself at an intersection, where you can continue straight on the blue route or turn right to follow the red markers. You go right. The sign states 2 hours and 45 minutes to the top of Rysy from this point. That may be a tad optimistic, but the Slovaks really are quick hikers.
Rysy Trail Part 3 – Red Route to Chata Pod Rysmi
Length: 3.5 km Time: 2 – 2.5h Start: 1,580 m End: 2,250 m Ascent: 670 m
You still need to ascend more than 900 meters, and now the trail starts to get serious. You are quickly gaining altitude with the help of switchbacks and are making good progress towards the nearby ridge. As you make your way past it, you emerge onto a very bolderuous section which quickly gets tiring for your legs. You need to focus and be careful not to slip, especially if it is raining. Thankfully, you pass by two beautiful alpine lakes which really does something good for the view.
As you leave the lakes behind, you are getting close to the more adventurous part of the hike. Luckily, that also means you are getting nearer and nearer to the top. At this point, cloud cover willing, the top of Rysy should be towering into the sky directly in front of you.
Now would be the time to take a good hard look at the weather. If you see any signs of foul weather, thunder, in particular, you need to turn around. You will be very exposed on the mountain from this point onwards, and you do not want to be caught up there in a thunderstorm. More about that later.
Shortly after passing the lakes, you reach the iron chains and ladders. It is a relatively short distance you need to climb and drag yourself up, which will be fairly easy in dry conditions. If the chains are wet, expect to work harder. Everyone can handle this part, though. If you suffer from vertigo, it’s good to be prepared for the chains in your mind, but please don’t feel discouraged. We saw plenty of kids and elderly people handling them just fine.
It is worth noting that queues may form at the chains. This is another reason why you should be starting your hike early. Doing so should allow you to skip the majority of that hassle.
After the chains, it is a short, but steep, stretch to a mountain hut called Chata Pod Rysmi. Here you can buy some refreshments, borrow the toilet (which has a magnificent view) or even spend the night if you have prebooked. The hut is located at 2.250 metres, so there’s only 250 metres of ascent left. It is, however, time for the steepest and most exposed part of the hike.
Rysy Trail Part 4 – Chata Pod Rysmi to Rysy Peak
Length: 1 km Time: 1 h Start: 2,250 m End: 2,500 m Ascent: 250 m
The last 250 meters of ascent to the top of Rysy will take you roughly 1 hour. It involves a bit of scrambling towards the end, meaning you will likely be down on all fours, crawling, a few times.
Fear not though, you will make it all the way up there without any major problems. It is actually way harder to get down again – but that’s future you’s problem!
CONGRATULATIONS! You have made it to the top of Rysy which means you have conquered the tallest mountain of Poland! It’s not quite the tallest in Slovakia, Gerlachovský has earned that honour at 2.655 m, but you are close enough. What you have done though, is hiked the tallest mountain in the High Tatras that is accessible without a mountain guide and/or mountaineer experience. That is definitely an achievement to be proud of!
If you are lucky with the weather, the view of the surrounding peaks is absolutely stunning. There must be hundreds of them, sharp silhuettes all reaching for the sky. You will also notice a number of beautiful alpine lakes on the Polish side, as well as the ones you passed on your way up.
You’ll be joined by a lot of other people at the top, including hikers who made their way from Poland. It can get quite busy but we sat there, solemny enjoying our sandwich, we didn’t notice the others much.
As we were sitting at the top, taking in the views and the experience as a whole, thick clouds eventually started to move in. Had we arrived 15-20 minutes later, we wouldn’t have had any views at all. We’re really glad that we got started early. As we were walking down, we met tons of people still climbing. Those guys, ufortunately, wouldn’t be rewarded with fantastic views when they reached the top. Of course, that’s pure luck from our side, but getting started early gives you the best chance for clear weather.
The Climb Down
Surprisingly, we found getting down to be almost as tough as going up. We spent about 5 hours in total for the ascent, but the descent took almost as long. We clocked in at least 4 hours.
The descent was super tough on our knees and thighs, and when we reached Popradske pleso, we were beat. The last 4 kilometres along the asphalt road towards the carpark was pure agony.
That’s the big problem with day hikes to mountain peaks – you almost always have to pass down the exact same way you came up. That can be a little uninspiring, especially if the weather has taken a turn for the worse as it often does later in the day.
As a matter of fact, as soon as we started going down, we began feeling quite chilly. We would advise you to bring not only raingear but also a light jacket and maybe even a hat and a pair of gloves.
Let’s use this as an excuse to speak a little bit more about the unpredictable weather in the mountains.
You are probably aware that the weather in the mountains is notoriously unpredictable. The relatively hot air at lower altitude is forced to rise above the mountains, cooling as it ascends. The result is water condensing from gas to liquid form. This means thick clouds and a high likelihood of rain. We definitely experienced this first hand on our trip. The weather was cloudy and rainy every day for a week up in the mountains. Down below at the campsite, it felt like summer.
While clouds obstruct the view, they will probably not cause you to get lost on your way to or from Rysy. The trail is clearly marked, and there are plenty of other people around. However, rain will make the steep sections extremely slippery and will make it hard to hold on to the iron chains. If heavy rain is forecast, we do not recommend you venture all the way up there. Take a shorter, less adventurous, day hike instead and wait for a day with clear(er) skies.
While clouds and/or rain is bad, that’s nothing compared to thunderstorms. And they sure have a lot of thunderstorms in the High Tatras. We heard thunder most days we spent there, and it often surprised the weather forecast. Generally, it will hit in the afternoon, which is yet another reason to get started early. But it may suddenly strike earlier than expected, and you may find yourself caught at the top of the mountain, on barren rock, with no escape as lightning starts to strike all around you.
Thunderstorms – A Word of Caution
Check the weather forecast and if there’s thunder on there, don’t even bother setting off. Sometimes the so-called Slovak Hydrometeorological Institute will send out specific thunderstorm warnings, and there is a good reason for that. It is extremely dangerous. Don’t ignore them.
BE VERY MINDFUL OF THUNDERSTORMS!
Even if there’s nothing on the forecast, pay close attention to the weather as you make your way up the mountain. As soon as you hear distant rumbling, get down from there. Better yet, look out for dark skies forming in the distance to catch it, before you even hear it. Because at that point, it could already be dangerously close.
The day after we hiked Rysy – there was a bit of thunder on the weather forecast. Not much, just an indication that a stray thunderstorm might move past the area during the afternoon. We didn’t venture into the mountains this day; instead, we were working on some content for this blog on a nearby café. During lunch, we had joked about how we were lucky not to be hiking today, as it was absolutely pouring down, and you could hear thunder in the distance. We didn’t know just what that meant until we heard the news later in the day.
A sudden thunderstorm had surprised hikers on top of Mount Giewont, a famous peak on the Polish side of the High Tatras. There is a massive 15-meter tall iron cross on the summit, which in retrospect, isn’t the smartest thing to put up there. Lightening hit the cross while the summit was full of people. Lightning also struck the iron chains and ladders used to get up there. As the lightning hit the chains, it travelled through the iron, meaning people were effectively electrocuted. They had to let go, and many fell down. When it was all done, 5 people had been killed, including 2 children, and more than 100 people were injured.
This is a horrible story, which thankfully doesn’t play out very often. We have never heard about such an unfortunate case before and hope we never will again. It had a profound impact on us, though, and we are now paying MUCH more attention to the weather than we did before. We are ashamed to say that the day before when we hiked Rysy, there was thunder forecast for the late afternoon. We went anyway, confident we would get down beforehand. We will never do such a thing again.
With all this being said, don’t be too stressed out. The chance of being hit by lightning is extremely small, and even in the rarest of chances that you do get hit, you have about a 90% chance of survival. Just make sure to stay away from the mountains if even the slightest bit of thunder is forecast and always keep an eye on the weather. You will be okay.
Seriously, no need to worry about it. Don’t let fear keep you from this amazing experience! Just promise us to be smart and take care.
Finding Yourself in a Thunderstorm
If you do find yourself on a mountain during a thunderstorm, here are a few quick tips:
An Alternative Way to See Mountain Views
What if I think I can’t handle the hike to Rysy peak? Well, of course, you can!
But if you really can’t be bothered to hike, and you still want glorious mountain views, there is an alternative option for you. The Slovaks have been nice enough to build an (expensive) cable car going to the summit of their second highest peak: Lomnický štít. Book your trip a few days in advance, cough up 92 EUR per person and hope for good weather. At 2,634 metres the view will be just the same as on Rysy.
If you are not yet entirely convinced about visiting the High Tatras, you should watch our travel inspiration video below. If you like it, make sure to follow our YouTube channel. We are shooting videos on all our favourite adventures hoping to inspire you to experience the world as well!