I’m a bit different than most mountain climbers. It’s not just because I wouldn’t rappel down a sheer cliff unless my life was threatened. I don’t climb to “find myself,” the tired mantra of lost souls who really lack a job more than a direction. I climb, or, in my case, hike, in mountains for views.
And I’ve seen some of the best views in the world. The Himalayas. Mt. Kilimanjaro. The Andes. The Alps. I lived in Colorado for 23 years. The headliners on the world’s horizons are more beautiful than you’ve even read. However, I’m adding another to the honor roll.
High Tatras Mountains
More specifically, the High Tatras. Where? I say Slovakia because High Tatras don’t register on many travelers’ radar unless they’re Czech or live somewhere along the southern Polish border. I know some Americans who surely think Slovakia is still the last four syllables of Czechoslovakia.
After my decadent spa day in the Czech Republic, I took a train from Prague to the lovely Slovak town of Poprad. It’s the jump-off point for the High Tatras which sit on the middle of Slovakia’s spine like a small saddle. In an area covering only about 65 x 25 kilometers are a dozen black, craggy mountains ranging from 2,100-2,650 meters, all standing out individually like sentries guarding the nearby Polish border. There are 600 kilometers of trails snaking up from Poprad.
Over four days, I hiked 40 of those kilometers and only the views from inside Nepal’s Annapurna Sanctuary and from atop Mt. Kilimanjaro as the sun rises over Africa top what I saw in Slovakia. In this era of environmental savagery and global warming debates, I found solace knowing mankind is protecting this earth in this tiny country in Eastern Europe.
It’s an interesting reputation for Slovakia which has hidden a bit in the shadow of Czech Republic ever since democracy arrived and split the country in 1989. The High Tatras are off the beaten path — for North Americans. In four days I saw one group of native-English speakers. The rest were Slovaks, Czechs and Poles. Yet about 5 million visitors come here for the hiking in the summer and the skiing in the winter.
There’s a good reason Slovakia is good hiking for Everyman. The Slovak hiking network is extremely well organized. The Slovakia High Tatras map is cross crossed by wiggly lines in blue, yellow, red and green. Each represents a different hiking route in and around the mountains. The trails are clearly marked with color-coded signs. Every time I became a little confused, I looked up and there was a blue, yellow, red or green marking on a tree telling me I was OK.
The Slovakia High Tatras mountains are also dotted with mountain huts for overnight stays. They’re all conveniently located at about the time I was ready to collapse or would give my month’s rent in Rome for a cold Zlaty Bazant beer. Reserve ahead in July and August for small rooms with bunk beds. Otherwise, crash with up to 30 other hikers in big dorm rooms with mattresses. The food is good. The beer is cold. The stories are endless. I’ve had worse evenings on the road than when I stayed up late discussing the good and evil of Marxism with a Hungarian school teacher living in Slovakia and a Polish rock climber.
Every day, every turn offered a new spectacular view of the mountains and the deep, forested valley below.
Here are a few highlights of the Slovakia High Tatras:
On my first day, I saw my first mountain views about an hour after leaving my Tatranska Kotlina accommodation in the charming little village of Tatranska Kotlina. Here the Slovakia High Tatras look like skyscrapers. Each one is an individual mountain with the sheer rock faces nearly as steep as elevator shafts. Snow speckled the peaks poking above wispy clouds. The first cool breeze I felt all summer drifted through my clothes. I was skirting the top of Central Europe.
I was alone. I wasn’t in heaven but I felt awfully close to it.
Day Two saw me doing switchbacks high above the Zelene pleso hut I slept in the night before. Every turn made the hut smaller and smaller and soon it was the size of a matchbox, dwarfed by the lake beside it and the Slovakia High Tatras mountains hovering over it. To the right was a vast green valley stretching as far as the eye could see. The only signs of mankind were the few bobbing backpacks slowly lacing up the mountain.
I was climbing Velka Svistovka (elevation 2,048 meters), with one of the best views in Europe. It’s one of the places in the High Tatras that is so steep, fixed chains are available to pull my 6-foot-3 frame up boulders the size of washing machines. In about 90 minutes I reached the top.
Every step was worth it. Below me seemed all of Slovakia. The lake I left behind looked like a puddle. I was at eye level with some of the Tatras’ highest peaks and looked DOWN at clouds floating below the summits. This was one corner of the world communism or Soviet invasions could not destroy.
Sedlo pod Ostrvou
I did an eight-hour hike on Day 3 in the Slovakia High Tatras that had my mouth blabbing adjectives at the top of my lungs from high atop Central Europe. Yes, eight hours. I skirted about 18 kilometers along the southern flank of the High Tatras until I came to the top of Sedlo pod Ostrvou. No, that isn’t a Russian satellite shot down by the Chinese. It’s a 2,300-meter mountain I stood atop looking down at arguably the most beautiful lake of my life.
Horsky Hotel Popradske pleso sits 1.2 miles down as towering cliffs and lush forests merge around it like hands around an infant. I took some pictures of the Slovak couple who found new strength in their hugs as they gazed below before descending the narrow path. I soon followed, my legs gaining new strength every step closer I took to that beer. As I neared my final destination in the Slovakia High Tatras, one thought raced through my head.
OK, Slovakia. You got me.