Every year, the missus and I try to tick off at least one summit from our bucket list. Last time, since we love the High Tatras, we decided to go for Gerlakovsky—Slovakia’s highest peak. But life is what happens to us while making other plans, and as we were organizing the whole thing a pregnancy test came up positive, forcing us to adapt accordingly. Koprovsky (2363m), our next pick, would be as adventurous and challenging as Gerlach, but more accessible, with less scrambling, and no need for a mountain guide. It would be a ravishing two-day adventure.
Koprovsky is well deep in the Tatras, near the border with Poland. Instead of doing it the “easy” way and climb in a single day from the famous resort of Strbske pleso, we opted for a longer route. A two-day hike that would start from Hrebienok, a small funicular station above Stary Smolovec — the oldest and most quaint resort town in High Tatras. It was going to be our little expedition and we couldn’t wait. Our small band would be consisted of my wife Veronika, her father Marian — a seasoned climber like most Slovaks, and my self.
You can’t help but love the alpine character of Tatras. It’s a relatively compact granite massif whose numerous jugged peaks are divided by deep valleys adorned with dozens of crystal tarns. To make the experience even more noteworthy, a big part of High Tatras national park is out of bounds for most of the year, making each visit unique. When the gates close in November, some trails remain accessible but most of the mountain is out of bounds for everyone but the members of the climbing clubs. Around June, when the park reopens, people from Slovakia and all Central Europe flood the place, once again, to admire its natural beauty and explore the vast grid of trails. In contrast, on the Polish side the access is permitted all year round.
Hiking in High Tatras
The plan was to arrive in Stary Smokovec as early as possible and take the funicular to Hrebienok (1272m). From there, we would hike the Tatranska Magistrala—a peripheral trail that crosses the whole mountain line from east to west—and spend the night at the refuge of Popraske pleso, one of the most beautiful tarns on High Tatras. Next morning, we would set for Koprovsky through Mengusovska valley. Once on top, we would return from the same route to Popradske, and from there hike to Strbske pleso in order to catch the train back to Stary Smokovec.
Our arrival at Stary Smokovec was not uneventful since all the parking lots and garages in town were full. We finally found a spot at an open parking lot near the train station where we could leave the car for the next two days. “The weather looks good,” Veronika said the moment she laid her eyes on the formidable mountain line which soared behind the small town intimidating. Indeed, while the sky around the Tatras was overcast as usual, there was no sign of rain in the atmosphere. The conditions were perfect, but we were running late as usual, it was already noon.
Stary Smokovec is the oldest mountain resort in High Tatras. A noble little town, full of belle epoque charm and genuine central European architecture, where the old aristocracy used to gather for tourism and spa therapy. Funnily, two hundred years ago, mountaineering was a favorite activity of the upper classes. Today, Stary Smokovec is still a popular starting point for all kinds of hikes and climbs.
Standing on a prominent spot of the town, the Grand Hotel — one of the most iconic buildings in High Tatras and a magnificent specimen of Art Nouveau architecture — is one of the many luxury mountain resorts that flourished around central Europe between the 19th and early 20th centuries. This is exactly the type of hotel that Wes Anderson was inspired from to create the architectural style and ambience in his classic film “The Grand Hotel Budapest”. The old cream colored building with the burgundy wooden trims and the numerous chimneys protruding through the dark ash roof, still retains its old charm and air of luxury well.
Hrebienok – The Trailhead
As expected, a big crowd was queuing up outside the funicular. We could also walk the forty-five minute ascent to Hrebienok, but, with two demanding days ahead, and since it was our first hike after a long period, we decided to take it easy. Marian, who is a purist, protested a bit but eventually went with the flow.
Half an hour later, as the funicular was swaying its way up the slope, I could see the anticipation on people’s faces . Whole families with kids, groups of youngsters and old timers, everyone was eager to set their foot on the formidable mountainsides. The great outdoors have always been celebrated in this country. People here have a strong mountain culture, and their respect for High Tatras is conspicuous .
But, the place attracts foreigners too. High Tatras are pretty popular and the number of visitors keeps growing year after year. That’s why we always choose to go in autumn, near the end of the season, and avoid weekends. An other reason being to avoid the summer storms which are frequent, especially in August. Of course, a mountain is always a mountain, it can rain or snow on any given day.
Once on Hrebienok, the crowd broke up and split to the surrounding trails. I remember the first time I set my foot on this small resort; It was the most intense climb of my life. That day, again with Veronika and Marian, I was climbing Priecne sedlo—a notorious passage which is considered to be one of the most challenging in Slovakia. Indeed, Priecne lived up to its reputation and proved to be more tough than I had thought. Heat fatigue with recurrent leg cramps got the best of me on the via ferrata that leads to the passage. And things would have been much worst if a total stranger hadn’t saved the day by giving me magnesium tablets. I never hit the trail without them ever since.
Hiking to Popradske Pleso
Tatranska magistrala, is a trail that runs along the biggest part of High Tatras’ south side, branching out north to the transverse valleys of the mountain. It runs across the edge of several massifs, providing access to almost all of the trails that lead to the huts and the highe peaks including Mengusovska valley and the mountain hut of tarn Popradske where we were heading.
From Hrebienok, the trail climbs up most of the time. At first, it goes through the dense forest of the south slopes, and as the altitude rises beyond the tree line, the tall and thin pines give their place to short bush vegetation and finally the familiar moss that covers the dark granite in green patches.
Our first waypoint was Sliezky Dom (1670m)—a hotel by the south bank of Velicke Pleso, two hours from Hrebienok. In contrast to traditional Tatra refuges known as chatas which are made of wood and stone, this is a modern cement building. It’s also the highest point accessible by car which makes it crowded, and quite expensive I would say.
We stopped by for a quick coffee, or at least that’s what I thought, but by the time I came back from the restroom, a pint of beer was foaming in front of my seat! Marian’s conspiratorial smile just confirmed my suspicion. I normally avoid alcohol while going up a mountain since it tends to kill my legs, but refusing a drink in Slovakia is like sticking out your hand in Japan. It’s just inappropriate, and the etiquette had to be maintained.
By the time we finished our drinks It was already lunch time, but the place was way too noisy for eating. Besides, why lunch inside when you can picnic out, in front of a marvelous vista? So, we put on our packs and kept moving west. No more than fifteen minutes later, we came across a splendid granite boulder that would serve perfectly as a table. The dish of the day was bread and local sausage (klobasa) with mustard. An unbeatable local dish that tastes heavenly after a hard hike.
Even though it was constantly uphill, the incline was gentle and the mostly paved trail made our lives easy. An hour and a half later, we were walking on the fringes of Batizovske pleso (1884m), a dark blue water tarn to which the surrounding clouds and barren granite gave an out of this planet look. We stopped for five minutes to take it in and have a small hydration break. Veronika, as is her habit, knelt by the bank and dipped the undersides of her wrist into the cold water. “It always make me feel better,” she said with a tone of relief. From there, the road descended for a bit before elevating to the day’s highest altitude (2044m), bellow summit Tura. This was probably the most strenuous part of the trail, and I admit that I felt that pint weighing on my legs for a moment.
Well into the afternoon, a small crack appeared between the dense dark clouds that covered most of the west, allowing for a fierce golden light to creep in and wash Strbske pleso along with the plains that lie to the south. Not all sunsets are made equal, and this one was definitely one of the rare ones. The kind you see three or four times a year and makes the whole world glow with a fiery red blaze. We were mesmerized, and the fact that we were alone on the trail made the moment even more unique.
To make things more surreal, ten minutes later, a Tatra chamois came down the slope as if to admire the view, stopping us in our tracks. The animal appeared to be completely unbothered by our presence, and was only interested in the glowing lowlands bellow. I grabbed the camera and fearing that the scene wouldn’t last more than a few seconds, I started taking shots. Veronika tried to call the animal in a calm voice and Marian to tempt it with a piece of bread, but the chamois was clearly not interested. After satisfying its curiosity, it started grazing around idly, still not bothered by us who we were no more than fifteen meters away. A couple of minutes later, it turned around and with a few strides disappeared as abruptly as it had arrived behind the ridge. .
Not long after, we stepped on the edge of Ostrva saddle (1966m) and laid our eyes on Mengusovska valley and the magnificent lake Popradske (1500m) for the first time. At the end of the dark valley, the silhouette of Koprovsky was jutting into the dimly lit sky standing out from the peaks of Hrebeň Bašt—the huge wall that rises on the west side of the valley for most of its length, casting its long long shadow across Mengusovska in the afternoon. Popradske’s glassy surface was a dark blue canvas on which the puffy clouds were slowly moving across the dusking heavens.
Hrebeň Bašt consists of a series of eleven peaks, Satan in the middle being the highest and most known. At the end of this formation, a saddle that turns into a ridge connects Hrebeň Bašt to Koprovsky. Another two ridges divide the valleys bellow, meeting on the summit and giving Koprovsky its characteristic triangular pyramid shape.
We stayed in Ostrva saddle for half an hour, watching the sun going down. Half a kilometer bellow, Horsky hotel had its lights on, marking the final destination of the day and reminding us that we had one last steep decent before taking off our backpacks and resting. That trail is a series of zig zags on the north wall of Ostrva. It’s pretty steep and layered with smaller loose rocks, but it’s well protected and doesn’t pose any safety problem.
Forty five minutes later, we were standing in front of the reception, watching the guests coming and going. The hotel is housed in a beautiful wooden building, right on the north shore of Popradske pleso. It’s nothing fancy, and it doesn’t have to be either, since it’s one of the most scenic and beautifully located hotels you’ll ever laid your eyes on. Many walls are decorated with fantastic photographs from Ladislav Janiga—one of Slovakia’s most prominent landscape photographers whose body of work has been mainly shot on Tatras. A warm plate of goulash followed by a shower was exactly what the doctor had ordered. We slept like logs.
Popradske Pleso to Koprovsky
The next day, I woke up first to catch the sunrise. It was a brisk morning with a still atmosphere. The lake was calm, only being occasionally disturbed by the wake of a few ducks that swam around. As for people, there were none, leaving the morning glory of Popradske just for me. I had hoped for fog which would have added some drama to the photos, but that wasn’t the case. Still, the scenery was beautiful and the perfect conditions granted great clarity all the way to the end of the horizon. I wished I had brought my extra wide lens, but there is only so much weight you can carry for a trip like this.
I adore Popradske. I could spend there days doing nothing else than read on the refuge’s gorgeous porch while sipping hot tea, occasionally letting my eyes rest on the surrounding vistas. The place feels like an oasis of tranquility, a small spot in the belly of Mengusovska valley, surrounded by a coniferous forest in the shadow of towering massifs. Like a dreamy place out of a fantasy novel.
Back to reality, after a hearty breakfast and coffee, we double checked our gear, packed the backpacks, and set for Koprovsky. The day was sunny and leaving early would save us from climbing when the sun would be at its strongest. The trail begins outside the refuge and goes east for a couple hundred of meters before reaching a crossroad where the trail for Koprovsky and Rysy leads north, deeper into the ascending valley.
Right there, next to the junction, is a box with small gunny bags full of provisions. People going to Rysy may carry them to the refuge, and taste the experience, albeit in a smaller scale, of being a mountain porter. The mountain porters in High Tatras are the last of their kind in Europe, and all supplies are lugged to the huts by them. Some, can bear more than 100kgs on the traditional wooden frames they have strapped to their backs. As for the things they carry, anything goes: From crates of food and beer kegs, to whole fridges and kitchen paraphernalia. Naturally, they have to take the garbage on the way down; everything is moved by these stout fellows, rain or shine. Their employers are the hut keepers who need them in order to run the chatas on a daily basis. As for the hikers volunteering to carry a little something, they get rewarded for their kindness with one hot cup of tea.
The first section of the trail to Koprovsky is a mild ascent through a small pine forest. Soon, the flora scaled down and thinned out till it got reduced to plain grass around the rocks. One and a half kilometer down the trail, we crossed Hincov stream using a small wooden bridge (1665m) and stopped there for a break. The imposing wall of Hrebeň Bašt loomed over us. From there, the ascent becomes much steeper, and in the next kilometer we gained almost 300 vertical meters which brought us to a plateau with two lakes—the small and big Hincovo. We stopped to admire the scenery around the lakes’ glimmering water. I looked up to Koprovsky summit which was still four hundred meters above us, but looked more like a thousand. Mountains have this—they look impossible from beneath and almost too easy from the top.
The first step was to climb onto Koprovsky pass (2180m) which separates Mengusovska from Hlinska valley and, connects Koprovska peak with Koprovsky summit. This is the steepest part of the climb, but, on the bright side, the trail is very good with zigzags and even stairs made from wooden frames and stone. The top of the pass is marked with a traditional Tatras wooden signpost. These are usually made from small tree trunks holding yellow wooden signs. The top one has the name of the location written along with the altitude, and the rest bellow, mark directions to other way points with the time needed to get there and the trail mark of that specific route. Atop everything, a small red wooden roof keeps the signs clean from the winter snow, giving Tatras’ signposts their elaborate look.
Once we reached the pass, we stopped for a few minutes to catch our breath before the final push to the top. On the way to the summit, the saddle curved up into a ridge which was narrow at points but never got really exposed. The views were getting more spectacular with each step we took, and Hlinska valley was like an ethreal highway with low cloud formations racing east to west. At some point midway, I looked at the peak in front of us and thought we were almost there, but it was just a small peak before Koprovsky. The real summit stood tall and formidable behind it, intimidating us for a moment with the height difference and the ruggedness of its south face.
Further up, the ridge became narrow and rough, but remained always safe, with the exception of one slightly exposed part where the width was something like a meter, and a steep slab to the left looked like a slide leading to the void. At that point, the two lakes were looking like small gems adorning the valley bellow. The last section was quite steep but the big chunks of granite always felt safe to hold. We had to scramble some parts but nothing major. A red and white circle on the stone marked the summit.
The moment we topped Koprovsky, my tiredness left, and the few remaining thoughts and worries that had refused to unclench my mind since we arrived in Tatras also vanished, or rather stayed behind, along with the mundane earthly disturbances of everyday life. We were in the heart of alpine Slovakia, the weather was great, and there were only peaks and valleys as far as our eyes could reach.
The joy of summiting has always had a self-actualizing quality for me. I can never stop thinking how intimidating a mountain looks from bellow and how small everything else looks from the top. Mountains are an acute visualization of life. Most of the times, they look difficult or even impossible to conquer but like any other goal you just have to take the first step and keep going. The fatigue and all hardships wear off as soon as you reach the top. You can’t stay on the summit forever and even worst, a misstep can lead to an abysmal fall, but there is always another mountain waiting to be climbed.
The peak is long and narrow, layered with sharp granite slabs. Steep cliffs surround Koprovksy from every side except for the south. From there, you have a clear view of Hlinska and Mengusovska valleys to the east and west respectively, as well as Temnosmrečinská with its two great lakes to the north. Some of most iconic summits of High Tatras are also visible: Rysy and Vysoka to the east, Satan to the north, as well as the tip of legendary Krivan peeking out from the south.
That day, It was a bit crowded, but everybody was sitting quiet, admiring the awe-inspiring scenery and having a quick snack before taking the route back .The visibility was constantly changing from a few meters to kilometers and back. Slovak people have a distinctive casualness when it comes to mountains and climbing; especially the middle aged ones. They may climb for hours just to sit on the top and have a can of beer. Then, they turn around and leave quietly, as they had arrived. No cheering, or high fives, just the joy of being there. They possess a genuine mountain culture that has its roots deep in the history of the country.
I couldn’t have thought of a better place to have a lunch after a tiring but very fulfilling day. We spent almost an hour there, eating and talking with fellow hikers. The way back to Popradske and Strbske was long, but a sweet euphoria and the golden light of the setting sun accompanied us on the way. Every now and then, I glimpsed back just to see Koprovsky standing immovable and perpetual, surrounded by a flock of white clouds.
When to Hike
Hiking in High Tatras is possible from 15th of June till the 31st of October. A few winter trails remain open for cross country and alpine skiing around Strbske pleso and Stary Smokovec. For more details about the winter closing you can read the rules of TANAP (national park authority).
The best time to go is probably September and October because of the lower rain probability. Of course it can rain or snow any day especially on higher altitudes.
Where to Stay
Stary Smokovec and Strbske pleso have a plethora of guesthouses and hotels for every budget. At Popradske the choices are only Horsky Hotel (for bookings) in which I’ve stayed and can say that even though it is relative old and plain, it’s clean and got everything including a very decent restaurant, and Majlathova cottage (for bookings) in case you need something more luxurious and of course more expensive. They both have exactly the same view.
How to Get There
The closest airport to High Tatras is Poprad though there are not as many regular flights landing there as charters. The closest international airports are Bratislava and Kosice but if there is no other alternative, Krakow in Poland is not very far either.