Zakopane is Poland’s gateway city for exploring the mountain range known as the Tatras. From Zakopane, you can take your pick from quick, easy hikes to longer all day affairs that have you climbing among the tallest mountain peaks. We hiked to the summit of Koscielec, one of many options if you are looking for a full day hiking trip into the mountains.
This was not the hike we originally planned to do. We planned to hike up Swinica via the Zawrat Saddle, but we learned halfway into the hike that the saddle was closed. This left us scrambling for another option and that’s when we stumbled upon Koscielec.
Even though Koscielec was not in the plans for the day it still turned out to be a brilliant day. From the summit of Koscielec we were treated to amazing views across the Polish Tatras and even into Slovakia.
Wooden mountain huts, emerald green lakes, wildflowers and rocky mountain peaks…get ready to explore the Tatras!
Hiking to Koscielec in the Polish Tatras
Facts About the Hike
Distance: 18 km (11.2 miles)
Total Ascent: 1310 meters (4300 feet)
Length of Time: 8 to 10 hours
When to go: mid-June to September
The elevation profile of the hike if you hike up Koscielec and then return to Zakopane by hiking through the Valley of Three Lakes (as described in this post).
An Overview of the Area
If you are unfamiliar with the Polish language, as we are, a lot of Polish names seem complicated and impossible to pronounce. We also had no general idea of the basic layout of the Polish side of the Tatras. To help you out, here is a map of where you’ll be going, so when I mention these names, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Kuznice is the area where you will find the lower station of the Kasprowy Wierch cable car. There is also a restaurant and a few small shops here.
Dolina Gasienicowa is a valley that you will hike through. It is here that you will find Murowaniec, a large building that serves as a restaurant and a lodge to spend the night. The trail markers also refer to this area as Hala Gasienicowa.
Staw is Polish for pond or lake. On this hike, you will see several staws: Czarny Staw, Dlugi Staw, and Zielony Staw.
Parking in Zakopane
The trail to Koscielec is located near the cable car station for Kasprowy Wierch (Kolej linowa Kasprowy Wierch on Google Maps). Finding parking near this cable car station is almost impossible. Instead, you will have to park in town or on the road leading to the cable car station.
There is a road that leads from the city center of Zakopane to the cable car station. Along this road are several parking lots. If you get here early, you can park in one of these lots and then walk up the road to the trailhead.
If you get here later in the day, like us, the closer lots most likely will be filled. You will have to park in one of the parking lots in the center of Zakopane. From the lot, you can pay a few zloty to take a taxi or shuttle up to the cable car station. It’s just a five-minute drive one way, and taxis seem to come and go all day.
Finding the right trailhead can be one of the trickiest parts of the day. There are numerous trails that head into the mountains near the cable car station.
The first part of the hike is from Kuznice to the Murowaniec shelter in Dolina Gasienicowa. To get to the shelter, you can take the blue trail or the yellow trail.
We took the yellow trail. When you are in Kuznice, stand with the cable car station at your back and walk away from the station, along the road Szlak pieszy niebieski. You will cross a wide, wooden bridge and at the small hut you will have to pay 5 zloty per person to hike the trail.
At the hut, turn right to get started on the trail, following the signs and the yellow trail marker to Hala Gasienicowa.
Hiking to Murowaniec
At first, it’s a steady, uphill climb through an alpine forest. At times the forest opens up and you are treated to views of meadows, wildflowers, and a few mountain huts.
The trail becomes a series of stone staircases and rocky hiking trails.
Along the way, the yellow and blue trails merge and now you will be hiking on the blue trail. Continue to follow the signs for Hala Gasienicowa. It’s also at this point that the views really open up.
Looking back to Zakopane
One of my favorite views of the entire hike was the view of the trail leading to the cabins in Dolina Gasienicowa with the rocky mountains as a backdrop. Gorgeous!
Murowaniec is a shelter located in the valley of Dolina Gasienicowa. You can stop here for food or water if you need it. If you brought food, save it for Czarny Staw, a picture perfect lake and a great spot for a picnic.
Hiking trail from Murowaniec to Czarny Staw, Koscielec, and the valley of the three lakes.
Hiking to Czarny Staw
Czarny Staw is an emerald green, alpine lake located higher up in the mountains. To get here from the valley of Dolina Gasienicowa, it’s a short, easy walk (about 35 minutes of walking).
Not too far past Murowaniec the trail forks again. It was here that we learned that the Zawrat Saddle was closed, forcing us to change our plans. It was a huge disappointment at the time. At this fork in the trail, stay to the left to continue on the blue trail to Czarny Staw.
The shore of the lake is the perfect spot for a snack or a picnic lunch. One of the tallest peaks in front of you is Swinica. You can also see the pointy peak of Koscielec. Koscielec does not have quite the same height as Swinica, but it’s still a hefty climb to the top.
If the Zawrat Saddle is open and you want to continue on to Swinica, you will walk left around Czarny Staw and then head up the rocky trails into the mountains on the far side of the lake.
The Hike up Maly Koscielec
If you want to continue on to Koscielec, you will take the trail up to the right. What awaits you is a short but very steep climb up Karb (the pass to the top of Maly Koscielec) to the top of Maly Koscielec. It takes about 40 minutes to hike to the top and you are now on the black trail.
This is a strenuous climb and a nice warm up for Koscielec. If you think this is too difficult, then forget about Koscielec. The climb up Koscielec is harder and longer than the climb up Maly Koscielec.
From the top of Maly Koscielec you get one of the best views of the day, so far. To your left is Czarny Staw. To your right are more alpine lakes, Dlugi Staw, Kurtkowiec, and Zielony Staw. In front of you is the pointy peak of Koscielec and behind that is Swinica. If you look way off into the distance to the west you will be able to see Kasprowy Wierch and the upper cable car station.
View of Czarny Staw from Maly Koscielec
Koscielec is the rocky peak in this photo.
From Maly Koscielec, it’s a 50-minute challenging climb to the summit of Koscielec.
From the bottom, it looks like a steep, exhausting climb to get to the top. This is basically the climb to the summit of Maly Koscielec via Karb on steroids.
Be prepared to take breaks. Along the way, there will be short sections of rock scrambling. There is a lot of exposure on this part of the trail so if you have issues with heights, you may want to end your day on top of Karb.
The climb feels exactly how it looks…grueling. There is nothing fun about this part of the hike other than the short sections of rock scrambling. But it’s worth it for the view from the top.
The climb to the top of Koscielec is absolutely worth it. It’s similar to the view from Karb, only now you are much higher. From here, you get a better view of Swinica and the mountains on the Slovakian side of the Tatras.
The view from Koscielec. You can see the three lakes on the left, Czarny Staw on the right, and Zakopane off in the distance.
The trail ends here. There is no safe way to continue towards Swinica and the Slovakia Tatras, at least not that I saw.
After you descend back down to Karb, you have a choice. You can hike back to Kuznice the same way you came or you can hike down past the three lakes in the valley next to Karb. Just for a change in scenery, we chose to hike to Dlugi Staw and the other emerald green lakes.
The hike back to Dolina Gasienicowa is quick, easy and beautiful. We refilled our water bottles at the Murowaniec shelter before hiking the rest of the way back to Kuznice.
Alternate Ending to the Hike
It is possible to return to Kuznice on the cable car. From Dolina Gasienicowa, you can hike the yellow trail for one hour to Kasprowy Wierch and the upper cable car station. This saves you about an hour of hiking back down the mountain to Kuznice. But there is a chance you’ll have to wait in line at the upper station.
On the day we did this, the line at the lower station was insanely long and we were worried we’d be waiting hours to take the cable car down the mountain.
If you like the idea of taking the cable car down to Kuznice, make sure you know the closing time for the cable car before you hike up there.
About Our Experience
We visited Zakopane on a Saturday in July. Every day for 10 days before our visit, it rained (at least where we were in Gdansk, Warsaw, and Krakow). So, on this gorgeous, sunny Saturday, literally thousands of tourists and locals descended upon the slopes of the Tatras.
I read that the Tatras were an off-the-beaten-path hiking destination in Europe. Well, it sure didn’t feel that way. Maybe it was the nice weather, but this was one of the busiest trails we have hiked in Europe.
My plan was to spend the day hiking to Swinica via the Zawrat Saddle. This is a challenging trail with rock scrambling, the use of chains, and a reward of amazing views across the entire mountain range.
During our visit, the Zawrat Saddle was closed. We learned this about an hour into the hike, when a small sign alerted us to the trail closure. We had no hiking map (I was following another blogger’s route and trail description) so we had no way to figure out an alternate way up Swinica. Instead, we just kept hiking and picked trails that looked interesting along the way. And that’s how we ended up on top of Koscielec.
Even though it ended differently than I expected it to, it was still an awesome day. And what a great introduction to the Tatras. From Zakopane, we drove an hour south to Tatransky Lomnica, Slovakia for a 3-day hiking holiday on the Slovakian side of the High Tatras.
Video of the Hike
Tips to Have the Best Experience
Buy a map. In Kuznice, near the lower cable car station, there are several stands selling food, souvenirs, and hiking maps. I suggest spending a few zloty to buy a map, just in case you have the same issue with trail closures along the way.
Get here as early as possible! We drove to Zakopane from Krakow. Our rental car pick up time was 8 am so we didn’t get on the road until 8:30 am. It’s a two-hour drive without traffic. But on this gorgeous Saturday we hit a lot of traffic so we did not reach Zakopane until almost noon. If we did it again, we would pick up our rental car the night before and leave Krakow by 7 am at the latest. Ideally, plan to spend at least one night in Zakopane.
Are you interested in hiking the Tatras? Comment below if you have any questions. And if you have hiked the Polish Tatras, feel free to share your experience too.
More Information for Your Trip to Poland and Slovakia
- TATRAS: Hiking the High Tatras of Slovakia: How to Plan Your Visit
- RYSY: Hiking Rysy, the Highest Peak in Poland, from the High Tatras of Slovakia
- TATRAS: Hiking to Velka Svistovka and Zelene Pleso in the High Tatras of Slovakia
- GDANSK: 10 Best Things to do in Gdansk, Poland
- POLAND ITINERARY: 10 Day Poland Itinerary: Gdansk, Warsaw & Krakow
- BRATISLAVA: Top 10 Things to do in Bratislava, Slovakia
Are you planning a trip to Poland? Read all of our articles about Poland in our Poland Destination Guide.
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- HIKING: 20 Best Day Hikes in the World
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