A day of trekking deep in the stunning Tatra National Park. Hiking up to the beautiful Morskie Oko, Czarny Staw pod Rysami and Mount Rysy.
Having spent a great few days in Kraków, we caught a bus down to southern Poland’s mountain resort town of Zakopane. Nestled on the Polish side of the Tatra Mountains, we’d come to Zakopane to do some hiking. There were lots of options in and around the area. But we were keen on one hike in particular. The stunning day hike to Rysy summit via Morskie Oko and Czarny Staw pod Rysami.
About Tatra National Park
The Tatra Mountains are located on the border between southern Poland and northern Slovakia. They are the highest section of the Carpathian Mountain range which runs all the way through Central and Eastern Europe. Covering nearly 800 km2 the area is a UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserve. Its stunning scenery is home to wildlife that includes Brown Bears, Grey Wolves, European Lynx and Tatra Chamois and is littered with epic hiking trails. It’s an outdoor lovers dream and an area we couldn’t wait to explore!
Getting from Zakopane to the Morskie Oko hike start point
Time: 30-40 minutes on the microbus
Cost: A return bus ticket is 10PLN p/p (approx USD$2.65/EUR2.30)
The start point for any visit to Morskie Oko is the Polana Palencia Białczańska car park (usually just labelled Polana Palencia). The easiest way to get there is on a microbus from the main bus station in Zakopane. During the peak season these microbuses run every 10 minutes, which gives you an idea of how busy it can get! It’s always a good idea to check the bus timetable the night before to see what time the first bus leaves, as you’ll want to get to the lakes as early as possible!
The easy bus journey takes 30-40 minutes and we strongly recommend using it, even if you have a car. In the peak summer season, Morskie Oko gets incredibly busy. There’s traffic jams and the car park fills up in no time at all! The buses final stop, Polana Palencia car park is the starting point of the hike, so it couldn’t be more convenient. Don’t forget to hold on to your bus ticket for the return leg!
Hiking from the Polana Palencia car park to the Morskie Oko
Time: 1-2 hours on foot
Entrance Fee: 5PLN p/p (approx USD$1.30/EUR1.15)
You purchase your entrance tickets for 5PLN p/p at the ticket booth and that’s where the ‘hiking’ begins. It’s about 9km up the Oswald Balzer’s Way (Droga Oswalda Balzera) to reach Morskie Oko. This well signposted asphalt road has few redeeming features and can get very busy. There are some cobblestone cut-through paths you can take to speed things up and conveniently a few toilets along the way. The scenery is nice, but nothing outstanding. The highlight, if you would call it that is the Wodogrzmoty Mickiewicza Waterfall which you pass en-route.
This uninspiring Polana Palencia car park to Morskie Oko section is certainly the most tedious part of the route and not really proper hiking, but trust us, what awaits is well worth it!
After just over an hour of hiking, we reached the stunning Morskie Oko and it was every bit as picturesque as we had hoped. Translating to ‘sea eye’, Morskie Oko took its name from an old legend. It was said that there was a underground passage that fed the lake from the sea, hence the name ‘Eye of the Sea’ came about.
It really was beautiful and at that point in the morning, not too busy. We had ‘googled’ pictures of this lake on weekends in the high season and knew how crowded it gets. So we were so pleased to get there before it got manic.
After a short rest by the restaurant and information centre at the base of the lake, we continued our hike around what is the largest lake in the Tatra Mountains. It was hard to resist the urge to stop at every turn for more photos! But with an afternoon storm forecast, we were keen to push on up to Czarny Staw pod Rysami.
Morskie Oko to Czarny Staw pod Rysami
Time: 30-60 minutes (depending on the number of photo stops!)
For the vast majority of tourists, Morskie Oko is the reason for their visit and as far as they go. And why not, it’s picture-perfect! But if you want to escape the crowds that build throughout the day, it is well worth hiking up to its neighbour, Czarny Staw pod Rysami.
Not to be confused with Czarny Staw Polski, Czarny Staw pod Rysami is lake located just above Morskie Oko. It’s accessible by walking around Morskie Oko in either direction. We followed the red and white trail markers on the left hand side of the lake. It took us along the east bank of Morskie Oko and then up a series of steep rocky stairs. Every time we looked behind us, the views of Morskie Oko opened up and became more and more impressive.
Czarny Staw pod Rysami
Czarny Staw pod Rysami literally translates to ‘Black Lake below Mount Rysy.’ But don’t be put off by that name, as this turquoise alpine lake is equally as impressive as Morskie Oko. The reflections of the surrounding peaks, scree and lingering snow on the water were spectacular.
For anyone unsure about putting in the extra effort to reach the higher of the two lakes, we can’t recommend it enough. Not only are there far less tourists up there, but you get amazing views in both directions with Czarny Staw pod Rysami ahead and Moskie Oko down below.
Czarny Staw pod Rysami up to Mount Rysy
Time: About 2-3 hours depending on foot traffic
It was a picture we’d seen years before that enticed us to do some hiking in the Tatras. That picture was from Mount Rysy with views over Czarny Staw pod Rysami in the foreground and Morskie Oko and the valley below. And that was what we had come for!
The same well-signed red and white markers leads you around the east side of Czarny Staw pod Rysami to the far end of the the lake. From this point it gradually inclines up the valley, before veering towards the imposing Mount Rysy. The steep trail is worth every step, as the higher you get the more breathtaking the views.
Even at the end of summer on our early September visit, we still passed snow and ice. Nearing the top, the precarious trail heads up steep rock faces, where tightly gripping onto chains is required! In the height of the peak season, we’ve heard you can get stuck for quite some time here, as people slowly make their way up one by one.
The trail finished at Rysy’s second highest point, just under 2,500m. You can continue on to reach the summit which sits 2503m. For us, we settled with the picture we came for. As black storm clouds quickly approached from behind Rysy, the weather forced us to turn back agonisingly close to the true 2503m peak. It was one of those head over heart decisions. We knew we had to be off the chains and steep exposed rocky areas before any heavy rain.
Getting Back to Zakopane
The Rysy summit via Morskie Oko and Czarny Staw pod Rysami is a simple up-down hike. Meaning when you reach the end, you just turn around and head back the way you came. With the aforementioned storm we were keen to get down off Mount Rysy, or at least the steep part as quickly as we could. After carefully descending and beating the rain to Czarny Staw pod Rysami, we finally stopped to have our picnic lunch.
After refuelling, we started hiking back down to Morskie Oko. But we couldn’t resist one last photo over the stunning lake before we started our descent. Looking down, we were a little surprised at just how many people were down at the lower lake and just how few bothered to venture further up. By the time we reached the Morskie Oko information centre, the rain was just starting to fall. Our return had coincided with a mass exodus of people!
After walking for well over 20km, our feet and legs were pretty tired. So we were pleased to see a bunch of microbuses waiting in the car park, Zakopane bound. And even more pleased that one left as soon as we got on it. Arriving back in heavy rain, we were relieved to reach our hostel just as the thunder and lightning started. We were incredibly glad not to have been stuck on Rysy or at the lakes in this deluge!
The Mount Rysy summit via Morskie Oko and Czarny Staw pod Rysami is a spectacularly beautiful trail! Even if you are only planning on hiking as far as Morskie Oko you won’t be left disappointed. But making the effort to get up and beyond Czarny Staw pod Rysami and up Mount Rysy, was a highlight of our European adventures. If you are sure footed, have a decent level of fitness and some hiking experience, hiking up Rysy is not to be missed.
Not only are these lakes easily accessible to anyone, but a visit is incredibly cheap. We loved our time in the Tatra Mountains and can’t wait to come back and explore more. Hopefully like us, the photos of the these lakes inspire you to visit this amazing part of Europe too. You won’t regret it!
Best time to visit
The summer months of July and August offer the hottest temperatures and best conditions at the lakes. This is also the peak season and busiest months, so it can be outrageously busy. Not only at the lakes, but also in Zakopane where accommodation becomes both scarce and expensive.
The couple of months either end of the high season (May/June and September/October usually offers warm days and fewer crowds. But, as with Alpine areas anywhere, the weather changes quickly and is notoriously unreliable. On the days leading up to our early September visit, the weather had been pleasant and settled. The day we were hiking Morskie Oko, the weather turned. The following few days were generally wet and miserable for our hikes in the High Tatra’s of Slovakia.
Rysy can be climbed during winter but it becomes a technical climb. It requires crampons and an ice axe, not to mention the risk of avalanches. So it really is only for the very experienced.
Hiking & safety tips
- Go early! Morskie Oko is super popular and sees up to 10,000 people a day in high season, so you’ll want to get there early to beat the crowds. Remember to head up to Czarny Staw pod Rysami if you want to avoid the worst of the crowds.
- If you planning on summiting mount Rysy, start early. It can all be done quite comfortably in a 7-8 hour visit if you have a good level of fitness. But you won’t want to rush it and you’ll want to factor in photo stops.
- There’s a restaurant at the base of Morskie Oko and a cafe just before that. But we recommend taking a picnic lunch to enjoy by one of the lakes or on Rysy.
- It’s also possible to access the lakes from Zdiar in Slovakia. This involves climbing Rysy from Slovakia, which is said to be easier to achieve than from the Polish side. You would then descend down past the lakes to the car park, where you can catch a bus back to Slovakia. It would take a full day and you would need to check bus times back to Zdiar as they are infrequent.
- It’s really important to check the weather. Parts of the Rysy section of the hike are steep and exposed. In wet and windy conditions it can become very dangerous.
- Just because you don’t require a guide for the Mount Rysy summit, doesn’t mean anyone should do it. The final stages of the summit are steep and require climbing up via chains. It’s not recommended if you’ve got a fear of heights or limited hiking experience. Not only is it dangerous for you, but causing a bottleneck up here can endanger and severely inconvenience other hikers.
- A small waterproof day pack is all you should require for this day hike.
- Wear good sturdy shoes with good grip. The scree path is slippery both when dry or wet.
- Decent socks will make hiking more comfortable
- Pack wet weather gear and warm clothes as the weather can change quickly. It can be a bit chilly if you’re starting early or planning on picnicking at the top
- Use a refillable water bottle and do your bit to minimise plastic waste as well as saving the pennies.
- Definitely take sunscreen, cap and sunnies. Reef-friendly sunscreen is the best for the environment, especially if you’re planning on taking a dip.
- Charge you camera batteries/phone as you’ll want to take a lot of pictures
We stayed at Target Hostel in Zakopane. This lovely hostel had a range of well-priced priced rooms from 10-Bed Dorms to Private Doubles. There’s a clean shared kitchen, luggage storage and it’s in a great location. We would definitely recommend.