Winter Hike to Morskie Oko
Located in the heart of Tatra National Park just next to the Polish-Slovak border, Lake Morskie Oko (eng. Eye of the Sea) is a popular destination for countless local and foreign adventurers. For centuries this beautiful lake has intrigued millions of nature lovers, hikers, mountaineers, cyclists, ice climbers, photographers, writers, and Pope John Paul II. Morskie Oko is supposedly so beautiful that Wall Street Journal even dared to present it as one of the five most beautiful lakes in the world. Feeling skeptical? Me too. I’m expecting the article to have something to do with Polish migrants, but who am I to judge? Many have enjoyed the beauty of this Tatra National Park gem …and, I imagine, they have their own opinion… Many, but not me. Out of three attempts, I never succeeded seeing Morskie Oko. Deep winter can make even a simple hike simply too challenging.
- Location: Tatra National Park
- Starting point: Palenica Białczańska
- Destination: Morskie Oko
- Distance (One way): 8km
- Ascend: 422m.
- Duration: 2h30–3h
- Difficulty: Easy for a winter hike
- Permit: 5PLN or 1.17EUR at the entrance
Your equipment might and should vary based on your own tolerance to cold and weather conditions. The feel to dress as much as possible is natural, but once your body starts moving soon it produces enough heat to keep you warm. Having in mind that due to low temperatures making breaks are not advised, the key of winter hiking is to maintain the equilibrium between keeping yourself warm, but not too much because once you start sweating in below zero temperatures it could get really cold. I always suggest doing a short hike to test your clothes before going for a long walk the next day. If you are staying around Zakopane, I would recommend climbing Nosal Mountain, 1.206m. You can find more information here.
- Waterproof winter hiking shoes;
- Winter ski pants;
- Thermo bottom (Personally, I use it only if it is below -10°C but I always bring it to every trip);
- Thermo top;
- Warm sweater;
- Waterproof/windproof jacket;
- Typical winter accessories like winter gloves, warm hat and seamless scarf.
- Warm drink;
- Sunglasses on a sunny day;
- Extra lighter in case your phone dies and you are not able to return to the base before the sunset which, generally, should never happen.
Please notice that I made this list only for winter hiking to Morskie Oko, the terrain here is relatively flat and due to its popularity is often cleaned. You will need extra equipment for more difficult hikes.
- Polish Rescue Service
- Slovak Rescue Service
- Rescue Service Android App
- Rescue Service iOS App
- Maps 2
- Mountain Weather Forecast
- Weather Forecast
Getting to Morskie Oko
Though Morskie Oko is often associated with Zakopane, 30km makes it impossible walking distance during winter having in mind that in worse than average weather conditions it is even difficult to make it with car or any other transport just as it was last time I tried to get to Palenica Białczańska. In 2019 early January, Zakopane had been closed down for visitors and it was literally impossible to leave the town as most of the streets were locked by a permanent traffic jam due to over-crowded winter Capital of Poland just after the New Year’s party with Modern Talking… …and a blizzard.
The entrance to Morskie Oko hike — Palenica Białczańska — is located just 22km from Zakopane and could be reached by 960 road. Ii sounds easy, but if the road is uncleaned you should be extra careful. Throughout three visits I’ve seen too many cars out of control on these roads. If you’ll successfully reach your destination, parking at Palenica Białczańska will cost you 30 PLN or ~7EUR.
Unless it was built out of moving pathways, the road from Palenica Białczańska to Morskie Oko couldn’t be made any easier to walk. In fact I would consider it a perfect route for winter hiking beginners in the High Tatra Mountains. All of it thanks to the popularity of Morskie Oko — anywhere where John Paul II has been, every Polish person must go.
There are more than enough huts with canteens to warm yourself and even a possibility to make the way to Morskie Oko with horse carriage which would cost you around 50PLN or 11.5EUR for the ride up and 30PLN or 7EUR for the ride down. It might look like a good option, but from what I saw I would consider walking for 3 hours a better option than being still for an hour in below zero temperatures. The good side of it that the carriages are mostly ran by the local population thus if you choose to take a ride you’ll be helping the local population
The Road to Morskie Oko
The basic rule of this road is to follow the red route signs, as long as you do it you should be able to reach Morskie Oko. While the road is pretty flat and easy to walk, believe me, a blizzard can mane it quite annoying. At times it was so unpleasant that despite the cold I chose to take my gloves away and read an e-book on my phone. Anything just to keep my mind busy from mindfulness. I would like to imagine that today I would enjoy walking the distance during a blizzard more than I did it three years ago, but that is nothing more than a guess-game. Despite all the odds that was the only time I actually reached Morskie Oko and even walked on it, though that wasn’t good enough.
Icicle Formation Mechanics
When in cold, your mind doesn’t really get to drift away. Some alarm system inside the body has to remind the danger of frostbite every single second of all 3 hours toward Morskie Oko. The path is rather monotonous. Anything unusual will catch your attention, and believe me, you’ll have enough time to analyze everything to the very base of its nature. Have you ever wondered how do the icicles form? Well, this hike was the first time for me. It appears that icicles form on sunny days with subzero temperatures. It starts with sun giving ice enough heat to change it’s stated to liquid. As water drops, it gives away the energy to the surrounding air and freezes again. The cycle repeats.
One of the most beautiful things to observe in winter mountains is the beauty of two states of H2O being so close to each other. Liquid water in sub-zero temperatures requires a source of energy to avoid freezing. Most of the cases it is gravity. The best example of it on your way to Morskie Oko will be — Wodogrzmoty Mickiewicze — a tall three-level waterfall named after the famous Polish/Lithuanian poet Adam Bernard Mickiewicz. Roztoka stream deriving up from the valley of five Polish lakes will be there unfrozen throughout the year. Wodogrzmoty Mickiewicze was as far as I could the second time I tried to reach Morskie Oko, this time I was short on time.
You might wonder what is so special about Morskie Oko? Well, if size matters to you, it is the largest and fourth deepest lake in the Tatra Mountains, despite it the natural beauty of Morskie Oko wouldn’t disappear if it was, let’s say, only the fifth largest lake in the area. The reason for is pretty simple — the lake is located almost 1,4km above the sea level but the surrounding mountains rise even higher. Some of them reach even as much as 1km above the point where Morskie Oko is, most notably Mount Rysy — the highest mountain in whole Poland — rising 2.503m above the sea level. The landscape like this is a good enough reason for me to try so desperately to see Eye of the Sea each year. Why the name anyway?
Legend of Morskie Oko
Everything starts like anything else.. A long, long time ago, beyond seven mountains, beyond seven forests, lived a sailor. He sailed throughout the world with the hope to find a treasure that he desperately needed to free his parents from an evil master. The sailor traveled everywhere: The North where winter lasts forever with giant icebergs covering the ocean; The South with endless sandy beaches surrounded only by some palm trees. After many years the sailor finally found his treasure, but when he tried to return home with it a terrible storm struck him. His ship was destroyed by the giant snowmen pouring out of the sky and everything was long, only sailor himself reached the coast. Shattered, he had to travel home through seven mountains and seven forests empty-handed, as far as he could from the cruel sea who took everything from him.
He crossed fertile valleys and barren rocks, he passed wide rivers and narrow streams until he reached a road reaching the sky itself. The weary sailor started climbing it and when he reached the top of it he saw a shimmering lake surrounded by tall mountains. Just next to it a shepherd was grazing his sheep.
– What is the name of this beautiful lake? The sailor asked him.
– Eye of the Sea.
– Eye of the Sea…? I need to go across it.
– If you wait till the evening I’ll show you the way, it is dangerous if you don’t know it.
So the sailor waited for the shepherd to return, looking at shimmering of Morskie Oko who changed one color after the other as the time ran. The shepherd returned with his sheep in the evening just as he promised. Before they went down, the night darkness fell on them, so they have to raft in the moonlight. As they swam into the lake the sailor noticed small waves stirring across the lake, though there was no wind.
– There must be a huge storm there in the sea. You see, they say that underground the lake is connected with the Sea. Sometimes during the night, it washes out some shipwreck or treasures.
The sailor leaned over the water and overlooked the moon river reaching out the depths of the lake. Suddenly something flashed, a fish some kind of a strange shape… A moment later a wave with mare’s tail collapsed into the raft leaving a silver casket at the feet of sailor. It was the treasure which he lost many many days ago at the cruel sea.
Visiting Morskie Oko
Sadly, due to blizzard, Morskie Oko was virtually invisible during the only time I successfully reached the lake. The best way to describe the situation was what I told a couple who asked me to take a picture of them with Morskie Oko in the background, — “You can easily photoshop anything you want into the background!”. In fact it was like taking photographs in front of a green screen with the only difference being its color. It was a big disappointment. I even walked on the surface of frozen Morskie Oko, but it was even hard to tell that you are walking on ice. Only a small portion of the lake was unfrozen at the point where Bialka mountain stream derives from the lake. Walking on the lake was just like walking in a fog. Everybody who tried going deeper soon disappeared.
Schronisko PTTK Morskie Oko
For tired, freezing or hungry travelers Schronisko Morskie Oko (eng. Morskie Oko shelter) provides just anything you might need. The only problem that it can get crowded, but there is plenty of space and you should be able to find your seat quickly while waiting warm inside. If you feel like you don’t have enough energy for a return trip you might have to wait a bit longer. It is highly recommended to book a room in advance as it could be done even a year before your arrival. You can find more information on Schronisko PTTK Morskie Oko website. In case all of the rooms are booked, there is always horse carriage which could bring you back to Palenica Białczańska.
Road Downhill in Winter Mountains
While climbing up in the mountains is a tough task, sometimes walking back is not only easier, but way more fun as well. One thing I really love about winter hiking is that you get to slide down most of what you have climbed. Despite being unable to see Morskie Oko through a blizzard, climbing down alone was good enough reason for the whole struggle. That, of course, doesn’t mean that you can sled yourself down every mountain you climb, enjoy it on your own risk.
A Graveyard of Trees
Once we departed Morskie Oko it didn’t take long for the weather to start getting better. These things always happen like they were designed this way, Murphy’s Law. Honestly, it doesn’t take much to start feeling like you are the protagonist of Truman’s Show. Though I wouldn’t worry that much, at least I get to travel after all, don’t I?
After some kind of visibility returned, the first and the only thing that struck me were parts of the damaged forest. I was kind of clueless. After some research my best guess would be that it was done by some kind of windstorm, which uncleared, at least in the past, have caused serious bark beetle outbreaks in the region. Deadwood is a feast for wood-eating insects which results in an explosion of population, and infection of nearby healthy woods.
Giving up on the track
Feeling adventurous we decided to take a bit different route back. On the crossroad near Wodogrzmoty Mickiewicze, we turned east toward Slovakia without really knowing where the path leads, but it was worth the risk because we knew that the rest of the road going to Palenica Białczańska is relatively flat and somewhat boring which we desperately wanted to escape. Boy, we were right. From hiking on a paved mainstream road we walked into fairytale-like winter wonderland environment.
First, we had to trespass one of those graveyards of trees, the climate got so serene that it was possible to hear the echoes from the once great forest.
A Witch Hut
One of those moments when you find some signs of civilization in the middle of the forest. At first, it’s magical and you try to mystify it, but then you understand that it’s commercial and boring. Nevertheless bypassing this hut felt like a challenging task because we had no wish to wake up witch. In case you wonder the actual name of the hut is Schronisko PTTK w Dolinie Roztoki and it is a starting point of a green track leading to the Valley of Five Polish Lakes.
Just a few steps after the hut we actually had to start sneaking because the route we took apparently leads only this far and walking further is forbidden. Though I do not encourage it we decided to take the path anyway.
The road is probably closed down probably to avoid people getting lost and found in neighboring Slovakia. The sign clearly sends a message ‘Go back the same way you came’, we took it as ‘Enter this forest on your own risk’. What a magical forest it was.
We did not know at the time but once we crossed this small mountain river we crossed the border between Poland and Slovakia. Bialka river derives from Morskie Oko lake and it is a natural border between Poland and Slovakia before ending up in its parent river — Dunajec.
To Be Continued..
After three attempts I still haven’t seen the beauty of Morskie Oko during the winter. It is a friendly reminder to me that even the most accessible destinations could be impossible to reach if Mother Nature doesn’t allow it. While I will continue on my quest to see this beautiful gem of Polish Tatra Mountains during winter, to anybody trying to do so, I wish the very best luck and good weather conditions. Most importantly — stay smart — winter hiking is a very rewarding, but dangerous activity and the red track from Palenica Białczańska to Morskie Oko is a good way to test yourself as a beginner.
Fancy something more difficult? Try winter hiking to one of the most popular peaks in Poland — Kasprowy Wierch.
Originally published at https://ctdots.eu on April 13, 2017.