Look at the ways of the hiker and you’ll find an uplifting path. It starts with chasing spectacular sights deep in wild places and grows to include a bucket list destination or two. Primeval forests. Airy ridges. Cozy huts. The hikes that entice the most become those that wander through a rich culture, too.
Take Poland. The country is huge and wild with more than 20 national parks and some of Europe’s last undisturbed landscapes. Hikers can wander deep into old-growth forests or bound across alpine meadows to glimmering mountain lakes. At the end of the day you can pitch a tent or hoist a village pint. Here, some ideas to fill your bucket.
About a dozen trails wend through the 72,000-acre Bieszczady National Park, the highlight of this colorful, rolling range that boils up to about 4,500 feet in extreme southern Poland. Ambitious hikers with plenty of time can piece together routes up to ten-days long, following trails that drop into villages and climb over “polonyna” or the high mountain meadows that make this region so famous. To reach perhaps the most beautiful one, Połonina Wetlińska, hike for about two hours from Przełęcz Wyżna up to about 4,100 feet to a small, rustic hut with no running water or electricity called Chatka Puchatka, from which you can base your adventures out to other peaks. To get a view of them all, make your way up 4,416-foot Tarnica, the highest peak in the region, via a challenging but popular two-hour hike from Wolosate that climbs nearly 2,000 vertical feet.
Trail of the Eagle's Nests
In the mid 1300s a Polish king named Casimir III ordered a string of fortresses be built on rocky outcrops to help protect the capital of the day, Krakow, to protect trade routes from would-be invaders. Today a 95-mile-long north-to-south route links these “eagles nests” from a starting point in Częstochowa to the end in Krakow at Wawel Royal Castle, a national museum with intricate coffered ceilings and an enormous dance hall. Along the way you’ll follow forest footpaths and country lanes through idyllic landscapes punctuated with limestone monadnocks rising over woodlands. Watchtowers and other strongholds like Bobolice, Ojcow, likely named by Casimir himself, and Ogrodzieniec, a collection of magnificent ruins on a 1,691-foot-high outcropping in the Jurassic Highlands, mark the highlights of each day.
Chuda Przelaczka Loop, Tatra Mountains
The Tatra Mountains, with their craggy summits, sweeping valleys and glistening lakes, double as the Polish Alps both in grandeur and in the quality of the trails that explore them. There’s a reason why Pope John Paul II spent time in this heavenly range. Head to Zakopane and cast off on the ten-mile Chuda Przelaczka Loop that will take you on a 3,500-vertical foot journey into the mountains on a steep, thigh-burning trail where the views of the surrounding peaks more than make up for the sweat. Start just west of town by following the Kirowa Woda upstream through the Koscieliska Valley before quickly ditching the crowds for the climb up toward 6,876-foot Ciemniak, one of the region’s famous “Red Peaks.” An easier trail brings you back down to the Ornak Hut where a beer — and bed — await.
The Wooden Architecture Route, Małopolska Region
The Małopolska region of southern — aka “lesser” — Poland could very well be the country’s best kept time-capsule. Here among the rocky peaks and moody forests you’ll find countless churches, inns and manors all built in classic wooden style with shingles, arcades and flared, droopy roofs. The Wooden Architecture Route links hundreds of these timeless treasures, many dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries, on a 932-mile-long journey clearly marked with more than 600 sign posts. Many of the sites sit from two to ten kilometers apart, making it easy to walk or cycle between them (as many of the priests often do). Don’t miss Binarowa, Lipnica Murowana and Debno Podhalanskie, where you’ll find churches designated by UNESCO as World Cultural and Natural Heritage sites. Spend your nights in quiet villages before exploring the Vistula Ethnographic Park in Wygiełzów to see how life in Polish villages once was. The Polish Tourism Organization can help you find maps and plan your trip.