Poland is huge. With more than 20 national parks and some of Europe’s last primeval landscapes, the continent’s ninth biggest nation still has plenty to discover. Hikers can wander deep into old growth forests or bound across wildflower meadows to glimmering alpine lakes. Cyclists can zoom along country lanes or trendy neighborhoods while water hounds have hundreds of miles of Baltic Sea coastline and thousands of lakes to choose from. So, lace up your boots, pump up your tires, or grab a towel because the best of Poland awaits.
Bialowieza National Park in far eastern Poland holds an 800-year-old forest that’s been protected since at least the early 1500s. Today the 60-square-mile park holds another legacy, too: hundreds of European bison, the largest population on the continent. Trails here range from the short 2.4-mile Tsar’s Trail, where you might find wild orchids blossoming among the hornbeams, to the more challenging seven-mile Wolf’s Trail that wanders past the remains of ancient glacial deposits. When you’re done, local restaurants serve unique fare like wild boar tenderloin.
The Tatra Mountains make for a heavenly sight, so it’s no wonder that when Pope John Paul II wanted to spend time outside he headed to this corner of southern Poland. Here the mountains rocket more than 8,000 feet into the Polish sky to form sweeping ridges with airy vistas well above treeline. Most folks who come this way hike to Morskie Oko Lake near Zakopane. But you should fill your daypack with Polish snacks, especially the local favorite Oscypek cheese, and explore any of a dozen trails that wend past tidy mountain chalets, Poland’s highest waterfall, or even to an alpine hotel made of stone. Our suggestion: scramble your way to the top of 6,512-foot Kasprowy Wierch, for views of the valley of Five Lakes and 7,545-foot Swinica Peak.
Sandwiched between three countries in the extreme southeastern part of the country, the Bieszczady Mountains are akin to the Rocky Mountain West of Poland: wild, impressive and untamed home to wolves and bears. Here ground rises to elevations above 4,000 feet with grassy summits that lord over moody forests. One of Europe’s most famous long-distance trekking trails, the E8, cuts through the region, giving you, oh, 2,900 miles of opportunity. Focus your energy on the Bieszczady National Park, a 112-square-mile crown jewel of the country, where you’ll find more than 80 miles of trails with mountain hostels all but a day’s walk away.
Karkonoski National Park
The Karkonosze mountains run along Poland’s southwest border to form a tableau of glacial cirques, rocky summits, and peat bogs rich in marsh plants that attract more than 200 species of migratory birds. Spruce forests blend into beech and linden trees while rare, big horn mouflon and tiny pigmy owls call the best of this region, the 21-square-mile Karkonoski National Park, home. About 75 miles of trails braid through the park. Don’t miss the 18-mile-long Polish-Czech Friendship Trail that wanders along airy ridges and rocky cliffs between the peaks of Szrenica and Sniezka, at 5,259 feet, the highest point in the Karkonosze.
Poland’s Lake District
With more than 2,000 lakes, scores of tiny islets and serene rivers, Poland’s Masurian Lake District is a paddler-windsurfer-sunbather paradise. This 20,000-square-mile region in the northeast of the country boasts four paddling trails, including the 68-mile long Krutynia River Trail that crosses no fewer than 20 lakes with monasteries and six nature reserves along the way. Renting a boat and shuttle is easy and even beginners can enjoy the paddling. A boat cruise down the Elblag Canal is another local attraction. Due to the canal’s difference in elevation, system of slipways, locks and dams controls the traffic. At specific locations the boat is carried across a dry land from one section of the canal to another on rail mounted trolleys.
Poland has no shortage of booming beach towns, from Sopot to Jurata, where people come for sandy walks, windsurfing and wandering promenades in search of the perfect ice cream cone. Be sure to check out Slowinski National Park with its 20 miles of coast line and white sand dunes that tower up to 100 feet high. At the end of the day, head back to towns like Leba or Ustka for captivating architecture and windsurfing lessons or pop over to the waters around the Hel Peninsula that are the prime location for kitesurfers. While in the area, a visit to the UNESCO listed Malbork Castle should not be missed.