Hiking the Slovakian High Tatras: Mlynicka Dolina to Furkotska Dolina via Bystre Sedlo

I'm a lucky human for a variety of reasons. Among those reasons is that I'm privileged to know some incredible, generous, and adventurous people. Recently, that good fortune landed me a spot on a trip to Slovakia, organized by one of those incredible, generous, and adventurous people. Our group of 12 friends from around the world came together to explore a country characterized by dramatic natural landscapes, stunning castles, deep caves, rich culture, and unique traditions.

Our home base for the majority of the part of the trip I participated in was Arnutovce, a small village in central-eastern Slovakia. This home base gave us easy access to two of the country's most incredible places for hiking - the High Tatra Mountains (Tatranský národný park) and Slovak Paradise (Slovensky raj.)

Near the halfway point of this hike, close to Bystre Sedlo. How beautiful is it there?!

The High Tatras are part of the Western Carpathians, an arc-shaped mountain range. The complex geologic history of the region is still being studied. The jagged, angry looking peaks appeared completely inaccessible without a rope, and as it turns out, only a handful of them are. Despite jet lag, the night I arrived, I dove right into the High Tatras hiking guidebook my friend had and found half a dozen routes I wanted to try.

Though the route we landed on didn't take us up to a mountain peak, it did involve some steep hiking and hand-over-hand climbing with the assistance of chains near the halfway point. Not bad for my first day in Slovakia!

Getting to the Trailhead

We started our journey from Štrbské Pleso, a resort town near a lake with the same name. After parking in the upper lot and paying €0.50 to use the toilet, (which I learned is common), we walked up a paved road toward the mountains. The guidebook specified the route needed to be completed counter-clockwise, and with good reason as we later learned. We passed  a small ropes course and ski jumps in the distance to our left. The paved road turned into gravel and dirt, and within 10 minutes, we were on an obvious trail through the woods following yellow blazes.

Climbing up Mlynicka Dolina to Bystre Sedlo and Down Furkotska Dolina (9 miles, 3,600' elevation gain)

The first part of our hike took us through shaded woods over terrain punctuated by massive rocks and tangled tree roots. Before I knew it, we popped out of the trees and got a glimpse of the lowlands along with part of our route up the valley.

Heading up into Mlynicka Dolina (dolina roughly translates to valley) on the first part of the hike.

We continued climbing up, following a wide and rapidly flowing creek toward a large waterfall I'd seen from the road. We heard the waterfall, Vodopád Skok, before we could see it. The wide trail was crowded up until this point, which seemed appropriate for an easily accessible and gorgeous hike on a Sunday afternoon. Many hikers turn around at this point, but we continued up the trail to the left of the waterfall.

Vodopád Skok, which Google Translate says means "waterfall jump!" Look closely for the tiny people near the top of the falls for scale.

The climb up past the waterfall was steep, and we saw the first set of chains installed on the route to help hikers make it safely up the trail. As we popped over the waterfall, we came to Pleso nad Skokom, a beautiful mountain lake, and stopped for lunch. Large rocks littered the landscape around the lake, giving us shelter from the wind while we snacked.

"Pleso" in Slovak is "tarn" in English, a word for a mountain lake formed by a glacier. Not a bad lunch spot!

The route around and beyond the lake gave us some reprieve from an otherwise steep route for a bit, but we quickly found ourselves staring at a wall of rocks in the distance and trying to figure out where it would be safe for unroped hikers to cross over the ridge. The well-built path took us across boulder fields and up the valley toward our second lake of the ascent - Capie Pleso. From that point on, we'd climb steeply up toward what looked like an impassable wall.

Looking down the valley toward Capie Pleso. Behind me, the photographer, is a steep climb up to Bystre Sedlo.

From Capie Pleso, it took us 30 minutes to climb up the steep side of the ridge toward Bystre Sedlo, and somewhere in that 30 minutes, it started to snow. I couldn't believe I'd been comfortable in a tshirt and tights at the bottom, and all of a sudden needed to layer up to stay warm in a random snowstorm on the first day of July! It briefly distracted me from what was to come, but when we reached a point in the route where I could see what the last bit of climbing looked like, it became completely obvious why the route is one-way.

The upper section of the route toward the head of the valley took us through a small slot, barely large enough for one person. I can't imagine getting up the last few meters of that section of trail without chains to help haul me up; it was scary, and I took off the gloves I'd put on to make sure I had a solid grip.

Heading down Furkotska Dolina from Bystre Sedlo toward Vyšné Wahlenbergovo pleso. I was too scared to take a photo up by the chains!

When we popped over the other side, we found more chains to help us descend the upper part of the route, and taking our time, made it safely past them. I'd turned to face the rock wall rather than going down facing out, per the hiking book's recommendation. It was like climbing down a steep, uneven, slippery ladder. The snow continued to pelt us on the way down, and I enjoyed the novelty of dealing with it in July when I heard reports of 100ºF heat back home in Philadelphia.

The first part of the descent was extremely steep, much like the ascent, and we made it down to Vyšné Wahlenbergovo pleso without incident. We took our time on the slippery rocks and continued the descent, eventually arriving at an elevation where grass and small shrubs could grow.

Finally back in the land of greenery! But it was still snowing.

The path widened, and we came to a junction indicating we could take a blue blazed trail to a chairlift to descend, or continue down on foot. We opted for the latter, continued down past a small stream and came to another junction. Turning left, we followed large, wide gravel road back to Štrbské Pleso and eventually, to the parking lot with a pit stop for crepes and pilsner.

Things to Know Before You Go

Though my knowledge of this hike and area is limited to what I learned while I was on it, and what I read in the guidebook, if you're planning  to do this route, start by making sure you do it in the right direction. We ran into a handful of hikers going the clockwise direction up at the slot, which is impassable by more than one person at a time. They had to sit and wait for us, clinging to rocks and chains in the snow until we passed.

Slovakia wasn't at the top of my places to visit list, and it should have been. So glad I got the chance to go!

Make sure you have sturdy trail shoes at a minimum. I wore my Scarpa boots and was glad to have the extra ankle protection; I bashed my feet against rocks often on the hike! And bring layers. As we learned, even in July, the weather can change quickly. Also, bring cash to pay for parking and for the use of toilets at the bottom.

This is the first in a short series of trip reports I'll share about hikes we did in Slovakia. Who's been there? Think you'd want to tackle this hike?

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