High Tatras views enchant hikers; well-marked trails guide them; cozy huts welcome them.
POPRAD, Slovakia — Slovakia’s High Tatras mountain range sits quietly in the shadow of the Alps yet within a compact 40-by-15mile range stand two dozen peaks between 7,000 and 8,700 feet.
Don’t feel bad if they weren’t on your radar. I’d never heard of them either until I escaped Rome’s August heat for four days of trekking.
Bravo for planet Earth’s little secrets.
I’ve hiked and climbed in Asia, South America, Europe, Africa and the U.S., yet only the vision of the sun rising over Africa from the top of 19,340-foot Mt. Kilimanjaro surpassed my views while trekking in the High Tatras.
They are towering black granite peaks rising over thick forests next to crystalclear, cobalt lakes. Even in summer, snow flecks the top of the mountains poking through the clouds. I viewed deep emerald green meadows around every turn.
The High Tatras cross the upper spine of Slovakia and stretch almost to the Polish border. During four days I hiked for 30 miles, only slightly denting the 360 miles of trails that are as well marked as the California freeways.
At the end of every day was a comfy, homey hut, many of which have been around since the early 1900s. Dozens of huts, evenly spaced apart, feature hot meals, cold drinks and warm beds. Even trekking alone, I never felt alone.
Czechoslovakia split into Czech Republic and Slovakia on Jan. 1, 1993. The Czech Republic has always been the ritzier, more romantic cousin; Slovakia is the outdoorsy nature buff.
About 5 million visitors hike the trails in summer and ski the slopes in winter, but it still is well off the beaten path for North Americans. I met only Slovaks, Czechs and Poles. I was the lone American. I heard very little English.
Slovakia is also an environmental giant. I saw very little deforestation as I walked along the trail with wide-ranging views of the valleys below. The only clearings I saw were from a 2004 windstorm that destroyed thousands of acres of forest and killed two people. In the vast forest that is northern Slovakia, the bare spots were like a sheep missing a couple of curls. The trails are spotless, and the huts maintain a green policy.
The trek, even going solo, was easy to organize. A representative from TravelSlovakia met me at my hotel in Poprad, a quaint valley town and the jumping-off point for the Tatras. The relief map she gave me was so detailed I could nearly identify eagle nests.
She laid out an itinerary for each day and directions on how to get to the trailhead at Tatranska Kotlina, where I would begin my trek. She was also available by phone if I was ever lost — which is nearly impossible on the well-marked trails.
THE HIGH TATRAS of Slovakia, popular with hikers, deliver big views. This view: Popradske Pleso.