SLO­VAKIA

Los Angeles Times - - TRAVEL - John Hen­der­son

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.

John Hen­der­son

THE HIGH TATRAS of Slo­vakia, pop­u­lar with hik­ers, de­liver big views. This view: Po­pradske Pleso.

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