This part of Peaklist is devoted to the Tatras mountain range in Slovakia and Poland, Central Europe
by Mark Trengove

High Tatra
The High Tatra, with Ganek 2462m/182m in the left foreground (photo courtesy Marcin Slupsky)


The Tatras are the highest mountain range of the 1200 km (750 mile) Carpathian Arch, which stretches from east of Vienna in Austria through the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, and Ukraine, to Romania, reaching an end at the Kazan Gorge on the Danube. Much of the Carpathian chain is of lowly altitude. Almost half of its summits are less than 1000m (3,280ft) in altitude. The Tatras, however, are significantly higher. There are thirty-four summits with a prominence of at least 140m (460ft) in the range that reach over 2000m (6,560ft) in altitude. Of these six reach 2500m (8,200ft). Gerlachovsky stit, the highest peak in the range, and its only Ultra-Prominence, is 2654.4m (8709ft) in altitude.

These are rugged mountains with high cols and precipitous faces. The absence of Prominences of 600 m and over indicates the wall-like nature of the range. The Tatras’ main crest stretches in an arch from a northwesterly to southeasterly direction. There are a number of spurs from the main ridge, mostly perpendicular to it. The valleys, likewise, follow a similar orientation to these spurs.

The main ridge stretches for some 78 km (49 miles) from the town of Zuberec in Slovakia in the west to the valley of the Biela river in the east – also in Slovakia. On average, the range is 20 km (12 miles) wide. Beyond here to the northeast lie, at right angles to the main ridge, the White Tatras. The Tatras are bounded on the northern side by a series of valleys, in one of which the Polish town and mountain resort of Zakopane lies. On the southern side lies the Sub-Tatras basin in the wide valleys of the Poprad and Vah rivers. The total area of the range is 785 sq. km, with 175 sq. km lying in Poland and the rest in Slovakia.


The Tatras are built out of two types of rock.  The oldest, in the High Tatra, are crystalline granitoids formed from solidified magma in the Palaeozoic Era (c.300 to 248 million years ago), although the earliest were formed as far back as 415 million years ago.  There are also metamorphosed rocks such as gneisses from the same era, found more in the Western Tatras.  This forms the core of the main ridge.  The northern belt is composed of younger rocks formed in the Mesozoic Era (230 to 65 million years ago).  They are sedimentary rocks such as limestone, dolomite and sandstone.  They were created at the bottom of a sea that lay far to the south in what is now Slovakia.  During the great period of mountain building in the middle of the Tertiary Era (c. 50 to 40 million years ago) known as the Alpine Orogeny, the collision of the African and Eurasian plates created the Alps and, further east, the Tatras.  This tectonic movement also shifted the sedimentary rocks north over the crystalline core and folded them to form the range of high hills in Poland which lie north of the range.  


Most of the Carpathian chain escaped glaciation in the Quaternary (Ice) Age.  Due to their northerly position in the chain and higher altitude, however, the Tatras did not.  Glaciation covered all higher areas of the High Tatras and parts of the Western Tatras.  Valleys were gouged by the glaciers into the characteristic U-shape.  Hanging valleys were created in subsidiary valleys.  The glacial erosion sharpened the mountain ridges and formed deep cirques, with terminal moraines creating large numbers of glacial lakes after the ice had retreated.  Material carried down by the glaciers to the foreland formed glacial cones, on one of which the Polish town of Zakopane now stands.  The glaciers disappeared from the Tatras about 10,000 years ago.  There is now no permanent lying snow on the mountains.

Today the Tatras continue to be shaped by the forces of water, wind and weather, and vegetation.  Man has also contributed to this erosion.  The weather in the Tatras is often changeable and can be harsh.  Snow can fall at almost any time of year.  The average annual precipitation is between 1200mm and 1500mm, with half of it falling as snow.  Powerful warm southerly winds called “halny” (foehn) can blow over the mountains on the Polish side.  These are strong enough to break down trees and destroy swathes of forest.

The White Tatras (Slovak: ‘Bielanske Tatry’)

White Tatras
Havran 2052m/401m (left) and Zdiarska vidla 2142m/c.172m
(photo courtesy Marcin Slupsky

This subsidiary range in the east, wholly in Slovakia, lies at right angles to the main Tatras ridge, connected to it by the by the col Kopské sedlo.   It is 13km (8 miles) long and composed of pale grey limestone summits which rise out of steep grass-covered slopes.  The highest summit in the range is Havran 2052m/401m (7059ft/1317ft).   There are a further five summits in the range with a prominence of over 140m/460ft.

Due to extensive erosion and the threat to their delicate ecology, the National Park Authority limits the number of visitors to this range and the number of routes onto and along the ridge.

The High Tatras (Slovak: ‘Vysoké Tatry’ ; Polish: ‘Tatry Wysokie’)

Gerlachovsky Stit  2654m/2356m in winter (photo courtesy Dariusz Zarod)

The High Tatras form the highest part of the chain.  They begin in the east in Slovakia at the col Kopské sedlo, with the main ridge stretching for most of the way in a southwesterly direction before swinging northwestwards to reach the Polish border at the mountain Rysy.  From there the main ridge continues to head north west, forming the Slovak/Polish  border as far as the col Laliové sedlo if you follow Slovak opinion.  There are a number of spurs off the main ridge northwards into Poland and southwards into Slovakia – most notably the subsidiary chain southwestwards for 7km (4 miles) from Cubryna
, reaching its highest point on the summit of Kriván 2494m/400m (8182ft/1312ft).  The main ridge stretches for a distance of 27km (17 miles).

The highest summit is
Gerlachovský štít 2654m/2356m (8709ft/7731 ft) in Slovakia which lies on a southern spur off the main ridge. The highest summit of significant prominence in Poland is Mieguszowiecki Szczyt 2438m/213m (7999ft/699ft) which lies on the Polish/Slovak border.  Many books note Rysy as the highest summit in Poland. The Polish high point, however, is on a subsidiary summit of the mountain at 2499m (8199ft) with only 10m of prominence. The main summit lies just across the border at 2503m (8212ft), giving the mountain a prominence value of 163m (536ft). The highest mountain wholly in Poland is Kozi Wierch 2291m/165m (7517ft/542ft).

The High Tatras are composed mainly of hard granites and gneisses.  They are spectacularly serrated and precipitous peaks, some only being accessible to rock climbers and generally requiring a guide.  There are, however, a number of summits accessible to walkers.  These require little use of the hands but do need a head for heights.

The Western Tatras (Slovak: ‘Západné Tatry’ ;  Polish: ‘Tatry Zachodnie’)

Bystrá 2248m/562m
(photo courtesy of Marcin Slupsky)

The Western Tatras are a continuation of the High Tatra ridge, forming the border between Slovakia and Poland as far as Volovec/Wolowiec 2064m/156m (6772ft/512ft).  Thereafter the crest of the main ridge is wholly in Slovakia.  The Western Tatras main ridge begins in the east at Laliové sedlo
and stretches for some 38 km (24 miles) westwards.  A series of subsidiary spurs stretch off the main ridge into Slovakia and Poland.  The Western Tatras are the second highest range of mountains in Slovakia and Poland.   

The highest summit in the range is Bystrá 2248m/562m (7377ft/1845ft) which lies off the main ridge on a spur in Slovakia.  The highest summit in Poland is Starorobocianski Wierch 2176m/238m (7138ft/780ft), which lies on the Polish/Slovak border.  There are twenty summits with at least 140m (460ft) of prominence in this range.

The Western Tatras are mainly composed of gneisses and slate-type (metamorphic) rocks and have a smoother and less jagged appearance than the High Tatras.  They provide good ridge walking, however, and are more accessible to un-guided visitors.

Hiking in the Tatras

The Tatras first became popular for visitors in the 19th Century with the aristocracy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During the years of communist domination the Tatras were the most accessible region of alpine mountains to those in Central and Eastern Europe behind the ‘Iron Curtain’. Their popularity has continued to this day. These are not mountains which you can expect to have to yourself if you keep to the marked trails. The weight of visitors has land caused degradation problems. It is for this reason that access to the areas of the Slovak and Polish National Parks is quite tightly regulated.

The Slovak and Polish Tatra National Parks are blessed with a network of well-maintained and waymarked paths. The National Park regulations on both sides of the border require hikers to keep to these paths unless accompanied by a qualified guide or they are in possession of a valid identity card from their national Alpine club. In Poland groups of ten or more must be accompanied by a guide, even on waymarked paths. There is also a small entry fee for entering National Park areas in Poland. These fees go to maintaining the Parks and funding the free mountain rescue service. The higher routes are closed to hikers in winter and spring (generally 1 November to 30 June), but the lower paths remain open in Slovakia. As mentioned above, the White Tatras are only accessible at any time of year when in possession of a valid pass, except for a marked trail between Zdiar and Kopske sedlo.

There are a good number of mountain refuges in these mountains. In Slovakia there are eleven of these “chaty”, and Poland has eight “schronisko”. Most of these refuges are owned by the relevant national mountaineering associations. All offer food and lodging, with some reaching good hotel standards. Details on how to contact these refuges can be found in the guidebooks mentioned below.


There is a good choice of maps of the Tatras at 1:25,000, 1:50,000 and 1:75,000 scales.  It must be said, however, that even the smaller scale maps tend to lack contouring in the more precipitous higher mountain areas.  This is particularly the case with the Slovak maps.

For Slovakia, the following 1:25,000 maps are recommended:

    • VKÚ Harmanec Edícia Turistick_ Máp No.2 Vysoké Tatry (2004)
    • VKÚ Harmanec Edícia Turistick_ Máp No.3 Západné Tatry (2002)

For Poland, the following 1:25,000 map is recommended:

    • Sygnatura Tatra National Park Tourist Map/Wanderkarte (in English and German) (2004/05).

Guide books

There are a wide selection of guidebooks on the Tatras in Polish and Slovak.  For English speakers, the following are recommended:

    • The High Tatras by Colin Saunders and Renáta Náro_ná.  Publisher Cicerone Press, England  (website).
    • High Tatra: the finest  valley and mountain walks by Stanislav Samuhel.  Publisher Rother, Munich (website).

I would also recommend the following websites for pictures of the Tatras:
The Lists

A master list of all of the summits in the Tatra has been completed to 100 meters prominence.
The earlier separate lists for Poland and Slovakia can still be accessed in Word documents: Note:  Comments on the lists and introductions are welcome.  Please send any comments you may have to me via the webmaster.

Mark Trengove
Wales, UK July 2005