If you’re Polish, chances are you know all about the mountain town of Zakopane. If you’re from outside Poland, then you might not have — at least, I hadn’t heard of it when I got a recommendation from a friend in Krakow to visit during my trip. Determined to make the most of it, I set off for the region’s most famous hike, despite decidedly not being a walker. I’m talking about the Morskie Oko hike, perhaps Zakopane’s most famous trail!
The trail is so popular that the entire nine kilometres each way are actually paved in asphalt. This means the Morskie Oko hike is one of the most accessible trails around Zakopane, and I saw everyone from school kids (so many school kids) to Grandmas making their way up the trail! At the top, you’re rewarded with a beautiful view of a lake surrounded by mountains.
Except for a minor breakdown half way up, it was a really enjoyable hike — and I made it! So, if you’re looking for a great hike in Zakopane, here’s my guide to completing the Morskie Oko hike.
What is Morskie Oko?
Morskie Oko is a large lake located in the Tatra mountains, near the border between Poland and Slovakia. It’s the fourth largest lake in the Tatra Mountains, and is located within the Tatra National Park.
The lake is surrounded by the highest peaks in the Tatras, including Rysy summit which stands at just a smidgen under 2,500 metres.
The lake is especially famous because it is said to change colour all throughout the year, depending on the season. It’s perhaps most famous during summer, when it turns a deep blue. Many Polish writers and artists have been inspired by the beautiful lake.
As a result of its famous beauty, the Morskie Oko hike is one of the most popular hikes in the Zakopane area. Sources say about 50,000 visitors hike it annually — but I think it could be even more!
Basic information about the Morskie Oko hike
Here’s everything you need to know about hiking Morskie Oko from Zakopane.
When can you do the Morskie Oko hike?
It’s important to note that during the winter Morskie Oko can be really challenging. This is because the area is prone to avalanches and snow. I understand sometimes the trail can be closed, but if it is open, make sure you wear really sturdy shoes and dress appropriately!
When we visited in early June, it was really warm and sunny — so be sure to bring plenty of water.
How long/difficult is the Morskie Oko hike?
When I first read “eighteen kilometres” I was totally shocked. Considering how out of breath I get running for a bus, I thought there’d be no way I’d be able to make it for an EIGHTEEN KILOMETRE hike.
However, everyone kept reassuring me that it was “easy”. Child’s play, even (literally, apparently it’s a popular trip for Polish schoolchildren).
The truth? Well, as a very unfit person, I’d call it easy-moderate. The terrain is super duper easy, as it has quite literally been asphalted the whole way to the top. I think this so cars/horse carriages can get up there, but it also means that you’re at basically no risk of tripping. It also means the incline is fairly mild.
That said, it is eighteen kilometres. That is a LOT of kilometres. I’d be lying if I didn’t say about half way up I was really wondering if this had been a big mistake. I pushed on, however, and was so glad to make it to the top! Plus, the way down is much easier.
Overall, I do think the hike is pretty easy by “hiking in the mountains” standards. However, it’s worth being prepared for the fact that it is a long way, and of course you are heading up a mountain. It’s no “walk in the park”, but it is definitely do-able, even if you’re as unfit as me!
What time to do the Zakopane to Morskie Oko
I know, I know. Every attraction, ever, tells you to “get there early”. But seriously, get to Morskie Oko early.
I was told that the trail gets really popular, but I really wasn’t expecting just how busy it got. We arrived at the start of the trail at 9:30am, before high season had technically started (this was right at the start of June when high season begins mid-June).
It was already pretty busy, but once we started walking back down I was absolutely floored by the crowds!
So, if you’re okay with those crowds then go at whatever time you want. But if you want to miss the crowds and take in the “serenity”, I’d advise arriving as early as possible – around 9am, or even before 8am during high season.
How to get from Zakopane to Morskio Oko
The start of the trail to Morskie Oko is about 45 minutes to an hour away from downtown Zakopane.
(Note: you can visit Zakopane and stay overnight, like we did, or as a day trip from Krakow which is about 2 hours away).
By far the easiest way to get there is to get the minibus from downtown Zakopane. You can drive, however parking is quite expensive (30 zł for a car) and the views from the bus are nice, so I think the bus is a much better option.
We got the bus from the stop “Watra” just along the main street. The bus doesn’t run according to an official timetable, but goes on demand. During high season apparently the buses run every few minutes, for us they went about every quarter of hour.
It’s super easy to find the right bus as it has a big “Morskie Oko” sign on the front.
The bus costs 10 zł per person, each way. You don’t need to buy a ticket in advance — when you get on the bus, just sit down, and they will take payment once you arrive. On the way back, we had to pay as we were getting on the bus.
I recommend sitting by the window because the view is nice!
Cost of the Morskie Oko hike
Aside from the cost of the bus ticket, you’ll also need to pay 5 zł for entry to the National Park. You can buy the ticket from the small booth across the car park. I’d recommend bringing small notes if you can.
It’s worth noting that if you don’t want to walk the whole way, you can get a horse and carriage ride up the mountain for about 50-100 zł each way. The horse carts are each pulled by two large horses with up to 12 people inside. In all honesty, from what I saw, the horses seemed to be in good condition and were not straining to get up the mountain. However, I have read mixed reviews on this so I am not comfortable recommending the ride.
You can get guided tours up to Morskie Oko but it really isn’t necessary. It’s almost impossible to get lost on the trail, and the landscape is pretty self-explanatory.
Safety tips for hiking in the Tatra Mountains
As mentioned, it’s almost impossible to get lost doing the Morskie Oko hike, and the terrain is pretty flat and even. That said, there are still a few basic safety precautions that you can take to make sure that you don’t end up in your own version of “Naked & Afraid” (if you haven’t seen that show, google it, now!)
- Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to get back. I’ve watched enough creepy Youtube videos about hikers going missing to know that it’s always a good idea to make sure someone knows you’ve gone.
- Wear sunscreen! Even if it doesn’t feel super hot, you can still burn really easily on the hike. Even I, an Australian, got a bit pink.
- Bring plenty of water. As in, get as much water as you think you need, and then double it! We brought two large bottles with us and we drank it all on a pretty mild day.
- There is very spotty phone reception in the mountains, so don’t rely on being able to call for help if you get in trouble!
- It is super easy to find Morskie Oko thanks to the asphalt trail and reasonable signage (there’s not heaps, but there’s enough). I don’t know why you would, but don’t wander off the trail into the forest. If you’re absolutely sure you want to, then you need to get a licensed guide and do a separate hike!
A run-down of the Morskie Oko hike
Okay, with all that information — let’s take a quick look at the hike and what you can expect.
As mentioned, the Morskie Oko hike is nine kilometres in each direction, or 18 kilometres in total.
Despite my total lack of fitness, I am competitive AF so you bet I was going to get up the mountain as fast as I could. We set a pretty cracking pace and were overtaking most hikers, and we managed to get to the top at just after 11am, after setting off at 9:30am.
So, it took me about an hour and a half to get to the top. We then spent about half an hour eating lunch by Morskie Oko and just enjoying the beauty, before heading back down. This way took about the same amount of time.
In total, the hike took about 3.5 hours, including the stop at the top, but not including the bus ride to the entrance. I understand that this is considered pretty fast — at our hotel the owner told us to expect it to take 5 or 6 hours, plus travel.
I think one reason that we made it up in a short time is that we did take a couple of short cuts. In the second half of the hike, we noticed some steps leading off of the asphalt path. These were being taken by the schoolkids so we decided to give them a try. They definitely saved some time and met back up with the path, however they are steep and a bit slippery, so it’s a bit of a judgment call as to whether they’re worth it!
The hike is pretty, although I wouldn’t say it’s jaw-droppingly scenic. There is forest and mountain views, and you can also see and hear the rushing river in a few places.
There are a few signposts along the route which give estimates of how much longer it is to the top. Honestly, they don’t seem to make a lot of sense. The first one we noticed said 1 hour, 35 minutes to the top — about 20 minutes later we arrived at one that said 1 hour, 25 minutes to the top (queue breakdown about how I was never going to make it).
Yet from there, it took less than an hour to reach Morskie Oko. So I’d just ignore them all together.
Reaching Morskie Oko
We finally arrived at the resting place for the horses, which was a pretty good indication that we were near the lake! In the end, it was about another kilometre until we arrived at Morskie Oko.
Unfortunately the lake wasn’t quite the turquoise I’d hoped, but it was very beautiful nonetheless. It’s a small and perfectly-formed waterway, with the massive peaks all around it. You can’t swim in it, but it is a lovely spot to stop and have lunch.
If you haven’t brought up your own lunch, then there is a restaurant at the top. It also sells beer, if you want a well-deserved hike… although I might suggest waiting until you’re back in Zakopane! Then, you can really enjoy a good Polish beer, without having to think about the climb back down!