In the parade of the mountains bordering Southern Poland, The Pieniny (Sometimes translated "The Pienine") occupy a special place. This is neither the largest range in size neither in area, but Poles and Slovaks talk about it with passion, and the little hooked pine on Sokolica appears on each possible calendar!
One of the reasons why Pieniny facinate us so much lies perhaps in their look. The bright white chalky rock that their dolomite walls exhibe, dominated by pine trees and other heliophilous plants, make it some kind meridional mountains, at least in our imagination...
The Pieniny mountains are made mostly of limestone rock, from the Jurassic era. However, some hills of the northernmost regions are of volcanic origin. The Pieniny make the junction with several other mountain ranges, connecting Gorce on the NW, opposite the Dunajec river in Krościenko, the Beskid Sadecki opposite from pass Przełęcz Rozdziela in upper Szczawnica, NE, and Spišská Magura, a wild and interesting area on the south, sometimes mentionned as the continuity of the Pieniny.
The area is usually divided into the following sub-regions:
- The Pieniny Właściwe (or Środkowe), in other words, the heart of the Pieniny. Their top are not the very famous Trzy Korony ("three crowns"), more precisely the rock named Okrąglica (982m).
- The Małe Pieniny, "small pieniny", described below, paradoxally the tallest part.
- The Pieniny Spiskie (Żar, 879m), far less visited (the lack of material on SP about this area witnesses it...), perhaps because of their lack of features, except perhaps the Przełom Białki Reserve in their westernmost end.
Geological and cultural trip
Since it is the star of the region, let's start with her presentations: The Dunajec, river which makes almost all the celebrity of the Pieniny. Tributary of the Vistula, it collects all waters of the Podhale region, as well as the Poprad in Nowy Sącz. It has no precise source for the simple reason that it is the result of three merging rivers: the Czarny Dunajec, the Dunajec Biały, and Białka, all of them in the Polish Tatras. The three join above the large reservoir of Czorsztyn.
The romantic view of the Niedzica castle that overlooks made it famous. An all artificial aesthetic in fact, that barely offsets its liabilities: the building in 1994 engulfed many villages and took away some of the local architectural heritage. Warming also the water, altering the ecosystem of species who live there.
The Dunajec does not freeze anymore in winter, say local fishermen. A real shame !
Downstream of the lake is the real beginning of the "geological" Pieniny. The existence of this range and these gorges is due to a complex geologic process, which could be summarized as follows: The Dunajec traced its route while erosion, eliminating softer rocks around, isolated the Pieniny mountains where they now stand.
Describing the action that sculpted these mountains cannot be summarized in only one stage. More information about this complex process is to be found here (National park's page).
Let's go to one of the tributaries mentioned earlier to understand more concretely: the Przełom Białki Natural Reserve, near Krempachy. The river, still flowing freshly at this stage from the Tatras (its bed is loaded with granite peebles), wends its way between two steep rocky outcrops, like sentinels. Just like having chosen its route in advance!
The place, photogenic, is equally popular amongst swimmers for the emerald water, than geologists of all sorts, and climbers who appreciate the cliffs quality.
The Dunajec gorges, in the heart of Pieniny, have seven turns, describing a wide "S". The imposing mass of the Trzy Korony and the "eagles pinnacle", Sokolica, belong to the reliefs that make the celebrity of the Polish shore. Sporty and exhilarating route, rewarding the hiker by unforgettable views.
Let's also mention the "rock of the Seven Monks" ... which are actually six in number. The legend says that the seventh, escaping a fate that would have petrified his colleagues, has been caught later up to Morskie Oko, to suffer the same fate, creating the famous corniche "Mnich" on the side of Rysy.
The Slovak side of the Dunajec, apart from the bike path that allows a visit on the ground, also gets its lot of curiosities like the ravine of "Lesnický potok", leading to the eponymous village of Lesnica (and mountain pass).
South, near Červený Kláštor are rising the cliffs of Haligovské skaly, whose top is Rabsztyn (Rabštin). They extend also in Slovakia and its own national park, where the path of the summit Plašna.
Červený Kláštor has a fourteenth century monastery, which can be visited.
Visit now possible from Poland thanks to a pedestrian bridge linking the two countries, built just before the Schengen era, connecting the town of Sromowce Niżne.
In this village, as well as in Sromowce Średnie (adjacent), one will admire beautiful houses and traditional wooden farmhouses, especially in "Ulica Flisacka", the raftmen street, away from the main road.
This leads us to the great tradition of the Dunajec rafting.
Since immemorial times, the technique of floating is the cheapest mean of conveying wood.
There are several techniques, like "floating lost logs", random, and the "rafting" technique, where logs are connected together, and if the stream allows it, a raftman leads it in order not run aground.
In Europe, industrially, this technique has disappeared during the twentieth century, except in Finland.
It survives only as a folklore in some places like the Dunajec, but not only: in the French Alps, where the "Radeliers of the Durance" are well known, or in Spannish Pyrenees, where the "Nabateros" descend Río Gallego and Río Cinca, making a colorful annual festival.
Raftmen of the region, both Poles and Slovaks, realized early the aesthetic of crossing the Pieniny and already organized tourist raids some 200 years ago ! Does know why the black hat that comes with the "Goral" costume includes shellfish, sewn around the red tape? The raftmen often flew down the Vistula to deliver any timber used for ship building ... pushing the trip to the beaches of the Baltic ! (story told by a raftman)
Today, unfortunately, it is not uncommon to see that tradition carried on until its maximum capacity during the sunny summer weekends, when herds of rafts, loaded with cameras, invade the gorges, spreading the echo of the tourist bustle between the walls...
In contrast, the lone walker of the Dunajec will be perhaps rewarded on a rainy day, or early in the morning, by meeting the discreet black stork, an endemic and emblematic specie of the place, eyes and long red beak looking for the carefulness fish...
Some not-so-small Pieniny
The Pieniny range extends east of Szczawnica, in what is called the Małe Pieniny, "Small Pieniny", an area away from crowds, but popular amongst hikers.
Here culminate Wysokie Skałki (Vysoké Skalky), at 1050m, as well as Wysoki Wierch (Šlachtovsky vrch), and Rabsztyn (Rabštin). They extend also in Slovakia and its own national park, where the path of the summit Plašna, very entertaining, meanders between the ledges of Haligovské skaly.
All these small peaks, well individualized, not to say sharp like for Rabsztyn/Rabštin and its cliffs, are topped with bald and rocky summits, "trademark" of the Pieniny region, which carry us on on much larger mountaintops with a little imagination... such as these Tatras spreading in the south and inexplicably diving suddenly underground, disdaining to extend further...
The lift to the Palenica hill, from Szczawnica, might help the less fit to get closer to the Małe Pieniny ridge.
But the Małe Pieniny, contain other attractions, not only on the heights. From the village of Jaworki, below Wysokie Skałki, flows a magnificent gorge called Wąwóz Homole. A trail runs through its the bottom, along the stream, using gateways and other ladders to allow the visitor observing every corner. See the same place in autum, summer and winter). Alas, like many places bordering nature reserves in Poland, a paying toll is located near souvenir stands.
For this reason, it is advised for hikers to make a loop and the visit in the downhill direction. Loop possible taking for example a second route of interest: the pass Przełęcz Rozdziela, linking the Pieniny to the Beskid Sądecki. We visit here the reserve of "Biała Woda", another very "geological" water stream along the impressive limestone outcrop Brysztańskie Skały. Let's also finally mention the Zaskalskie-Bodnarówka reserve.
The heart of the Pieniny is an area that cannot be crossed by any motorized mean of transportation, which results in the fact that several access point must be described, depending on where we come from and what side of the range we need to access.
Public transports :
No train line is serving the area, but all the North of the Pieniny is served by bus (Polish PKS) from Nowy Targ: Krościenko, Szczawnica, as well as the area of Czorsztyn, Sromowce Wyżne and Sromowce Niżne. From the East of Poland, Krościenko is well served from the opposite direction, from Nowy Sącz.
Other bus lines serve villages located south from the Czorsztyn lake, from Białka Tatrzańska: Trybsz, Łapsze Wyżne, Łapsze Niżne, the Niedzica castle and eponym village; then the line reaches Sromowce Wyżne previously mentionned.
From Slovakia, all the loop formed by the roads 542 & 543 via Spišská Stará Ves and Červený Kláštor, famous destination, are served by the Slovak lines (either from Stará Ľubovňa or Spišská Belá). There might be also some secondary line leading to Lesnica, but proably the bus frequency is less important.
Let's finally mention that there are regular bus shuttles who operate to the Dunajec from Zakopane, making it a day-trip from there.
By car :
All previous roads are also the main axis through which one reaches the area. Note only the following extra details :
- The border point from Spišská Stará Ves to Sromowce Wyżne (Lysá nad Dunajcom) is the most convenient to go from one country to another. Free crossing since the Schengen era (2008) for EU residents.
- When coming from western Poland (Cracow, Nowy Targ, Zakopane), despite it sounds obvious to reach the Polish side of the Pieniny, it is much more direct to reach Červený Kláštor by car, on the Slovak side, than Sromowce Niżne... One will also find there more parking spaces.
- Despite they look very close to each other on the map, the road in upper Lesnica (SK) does not connect to the south of Szczawnica. The road exists however, but it is strongly forbidden, reserved only for cyclers, pedestrians, and exceptionally vehicle of agents of both national parks.
Additional tips for pedestrians and cyclers :
- Along with the border point of Lysá nad Dunajcom, given the high touristicity of Sromowce Niżne located just in front of Červený Kláštor on the river, a pedestrian bridge was built in 2006. cyclers can also use it, but not cars. However this allows hikers to hike the Slovak Pieniny having the car parked in Poland, and opposite.
- Watching carefully the map, we notice than both Szczawnica and Lesnica, the NE trailheads of the Dunajec gorges, are located on the south shore of the river, and no bridge is marked in order to reach hiking goals like Sokolica or Trzy Korony. However this is made thanks to a boat transfer, which operates between April 15th and October 31th. The crossing is charged with an unsignificant amount of money. In the worse case, if one finds himself blocked without boat transfer, it is always possible, but via a long walkaround till the Krościenko centre and its bridge...
View Larger Map
Both Polish and Slovak parts of the Pieniny are protected by their respective national park, which form the continuity of each-other and work very similarly:
- Pieniński Park Narodowy in Poland
- Pieninský Národný Park in Slovakia
Along with the usual park rules we can easily imagine (no fire, no rubbish, no flower-picking), the tourist must be aware that :
- Wild-Camping and bivouacquing are strongly prohibited into the area of both parks
- Rock-climbing on the rocks is prohibited (and dangerous given their brittle nature)
- Walking off the marked trails is also prohibited, but this concerns target above all the touristic heart, near the Dunajec river and its gorges. In the westernmost areas, as well as the Małe Pieniny, the probabilities that you get reprimanded for walking a bit offtrails are much smaller, unless your behaviour is really scandalous.
To access the lookout point on the summit of Trzy Korony, visitors have to pay a fee of 4 PLN (full price) on the spot. This is quite uncommon in the mountains of the region, but given the popularity of the place, generating queues of people in the high season, such a fitting was necessary. If you wish to avoid this situation, hike the Trzy Korony in ver early morning (sunrise) or late evening, when the cashdesk is empty, making it possible to circumvent the barriers...
- Schronisko Pod Durbaszką
Mountain huts & hostels, with access possible by car (customers only) :
- Schronisko PTTK Trzy Korony
- Schronisko PTTK Orlica
- Chata Pieniny
- Cypel camping, Krościenko
- Camping Dunajec, Červený Kláštor
If you get in trouble, contact :
- The Volunteer Mountain Rescue Service GOPR Podhale, if you are in Poland : Tel : 985 (emergency) OR +48 601 100 300
- The Mountain rescue of the Pieniny Park HZS PIENAP, if you are in Slovakia : +421 52 7877711
- Photos and relations from Pieniny (in Polish)
- Pieniny & Spišská Magura on MBPost.com