Bohemian Massif, one of the Precambrian cornerstones of Europe which sits right in the centre of the continent and makes the bulk of the Czech Republic. The mountains span about 300 kilometres reaching the so called Saxon Switzerland in the west, not far from the city of Dresden (the capital of the historic kingdom of Saxony, Germany) and the Moravian Gate (depression separating the Sudetes from the Carpathians, near Ostrava, capital city of the Czech Silesia). The Sudetes are usually divided into the Western Sudetes (often called Krkonošská oblast by Czechs), the Central Sudetes (Orlická oblast) and the Eastern Sudetes (Jeseníky). The border between the Western and the Central Sudetes is believed to run just east of the Giant Mountains (see the sketch map), and - farther north - along the east foot of the Rudawy Janowickie. The border between the Central and Eastern Sudetes runs several kilometres east of the upper course of the River Nysa Kłodzka, and a little west of the upper course of the River Morava.
Hidden in the woodland, which covers most of the mountain ranges, are numerous crags, some of which boast a long history of rock climbing. Climbers from western Poland exercise on these rocky "isles", mostly of granite or gneiss, while Czech climbers have the most fun on the sandstone walls of the Adršpach-Teplice Rocks on the Czech side of the "Table Mountains" (see map above), which make for the principal climbing ground in the Sudetes. A dense network of both waymarked and unmarked paths, forest roads and narrow tarmac lanes makes the Sudetes a fantastic area for activities such as mountain biking, hiking, cross country skiing, cycling and orienteering.
Winter in the Sudetes can be harsh at times and snowfall can be heavy, but it all depends on the year. A couple of the most prominent summits in the Sudetes, namely the highest peak of all in the Sudetes and the second highest massif in the Eastern Sudetes bear names that can be translated as variants of Snowy Mountain: Śnieżka/Sněžka/Schneekoppe and Śnieżnik/Sněžnik/Schneeberg. As far as the weather is concerned, Śnieżka, for its arctic winter conditions and violent winds, can be likened to Mount Washington in the Appalachians. West of Śnieżka lies the coldest place in Poland, namely Hala Izerska, a clearing in a hollow in the heart of the Iser Mountains.
Geology & Relief
More than half of the photos in this chapter by Romuald Kosina.
Most of the rock material forming the many mountain ranges and massifs within the Sudetes is Paleozoic. But some of the gneisses are Archean, ranking among the oldest rocks in Europe. Crystalline rocks predominate: metamorphic (mainly various kinds of gneiss and schist) and igneous (plutonic, such as granite; or volcanic, such as porphyry). In the sea of the commonest rocks there is a wide range of other rocks and minerals - often semi-precious stones, which attract geology-lovers and gem collectors.
In the late Mesozoic (Cretaceous), around the Sudetes existed a sea whose waters also engulfed most of the Central Sudetes. Into this sea the rivers brought plenty of sand, which later turned into sandstone, out of which erosion has created fabulous "rock cities". Such mazes of slot canyons, buttes, towers and pinnacles – attractive to the hiker and the technical climber alike – can also be found around the Western Sudetes.
In the Tertiary, the seas were already gone and all the Sudetes underwent extensive weathering under tropical climate conditions, which led to them looking like a vast plain with occasional hills of the most resistant rocks. The tectonic forces of the Alpine orogeny, while folding the Alps and the Carpathians in the south, made their northern foreland of the Hercynian Europe crack and rise again. Inside the Sudetes, horsts and basins were formed. The major topographical lines in the Sudetes reflect the fault lines, but the prominent summits and bizarrely shaped groups of rocks result from diverse rock resistance that consequently leads to differential weathering/erosion.
The Tertiary cracking of the crust was accompanied by eruptions of basalt volcanoes. The lava that set inside the vents ("throats") of those volcanoes – most resistant to erosion – results in the remnants of the once fuming cones dotting the landscapes of the piedmont around the Western Sudetes today. They have been reduced to mere hills, however, these hills are comparatively bold in shape.
During the Ice Age, the Scandinavian ice sheets spread as far as the basins beyond the Sudetic Marginal Fault (see next chapter) and left some sediments on their floor. In the Giant Mountains mountain glaciers were up to five kilometres long and carved several splendid cirques. They were also present in the highest parts of the Eastern Sudetes but they didn't have much impact on the landscape. In the Holocene, on some of the fairly flat tops of the mountain ridges throughout the Sudetes peat bogs have evolved.
FoothillsOne of the most important fault lines drawn during the Alpine cycle is the hundred mile long Sudetic Marginal Fault. It runs NW-SE and forms the clear-cut NE edge of the mountains, separating them from what was sentenced to becoming just foothills, known as Przedgórze Sudeckie, southwest of the city of Wrocław. Before the Alpine orogeny, these hills ranked among the highest peaks in the Sudetes, but they have been cut off the Sudetes proper and left down below at elevations of several hundred meters. Now only one of them exceeds 600m, namely Ślęża at 719m, which is made of gabbro and granite and was regarded as a sacred mountain by many a people that inhabited Lower Silesia in the pre-Christian era. Further west, the uplands around the Sudetes have a different geological make-up and history. Their Polish part is known as Pogórze Zachodniosudeckie, which extends across the Poland-Germany border to form the foothills of the Lusatian Mountains. All along the outskirts of the Western Sudetes volcanic necks abound, and in several places bizarre sandstone formations occur.
Western SudetesThe westernmost reaches of the Sudetes are called the Lusatian Mountains (Lužické hory/Góry Łużyckie/Lausitzer Gebirge). The area - its apex being the summit of Luž at 793m - is dotted with volcanic (basalt) necks as well as occasional sandstone rocks.
The heart of the Western Sudetes is granite, Hercynian (Variscan) of age, namely the batholith of the Iser-Giant Mountains-Jelenia Góra Basin with metamorphic rocks around it. Hence the double-faced, i.e. granite-gneiss/schist, nature of the Iser (Izerskie/Jizerské), Giant (Karkonosze/Krkonoše) and Rudawy Janowickie mountains, which surround the city of Jelenia Góra (Hirschberg in German). The granite chunks of all these mountains, i.e. especially the north of the Rudawy, the Polish part of the Giant Mountains and the Czech part of the Iser Mountains, teem with clusters of tors.
The main ridge of the Giant Mountains as well as the Polish side of the range are mostly of granite but the highest peak (of all in the Sudetes), Sněžka/Śnieżka at 1603m is formed of hornfels (hornstone), a rock which is super-resistant to erosion as it was hardened through contact with hot granitic magma. Also, the long side ridges on the Czech side, which is much bigger than the Polish Karkonosze, are made of metamorphic rocks. Getting back to granite, the highpoint of the western part of the Giant Mountains, Vysoké Kolo/Wielki Szyszak at 1509m, is formed of this rock. Two kilometres west of this summit rises the River Elbe.
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Southwest of the Iser Mountains, on the other side of the uppermost section of the Lusatian Neisse river (Lužická Nisa in Czech), a long, mostly granite ridge of Ještěd-Kozákov runs from NW to SE. The highest summit of this ridge, Ještěd, which stands in the west, towering over the city of Liberec, has an elevation of 1012m (and 517m of prominence). At the eastern end of the Ještěd-Kozákov Ridge - halfway between the Elbe Sandstone Mountains and the tableland of the Central Sudetes – some sandstone rock cities can be found. This area, which lies just outside the Sudetes, is usually called the Czech or Bohemian Paradise.
This part of the Sudetes, hardly rising above 1000m, is – in geologic terms – a depression between the ancient blocks of the Sowie (Owl) Mountains in the north and the Orlickie (Eagle) Mountains in the south, both composed of Precambrian rocks. The central part of this basin was filled with sandstone, whose remains form a complex of plateaux and cuestas (Adršpach-Teplice Rocks - the principal Czech climbing ground; Broumovské stěny, i.e. Broumov Walls; Góry Stołowe proper; plus a couple of smaller mesas, such as Ostaš, and lower cuestas, such as Zawory) making up what can be called the Table Mountains (in Polish literally Góry Stołowe/Czech: Polická vrchovina (Police Upland)/German: Politzer Bergland und Heuscheuergebirge). The tableland sits north of the Kudowa-Polanica hollow in Poland and extends northwesterly, across the Polish-Czech border as far as the other section of the border, over 20 km away. This area, its highest point being Szczeliniec Wielki (919m, in Poland) boasts several picturesque "rock cities". The Polish chunk of the Table Mountains has recently been designated a National Park.
Under the sandstone lies Carboniferous coal which comes to surface at the Polish towns of Wałbrzych (German name: Waldenburg) and Nowa Ruda (Neurode), until recently typical mining towns of the industrial era. Between Wałbrzych and the Czech tableland rise several ranges made of hard volcanic rocks, namely porphyries – late-Paleozoic of age and reddish in colour. Thanks to what they are made of these porphyry hills have surprisingly steep slopes and bold silhouettes, contrasting with the flat summits of the ranges that surround them. Their highest part is called the Suche/Javoří Mountains (Dry/Sycamore Maple Mts). Their highest peak is Waligóra (934m) in Poland, whereas on the border rises Ruprechtický Špičák (880m) with a new Czech observation tower. On the trails there hiking can get surprisingly challenging since the slopes of these mountains are very steep, there is scree in a few places, and recently more and more bushwhacking as the hiking tradition fades.
The western extension of the Dry Mountains, parallel to the Rudawy Janowickie (above chapter), is the Raven Mountains (Góry Krucze/Vraní hory/Rabengebirge) which adjoin the NW rim of the Table Mountains. Polish geographers usually group the Dry Mts, the Raven Mts and some smaller massifs together, naming the whole group Góry Kamienne, which literally means the Stone Mountains. The northern extension of the Kamienne Mountains is the Wałbrzyskie Mountains (Borowa,853m) around the city of Wałbrzych and its old coal mines.
The Wałbrzyskie Mountains form the northeast edge of the Central Sudetes, along with the Sowie and Bardzkie mountains, further to the southeast. The Sowie (Owl) Mountains comprise a classic horst, whose highest summit is Wielka Sowa at 1,015m. It has a fine old observation tower on the top.
The Bardzkie Mountains are the southeastern, much lower extension of the Sowie Mountains, and were named after Bardo town sitting at the mouth of the gorge carved by the meandering Nysa Kłodzka as the mountains were being lifted by tectonic forces. The mountains, whose highest summit is Kłodzka Góra (765m), constitute a link between the Central and Eastern Sudetes, and display a geologic make-up typical of Eastern Sudetes (next chapter).
In the Eagle Mountains (Góry Orlickie/Orlické hory), another block of archaic gneiss, broad and flat, cradling a fine peat bog ("Torfowisko pod Zieleńcem"), on the Czech side of the border stands the highest summit in all the Central Sudetes, Velká Deštná, a popular cycling destination. The inner - overlooking the Kłodzko Basin, about 200m lower - ridge of the Eagle Mts is named the Bystrzyckie/Bystřické Mountains. It runs parallel to the Orlickie/Orlické Mts as far as the uppermost course of the Nysa Kłodzka River and the broad pass called Międzyleska Przełęcz, beyond which the Eastern Sudetes rise.
Eastern SudetesThe Eastern Sudetes extend east of the upper reaches of the River Nysa Kłodzka. They are usually called Jeseníky by Czechs, whereas Poles never use the term "Jesioniki" for the Polish part of them. In these mountains - if one excludes the Giant Mountains - the highest peaks of the Sudetes will stand. They are to be found in Hrubý Jeseník (High Jesenik) in the territory of the Czech Republic and in the nearby Śnieżnik Massif/Králický Sněžnik, which straddles the Czech-Polish border. The following summits have both a prominence of at least 100m and elevation of over 1,400m: Praděd at 1,491m, Vysoká hole at 1465m, Śnieżnik/Králický Sněžnik at 1,425m and Keprnik at 1423m.
The highest ranges and massifs are composed of very old gneisses and schists, but most of the rest is of younger and softer rocks, folded in the Hercynian cycle (late Paleozoic). The folds run N-S, nearly perpendicularly to the axes of the particular mountain ranges as well as to the northeast edge of the Sudetes, which results in a fairly wavy ridge line. (The whole range of the Bardzkie Mountains (above chapter), sawn by the gorge of the Nysa Kłodzka is usually classified as part of the Central Sudetes, however, their Hercynian folds running north-south across the major faults, as well as rocks that are less resistant to erosion, are characteristic of the Eastern Sudetes, especially of their eastern part.)
Northwest of Hrubý Jeseník and northeast of Śnieżnik Massif, mostly in the Czech Republic and partly in Poland as far as Kłodzko Pass, which divides it from the Bardzkie Mountains, stretches a 55km-long mountain range that Poles call Góry Złote (Gold Mountains) and Czechs Rychlebské hory (German "Reichensteine", meaning "rich rocks"). Their highest summits sit near their south end, in the Czech territory but close to the border with Poland, and have elevations of over 1,120m. The part of the Gold Mountains across the border, south of the town of Stronie Śląskie, is usually referred to in Poland as the Bialskie Mountains (named after a romantic village of Bielice) and highly regarded by Polish hikers as one of the wildest corners in the Sudetes. In the north of the Gold Mountains, an outstanding mountain is Borůvková Hora/Borówkowa Góra at 900m, topped with an observation tower.
The crests and summits of the Eastern Sudetes are far from jagged. However, tiny rugged patches do occur within this vast expanse of forest. What is more, in the Gold Mountains, Śnieżnik Massif and the northern massifs of Hrubý Jeseník (Keprnik and Medvědí vrch groups) hikers, bushwhackers, snowshoers and game viewers can find solitude and sort of wilderness. Huge herds of red deer can be seen at dusk or dawn and in early autumn the woodland echoes with the roar of rutting stags. All the high and low ranges of the Eastern Sudetes are excellent biking terrain.
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On the Polish border, just north of the peat bog of Rejvíz sitting at the north end of Hrubý Jeseník, lies the Czech town of Zlaté Hory, famed for its gold mining history. The nearby Zlaté Hory Highlands/Opava Mountains straddle the international border near the town and further to the southeast. Their highest peak is Přičný vrch (975m), perforated with gold mine shafts (buried). However, a much more popular hiking (and surely biking) destination is Biskupská kupa/Biskupia Kopa (890m) with an old observation tower erected towards the end of the 19th century. Just northeast of the town of Jeseník stands another old observation tower on the summit of Zlatý Chlum at 875m. These mountains can be considered to be the northern foothills of the Hrubý Jeseník.
Southwest of Hrubý Jeseník sit more mundane than - despite being higher (Jeřáb at 1,003m) - foothills, which are called Hanušovická vrchovina. Still, there is a popular rock climbing spot here by the ruins of the castle of Rabštejn (803m; see the hut's site). Southeast of Hrubý Jeseník extends by far the largest chunk of the Eastern Sudetes, Nízký Jeseník (Low Jesenik), which – as its name suggests – doesn't exceed 800m in elevation (see map at page top) and looks like a rolling upland. Its southeast rim, facing the Carpathians across the Moravian Gate, stretches along the uppermost course of the River Odra (Oder). The river has its source on the slopes of the highpoint of the hills, Fidlův kopec at 680m, and gives the hills their name: Oderské vrchy (Góry Odrzańskie in Polish).
Pieces of History
The origin of the name "Sudetes" is a mystery although Ptolemy in his "Geographia" written in the 2nd century A.D. mentions Soudeta ore, which translates into Latin as Sudeti montes. However, it is known how Bohemia got its name - the word derives from the Boii, a Celtic people living there a few centuries before the first Slavic tribes came in the middle of the first Millennium A.D. Some of the rivers in the Sudetes may bear Celtic names, e.g. the Iser/Jizera/Izera. A German tribe called the Silingi is supposed to have lent its name to the historic province of Silesia, whose southwest border is formed by the Sudetes.
Before the Czech and Polish tribes arrived, the area around the Sudetes had been inhabited by "South Slavs", probably Croatian tribes, whose legacy might be the "krk" in the Krkonoše as well as the white and red colours of the national flags of the countries that later were established in and near Bohemia. In the 10th century the Czech and Polish princes and kings tried to control Silesia. Finally the Sudetes became the west stretch of Poland's south border. Within the next few centuries, German settlers, invited to develop the land, converted most of the Sudetes as well as Silesia into a German-speaking country (although the administration was Czech from the first half of C14 to the first half of C16).
From the end of C14, for a few centuries civil and religious wars ravaged Bohemia, Silesia and the Sudetes. In In 1620's a number of Czech Protestant refugees settled on the northern side of the watershed, often in remote places such as the heart of the Iser Mountains. In mid-C18 Silesia - until then ruled by the Habsburgs – was incorporated into Prussia. In the Sudetes, the international border ran practically along today's borderline between the Czech Republic and Poland. The Sudetes were heavily industrialized. In the 1840's railway connected Waldenburg (now Wałbrzych) and its coal mines with Breslau (Wrocław), the capital city of Silesia. Economic growth and development continued until late 1920's. In the Sudetes mountain huts were set up and many a summit was crowned with an observation tower.
When World War II ended Poland's borders were moved west, following the Yalta agreements. The Germans were expelled from the Sudetes. The village of Gross-Iser whose first cottage had been built by a Czech named Tomas in 1620 disappeared except for the school building (today a mountain hut called "Chatka Górzystów" in the middle of a vast meadow which is the coldest place in Poland). The local populace of the Sudetes was replaced with settlers from the east – on the northern side with the Polish refugees fleeing from what had been eastern Poland and was annexed by the Soviet Union. From then on Poland, the Czech Republic and East Germany would be controlled by the Red Army for nearly half a century.
In the early 1990's the Soviet Union is dissolved. The economy undergoes structural changes and in the Sudetes nearly all coal mines and most of the industrial era factories are closed down. In 2004 Poland and the Czech Republic enter the European Union. In December 2007 both countries get embraced by the Schengen pact and at long last there is no difficulty crossing the international border any more.
Most of the Giant Mountains (on both sides of the border) and the Polish part of the Table Mountains are national parks. Equally interesting but smaller areas have been designated national nature reserves, and are also strictly protected. In the national parks you are not allowed to hike along non-waymarked paths. In the Giant Mts climbing is virtually prohibited, unfortunately this ban has been recently extended onto winter climbing in the Śnieżne Kotły. In the Czech part of the Table Mountains climbing is possible on condition that you stick to the rules, which are rather sophisticated: have a look in here.
Most of the other scenic areas (see the map on this Czech site) are protected less strictly as "landscape parks", where you can bushwhack freely although camping is not permitted except on few designated campsites. Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland lie within the Schengen Area, so all the international borders can be crossed at any point.
Paper maps you can buy online
- Tourist attractions of the Polish and Czech Sudetes depicted in English
- Sudeten 1:190,000