Dolina Kościeliska (The Kościeliska Valley) is located in the Western Tatras. It is a 9 km long trail leading through the second-largest valley on the Polish side of the Tatra Mountains. You can extend the hike along the route by going to one of five caves, Kraków Gorge, or a beautiful Smreczyński pond. Several trails start at the foot of the mountain leading to higher parts of the Tatra Mountains if you would like to do a little more hiking. At the end of the valley, you can find a shelter and buy some snacks.
It is a valley, so it’s relatively flat, making it a perfect hike for families with small kids. There are also small horse carriages taking tourists almost all the way to the shelter.
How to get there
You can get there from Zakopane by bus. Look for buses with “Kiry” signs or saying Dolina Kościeliska or Dolina Chochołowska .
You can also get there by car. There are many parking lots where you can park your car; the tricky part is to find one that is not expensive – most of the parking lots charge 30 zł per day. If you drive from Zakopane, there is a cheap parking lot (15 zł per day) 50 meters behind the valley entrance on the right.
The earlier you go, the less traffic there is and easier it is to find parking spots. So if you don’t like standing in one huge traffic jam, wake up early 🙂
Before starting the hike, you have to pay an entrance fee – the valley is a part of Tatra National Park. The good news is that they take both cash and cards.
It is around 5.5 km one way from the entrance to the park to the shelter at the end of the valley. The valley runs from the main ridge of the Tatra Mountains to the foot of the mountains. Its beginning is in Kiry, and for about 9 km, it forms a long and deep rock gorge. A stream, Kościeliski Potok, runs along the hiking path, providing a perfect place to have a short break while enjoying the scenery.
Along the way, you can meet some sheep grazing the meadows or hiding in the shadows of the trees when it is too warm. Check out a small shepherd’s hut where you can taste highlander specialties and see how a famous sheep cheese (oscypek) is made.
Once you reach the shelter, you can buy snacks, sit, chill and enjoy the views. The shelter on Hala Ornak was built after the war in place of another shelter that burned down.
From the shelter, you can either go back the way you came from or extend the trip by hiking up along the beautiful ridge of Ornak to Starorobociański Wierch or to Błyscz and Bystra. You can also traverse through Iwaniacka Pass to the neighboring Chochołowska Valley. And if you head in the opposite direction, you can follow the green trail to Ciemniak and go along the ridge of Czerwony Wierchy. And if you have less time or strength, take a short hike to the nearby Smreczyński Pond.
Kościeliska valley offers a lot of exciting detours if you would like to extend the hike. We didn’t manage to go to most of them this time as we were a little in a hurry, but I’ve traversed through most of them in the past, and if you have time and strength, I strongly encourage you to make at least one detour.
Jaskinia Mroźna (Frost Cave)
Jaskinia Mroźna is the only cave in the Polish part of the Tatra Mountains, prepared for tourists – with a tourist route and artificial lighting (there are several more caves in the Polish Tatras that you can visit on your own, but you must have your own light source). You have to pay extra if you want to enter the cave (5 zł); it is not included in the park entrance ticket. The cave is 773 meters long; however, tourists can only walk through 511 meters of it.
The cave’s entrance and exit are in different places, making it a pleasant detour without backtracking through the same route. The approach to the cave is quite steep, with around 20 minutes of a hike up, 20-40 minutes of venturing through the cave, and 15 minutes down, back to the valley trail.
Wąwoz Kraków (The Krakow Gorge)
If you have time when going back from the shelter, make sure to take this slight 1-hour detour through the Krakow Gorge. It is located in the upper part of Hala Pisana in front of the Wyżnia Kościeliska Gate. As you follow the green trail from the shelter to the parking lot, you will come across a trail marker which will lead you towards the ravine along the yellow trail.
It is a beautiful route, and many call the Krakow Gorge the most stunning gorge in Western Tatras. One of the trail’s highlights, except for marvelous views, is a ladder leading to the Dragon’s Den – a cave through which you walk using chains and metal bar-like steps. It is helpful to have a flashlight, though you will survive without one (I always carry one after a couple of unexpected caves and late-night returns from mountains). If you don’t want to go through a cave, it is possible to walk around it.
Jaskina Mylna (Mistaken Cave)
The Mylna Cave is the most interesting of the caves open to tourists, located on the Polish side of the Tatra Mountains. And I still vividly remember (even though more than 20 years went by) how my mom and I ended up accidentally joining a tour guide who was traversing through the cave. We ended up crawling on our knees through thick mud covering the narrow corridors, ending up dirty from head to toe. It was such an adventure!
The name of the cave – Mylna – comes from a rather complicated, “mistaken” labyrinth of corridors that form it. The 1630 meter long cave was created in a network of tectonic fissures. It was washed away by the Kościeliski Stream flowing through it many thousands of years ago (at a time when the bottom of the valley was just at the level of the Pawlikowski Caves).
The cave is open to tourists. A 45 minutes one-way tourist route with a length of about 270 m leads through the cave. You can visit it on your own, but you should bring your own light source (preferably a headlamp, you will need hands). The cave is wet, muddy and some passages are narrow and low.
According to legends, Mylna Cave used to be a Janosik’s (Polish version of Robin Hood) hideout.
Jaskinia Raptawicka (Raptawicka Cave)
Together with the Mylna Cave and the Obłazkowa Cave, Raptawicka Cave is part of the Pawlikowski Caves system. The Raptawicka Cave itself is 15 meters deep and 150 meters long. To get to it, you will hike up through the steep path supported by chains and then down to the cave using a vertical ladder.
Remember to bring a flashlight as it is pretty dark in the cave.
Smreczyński Staw (Smreczyński Pond)
The trail to the pond starts right next to the shelter, and it takes around 30 minutes to hike up. This was the only detour we managed to take during our latest trip, but it was worth it. At the end of the route, we were welcomed by the picturesque lake adjourning the mountains in the background. Even though the shelter was fully packed, we didn’t meet that many people who were hiking up on this trail.