An alpine lake, the largest in the Tatra Mountains. Overrun with tourists in the summer. Frozen over and empty in the winter. It’s Morskie Oko, Poland.
I arrive in Zakopane, in southern Poland, on the toes of the Tatra Mountains, in March 2015. A spell of bad weather comes hot on my heels. Snow piles up in the streets. Buses stop running. I bunker down for three days.
On the fourth day the weather eases. I decide to take my chances with the hike to Morskie Oko.
It’s only nine kilometres from the trailhead (a car park in Palenica Białczańska) to Morskie Oko. It takes about 1.5 to 2 hours to hike.
It’s a slow, gradual climb. Not too taxing ordinarily. In the snow it’s a bit like climbing a giant sand dune.
On the way you pass through one or two avalanche zones.
Morskie Oko translates to Eye of the Sea.
The name derives from an ancient belief that the lake was so deep it was connected to the ocean.
A lake loses much of its lake-ishness when frozen over and covered in a thick layer of snow. It barely looks like a lake at all.
However; while it may not look like a lake, it is still unnervingly lake-like to walk on. Especially in the patches of thin ice where the odd footstep has punched through the icy crust into the still, dark water below.
Above the lake is the famous Mnich Peak. Mnich is Polish for monk – it’s thought that the peak bears some resemblance to a monk’s habit.
Beyond Morskie Oko, higher in the mountains, is another lake, Czarny Staw (Black Lake).
It’s simple enough to reach Czarny Staw in summer, but not so easy in winter, especially if you forget to bring gloves (you’ll need to use your hands to scramble up the steep snowy slopes).
I climbed as high as I could sans-gloves. Eventually though I had to abandon my attempt to reach Czarny Staw.
But even this modest climb in elevation affords a new outlook over Morskie Oko. The lake could be mistaken for an oversized football field from this angle.
I give myself a moment to take in the snow-covered mountains, the snow-covered forest, the snow-covered lake.
Then it’s time to head back down to the shore of Morskie Oko, and make that unnerving crossing over the frozen lake one last time.
Practical information and how to reach Morskie Oko:
The trailhead for the hike to Morskie Oko starts at the rear of the enormous car park at Palenica Białczańska. There are semi-regular buses running in winter to Palenica Białczańska from Zakopane (more frequent in summer). The bus trip is 45 minutes long. More transport info here.