A winter hike to Morskie Oko, Poland 2

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.

Winter, Morskie Oko, Poland

Morskie Oko in winter. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Winter, Morskie Oko, Poland

Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Warning avalanches, Morskie Oko, Poland

Avalanche warning signs. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Morskie Oko

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.

Frozen lake, Morskie Oko, Poland

Morskie Oko covered in snow. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Lodge, Morskie Oko, Poland

Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Mnich, Morskie Oko, Poland

The spiky Mnich Peak. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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).

Winter, Morskie Oko, Poland

Photo credit: Benjamin White

I climbed as high as I could sans-gloves. Eventually though I had to abandon my attempt to reach Czarny Staw.

Track leading to Czarny Staw, Morskie Oko, Poland

The trail leading to Czarny Staw. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Morskie Oko, Poland

Morskie Oko. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Frozen lake, Morskie Oko, Poland

Crossing the frozen lake. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

More on Poland:

Zakopane – what to do if snowed in for three days

Warsaw – a near-total reconstruction of a capital

My favourite hikes:

Kilimanjaro (Lemosho Route)

La Ciudad Perdida, Colombia

The Balcony Walk, Oman

Refugio Otto Meiling, Argentina

Gunung Kinabalu, Malaysia

Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan

Mount Villarrica, Chile

Posts on Central Europe:


Vaduz – the micro-state capital


Neuschwanstein Castle – it’s Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in the flesh


Bojnice Castle – medieval castle with a Romantic skin

Trenčín – defender of the White Carpathians

Spiš Castle – where they filmed Dragonheart

Bratislava – the central-ist of Central European capitals


Ljubljana – dragons, salmon pink churches, and really old wheels

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