Tugged away in Slovakia‘s central part, potentially lies the country’s best kept secret: The Slovak Paradise.
While most tourists chase stunning mountain views and seek out epic panoramas in the neighbouring High Tatras, the shaded trails that permeate the forested mountains of the Slovak Paradise lie in silence, the tranquillity only disrupted by a handful of adventure-seeking hikers that have been lured into this enchanted land by tales of pristine wilderness and world-class trekking (if you head deeper into the national park, past the most touristy hike of Suchá Belá that is!).
Those who do venture there, will be rewarded with gorgeous forest trails, narrow ravines, cliffside walks, and stunning waterfalls, all hidden and protected underneath century-old woodland.
Falcons and eagles soar high up in the sky, while bears, lynx, and deer roam through the valleys and forests, even showing themselves to unsuspected passer-by occasionally (don’t worry though, it is extremely unlikely that you will actually come across a bear).
It might not be the remote, tropical island people normally picture when they think of paradise, but the Slovakian version is a charming and picturesque alternative, well worth exploring while travelling this Central European nation.
BEFORE YOU GO
Before I introduce you to the different hiking option available inside the Slovak Paradise, there is a few things you should consider before going:
BUSES | There are buses going from Hrabušice (the nearest village) to different entry points of the Slovak Paradise. However, be aware that they only run between June and August!
If you are going there before or after the summer season, you have two options. Either arrange transportation in advance or, if you don’t mind extending your hike, you can walk the extra mile (or miles) like I did. Alternatively, you can always try to hitchhike.
It takes roughly half an hour to reach Podlesok, the main entry point to the Slovak Paradise, by foot.
WHEN TO START | If you want to beat the crowds at Suchá Belá and Hornád River (the most popular of the gorges), I recommend that you start your day bright and early. I went there on a Saturday (excellent planning Fabian) and even though, it was already September (end of season) the parking lot was quite busy. I arrived at 10:30, however, around 9:00 (or even earlier) would have been an ideal time to start the trek.
Not only will you be able to enjoy some relative peace and quiet but avoid queues as well. Remember this is a confined space and you will traverse narrow, wooden footpaths and climb iron ladders together with fellow hikers of all ages.
Regarding other treks, you don’t really need to stress yourself too much in the morning. The gorges and hikes that lead deeper into the national park only see a fraction of the people. I encountered merely a handful of people on my hikes, although this might have been due to the time of year (September).
WHAT TO WEAR | Good hiking shoes are a must! Not only do you want your feet to stay dry, but there will be multiple section that require you to climb over rocks and logs or traverse wooden footpaths, ladders, and metal steps as you explore the gorges of the Slovak Paradise. Remember, you are essentially walking in a riverbed so the rock and especially the wood will be wet and slippery. Tread carefully!
Keep in mind that the trails will be in the shade most of the time, so if you get cold quickly, I highly recommend bringing a jacket (even in summer).
WATER | With the exception of Suchá Belá and the Hornád River, the water inside the Slovak Paradise is drinkable! The water is crystal clear, and I refilled my bottle multiple times throughout the national park without later complications.
WHICH WAY TO GO | In general, you should always strive to go uphill when hiking gorges, as going downhill on slippery surfaces is never a smart idea (especially wet wood!). Furthermore, the crevices are very narrow at times, therefore one way traffic helps to alleviate the risk of jams. In the Slovak Paradise, Hornád and Biely potok are the exceptions to that rule though, as the trails there are relatively level and can be done starting from either side.
PRICES | The general admission to enter the national park is 1,5€ (the small ticket booths are usually located at the trailhead of the gorges, I bought my ticket for Sokol in Píla though), which includes a mountain rescue insurance, should the worst happen to you).
The car-fee for the parking lot is 3€ for the day or 1,5€ if you arrive after 2pm (for motorcycles it is 2,5€/day).
Taking the number one spot as the most touristy place in the Slovak Paradise (easily identified by the charged parking lot and numerous restaurant options), the Suchá Belá Gorge, nevertheless, serves as a great introduction to the spectacular hikes that can be found in the northwest of the national park.
As the path leads you through the shaded gorge, you will have to face wooden footpaths, metal steps and platforms, slippery rocks, as well as a series of free-standing, unsecured iron ladders to ascend the obligatory waterfalls.
The overall difficulty is fairly easy and beginner friendly (also for families), however the ladders could proof to be a bit of a challenge for those struggling with severe vertigo. All in all, Suchá Belá might be the most popular one, but pales a bit in comparison to some of the neighbouring gorges that have retained a far more untouched and natural feeling.
HOW TO GET THERE | Either take the bus to Podlesok (Hrabušice, rázc. Podlesok bus stop) or walk the two kilometres from Hrabušice.
Length | 3,5 kilometres Duration | 1,5 hours
This trail is probably the most family-friendly hike in the park and follows the Hornád all the way from Hrabušice to its tributary Biely potok.
The path winds up and down next to the river and you will have to traverse several obstacles, such as metal platforms and steps that will help you overcome rockier sections and to circumnavigate cliffsides. Children will have a blast mastering the challenges presented to them, while adults shouldn’t get bored either. You will also cross a couple of metal suspension bridges on your way, presenting you with great views of the river below.
In the later parts of the hike, you will find various spots for a well-earned rest, as well as a small restaurant.
You will also have the option to shorten the hike and head up to Klaštorisko monastery via the Monastery Gorge, that starts roughly 2,5 kilometres into the trek.
HOW TO GET THERE | You can reach the trailhead either from Hrabušice or Podlesok. If you want to go directly from Hrabušice, head over to the end of Partizánska street, facing the Slovak Paradise. Follow the path leading across the field, then turn left. You should reach a crossroad with a bench. Now turn right. After a kilometre you will be able to spot a metal bridge. This is where the trail starts.
Length | 7 kilometres Duration | 2,5 hours
If you want to challenge yourself (but not too much) and experience the beauty of the Slovak Paradise without the crowds, Small Stoves Gorge might just be the perfect fit for you!
After scaling a 15-metre-high ladder, a narrow crevice forms the “true” entrance to the gorge. Following a series of wooden walkways, the riverbed widens and the ravine opens up again. The cold and daunting presence of the rock face gives way to the tranquillity of the forest. Let your mind roam free as you approach the last stretch of the hike.
Small Stoves perfectly balances adventure and leisurely stroll off the tourist trail.
HOW TO GET THERE | The start of the trek is situated in the small village of Píla (Hrabušice, píla bus stop), roughly five kilometres away from Podlesok. If you are visiting outside the high season and decide to walk there, I suggest that you avoid the main road, as there is a path running between Podlesok and Píla.
In Podlesok cross the bridge (after the parking lot), then turn right and follow the road next to the camping ground. Shortly after, you should spot white/green markings that will lead you to Píla. The last kilometre runs along the main road, so don’t be surprised. Once in Píla, take the road veering off to the right after the ticket booth. You will reach the trailhead after two minutes (keep an eye out for the signpost!).
Length | 3,3 kilometres Duration | 1,5 hours
Completely overlooked by most visitors to the Slovak Paradise, Sokol Gorge is the unspoken highlight of the national park!
Similar to Small Stoves Gorge, the hike starts off with a lovely walk along the riverbed yet gets progressively more adventurous as you head deeper into the ravine. Scarps grow steeper, and the might of winter storms and the spring flood becomes ever more apparent as fallen trees lay scattered around and block the narrow crevices. However, this is where the fun really begins!
Like an explorer, you will scramble over wet rocks, tiptoe your way across wooden gangways, precariously balance on slippery logs, and duck beneath dead trees, all the while the river rages (or calmly flows) below you.
Of all the gorges I did in the Slovak Paradise, this was by far my favourite one. Hiking Sokol was an absolute delight, and even though it might proof to be a challenge for some, I can only urge you to experience the raw natural beauty of this place!
Besides, there was no one there, I had the gorge all to myself!
HOW TO GET THERE | Get to Píla as described above, however once you reach the turnoff to Small Stoves Gorges, continue walking straight for another 1,5 kilometres to reach the trailhead of Sokol Gorge. The bus stop is called Hrabušice V. Sokol ústie.
Length | 5,3 kilometres Duration | 2 hours
This is by far the easiest of the hikes found in the north-western corner of the Slovak Paradise.
The trail follows the flow of the Biely potok river with little change in elevation and only a few “challenges” in form of wooden footpaths and metal platforms sprinkled in between. If you spend a few days in the national park, you will most likely come across this hike, as the starting points for both the Sokolí potok Gorge and the Via Ferrata section of the Kysel’ Gorge are located here.
If you are merely looking for a nice stroll through the woods and want to pursue the river path, I suggest you turn around once you reach the small reservoir (unless you want to traverse the entire Slovak Paradise).
HOW TO GET THERE | The trek starts at the junction with the Hornád River. Alternatively, you can also reach it from the ruins of Klaštorisko monastery located on a mountain pasture inside the national park.
Length | 5,5 kilometres Duration | 1,5 hours
The Falcon Dale might be one of the shorter gorges, however it can hold its own (besides holding the coolest name) due to a unique feature that awaits those that stray into this remote part of the Slovak Paradise.
After a short hike, you will find yourself at the foot of four waterfalls plunging into the depth, the tallest boasting an impressive 75 metres. In order to overcome this obstacle, hikers will have to climb a series of free-standing iron ladders right next to the cascading stream. It is an epic ascend along the falling water, and with every step you leave the forest canopy and valley floor further behind.
Definitely not for the fainted hearted, the Falcon Dale was one of the surprising highlights of the Slovak Paradise.
HOW TO GET THERE | Follow the Biely potok river upstream until you reach the Sokolia dolina, ústie/Falcon Dale signpost. At this point, turn right and head into the gorge.
Length | 2,5 kilometres Duration | 1,5 hours
KYSEL' (Via Ferrata)
This is the king of the gorges in the Slovak Paradise!
If you are a thrill seeker, I highly recommend you seek out Kysel’ Gorge while inside the national park. Even though, I wasn’t able to brave it myself, it promises to be one hell of a good time (I cannot attest to the actual difficulty though).
It is the only gorge (to my knowledge) in the northwest of the park that will require you to bring proper equipment to master it! Harness and helmet are mandatory, and you should definitely have experience with via ferrata or similar outdoor activities.
If you know basic climbing techniques and how to secure yourself with carbines you should be good to go.
During high season, you should be able to borrow the equipment in Podlesok (start of Suchá Belá), if you didn’t bring your own.
HOW TO GET THERE | You can reach the Ferrata HZS – Kysel’ signpost, by either following the Biely potok river from the Hornád river or by descending into the valley from the Klaštorisko monastery. Once there, head upstream for another 70 metres before you turn right into the Kysel’ Gorge.
Length | 3,3 kilometres Duration | 1,5 hours