Szklarska Poręba + Karkonosze National Park

A long weekend in the Polish mountains


5/24/20236 min read

Wysoki Kamień

We rented a cabin in the Karkonosze mountains for Easter weekend. I’ve lived here for five years; it seemed a shame to have never visited. It’s an area with a lot of fascinating history; plenty of old castles and palaces in the area, plus the mountains, and a national park. The weather for the weekend looked iffy, but we were perfectly content to do nothing inside, like we would at home; our rainy day kit contained board games, food, and bottles of wine and whiskey.

When we woke up the next day, the hills were invisible behind low, grey clouds. Still, we opted for a hike. The property manager gave us some helpful maps that were criss-crossed with different colored trails. Some intersected, others wandered off the map. After some lighthearted debate on whether color denoted difficulty, we learned that:

  • Red routes highlight points of interest, both natural and touristic. It’s the recommended route when exploring an area for the first time.

  • Blue routes are long distance.

  • Green lead to interesting attractions characteristic of the area. Sometimes a loop, sometimes point-to-point.

  • Yellow trails are connecting routes.

  • Black are access routes and usually short (though not always the easiest).

We figured Wysoki Kamień, the small mountain over our shoulder, was a good starting point. We set off in boots and thermals with some snacks and water. The weather was drizzly and cold, and we didn’t see anyone on the walk to the trailhead. When we got to the start, we looked at the posted trail map and wondered if we made a mistake.

We set off just as the sun was setting. It dappled the road and turned the rapeseed fields gold. As we arrived in Jelenia Góra, I was excited to see mountains on the horizon. Their peaks were still snow-covered, but the evening sun made them look majestic and ethereal.

Once we arrived in Szklarska Poręba, the roads narrowed and the wide car seemed even wider as I drove up snaking hills, and inched around blind curves. I hoped no one was coming the opposite way, because reversing down the hill wasn’t an option. The property nestled against the foothills of a small mountain, with a burbling creek at the bottom. The setting sun painted everything periwinkle, and it smelled like wood smoke. I took a deep breath and felt my shoulders drop.

We ran into a handful of small groups who made it look much easier than how we felt, huffing and puffing our way up. We took frequent breaks to catch our breath, taking in the rock outcroppings, mossy boulders, and stands of trees. The drizzle at the bottom of the valley transformed into large, airy snowflakes as we ascended. I marveled at the silence all around and found the experience quite meditative.

On the trek up, I was in complete agony. My thighs were burning, my boots weren’t broken in yet, and I was breathing too heavily to talk — I was truly enjoying it, though, despite the misery. I was ready to give up and turn back at least once, but I gave myself a pep talk as I went. “You can do this. Imagine how good it’s going to feel when you get to the top!” I knew that if I stopped, I wouldn’t go on, and I wanted to reach the top.

The final ascent was nearly vertical, but the sight of the watchtower at the top motivated us to keep going. At last, we had done it — 1058 meters (3471 feet) above sea level. At the top of the mountain is a watchtower and a hostel, where you can rest and get something to eat and drink. Unlike other mountain hostels, there are no bathrooms or sleeping arrangements.

We were disappointed yet mesmerized by the view at the top, which was non-existent. Low clouds surrounded the summit, obscuring the view of the valley and mountains. With the clouds pressing in, it felt otherworldly and eerie. Alas, it was getting later, colder, and snowier, so we made our way down the mountain and back to the cabin where the pellet stove and wine waited for us.

Szklarska Poręba

We ventured into town to give our bodies a break and to explore. Szklarska Poręba is a small holiday town. It’s popular with outdoor sports enthusiasts who come to take advantage of nearby Karkonosze National Park. In the winter, skiers come for a budget-friendly alternative to the Alps. In spring and summer, people come to hike or mountain bike the abundant forest and mountain trails.

“Are you sure?” “Are you sure?” So on we went.

Tourists in hiking gear lined the main drag. I thought the gloomy weather and an important holiday weekend would keep people at home, but no. Some looked like serious hikers, pants and boots flecked with mud. Others wore gear that looked brand new, as if to say, “Yes, I do hike,” when in reality they’d probably never set foot on a trail.

We saw many from over the mountains in Czechia, only 10 minutes by car. Things like cigarettes are cheaper on this side. Czech sounds like Polish, but with an Italian flare to it, rather than the monotones of Polish. To my Polish friends, it sounds like “a drunk child speaking Polish.” That is a direct quote, by the way.

We grabbed some magnets, re-stocked our charcuterie and beer supplies, and took a wander up and down the main drag. Shops hawking overpriced tchotchke, warm slippers, scarves, gloves, and magnets alternated with over-priced restaurants. We didn’t spend long down there, wanting to get back to our cozy nook in the hills above town.

Wodospad Kamieńczyka

Of course, the last day dawned beautiful: sunny and warm with blue skies.

We got an early start in order to beat the holiday rush. Before that, we wanted to do one more thing. After packing up, we drove down to the parking lot outside Karkonosze National Park. The lot was full of cars. Apparently, plenty of people had the same idea; to go to picturesque Kamieńczyk waterfalls. They’re the tallest waterfalls on this side of the Karkonosze mountains at 846 meters (2775 feet) above sea level. I didn’t have any expectations. I just wanted to see as much as we could with the limited time we had.

I’m glad I convinced my husband to swap our winter boots for our hiking boots because the lower path was muddy and running with snowmelt. After entering the park proper, the upper path was steep. They had paved the path with large stones to prevent erosion. In our winter boots, we would have had no grip; the stones were slippery in some spots, but luckily no ice.

There were plenty of people taking advantage of an early start. Most were serious hikers wanting to beat the rush. Others were planning on making the waterfalls a pit stop before going on to Szrenica mountain. I was shocked to see other people wearing Ked-like sneakers, dressy shoes. One man was even wearing buffed leather loafers. They looked like they’d be more comfortable having Easter Monday brunch than climbing slippery stones in a muddy forest. Plenty held up traffic to pose for their Instagram pages. Also, and much to my amusement, were families with kids trailing behind. My husband and I chuckled at the kids complaining for all to hear.

Once you get to the top, there are several viewpoints above and to the side of the falls. The true gem is in the chasm itself. You can pay a few złoty to rent a hard hat and descend the metal stairs to find yourself in the chasm, surrounded by rock walls carved by the creek. In early April, they dripped in ice melt, sheets of ice still clinging to them. The water rushed at our feet and down the mountainside. I clung to the railing as I scooted towards the waterfall itself. The sun was still low enough (or the mountains high enough) that the sun glanced through the trees, throwing rainbows in the mist from the waterfall.

Foggy mountain summit
Foggy mountain summit
watchtower at wysoki kamien poland
watchtower at wysoki kamien poland
Kamienczyk Waterfalls in Poland
Kamienczyk Waterfalls in Poland
Creek running through Szklarska Poreba, Poland
Creek running through Szklarska Poreba, Poland