These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.



Slovenský raj: Welcome to paradise

By Howard Swains

    Exploring Slovenský raj means an often perilous trek along gorges, clinging to chains and ladders.
 Exploring Slovenský raj means an often perilous trek along gorges, clinging to chains and ladders.
 Stephanie MacLellan

Of the nine national parks in Slovakia, none gets the average photographer's finger clicking quite so busily as the Slovenský raj, or Slovak Paradise. The High Tatras might have the lock on snow-capped peaks and precipitous rock-faces, but some of the most dramatic areas of the aptly-named paradise are truly other-worldly.

Two rivers, the Hnilec and the Hornád, slice through a wide limestone plain, carving gorges, canyons and ravines into the karst hills, which are otherwise covered in dense spruce forest. Waterfalls tumble and crash over the mountains; the canopy keeps the area dark, green and moist year-round, and previous intrepid explorers have lain a series of chains, iron ladders, wooden walkways and bridges along, through, up and over all this fierce terrain. In places, it feels like an adventure combining Doney Kong and the Ewok village.

Predictably enough, the national park is something of a wonderland for wildlife and hikers alike. Although one of the smallest national parks in the country, at just less than 200 square kilometres, Slovenský raj is 90 percent covered in beech, spruce, fir and pine forest, providing a perfect habitat to support all the usual Slovak fauna – deer, bear, boar, lynx, wild cat – as well as some rarer endangered species, including the golden eagle, martens, otters and the European ground squirrel.

    Tajch dam, adding extra water to the ever-damp Slovenský raj.
 Tajch dam, adding extra water to the ever-damp Slovenský raj.
 Stephanie MacLellan

The park has more plant species per square metre than anywhere else in Europe, and also reportedly has the highest concentration of butterflies in the region. There are 6.06 species of butterfly per square kilometre, a surpisingly precise statistic that conjurs up wonderful images of dedicated counters, tangled in big nets as their subjects flutter out of reach.

For the present-day human imposter, there are 300 kilometre of hiking trails through the park, leading off from a number of former forest-workers' settlements. The trails are mostly well-worn and plainly signposted: you select your route from a board at the starting base, then follow markings on the trees to remain on course. It's worth noting, however, that reaching some of the most spectacular sights – the iconic areas of long ladders beside the tallest waterfalls, for instance – often requires several hours walking from the nearest car park or bus stop. It can also be dangerous, sometimes requiring focused clambering up 100-metre long ladders over boulder-strewn streams. You need to plan ahead and be prepared.

    The Dobšinská Ice Cave: exactly what you’d expect.
 The Dobšinská Ice Cave: exactly what you’d expect.
 Stephanie MacLellan

With this in mind, it's worth investing in a more detailed book of routes and maps to the entire national park, available from the information centres dotted across the region. Alternatively, there is also a series of pamphlets published by the national park administration, detailing some of the most popular routes. All provide all the necessary data required, including the start and finish points of suggested trails, the expected duration of a hike, the elevation, relative difficulty, as well as details of the landmarks to look out for along the way. The narratives are written by experienced hikers with a thorough knowledge of the region, and you'll feel considerably safer with one of these guides in your pocket than you will when blindly seeking out the coloured specks painted on the trees.

Among the most popular destinations in the national park is the Dobšinská Ice Cave, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and every bit as chilly and awe-inspiring as you might imagine an ice cave to be. The cave was formed between 7,000 and 9,000 years ago, beside a massive underground lake, permanently frozen and holding an estimated 145,000 cubic metres of ice.

Since the late 19th century, when Dobšinská became the first cave in Europe to be electrically illuminated, visitors have been able to delve about 500 metres into the mountainside to two main halls beside the lake. There, in a year-round temperature of about -1 °C, they can stop, gasp and shiver, rueing the decision not to pack an extra sweater after all.


These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2008, which you can obtain from our online shop.

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