Paradise to be sure. For this is where dense spruce forests cloak the precipitous ravines the park has become famous for, where a healthy variety of wild animals roam the quiet valleys, and where meadows teem with more plant species per square metre than anywhere else in Europe.
The park won its name in 1921 when Gusto Nedobrý, a teacher from Spišská Nová Ves, applied the term ‘Slovenský raj’ in an article for a local tourist magazine. The name stuck, and hordes of tourists have since flocked to this heavenly destination in eastern Slovakia.
Most come for the unique hikes. The northern slopes of the park are home to a series of deep clefts carved into the limestone hills. Water flows gently down deepening valleys until the walls close in, transforming serene streams into a series of crashing waterfalls. These rugged canyons would be impassable but for the ladders and chains that have been installed to carry hikers along dizzying heights over cascades and boulder-strewn stream beds.
Although the safety precautions allow hikers to navigate otherwise insurmountable terrain, hiking here is still dangerous. Some of the ladders reach 100 metres in height, like the park’s tallest one in Sokolina dolina. Because of the hazards, Slovenský raj has had its own year-round horská služba (rescue service) since 1954. For further safety, hikers are only allowed to go up several of the paths - going down these ladders is simply too dangerous.
I learned this first-hand last April when, against park rules, I descended the Malý Kyseľ canyon. Because the trail winds in and out of the water, my boots were wet. I slipped on a rung and fell off a small ladder, perhaps five metres high, resulting in a tumble that completely knocked the wind out of me and left my ribs sore for two months. But I was lucky. I had broken the park’s code by going down the canyon, yet had escaped in one piece. Others have lost their lives - just this spring the remains of a hiker who had gone missing a decade ago were found in Veľký Sokol canyon.
Surprisingly though, that death was an exception for Slovenský raj. While 15 to 20 people die each year in the High Tatras, few are even injured in Slovenský raj, even though the trails here are more extreme than those in the Tatras. When I asked Eli Fenichel, a zoologist and park worker, about injuries in the park, he said: “There are very few. Last year there was one reported major injury: a hiker fell off a ladder when it was pouring rain and the valley was flooded. He had to be rescued by helicopter.”
I then asked about the park’s wildlife and learned that there are significant bear, chamois, fox, European wild cat and lynx populations. “There are also a couple of packs of wolves,” he added. And because the park is riddled with caves, their is a huge bat population (please see sidebar on page 103).
“Slovenský raj also has more butterflies than any other location in central Europe,” Fenichel continued. “Plus, it has the highest number of plant species per square metre than anywhere in all of Europe. There are 75 higher plant species - ‘higher’ meaning real plants, not moss - per square metre.”
Indeed, in a promotional brochure prepared by the park, the following sentence is found: “There are many possibilities for dining and logging.”
Thank goodness it was a typo - the Slovak text says there are possibilities for ‘ubytovanie’, or lodging. But sometimes, while hiking past one of those sprawling fields of stumps, hikers begin to wonder who has it better at Slovenský raj: loggers or lodgers?
The problem is that national parks in Slovakia do not fall under a clear, single authority. In one way or the other, Slovenský raj is controlled by no less than 22 separate bodies: The Environment Ministry, Agriculture Ministry, Economy Ministry, Education Ministry, Culture Ministry, Finance Ministry, Interior Ministry, approximately 15 different municipalities, plus scores of private land owners.
In short, it is a complete and utter mess.
“Logging happens in the park because the laws are totally screwed up,” Fenichel said. “The park opposes logging within its borders, but it cannot stop it because there is no National Park Law in Slovakia. Giving Slovenský raj the title of ‘National Park’ is nothing more than a way of tagging land. It does not make it a separate entity, it just gives landowners another restriction on what they can do with their property. And only 49% of Slovenský raj is owned by the state.”
Most of the logging occurs in areas removed from the major tourist sites, so many visitors do not see the clear-cut areas. For those who do, the scene is offensive and alienating. The fact that with no single body in charge of the park there is no one to protest to merely adds to the frustration.
1. Suchá Belá.
The ladders and waterfalls in this stunning gorge are what grace most Slovenský raj postcards. Start in Podlesok (from Spišská Nová Ves, buses leave at 8:30 and 11:15, and drop hikers off 15 minutes away after passing through Hrabušice). In Podlesok visitors can pitch a tent or rent an A-framed hut holding up to eight people. Green trail signs mark the Suchá Belá path. For over an hour you scale ladders, walk through the river, and climb wooden steps up the steep, winding cleft. At the top of the valley is Suchá Belá peak (968 metres). To get back down, follow the yellow trail until it runs into the red trail leading back to Podlesok. Total time: 3 hours and 30 minutes.
Note: From Podlesok, two other ‘ladder-hikes’ are accessible by following the green trail an hour to Píla. From here begins the hike up Stredné Piecky, which is every bit as spectacular as Suchá Belá but less crowded. Also, 30 minutes past Píla on the green trail is the beginning of the Veľký Sokol hike. Both valleys take less than two and a half hours to climb.
2. Tomášovský výhľad.
Start in Spišské Tomášovce (buses from Spišská Nová Ves leave at 8:20, 8:55 and 9:20). Follow the blue trail up for 40 minutes till you reach Tomášovský výhľad, where a 150-metre cliff shoots out above the Hornád river (on a clear day, the High Tatras are visible to your right). Then follow the green trail down to the Hornád, and on into Čingov, a smattering of cottages, hotels and refreshment stands. After stopping for a cold beer or soda, stick with the green trail, which shoots up a steep hill for 20 minutes to Sovia Skala. From here you get your second incredible view of the day: the charming village of Čingov below with the snow-capped Tatras in the distance. Continue along the green trail until it emerges from the forest and approaches a huge green meadow outside Spišská Nová Ves (the meadow is the city’s airway strip). Walk through the tall grass into Spišská. Total time: 3 hours and 30 minutes.
Note: After descending Tomášovský výhľad, you’ll see signs for Kláštorisko, where an ancient monastery ruin awaits. The hike up and back down takes 2 hours and 10 minutes.
3. Hornád river valley.
Again, start in Podlesok. Then follow the blue trail east all the way to Čingov. At times the river gorge is so sheer that there is no room for a trail. So the park has installed metal steps dug into the stone walls, leaving hikers directly above the cold water below. One word of warning: this is a very popular hike in the summer. Do not expect solitude. Total time to Čingov: 4 hours.
4. Medvedia hlava.
The hike starts by the towering cathedral on the main square in Spišská Nová Ves. Follow the yellow trail (it’s actually the street leading south to Rožňava) till it veers off into a meadow. For the next two hours and 15 minutes you go up, up, up. At the top is Medvedia hlava (903 metres), which offers my favourite view in the country. Behind: the forests of Slovenský raj; in front: the High Tatras, Spišská Nová Ves, the kalvária of Levoča, and on a clear day the Spišský hrad castle ruin. Then continue hiking along the yellow trail until you arrive at Košiarny briežok, where there are cottages and an outdoor pub. Spišská Nová Ves is a 40-minute walk away across the airstrip meadow. Total time: 4 hours and 30 minutes.
5. Dobšinská Ice Cave.
Start in the southern tip of the park at the village Dedinky, which sits near a frigid dammed lake. Follow the red trail west to the enormous ice cave that in 2000 was declared a Unesco World Cultural Heritage Site. Formed 7,000 to 9,000 years ago, the cave holds an estimated 145,000 cubic metres of ice. Regardless of when you visit, bring a sweater - the cave’s annual average temperature is -1o C. There are both bus and train connections from Dedinky. Buses to Dedinky leave Spišská Nová Ves at 9:00 and 11:30.
- Chris Togneri
These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2002.
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