Our Adventure In The Cold Valleys Of The High Tatras
The reason we love hiking so much is that we enjoy everything about it. Not just the view from the top. Not just a spectacular lake or waterfall at the end. And not even just the views. We enjoy being there. We enjoy the green forest and the blue sky. The sun and the breeze on our faces. We enjoy observing the million forms of life – small or big. Sitting on the rocks while having lunch. The solitude and perfection that only nature can offer. We even enjoy that we don’t mind how dirty we get. (Yeah, it’s maybe the child inside us who feels ecstatic that there are situations when it’s completely okay to get dirty.)
What does this have to do with our favorite day hikes in Slovakia’s High Tatras? A lot. Because that’s why we chose to hike through Small Cold Valley. We didn’t expect more and more breathtaking views and great challenges after each step like when we climb to a peak. We just wanted to enjoy all the small beauties of nature. And valleys are beautiful!
Two fabulous valleys of the Tatras: Small and Great Cold Valleys
So we decided to visit one of the most popular valleys of the High Tatras National Park: Small Cold Valley (or Malá Studená Dolina is Slovak). And once we were there, we thought why not make it a loop and visit Great Cold Valley, too? It could fit in one day. Well, a long summer day. Yes, it did. It’s another thing that we wouldn’t do this loop again.
But let’s stick to Small Cold Valley for now. Because it’s a fairy tale placem and the trail through the valley is relatively easy. All the beautiful peaks surrounded us and we could just enjoy the views without climbing any peaks. Sounds like a tempting combination, doesn’t it? In addition, millions of wildflowers are in bloom in the valley during summer, and there were two waterfalls and a charming mountain stream on our way, too.
How to access the trailhead
The trail starts from Hotel Hrebienok that can be accessed by funicular or on foot from Starý Smokovec. If you follow the green route from Starý Smokovec funicular station, it takes about 45 minutes to walk up to the hotel. Even though there’s a paved road, cars are not allowed to Hrebienok, so we parked our car in Starý Smokovec and walked up. (Daily or hourly parking fees are charged for parking on the streets of the village.)
The views were already spectacular from Hotel Hrebienok. Several trails start there, including two paths that both head toward Small Cold Valley. The green route is longer, but it runs right by a stream and offers views of several small cascading waterfalls. The red route is somewhat shorter and further from the stream, though you still have the peak views to enjoy.
We tried both routes on different occasions. We like the green one better because of the small cascades, but if we’re in a hurry, we take the red one. Elevation change is also less if you take the red.
The hike in Small Cold Valley
The green and red routes then merge and lead you to 20 meters tall Obrovský waterfall (or Giant Waterfall in English), the tallest one in this area. When the two routes depart again, the green one takes you into Small Cold Valley.
The trail in the valley is quite easy in the beginning. There are several mountain huts on the way, and we hiked along a lovely stream for the most part. Peaks towered above us, wildflowers were all around, and soon we noticed another distant waterfall. Just like a fairy tale – until it starts raining. No, I should say pouring.
Also, the trail gets steeper as you’re getting close to that distant waterfall. (It looks like a waterfall, but later we realized it’s just the water flowing out from one of the lakes above.) This strenuous but scenic path took us up to Téryho mountain hut where we got views of the three Spišské Lakes: Veľké Spišské pleso, Nižné Spišské pleso and Prostredné Spišské pleso.
Oh, well, we had to wait for those views on our first hike, because it was rainy and foggy. Actually, we were thinking about turning back because of the heavy rain. But then we warmed up in Téryho mountain hut, and hoped that the weather will only get better (a hope you should never ever have when hiking in high mountains, as we learned later).
The hardest part: Priečne saddle
Anyway, we carried on towards Great Cold Valley (Veľká Studená Dolina) through Priečne saddle. Bad decision. We knew that part of the trail through the saddle are secured by chains, but from our previous experiences in the Tatras, we didn’t expect anything really hard. It’s not Rysy or Kriváň peak, after all, it’s just a saddle between two valleys. Looking back now, this saddle was the hardest and most dangerous path we’ve encountered in the High Tatras so far.
Yeah, lesson one: don’t underestimate anything just because it’s not a mountain peak. Lesson two: even if you underestimate it, don’t attempt conquering it in fog and rain when it’s even more slippery – and, frankly, dangerous.
In addition, this part of the trail through Priečne saddle was extremely steep – even so that we’d rather call it a climbing route than a hiking route. Safety ropes and a helmet are your friends here. No, we only wished we had had them.
This was the first chain secured route in the High Tatras where we didn’t feel safe without climbing equipments. But once we started climbing up and realized that we most probably shouldn’t have done this, it was more terrifying to think of climbing down than to reach the top. So up we climbed.
And, fortunately, we reached the top safely, and the other side (downhill) was not so steep. Then the chains ended and a beautiful lake appeared below us. We felt relieved, hugged each other and both of us agreed we were crazy.
The hike in Great Cold Valley
When we reached Great Cold Valley – quite relieved, needless to say -, our welcome was foggy and windy. It was also drizzling from time to time. Windy, too. Maybe that’s why these two stunning valleys are so different in our memories. Small Cold Valley is a charming, colorful place while we remember Great Cold Valley as wild and spooky. And very cold. Hence the name, I guess.
Even after a second visit to both valleys, our experience is the same. Small Cold Valley is the lovely one, Great Cold Valley is the chilly one. Maybe it’s just our luck.
But Great Cold Valley, for its credit, offered additional lake views. We can’t tell you the exact number of the lakes – partly, because there were several smaller ones and we’re not sure which one is considered a lake and which is only a pond, and partly, because we’re not sure we’ve seen all of them in the foggy weather.
But we remember wild Sesterské pleso right by Zbojnícka mountain hut. Then came small and narrow Dlhé pleso below the hut, and Vareškové pleso somewhat further down.
Doing it again? No.
After doing the loop through Small Cold Valley and Great Cold Valley our opinion is that we wouldn’t recommend it for hikers. For us the meaning of hiking includes the fact that our feet can be on the ground, and we don’t just hang in the air while holding onto a chain.
The route through Priečne saddle seemed more of a climbing route than a hiking route to us, and we have no desire to do it again, even in perfectly clear weather. The two valleys are beautiful and not very difficult, but we would recommend exploring them separately. Which we’ve already done since that first adventure. We still love them, both valleys, that’s the not very surprising conclusion.
Best time to do this hike
Hiking season in the High Tatras is summer, and the trails are usually open from the 15th of June to the end of October. Weather is very unpredictable though, so you better dress in layers and have waterproof hiking boots (and whatever else waterproof stuff you wish).
Where to stay
The trailhead is in Hrebienok, and there’s a bunch of towns which are very close by car – like Stará Lesná, Nová Lesná, Tatranská Lomnica and even Poprad, the biggest city in the region. All of them are 10-20 minutes drive from the trailhead. If you don’t have a car (or just want to stay right by the trailhead) you can book something in Starý Smokovec, and use the funicular from there.
Other great hikes in the High Tatras
This post is part of a series about our favorite day hikes in Slovakia’s High Tatras National Park – check them out here!
Summary of all the details
- Trailhead: Starý Smokovec
- Route: Starý Smokovec (green route) – Hrebienok; Hrebienok (red/green route) – Zamkovského chata; Zamkovského chata (green route) – Térycho chata; same way back (see this map)
- Possible extension to a loop: Térycho chata (yellow route) – Zbojnicka chata; Zbojnicka chata (blue route) – Rainerova chata; Rainerova chata (red route) – Hrebienok; Hrebienok (green route) – Starý Smokovec (see this map)
- Total time (estimation): 6 hours (9 hours if extended to a loop through Great Cold Valley)
- Difficulty: medium (medium to very strenuous if extended to a loop through Great Cold Valley)
Have you ever been to the High Tatras? Do the Cold Valleys look tempting?
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This post was updated in July 2020.