Of the nine national parks in Slovakia, none gets a photographer’s finger clicking quite so fast 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 laid 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 DonKey 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.
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 kilometres of hiking trails through the park, leading off from a number of former forest-worker settlements. The trails are mostly well-worn and plainly signposted: you select your route from a board at the starting point, 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. 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.
The northern route to Slovenský raj offers several hiking trails. Cars can be left at the manned car parks or auto-camps, like Čingov or Podlesok, open year round. The tourist centre at Podlesok, along the Suchá Belá gorge, is an ideal starting point for exploration. Right from the beginning, the walking path is part of the brook bed, making the trip even more adventurous when there is a lot of water. However, splashing through the icy shallows is not necessary thanks to well designed facilities that lead hikers safely over the savage river and through droning waterfalls.
After emerging from the wild gorge hikers are usually tempted to visit the heart of Slovenský raj, called Kláštorisko. A pleasant meadow, a restaurant, the freely accessible ruins of a Carthusian monastery and a symbolic cemetery for those who breathed their last in the area, make it an ideal place for a short break before exploring the charms of the Prielom Hornádu Valley. This valley is an ideal alternative for those who prefer easy walks, but do not want to miss out on the adventure. This trail leads above the warbling river Hornád, along romantic rope bridges and into peaceful nooks, where you can forget time and lose yourself in the beauty.
Veľký Kyseľ is another popular route, accessible to hikers through the via ferrata, a path secured by steel ropes and iron rungs.
Apart from hiking, Slovenský raj offers several options for cycling as it is interspersed with cycling trails, which are marked similarly to hiking trails. Many of them are used by hikers as well.
Since 2016, tourists can also float on rafts down the Hornád Riverg. Life in the “paradise” does not stop in winter as cross-country skiing routes and ski lifts around the village of Mlynky are widely used, together with winter hiking along the gorges – which requires climbing irons and poles.
The Slovak Paradise is open all year long.
Admission is necessary for some activities such as entrances into caves. For more information on activities in the Slovak Paradise, visit the official website.
The Slovak Paradise (Slovenský raj)
Address: Information centre - Letná ulica 49, Spišská Nová Ves; Phone: +421 (0)53 429-8293; Website: www.vraji.sk