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Low Tatras Mountains: the Hrebenovka Ridge Hike, Stage One (Chata Pod Čertovicou to Chata M.R. Štefanika)

To walk along a mountain ridge, for days, scarcely bumping into a single building in the process, would be a rarity anywhere in the world. To do so in Europe is a privilege indeed. Many chains of mountains boast hikes that clamber up to their highest echelons, but ridge hikes that allow you to stay at such continually high elevations for so long, and with views dropping away to both sides of the mountain range, are a special breed. Therein lies the appeal of the Hrebenovka, the signature hike of the little-known Low Tatras. The trail is, to the mountains it crests, what the Haute Route is to the Alps.

Surprise, Surprise…

Having hiked the official long-distance trail through the High Tatras, the Tatranská Magistrála, I believed myself well prepared for whatever the Hrebenovka could throw at me. But I was in for a few surprises. Whilst not encompassing mountains of quite such stature as those in the High Tatras, the Hrebenovka runs right along the top of those it does encompass and is therefore, overall, a higher and wilder hike, with greater distances between its pit stops of so-called ‘civilisation’ (by which, to be clear, we mean the manmade structures, ie the mountain huts or cable car terminals en route). It’s a less-traipsed trail, too (certainly by foreigners) and whilst the accommodation provision for hikers is still incredible given the remoteness of the surroundings, it is nevertheless a fair bit more basic than on the Tatranská Magistrála.

RELATED POST: See why our version of the Hrebenovka starts at Chata Pod Čertovicou

The Start…

The little hamlet of Čertovica lies on the steeply twisting route 72 about halfway between Podbrezova, just west of Brezno (southern gateway to the Low Tatras), and Liptovský Hrádok, just south of Liptovsky Mikulaš (one of the northern gateways to the Low Tatras). There is not much there apart from the Motorest, a snack bar-cum-hostelry with cracking views where the bus drops you, and a few other accommodation options. Most places to stay are on or around the main road, and whilst no option here is terrible, we recommend the scenic and peaceful Chata pod Čertovicou if you want to stay overnight here before starting the hike. The chata is a well signposted 0.9km down into the woods from the Motorest.

It is, admittedly, a bit of a climb to get back to Čertovica and route 72, but worth it. As you come back onto the main road (route 72) a red-and-white pole on the left-hand side of the wide entrance indicates a hidden little path climbing up to Hotel Totem (dramatic name, less stunning accommodation) through the undergrowth. When you get to the Hotel Totem grounds just a little above the road, the main moment of confusion on the entire stage occurs. What is in actual fact a ski run during the winter season seems to be the red Hrebenovka trail soaring away up the hill. The official path sticks at road level a-while before curling back up through the band of forest to the right of here. Do not despair, however, because as long as the skiers are away, it’s possible to ascend on this steep path and you’ll join the Hrebenovka path after an uphill slog for about 30 minutes. This path curves up to the edge of the forest, then bears left (northwest) into it at about 45 minutes from Hotel Totem

Cute Kosodrevina…

What follows, for the following 45 minutes up to the first summit of the day, Rovienky, is a gorgeous section of this first stage of the hike. There is in Slovakia a phenomenon known as kosodrevina – when the low-level mountain forests slowly give way to open mountain land – best represented by the bands of fuzzy dwarf firs interspersed with patches of moorland. The Low Tatras has probably the best examples of kosodrevina in the country. (the Kosodrevina is also a hotel and the midway cable car station in our article Up Chopok the Back Way but, generally, it is a topographical zone). The ascent from Čertovica to Rovienky at 1604m is only 300 metres or so, but it is as punishingly steep over a fairly short distance as it is spectacular, and is a tough initiation to the Hrebenovka. After you reach the top of Rovienky (where there is a nice clearing within the dwarf pines for a bite to eat/ first swig of the slivovica) you will feel the rest of the hike is achievable!

Near Rovienky

Near Rovienky – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Onto the Ridge…

The path now slopes down slightly through more dwarf pines with the serious mountains now rearing ahead (see feature image). It’s an easy-going 30 minutes to the intersection with the green trail at Kumštové sedlo from here. The path then kinks to the west (left) in a long, intense ascent onto the ridge top proper: allow two hours for this section via Králička (the worst of the climb is over by this point) to the end of stage one and your overnight stop at Chata M.R. Štefanika at 1740m. You leave the trees behind and dramatic valleys open up to the left and right whilst soon, poised at a seemingly ridiculous angle on the lip of the horseshoe-shaped ridge up ahead, is the place you will be spending the night. The last section, down from Králička to Chata M.R. Štefanika , was as is often the case extremely misty on my approach, emphasising the remoteness of the location. Just as well there is a full-service restaurant as well as bunk rooms on hand at the finish…

This – fortuitously – was what was happening as I arrived: a beer delivery!

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Allow at least four hours’ walking time for this stage – but you’ll want to rest and stop off on the way, because it is quite hard going, so five hours is a more realistic estimate for the fairly fit.

Now: congratulations. You have almost certainly earned a beer for completing the Hrebenovka’s first, challenging section.

WHAT NEXT?

Hiking the Hrebenovka: an Introduction

Hiking the Hrebenovka, Stage Two: Chata M.R. Štefanika to Chopok (Next Stage)

Hiking the Hrebenovka, Stage Three: Chopok to Chata Útulña pod Chabencom (aka Chata Ďurkova)

Staying on the Trail

Chata pod Čertovicou (before you start)

Chata M.R. Štefanika (end of Stage One)

Hotel Srdiečko (end of Stage Two)

Chata Magurka (end of Stage Three)

Low Tatras Mountains: the Hrebenovka Ridge Hike (an Intro)

It is a confounding mystery why the Low Tatras are not given more publicity internationally. They can still be accessed with relative ease (from Liptovský Mikuláš, Ružomberok or even Poprad). The mountains here comprise Slovakia’s largest national park, too, not to mention Eastern Europe’s largest ski resort, Jasna but despite these immense draws the majority of this region sees precious little foreign tourism (besides the intrepid Czechs). The scenery runs the gamut from lower-altitude forest, much of it utterly untamed, through spectacular cave systems and waterfalls right up to a number of peaks with stunning views over the nearby valleys.

But we haven’t even mentioned the main attraction yet. The Hrebenovka. Hrebenovka means ridge in Slovak. It’s a crucial word to know if you prize the great outdoors. Slovakia sports a number of drop-dead gorgeous ridge hiking routes where, once you’ve climbed up onto them, you can continue walking along – without descending – for days. And the very best of the country’s ridge-top rambles spans much of the Low Tatras range. There are many Hrebenovky (ridges) in the country, but there is only one Hrebenovka. It is easily to the Low Tatras mountains what the Tatranská Magistrala is to the High Tatras, the Low Tatras’ more famous cousins to the north. Hiking it is a right of passage for many Slovaks.

Being able to get out on the ridges of the mountains does evoke some very different sensations to mountains where the hiking is generally several hundred metres below the peaks with a few out-and-back routes to individual summits (the High Tatras,  included). There is the surging feeling that you are truly on top of the world here – or at least of Eastern Europe. There are many points where even if your feet remain tethered to Mother Earth the sensation is akin to a bird coasting far above the ridge: you often get a rare aerial perspective of the ridge you are on because of the way the ground sheers away. Not having to dip down whatsoever into civilisation allows you to be at one with the peaks, too. Because you are almost always above the treeline, the vistas are constantly superb and often, at points like Chopok or Ďumbier, 360-degree perfect panoramas. Just as you are hiking on the ridge-top, you are also staying on it – a night in a dramatic ridge-cresting mountain house like Chata M R Štefánika is an unforgettable experience with the views from the bedroom windows tumbling away into the valleys below. Lastly the wildlife up on the ridge is different to that in the valleys, with more sightings of animals like the brown bear and kamzik possible. And of course, there are less foreigners (or indeed tourists at all) hiking up here: so doing so taps into an intrinsically and authentically “Slovak” outdoorsy experience.

Reasons a-plenty, therefore, to include hiking the Hrebenovka as part of your Slovak travels. But what “the Hrebenovka” is precisely is liable to interpretation and, indeed, debate. Where is the official start point? Which is the best section to walk? Should one stay up on the mountains or down in the valleys? Is the trail easy to follow?

Start/Finish

The version of the Hrebenovka on this site takes into account where it’s possible to get to/from by public transport, and where the best accommodation en route is – and for this reason we start the hike in Čertovica (in the middle of the national park, on road number 72 between Brezno and Liptovský Hrádok, and accessible by bus several times daily) and finish at Donovaly (in the southwest of the park, on road number 77 between Banská Bystrica and Ružomberok, and likewise accessible by bus several times daily). Hiking from east to west is recommended because of the way the mountains unfold before you (gradually building you up to the most sensational scenery). It’s of course possible to extend your start and finish points almost indefinitely, in Slovak terms, because this path also forms part of the route of the Cesta Hrdinov SNP which runs across the whole of Slovakia from west to northeast.

Why Four Stages?

Most accounts of the Hrebenovka hike allow five days, from Donovaly (in the west) to Telgárt, two days’ walk southeast of  Čertovica and two days of walking above and beyond the version of the hike on this site. The 5-day version can be said to encompass the whole of the Low Tatras but by no means the extent of the massif which continues west from Donovaly into the national park of Vel’ka Fatra and east of Telgárt into the Slovenský Raj. We break the Hrebenovka hike into four stages because our start and end points are easily reachable by public transport and because they showcase the best of what the Low Tatras offer.

To get to Čertovica, take the train to Banská Bystrica, the nearest major city. From here there are a couple of direct buses daily, or take the train to Brezno and then get a bus from here to the start point at Čertovica motorest (direct travel time one hour 5 minutes, price 2 Euros to 3.50 Euros.)

To get from Donovaly, there are direct buses at least hourly to Ružomberok (30 minutes, price 1.85 Euros) from where there are mainline train connections to Bratislava and Košice via Poprad.

Walking It

This makes a quite demanding but totally achievable four-day, three-night hike with a couple of intense ascents (up onto the ridge from Čertovica and the climb to Chopok on day two. Each day entails about four to seven hours of hiking, which on this site we have broken up into:

Stage One: Chata pod Čertovica to Chata M R Štefánika (Recommended stay: Chata M R Štefánika, ridge-top)

Stage Two: Chata M R Štefánika to Chopok (Recommended stay: Hotel Srdiečko, mountain base)

Stage Three: Chopok to Chata Útulña pod Chabencom (aka Chata Ďurkova) (Recommended stay: Chata Magurka, mountain base) (or Chata Útulná pod Chabencom, ridge-top)

Stage Four: Chata Útulña pod Chabencom (aka Chata Ďurkova) to Donovaly (Recommended stay: in Donovaly)

Staying Here

We also profile several of the best accommodation options en route: a mixture between the mountain houses (which are fun, convenient and essential to experience (exuding that spirit of hiking camaraderie) and hotels further down the mountain slopes. Many of the hotels – it should be noted – are despite the lower elevation nevertheless often connected to the peaks by cable car/ chair lift. Taking a cable car or chair lift up onto or down off the ridge is a wonderful experience in itself because of the views.

Chata Pod Čertovicoustay here before beginning stage one to initiate yourself in the wilds of the Low Tatras!

Chata M R Štefánika – stay here overnight between the end of Stage One and the beginning of Stage Two!

Hotel Srdiečko – stay here overnight between the end of Stage Two and the beginning of Stage Three!

Chata Magurka – stay here between the end of Stage Three and the beginning of Stage Four!

Places to Eat En Route

For the middle of nowhere, the Hrebenovka is surprisingly blessed by places to bust your mountain-induced hunger. Food is available at Čertovica (Motorest and Chata Pod Čertovicou; mountain base, beginning of STAGE ONE), Chata M R Štefánika (ridge-top, end of STAGE ONE), Hotels Srdiečko and Kosodrevina (mountain base/ mid-station respectively) and Kamenná Chata and Chopok’s cable car station restaurant (ridge top; end of STAGE TWO), Chata Útulña pod Chabencom and Chata Magurka (ridge-top/mountain base respectively, end of STAGE THREE) and Donovaly (mountain base, various options; end of STAGE FOUR).

Most of these options are first and foremost places to stay and if so they will feature in our Places to Stay/Low Tatras sub-section. If they are first and foremost places to eat, or if the food is an equally important aspect to the establishment, they will feature instead/as well as our Places to Eat & Drink/Low Tatras sub-section. That said, DO NOT attempt this hike without taking plenty of snacks/meals with you (at least cold ones, bringing food to cook is less necessary as the kitchens in the mountain houses and mountain base hotels rustle up some great dishes for next to nothing.) As per below…

Before You Hike

Just check our recommended kit list for hiking in the Tatras, dust off your hiking gear and get going!

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: March straight on to the individual stage descriptions or if you don’t dig hiking continue 60km east along routes 72 and 18 to Poprad

Low Tatras Mountain House: Chata Pod Certovicou

8:30am. The only other guest was chuckling to himself. He simply couldn’t believe it. The manager had just given him a bottle of wine (Château Topoľčianky, not bad), well, just because, too often these days there is a reason for everything and what is nice about Chata Pod Čertovicou is that everything about it confounds reason. Being a rather early hour even for a Slovak to polish off a bottle of wine, however, he requests our help and we stand on the terrace of this serendipitous little place in the middle of the forests of the Low Tatras and contemplate our good fortune.

He was hiking the ridge path, he told us, just as we were about to set off on it (great start getting tipsy on white wine right?), and his hiking companions had spied, from high above, this cottage and being aesthetes, had sworn never to stay there on account of its rather gaudy roof (not blending in with the surrounding environment, or somesuch). He’d made no comment but, a little later on that same hike, lost his glasses, and come back alone to hunt for them. And something, he said, drew him to this place as a base from which to kickstart the spectacles search.

The Mountain House in the Valley

It’s an anomaly, right? A mountain house down in the valley. But the first cool accommodation possibility we’re featuring in our new Low Tatras section on the site only seems so ensconced in the valley because the surrounding peaks are so high. With all those trees around, it’s a nicely-sheltered change from those blustery ridges nearby…

Where?

Chata pod Čertovicou (cottage below Čertovica) sits at around 1100 metres, a 15-minute hike down from the minuscule hamlet/hiking trailhead of Čertovica. Čertovica is itself an important way station on the 600km-long Cesta Hrdinov SNP (Way of the Heroes of the Slovak National Uprising) which trailblazes all the way across Slovakia – initially in the guise of the Štefánikova magistrála in the west and all through the Biely Karpaty, the national park of Malá Fatra, the Low Tatras and eventually through to Dukla Pass in the east of Slovakia.

It’s a path which zigzags very much in order to showcase as much of the best of Slovakia as possible (fair enough) and Čertovica is certainly in the best-of-Slovakia category.

You alight from the twice-daily bus from Brezno at Čertovica Motorest – a pleasant roadside eatery with great view back down through the pines towards Brezno. You’re now on a dramatic dip between two high, green ridges here which form some great skiing in season – and the path up towards Hotel Totem on the other side of the road from the bus stop is indeed the beginning of a fabulous four-stage hike, the Low Tatras Hrebeňovka (Ridge Hike) towards Donovaly, which we’ve just traipsed and are currently in the process of writing up for you, dear site followers.

And Chata pod Čertovicou is our recommended accommodation from which to begin stage 1 of this hike, despite it being the furthest away of the guesthouses from the bus stop. There’s one right opposite the Motorest, actually – not a bad joint, and with a restaurant too, but also on the main road and only mentioned here to orientate you down the little lane plunging steeply behind its grounds, into the woods. A trail sign at the top indicates that it’s about 100m to Chata pod Sedlom (accommodation op number two, but often closed) and 0.9km to Chata pod Čertovicou. The lane heads down through the trees, and then, at a sign, a turning bears sharp right down to where the forest reaches a cleared patch of land at the foot of a ski area. And at this point, above a small blue-green lake, you will see the image at the top of this page: a tucked-away three-floor penzión that, outside of ski season, you’ll have pretty much to yourself.

The Vibe

The feeling that permeates, actually, as you walk up the drive and climb the steps up onto the entrance terrace, is one I’ve only had in hotels in low-land, wetland areas – in the Norfolk Broads, for example, in the Dutch countryside. Analysing this, I can’t really say why – but it’s the polar opposite of a typical Slovak mountain house in its vibe, something to do with all the land around being much higher, with the horizon being filled with woods, with the proximity of water, with the burble of the lakeside pump house, with the quaint backwater ambience you only feel in rural pubs in the middle of a flat nowhere.

Whatever the vibe is for you, one thing I think all first-timers here will agree upon is the friendliness of the staff. With the ultimate laid-backness, they warm you with their generosity (complementary afternoon cookies (well, they have to be eaten), free bottles of mineral water (it’s just water), extra-huge portions of dinner because charmingly the restaurant special of the day is also what the family in charge is eating). The free wine, well, that’s been mentioned already.

Restaurant and Rooms! 

The terrace sidles along the side of the creaking wooden restaurant area, hung with vast wall maps of the area’s hiking trails, where fresh fruit and the cake of the day are also displayed. Both yield views up to the ski area, devoid of other tourists in summer and resembling no more than a rather scenic break in the treeline. A restaurant alcove leads into a bar billiard room, further cementing the Norfolk Broads pub atmosphere for me. I still harboured a thought at this point that the rooms themselves, given the place was so deserted, might be in want of a little TLC. But no. Recently redone, with sparkling new bathrooms (square toilets, you don’t see them very often) and spacious showers – and views out onto giant sagging private balconies. Everything, in short (save a closet) that you would expect in a midrange hotel room, and (and here is an important point) for a budget mountain-house price (just 30 Euros). Unbelievably, for this room, and for the views you’ll see below, and for two evening meals, a couple of beers each and at least two or three teas/coffees, our bill for the night was a mere 50 Euros.

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

Skis – and artistically arranged ones ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

We did (and you should too) realise that Chata pod Čertovicou does not set a trend for how Low Tatras accommodation in the wilderness generally is. Normally it’s basic. Beds in a dorm. This place is the exception. It is an anomaly, in fact, in its very survival: an August weekend was when we showed up, and there was no one staying.

Except our friend on the lookout for his spectacles, of course.

So did you find them, we asked, a couple of Château Topoľčianky’s in.

“The glasses? No. But I don’t mind. They were expensive, but I don’t mind. Look at this view.”

We looked.

MAP LINK:

 PRICES: Double room 32-52 Euros (Higher prices for the most refurbished ones, summer season) OR 35-55 Euros, winter season) and dorms available for a mere 14/16 Euros per person summer/winter season) (2017 prices)

BOOK CHATA POD  ČERTOVICOU