Hiking the Canyons of Slovak Paradise

Hanging out in Slovak Paradise

Leaving Budapest we had brief stop in Kosice, a nice, quiet little town. We walked around a bit and ate but for some reason most things were close do we didn’t stay too long.  We were on our way to Slovak Paradise (Národný park Slovenský raj in Slovak) where we planned on hiking through narrow canyons and on trails built many times out of ladders and steel rebar steps instead of just being on dirt.  Slovak Paradise is an amazing place and has some of the most unique hikes you’ll find but planning can be a bit tricky if you aren’t familiar with the area. You may first go to the Slovak Paradise website but when trying to plan your trip it seems like they expect you already know how everything works.  Here’s what you need to know: Most of the trails with the really cool ladders and bridges are in the northern section, the ice cave and other sights are in the south, no roads connect them.  The trails are really well-marked, different trails have different color codes making everything really easy to follow.  The easiest thing to do is ask for recommendations from your hotel or guesthouse when you arrive, they should also have one of the paper trail maps (the National Park website doesn’t make this available online last I checked.  I’ll link to the GPS routes from our hike at the bottom of this post.

View from the Villa Raj
View from our room at the Villa Raj

There aren’t any real hotels in the area, just guesthouses.  We booked a room at Villa Raj because of the very high ratings and it is definitely a place we’d recommend.  It was inexpensive ($50 for two nights), very new and the family that owned it was super nice.  It was offseason when we hiked so not to many things were open.  Not only did the owner pick us up from the train station but we he drove us to a hotel he worked so we could eat and the next day dropped us off at the trailhead.  It saved us a ton of time plus he had great advice on what trails to hike.  The little town of Hrabušice we stayed in was very small and quiet but had a couple nice restaurants.  It was so small you could walk across the entire town in just a few minutes and was a great access point to the park – the main reason we chose it.

Heading into Slovak Paradise
Heading into Slovak Paradise
Slovak Paradise trail map
Our route is in purple

Since the park is a large network of trails, you can make your own hike in dozens of different variations.  I’ll describe the hike our guesthouse host suggested to us which we thought was perfect.  On the left is a photo of the trail map and linked here is a Google Map of our route (the full GPX file is at the bottom of this post.)  The route starts from one of the park headquarters near the car camping in Podlesok.  All the trails in the park have small ‘flags’ on signs or painted on rocks that are white stripes with a color.  You are looking for a green-striped flag towards Suchá Belá.  You’ll pay a couple euros on your way in for the entry fee.  This trail gets very busy during high-season (but we had it nearly to ourselves) and as a result you’re only allowed to travel in one direction, uphill/South.  The narrow canyon winds uphill and you’ll cross dozens of wood ladders, steel rebar steps pounded into the sides of cliffs and climb steep metal ladders without protection.  If you’re afraid of heights this is probably not a great trail for you but if you give it a shot I think you’ll love it!  A couple times we did run into groups of people who traveled slowly over the more challenging ladders or bridges – another good reason to go in shoulder season and avoid what I’m sure becomes major traffic jams.

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Ontor Pass – Kyrgyzstan

Djigit Peak Glacier

Planning hikes to lesser-known areas in Kyrgyzstan is always a bit of an adventure.  We aren’t allowed to drive, so we have to find a taxi driver (who will lie about knowing the area) with a car suitable to drive up some terrible road.  You also rarely have reliable information about what exactly you will find if the hike anything but the most commonly visited trails.  AJ, a fellow PCV and Andre, a Dutch friend who owns a guesthouse in Karakol and I took a trip this past summer to Ontor Pass.  Ontor Pass isn’t hiked more than a few times a year so it was a bit hard to know exactly what the hike would entail but it looked amazing and we really wanted to give it a shot.  In early July we met up in Karakol and caught a taxi into Karakol National Park to give it a shot.

The first day started out with rain. Heavy rain. No taxi ride in Kyrgyzstan seems to be complete without some complication, this day our driver decided to pretend to misunderstand the bridge we said we wanted to be dropped off leaving us with an extra mile hike in (just an extra mile in pouring rain.)  The beginning portion of the hike is up a road and is heavily trekked.  Many people come up this road before turning left to see Lake Ala Kol.  After passing the Ala Kol turnoff, the rain subsided.  Soon, we reached a junction in Karakol Valley, we elected to go up the left side.  The path we were taking would end up making a large loop and we expected to be exiting the right side of the valley in about 48 hours.

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Chatyr-Kul & Kol Suu – The best trip in Kyrgyzstan

Finally, Kol Suu

Before I get to the this trip, I wanted to link to an interview I recently did with the Amateur Traveler podcast on Kyrgyzstan: Podcast interview

Two years ago, Taylor and I accepted our invites to Peace Corps Kyrgyzstan and I immediately began researching what I could and looking all the places I wanted to see.  One spot kept sticking in my mind as the number one spot I had to see, Kel Suu (I’ve since learned, not the real name, an explanation is below this post.)  But being so far from everything and in the mountains near China, I didn’t know how feasible a trip would be.  Earlier this summer we went on a great hike near an ancient building called Tash Rabat which was not that far from both Chatyr-Kul and Kel Suu.  I got the idea to link up a hike to the lake with a drive to Kel Suu, we just needed to find a driver, explore permits, etc.

Exploring Naryn
Exploring Naryn

Our friend Tamara lived closest to the area and has been working with tourism organizations.  She was able to make all the contacts and arrangements for drivers, our yurt stays, etc.  As the date approached, she and our other friend for the trip went to the police station to get the border-zone permit as they were told the process was.  While Tay and I packed and made our way to Naryn, Shaun and Tamara ran all over Naryn visiting various offices and trying to get permission to visit the border zone.  By the time we had arrived they gave up so we visited the local CBT office who told us they would absolutely be able to get us the permit the next day.  It gave us time to see some people in Naryn and the next day, the permit did indeed arrive (their contact info is below) and we went to At-Bashi to spend the night for our early start.

We met up in the morning with the same driver we rode to Tash Rabat with before. He drove us past their family’s yurts and Tash Rabat to the end of the road shaving some time off our trip.  I wrote more about the hike in the last Tash Rabat post so I’ll skip to the end of the valley where we turned around last time.  We knew there were several routes to take from the end of the valley.  When we arrived and we saw the multitude of options, the directions given to us in Kyrgyz and the hastily drawn map on the dusty window of the car suddenly seemed inadequate.  We studied the GPS, made a decision and headed up the steep scree to our intended pass.  This part of the hike wasn’t fun but we were up in under an hour.  At the top, snow started to fall… yes, it was August still.  But snow is better than rain and we continued on. We didn’t hike down the hill for long when we saw Chatyr-Kul Lake, we picked the right pass!  Our excitement was lessened when, after another 20 minutes, we saw our route ended in a waterfall.  Backtracking and picking another pass sounded exhausting… Shaun went up a narrow chute and discovered a path that would work – not the easiest route but doable.

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Ala Archa National Park – (nearly) Climbing Peak Uchitel

We recently took a trip back to Ala Archa, our first time since going last year during PST.  The previous trip was easy to arrange as our host family owned a marshrutka and a group of us just hired them to take us up for the day.  This trip we had to find a taxi on our own which is a pain even when we speak the language.  After too many phone calls and conversations at the bus station, we negotiated a ride, picked up our friends and drove to Ala Archa.  Of course upon arrival the driver showed us an ‘official’ price list that said the price was nearly double what we agreed to and he seemed to forget our previous conversation.  Too bad guy, we’re not falling for that… we gave him the agreed upon fare and headed into the park.

The hike up to the hut was a little less pleasant that our previous trip.  Between the persistent mist that soaked everything and our heavy packs, things were a little less than ideal.  There was also a bit of snow to deal with than our last trip which was at the end of August.  After a few hours of hiking we neared the hut, the clouds parted and we got a glimpse of the towering peaks that make Ala Archa so special.  We set up the tents and settled into one of the kitchen huts (which you have access to if paying for a tent site or spot in the Ratsek Hut) to make dinner.

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Altyn Arashan: Hiking, Hot Springs & Storms

For the second weekend in a row, we headed out towards the mountains to go on a hike.  This time we were heading to the other side of Issyk Kul (the huge lake we live near) to Karakol which is the city I originally hoped we’d live in.  Jake, Taylor and I took an early Marshrutka to Karakol and met all the other volunteers from Issyk Kul at Karakol Coffee for a quick meeting.  After that, eight of us headed up to Altyn Arashan valley in an awesome (and ancient,) 4WD van.  The road was the bumpiest road I’ve ever been on, often hugging the edge big cliffs.  Although we were packed in tight, ½ way up we stopped to pick up two women with two kids (for free of course,) I was happy to be in the front seat at this point.  After about 90 minutes of being bounced around we arrived to the valley and saw several houses scattered around.  Most people camp here but we were hoping to hike to Ala Kul Lake so we continued on.

 

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West Coast Road Trip – Days 15 & 16 – Capitol Reef NP

3/27/14 to 3/28/14  Capitol Reef

Petroglyphs in Capitol Reef
Petroglyphs in Capitol Reef

Our first priority in the morning was to decide where to spend the night.  The weather forecast for Capitol Reef was the same windy and chilly weather that there currently was in Moab and camping didn’t sound like fun.  We found a Days Inn near the park that was more expensive than camping but seemed much more appealing, so we booked a room and headed out.  The drive out was another beautiful one, and about four hours later we arrived in the park.  After talking to the ranger in the visitor center we learned that this was another park we weren’t quite prepared for. We needed off-road capability for some trails and water shoes to wade through puddles in others.  There still was plenty to do so we drove south towards a series of washes.

We had to walk around numerous pools in the canyon
We had to walk around numerous pools in the canyon
There was an odd pattern laced through the walls of the canyon
There was an odd pattern laced through the walls of the canyon

Capitol Reef is fairly unique among the parks because there aren’t a great deal of established trails. Instead, many of the trails originate in washes that flood out during storms and end in slot canyons.  Because of conditions, we went to Cottonwood Wash and we were the only car there when we arrived.  The hike starts out for about a mile through a winding empty creek bed, but after that the dirt walls give way to rock where the water has created amazing formations.  It was interesting hiking but not quite the slot canyon we were expecting.  This changed another ½ mile in and it became a classic slot canyon after that.  The canyon was really fun to hike through. Sometimes it was a sandy bottom, other times you had to scramble over rock to avoid deep, muddy puddles.  We soon reached an impasse – a narrow slot canyon still had a deep puddle from a storm several days earlier.  We tried to climb around it, but we couldn’t find a way and hiked back towards the car.  As the sun was getting lower in the sky, the walls of the canyons came alive! We could see why people referred to the rock walls in the canyon as a rainbow of color.

Cottonwood wash in Capitol Reef NP
Cottonwood wash in Capitol Reef NP
This is the pool that stopped us in Capitol Reef, wrong shoes!
This is the pool that stopped us in Capitol Reef, wrong shoes!

Next we drove to Panorama Point to watch the sunset.  From here, we hiked to Goosenecks overlook, where we sat and waited for the sun to go down.  We met a father and daughter from Portland and discussed whether the sun was going to peak through the clouds at sunset or stay hidden.  We saw some color in the clouds, but not a ton; was other pleasant end to the evening, though.  On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at a café just outside the park for dinner and beer which was quite good.

We tried to find a way around the pool of water but couldn't see a route
We tried to find a way around the pool of water but couldn’t see a route
Just a sampling of the crazy rock colors in Capitol Reef.  Go Huskies!
Just a sampling of the crazy rock colors in Capitol Reef. Go Huskies!

The next morning we ate, checked out of the hotel, and drove back to the park for a couple more hikes.  The first began in Grand Wash – the largest of the many washes in the park – and then climbed the canyon walls before ending at Cassidy Arch.  Cassidy Arch, named after Butch Cassidy who allegedly hid out in the canyon below, is a cool find – hidden from view until you are nearly on top of it.  After getting back down we drove to Cohab Canyon.  The hike starts out climbing steeply for about 800’ up switchbacks until you arrive to a narrow canyon elevated above the surrounding area.  We hiked to two viewpoints, eating lunch at the second.  The view was great.  Capitol Reef has the best visibility in the contiguous US, often reaching 150 miles.

The sun lights the cliffs opposite the valley from Capitol Reef
The sun lights the cliffs opposite the valley from Capitol Reef

On our way out of the park we stopped to take photos at the park entrance sign.  This was the last park for the trip. Unfortunately, our West Coast trip was nearing the end.  But it wasn’t quite over; we had two nights remaining and quite a bit of driving to do.

Waiting for the sunset at Capitol Reef
Waiting for the sunset at Capitol Reef
Cassidy arch, named after Butch Cassidy
Cassidy arch, named after Butch Cassidy

 

West Coast Road Trip – Days 12-13 – Arches National Park

3/24/14 to 3/25/14  Arches

Looking backwards from Delicate Arch we could see the sun setting
Looking backwards from Delicate Arch we could see the sun setting

It was another long but easy drive to Moab. We arrived too early to check in to the B&B we would be spending the next three nights in, so we decided to find a brewery to have lunch in.  Driving into town we were pretty disappointed; we had expected to find a fun little town similar to Bend, OR with great restaurants and beer, but instead we found a little stop along the highway that just happened to be conveniently located near beautiful parks.  Luckily, we did find the one brewery in town, where we got a little primer on the state’s liquor laws (which probably explained the lack of any decent brewery in town.)  We ate lunch and sampled their beer before heading back to the house to check in and get settled.  We met our host, Erin, who had some tips on where to go in the area – we decided to make our way to Delicate Arch in Arches NP (the arch in the Utah license plate) for sunset.

A large crowd gathers each night to watch the sun set at Delicate Arch
A large crowd gathers each night to watch the sun set at Delicate Arch
Sun sets behind delicate arch
Sun sets behind delicate arch

Along the way into the park, we stopped by the visitor center to find out if there were openings available for a tour into the Fiery Furnace.  Although they were booked a month out, they had just gotten a cancellation in the past ten minutes for the following morning’s tour – perfect!  The Delicate Arch trailhead is a short way into the park, and we pulled into the parking lot to find that everyone in the park that evening had also decided this was the place to go to watch the sunset.  It’s a short 1 mile hike up a slick rock ramp to the arch ‘amphitheater.’ We settled into where Eric thought a nice spot would be.  As sunset approached, many people were posing under the arch and several of the 30-40 photographers began yelling at them to move (we had heard this sometimes gets physical), and amazingly people responded to the photographer’s shouts and got out of the way as the ideal lighting conditions came.  After sunset, we decided to stay around until the stars came out. It became very peaceful as the crowd of 200 or so dwindled to just over a dozen.  A few more photos with the stars and we headed back down to the car and into town.

Delicate Arch under the stars
Posing in front of Landscape Arch, the longest free-standing arch in the world
Posing in front of Landscape Arch, the longest free-standing arch in the world

The following day we had an ambitious plan to get up early and hike to Landscape Arch before meeting for the 10am tour we had signed up for.  Landscape Arch was amazing – at over 300’ long it’s the largest free standing arch in the world.  Unfortunately, you are no longer permitted to hike under it since a couple of decades ago several massive sections broke off while people picnicked underneath (luckily no one was hurt.)  We saw several other arches on the short loop and drove to the Fiery Furnace.  This is a very cool section of the park that requires you to either reserve a permit in advance or sign up for a guided tour.  The narrow slot canyons are very confusing and there are a lot of fragile plants inside the area, so they limit the number of people who can be in at any time.  We definitely recommend signing up for a tour well in advance of visiting Arches.

Taylor squeezing through a tight space in the Fiery Furnace
Taylor squeezing through a tight space in the Fiery Furnace

Fiery Furnace was awesome! We loved scrambling around and learning about the history and ecology of the area from the excellent ranger leading the tour.  At the end of the tour, you come across Surprise Arch which was our favorite arch in the entire park.  The group all shared what brought them to Arches, and after Taylor shared our story we learned that the woman next to us had been in the Peace Corps working as a ranger in a Thailand National Park (we were so jealous!) Her husband was from Burma, a country that we hope to visit soon, but it’s difficult to research, so it’s great we now have a resource who can help us.  After the Fiery Furnace we went back to Moab to have lunch and rest before heading back to the park for the evening.

Standing in one of the many canyons in the Fiery Furnace
Standing in one of the many canyons in the Fiery Furnace

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Our group walking along the 'trail' in the Fiery Furnace
Our group walking along the ‘trail’ in the Fiery Furnace

 

We wanted to catch one more sunset and decided to head to Windows Arch, but first we made stops at Park Avenue and Double Arch.  Both were great, but Double Arch is especially cool; it was fun climbing up the western side to look out across the park from inside the arch.  From Double Arch we walked across the look to Windows Arches as the sunset neared for our final arch in the park, Turret Arch.  It offers a great view across the park from inside the arch, and Eric found another fun thing to climb.  As the sunlight faded away we debated staying for more star shots, but we were hungry so we made our way back into Moab to eat and rest up for Canyonlands the next morning.

Sunset in Arches as seen from Turret Arch
Sunset in Arches as seen from Turret Arch