All about the Dunajec river and its gorge rafting, kayaking, cycling, maps, routes, what to see, where to stay
The Dunajec River Gorge is a perfect place for rafting, cycling, hiking and relaxing. Our visit here made one of the best days of our 5-months Europe bike trip, a day full of marvel, this is a place you really shouldn’t miss if traveling in the area.
The Dunajec River Gorge runs through the Pieniny Mountains in the south of Poland and the north of Slovakia (as Dunajec is the border river between the two countries in the area). The gorge features amazing geological structures and a unique natural ecosystem almost untouched by human presence. The site is featured on UNESCO’s Tentative List of World Heritage Sites in Poland.
Dunajec Gorge is one of the main tourist attractions in the area: surrounded by the Pieniny Mountains, a small but fascinating range. Bringing noble guests, from nearby Niedzica and Czorsztyn castles, downstream on wooden rafts has been a source of income for Pieniny Gorals since the early 19th century.
The Dunajec River gorge makes up a short section of border between Poland and Slovakia, very close to the High Tatras, this is really the perfect entry/exit point for those cycling both countries.
There’s an unpaved but well-maintained cycling path (which is also a hiking trail), about 20km long, which actually lays mostly on the Polish side. The gorge has stunning white limestone cliffs and its covered by a vegetation that is truly mesmerizing when painted in the autumn colors.
The path ends on the Southern tip of the Lake Czorstyn (Jezioro Czorsztynskie), a good-looking man-made reservoir. From there, there are two ways to get to Osturna, one brings you back in Poland, the other going through a Slovakian valley, both are nice, easy and short, about 10/12km to get to the Osturna area.
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The River Dunajec
While the origin of the Dunajec can be found near Zakopane with a different name, the river officially begins only in Nowy Targ, at the junction of two short mountain rivers, Czarny Dunajec and Biały Dunajec (Black and White Dunajec).
This winding stream runs for 249km through southern Poland, sometimes caught in scenic reservoirs (Lake Rożnów, Lake Czorsztynskie).
The Dunajec river act as state border between Poland and Slovakia for 17km, cutting through the wild Central Pieniny range, east of the Czorsztyn reservoir.
It’s here that the river forms the gorge. the Trzy Korony massif with a 500 meters precipice, Červený Kláštor, and two Pieniny castles in Czorsztyn and Niedzica.
The river then continues its course northwards, passing through the city of Nowy Sacz before flowing into the Vistula River in Opatowiec.
The Dunajec River Gorge
The Dunajec River Gorge is surrounded by vertical limestone cliffs, up to 300m in height, plunging into the water amidst diversified and luxurious vegetation. It is part of the Pieniny National Park established by the Polish government in 1932.
The gorge is about 18km long, with a cycling and walking path (unpaved) running all the way through it, just beside the river, through a magical landscape, thriving with trees who dress in mesmerizing colors when the Autumn comes.
Among the several peaks you see towering from here, the most famous is the 982 meters high Trzy Korony (Three Crowns), with its characteristic three summits. Its white slopes ripping the landscape with brightness.
The Dunajec Valley is overlooked by the Niedzica Castle, originally erected in the 14th century on the hill. Nowadays the castle is surrounded by the manmade Czorsztyn lake and it’s one of the most picturesque spots in Poland. On the other side of the reservoir are the ruins of a medieval castle, from which the lake takes its name.
Packrafting, Canoeing, Kayaking, or Rafting Dunajec River
Several companies organize so-called “rafting trips”, the most popular are on wooden rafts, but kayaking is also possible.
The trip usually takes place on five wooden rafts, tied together and pushed down the river by two rowers using poles/oars, the rowers often dress in traditional clothing. Up to 12 passengers are allowed on a raft. Nature is absolutely spectacular and the ride is suitable for everyone, the few rapids found on course are easily managed by the helmsman, absolutely safe.
The trip takes about 2–3 hours, starting in the hamlet of Sromowce Wyżne, to end in the resort village of Szczawnica, 18 km downstream.
There is also a shorter section, only 5 km long but very scenic, from Szczawnica to Krościenko nad Dunajcem. The Gorge makes 7 loops here, surrounded by rock reaching 300m in height almost all the way through.During this journey, you won’t have to do anything but relax, look around, enjoy, and maybe get some tan. It is a pleasant excursion, very characteristic, but it is not rafting.
Some tours include also transportation and a bit of sightseeing, usually the Niedzica Castle and the XV century Debno Podhalanskie Chapel – the only UNESCO site in the region. Those are day trips of about 7/8 hours.
Those who look for more exciting activities can paddle downstream on kayaks. Kayaking this 18km section of the river will take approximately 2 hours, the river is suitable also for beginners.
The Dunajec Gorge Cycling Path
There are many beautiful cycle paths in Poland and Slovakia, running along river valleys, flanked by mountains and hills, going through primeval forests and wide plains. They follow ancient trade routes, through little towns full of history.
Among these, the Dunajec River cycling path stands as a small but bright gem. The routes take us along the old towpaths, just above the water level, where for centuries horses pulled boats and rafts upstream.
The length of the cycle trail is 18km, add 4km if you start in Krościenko nad Dunajcem, the elevation gain and loss are negligible. Allow at least 90 minutes if you want to really enjoy the place and maybe stop to take some pictures.
Although flanked by steep mountains, the cycle path along the river is gentle and pleasant, with only a few short slopes. The road is unpaved but very well maintained, easily rideable for anyone, this is a perfect family cycling trip.
The countless wooden rafts moving up and down the river add suggestiveness to the already evocative atmosphere of the gorge. A few years ago, the opening of a new border crossing opened the access to some paths through the Pieniny hills on the Slovakian side.
For long-distance bicycle travelers, the Dunajec River Gorge makes a perfect entry/exit point between Slovakia and Poland, acting as a bridge connecting two regions that are amongst the most idyllic in their respective countries.
Stuff to see nearby
The legend of Niedzica Castle
This 700-years-old castle, built on an ancient stronghold, not only looks good but also has some thrill in its meanders. Before the Czorsztyn reservoir was built, the castle had quite a vampiresque attire, perched high on a rock above the Dunajec River.
There have always been tales and legends about this place, quite some gothic moods: tortures, homicides, etc. The most famous tale nowadays is about Sebastián Berzeviczy, who traveled to the Americas in the 18th century.
The story says he married an Inca princess. The couple had a daughter who married the nephew of an Inca insurrection leader, Túpac Amaru II, whose assumed name implied descent from Inca kings. Túpac Amaru was executed by the Spaniards after rebelling against the colonial regime.
Apparently, he was in possession of some sacred Inca scrolls which eventually ended up in the hands of his surviving family members, namely Berzeviczy’s daughter, Umina, and her husband, Andrés Túpac Amaru.
The family fled to Italy, where Andrés was killed in suspicious circumstances. Sebastián Berzeviczy, Umina and her son moved to Hungary and settled at the castle. Umina was assassinated here sometime later. Her testament to son Anton, written in 1797 and stored in the castle, allegedly contained information about the lost treasure of the Incas.
Made up by two different parks, administratively divided between Slovakia and Poland, this relatively small protected area thrives with hundreds of species of plants, including 640 kinds of mushrooms, and between 6,500 and 15,000 animal species.
There are plenty of birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. Among the mammals, the most important predator is the lynx, while the otter thrives on the shores of the Dunajec.
Krościenko nad Dunajcem
One of the oldest settlements in the Polish part of the Pieniny Mountains, Kroscienko’s history dates back to the late 12th century. In the ’30s, thanks to its mineral waters, Krościenko was officially recognized as an SPA town, becoming a popular tourist resort where guest houses and baths proliferated.
Krościenko nad Dunajcem numerous tourist attractions include Pieniny National Park Museum, a 14th-century church rebuilt in Baroque style in 1589, walking trails in the Pieniny mountains, mountain biking paths for all skill levels.
There is a good accommodation choice, from hotels to holiday cottages. In winter, ski lift at Szczawnica-Palenica is available at 6 km distance.
Just a stone-throw from Kroscienko, Szczawnica is another resort village where thanks to the presence of alkaline hot springs and favorable climatic conditions, many respiratory and digestive tract illnesses are treated.
Szczawnica is also a ski resort town. Among the many trails and slopes, the longest (2 km) is at Palenica, and it’s fitted with a 4-person ski lift.
Szczawnica is one of the oldest and most beautiful spa resorts in Poland, there are springs of twelve acidic mineral waters, whose curative properties were first mentioned in the 16th century. Until today, their curative properties attract patients from all over the world.
On the other end of the gorge is the little hamlet of Sromowce Wyzne. If you happen to spend some time here try visiting the Regional Chamber organized by the local circle of rural housewives. Check also the church of St. Stanisława, next to which there are monuments of its founders.
The village hosts summer festivities with performances by regional groups. There is also a museum about the highland traditions. Near the village, are the Polana Sosna ski lift and the Niedzica hydroelectric power station.
Although not exactly nearby, the village of Osturna is certainly worth a detour. Osturna is a laid-back fairy-tale place with an interesting history and remaining sparkles of a unique culture, laying 700 meters above sea level amidst a gorgeous valley.
This nine-kilometers-long village is only inhabited by about 390 persons. Those persons are Rusyns, a diasporic ethnic minority group with a complex history and a fascinating architecture, 157 of its wooden structure are recognized as a national treasure. Riding through Osturna is a 10km long jump in a parallel universe.
A few cozy and cheap accommodation options are available, together with a traditional bar and a small supermarket.