Click CTRL – to diminish Click CTRL – to diminish Click CTRL + to enlarge Click CTRL + to enlarge
Mount Golica located in Slovakian part of the Pieniny Mountains, view from the top of Mount Sokolica (photo by S. R. Bielak)
Mount Golica located in Slovakian part of the Pieniny Mountains, view from Mt. Sokolica (photo S. Bielak)

The Pieniny Mountains of Western Carpathians

The Pieniny Mountains are located in southern Poland where, as a part of Western Carpathians, they extend along the borderline shared with Slovakia. These mountains are rather small as they are 22 miles (35 km) long and 4.5 miles (7 km) wide, while the highest summit is Mount Wysoka reaching 3443 feet a.s.l. (1050 m a.s.l.). Despite these modest facts nobody would deny a typical montane character and authentic beauty of these mountains. Main reason of their unusual charm is activity of the Dunajec River that flows across them. For hundreds of thousands of years this river has been furrowing a narrow passage through limestone rocks, finally creating a picturesque gorge which divides the whole mountain chain into three separate parts: Specific, Little and Spiskie Pieniny Mountains. Although the acreage of these mountains is quite small local wildlife is extraordinary varied. Here live about 13 000 species of animals which is over one third of all species occurring in Poland. Unique values of local wildlife had been appreciated over one hundred years ago and as a result the Pieniny Mountains National Park was established in 1932. Now, with acreage of almost nine square miles (23 km2), it is the smallest and in the same time the oldest national park of Poland. Jointly, here are two national parks and a dozen of wildlife preserves which protect flora and fauna both on Polish and Slovakian side of these mountains.

Flowing via the Pieniny Mountains the Dunajec River has carved in limestone rock a picturesque gorge (photo by S. R. Bielak)
Flowing via the Pieniny Mountains the Dunajec River has carved in limestone a gorge (photo by S. Bielak)

The Dunajec River Gorge in limestone rocks

The Pieniny Mountains do not owe their unquestionable charm and typical montane character to their modest sizes but to a relief-creating activity of the Dunajec River. During hundreds of thousands of years the river has been breaking through this mountain chain creating a gorge which nowadays is considered to be one of the most beautiful in Europe. The Dunajec River Gorge extends between the Red Monastery in Slovakia and Szczawnica town in Poland. In straight line the distance between these two places is less than two miles (2,5-3 km) long but measuring the length along the river’s channel it is 5.5 miles (8-9 km) long. Inside this stretch the Dunajec River has seven meanders with maximal angle of the channel’s turns reaching 135°. In borders of the gorge the river flows in a narrow channel winding among steep, sometimes almost vertical, cliffs built out of limestone. These limestone rocks appear not only along both river’s banks – creating a unique character of the gorge – but also inside the river’s bed. Rocky outcrops protruding out of water often cause a leap of adrenaline in organisms of tourists who decide to float down the river course sitting on wooden rafts, which are steered by local rafters only with long poles. Floating on rafts or in kayaks along the Dunajec River’s current is one of the best tourist attraction available in the Pieniny Mountains.

Montane meadows with occasional herds of sheep are common view in the Pieniny Mountains (photo by Sebastian R. Bielak)
Montane meadows with occasional herds of sheep are common view in the mountains (photo S. Bielak)

Carpathian Beech Forest and montane meadows

Until the end of the twelfth century the Pieniny Mountains were not inhabited and the whole area was covered by the Carpathian Primeval Forest. Although nowadays vast fragments of this land are used as meadows and pastures still the biggest area is covered by woods. In the Pieniny Mountains there are several types of wood but the most common is the Carpathian Beech Forest with the European beech and silver fir as primary tree species. Interesting and quite unusual fact is that on the summits of Mount Sokolica and Mount Czertezik there grow small groves of relict Scots pine. Twisted by wind, short pines have been growing here since the last Ice Age and the oldest individuals are over five hundred years old. The remnant of former intensive pastoral agriculture in the mountains are montane meadows on which, here and there, local highlanders still pasture sheep. Thanks to good insolation and relatively fertile soils the species composition of montane meadows in the Pieniny Mountains is unusually varied. On one square meter (10-11 square feet) usually occur from thirty to forty species of flower plants. Many of them are rare and protected while some are endemic species of plants which grow only in the Carpathian Mountains and nowhere else in the world. Local montane meadows are famous of huge quantities of insects, especially of diurnal butterflies which occur here in a number of over 1500 species.