Nestled among the limestone hills of Kraków is a place where you can confidently begin the story of the wild Małopolska region. There are several caves in the famous Dragons’ Den, within a 20-minute walk from the Wawel Castle. Close to Twardowski Rocks, you can admire crystal-clear water in the Zakrzówek lagoon, reminiscent of the Croatian coast and located in a former quarry. Within the city, Wolski Forest lets you effectively forget about the hustle and bustle of Kraków’s streets.
Another opportunity for contact with nature is provided by the intimate Kraków Valleys. The charming, forested valleys outside the city attract hikers and cyclists, and their slopes strewn with rocks create excellent conditions for climbing. Not far away is Poland’s smallest National Park - Ojców, which protects the unique ecosystem of the Pradnik Valley. The whole area of the Kraków-Częstochowa Upland is if filled with nearly 1,500 discovered caves, with 17 species of bats inhabiting them. On clear summer evenings, you can admire how they fly over the forests and meadows in search of food. The most famous caves in the Lesser Poland region of the Jurassic Highlands are the Łokietek Cave, towering over Ojców, known for the legend of the future ruler of Poland hiding there, the Wierzchowska Gorna Cave, the longest cave open to the public in Poland, and the Bat Cave, where numerous bones of prehistoric animals were found. Completely different, but also numerous (almost 900), are the caves in the Tatras, including the Mrozna Cave and Mylna Cave, which are open for tourists.
On the flat land to the east of Kraków stretches the Niepołomice Primeval Forest, with an extensive network of forest roads and the European Bison Breeding Centre, inaccessible to visitors. Further south, the terrain rises slowly, and picturesque areas of the Wisnicko-Lipnicki Landscape Park and the Ciezkowicko-Roznowski Landscape Park turn into mountains. Large forest areas around Mogielica in the Gorczański National Park and Poprad Landscape Park, one of the largest in Poland, protect fragments of the Carpathian Buczyna Forest and many valuable animal species, including the spotted salamander - a symbol of the Gorce.
The high mountain areas of Małopolska are the mainstay of large carnivores: bears, wolves, lynxes and wild cats, and the flora and fauna of the Tatras are symbolised by the growing population of chamois, the northernmost subspecies of this mammal, and the only natural stands of Leontopodium nivale (edelweiss) in our region of Europe. Located in the monumental border section of the Dunajec Gorge, the Pieniny National Park is beautiful at any time of the year. Still, its mixed forests are especially worth visiting in autumn, when the falling leaves sparkle with countless colours. The real pearls in the natural crown of Małopolska, of course, are the Tatra National Park and Babia Gora National Park - two biosphere reserves on the prestigious UNESCO list protecting the most precious natural places on Earth.
55% of Małopolska’s area under nature protection contains more than half of Poland’s plant and animal species. In the Małopolska province, there are many utterly unknown mountain ranges, such as the Beskid Mały or Beskid Niski (including a fragment of the Magurski National Park). New natural attractions are being discovered now and then, such as the recently opened Bobrowisko in Stary Sącz. In recent years, the enormous growth of tourism has meant that some places have become crowded, especially during the high tourist season. At the same time, numerous mountain peaks and valleys remain relatively empty and quiet, offering visitors a direct, intimate opportunity to experience wild nature. It is advisable to avoid the largest human concentrations and choose less popular times for trips as a sign of respect to nature.
Contact with wild nature allows us to calm down and rest from our everyday life, overloaded with stimuli, and break selfish habits connected with putting human beings at the centre of the world. In the forest, the wild animals are our hosts, which is worth remembering not only in the case of rare (but occurring!) encounters with bears. Using only marked trails, not feeding animals, not picking wild plants and, if necessary, humbly retreating is elementary forest saviour-vivre.
Information about hiking, cycling and horse-riding routes, car parks, accommodation and camping places, as well as about the basic principles of responsible tourism, is collected, among others, by Czaswlas.pl, a website dedicated to Polish forests, or “Góry dla Ciebie” (mountains for you), a website integrating fans of mountain hiking