Updated on 14th April 2019
The sun was scorching as I sat on the rough, gray sandstone, sipping on the best coffee I had had in a while. The many conversations behind me served as the background score for the scene that lay directly in front; below my feet, the narrow glossy Elbe River, a perfect reflection of the sky, wound through the forested landscape of the Bohemian Switzerland National Park, cutting across hills and slopes, resplendent with more shades of green than I could think of names for.
Looking down from the edge of a sandstone cliff at a scene that made me feel gratitude more than anything else, I brought the cup to my lips for another taste of the delicious brew and couldn’t help but ask myself, “Is this real life?”
I admit I knew nothing about hiking in the Czech Republic (or Czechia, as the country is now officially called) when I visited recently for the first time. But after two weeks in the country, my fondest memories of it are from the Bohemian Switzerland National Park, (that can be visited overnight or as an easy day trip from Prague), that I had the chance to explore with an adventure company called Northern Hikes.
The Bohemian Switzerland National Park (Czech name is České Švýcarsko) is the Czech Republic’s youngest national park, declared in 2000 and has an area of 79sq.kms (of which 97% is forest). It extends into German territory where it’s called Saxon Switzerland.
But make no mistake, Bohemian Switzerland is in the Czech Republic and not in Switzerland. In the 1800s, two Swiss artists, Adrian Zingg and Anton Graff, fell in love with this impressive landscape of sandstone rock towers, verdant valleys, majestic canyons, beautiful gorges and deep valleys, and named it after its region Bohemia and their home Switzerland.
Why You Should Visit Bohemian Switzerland National Park
Most visitors’ travels to the Czech Republic remain limited to Prague, which though a beautiful city, is hardly enough to understand just how incredible and interesting the country is. If you’re looking for places to visit in the Czech Republic outside of Prague, you should consider Bohemian Switzerland.
I don’t know about you, but as someone who didn’t really have access to trails growing up, I’m always looking to experience nature and find the most spectacular hiking trails when I travel.
At just a 90-minute drive from Prague, the Bohemian Switzerland National Park is an easily accessible piece of paradise that outdoorsy types will absolutely love exploring on their Czech holidays. This area is home to some of the best hiking in the Czech Republic. You can choose to visit as a day trip from Prague with Northern Hikes or easily spend a few nights in the region, exploring different trails, attractions and viewpoints.
Why You Should Visit Bohemian Switzerland with Northern Hikes
Perhaps the best part about it was that, at even its most famous and therefore crowded spots, it wasn’t as crowded as other more popular national parks in Europe (such as parts of Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia). While we’re all tourists and adding to the crowds somewhere, you can’t deny that hiking alongside fewer people and having trails all to yourself is invaluable and makes the time spent outdoors much more enjoyable.
Luckily, the team at Northern Hikes, with whom I explored the area shares this same belief. As locals who grew up exploring the depths of Bohemian Switzerland National Park and passionate about developing sustainable tourism in the region, founder Vit Slezák and his team bring hikers to lesser-known trails around the park with hardly any other tourists.
“We would like to do more hiking tours to lesser known places with extra activities,” said Vit, who isn’t driven by the need to grow his company in size or make massive profits as much as he is by the desire to distribute crowds around the park in a way that doesn’t burden the fragile ecosystem of the area. “We want to take the crowds from the two most famous locations that are getting overcrowded and show them something different. Places that are known only to the locals, let’s say where we would go with family or friends, you know,” he said describing his newest tours.
Throughout my travels, I’ve found that small-sized tours led by passionate locals are infinitely better than those that involve big coaches, set programs, and rehearsed scripts. That passion translates into the willingness to share not just information, but also anecdotes, historical context, and legends about places, and isn’t that so much more interesting?
With Northern Hikes, it felt like hiking with extremely knowledgeable local friends who were generous to take us to off-the-beaten-path trails and viewpoints with no other tourists.
The Labyrinth Rock Towers of Tisá
At 600m above sea level, the gigantic sandstone rock towers of Tisá in Tiské steny, some rising up to 30m, were sculpted over millions of years by the movement of the earth’s crust and the effect of erosion, weathering and other geological processes on sandstone sediments in the region.
The vertical sandstone rocks look like towers and pillars, some with deep fissures and others with boulders between them. Narrow steps lead up to the tops of some of these towers, offering fantastic views over the area. The rocks of Tisá are also popular with rock climbers in the region. Marked trails run around this fantastical landscape of forest, towers and and labyrinth tunnels, that was one of the filming locations for The Chronicles of Narnia.
On our second visit to the rock towers of Tisá, we rushed up the steps to the top, mustering up as much strength as we could after a full day of hiking, just so we could catch the sunset from the top. Afterwards, as we sat on top of the rocks, eating from our takeaway dinner boxes, we couldn’t help but marvel at the changing colors of the sky painted in pink and orange and the play of light and shadows on the sandstone. Northern Hikes had promised an epic sunset, and they’d delivered.
Pravčická Brána, Europe’s Largest Sandstone Arch
Our first full day of hiking in Bohemian Switzerland National Park started off in the village of Hřensko and took us to Pravčická Brána, the largest sandstone arch in Europe and the second largest in the world, and perhaps the most famous attraction in Bohemian Switzerland National Park.
Formed over millions of years, Pravčická Brána, almost at the end of its lifespan, is expected to exist for another 100,000 years, which isn’t a lot in terms of geological lifespans. Until 1982, people were allowed to walk on the arch connecting the two walls, but it was later closed down due to the erosion and increased wear and tear. In fact, scientists now believe that the reason that the arch has survived as long as it has is because the structure is actually made up of two separate rocks.
A beautiful building called Sokoli Nest (or Falcon’s Nest) built in 1881 as a castle is the entrance to a viewpoint to Pravčická Brána and also houses a restaurant. While you can’t go on top of the arch, there’s a bar offering refreshments right under it and it’s the perfect place to enjoy some chilled Czech beers or Kofola (Czech cola) to cool off on a sunny afternoon.
By the way, Pravčická Brána was also used as a filming location for The Chronicles of Narnia. That isn’t surprising, given how incredibly magical the entire landscape of Bohemian Switzerland National Park is.
Hiking on Gabriela’s Trail
From Pravčická Brána, we continued on a trail called Gabriela’s Trail or Gabrielina Stezka, a 6km. long trail along a ridge with massive sandstone rock walls on one side and a forested slope of pine, oak and spruce on the other, beyond which lie views over the area. This trail is also popular with families and school groups, so it’s a pretty easy hike.
Vit, Honza and Vojtech, our guides from Northern Hikes told us about the flora and fauna of Bohemian Switzerland, such as the rare black stork, and the falcon which was saved from extinction by the park. It was easy to see that their relationship with the Bohemian Switzerland National Park went beyond that of someone’s with their workplace.
“So, he’s just picking poop in the forest,” said Vit jokingly of the voluntary work that Honza does for an NGO called Wolves’ Guard where he tracks wolves in the park, “and sending it for analysis to check if it belongs to a wolf.” To which Honza replied, “Yeah, he isn’t the only famous person. I’m also very famous, because I found the first, let’s say, shit,” much to the amusement of the group. Honza recounted the time when he was out running with his dog in winter and found wolf feces with remains of bones and hair. He was then instructed to follow what he believed to be its footprints in the snow and tracked down its overnight lair.
The Gorges of Kamenice (Soutěsky Kamenice)
After a delicious lunch, we hiked towards the gorges of the Kamenice river, of which two (the Divoká and Edmung Gorges) can only be navigated only by boat. Boatmen with bargepoles operate these boats and also share information about the gorges in Czech.
As the boat glided on the calm river, between lush green forest and towering mossy sandstone walls that reached up to 150m, their jagged faces reminding us of animal shapes and strange faces, it felt like coming upon a true wilderness where time might stand still and the world outside this quiet, peaceful paradise might be forgotten. It is understandable then, that this part of the trail, shrouded in mystery, was once called The End of the World.
Ferdinand’s Gorge and Dolský Mlýn
Hiking along the Kamenice through the tranquil landscape of Ferdinand’s Gorge, we arrived at Dolský Mlýn in the river valley, the oldest structure in the national park that was built in 1515 as a mill. Just next to it stand the ruins of a bakery that was built in 1727, and later served as a bar for visitors to the area. Once abandoned and overgrown, today you can enter what is left of these buildings. Just outside the mill, hikers cool off with a swim in the river before continuing on around the national park.
Coffee and Canyons with Northern Hikes
My time with Northern Hikes was chock-full of incredible moments, the kind that remain etched upon one’s memory for a long time, and so it’s hard to pick a favorite, but their Coffee and Canyons Tour would definitely rank among my top 3 experiences.
To steer tourists away from overcrowded spots, Northern Hikes joined hands with local instagrammers as well as local coffee roasters Bohemian Coffee House to create a first of its kind tour that promises fantastic hiking, epic views (and Instagram-worthy photos) as well as great specialty coffee.
Local instagrammers and the team at Northern Hikes scouted secret locations, with zero other tourists, that are great for photography and offer spectacular views. Guests who hike to these spots are then rewarded with a coffee ritual in the outdoors where they can learn to make specialty coffee (Colombian, Ethiopian, Brazilian and Indonesian) by Bohemian Coffee House, freshly ground on the spot, and enjoy it with delicious homemade cakes, all with a view over one of the deepest canyons in Europe.
Bohemian Coffee House was founded by father-son duo Jiri & Jiri Duzar, both avid hikers with a love of nature and good coffee, something they were hard-pressed to find in their region of Bohemia. “Now when we go hiking,” said Jiri Jr., “we always try to bring some beans with us, a grinder, and a coffee maker. There’s nothing better than to have a fresh cup of coffee with a beautiful view like this.”
With panoramic views of the Elbe River winding through the wilderness in all its grandeur, a gentle breeze blowing on a perfectly sunny day, and a cup of freshly brewed Bohemian coffee, it was impossible to disagree.
A Dose of Adventure at Šaunštejn
The best adventures are those that you don’t plan for or weren’t expecting but leave you with a rush of excitement, even when they’re over. Climbing up to the ruins of Šaunštejn with Northern Hikes was exactly that kind of an adventure.
What began as a gentle trail eventually rose to lead to steep stairs (that got narrower the higher we went) and then to metal ladders. After a near-vertical climb on the ladders and some scuffling, we were standing on top of a massive formation at Šaunštejn, believed to be the ruins of a castle that was built to protect traders passing by but was later used as a bandits’ hideout. Here at the lookout point, were views over the area with houses and farms.
Unforgettable Sunsets in Bohemian Switzerland National Park
The team at Northern Hikes ensured that we had epic sunset views every evening, after our days of hiking in the Czech Republic. They brought us to spots that had zero tourists, the kind of places where we could relax and enjoy nature work her magic every evening. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
Where To Eat in Bohemian Switzerland National Park
I’ll be honest- before I got to Bohemian Switzerland, I wasn’t really enjoying the food in the Czech Republic. It probably was that I was ordering the wrong things (my meat preference was definitely low), or sitting down to eat at the wrong places. But, I was pleasantly surprised by the great meals we had in Bohemian Switzerland. Days full of hiking in the Czech Republic meant that I was not guilty when I gorged on delicious food at all the restaurants that we visited in the Bohemian Switzerland National Park.
I’ll list some of them here so that it helps you plan your own trip.
U Fořta (serves delicious Czech cuisine and a nice variety of meat and vegetarian dishes, and also offers accommodation)
Na Stodolci (farm-to-table dining and also offers accommodation)
u Zeleného stromu (Old Czech pub-style restaurant serving Czech and international cuisine)
Falkenstejn Brewery and Restaurant (Brewery, pub, restaurant and hotel, they’re located in the town of Krásná Lípa that makes for a good base to explore the area. You can also do a brewery tour and beer tasting here.)
This bar is also located in Krásná Lípa and has a unique setting in a meadow. There’s an open self-service bar with Czech favorites such as sausages that you can roast on an open fire, local cheeses, salads and vegetables, biscuits, bread rolls, cakes and drinks including local beers. It’s open all day and night and was envisioned by its founders Mila Petrášek and her partner Marjánek Krásnolipská as a meeting place of people. The thing that’s most unique about it is that visitors are trusted to pay for their food and drinks (with prices displayed) in an honesty box before they leave.
Where To Stay in Bohemian Switzerland National Park
There are plenty of penzions found within the Bohemian Switzerland National Park offering accommodation, but the town of Krásná Lípa is a good base to stay if you plan on exploring the region over a few days. Quality accommodation can be found at Lipa Resort which offers an aparthotel, guesthouse as well as hostel to suit every budget. Apartments in the aparthotel are modern, elegant, and spacious with kitchens, washing machines, balconies, and living areas with TVs.
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I visited Bohemian Switzerland National Park as a guest of Northern Hikes and Czech Tourism. All opinions, as always, are honest and independent.