When I was trying to find information about how to structure a Bohemian Switzerland day trip in the Czech Republic, I came up empty. Almost everything available online is extremely limited in scope and logistical detail. There’s a lot of empty recommendations about the beautiful one-way boat rides on the gorges of the park without any information about what the fuck you’re supposed to do when you end up 10 km from where you parked your car.
I suppose it’s because Bohemian Switzerland is so underrated – probably the most underrated national park I’ve ever seen – and there’s not a lot of people writing about it. That’s probably also why tour companies can get away with charging $150 for a Bohemian Switzerland day trip from Prague. Doing it on your own is actually not very difficult as long as you know how.
Renting a car in Prague
Renting a car for a day trip in Prague is surprisingly difficult. The usual suspects all have terrible customer reviews, and the small local companies that have incredible reviews – the ones that will drop off the car conveniently at your hotel or apartment – aren’t too keen to give up their only automatic cars for a one-day rental. We made two reservations, including one that was paid for, before receiving last minute phone calls to inform us that the cars we reserved weren’t available at all.
In the end we went with Avis in Florenc. That had its own service issues but at least we got a car. While I might not necessarily recommend the company itself, I would recommend renting from that area of town so you can hop right on the highway and avoid insane Prague driving. The last thing you want to do is get t-boned by a tram before your trip even starts. City driving is not so simple. But once you’re on the highway, it’s smooth sailing. Mostly.
The drive from Prague to Bohemian Switzerland
In theory, it should take about an hour and a half to get from Prague to Bohemian Switzerland by car. However, there are dozens of routes that may or may not be shorter depending on lane closures, construction, and stretches of one-way traffic stopping and going on two-way streets. Not to mention that the second half of the drive is through small towns, so there’s traffic lights and traffic circles. And just plain traffic. On an almost low-season day in October, it ended up taking closer to 2 hours. I can’t imagine what it’s like when the streets are full of people trying to enjoy the summer in the park. So I recommend starting your day as early as you can get the car, which will likely be sometime between 7 and 9 am.
Google Maps will dump you off along the Elbe River on the entrance of the national park in the town of Hřensko. You will know you’re in the right place when you see a row of adorable chalets nestled into giant rock formations. At this point, you will completely lose cell service, so pay attention.
Navigating Bohemian Switzerland
When you enter the main artery of the park, you will drive past little stretches of towns among the rocks where you’ll find facilities including bathrooms, bus stops, hotels and restaurants. But where do you actually park? You’ll see several roadside parking lots that are attended by park officials. Though there is no fee to get in, the roughly $5 cost of parking serves the same function and this will be the first time you’ll be given a map. For convenience, here is that map.
When you don’t have Google directions guiding you and you have no fucking clue what’s a good place to leave your car, this will guide you. We parked just past Restaurant Klepáč in Hřensko. You’ll be able to spot it when you pass the small watermill in front of the adjacent restaurant. I recommend this parking lot because it’s a good starting point to the park’s main attractions: the boat rides on the Kamenice River and the Pravčická Archway.
The rest of the trip will take you on foot, by boat, and by bus around the massive park grounds. If you do what we did, you can expect to walk around 10 miles on this day trip. They’re pretty much all stunning hikes, mostly easy in nature. Until they’re not, but I’ll get to that.
Edmund’s and Divoka Gorges
From your parking spot, you can backtrack ever so slightly so you can get on the hiking path that goes along the Kamenice River toward Edmind’s Gorge which is the closest to the entrance of the park. This hike (the yellow path) to the first point is about 20 minutes according to the map, but the 2 km will take you a lot longer if you stop for photos. It’s impossible not to. We went in the peak of fall so the walk was full of bright orange leaves, mossy rocks and trees, cute bridges, and giant trees and boulders overhead. Everything about the walk is extremely scenic.
You’ll know you’re getting close to the first boat ride when you start arriving at a series of small dark tunnels that are carved into the rock. At that point, you’ll come across a little hut by the boat stand. This is the boat that takes you down Edmund’s Gorge. The boat accommodates 20-30 people and costs around $3-4 for a one-way 20-minute ride. If you’re going during busy season, you can expect to wait. Because of the way the boats launch, you’ll have the best views from the front of the boat if you get on last. Along the way, the river is flanked on both sides by intricate rock formations. It’s impossible to see it unless you take the boat because there’s no walkway.
The boat ride on the gorge is narrated by the guy pushing your little green boat with a giant stick-like oar. The guides speak a lot of languages but perhaps not all of them yours. We lucked out with the first boat ride; he spoke English. The trip mostly consists of funny interpretations of the rock formations as you pass them. If you’re listening to Czech/German/Polish presentation, that’s all your missing. The gorge really speaks for itself even if you don’t know to look for the two monkeys kissing or whatever.
After your boat ride you’ll have another kilometer or so of walking in the in-between area between the two boat rides. Here you’ll find bathrooms, a small stand where you can get food and a lot of picnic tables right on the river. It’s a scenic place, but unless you brought your own food, not the best place to stop and eat. If you don’t want a really gross chicken sausage hamburger, I recommend bringing your own food, at least as a snack. You’ll be hungry after your drive and the beginning of your hike. This spot also has a fire pit where you can grill sausages. Sausage forks are included, so consider bringing that as your lunch.
At this spot, you can make a choice. You can veer off the gorge path and head to the small town of Mezna, which is about 20 minutes from the gorge according to that map, give or take 15 minutes. Or you can take the second boat on the Divoka Gorge aka the Wild Gorge. This one is shorter and costs only $2-3 to ride. The only difference between the two is that the second gorge generates some movement that rock your boat. It’s not like white water rafting. It’s more like being rocked to sleep by your mom when you’re a baby. It’s mild and it’s a shorter ride, less than 15 minutes. The payoff for some of the jokes on the first boat ride are part of the second.
If you only wanted to do the second gorge, you could take the bus or walk from where you parked to Mezna and start there. I’m torn on whether both boat tours are worth it. If I had to choose just one in the interest of time, I would probably do Edmund’s Gorge which is a bit longer and includes a much nicer walk along the Kamenice leading to it.
If you do the Divoka Gorge, you’ll eventually come to the end of the yellow hiking path after you get dropped off. Here you’ll switch to the blue path on the way to Mezní Louka, which is the closest civilized area. This part of the walk, which was another 2 km or so was the least visually appealing of the whole park. It’s full of trees that have been cut down, so it’s more a forestry operation rather than a forest. By the time you get to Mezní Louka, you’ll have walked about 6 miles, and you’ll be at least a couple of hours on foot from your car. Don’t worry. You can take a bus back to where you started.
Transportation within the national park
The transportation system inside the park is a bit of a mystery to me. But there are several options, and they all stop at the places labeled BUS around the park map. From Mezní Louka, they depart from the street to the western side of the Hotel Mezní Louka. This is across from the information center, where you can also double check the correct route. One transportation option is the national park transportation bus that comes every two hours. It looks like a white and red vintage trolley and leaves empty because it’s the most expensive option (though still only around $3).
The second option is the bus. As far as I can tell, these are local buses that happen to go through the park. They cost less than $1. Google doesn’t really index these as they do with public transportation in bigger cities, and it wouldn’t matter because your internet will still be very spotty. You can take the 434, which stops at the other indicated bus stops along the park and takes just a couple of minutes to get you to the archway.
As we were leaving, there was also a free hop-on trolley, which was the last of the day. I’m not sure if these run all day or if they were trying to get as many people out of the park before sundown. But if you see the short red trolley with no need to pay the driver before entering, congratulations; you may have saved yourself a dollar. This trolley seemed to stop along the parking lots, not only the prescribed bus stops. So I’m not sure if it only runs from the archway to the exit since this is the park’s most popular attraction.
You’ll be able to tell immediately that the archway is the most popular attraction in Bohemian Switzerland because while the visitors on the gorge boats are primarily Czech, the people going up and down to see the archway are mostly tourists. The bus drops you off just at the base of the hike which is 2 km up. In my infinite ignorance about this place, I thought the archway was something you would simply get up to and see, just to come back down again. However, it’s an attraction in and of itself. Once you finish the 2 km walk, which is mostly uphill on zig-zagging routes up the hill, you’ll still be at the bottom of the archway. Finally here, you will have cell service again. This is also why this is the only part of the park that takes cards. Unless you want to extend your hiking in desperate search of an ATM, bring cash. You need it for food, for the boats, buses, and for the bathrooms.
From beneath the archway and the adjacent restaurant, you’ll still have a lot of switchbacks to go, but at least they’ll be beautiful. The entrance to get inside is $3-4. And you may think that this is unnecessary – that you’ve basically seen the best of it. But you definitely have not. Once you’re inside the ticketed area, there are several pathways around the archway you can take to enjoy the 360-degree views of Bohemian Switzerland.
If you turn right after you get your ticket, you’ll be under the archway with a great view past it. If you take the hiking route to the left of the ticket booth, you’ll be climbing more steps until you’re across from the archway. You might think the archway itself is the most beautiful thing to see up there. But the hike is surrounded by giant rock pillars and stunning greenery (which is nice and orange in October). Unlike the hiking paths along the gorge, these paths are crowded, making it a little more annoying to maneuver around but no less worth it.
The restaurant there is an awesome place to stop for refreshments, because the views of the park are unreal. If you wanted to have lunch here, you could start with this and work backwards, doing the gorges after lunch. However there are two reasons why you might think twice about doing that. For one, the afternoon light is the absolute best for the archway as it bathes the rocks in sun. If it weren’t for the fact that I wouldn’t be very comfortable hiking down for 35-40 minutes in the dark, I’d say this is a great place to see the sunset. The other reason is that the boats stop running at specific times and may have a line to ride, causing you to miss them if you go too late. They are typically open from 9 am to 6 pm from the end of March/April to October and until 5 pm from October to early November. During the cold winter months, the gorges are closed to visitors.
Getting out of the park
Whether you’re exiting the park’s hiking trails along the gorge or the archway, you can use the same modes of transportation to get you back roughly to the area where you parked. At this point, you will exit the same way you came in the direction of the Elbe.
A lot of those Bohemian Switzerland tours combine the attractions in the Czech Republic with its German counterparts in Saxon Switzerland National Park, which is basically part of the same natural area. Our intention was to do the same at least to see Bastei Bridge, which connects several of the rock formations by bridge as part of the German side’s most popular hike. This hike is estimated to take anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours from the parking lot, so it’s not exactly a quick stop.
Having already walked 10 miles and run out of daylight, we scrapped it. I think you would have to rush a lot or only do some of the things in Bohemian Switzerland in order to justify going to a whole other national park on the same day, especially since it adds another 30-45 minutes to your drive back to Prague. Which makes those $150 day trips even less appealing.
Some tips and suggestions
Though it was an absolutely wonderful day trip and definitely worth all that walking, I think Bohemian Switzerland would actually be a better day trip from Dresden. If you’re in Prague, you can take a $10-20 bus or train to Dresden the day before and then you’d be within 30-50 minutes of both national parks. Dresden is a beautiful and fun place to spend a day anyway.
See my Dresden itinerary here.
To really do justice to both parks, I would devote one day to Saxon Switzerland and another to Bohemian Switzerland instead of cramming both into one. Alternatively you could stay on one of the parks. For instance, Rathen is at the base of Bastei Bridge and it’s a well-known spa town, which would make it the perfect place to recover from one day of hiking before doing a second. Alternatively, I would love nothing more than to have stayed the night at one of the resorts we parked next to and enjoy a real hearty meal after all that physical activity.
There you have it. That’s how you can enjoy a Bohemian Switzerland day trip from Prague for a fraction of what it would cost to take a guided tour. If you’re in the Czech Republic or even Germany, you truly don’t want to miss this.