An Alpine panorama with craggy peaks stretching to the clouds, expanding outward as far as the eye can see.
Is this scenery which most first-time tourists to Germany hope, maybe expect, to find? Towering, snow-covered mountains would present the ideal background upon which Hans, our happy, lederhosen-clad, rucksack-toting German hiker, is currently forging his way to the local hut (and most likely, as we imagine, to enjoy sausage and beer). What is perhaps astonishing, then, is the reality of the German landscape: less than 5% of the country can hope to spot the nearest mountain over 1,000 meters and that even less of the country is covered by the perhaps best-known of all European mountain ranges, the Alps. To what we owe this image of a mountain-covered Germany is uncertain, but the hiker seeking the high hills will most likely end up more satisfied in neighbouring Austria soon after setting out.
Although it is rumoured that approximately one third of Germany is covered in forest, only certain areas of the country are truly well-known for their maintained (and overly well-marked) trails, or Wanderwege. As mentioned, the most popular area for hard core hikers – as well as for high heel-clad tourists – is the Alpine region of southern Bavaria. Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze, reaches a height of 2,962 meters (a shame, say Germans, that it didn’t make it to 3,000) and is easily accessible by gondola or cog rail, as are many of the other prized summits of European mountains, much to the discouragement of many a true mountaineer. Indeed, it is not at all uncommon in Germany to struggle your way up a stately peak for hours, only to crest the summit and be greeted by a swarm of suntanning, postcard-buying representatives of a tourism industry that knows no limits.
This, of course, does not accurately describe the situation upon every European mountaintop. Hiking in Germany can nevertheless truly present a sizeable dose of culture shock: it is uncommon to camp out while hiking (and sometimes downright illegal), the preference being to overnight in one of the many huts (Hütten) that you can’t help but stumble over even on the most ill-planned of hiking trips. These huts are built and maintained by the local chapter of the mountain club, or Alpenverein, which number well into the hundreds in Germany and Austria. More often than not, these huts are full-service (bewirtschaftet) and offer everything from a comfortable bed and a hearty dinner to an evening game of chess with the staff. You’ll pay a minimal fee to sleep there, but food prices are normally exorbitant, since all groceries are usually flown in by helicopter. Don’t be fooled by the veil of hotel-ness, though: be prepared to wake up and set out for the trail early. These huts are less bastions of tourism and are intended for hikers, climbers, and mountaineers with most trails leading to them requiring good planning (maps, or Karten, are a must) and equipment (rain gear and hiking poles are standard hiking equipment in Germany). You’ll find plenty of Gesellschaft and Gemütlichkeit – the romantic atmosphere you’d expect to find in a hut – but it ends, promptly, at 10:00 p.m. For those who spend their nights in a hut, hiking is usually a serious sport.
Nearly all trails in the hiking regions of Germany are extremely well-marked and maintained (you may find yourself wondering where the challenge of self-orientation went) but also rely on a different standard of categorization when compared to a North American system. Nur für Geübte (only for experienced hikers) is a serious warning and should be respected. These trails are often exposed and contain passages with steel ladders or ropes and can quickly turn a Sunday’s scenic hiking tour into an emergency situation. Be prepared to do light climbing on many tours and always make sure you have an emergency contact who knows where you are.
The most dangerous animal you’ll experience while on the German trail is a Gams (Gämse) , a mountain goat-like creature that presents no threat but is prone to be around, silently watching you, wherever you go. Marmots, wild boars, and the occasional deer are common as well, but most wildlife has been driven to non- existence by hunting rights, disease, and in the name of forest protection. Nowadays, you’re more likely to be confronted with a curious-looking sheep or cow than anything else.
Besides the Alpine region, other well-kept secrets for hiking in Germany include the Black Forest (Schwarzwald) in the southwest, the Swabian Alb (Schwäbische Alb) near Stuttgart, and the Bavarian Forest (Bayerischer Wald) in northeastern Bavaria. Forested regions – hilly but not exactly mountainous – can be found, though, throughout Germany. An excellent website for hiking in Germany, http://www.wanderbares-deutschland.de, provides a good starting point, but the long-established German Alpine Association (Deutscher Alpenverein, http://www.alpenverein.de) is the true representative of mountaineering in the country with current reports on weather, hut closures, as well as tour descriptions (both in German).
by J. Deal