It doesn't take long to realize Germans are crazy about hiking. No matter that most live in apartment buildings in sprawling cities, they are forest people, just waiting for their chance to escape back into the woods.
The country is covered in over 200,000 kilometers of accessible, well-maintained trails. Up in the Alps, many of these paths were originally used for seasonal cattle drives or by the military. But today's visitors, led by the Deutscher Alpenverein (German hiking association), range in ages, skill levels and nationalities. Whether they lead up to the highest peaks or through the scenic valleys, here are the 9 Best hikes in Germany.
Herzogstand to Heimgarten
This ridge walk will make you feel on top of the world, with views to prove it. Although you won't be alone. It is one of the most popular hikes, not just in the area but for all of Germany.
Leaving the parking lot, you slowly ascend through thick forest. Trees drop away and eventually, you emerge on top of the ridge at Herzogstand with panoramas of interlocking lakes from Walchensee to Staffelsee to Starnbergersee to Kochelsee to Ammersee on your way to Heimgarten, the highest point in this direction. A cross marks the summit.
This hike is not recommended for acrophobics (people afraid of heights) as hikers watch the path drop away on either side of the trail. But on clear days, Munich - 70 km away!- can be seen.
Too tired to make it back down (or up)? The Herzogstandbahn cable car takes you right to the top. And if you want to avoid crowds, visit in winter when the cable car is closed.
Located in Saxon Switzerland south of Dresden, the Malerweg translates to the "Painter's Way"...which is really no surprise once you see it. This impressive 112 km (69.5 miles) trail within the Elbe Sandstone Mountains has inspired artists for centuries and is one of the most picturesque hiking trails in all of Germany.
The area's popularity rose in the 18th century as the abstract 1,106 free-standing sandstone peaks drew curious visitors. Romantic artists like Johann Carl August Richter, Johann Alexander Thiel, and Caspar David Friedrich have all paid a visit and help popularize the site through their work.
The hike is broken into eight one-day stages of about 17 km (10.5 miles) each. This means you can take a day hike or go on an ambitious week-long journey across table-top mountains and narrow gorges.
The most popular section is the second stage where the Bastei Bridge majestically crosses the rock. Built in 1824, the scenic bridge overlooks the Elbe River and leads to the fortress town of Hohnstein. This section is only 13 km (8.1 miles) but rises steadily. Also, note that you must travel through narrow cave tunnels to reach Polenztal Valley.
For those that are not satisfied by simply walking among the rocks and need to conquer them, there are 21,000 different climbing routes.
Beneath Germany's tallest mountains, one of the best hikes takes you down low. The Partnachklamm gorge divides Garmisch from Partenkirchen and the trail runs 700 meters (2,305 feet) between 80 meters (262 feet) high limestone walls. Here, visitors can walk among the waterfalls - until the winter when these flowing waters freeze into impressive stalactites fitting of a frozen castle.
This is an extremely popular walk so expect crowds coursing through narrow passageways. You can even arrange guided hikes like romantic torchlight walks, or continue to the next location...
King's House Hike
The only way to reach the Königshaus am Schachen (King's House in Schachen) is by completing a hearty 10km, 3-4 hour hike, 1,800 meters above sea level.
Those up to the challenge are rewarded with the lodge of a king - King Ludwig II of Neuschwanstein fame to be exact. Built between 1869-72, this cozy palace is rustic, resembling a Swiss chalet rather than a fairytale kingdom. But visitors need only look upon the Zugspitze to find themselves in a realm of otherworldly beauty. Just below, the Alpengarten auf dem Schachen is an alpine botanical garden with over 1,000 plant species from the Alps to the Himalayas.
Inside, Königshaus's lower half is all intricate wood paneling, but upstairs the unbelievable Türkische Saal (Turkish Hall) transports you to a place and time much more exotic. Gilded everything, stained glass, peacock feathers, and rich embroidery are a cacophony of riches. Ludwig II celebrated his birthday here every August 25th, complete with servants positioned around the hall in Oriental costume as a tableaux vivants (‘living picture’).
Naturpark Lüneburger Heide is the oldest nature park in Germany with hiking paths crisscrossing its 1,130 square kilometers (440 sq miles). Located between Hamburg, Bremen and Hannover, quaint villages with thatched roofs dot the landscape of dense pine forests, green meadows and colorful heath.
Visit in late summer to be enveloped in purple as the lilacs take over the park. Heidschnucken, a local moorland sheep, naturally maintain the landscape and are the namesake of the 223-kilometer (138 miles) route connecting north and south heathlands, Heidschnuckenweg.
When walking through Lüneburger Heide, stop at modest Wilsede Hill. Just 169 meters high, it offers panoramic views of the area.
The Rheinsteig tracks Germany's longest river from Bonn, the former West German capital, to Wiesbaden. Past castles, forests, and vineyards, this route is split into 21 stages for a total distance of 320-kilometer (198 miles).
Hut Hiking in Germany
A truly German experience is ending a day of hiking with a stay at an Alpine hut. These rustic accommodations are a communal place to recharge and share experiences over hearty German meals (look for bewirtschaftet), a beer, and a game of cards.
These humble mountain abodes mean you don't need to carry your house on your back and introduce you to the local hiking community. They are also quite cheap, usually running €18 for a dorm bed (DAV membership offers deep discounts). Some offer small private rooms.
In particular, look out for Sennalpen (Alpine dairy farms) and indulge in fresh dairy products straight from the mountains.
Berchtesgaden is often synonymous with its most famous sight, Hitler's Eagle’s Nest. But the town itself is worth a visit, and Berchtesgaden National Park offers miles of trails centering on Watzmann Mountain.
Among the many hikes you can take:
- Mount Watzmann - Germany's third highest mountain offers serious rock climbing. Watzmann Haus at 6,332 feet above sea level is a great destination or refueling point. Built in 1888, this hostel is one of the highest hotels in Europe.
- Königssee - At the base of Watzmann, you are dependent on a ferry to traverse the lake but once you cross the waters, you can take a 30-minute trek to beautiful Obersee (with a stop at the ice cave), then continue on to Röthbach waterfall - the highest in Germany. Or you could take Königsseer Fußweg from behind the Berchtesgaden train station along Königgsseer Ache to the lake.
- Almbachklamm (Almbach Gorge) - Accessible only in summer, start at Kugelmühle and take the path through the gorge past rushing waterfalls. There are options to make this climb shorter (about 1.5 hours) or longer (3 hours up to the pilgrimage church of Ettenberg).
German Border Trail
For almost 40 years, Germany was divided, split by a mighty wall and an even stronger government regime. Today, the Wall has fallen and those nostalgic (or just curious) about the border can walk where it once ran.
Called innerdeutsche Grenz, Zonengrenze or das grüne Band (green belt), it is the longest nature sanctuary of Germany. Composed of 1,393-kilometer (865 miles), the route is marked with reminders of what once stood, from memorials to remnant of fortifications. It starts along the Baltic coast in Usedom Nature Park to Lübeck, continuing along the Elbe, then east to Wolfsburg, through Harz nature park, Rhön Biosphere Reserve, by the cross of peace on the Dachsberg hill, on the former border strip between Bavaria and Thuringia, past the Thuringian-Frankish mountains, by the divided village of Mödlareuth, and then crossing into Czech Republic.