Barren rocks, wild mountain forests, and a fairy-tale castle: when crossing the Ammergauer Alpen, hikers can expect everything that defines a varied Alpine tour – without having to descend into the valley once. Set off on Friday afternoon, return on Sunday evening – the perfect tour for a lonely weekend in Munich’s landmark mountains.
It is still dark as I walk along a gravel path through the narrow valley. Hazy limestone cliffs rise into the morning sky at my side, while the pale moon shimmers between dark spruce trees. Apart from the sound of a mountain stream and the chirping of early morning birds, nothing else permeates this deserted mountain world. It is five o'clock in the morning and my companion and I are on the way to “Hochplatte”, the highest peak of my three-day crossing through the Ammergauer Alpen. Today is the longest and hardest day of the hike: A climb that will take us up to the Hochplatte 2,000 metres above sea level, before continuing to the “Gipfel der Krähe” (peak) and then descending via the Tegelberg (mountain) down towards the Alpsee (lake). Once there, I’d love to jump into the water, drink a couple pints of beer, and take the train back to Munich. Let's see if I make it that far.
My “wanderlust” or “love of hiking” is not something that singles me out from the crowd: indeed, in 2019 roughly seven million Germans said that they often go hiking in their spare time. And many want to experience more than just a day tour: a network of long-distance hiking trails stretching roughly 60,000 km now criss-crosses the European continent - from southern Italy to the North Cape, the Netherlands to Poland, and Turkey to Spain. Hikers from Munich do not have to go too far to enjoy a varied multi-day tour: the Ammergauer Alpen are just two hours away from the State Capital by train – long-distance hiking with great train connections. And alongside that particular charm associated with multi-day hikes: your arrival and departure are stretched out, meaning that you can cover longer distances and thus reach more isolated areas. Furthermore, with every day you spend in nature, the more intense the hiking experience becomes.
“The wind ensures that the landscape changes with every minute that passes: Mountain tops disappear behind the mist, while spruces and pine trees render bizarre shapes in the grey morning sky, and again and again, clouds tear open to reveal a breathtaking view to the summits of the Ammer and Wetterstein mountain ranges. Hardly anyone is on the move – except us.“
My tour started two hiking days ago, east of the Hochplatte in Schleifmühlklamm (gorge) near Unterammergau. During late afternoon, I am surrounded by an abundance of life: a stream cascades the high rocky ledges, forming deep pools under bubbling waterfalls and meandering around individual boulders. Ferns adorn the rock faces, while mossy beech and spruce claw their roots into the barren soil. And just beyond the gorge, the valley widens and the spruce forest becomes lighter; on alpine meadows colourful carpets consisting of marsh marigolds, orchids, and forget-me-nots fan out before my eyes. Between the trees, and on top of the Pürschling (mountain), my destination for the day: August-Schuster-Haus (mountain cabin).
After roughly two hours we make it: I shake off the dust from my clothes, leave my hiking boots in the hallway and enter the room. On the wall hangs a stuffed pheasant, and on the wooden tables there are doilies with embroidered floral arrangements. I drop exhausted into the long corner bench that runs along the wall. A few children run through the room, a German Shepherd dozes under a table. The panoramic window situated to the back of the hut offers a stunningly clear view of the Kreuzspitze and the Kuchelberg (mountains), which rise enigmatically into the evening sky. In the distance, the Zugspitze (mountain) flashes through the clouds, and down in the valley, the upper reaches of the Ammer (river) flow through dense forests and past Linderhof, the magnificent castle built by the Fairy-Tale King Ludwig II.
“Fancy something to eat?” A deep voice brings me back to the present. The voice belongs to Hubert Spindler, the host of August-Schuster-Haus. He has worked here since 1989, initially as a mechanic and assistant; he has run the hut belonging to the DAV (German Alpine Association) together with his wife for ten years now. It is just before half past six, and the last chance for a hot meal. Hubert rests on the counter, looking at me with a questioning stare. Sure, food is always great, Leberkäse (Bavarian meat loaf) would be nice. Spindler nods. “A great choice” he says and disappears into the kitchen. After supper, I regain my energy and walk on to the 1,758 metre-high Teufelstättkopf, a small summit and only half an hour away from the hut itself. On the way back the rain decides to put in a brief appearance; in the light of the setting sun, a rainbow spans from the Ammer and over the mountain peaks to the neighbouring valley. May the hike ahead of me be just as beautiful.
The tour across the Ammergauer Alpen leads through two of the most important tourist regions of Bavaria: The Wetterstein mountain range with Germany's highest peaks, and the Allgäu with its castles and lakes. Anyone traversing these two hugely popular regions on foot will find themselves far away from civilization: The trail is devoid of any road during my two-and-a-half-day hike – and it takes me over peaks, mountain saddles in high valleys and forest areas across near-untouched landscapes. The majority of this sparsely populated area belongs to the Ammergebirge nature reserve, which, at 288 square kilometre, is the largest conservation area in Bavaria. The region is easy to reach from Munich: From the city’s Central Station, the train takes you to Unterammergau in less than two hours; when returning from Hohenschwangau to Munich, the journey back takes just forty minutes longer.
The next morning, the path cuts a steep uphill route towards a narrow ridge. The clouds hang low between the mountains, while a light wind pushes forward the thick fog that lingers. The wind ensures that the landscape changes with every minute that passes: Mountain tops disappear behind the mist, while spruces and pine trees render bizarre shapes in the grey morning sky, and again and again, clouds tear open to reveal a breathtaking view to the summits of the Ammer and Wetterstein mountain ranges. Hardly anyone is on the move – except us. Only after nearly three hours do we meet a young couple straining under the weight of heavy backpacks. The two are covering the “E4 European long-distance trail”, which also meanders through the Ammergauer Alpen, from the Pyrenees to Neusiedler See (lake). How far is it to August-Schuster-Haus, they want to know. Three hours? Wonderful! Thank you, have a great hike! Then the two of them disappear with their enormous backpacks, and the only sound left to comfort me once again is the crunch beneath the soles of my feet on the loose rock, and the long drawn-out call of a black woodpecker in the distance.
For the rest of the day, we hike along steep paths in zigzagging fashion through the Wintertal (high valley) and over broad scree slope to reach the Klammspitze (peak). From there, we continue on a long ridge that takes us west to the Feigenkopf and the Bäckenalmsattel (cols). Again and again, I stop and take in the landscape that surrounds me: Delicate green meadows merge into rock faces that jut outwards and upwards, snowfields nestle into the valleys that sit between massive limestone mountains, while a chamois jumps up and lets out a warning sound to its group that they have visitors. Far above us, a golden eagle rides the thermals, gracefully making its way ever higher into the afternoon sky. In the plain before us lies the Forggensee (lake), while a light wind dries the sweat from my forehead. In the late afternoon, we arrive at the Kenzenhütte (cabin), enjoy a quick meal and go straight to bed. Tomorrow is the big day.
“We make our way through a small yet high-up valley on the eastern ridge of the Hochplatte and across a landscape still shrouded in darkness, accompanied by the moon and the sound of the stream. And as the rays of sunlight slowly brighten the barren limestone walls of the surrounding mountain slopes, the gentian opens its flowers and releases its peculiar sweet smell.“
My limbs are still stiff when the phone wakes us up just gone four. My body objects to being woken in the small hours, and my right calf bears the hallmarks of soreness from the previous hike. “No joy without pain” says my companion cheerfully. “Hm” I reply, trying to ignore the soreness and pungent smell that emanates from my walking shoes. On the plus side, we’re packing lightly: My backpack only contains a change of clothes, a warm sweater, a camera, snacks and bread with bacon for breakfast - that's for later on the Hochplatte. In addition, the most stunning mountain experience awaits, which can only be enjoyed up here: the first ray of sunlight to reach the summit’s rocky slops leaves the mountains looking as if they were in flames.
We make our way through a small yet high-up valley on the eastern ridge of the Hochplatte and across a landscape still shrouded in darkness, accompanied by the moon and the sound of the stream. And as the rays of sunlight slowly brighten the barren limestone walls of the surrounding mountain slopes, the gentian opens its flowers and releases its peculiar sweet smell. Two hours have now passed since sunrise, and we are standing on the summit enjoying the most beautiful view of the Ammergauer Alpen: From the Hochplatte, I look across to the Wetterstein mountain range, all staggered in a seemingly endless chain, while to my front lies the foothills of the Alps with its small, blue splashes of colour; lakes that nestle into the landscape, with golden yellow cornfields dotted in between. From the valley, the dull ringing of several cowbells cuts through the jackdaw's caw from the summit cross.
After a hearty breakfast enjoyed on the Hochplatte, the path leads us over a ridge and on to the Gipfel der Krähe (summit) before moving on to Tegelberg (mountain). From here, we descend into the land of the Fairy-Tale King; soon, Neuschwanstein (castle) shimmers through the treetops from the valley below. It is not long before the castle grows larger, and the crowds become ever bigger. We continue along the Marienbrücke (bridge) to Hohenschwangau and the actual destination of our hike: the Alpsee. It stretches out quietly in front of me, with its transparent, crystal clear blue water. I take off my hiking boots, jump into the water and dive in. Then I allow myself to drift and look back up to the mountains. Somewhere back there lies the scenic spot of the Schleifmühlklamm (col) with its mossy beeches and wild river, the bizarre mountain peaks in the fog, the rainbow, and the Hochplatte with its wonderful views. All the inspiration for some great fairy tale stories.
And what about that happy ending? The two pints. Finding those should not be too difficult before returning to reality.
Duration: 2.5 days
Arrival (by train): approx. 1:40 hours (Munich-Murnau-Unterammergau)
Departure (by train): approx. 2:20 hours (Hohenschwangau-Füssen-Munich)
Day 1: Unterammergau station to August-Schuster-Haus (2 hours)
Day 2: August-Schuster-Haus to Kenzenhütte (8 hours)
Day 3: Kenzenhütte to Hohenschwangau (via Hochplatte) (8 hours)