With routes like the Rennsteig, an ancient 105-mile trail that follows a ridgeway in the Thuringian Forest dating back nearly 700 years, hiking has been a national pursuit in Germany for a very long time. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Romantic-era artists took pen to paper and brush to canvas, capturing the country’s spellbinding landscapes and natural phenomena, and in the process, elevating outdoor recreation in the popular imagination. The sublime world beyond civilization’s limits wasn’t to be feared—on the contrary, it was an opportunity to experience awe. New hiking trails spread like a network of roots, and by the late 1800s, the country was well on its way to becoming the “land of hiking.”
In present-day Germany, hiking is the most popular outdoor activity: at some point each year, 68 percent of the population slips away from their day-to-day lives to immerse themselves in wilder surroundings. On May 14th in particular, nature-lovers observe Deutscher Wandertag, or the National Day of Hiking, where more than 30,000 participants hit the trails to enjoy and assist in the conservation of the country’s natural resources.
The best way to experience that which inspired innumerable works of art and a culture captivated by the outdoors is, of course, to follow in their footsteps. The contemporary caretakers of Germany’s natural wonders have made them more accessible than ever before—and there’s never been a better time to encounter German nature firsthand. Here’s what awaits nature-lovers now.
Black Forest National Park
Visitors can enjoy cultivating a relationship with nature on their own terms in Black Forest National Park, a sylvan escape in the mountains of southwestern Germany that became the first national park in the state of Baden-Württemberg in 2014. There’s a trek for every taste among the park’s six downloadable self-guided hikes, with routes offering adventures ranging from 90 minutes to two and a half hours (plus time to pause and appreciate the scenery). It’s worth noting that the Black Forest is the largest forested mountain range in southwest Germany, expanding well beyond the park's limits.
History buffs might favor a path that begins and ends at Allerheiligen monastery; the site, home to 12th-century ruins, also skirts the region’s largest natural waterfall. Animal lovers, in turn, can make their way through the primeval forests of Tonbach valley where it's possible to spot wild deer in their natural habitats. For easy trip planning, each route provides details on total length, difficulty level and suitability for visitors with varying levels of mobility.
The park’s three family adventure trails are among the most loved by visitors. Each one is organized by topic and designed with educational experiences in mind. The 30-minute Lothar Path reveals how the forest has recuperated since 1999’s Hurricane Lothar, while the Lynx Trail features an interactive exhibit on the region’s charismatic cats, and the Wilderness Path invites hikers into a giant seven-meter-high observation platform built to look like a cozy Adlerhorst, or eagle’s nest. When adventures on foot give way to travel by car, sightseers can motor along the Black Forest High Road, a historic 37-mile route spanning the length of the park from Baden-Baden south to Freudenstadt. Possessing breathtaking views and outlook points, it is widely considered one of the most beautiful tourist routes in the world. A key stop along that route, the National Park Center, welcomes guests with guided tours, educational films, interactive exhibitions and more.
Teutoburg Forest / Egge Hills Nature Park
At a staggering 1,042 square miles spanning the northeastern portion of North Rhine-Westphalia, Teutoberg Forest and the Egge Hills comprise one of Germany’s largest nature parks. Its caretakers pride themselves on their wide variety of thoughtful programming for visitors of all ages, and their six discovery tours transform walks (and bike rides) in the wilderness into veritable treasure hunts; visitors who complete at least four mapped journeys receive a nature park discovery game to take home as a souvenir. While discovery tours follow printed maps (downloadable as PDFs), a fully digital and interactive children’s tour introduces young guests to the park with games, riddles, videos, and audio stories that call out areas of interest and opportunities for adventure in 15 different regions.
A one-of-a-kind "audio museum" in the forest surrounding the now-deserted town of Blankenrode provides a unique trip back to the Middle Ages. The trail features twelve immersive listening stations; as hikers pass, motion detectors automatically play audio throughout the forest, recreating the sounds of the settlements that existed there in 1393. (The solar-powered stations are switched off at night, letting the woods’ non-human inhabitants rest undisturbed.)
The region’s wildlife soars into focus at Adlerwarte Berlebeck, an eagle station, bird sanctuary and rehabilitation center perched on a ridge above the city of Detmold on Teutoburg Forest’s northern slopes. As many as 230 sick or injured birds of prey are admitted to its facilities for treatment each year, and up to 75 percent of them can be released back into the wild. Daily, multiple flight demonstrations are offered at the eagle station, providing an opportunity to see these fascinating birds of prey up close; visitors can observe falcons, eagles, kites, and other birds swooping past. More than 200 members of 48 bird species now call the center home.
Eifel National Park
Since its founding in 2004, a much smaller portion of North Rhine-Westphalia—Eifel National Park, which spans 42 square miles in the southern part of the state—has been known as a “national park in development.” In other words, its specially-designated habitats are still in the decades-long process of returning to a state of wilderness; humans are supporting the region’s more than 7,100 varieties of animals and plants (1,800 of which are on the IUCN Red List of threatened species) to propagate without interference. That means that visitors to the park may be able to see what becomes of those species without civilization’s heavy influence. Another benefit of letting nature be nature? Eifel is the very first International Dark Sky Park in Germany, where strict light pollution regulations make way for uninterrupted views of the Milky Way. Visitors can ‘hike’ through the night sky via a “Stars Without Borders” workshop in German or English at the observatory in Vogelsang.
Vogelsang also plays host to the Eifel National Park Center, where an interactive exhibition explores the region’s biological diversity. Intrepid guests inspired to take a closer look at that wilderness in person can embark on a four-stage, 53-mile Wilderness Trail that guides hikers from Monschau-Höfen in the south to Hürtgenwald-Zerkall in the northernmost part of the park. (A shorter portion of that trek, known as the Creation Trail, pairs the most picturesque portions of the path with 10 stations designed to inspire the contemplation of nature.) Those in search of a more stationary encounter can visit the red deer observation gallery near Dreiborn, where the largest free-living wild animals in Europe (mature stags can weigh up to 300 pounds!) can be seen throughout the year. During the rutting season of September and October, the sounds of males “belling” to attract mates can be heard from miles away.
Saxon Switzerland National Park
In the centuries since those ancient formations awed Zingg and Graff, generation after generation of artists have flocked to Saxon Switzerland to capture its picturesque landscapes; its inspirational vistas have been well known for so long that the 70-mile Malerweg, or Painter’s Trail, now guides contemporary hikers along the most historic paths. The most well-known rock formations of all rise beneath and around Bastei Bridge, a spectacular, 250-foot construction that now offers access to the ruins of Felsenburg Neuraten, the largest medieval rock castle in the region. Accessible year-round, the trail and bridge are widely considered to be some of the most beautiful passages on earth.
Cyclists who hope to retrace some of those painterly perambulations can follow the Elbe Cycle Path, a long-distance biking route that follows the Elbe River from the Czech Giant Mountains to Cuxhaven. Thirty-five kilometers of the gentle path wind along the river through the Elbe Sandstone Mountains and offer waterfront views of the magnificent rock formations. Those who prefer to be carried through the region while photographing (or painting) it can book passage on the historic Kirnitzschtalbahn, a tramway that has transported sightseers from Bad Schandau to the Lichtenhainer waterfall since 1898.
Mecklenburg Lake District
An array of 1,117 lakes forms Europe’s largest networked water sports area in the Mecklenburg Lake District. An interactive exhibition at the Muritzeum, a multimedia nature experience that introduces the region, features a massive, two-story aquarium landscape teeming with native freshwater fish and offers a window into the kaleidoscopic biodiversity beneath the lakes’ surfaces.
Mecklenburg lures gourmets to its forests between July and October, when hungry visitors arrive to hunt for chanterelles and pick berries. Humans aren’t the region’s only consumers: in the eastern portion of the district, Müritz National Park has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its old beech forests and the diverse array of plants, animals and fungi they nourish. Beginning in the eastern village of Serrahn, an “in the realm of the beeches” exhibition initiates a winding, 4-mile path that snakes through the exceptionally old trees. Guests who are inspired to join in on the conservation of Mecklenburg’s wonders can join a Voluntourism for Biological Diversity program that pairs holidaymakers with naturalists in the shared goal of protecting biodiversity for generations to come.
Lower Oder Valley National Park
Germany’s only wetlands national park, Lower Oder Valley National Park, is also the first cross-border protected area developed in partnership with Poland. In the northeastern portion of the German state of Brandenburg, the Oder Valley lowlands welcome 200,000 migratory water birds (and attract countless nature lovers hoping for a glimpse of them) each autumn and spring. Beside the Oder dyke, Stützkow Observation Tower offers a 36-foot-high platform, inspired by the wings of a crane, to ponder panoramic views of the landscape on the Polish side of the river. (Countless anglers have been inspired to take after the aquatic birds, and fishing in the valley for some of its 49 piscine species is a popular way to enjoy the scenery as well.)
At the National Park House in Creiwen, 13 exhibition areas—including a Bluebox system that recreates the feeling of gliding over the wetlands on the back of a wild goose—immerse visitors in the valley’s life. Model landscapes, in turn, recreate the ancient days when mammoths plodded across the Ice Age landscape. The center’s presentations are apt reminders that Germany’s astonishing landscape nourished life long before us and is well worth savoring while we’re here.
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