In July, 2015, my son Daniel and I set out to Austria to hike the Zillertaler Runde. The 50 mile (80 km) trek is known to Germans as the Berliner Höhenweg and to Brits as the Zillertal Rucksack Route.
The entire tour takes eight days to complete and affords the opportunity to overnight in seven different huts.
After the hut to hut hiking, we toured Austria and Bavaria for several days to visit various essential tourist destinations.
So, what the heck is hut to hut hiking? I walked the uninitiated through this in my prior blog post documenting my 2013 hut to hut tour in Pitztal, Austria. Here, I’ll just assume my loyal readership is fully informed. But feel free to click that link if you need a refresher or want to read about hiking in Pitztal.
And where, exactly, is Zillertal?
Zillertal, (the “Ziller Valley”) lies in the Federal State of Tirol, in western Austria, southeast of Innsbruck.
The Zillertal Alps form the border with Italy. Although the province containing the border is called Südtirol by the locals and those that live in that part of Italy.
On July 10, 2015, we flew out of Atlanta direct to Munich, Germany. The next morning, we arrived and drove from Munich to Mayrhofen, Austria to meet Gerd and Martina who would be joining us for the first couple of days of our hike. We spent the night at Gasthof Stoanerhof, which has the benefit of being right at the base of the Ahornbahn, the cable car that would lift us up the next morning to begin our tour. The proprietors there treated us well with a very nice breakfast buffet, a room with a balcony and great views. They also allowed us to keep our car and extra luggage on their property while we were off hiking in the mountains.
Our overall itinerary was as follows:
|Day 1:||Fly Atlanta to Munich, arrive morning of Day 2|
|Day 2:||Drive from Munich to Mayrhofen, Austria|
|Days 3-9:||Hike the Zillertaler Runde (cut 1 day short due to weather threats)|
|Day 10:||“Bonus” day touring Zillertal valleys|
|Day 11:||Zugspitze and Tiroler Abend Folk Dancing in Innsbruck, Austria|
|Day 12:||Visit castles: Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau, drive to Ruhpolding|
|Day 13:||Tour Salzburg and St. Gilgen, Austria, overnight in Ruhpolding|
|Day 14:||Drive to Munich, tour Altstadt, overnight in Munich.|
|Day 15:||Fly back to Atlanta|
The entire trip is documented in a video you can find at the bottom of this post. The video is 1 hour, 20 minutes long, which admittedly makes it difficult to digest for the casual viewer. For convenience, each section header of this post takes you directly to the appropriate part of the video.
The Zillertaler Runde / Berliner Höhenweg Tour
The Zillertaler Runde is a high alpine hut to hut hiking tour that, over the course of eight days and seven nights, traverses some of the most beautiful mountain landscapes in Austria. Each evening offers the comfort and refuge of overnighting in a hut, which means a warm bed, dinner, beer, schnaps, breakfast and good company. The benefit of these accommodations cannot be overstated as you awake each morning, revitalized and eager to pursue your itinerary.
We were very fortunate to experience dry, sunny weather throughout most of our vacation. Our Zillertal trek only required modifications for Stage 2 and the final stage to the Gamshütte, where rain and the threat of thunderstorms forced us back down to the valley.
The Zillertaler Runde is challenging alpine hiking. The entire eight day tour covers 50 miles (80 km) and consists of gains of nearly 22,000 feet (6,700 m). Each day consists of 5 – 10 hours of hiking through various alpine environments including: high meadows, cliffs, boulder fields, snow, passes and summits. Where appropriate, ladders and cables are provided for safety. Because no glacier crossings are involved, crampons and ice axes are not needed for this tour. However, walking sticks are a must. And we opted to bring harnesses and via ferrata gear (Black Diamond Easy Rider, Petzl Aspir and gloves) for negotiating some of the cable sections.
But for me, the biggest challenge of this tour was what was most unexpected: the heat. Throughout our round, it was sunny and very hot. While this is no doubt better than cold and rainy, it did present some issues. The primary issue was foot care. While hiking up, in the heat, it was impossible to keep our socks and feet dry. So we periodically had to stop and air out our boots, socks and wrinkly feet. And in those wet circumstances, with softened skin, we were prone to and did get blisters. Moleskin offered only temporary relief as it would soon detach and start shifting around in our socks. Later in the tour, we learned of a British product called Compeed. A friendly group offered us some to try and these did prove more resilient than the moleskin under those hot conditions.
All this heat was highly unusual and much of the clothing in our packs was therefore un-needed, but still required because conditions can change rapidly in the mountains.
Stage 1. July 12, 2015:
Mayrhofen (via Ahornbahn) – Edelhütte (1 hour, 45 minutes)
The next morning began with a leisurely breakfast at Gasthof Stoanerhof. Afterwards, we all met at the Ahornbahn, the cable car that would lift us effortlessly and facilitate an easy, first day, 1 hour and 45 minute hike to our first hut: the Edelhütte. Upon arriving at the hut, we checked in to our 4 person Zimmerlager, ate lunch and discussed our ascent of the Ahornspitze (2,973 m / 9,754′).
After lunch, Gerd, Daniel and I set off to climb up the Ahornspitze (~3 hours, 15 minutes Round Trip).
Stage 2. July 13, 2015:
Edelhütte – Kasseler Hütte (2 hours, 22 minutes)
The previous night and next morning brought steady rain. And with the rain, came a necessary modification to our planned route to the Kasseler Hütte. The original itinerary was a long, exposed, 8 to 10 hour high alpine tour over Der Aschaffenburger Höhenweg (aka the Siebenschneidensteig, or Seven Cuts Path, so named because of the seven ridges crossed). Because of the extensive boulder fields and cliff exposures this is not a route to be taken when wet or when bad weather threatens as there are no emergency routes down to the valley.
The proprietor, Martin Gamper, maintains a well-run hut. It’s clean and the food is great. The check-in process was personally managed and very friendly.
Stage 3. July 14, 2015:
Kasseler Hütte – Greizer Hütte (7 hours, 45 minutes)
The next morning we awoke to clearing skies as we began our exploits. This also brought an end to our time together with Gerd and Martina. We bade fond farewells and they headed back down to the valley as Daniel and I headed off to the Greizer Hütte.
The photo above reveals a recurring theme of our experience hiking the Zillertaler Runde. As a general rule, the time estimates provided by the trail signage proved unobtainable for us. I consider us to be reasonably fit and experienced hikers. And in the United States, Daniel and I routinely beat any time estimates for trails we hike. But here, in the Alps, we were merely adequate with respect to pace. And while we can give ourselves some slack because it was hot as hell hiking that week, we were often bested by fellow hikers of the German persuasion. We accomplished this “5 hour” hike in 7 hours, 45 minutes.
A half hour into our hike, we arrived at a door in the middle of nowhere. Immediately after the door, we crossed a suspension bridge.
Next came the boulder fields and slopes of the Eiskar. Then the steep slopes of the Loefflerkar.
Fixed cables provide security on the way around the near vertical buttress and difficult sections that form the Elsenklamm gorge.
We continued through the Lapenkar boulder field and then climbed steeply up switchbacks to the Lapenscharte saddle (8,861 ft / 2,701 m). We paused to enjoy the views and take pictures. From the saddle, we descended steeply into the Griessfeld, and on down to the Greizer Hütte.
Stage 4. July 15, 2015:
Greizer Hütte – Berliner Hütte (8 hours, 5 minutes)
This marked another long day and the one I found most difficult, with substantial uphill and very hot weather. The rewards for all the effort were the tremendous views from the saddle and enjoying our stay at the majestic Berliner Hütte.
Upon reaching the saddle of the Mörchenscharte, we acquired commanding views of new mountains.
Since the end of the Little Ice Age, many glaciers around the world have been in retreat. The Hornkees and Waxeggkees glaciers once joined below where the Berliner Hütte now stands.
We had a private, 2 person Zimmerlager at the Berliner Hütte. It’s an imposing, 5 story structure and the oldest hut in the Zillertal. It reminded me of some of the grand National Park Lodges in the United States. Definitely worth a visit, although I prefer the Gemütlichkeit found in the smaller, more intimate huts.
Stage 5. July 16, 2015:
Berliner Hütte – Furtschaglhaus (7 hours, 45 minutes)
Today’s route included another 1,000 m ascent, navigating the highest pass along the Zillertaler Runde: the Schönbichler Horn (10,279 feet / 3,133 m). As you approach the summit, fixed cables are available for safety. This stage is partially exposed and demanding. Once thing is certain. I would not enjoy climbing down from the Horn in the opposite direction from which we ascended. Our route made negotiating the cable section much easier.
Stage 6. July 17, 2015:
Furtschaglhaus – Olpererhütte – Friesenberghaus (7 hours, 45 minutes)
From Furtschaglhaus, we descended to the Schlegeis reservoir and walked alongside it before ascending to the Olpererhütte for lunch. The Olpererhütte is entirely new, having just been rebuilt in 2007. The hut has the advantage of possessing a commanding view of the Schlegeisspeicher below and offers a very scenic setting for a relaxing meal before continuing on to Friesenberghaus.
Friesenberghaus, which turned out to be our final overnight along the Zillertaler Runde, is and excellent hut. It’s also the highest hut in Zillertal.
Stage 7. July 18, 2015:
Friesenberghaus – Ginzling (8 hours)
We got an early start out of Friesenberghaus because the hike to Gamshütte is a long 9.5-12 hours, with extensive boulder fields and steep, slippery, grassy trails. Additionally, there was a threat of afternoon thunderstorms.
Despite the very slow going on the boulder fields, we were making very good time. But as we arrived at Graue Platte, still up high, exposed and 2 hours away from the Gamshütte, were were suddenly beneath dark, threatening clouds. The high exposure and remaining distance to Gamshütte led us to quickly conclude it was too risky to proceed. So we took a long steep route down to Ginzling in the valley. We were exhausted by the time we arrived in Ginzling. We enjoyed a beer as we waited for the bus to quickly shuttle us back to Mayrhofen and the very accommodating folks at Gasthof Stoanerhof, who offered us the flexibility of not committing to a specific return date (as it was all weather dependent). So, even though we arrived a day earlier than planned, they had a room for us. We stayed there two nights. And both nights, we enjoyed excellent meals with authentic Tirolean food at Hotel Ländenhof.
Stage 8. July 19, 2015:
Gamshütte to Finkenberg
As noted above, the threat of a thunderstorm forced us down to the valley the day before. So what would have been the final stage of our tour from Gamshütte to Finkenberg, became instead:
Tourism, Day 1. July 19, 2015:
Schlegeisspeicher & Hintertux
Beginning today, we donned fresh clothes and became tourists. Our abridged tour gave us an extra day to explore the valleys of the Zillertal. So we drove back up to Schlegeisspeicher, enjoyed lunch at Dominikushütte and then walked along the impressive dam that forms the Schlegeis reservoir. Afterwards, we drove up a side valley up to Hintertux.
Tourism, Day 2. July 20, 2015:
Zugspitze, Innsbruck & Tiroler Heimatabend
We left Zillertal and headed northwest to visit the Zugspitze (9,717 feet / 2,962 m). The Zugspitze is the highest mountain in Germany. At the top, you cross the border from Austria (Tirol) to Germany (Bavaria). It was somewhat cloudy, but still a rewarding experience. We ate lunch up there, at Münchner Haus, the highest hut in Germany.
After lunch, we cabled down off the Zugspitze and drove to Innsbruck, where we would spend the night in the Altstadt at the excellent Goldener Adler Hotel.
That evening, we enjoyed a lively and entertaining evening of Tirolean folk music with the Gundolf family. If you enjoy life and having fun, I recommend it.
Here is the Schuhplattler–Reith im Winkel dance:
Tourism, Day 3. July 21, 2015:
The castles: Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau then on to Ruhpolding
We drove from Innsbruck up to Schwangau, Germany to visit two of King Ludwig’s famous castles: Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau. We purchased tickets in advance, greatly reducing our wait times.
After touring the castles, we drove to Ruhpolding to meet with Daniel’s second cousin, Hannah.
Tourism, Day 4. July 22, 2015:
Salzburg and St. Gilgen
Now three, we drove to Salzburg and toured the old city and the fortress. It was another hot day. So in the afternoon, we sought refuge in the Lake District by visiting St. Gilgen and taking the cable car up Zwölferhorn.
Tourism, Day 5. July 23, 2015:
For our final day, we drove to Munich. There, we parted with Hannah at the train station and Daniel and I went on to tour the old city. We stayed at the outstanding Platzl Hotel, located in the old city adjacent to the world-famous Hofbrauhaus. The next morning, we got up early and drove back to the Munich airport for our return flight to Atlanta.
I thoroughly enjoyed the high alpine hiking and tourism with Daniel. He’ll be graduating from Georgia Tech this winter, so I cherish our time together.
Zillertaler Runde / Berliner Höhenweg Resources:
Here is a map showing the location of the huts we visited on our trip.
Maps: Alpenvereinskarte 35/1 and 35/2, available for purchase from the Austrian Alpine Club (UK). As an Alpenverein member, you get insurance and discounts at the huts. U.S. residents should join the UK section of the Austrian Alpenverein.
Huts: I booked all the huts in advance via the Zillertal National Park website. Payment needs to be sent via a bank to bank transfer, which was expensive and cumbersome. From my initial booking request, to receiving the packet in the mail, took just over a month to complete. It’s rumored that this will evolve into 20th century credit card technology in the next year or so.
Money: Just a note about money. In the remote villages and huts of Austria, cash is not only king, but is often the only form of payment accepted.
Weather: Late July through early September is the best opportunity for non-technical hiking in the Austrian Alps. Everything is weather dependent. Having a detailed itinerary affords you the opportunity to modify the plans based on weather conditions. We made changes to our original itinerary based on the weather. Beautiful, scenic hikes on warm, sunny days, can quickly turn into dangerous, life-threatening excursions in rain and snow. The Hohenwegs should only be attempted in ideal weather conditions.
If this post wasn’t long enough for you and you somehow feel cheated not having had the opportunity to see all the pictures to get the fullest sense of the fun we had, then I invite you to spend the next hour and twenty minutes of your life watching this movie. I recommend full screen and High Definition.
Zillertaler Runde 2015: The Movie (1 hour, 20 minutes):