Towering. Awesome. Mind-blowing. These are the words which buzz through my brain during my first few hours on Grossarltal’s trails. It’s a properly dramatic destination, with roughly hewn mountain scenery stretching for miles in all directions. Some portions have steep, shaky silhouettes, like the judder of an irregular heartbeat on a cardiogram, others are undulating yet gentle and resemble the backs of dozy dinosaurs.
The colours are so vivid it’s overwhelming; along one path my guide, Marlene, and I are flanked by rows of pine trees, which look like lines of feathers, plucked from a giant olive-green parakeet, stuck upright into the earth. As we scramble across steep grassy hillocks, and through meadows sprinkled with buttercups, we pass wooden, slatted huts, each with its own herd of long-lashed cows. It’s like something straight out of the pages of a children’s storybook. Anywhere else, the mountain huts’ combination of potted plants, kitsch ceramics, red-and-white chequered tablecloths and wall-mounted, traditional cross-stitch tapestries might feel twee, but here it feels charming.
Turns out, just as the Scandinavians have hygge, there’s a German word, gemütlich, to nicely sum up the vibe here. “It’s sort of a cross between cheery and cosy,” Marlene tells me. “Just really welcoming — a place you can relax in easily.” And relax I do. A few hours in, having adjusted to the rhythm of hut-hopping, I realise it’s not just the epic Alpine vistas I’m entranced by as we hike between cheese-platters; the blueberries that carpet the fields are equally appealing. Utterly delicious, I stain my fingers a shade reminiscent of Violet Beauregarde as I pluck them every few paces. The locals call them schwarzbeeren (‘blackberries’) and make psychedelic, mauve-flecked pancakes with them.
At my feet there’s a hint of a rustle in the grass. I pause, and see nothing. Again, rustle, rustle. Moments later, out pops a googly-eyed frog who eyes me before hopping along the path ahead. I clasp wildflowers between my fingers, golden buttercups, pink-tinged clover, heather and orchids. Each is an artwork in miniature, some as small as a fingernail. On a white, star-like bloom, a closer look reveals intricate patterns, as if a tiny pointillist artist has gone to town on each petal.
Paths here are well worn, the route signalled by red and white markers daubed on tree trunks or tied onto wooden A-frame gates. As we take on sharper inclines and navigate rocky downward paths, I know that my muscles are starting to get tired, but I never feel an ache while on the move as there’s too much to take in.
The regular rhythm of our footsteps is the only consistent sound, bar the occasional loud clanking of a cowbell, or the skitter and bleat of knock-kneed mountain goat — surprisingly balletic, they practically pirouette along the most precarious paths. It’s so quiet and our senses are so heightened, we can even hear a curious ssh-ing sound coming from the trees. More than once it makes me stop in my tracks, no clue what I’m hearing. Turns out it’s the whisper of snow falling from branches — the remnants of an unexpected summer flurry the previous weekend. Many tree limbs are draped with tendrils of moss too, an indication of how clean the air is here.
After heading uphill for about an hour along paths snaking through rivers of grass, we pass over a ridge and descend onto a plateau. In the distance is a trio of mountain-top lakes, and not a soul in sight. A wild swimmer’s dream, they look like glistening mirages. It’s a real Lord of the Rings moment; they feel so secluded and secret that I half expect a fairy to flit through the air or an elf to scuttle past.
Here in Trögseen, there are 10 or so lakes, which appear and disappear in the grassy patches between peaks, depending on the amount of recent rainfall and snowmelt. Dipping my hands into the inky blue water gives me chills from head to toe. We sit, and watch as pond skaters skid across the water’s surface. It’s so quiet. A few minutes later, I’m startled by a deafening thrum cutting through the valley. I half expect to see an aircraft above the lake, but nothing appears. Strange.
I have to giggle when I spot the culprit, a six-inch blue-bodied dragonfly perched on a reed, its wings beating as fast as helicopter blades. Those jaw-dropping mountain vistas might be the scene-stealers that get all the attention, but what makes hiking on these uncrowded trails so special is the little things, the simple pleasures, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them details like this that’ll sometimes leave you completely lost for words.
Top trails: Choose your adventure
A good leisurely pick for families in Grossarl is from Ellmautal to Loosbühelalm. Start in Ellmautal, hike to Ellmaualm (45 minutes) for a snack break, then walk a further 45 minutes to Weissalm — one of the area’s oldest huts — before taking a half-hour stroll to Loosbühelalm, where kids can play with the cute pet goats and rabbits.
Try a two-day trek starting and finishing at Grossarl village. Hike to the area’s highest hut, Saukaralm (at 5,803ft), pass through Trögseen and its mountain lakes, then ascend the Gründegg peak before heading down to sleep in a mountain hut. The next day, hike through Filzmoossattel to Bichlalm before ambling down to Grossarl.
Advanced hikers should press on from Amoseralm across skinny tracks that cut through hillsides peppered with marmot holes to Heinreichalm and its famed cheese cellar. The next day, return to Dorfgastein via Präau Hochalm; the day starts with a 45-minute, thigh-burning ascent, then eases off onto downhill sections through forest paths.
Published in the Salzburgerland guide distributed with the December 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)