When most people think of Salzburgerland’s famous Alpine scenery, they think of ski slopes and powder-white snow. A skier’s dream in winter, this landscape transforms into a hiker’s paradise come spring, when just a meringue-crumble of snow remains on the highest peaks. Emerald slopes carpeted with bluebells and edelweiss appear, crisscrossed with walking trails that can be visited right through to autumn.
Despite being phenomenally pretty, and under a 30-minute-drive south of Salzburg Airport, Salzburgerland’s hiking trails remain under the radar. On a four-day visit, I decide to dip my boot-clad toes into two of its highlights, local guides in tow.
I first take in a portion of the picturesque 217-mile Salzburger Almenweg in Grossarltal, hiking hut to hut (there are 40 here), then two days trail-wandering in the nearby Gastein Valley. In Grossarltal we pass ruddy-cheeked locals, and hyperactive mountain goats butting heads, and alternate brisk, up-and-down walks through valleys with stops at family-run mountain huts, where, generations of weary-limbed hikers have fuelled up on homemade speck and cheese plates.
Before bedding down for the night at a rustic dorm room in a hut at the chalet-style Ellmau Alm, we watch the sun slipping down behind fog-swathed peaks.
The hospitality of the hosts — some sporting traditional lederhosen and dirndls — is as fulsome as the crystal-clear streams that rush down the mountainsides.
Here there are folk who’ve lived off the land for generations, making top-notch produce long before ‘artisan’ became a buzzword. For me, the spirit of the mountains is summed up best in Gastein Valley. After an afternoon spent strolling through fairytale pine forest, we arrive at a hut in Heinreichalm: it’s decorated with deer antlers; its cellar is packed with cheese wheels; and it’s all run like clockwork by husband-and-wife duo Siglinde and Franz Fritzenwanker. Despite being in their 80s, they welcome us with vim and vigour, proffering steaming cups of tea and dinky shots of schnapps.
How do they manage it? “The mountain air,” beams Franz. “And we love what we do. There’s nothing better than making this place a home-away-from-home for others.”
Take a hike
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.
Yoga in the mountains
It’s not all about hiking, there are plenty of ways to make the most of the great outdoors here. Mountain views are renowned for being calming, but for an extra hit of zen in Grossarltal, book a guided yoga walk and perfect your mountain pose on an actual mountain.
E-biking on the trail
E-bikes are big news in Salzburgerland and Grossarltal has about 87 miles of signposted tracks, split into 16 trails of varying difficulty to whizz along. While you do need to pedal, e-bikes boost speed with battery power by as much as 100% making those steep ascents a little easier.
Get high on the via ferrata
Thrillseekers will love Salzburgerland’s vertigo-inducing via ferrata — where you make steep ascents clipped onto iron walkways that cling to the mountainsides, and some of the best are found in Gastein. Schlossalm has six via ferrata climbs, ranging from family-friendly and beginner to expert.
Climb, climb, climb
Hone your rock-climbing skills at the climbing-practice area in Bad Gastein, or the wall in Dorfgastein, with lessons from Angerer Alpine & Ski School, which can also arrange guided via ferrata trips. Your heart will be racing as you scale higher and higher, but it’s worth it for the views.
Each hut’s bergkäse (‘mountain cheese’) is different. A speciality in Grossarltal is sauerkas (‘sour cheese’) — grey, feta-like and made in a copper pan over an open fire. Heinreichalm in Gastein is where you’ll find the richest cheese — it’s said the intense flavour is due to the herb-filled cud the cows graze on.
Fruity skiwasser (raspberry squash) or holundersaft (elderflower water) are the most refreshing drinks to wash it all down with. Or, for something stronger, try a shot of schnapps; vogelbeerschnaps is considered the superior variety. The punchy rowanberry spirit requires the berries from several trees to make even a small batch.
Published in the Salzburgerland guide distributed with the December 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)