Jhe morning sun glistens through the forest as my wife, Melanie, and I soar along the extremely rewarding road. Himmelsleiter (sky scale) hiking route near Heidelberg Castle. Green hills frame the restored brownstone ruins of the palace grounds. Our increasingly labored breathing is the rhythmic bass drum of our walk, with our well-packed backpacks winning each step. Moses, our pint-sized rescue pup, climbs up and down the mossy rocks with enviable ease.
Most are content to visit the castle and return to the comfort of downtown Heidelberg’s Old Town for a beer. Not us. There is a cursive blue ‘N’ that we need to follow over the next few days along the Neckar river in western Germany. This is the Neckarsteig – one of the most impressive in Germany Fernwanderwege, or long-distance hiking trails.
The Neckarsteig is a nine-stage trail that stretches 127 km (79 miles) from Heidelberg to the spa town of Bad Wimpfen. Mark Twain himself roamed this area, exploring on foot and by raft when he wasn’t busy complaining about the “terrible” German language. Legend has it that the Neckar helped the author overcome his writer’s block and inspired one of the rafting scenes in Huckleberry Finn. I can’t say I came away with the same literary epiphany that changed my career, but I came home with an appreciation for Germany’s love of the track.
As wonderful as the Neckarsteig is, it is far from an anomaly in hiking-obsessed Germany. No matter where you are in the Bundesrepublik, there’s a good chance you’ll be within a few hours’ drive of a Fernwanderweg. River trails are often laid out by Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s main train operator, making planning simple for hikers who want to cover a few stages over the course of a weekend before getting back on the train. Even Berlin’s creperie has the 217km Märkischer Landweg in its backyard, with detailed signage highlighting nearby sights and distances to surrounding towns.
A look at Wanderbares Deutschland’s digital hiking map shows 156 Fernwanderwege across the country. Not only are these trails impressive, but they are easily accessible by public transport. It’s a dream come true for an American who grew up surrounded by more cars than people, where nature is surrounded by comically wide freeways and parking lots twice the size of a football field. Turns out the grass really is greener when you can see it.
The Neckarsteig was not my first adventure on German trails. I met them by chance during a weekend in Königswinter, an hour south of Düsseldorf, where I lived for three years during my first move to Germany. While hiking aimlessly, I noticed a white streak on a blue background with the word “Rheinsteig” underneath, painted on trees and much like the famous white “blazes” of the Appalachian Trail. I learned later that the Rheinsteig is a 320 km trail that winds around the Rhine. Before long we had many trips planned to cover portions of the surrounding Fernwanderweg..
Germany spoils its hikers. It wasn’t until I started traveling more regularly across Europe – from Portugal to Romania – that I fully realized that all this hiking activity isn’t a shared passion across the continent. Only its Germanic neighbors seem to offer similar hiking amenities, such as travel discounts and easy-to-spot signage.
Planning a hiking holiday in Germany is a breeze, with a number of Fernwanderwege offering GPX apps and downloads for easy planning. It’s a wonderful digital aberration in a country known for its love of fax machines.
So find a Steig Where Weg who speaks to you, grab your boots and pack a backpack for a carefree ride around vineyards, castles, mountains and lakes before relaxing in the village Tube with a glass of local wine or pint and tavern fare. After a day on the trails, you’ve earned it.
Find your Fernwanderweg
Wanderbares Deutschland offers the most comprehensive overview of Germany’s long-distance hiking portfolio.
A quick look at the digital map shows that while you can find something in every corner of the country, the western and southwestern corners of the country offer the most options. You’ll find hilly, forested trails in western and central Germany, with the Black Forest, Allgäu and Bavaria hosting the most mountainous routes.
Once you have an idea of where you want to head, check the websites of regional tourist offices. They are also happy to answer questions. Not only do states and cities have their own tourist offices, but many long-distance hiking trails do as well, often with English websites. For example, if images of stone castles and vineyards along the Moselsteig catch your eye, Google “Moselsteig” and you’ll find the official page in English, with more information on the stages and, in many cases, download GPX files.
Getting to your starting point
There is no hard and fast rule, but some accommodations in villages along a long-distance hiking trail often charge a tourist tax of a few euros on top of the nightly rate. This allows walkers to buy free public transport in the area, so you can keep your luggage in one place and use the train to reach the start of each day’s hike. Ask your host or hotelier if there are travel discounts where you are staying.