The small German pocket around Salzbergwerk Berchtesgaden is surrounded by the Bavarian Alps and reaches well into Austria. It is an intriguing area with both old salt mining history and historic importance related to World War II. Besides, it features the perfect setting for both hiking adventures in summer and alpine skiing during the colder winter months.
Ainnelise Niyvold Liundbye UPDATED: 20 JAN 2020
On the car radio they roll their r’s, when we drive into Bavaria or Bayern in German. After Ingolstadt we pass the weirdest bare fields with rows of thousands of poles connected with suspended wires. The quaint fields seem to continue for miles, and then it dawns on me that it is HOPS cultivation! As it appears the crop has just been harvested. It is among other things for the massive beer production for the long-established Bavarian ‘Oktoberfest’ in Munich just north of the Bavarian Alps.
The old village Aschheim north of Munich is a convenient stop on the way to get a touch of local atmosphere. Original farms dot the main street, some still functioning and others turned into different businesses and purposes like hotels, shops and even a distillery or Brennerei. Just as we pass one of the farms, the farmer returns from the field work on a seemingly outdated tractor, dressed in Lederhosen which is the traditional, knee-long leather garment.
The Bavarian Alps
A few hours further south, we eventually arrive at the Bavarian Alps. More precisely, our destination is the small picture-postcard alpine village Berchtesgaden in the German pocket reaching into Austria. Here, we check into one of the picturesque alpine hotels with red geraniums on the balconies. Our accommodating German landlady, Birgit, sincerely welcomes us and takes her time to show us around. All rooms are traditionally decorated with lampshades sewn by hand and an embroidery of the snow-capped peaks and cascading meltwater streams on the wall. Neat lace curtains match the knitted tablecloth on the bedside table. A more traditional Tyrolean idyll inside a hotel room does probably not exist!
In the morning we get ready for a hike above the enchanting lake Königssee. Setting out from the village Schönau am Königssee at the side of the lake nearest the alpine ski resort, we are again reminded of the Tyrolean culture. We pass a street of stands and shops abounding with Bavarian costumes or Tracht: Lederhosen and Dirndl (the women’s colourful Tyrolean dresses with a close-fitting bodice, worn in Austria and Bavaria), beer mugs as well as bath salts and salt crystals from the salt mine Salzbergwerk Berchtesgaden.
The history of Salzbergwerk Berchtesgaden
The mountain village has a rich history centered around the Salzbergwerk Berchtesgaden salt mining activities throughout the years at various nearby locations. Already back in the 12th century salt mining started in Berchtesgaden. After the white gold ore was discovered, it soon became a valuable source and the economic backbone of the small community.
With time it got more industrialised, and in 1817 a handy brine pipeline was built. It was such an ingenious construction that it uninterruptedly continued to function until 1927. Since then it has been exchanged with considerable bronze pumps that successfully draw out the brine. Still today it is a perfectly active salt mine!
In 2017 the 500-year anniversary of the current salt mine was celebrated. 1517 was the year where the first tunnel was dug into the Salzberg at the location of today’s Salzbergwerk Berchtesgaden.
That the white gold industry absolutely still plays an important role in Berchtesgaden, do we definitely not doubt when seeing the various salt products in the village shops. The fragile, pinkish salt crystals dominate everywhere.
Hiking in the Bavarian Alps
The lake Königssee appears enticingly green due to natural minerals in the water, and the view is absolutely breathtaking in the sunshine.
Having decided to head for Grünsteinhütte (1220 m or 4003 ft), we locate the trail and begin the ascent. It is a trail described as having stretches of both easy and moderate difficulty. Anyway, we are right from the beginning somewhat surprised that the ‘easy’ first part of it is so strenuous. The course is apparently a lot tougher than we have imagined!
Soon realising that the monotonously sloping trail is just not going to flatten out, we see a need to produce some walking sticks out of available branches. They prove to be useful to stand firm and avoid sliding down with rolling gravel as we work our way upwards.
Our ascent is soon challenged by steeper rocks, and we all the time need to pay attention to where to place our feet. Nevertheless, we seem to have opted for the less demanding course. We come across a couple of hikers with appropriate climbing equipment who have just tried the nearby vertical natural climbing wall … that is a totally different matter! In the distance we spot a few coloured dots on the dark cliff edge – adventurous climbers!
After a couple of hours’ ascent in the Bavarian Alps, we reach the popular Grünsteinhütte. It is magnificent. We take in the most fantastic pure mountain air and an entirely cobalt blue sky. Even if it is October, our shorts and T-shirts are now fully justified. The temperature is all summer-like – 26 degrees centigrade (79 degrees Fahrenheit), which is far beyond usual October standard. The icing on the cake is when we treat ourselves to a lightly sparkling black current drink in the café outside Grünsteinhütte. From up here we have the most amazing and picturesque view of both Königsee and the mountain peaks of the Bavarian Alps on the other side of the deep valley.
Back in Berchtesgaden our accommodation is a relaxing base and place to regain our energy. Birgit serves a solid, German breakfast of sausages and cheese. It is an appropriately substantial meal before our planned hikes! Moreover, every morning we receive the local morning paper with the weather forecast, hiking tips for the Bavarian Alps and a tiny bit of local history.
Berchtesgaden has something to offer all year round. In summer hikers arrive in droves, and in winter ski enthusiasts flock to the area since the alpine terrain is nothing but sublime. The Bavarian Alps unquestionably appeal to a whole range of outdoor activities depending on the season.
Visiting Salzbergwerk Berchtesgaden
We are tempted to take a salt mine tour in Salzbergwerk Berchtesgaden, where visitors in the available and obligatory coveralls climb onto the old mine train and ride 650 m (2,133 ft) through the mine tunnels inside the massive mountain.
Salzbergwerk Berchtesgaden even allows the visitors to try the wooden slides to get to the lower levels of the mine! This authentic experience is far better than going to a theme park! Afterwards we take the lift up through the old shaft again. We also get the opportunity to try to go on a raft on a Lord of the Rings-like underground salt lake, where we are even encouraged to taste the pretty concentrated brine. It is VERY salty!
” The salt mine tour in Salzbergwerk Berchtesgaden reaches deep inside the Bavarian Alps.”
At night it is surprisingly cold after the pleasantly sunny, summery day. In the morning it feels awfully chilly to put on shorts at 7 a.m.! However, as expected, temperatures again rise considerably during the next couple of hours.
Next day’s hike is at the small lake Hintersee where we intend to reach Halsalm. We soon find the bobsleigh run just outside the forest where our ascent begins.
Halfway up we spot a couple of stunning golden eagles elegantly circling above the peak. Now and then they disappear behind it, and then just as suddenly appear again at a new spot on the clear, blue sky.
After a tough ascent we reach lush, green pastures in a mountain pass. That is where we find the meadows at Halsalm where the cows graze. From here we unexpectedly spot Hitler’s Kehlsteinhaus or the Eagle’s Nest in the distance. Continuing to Obersalzberg, you may catch the bus from there up to the historical World War II site for a visit.
Eagle’s Nest is a reminiscence from the Hitler era. It was designed by Martin Bormann and intended to be an idyllic spot which could overshadow all the cruelties of the Nazi regime. With a lavish brass lift the residence became a legendary place to impress the visitors in the otherwise impassable terrain. It was spared at the Allied bombing at the end of World War II and it still appears in its original state. Today the place has been turned into a prominent restaurant from where you can enjoy the alpine scenery.
From the top we have a magnificent, panoramic view down to Hintersee. On the other side of the lake we can just discern a cluster of alpine huts and cottages. The colour play fascinates us, and the view across Hintersee is insanely scenic.
We stay for a while to take in all impressions from the grand alpine scenery and the profound valley. Eventually, we need to set off for the challenging descent towards the lake. Again, we need our full concentration not to step on any tipping rocks or loose gravel. At the slightest sign of potential problems, our walking sticks are promptly and firmly stuck into the ground.
A couple of hours later we are down, our legs are shaking, but the feeling of having completed the hike fully makes up! Back on our balcony we enjoy a cold drink with a grand view of the mountainside opposite and the freshest alpine air! Hiking in the Bavarian Alps is not that bad, after all!
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