SCHÖNAU AM KÖNIGSSEE, Germany – At 23 minutes before midnight, at 5,600 feet above sea level, the lashing rain and furious winds outside the darkened bunkroom prompted two questions to turn over in my head: Will the roof of this hut be ripped off in the dead of night? Will I be able to continue my ridge trek to my next destination on the German-Austrian border the next day?
Several sleepless hours later, the answers emerged: 1) No, these aren’t just simple mountain huts and 2) yes, this is typical Alpine weather for southern Bavaria.
And so at dawn, I trekked out, up through the undercast clouds.
The reward was the majesty of the Bavarian Alps, showering glory upon those willing to hike serious trails, and maybe endure copious amounts of apricot schnapps in the company of hearty German hikers.
This is Berchtesgaden, a national park in southeastern Germany, wedged into a thumb of land poking into Austria. The Alps slash the skies, in jagged granite and knife-drops into sudden valleys.
Berchtesgaden’s huts are serious structures. Supplies are helicoptered in, or hefted on cable cars. They range from huge – Watzmannhaus has 200 sleeping spots – to small – Wasserhalm has a few dozen. Some are concrete and steel; others have simple wooden roofs and beams. All serve serious meals: soups, stews, beef-and-dumplings. And lots of beer and wine.
Spend your days trekking steep trails and meeting random people. Then swap stories about hiking, and life, and then you’re drinking beer and schnapps, and then you’re fumbling through languages and life tales, and then, by lights out, you’re hugging and toasting and laughing and crying.
Trekking into Berchtesgaden is easiest from the northern tip of Konigssee, an 5-mile-long impossibly turquoise lake. The town at the tip is a tourist mess: ice cream, T-shirts, lederhosen and Tyrolean hats. Privately run electric boats run passengers up and down the lake seasonally, offering access to Germany’s highest waterfall or the stoic lakeside Church of St. Bartholomew’s.
Many visitors forgo the hike and instead take the year-round Jennerbahn cable car up 6,200-foot Jenner Mountain, where there’s a massive restaurant and spectacular views.
For hikers, it takes about 15 minutes to leave the madding crowds for quieter wood trails. Some are rough footpaths; others allow service vehicles to supply a couple smaller huts that dot the hillsides and provide meals to day-trekkers. Not far from Koenigsbachalm, you can poke your head into a tiny distillery where schnapps are made from the mountain waters.
On the eastern end of Berchtesgaden is the Austrian border and Carl von Stahl Haus, where I overnighted. I ate lentil stew and drank German pilsner into the evening, until the storm lashed us with marble-size hail and gale-force winds. In the midnight hour, the winds banged open the bunkroom windows.
At dawn, the soup of clouds gave many of us doubts. But after climbing further up a sodden trail, I crested at Schneibstein into brilliant skies. The clouds below shrouded everything but the highest peaks.
Trails are well-marked. They include degrees of difficulty, similar to ski trails. They also include not mileage, but estimated hiking times.
Once I realized that the times were very conservative, I worried less about making it to my destination on time and instead hiked in mesmerized awe.
Wasseralm in der Röth, my next destination, was a cluster of three modest buildings folded into a hollow ringed by sub-peaks. Torrents of evening and overnight rain sent a raucous stream bursting its banks and nearly turned the buildings into islands.
It also made for a wet dinner conversation over vegetable stew and stacks of dark rye bread. The other hikers and I huddled under dripping eaves before retiring to a common room, where a wood-fired stove dried wet clothes and warmed bodies. White wine, beer and schnapps kept conversation going until 10 p.m. lights out – a strict rule of the huts.
Those of us headed out the next morning had to ford the stream – with or without shoes, which made for a good conversation starter. Being an American backpacking alone also made a good conversation starter, and I fell in with two German guys and a woman from a separate group as we clambered up.
Surprisingly for a German national park, the trails were in some places poorly maintained and not for the faint-hearted. Some places, we had to pick our way over scree fields, and hold onto steel cables bolted into the hillside. Wood ladders were broken or rotting, rain slippery. Bog bridges were under water.
Kärlingerhaus am Funtensee, the next stop, was perched over a small lake, in a bowl ringed by ridges that caught the next morning’s sun like facets on a gem. On the lake’s other side, two low-slung wooden buildings were for the distillers who made schnapps from local waters. There was also a sheep herder who, I was told, was paid by valley farmers to mind their flocks in the summer and harvest wool and milk for cheese.
Alas, we got neither that rainy evening.
We did get tureens of chicken broth and heaps of beef slices and potato dumplings drenched in gravy, and dark rye bread – or pasta and tomato sauce for vegetarians.
We drank marillenschnaps – an apricot brew commonly associated with north-central Austria – and again, the presence of a solitary American sparked fun conversation, not to mention complimentary schnapps. Lights out: 10 p.m.
Did I mention the boot drying room? An essential elements of German huts: rows of heated metal bars to hang up and dry your boots out. If you’ve ever woken up to sodden boots, the joy of the boot drying room is immeasurable. Equally immeasurable is the odor of dozens of wet hiking boots drying out in a room overnight.
Back down to the lake, to meet a boat back to my car, the trail cut deep between two ridges, shrouding the trail in cool morning shade. An Alpine chamois – a type of antelope-goat – scrambled up the grass as I rounded one corner. She appeared unbothered by a solitary hiker, and grazed for several minutes as we stared at one another, before she hopped over a boulder, out of sight.
When I finally reached the Konigssee’s shoreline, it was impossible not to contemplate going for a swim. I had no swimsuit, however.
A few moments later, a group of older German men showed up and, without hesitation, dropped their packs, dropped their clothes and hopped into the shimmering waters full monty.
Bring a sleeping bag or bag liner. Whether you’re in a semi-private room or a larger bunkroom, huts provide pillows, heavy blankets and reasonable mattresses. An absolute must: “hut shoes”– slippers, sandals. It’s a no-no to clomp around the interiors in your hiking boots.
Making reservations can be confusing; patience is in order. Most huts are individually managed, and they belong to different reservation systems. Some take credit cards for reservations; most accept only cash on-site.
Start with the German Alpine Club, which oversees 321 huts across Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
Huetten Holiday is another online portal that manages reservations for huts, in Germany, Austria and Italy.
General information can be found on the Berchtesgaden’s webpage. You can also visit park headquarters, about 5 miles north of the lake, where you can get hiking maps and other information.