Experience Bavaria’s natural treasures: forests, meadows, mountains, lakes, rivers and moors. Many unique landscapes are designated nature parks. They combine landscape conservation and nature-friendly tourism. Six tips for lovers of nature and the great outdoors in Franconia and Eastern Bavaria.
Bavaria’s nature parks are there to protect natural and cultural landscapes - and to provide a haven of relaxation for residents and visitors. The basic principle is “conservation through use”. Unlike the Bayerischer Wald (Bavarian Forest) and Berchtesgaden National Parks, nature parks are opened up and developed.
Home of the horseshoe bat: Hirschwald Nature Park
The great horseshoe bat, an endangered species, has found sanctuary in an old half-timbered barn in Hohenburg. This small town is situated in the Lauterachtal valley on the southern edge of the Hirschwald Nature Park. The park is in the Amberg-Sulzbach district of the Bavarian Jura holiday region, 60 kilometres north of Regensburg. Forests, hills, juniper heaths, streams and rocks create an ecologically rich landscape.
Diversity on a small scale: valleys alternate with wooded hillsides, open fields nestle between craggy rocks, streams meander through meadows. The southern aspects of the valleys enjoy an almost Mediterranean climate. At the heart of the park is the Hirschwald, a large, contiguous tract of forest with many walking trails (Wacholderwanderweg, Erzweg Süd, Vilstalwanderweg and more) and well-marked cycle trails (Hirschwaldrunde, Lauterachtalradweg).
A version of the St. James Way also leads through the forest, passing Ensdorf Abbey (the Asam church of St. James), the pilgrimage church on the Eggenberg mountain, the pilgrimage church of Stettkirchen and the Klosterburg Kastl monastery. You can also get closer to heaven in Ursensollen, in the Upper Palatinate, where Germany’s first combination of digital 3D planetarium and observatory (the Ursensollen Large Telescope) now offers a glimpse into space!
naturparkhirschwald.de | planetarium-ursensollen.de (only in German)
Kingdom of the “Tausender”: Nature Park Oberer Bayerischer Wald
The northern edge of this park connects to the Bavarian Forest National Park. It encompasses the district of Cham as far as the Czech border and the eastern district of Schwandorf. In the north-west it touches on the Oberpfälzer Wald Nature Park. In addition to Cham, other important towns include Waldmünchen, Furth im Wald, Bad Kötzting and Lam.
Nature and landscape prove hugely diverse here with dry pine woods, moors and floodplains as well as peaks well over 1,000 m high, known as “Tausender”. Conservation sites include the Arracher Moor, one of the last extant high moors in northern Bavaria, the Höllbach with its granite blocks, the Small Arbersee lake, the Regentalau wetlands, the Ponnholzbachtal valley that is home to the rare dusky large blue butterfly, and a three-kilometre stretch of the quartz vein known as the “Pfahl”. This quartz vein is the only one of its kind in the world. It runs almost as straight as a die from Upper Austria to Naab, and is clearly visible here.
A large network of paths makes walking a real pleasure, whether it’s up to an individual summit such as the Grosser Arber (1,456 m) or the Osser (1,293 m), or eight 1,000 m peaks at one fell swoop in the Lamer Winkel. Gentler walking trails lead along the river banks. It is possible to bathe in lakes or natural pools. Boat trips on the Regen river are a real highlight. Many routes for cyclists and mountain bikers. Also attractions such as the Urpfarrei Chammünster church, the former Cistercian monastery of Walderbach, Falkenstein Castle and the spectacular monolithic Konzerthaus Blaibach.
bayerischer-wald.org (only in German)
Fantastic: Steinwald Nature Park
The granite ridge of the Steinwald forest, measuring 18 times 20 kilometres, is the second smallest nature park in Bavaria after the Ammergau Alps. It stretches southwards from Marktredwitz between the Fichtel Mountains and the Oberpfälzer Wald. The Platte is the highest point. At 946 m it does not quite meet the thousand-metre mark, but the 33 m high Oberpfalzturm makes a popular destination with all-round views. Not far from there are the ruins of Weißenstein Castle, namesake of the Steinwald, or “forest of stones”.
Typical of the Steinwald are fantastically shaped granite boulders and rocks with no less fantastic names such as Katzentrögel, Zipfeltannenfelsen or Saubadfelsen. Climbing is permitted on some formations, such as the Vogelfelsen and Räuberfelsen. The forest landscape is characterised by spruce trees, interspersed with pine, beech, oak and fir. Two conservation areas: Föhrenbühl with its rare ferns and Teichelberg with ancient beech, lime and cherry, as well as more than two hundred species of moth plus lynx and wild cat. Gemstone deposits including agate and jasper, and ores that were mined here in the Middle Ages. Also many springs, with the famous King Otto Spring near Wiesau being particularly rich in iron.
Beautiful walking terrain, with long-distance walking trails such as the Burgenweg and the Goldsteig running through the park. From the hikers’ car park in the north of Pfaben, a nature trail goes past various natural highlights. Culinary specialities of the region: Bottom-fermented “Zoigl” beer from small community breweries and carp from the local fish farms.
naturpark-steinwald.de (only in German)
Distant views: Bavarian Rhön Nature Park
The Rhön is a low mountain range, below 1,000 m, that runs through parts of Bavaria, Hesse and Thuringia. The Bavarian Rhön Nature Park lies in the districts of Bad Kissingen and Rhön-Grabfeld in the extreme north of Bavaria. Mountains, plateaus and summits dominate the Rhön landscape.
Distant views over meadows, forests and hills are typical of the region, especially in the High Rhön. The landscape is characterised by volcanoes. Basalt columns such as those at Gangolfsberg and expanses of basalt blocks as in the primeval-style Lösershag are tangible reminders of that volcanic past. The Black Moor near Fladungen with its ice-age flora is one of the most important moorlands in Central Europe. It can be explored on a nature trail. The largest conservation areas are the species-rich landscapes of the Long Rhön, treeless mountain ridges (also knows as “land of the open ferns”) and the Black Mountains with their mountain pastures. Beautiful views from the Kreuzberg, good Klosterbier and snacks in the Franciscan monastery below the summit (Franconia’s “holy mountain”).
The “Hochrhöner” premium walking trail and the “Rhönradweg” cycle trail, both around 180 kilometres long, run through the Rhön. Attractive destinations include well-known spa towns such as Bad Kissingen, Bad Brückenau and Bad Bocklet with their historic spa buildings. Hammelburg is one of Franconia’s oldest wine towns. Due to the low light pollution, this nature park (part of the UNESCO Rhön biosphere reserve) has been designated an International Dark Sky Park.
Methusalah beeches: Steigerwald Nature Park
This nature park is known first and foremost for its beech woods. These trees once covered Central Europe but only pockets of them remain - as here in the Steigerwald. The nature park extends between the four cities of Würzburg, Bamberg, Nuremberg and Rothenburg, and from the Main in the north to the Aisch in the south. A soft, forested nature park landscape that does not rise above 500 metres. With vineyards, wide valleys, dry and sparse grassland and carp ponds… and lots of beech trees.
Especially in the Northern and Upper Steigerwald, such as in the natural forest reserves of Brunnstube, Waldstube or the Kleinengelein forest enclave, you can find ancient beech giants dating back more than 300 years. The variety of species is immense there, with 407 macrofungi, 349 moth and 289 wood-living beetle species as well as 15 of the 24 bat species native to Bavaria. Other rare animals include the middle spotted woodpecker, boreal owl, dormouse and wild cat. The Steigerwald is a popular walking region with the 160 km panoramic trail from Bad Windsheim to Bamberg as well as many short routes and circuits.
Tip: In the “Trekking Experience Steigerwald”, walkers can camp in ten specially designated woodland campsites. A treetop trail near Ebrach leads through the forest canopy, with distant views across the nature park from the 42 m tower. Franconian wine is grown on the steep south-facing slopes of many conical and flat-topped hills. Franconian mirror carp thrive in the ponds of the southern Steigerwald, in Aischgrund.
steigerwald-naturpark.de (only in German)
All heart: Fränkische Schweiz Nature Park – Franconian Jura
This park extends across the north of Bavaria in the triangle between the cities of Nuremberg, Bamberg and Bayreuth. At the heart of this park is the traditional holiday region of Franconian Switzerland with two main rivers in the Wiesent and the Pegnitz. It also features the large Veldensteiner Forst forest, plus the Upper Main Valley, the Hersbrucker Alb and the Oberpfälzer Jura. A low mountain landscape offers plenty of romance thanks to its pretty half-timbered villages and ruined castles, deep valleys and high plateaus, juniper heaths and mixed woodland, orchards and cherry trees.
The nature park is exceptionally rich in rock formations - typically the bizarre rock needles and towers - as well as caves and grottoes. There are more than two thousand caves, of which six are open to the public, including the famous Devil’s Cave near Pottenstein and the Sophienhöhle. A diverse array of flora with around forty species of orchid, including the striking lady’s slipper, and fifteen endemic species such as the Hersbrucker whitebeam and the Franconian hawkweed. Birds of prey nest in the rocks. The nature park is a popular walking destination, not least due to the well-marked network of trails that extend for more than 5,000 kilometres.
In addition to the many local routes, the Frankenweg and the Franconian Gebirgsweg run through the park. Internationally renowned climbing site. Canoeing on the Wiesent and Pegnitz. Cultural speciality: The tradition of decorating Easter Wells began here. Wells in many towns and villages are decorated for Easter with colourful eggs, flowers and garlands. The quality of Franconian cuisine is known far and wide, and includes beer specialities from more than seventy breweries in the nature park region.
Stony ground: Nagelfluhkette Nature Park in the Allgäu
The Nagelfluhkette Nature Park lies between Allgäu and the Bregenzerwald Forest in Vorarlberg. It gets its name from the predominant rock, the Nagelfluh, a conglomerate of concrete-like pebbles of different sizes, reminiscent of aggregate concrete and known colloquially as “The Lord’s concrete”.
Three parallel mountain ridges: in the middle, the namesake of the Nagelfluhkette with the Hochgrat (1,834 m) as its highest point, in the north the Prodel-Höhenzug (approx. 1,400 m) and in the south the Hörner Group with the Riedberger Horn (1,787 m). A hugely diverse landscape: rivers, lakes and gorges, forests and meadows, water meadows, moors, alpine pastures and rocks. These form habitats for rare fauna and flora, including purple gentian, wood pinks, the Apollo butterfly, the black grouse and the white-backed woodpecker.
Many walking tours for amateurs and experts alike lead through this region, with possibly the most exciting of all going from the Hochgratbahn mountain station across the ridge of the Nagelfluhkette to the mountain station of the Mittagbahn (at least seven hours duration, only for experienced hikers with good levels of fitness). Nature park rangers offer guided walks. Good conditions for alpine agriculture and cheesemaking. AlpSeeHaus Nature Park Centre in Immenstadt with experience exhibition.
nagelfluhkette.info (only in German)
Forests and meadows: Augsburg – Western Woods Nature Park
The Western Woods stretch through the foothills of the Alps to the gates of Augsburg. They are bordered in the east by the Wertach and Schmutter rivers, and in the west by the Mindel. The Danube marks the northern boundary. Central Swabian Schotterriedel (gravel ridges) and Hügelland (undulating hills), a mixture of wooded slopes, arable valleys and charming towns and villages, meadows, woods, hedges, fields, streams and fish ponds.
Three natural spaces: in the south of the park are the “Stauden”, a hilly landscape also known as “Mozart’s land”, because it is was home to the ancestors of Wolfgang Amadeus. In the north you find the “Holzwinkel”, a large expanse of forest. This is where the regional poet Ludwig Ganghofer spent some of his childhood, hence the Ganghofer circular walking trail. In the centre of the park is the “Reischenau”, a wide valley basin washed out by the Zusam river.
Many well-marked routes invite you to walk or cycle through the nature park. Fascinating Fugger palace in Kirchheim. Naturparkhaus information centre in the Cistercian abbey of Oberschönenfeld with a permanent exhibition entitled “Nature and Mankind in the Nature Park”.
Culture and nature: Nature Park Altmühltal
The park area covers the southern Franconian Alps north of Ingolstadt, between Gunzenhausen in the west and Kelheim in the east. Eichstätt sits in the middle. The Altmühl flows from west to east through the park, dividing it into two halves. This low mountain landscape features juniper heath, wetland meadows, dry grasslands, rocks and karst caves.
The construction of the Main-Danube canal had a massive ecological impact. In one section, the bed of the river Altmühl was turned into an oxbow lake. A large part of the landscape is protected, including the Gungoldinger juniper heath, the dry slopes of the Juratrockenhang with the rock group known as the Twelve Apostles, and the Weltenburger Enge. Leisure activities: boat trips, hiking (Altmühl panoramic trail, Jurasteig and more), cycling (Altmühl cycle trail, Upper-Germanic Roman Limes cycle trail), climbing (Burgstein near Dollnstein or Dohlenfelsen near Konstein).
Plus many cultural attractions such as the remains of various Roman and Celtic settlements, Burg Prunn or Plankstetten Abbey. Special feature: Plattenkalk is mined in this region - a type of limestone rich in fossils. In some quarries, visitors can even search for their own fossils with a hammer and chisel. Dinosaur Museum in Denkendorf. Information centre in Eichstätt.
Variety is key: Ammergau Alps Nature Park
Bavaria’s smallest nature park, the Ammergau Alps Nature Park was established on the edge of the Alps, northwest of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. It has a rich and varied landscape featuring mountain ridges (highest point: the Kreuzspitze at 2,185 m), pastures and sloping meadows, the wild Ammer river (which runs through the impressive Ammerschlucht gorge and cuts its way through solid rock in the Scheibum Ravine) and forests of beech, fir and pine, and rare mixed woodland of broad-leaved limes.
Then there are moors such as the Ettal Weidmoss and Pulvermoos, both flat moorlands rich in species, providing habitat for grassland birds such as whinchats and meadow pipits, amphibians and butterflies as well as orchids. In summer there are plenty of hiking routes, including guided tours with nature park rangers, cycle tours such as the themed “Forest View trail”, and a climbing wall on the Kolben. Moor nature trails in Bad Kohlgrub and Bad Bayersoien.
Worth seeing: Linderhof Palace, Ettal Abbey, Oberammergau. Tip: Some mountain huts have been converted from royal hunting lodges owned by Ludwig II and his father Max II, including the August-Schuster-Haus (1,564 m) on the Pürschling or the Brunnenkopfhütte/Brunnenkopfhäuser (1,602 m). In winter there are many cross-country trails with virtually guaranteed snow (the best known being the King Ludwig Trail between Ettal, Linderhof and Oberammergau), family-friendly ski areas, snow shoe and winter walking tours, and ski tours.
Bavarian Sea: Chiemsee Conservation Area
This region belongs to the districts of Rosenheim and Traunstein. The protection extends for 120 square kilometres and includes Lake Chiemsee, the largest lake in Bavaria, along with its islands and shoreline. Nature is being preserved there with its ecologically valuable reed beds and mudflats, wooded shores, moorlands and wetlands. The aim is to preserve the beauty and appearance of the lake landscape and to maintain its value as a recreational area.
It borders on some nature reserves (under stricter protection), including the mouth of the Tiroler Achen, a unique river delta that spills into the lake each year and is growing by the size of around two football pitches each year; this is creating new land that is gradually being colonised by plants. Or the Eggstätt-Hemhofer lake area in the northwest, a relic of the last Ice Age, with seventeen individual lakes linked by water courses. They have no above-ground tributaries. Also protected are the Kühwampenmoor and the high moors of Hacken and Rottauer Filz.
Alluvial forest: Isartal Nature Reserve
The Isar gives Bavaria one of Germany’s loveliest and most varied river landscapes. The unique natural environment is a popular recreational area covering a length of almost 300 kilometres, from the Alps to the flat Danube valley. The river is sometimes pristine and wild, at other times calm and hemmed by people.
The Isar valley south of Munich, from Wolfratshausen to the city limits, and north of Munich as far as Moosburg has been designated a protected area. In these areas, the course of the river should stay unaltered, including its tributaries, oxbow lakes, floodplains, wetlands and springs. Equally, the aim is to protect the diversity of species in the forests close to the river, in the alluvial and hillside forests, on the heaths and meadows, and on the banks and bars formed by gravel deposited by high waters.
At the same time, the valley should serve as a local recreational and walking area. For example, the alluvial forest between Freising and Moosburg is particularly charming, and is relatively new following the relocation of a dyke. In one section that feels rather like a rainforest, you can find purple and silver willow. Moreover, various birds have moved here - blackcaps, warblers and chiffchaff - as well as many types of wild bee. You can walk along the banks of the Isar or cycle from the main source to the mouth of the river.
isarradweg.de | tourismus-kreis-freising.de (only in German)