We explored three of the most beautiful Mountain bike tours around the Watzmann in late summer. The backdrop? Snow above, colourful foliage below and world-famous lake Königssee at the bottom. Text and photos: Norbert Eisele-Hein
Mountain Biking Around the Watzmann
The 2,713-metre-high Watzmann may only be Germany's second-highest peak, but it is clearly the most beautiful. The mountain of mountains. Its eastern face rises more than 1,800 metres almost vertically from the Lake Königssee. It is the most powerful precipice in the entire Eastern Alps.
Watzmannfrau and Watzmannkinder form the secondary peaks. If you look at the massif from Berchtesgaden, you won't believe it. So much for family friendly. The round of peaks looks like the open mouth of a Great White Shark.
The Watzmann Is Calling
The local shipping company carries up to 550,000 guests across Lake Königssee every year. Passengers freeze at the sight of the east face and listen to the echo of the Flügelhorn. The Alphazinken gained cult status through the musical "Der Watzmann ruft" by Austrian singer-songwriter Wolfgang Ambros.
The plot of the mountain farmer parody, first published in 1974, is simple. The mountain becomes a man-eating beast, the men have to conquer it to prove themselves and tend to find death in the process. In addition, the frivolous Gailtal woman promises sexual happiness to the youth, should they return from the summit alive. All spoken and sung in dialect, the play was a hit in the 1980s.
In an autumnal self-experiment, we venture to the Watzmann, the mountain of destiny, to experience a dreamlike micro-adventure on three tours in the footsteps of farmer, son, grand servant and Gailtalerin.
Alpine Pastures, Lake Views and Steep Hairpin Bends
The ramp up to the Gotzenalm is considered a classic. But the tour is quite a challenge. From the "roundabout" at Berchtesgaden railway station, we only take the road towards Königssee for a short while. But soon we enter the colourful autumnal forest at Faselsberg, breathing hard. Fog still hangs between the treetops. Only occasionally does it allow rays of sunlight to wander along the trail.
Whew! The tour gets going with a 25 percent gradient
Near the Hinteren Brandkopf we reach the Hinterbrand car park before continuing through the forest and shortly afterwards under the new Jennerbahn railway. The route gradually demands more and more pressure on the pedals. The first views of Königssee spur us on. Passing the Strubkopf, we reach the Königsbachalm between alpine pastures and small remnants of forest, a good place for a first rest!
Now uphill towards Büchsenkopf. The calves are already aching, but now the tour really gets going. Especially from the Gotzentalalm! On the last 600 metres of ascent, the gradient repeatedly approaches the 25 percent mark. In the hairpin bends, most bikers are struggling and talk about the "Kotzenalm" ... at least until they reaches the wide plateau. What a view opens up here: East face, Königssee, Steinernes Meer, Teufelshörner!
First Aching Calves, Then Goulash
At the top, 1,685 metres above sea level, Klecker Rudi, the innkeeper of the Gotzenalm, grins at you. He has been running the mountain pasture since 2006. And he cooks up really good food. The creamy schnitzel! And the goulash! Tender as butter! A portion of Kaiserschmarrn, light and airy, with fine icing sugar. The visual icing on the cake is a sunset spectacle with the Watzmann East Face, Steinernes Meer and Hohes Göll.
Tired muscles make for the best alpine hut sleep. But early in the morning, with goose bumps, we quickly put on all available clothes. Still at dusk, we cycle on a single trail through a larch forest to the 1,741-metre-high Feuerpalfen.
Fog Foam Bath
Disappointment at first at the viewing platform: we are looking at dense fog. Below us, Lake Königssee looks like a bubble bath. The fearsome east face of the Watzmann rises directly out of the mists. But a short time later, the rising sun begins to dissolve the fog, its rays making the impressive wall blush. And deep below us, the striking red onion domes of Sankt Bartholomä gradually peel out of the foam as the first boats sail across the lake.
The return journey is nothing but a buoyant downhill. On familiar paths, but with so much less effort, it's back to Berchtesgaden.
From Hintersee to the Litzlalm
We start at the southern end of Hintersee in picturesque Ramsau. From the National Park information point, the route climbs leisurely at first through the Klausbach valley, past the game feeding area, which is still deserted in autumn, and the golden eagle observation point. The Hochkalter and the Hocheisspitze tower imposingly in the sky. The Mühlsturzhorns dominate on the right.
The alps rise by about three millimetres a year
The Alps rise by about three millimetres a year. As a result, a good 250,000 cubic metres of rock came loose from the summit flank of the Kleiner Mühlsturzhorn in September 1999. For weeks the whole area was covered in dust, we learn from the information board. If you turn off at the first small incline and cross the steel suspension bridge (for pedestrians only!), you can still see the impressive demolition site.
The tour continues to follow the Hirschbichlstraße, it remains technically easy, the undergrounds are doable. Only a short steep section with a hairpin bend, the Mitterberg, makes us switch into high-frequency mode, and that in the lowest gear.
There are four alpine huts on the nearby Bindalm. During the alpine season, two of them invite you to a first stopover with homemade delicacies and a magnificent view of the Reiteralm. The next highlight, the "Alpengasthof Hirschbichl" at the historic customs station, is almost in sight. But we persevere and pass the inn and the pass over which, for centuries, the salt mules went about their strenuous cross-border business.
Another 200 metres in altitude, which we negotiate in a wide bend, and we reach our destination, the Litzlalm at 1320 metres. Cosy inside and out, it looks like something out of an Alpine museum. The terrace offers a stunning panorama. It's no wonder that commercials and local films are shot there.
Even a few episodes of the famous "Bergdoktor" series were filmed on the alp. Flanked by pine wood, deer and chamois antlers, the snack, which is called "Jaus'n" here since we are in Austria, tastes particularly good. In the end, we cruise back to Hintersee on the outward route, already through thick fog.
Kührointalm and Achenkanzel
The start from the Hammerstiel car park up towards the Watzmann is also accompanied by thick morning fog. The first night of frost has immediately spread a heavy portion of snow. The technically easy, but sometimes grimly steep forest path leads in wide bends past the caserns of the Schapbachalm. If it were still summer and the cattle were still on the pasture, you could treat yourself to a piece of alpine cheese here, but the alpine cheese drive is long over and we are drawn further up towards the Watzmannfrau.
It's just as well that the temperatures are once again rising to summer levels. Two more long hairpin bends and the Kührointalm, more or less the end of the "dead end", appears between the sparse tree cover. The biking is over now. The view up to the Watzmann massif is breathtaking. The chapel of the mountain pasture blends into the scenery; it is dedicated to the memory of all the victims of the Berchtesgaden mountains.
A short walk to the Archenkanzel, the "western counterpart" to the Feuerpalfen from the first tour, is obligatory for us. There, the breathtaking view of the Königssee lake, the colourful forests and the pilgrimage church of Sankt Bartholomä opens up for the last time.
Souvenirs: Slush and Sand
We return the same way, but marked by unmistakable traces of slush, gravel and sand. Still: The decision for autumn was a lucky one, even if an extra layer of clothes was indispensable and the short-term fog sometimes impaired visibility.
So the Watzmann let us get away with it. In the original stage version, only the dumb servant survives. He was too lazy to heed the call of the mountain. In the film version, the musical becomes even more grotesque: the father returns from the mountain alive and marries the Gailtal woman. With the loans of a bank, they transform the farm into a ski resort.
Recommended Tours Around The Watzmann
Tour I: Gotzenalm/Feuerpalfen
35.9 kilometres, 1,666 metres altitude difference, technically medium, physically difficult.
From the former tourist information office at Berchtesgaden railway station via Faselsberg to Hinterbrand. Continue on bike route 9 via Königsbachalm, Büchsenalm and Gotzentalalm steeply up to Gotzenalm. Detour to the Feuerpalfen. Overnight stay possible at the hut. Return on the same route.
More info berchtesgaden.de.
Tour II: Litzlalm
18.3 kilometres, 525 metres altitude difference, technically and conditionally easy.
Follow the signs from the Hintersee car park through Klausbachtal. At Hirschbichl, the route briefly crosses the border into Austria. The Litzlalm is on a high plateau with panoramic views. Take a headlamp with you in case it gets late. Descent on the same route.
More information at berchtesgaden.de.
Tour III: Kührointalm
24.5 kilometres, 900 metres altitude difference, technically easy, medium condition. From the former tourist information office at Berchtesgaden railway station, follow the signs (via Oberschönau). From Hinterschönau on a forest road steeply uphill to the Schapbachalm. Continue on the forest road. It ends directly in front of the chapel at the Kührointalm. Short walk to the Achenkanzel for a view of Königssee and Sankt Bartholomä. Descent back along the same route.
More information at berchtesgaden.de