Snow is guaranteed from December to the end of March on the heights of the Fichtelgebirge mountains. Around Mount Ochsenkopf and Saubadfelsen, several hundred kilometres of trails and cross-country tracks await cross-country skiers, tourers and snowshoe hikers in addition to four kilometres of pistes. Text and photos: Thomas Linkel
Winter Sports In the Fichtelgebirge
Krummbiegl Schorsch is a distant relative and also an ambitious winter sportsman. For years he has invited me on ski tours, cross-country rounds and snowshoe hikes in his homeland, the Fichtelgebirge mountains. My phone always rings in December, usually just when I'm dreaming of the south, sun and sarde a beccafico. It’s Schorsch, and the first thing he asks is: “Are you fit for a hike?”
And I immediately have a guilty conscience because I have been promising for years to conquer the snow-covered mountains, valleys and forests of the Fichtelgebirge with him, but then once again fail to do so. After all, a real Central European winter is over sooner than you think in December ... and then suddenly it's March and the snowdrops and crocuses have almost faded and fresh grass forms a green carpet in the hollows and streams.
Plenty of Snow In March
Yet there is often still snow in the Fichtelgebirge when the first Aperol Sprizz is already being ordered in the street café in Frankfurt, Berlin and Munich. It makes sense to assume that the low mountain range in north-eastern Bavaria will be covered in snow, with snow usually still falling at the end of March.
"If you like snow, come right away"
Last winter would almost have passed without a trip to Ochsenkopf and Zipfeltannenfelsen if Schorsch hadn't called me on a Wednesday shortly before April 1st. “If you like snow, come right away. It snowed again, it's enough for the weekend,” I hear from the phone. And: “I'm on an after-work cross-country ski tour in Fichtelberg right now.”
On Friday morning I pack my winter gear, on the way my relative sends me the message that he can't accompany me after all because he is busy with his family (that's just Schorsch!), but he sends me lots of tips and good wishes and the hope of a repeat performance for two soon. Because I prefer to explore the area with the expertise of a local, I turn to the Steinpark Nature Park on short notice.
Steinwald: Nature Park Since 1970
At noon I reach the Steinwald. The southernmost foothills of the Fichtelgebirge have been a protected nature park since 1970. Above Erbendorf, a small town at the foot of the densely forested granite ridge, lies a blanket of clouds that seems to cling to the church tower, the fields all around shimmering damp-brown. But: no sign of snow. Come on, Schorsch …
Behind Erbendorf, the side road winds uphill, a woman with a dog walks between fields, I pass a farm with a low barn, stacks of wood, free-range chickens, a handful of houses with smoking chimneys. There is only one car in the hikers’ car park at Pfaben village. Leaning against it is a man in the outfit of the nature park rangers: my “date”, Jonas Ständer.
To the Steinwald Sphinx and Back
The forest history trail that Jonas wants to show me starts just a few minutes’ walk away at the entrance to the Saubadloipe (Saubad ski trail). Where we step into the shade of the forest, there is snow for the first time. And with every step uphill, the white blanket on the ground, stones and trees becomes denser.
We stop at a free, circular area, the site of a former coal pile. From the late Middle Ages until the end of the 19th century, charcoal was extracted in the Steinwald to supply the hammer mills in the surrounding hamlets with the necessary fuel. For many centuries, the Steinwald was one of the most important European centres for iron extraction because of its rich iron ore deposits.
Zipfeltannen and Saubad rocks: landmarks made of granite
We sink into the snow up to our ankles, as deeper in the forest a mighty granite outcrop peeks through between the trees. “Our Steinwald sphinx” is what Jonas calls the characteristically shaped part of the Zipfeltannenfelsen (rocks), which is criss-crossed with crevices and cracks. Narrow icicles hang from its flanks, under a fallen tree Jonas has discovered a fox den with tracks leading into it, from the crown of a sycamore we are watched by ravens with fluffed plumage.
The granite of the Steinwald goes back to geological processes in the earth's interior that date back more than 300 million years. As a result, magma chambers formed which slowly cooled and solidified into large granite bodies. Over millions of years, gnawing erosion disintegrated the enveloping, softer rock and freed impressive rock formations such as the Zipfeltannen or Saubad rocks.
A Habitat for Garden Dormice
“This boulder dump is the habitat for many species of animals, including my favourite, the garden dormouse,” Jonas tells us, looking down at the chaos of large rocks below. A few snowdrifts and stream crossings later, we laboriously scrambled up the icy steps to the viewing platform at Saubadfelsen.
Wooded heights all around, the wind tugs at our hats and drives prickly snow grains into our faces – the garden dormouse hibernating in crevices will be much more comfortable, I think.
“You can recognise the garden dormouse by its Zorro mask between its eyes and ears,” Jonas explains, but without a camera trap and attractants such as walnut oil or strawberry jam, the nocturnal animal is almost impossible to spot. Evolution has also provided the rodent with predetermined breaking points in its tail; if it is caught by a fox or owl at its furry end, it simply gets rid of this part.
We continue towards the red deer enclosure, the last point of the hike. As soon as we reach the fenced area, a doe trots up to Jonas and has her neck rubbed. “This is Sissy, a great deer, I’m her favourite,” he says as the grey-brown animal presses against the fence and against him. Sissy is somewhat bullied by the others in the enclosure because she was raised with a bottle. Whenever he comes over, she gets a cuddle.
On the way to the car park, Jonas crouches down at a spring and searches the icy ground. Lynx tracks had been discovered here before, but none of the shy predators had passed by today. Three to four lynx appear from time to time in the photo traps in the Steinwald Nature Park, but because their hunting grounds cover up to 400 square kilometres, it would be almost impossible to encounter a lynx. “Even if the lynx were sitting right by the path in the thicket, we wouldn’t notice it. We hope that a small population will form in the long term,” Jonas explains.
Up to the Ochsenkopf
35 snow-free kilometres lie between Erbendorf and Fichtelberg below the 1,024-metre-high Ochsenkopf, the second highest mountain in the Fichtelgebirge. The first snow falls shortly beforehand on Mehlmeisel’s Klausenhang, a 700-metre-long snow-covered ribbon opposite the Ochsenkopf where skiers and tobogganers whizz downhill and which has floodlights.
At lake Fichtelsee just outside the village of Fichtelberg, the car park is framed by snowy mountains. Children with red cheeks pull sledges, winter sports enthusiasts load cross-country skis and snowshoes from car boots, and the entrance to the more than 250 kilometre long network of cross-country ski trails around the mountain is a stone’s throw uphill. Here you can skate and cross-country ski until spring.
Via well-marked winter hiking trails, we walk on touring skis through deeply snow-covered forest to the Weißmain-Ochsenkopf-Steig trail, crossing cross-country ski trails with cross-country skiers who emit clouds of breath like steam locomotives. A few steps later I am surrounded by the silence of the forest again, once snow falls to the ground with a dull bang, later I hear the long-drawn call of a tawny owl.
"You won’t find better water, it’ll shoot you right to the top"
A Picnic Under the Rocks
At some point we take a tea break at the so-called Felsendach, a bench below large granite boulders not far from the source of the Fichtelnaab, which Schorsch had recommended to me: “You won’t find better water, it’ll shoot you right to the top.”
Until the Fichtelnaab river disappears under trees, it ripples its first metres between willow bushes and mosses, a narrow, colourful ribbon in a world frozen white, where I finally set off again.
No one meets us as we climb further uphill, past covered picnic areas, over icy root networks and on powder snow that has held on in the shade of the mountain forest. At the Weißmainfelsen rock we climb to the viewing platform. From there, the view extends over wide, wooded slopes to the Ochsenkopf peak.
Goethe Has Also Been There
An hour later, a narrow path branches off to Goethefelsen rock, which Schorsch had also recommended to me. The next few metres lead through untracked terrain, I meander between thickly snow-covered spruces up to the granite block on which the great German poet is said to have sat.
Behind me, the transmission mast of the Bavarian Broadcasting Corporation rises 191 metres into the sky on the summit of the Ochsenkopf. Large parts of the former East Germany could receive Western programmes via this transmitter, which broadcast deep into the socialist territory. In the immediate vicinity of the mast base, the two chairlifts end, providing optimal access to the mountain for skiers from the north and south.
In front of me, the undulating landscape of the Fichtelgebirge stretches to the Steinwald forest in the southeast and on to the Rauhen Kulm, whose striking basalt cone breaks the horizon line. I send Schorsch a photo as proof that I was really there, plan a snowshoe tour to the summit for the next day and eat my snack. Then I get into the bindings and soon carve downhill on groomed slopes.
Fichtelsee Ice Bathing Paradise
“I’m not cold,” says the man in the ice hole, although he has been up to his neck in the ice-covered Fichtelsee for minutes. While others watch football, he goes swimming, explains Hans-Jürgen Zippel, regardless of the season.
And Lake Fichtelsee is ideal for a swim in winter. It’s not particularly deep, it’s got a pleasant lake bottom and it’s not very busy. When others were beating up their shins, he preferred to chill in the water. Then he feels like he’s on another level for the next few hours, like he’s in another world.
Another world, with silence, icicles and fox tracks in the snow, while elsewhere the street cafés are already opening – I have long since found this in the Fichtelgebirge, even without ice-hole bathing. And I will be setting off with the Krummbiegl Schorsch next winter. That’s a promise!
Video about winter hiking in the nature park (in German)
Nature Park Ranger Dr Melanie Chisté knows about the attraction of nature. With regard to the animals living there, her most important tip is: Please stay on the marked paths. This way you can easily reach the most beautiful places and protect the fauna and flora.