Hiking in the Austrian Alps
Written by Ian Finch // Photography by Ian Finch & Daniel Hug
Austria is a dramatic landscape, and for outdoor enthusiasts at least, this is a playground full of promise.
As the small twin prop dips below the heavy late-summer clouds, I catch my first glimpse of Austria. Jagged monuments of geology flank the plane and even at this time of year snow dusts these immense Alpine summits. I notice the lush green valley is peppered with houses and wooden outbuildings. Cattle graze in meadows next to milky blue glacial rivers running like arteries through the landscape. As the plane shudders and lowers I push my head closer to the cold window. In the distance, I make out the city lights of Innsbruck, alive and vibrant. It is the peaks of the Alps that dominate the views from all side of the plane, a seemingly endless jumble of mountains. Vorarlberg, at Austria’s westernmost point, rises up from the Rhein Valley to towering summits, with the Eastern Alps continuing through Tirol. Further east into Austria towards Vienna, the high peaks begin again to tame, but never completely. Austria is a dramatic landscape, and for outdoor
enthusiasts at least, this is a playground full of promise. I’m here to head south into Carinthia, a green region of the Alps some four hours from Innsbruck. Here I’ll pick up a section of the Alpe Adria Trail best known for its fertile mountains, lakes and
Stretching east to west over 180km, Carinthia is home to carved glacial valleys, medieval villages and Renaissance buildings. The Alpe Adria Trail feeds through this dramatic region on its route from Trieste in the Adriatic to Austria’s highest mountain, the Grossglockner, situated in Carinthia’s rugged north. The trail’s entire 750km length spans Italy, Austria and Slovenia. Along with Austrian native Daniel Hug we’ll be exploring one of its 43 stages above Millstätter See.
Alpine Austria is covered in a web of well-signposted trails, thousands and thousands of kilometres of them. Wherever you choose, you’ll be hiking through chocolate box snow-capped mountains, steep valleys, deep lakes and thick forest. Vorarlberg offers low-level ambles or high-altitude expeditions, it’s all here, often within a few kilometres of each other. There are the 3,000m peaks and glaciers around Zell am See-Kaprun. St. Johann in the Kitzbüheler Alps has Tirol’s newest long-distance trail, the 65km Koasa Trail in the shadows of the jutting peaks of the Wilder Kaiser. In summer, Kitzbühel’s green wildlife-rich slopes offer idyllic views, while out of the effortlessly pretty Alpbachtal is a diverse range of hiking and mountain biking routes through narrow gorges and high mountains. The turquoise lakes and high mountains of Tiroler Zugspitz Arena are accessed by more than 150 walking and cycling trails; get up high and you’ll see the peaks across Austria and neighbouring countries. St Anton am Arlberg is an enthralling place to visit as a walker or cyclist. Road and mountain bikers flock to the area to take on these mountain passes. Wildschönau, an hour’s drive from Innsbruck, has more than 300km of walking routes, whether through gorges, through Alpine meadows or up to Grosser Beil at 2,309m. The phrase ‘spoilt for choice’ doesn’t quite do Austria justice.
As the car wound its way up the dirt road from the town of Millstatt to our start point at the Lammersdorfer Hut, the bustle of valley life drifted into the distance below us. Everything appeared motionless up at 1,600m. Around us on both sides of the valley vast woodlands of conifer and pine carpeted the mountains. Shards of late-afternoon sun danced and flickered between the trees as we turned corner after corner. Arriving at the hut, we made last-minute checks to the kit. Maps were unfolded, rocks placed on corners, routes memorised. We had a short walk to where we could link up with the Alpe Adria Trail and only a 40-minute sunset hike upward along a well-marked path. It had been an easy climb to one of the most beautiful vistas I’d ever seen. It was here our tents would lie in wait for the day to give way to the night and the stars to put on their cosmic show.
The turquoise lakes and high mountains of Tiroler Zugspitz Arena are accessed by more than 150 walking and cycling trails; get up high and you’ll see the peaks across Austria and neighbouring countries.
There is something distinctly primal about these moments at this hour of the day. As we come to life, the wildlife and landscape also breathe to life, all guided by the pace of rising of the sun.
My alarm shook me from my heated slumber at 6.00am. Rubbing my eyes, I could see my tent was beginning to light up with the delicate glow of sunrise. Mountain sunrises in Austria are things of mystery and awe. Renowned for their heavenly colours and profound insights, to experience them to their fullest, you have to be up high and with perspective. As the aroma of freshly ground coffee drifted between the conifers, we sat and watched the sun illuminate the mountain landscape. Locally produced salami and bread accompanied our caffeine kick as we sat with feet and faces angled towards the sun. There is something distinctly primal about these moments at this hour of the day. As we come to life, the wildlife and landscape also breathe to life, all guided by the pace of rising of the sun.
Back down, the well-marked path twisted and turned through dense forests, passed Alpine streams and over blind summits. Along the route, we could make out the Italian border and the distinctive jagged silhouette of the mountains.
Approaching the summit of Granattor some hours later we stood awestruck. I had never seen a view, a landscape or a sunset like this. The lowering of the sun had turned the 180˚ mountainscape and the air itself a deep shade of orange and purple, the mountains an even darker shade. Thin bands of clouds stretched out above us under the pinch of jet stream winds. We would face our tents towards the setting of the sun. This is where we would eat, sleep and wake, marvelling at this unique and magical poem of geology that was Austria.
As another morning gave way we stowed kit, captured our moments in time and made our descent down to the Lammersdorfer Hütte, an easy trail of two hours. As we emerged from the conifer woodland the familiar sight of the hütte came into view. People gathered around on benches eating local foods and drinking fresh coffee. Parents and children stood together posing for pictures that would form lifelong moments in their family history. I found this short, accessible section of hiking trail encompassed everything I’d hoped for, from fertile green mountains to Austrian grandeur, history and captivating beauty. The hiking in Austria had ultimately enchanted and woven me into a spell that is set to lure me back time and time again. I’ve no plans to break the spell anytime soon.