The sled and the ice skates are getting rusty in the basement. The snow shovel and the road salt are up to no good in the corner either. The sky is grey, the streets are muddy and the faces are long – such is the face of winter for most Germans. “If you want to experience the snow and the cold, you need to go to the Alps,” they say. But is that true? Or is there still a place where you can experience real winter, maybe even in North Germany?
There is! A low mountain range near the geographic centre of the republic – known as the Harz Mountains – is making a stand against ever warmer winters: You can reach the area within three hours from Hamburg, Dortmund, Berlin and Frankfurt. Its highest peak, the Brocken, rises to 1,142 metres above sea level where, with an average temperature of 3,5 degrees Celsius, almost Arctic conditions prevail – mind you, that is the annual average! In the cold time of year in the Harz Mountains it is the snow, ice and the cold which rule the day. Reason enough for a winter escape on the long distance hiking route known as Harz Witches’ Trail.
Winter in the water regale
No sooner had we left the train station in Osterode than we were engulfed in a flurry of snow. We – my girlfriend Susanne and I – cannot believe it. The winter in North Germany still exists! Exuberant about the icy wintry wonderland, we put on our snow shoes and start walking. The first destination on our way across the Harz Mountainsis the Sperberhai dam house.
The trail is marked by a sign with a little green witch at all the important waypoints. But why is it a witch? And why is this long-distance hiking trail called Witches' Trail? The answer leads back to the old days: According to popular belief, large witches’ meetings took place on the Broken, which also used to be called the Blocksberg, for example on Walpurgis Night. Now we know where a little witch known from children's books and audio books got her name …
The many snow-covered ditches and canals we hike along also seem quite enchanted. They do not seem to be natural – sometimes, they are parallel to the hill, then deeply rutted, and then above the level of the original topography. We find the answer to the question at the Dammhaus which used to be the changing and prayer house for the mineworkers. The ditches and canals are part of the Upper Harz Water Regale, the most important water management system of the former ore mines around the mining town of Clausthal-Zellerfeld. The water demand in the mines was insatiable, so they even hooked up to the water supply from the creeks of the Broken region which is 30 kilometres away.
The masterpiece within the regal is the Sperberhai dam, an almost one kilometre long viaduct which was banked up laboriously by hand from 1732-1734. Nowadays, part of the Harz Witches' Trail leads along dam crest; the most difficult part for us so far as we sink up to our hips in one metre of fresh snow. The children of another hiking group are loving it. They frolic around the snow-covered fairy tale forest like young dogs and play with the masses of fluffy snow.
Goethe’s peak time
Torfhaus is probably the best-known village in the Harz Mountains. The settlement was the starting point of one of the Brocken's most prominent winter ascents. No less than the privy councillor Johann Wolfgang Goethe (he had not been ennobled back then) climbed the highest peak on 10th of December 1777 with forester Johann Christoph Degen, and wrote afterwards into his journal: “Serene, glorious view, the whole world's in clouds and mist and above all serene.” An entry which is probably much more often read than the rest of Goethe’s work considering the amount of visitors to the Brocken Mountain. More than two million people visit the peak each year. It is doubtful though, if they can enjoy a similar serene view: The bald peak is engulfed in thick clouds for 300 days a year. And there is rain or snow on 190 to 200 days. Maybe another German poet's entry into the guest book of the Brocken hostel is more fitting: “Large stones, tired legs, acid wines, no views. Heinrich Heine.”
When we wake up in Torfhaus in the morning, the clouds have disappeared. A divine winter day lies ahead of us. Step by step, we walk through the winter forest, each breath – condensed in the freezing air – brings us closer to the former listening station of the Warsaw Pact. The Brocken, the highest mountain far and wide, was of surprisingly strategic importance for the former DDR and their Soviet allies. Apparently, it is possible to tap into all phone calls between Paris and Moscow from the top. So it was strictly forbidden to visit the highest peak of North Germany between 1961 and 1989 – then a military prohibited area – and nowadays the most visited mountain in the region.
Wandering and wondering
Suddenly, a loud puff and chug disturbs the chilly silence. A steaming monster rolls towards us: the Brocken train. The beautiful old steam engine leaves behind a big, orange glowing cloud which slowly dissipates amongst the frozen treetopsof the forest. The railway line that was originally used for freight traffic is nowadays mainly used for tourism and leads from the Drei Annen Hohne to the Brocken Mountain.
We keep on wandering towards the peak and cannot stop looking at the reflections of light in the snow and the white ice-covered trees. At above 1,000 metres above sea level, the dome peak lies above the tree line. Below, a sparse woody area of stunted and twisted shrubs and trees fight for survival against the cold and wind. It rather reminds us of the Siberian Taiga than the Central German Uplands.
In winter, when the trees are tortured with the weight of snow and ice, when the fog freezes and everything is covered with hoar frost, the spruce are transformed into bizarre fairytale characters. Further beyond, the view stretches far into the north German lowlands.
We leave the Brocken and hike down to Schierke. For us, this is the most beautiful suburb in the Harz. There are several magnificent buildings dating from the turn of the century when the climatic health resort was booming, alone the mighty town hall and the mountain church are worth a visit.
A short detour brings us up to the weathered granite cliffs of the Ahrensklint – a granite rock formation – which we climb with an iron ladder. The snow crunches underneath our boots, early morning fog condenses in the thick fir forest. It is so quiet while nature is slowly waking up. I look at my phone – no reception. Usually, that is a worry, but this time it is luxury. The Harz Mountains make it easy to leave the rest of the world behind us.
The last stage of our tour – 95 kilometres in total – leads us from Altenbrak down to Thale where we find ourselves on the leeward side of the Brocken. There is less snow in Bodenthal than on the previous days in the hills of the Brocken.
There is real winter!
But here, just before we reach our destination, at the “Grand Canyon” of the Harz Mountains as some local patriots like to call it, nature pulls out all the stops to impress the now weary hiker: vertical cliffs, weirdly bent roots, a gurgling raging river, and over and over again mighty icicles hanging dangerously above our path. The fairytale landscape makes us forget our tired legs at every turn. But such scenes are also the last sign of winter which we leave behind us just as we leave behind the Harz Mountains once we arrive in Thale. Everything is all grey again, the winter fairytale of the Harz Witches' Trail has come to an end and soon we will be back in the foul weather at home in Hamburg. But we are relieved we were able to prove that real winter still exists – and it is closer than you think.
Winter escape on the Harz Witches' Trail
There are many long distance hiking trails but only a few are beautiful in winter. The Harz Witches' Trail turns into a true winter fairytale during the cold season.
Character: Uplands steeped in entwining myths. The one or other cloud might get lost there. Dark conifer forests, deep gorges and a few dams added to the landscape set the scene.
Best time: All year around. It is especially fascinating in the cold season when the Harz Mountains turn into a winter fairytale.
Starting point: Osterode
Getting there and back: Osterode and Thale can be reached by train with the Deutsche Bahn. If you decide for a package deal from a travel agency, the return transport to Osterode is usually included.
Duration: around 5 days, 95.3
1st stage: Osterode - Bärenbrucher Teich, 3 hours, 11.2 km
2nd stage: Bärenbrucher Teich - Torfhaus, 6.5 hours, 23 km
3rd stage: Torfhaus - Königshütte, 7 hours, 23.5 km
4th stage: Königshütte - Altenbrak, 7 hours, 24 km
5th stage: Altenbrak - Thale, 4 hours, 13 km
Accommodation: There are several guest houses and hotels for all budgets. Best option is to book the tour including all overnight stays and luggage transport at a local travel agent.
Shopping: Torfhaus is located 800 metres above sea level and boasts the smallest and highest Globetrotter store (Altes Torfhaus Straße 1, 38667 Torfhaus). There, you can find outdoor clothes, backpacks, hiking shoes and knives as well as books and maps about the Harz Witches' Trail and about the Harz Mountains in general.
Books / maps: We recommend the map “Harzer Hexen-Stieg: Offizielle Karte zum anerkannten Prädikatswanderweg im Harz”, ISBN-13: 978-3936185324, 5.50 €, published by Harz Tourism.
17. November 2016, Text: Ralf Gantzhorn