Where the Witches meet: Hike the Harz!

After the German poet Goethe returned from his first hike up to the Brocken, the bizarre mountain range, undergrowth and stone formations around this highest peak in Northern Germany inspired him to write his mystical play “Faust.” As I have been a great Goethe-Fan ever since and the Brocken has been my backyard mountain for these past three years, its high time to present the Brocken Tour to you – one of my favorite hikes! It’s an amazing day tour through the fairytale landscape of the Harz mountain range. A great hike to go in a bigger group, but also just by yourself, contemplating about “whatever holds – The world together in its inmost folds.”

Duration:                                6 – 8 hours (depending on the breaks you take)

Difficulty:                                Intermediate (but strenuous)

Seasons:                                  year round

Difference in Altitude:          850 Meters

Summit:                                   1141 Meters

Route:                                      “Brocken”- Parkinglot in Ilsenburg – Brocken Summit – Plessenburg –
“Brocken” Parkinglot Ilsenburg

“Ah! could I but on mountain height
Go onward in thy lovely light,
With spirits hover round mountain caves,
Weave over meadows thy twilight laves,
Discharged of all of Learning’s fumes, anew
Bathe me to health in thy healing dew.
Woe! am I stuck and forced to dwell
Still in this musty, cursed cell?”

Faust’s Study, in: Faust, Johann Wolfang von Goethe, 1831.

 

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The wild and mysterious landscape of the Brocken has been inspiring poets and dreamers for centuries. The Brocken, or Blockberg, as its also called, in history and myth is considered the secret meeting spot of the witches on Beltane, the mid between spring equinox and summer solstice. As the highest peak of the Harz mountain range, the Brocken is the ideal goal for your first hike in the Harz! Although its elevation of only about 1100 meters is below the heights of alpine regions, its microclimate gets close to what you find on mountains higher than 2000 meters: About 300 days of the year you get thick fogs and mists wafting up from the tree tops. Its peak is above the tree line and usually is covered in snow from October to April.

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Brocken peak with a little detour!

The hike itself is not too difficult, though quite challenging with regard to your fitness. This is especially true in the winter time, when you can encounter up to one meter of snow on the paths. However, this is also the most exciting time to get up there: Close to no tourists at all and you can relish in nature and the mysterious atmosphere just by yourself. In case you go right after fresh snowfall, make sure you bring hiking poles and maybe a pair of snowshoes. In the summer time you can easily do this hike in trail trainers, in fall and winter I strongly recommend proper hiking books and a pair of spare socks year round.

The nice thing about hiking in a Natural Reserve in Germany is that you don’t need a map to find your way. There are signposts everywhere along the paths and usually you can also ask other hikers along the way. Your hike starts at the “Brocken”-Parking Lot in Ilsenburg. Make sure you’re not dressed too warmly right from the beginning, you’ll get warm soon enough! Also, bring enough water and food, as there is only two stops along the way where you can buy drinks or snacks.

Paths of the Poets – Harz has History!

The first part of your hike is easy to start as you follow the logging roads. This section is also part of the “Heinrich-Heine-Weg”, one of many poets who let themselves get carried away by the unique character of the Harz. (A great alternative is the “Goetheweg” from the Torfhaus, however the Torfhaus is not as accessible as the Parking Lot in Ilsenburg). Soon enough you can chose to either left or right along the riverbank. Walking up I recommend the left route which is right by the rushing water of the river and from where your view opens up so you can see the Brocken peak for the first time. However, this path can be a bit tricky and slippery in between. Don’t hesitate to use the metal cables anchored in the stone to your left to make sure you don’t slip and fall down into the river bed. This is also the reason why I recommend to take the other route on your way back: In the winter time dusk catches up with you between three and four in the afternoon already and you’d rather be on that easy logging road on your way down.

 

See the Brocken peak for the first time!
See the Brocken peak for the first time!

 

After about 45 minutes you’ll see the Brocken peak right in front of you, waiting. A couple of minutes later there is a little shelter you can use in bad weather to have sip of water and a quick bite. From here you walk straight toward the peak and start “climbing” a bit for the first time, which means you realize the difference in altitude you’ll cover today for the first time. This part of the way is especially nice as the path meanders through the last trees, scattered or standing in pairs and especially in winter this is where you are wrapped up in the very special atmosphere of the Harz.

The final meters up the Brocken: Reach the top!

Another 45 minutes later you’ll get to the least attractive section of your hike. It’s a steep incline up the only concrete path used by the East German military before German Reunification and it really takes its toll on your knees and joints in general. In case you have any condition in this regard – this is the occasion to wear sport bandages and the like from the very beginning and to rely on a pair of hiking poles.
However, the great news about this section is: You’re almost there! After about another half hour you’ll see the tower and weather station ahead of you. And of course you’ll want to make several stops on your way up as the view is getting better and better. If you’re lucky, you may even see as far as the city of Henry the Lion, Braunschweig (Brunswick).

Almost there!
Almost there!

At the top of the Brocken you’ll find a restaurant where you can even have a warm meal. Don’t be too disappointed by its ugliness and expect it to be really crowded. The building for sure has seen better times and the peak, for good or for bad, is also accessible by train. (It’s a great thing for families and also the elderly, as you can enjoy this great view, too!) So in case you’re looking for solitude simply keep on walking over the top and take your break some time later on your path. In case you don’t have too much time, you can take the train from here down to Ilsenburg, too. But of course you’d miss out on the great views and landscapes yet to come. By taking the rout over the “Wolfsklippe” you’ll be walking through the movie set of “The Black Plague” which was shot a couple of years ago with Sean Bean acting as the fearless knight, fighting the supernatural. The landscape here is profoundly different from what you have seen so far. With its huge clear cuts, burned soil and huge rocks it may send up the shivers form your spine at any time of the year and day. But don’t worry! Lush and dark green forest is just waiting around the corner. You follow the little winding path through the trees, feeling more and more like “Hänsel and Gretel” setting out on an adventure and will get your reward at the “Plessenburg.” This pub in the middle of the forest is very popular especially in the summer and has been there for quite some time. Unfortunately, the food is not all that exciting, but you will love your fresh “Alsterwasser”, the mix of Pilsner Beer and Lemonade, after your exciting day. From here its only about another one and a half hours before you get back to the parking lot, so you can take some time before you finally head back and leave this land of fairytales behind.

Want to know more about great hikes in Europe and round the world? Have a look at my suggestions for the Hochgern in Bavaria, close to the Chiemsee and the Areuse Canyon in Switzerland!

 

And…When do you dare?

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