Through the Black Forest on The Westway

The Westway (Westweg) is the long distance walking route that travels through the heart of the Black Forest in Southern Germany. Here, Cicerone author Kat Morgenstern describes some of the highlights.

190001 Jpg
Scenery between Schliffkopf and Alexanderschanze

There it is again, the distinctive red rhombus marker of the Westway, (Westweg) that blazes a trail right through the Black Forest in Southern Germany. I have come across it many times: at the gorgeous viewpoint of Hahnenpfalzhütte, high above Bad Herrenalb, winding along a small boardwalk path through the high moors of Kaltenbronn, traversing Hornisgrinde (the highest mountain of the northern Black Forest), at Schliffkopf riding the central ridge of the massif and passing close to the source of the Danube in the hills above Schönwald. I found it at Titisee, the pretty epitome of a Black Forest tourist trap, and, of course, crossing Feldberg, Germany’s highest mountain outside of the Alps (whose views make up for its somewhat bleak appearance). I joined it on my way up to the top of Belchen, the holy mountain of modern neo-Celts, who consider it sacred to the Sun-God Belenus, and I followed it to the Blauen, the last major peak before the Black Forest ripples down towards Basle, framing the ‘knee’ of the Rhine.

The Westway seems to be everywhere. By the time I had completed the research for ‘Hiking and Biking in the Black Forest’ its red marker was an old friend. I had encountered so many of its different faces as our paths crossed, joined or parted.

Whenever I see it ‘Fernweh’ – the road to adventure – is calling my name.

As any long-distance walker will tell you, all multi-stage routes have that kind of allure, but none more so than the ancient or historic tracks: pilgrim routes, like the Way of St James to Santiago de Compostelathe Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, or, lately, the Everest Base Camp Trek, for those who are unlikely to climb the world’s highest mountain themselves but want to get close. It is as though the awe and wonder of those who have gone before still echoes from the mountains and as you walk it is keeping you company.

Established in 1900 as the first project of the Schwarzwaldverein, the Westway, or Westweg is one of the oldest hiking trails in Germany, and probably one of the oldest in all of Europe. Of course people walked it before then, but back in the 1900s few people were fortunate enough to have any leisure time at all and tourism was in its infancy and so the idea of marking and maintaining trails specifically designed for ‘leisure walking’ was quite a bold idea. That idea proved to be a visionary one as walking holidays have since become a mainstay of tourism, and are particularly popular at the moment.

Markgräflerland as seen from the Hochblauen

Today the original route of the Westway has been modified to suit the preferences of modern walkers but it still remains a classic long-distance route. Back in the 1900s hikers (in Germany at least!) usually walked in groups with a jolly tune on their lips as they went marching through the forest on broad forest tracks whereas these days we prefer walking on smaller trails and in smaller groups. So the German Ramblers Association has compiled a set of criteria to define what modern walkers are looking for in a long-distance trail and routes are now assessed accordingly. Criteria include the type of trail surface and terrain, small paths rather than forest roads or even paved country lanes, accessibility (especially by public transport) and number of cultural or natural highlights that can be seen en route. Trails that score highly are awarded a ‘quality route certificate’. The Westway was one of the first ‘quality routes’ (Qualitätswanderwege) to be so certified but in order to meet the criteria it had to be modified a little.

Another expansive view from the top of Belchen

From Pforzheim to Titisee the Westway also forms part of the European long distance trail ‘E1’, which runs from the Nordkapp in northern Norway to the Abruzzo National Park, just south of Rome. At Titisee the Westway splits into an ‘Eastern’ and a ‘Western’ variant. The Western variant climbs up to Feldberg and heads further west to Belchen and the Blauen before descending to Basle through the southern Markgrave’s Land (Markgräflerland). The Eastern route takes a quieter ramble via the more gently rolling hills of Hotzenwald and Dinkelberg, the so-called ‘southern sun terrace’ of the Black Forest – not as spectacular on the peak-bagging scale, but offering many fabulous alpine vistas if the weather is clear. It’s a tough choice.

On both routes you can have your luggage forwarded for you – ‘Wandern ohne Gepäck Pauschale’ as it’s called in German. The Black Forest Tourist Board and a handful of private companies offer such packages. It’s a great way to do a long-distance trail without being weighed down and with the certainty of a comfortable bed and good, hearty food at the end of the day. All you need to carry is a day pack with your weatherproof gear and food and water in case there are no refreshments available en route.

Both routes are beautiful, but the western variant is busier as it attracts many day trippers en route to some of the most popular spots in the Black Forest.

Martin's Chapel near the source of the Danube

Of course walking independently, choosing your accommodation wherever you see fit and carrying your own pack is also an option but during the peak walking season you should always book ahead. The little towns and villages are popular with tourists and the ‘shoulder season’ of April/May or September/October especially are prime times for walkers.

Camping is also possible and some people take the full kit, pots and pans and all, and use the rustic shelter huts that are dotted throughout the region. However, this is not the most comfortable alternative. The huts are very basic and have no beds. You would also have to carry quite a lot of food and water as the trail does not pass through many towns or villages.

Alternatively, the individual stages of the Westway can also be done as day trips. The trailheads and end points of each stage can usually be accessed by public transport, although it might mean having to walk a little further. If you want to do consecutive sections coordinating your walking schedule with the public transport schedule can be complicated but the tourist board does publish a brochure with public transport options for each stage of the Westway.

You can also just pick a section here or there, depending on where you are based and how many kilometres you feel comfortable walking. Some of the standard sections tend to be quite long, but very often it is possible to shorten the day’s hike and use public transport to return to your base.

If I had to pick just one stage out of these 280km, I would be pretty hard-pressed. But the stage that crosses this highest peak of the Black Forest, from Hinterzarten to the base of Belchen (Wieden), would win my vote, despite the ‘culture shock’ that awaits the unsuspecting walker on the top of Feldberg. As long as the weather is cooperative it’s hard to beat this part of the trail for both variety of terrain and fabulous views.

Sunset over the Rhine Valley at Hochkopf
Map of  Germany

Kat Morgenstern

Born and raised in Berlin, Kat Morgenstern is a grassroots herbalist, ethnobotanist, writer and ecotravel professional. She has spent most of her adult life in the UK, US and France but currently lives in Germany's southern Black Forest, where she loves to roam the hills and forests.

View Articles and Books by Kat Morgenstern

Get involved with Cicerone