A guide to making the most of the Black Forest's dedicated winter walking and snowshoeing trails, in the mountains of southern Germany.
At the end of November most of us put our boots away with a sigh, and spend the winter dreaming about spring; green grass under foot, sap rising, buds swelling, and wood anemones and primroses greeting you along the trail. The pleasures of walking are for a warmer, more hospitable time of the year. Only cross-country skiers are equipped to enjoy the wonders of a landscape padded in a thick layer of snow. Cross-country skiing is indeed fabulous in the mountains of the Black Forest: well-groomed trails criss-cross the terrain, track-set for classic cross-country skiing, as well as for skating style – 1200km of them. There’s even a long-distance route of about 100km that runs between Schonach and Belchen, which makes a great multi-day skiing expedition, with overnight stops at a hut and luggage forwarding if you want it.
But there are other ways to enjoy the winter and snow doesn’t need to stop you from getting out there and relishing this beautiful corner of Germany.
All you need are warm clothes, spikes on your boots and a walking pole.
And it’s all the easier because several years ago someone came up with the great idea of creating special winter walking trails and it quickly caught on. Such trails are now standard in all corners of the Black Forest, making it a whole lot easier to enjoy the winter without skies. Winter walking trails have their own waymarkers: a blue disk showing a figure with a backpack and numbers that identify specific routes. These trails are maintained by the local authorities – not cleared entirely but the snow flattened to make it easier to walk on. The routes are chosen for accessibility, so most can be reached quite easily from the centre of a village or town, and they tend to be circuits that lead walkers back to where they started from. They don’t usually have very steep inclines, but mostly meander on relatively level ground. An additional perk is that they are often chosen for their views. Utilising so called ‘panoramic trails’, you can often see all the way to the Alps, or across the Rhine Valley to the Vosges, in the west. The only shame is that they are usually not very long. Most routes average only between 6km and 12km, but walking on snow does slow you down a bit.
If who don’t want to be confined to prepared trails you have another option: snowshoes.
Perhaps one of the earliest inventions for winter travellers, these contraptions have gained popularity over the past few years. With snowshoes you can use almost any trail that is normally signposted as a walking trail, cleared or not. But, there are also some specially waymarked snowshoe trails (a pink disk showing a figure wearing snowshoes), which often go right across fields or through the woods, where normally there wouldn’t be a trail at all.
Although you will be able to walk almost anywhere, it is best to stay on the trails so’s not to disturb the wildlife, which expects to be left in peace in the winter. Besides, some slopes around the steeper mountains, such as Feldberg (the Black Forest’s highest peak) can be risky for avalanches, especially once the thaw sets in.
Snowshoes can be rented at local ski shops, or sometimes at the local tourist office. If you are unsure or have never used them before, it might be a good idea to join a guided snowshoe walking tour first.
Special maps for winter activities are available for the most popular winter sports areas in the ‘Hochschwarzwald’, the high mountains in the central and southern parts of the Black Forest. The maps show routes colour-coded for each activity: cross-country skiing, or downhill, winter walking, or snowshoeing, as well as their respective degree of difficulty.
The maps are well worth the investment and will save you searching for maintained trails in all the wrong places, or worse, from getting stuck in deep snow while attempting to blaze a trail, which is definitely not recommended. (Believe me – I have tried!)
Some of the regular walking trails can also be used during the winter, but beware: the smaller paths in particular can be quite treacherous once they have iced over. Many trails are on rocky ground, or lead along a steep slope, which is not very safe for winter walking. The broader forestry roads are easier to negotiate and generally safer. If you want to explore beyond the prepared and designated winter routes be sure to have a detailed map with you that shows the terrain and likely gradient of any particular trail.
Thanks to the Black Forest’s privileged location in the deep south of Germany, with the Rhine wrapped half way around it along its southern and western edges, several seasons can be experienced here all at the same time. When the vineyards of the Kaiserstuhl or Margrave’s Land already awaken to the sounds of spring and the first flowers begin to poke their heads out above the ground, the higher elevations remain in deep winter mode.
In late February or March it is possible to enjoy the best of both worlds – some fun in the snow, or a spring walk in the rolling hills and vineyards – you choose.
It’s hard to say when the best time to go for winter walking is, as the weather is only getting more unpredictable. In recent years the pattern has been that some short-lived snow may appear as early as December, or early January, only to disappear again soon after. ‘Winter proper’ tends to arrive in the middle or end of January. The latter part of January and February are generally considered the most consistently reliable times for winter fun. By late March and certainly in April, snow has mostly disappeared from all but the highest elevations and north-facing slopes.
The best areas for winter sports in the Black Forest are of course are the highest mountains, which are concentrated in the central and southern regions, all around Titisee, Hinterzarten and Feldberg, and north to about Schonach, home of the cuckoo clock in the central Black Forest. In the northern Black Forest there are also some hubs for winter activity and sometimes it is actually colder up there, even though the mountains are not as high. However, they are the mountains there tend to be much steeper and the area is densely forested, so views are more limited, except on certain exposed trails.
(‘Loipe’ refers to a cross-country skiing track. ‘Status’ indicates whether a particular track is currently open. Green dot means: ‘ok - trail is open’, yellow means: ‘check for current information/updates’, and red means: ‘currently closed’.
Wintersport und Winterwandern im Hochschwarzwald 1:30000 Tourist-Information Titisee-Neustadt und Tourist-Information Hinterzarten Breitnau; Wintersport und Winterwandern zwischen Feldberg und Belchen 1:30000; Tourismus GmbH Todtnauer Ferienland und Belchenland Tourismus GmbH (Both maps are waterproof and tear resistant and come with lots of relevant local information printed on the back.)