Zweitälersteig: Two sides of the Black Forest heartland
The Zweitälersteig is the perfect introduction to the Black Forest – as long as you’re prepared for some legwork, as Kat Morgenstern explains
If you have spent any time researching hiking trails in Germany, you might have noticed that their names often end in ‘steig’. This does not mean ‘a walk’, as one might assume. ‘Steig’ comes from ‘steigen’, which literally translated is German for climbing, and implies some legwork. In the case of Zweitälersteig that means 4120 cumulative metres in altitude, to be precise, to be overcome in the course of a five-stage walk. No mean feat.
I wasn’t fully aware of this implication the first time I walked the Zweitälersteig for Hiking and Cycling in the Black Forest. The route had piqued my interest because it had only recently been established and seemed like a perfect introduction to the central Black Forest. I was not disappointed.
The 106km Zweitälersteig route wraps around the lovely Elztal Valley, just north of Freiburg, where the southern and central Black Forest meet. It is a gorgeous route.
The Zweitälersteig starts out in the little town of Waldkirch at the foot of Mt. Kandel, a mountain that is steeped in tales of witches. The fanciful imagination has been fuelled by the mountain’s geological features. Three of its sides fall off steeply, but the south face slopes down more gradually towards the plateau of St Peter. This gives rise to thermals, which can whip up dramatic thunderstorms in the summer.
The western side of the mountain features a prominent rock cliff, known as ‘the Devil’s pulpit’. According to legend, each year on the Eve of Beltane (Walpurgisnacht, 30 April), the Evil One himself is said to come hither to dance with his flock of witches. The ancient story seemed confirmed when on 30 April 1981 some 2000 square metres of rock collapsed and went crashing down the hill. Evidently, the dancing must have got out of hand.
The first stage of Zweitälersteig is a steep up-and-up 10km walk, much of it on small paths and mostly through the forest. About 1.5km before reaching the summit, Thomas Hütte (a shelter hut) clings to a rocky outcrop high above Glottertal – a great place to take in the gorgeous views of Glottertal, the Rhine Valley and the Vosges Mountains beyond.
Kandel summit itself, at 1241m, is also marked by a hut and offers even more fabulous 360-degree views, but it is very popular with day-trippers and is always busy.
If you have booked a luggage-forwarding package, the guesthouse by the road below the summit (Berggasthaus Kandelhof) will likely be your quarters for the night. It offers quite rustic accommodation and typical hearty sustenance of the Schnitzel variety. But there are not many alternatives up there (although a new hotel and visitor centre is being planned with a projected opening date of spring 2021).
Make sure you have reservations as rooms are limited and can be in demand during the high season. Alternatively, you could take the bus either back down to Waldkirch, which has the largest range of options, or to St Peter, a much smaller village but situated in a gorgeous panoramic location. (Walking to St Peter would add an extra 9km – a lovely walk with sweeping views, which is also described in the guidebook.)
Stage 2 requires good stamina and sure-footedness. It is a demanding 26km walk, with a 1422m cumulative gain in altitude. At first, the trail starts off easy as it heads over to the farm-guesthouse Plattenhof on more-or-less even ground and broad trails with plenty of magnificent views across the upper Black Forest (Feldberg can be seen in the distance).
Starting from St Peter, though, adds an additional 275m climb. Alternatively, take the bus back up to Kandel and start from there.
Unexpected and dramatic
Soon after Plattenhof the trail takes an unexpected and dramatic turn as it descends steeply down to the two-step Zweribach waterfall. Below the falls there is a lovely picnic area at Brunne, with gorgeous views across the valley of the Wild Gutach River.
After crossing the valley, the trail passes through Teich Schlucht gorge on its way to climb back up to the ridge. Once up there, you will be rewarded with fabulous views from the terrace of the Schwarzwaldverein hut Hintereckhütte.
From here, the trail descends steeply through a boulder-strewn slope that requires sure-footedness and strong knees. But once down in the valley the final stretch is an easy amble along the bubbly Gutach River through the picturesque and long, drawn-out valley of Simonswald.
The third stage starts with a climb up to Hörnleberg via an old pilgrims' path along the stations of the cross. Originally a Celtic place of worship, early Christians built their first chapel at the top of Hörnleberg in AD727.
Despite the fact that the chapel has been struck by lightning on more than one occasion, it proved so popular with pilgrims that it was rebuilt every time. Pilgrims still come here to this day, especially during the summer when special pilgrim masses are celebrated on weekends.
And keeping up with the times, there is even a mountain-bike pilgrimage, complete with a mountain bikes blessing!
Once up on the ridge, Stage 3 is long but not that hard. It ambles through the forest on, or just below, the ridge with frequent scenic resting spots on the peaks that are passed along the way, giving way to sweeping views of Elztal Valley.
The final two stages are much less demanding. The landscape takes on a smoother and more gentle character, with many open vistas across the central Black Forest as well as the Vosges Mountains.
The Zweitälersteig is one of my favourite long-distance trails in the Black Forest. Although it is surprisingly hard, the diversity of contrasting landscapes, adventurous paths, fantastic views and glimpses of traditional rural life in the Black Forest more than make up for it.
Where to stay
You can walk the Zweitälersteigis as part of a luggage-forwarding package, which eliminates the need to lug gear up and down the mountains. Alternatively, since every stage starts and finishes by a bus stop, you can base yourself in the valley (eg. Waldkirch) and access the trailheads by public transport each day.
However, this adds travelling time to the already long days and some bus routes are not serviced very frequently, so timing becomes a factor before you start out each day.
When to go
The best time of the year to walk this route is during the main season, from late April/May to October/November, when the trails are free of snow. Note that the season officially starts in May and ends at the end of October, so some of the remote huts, hotels and restaurants may not be open before or after those dates. In icy or snowy conditions, or in high winds, some sections can be dangerous.
Food and drink
Bring plenty of food and especially water each day. There are not many places for refreshments along the way and some of those that do exist are open only on weekends and public holidays.
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