Trekking the Eagle Walk in Austria

The Eagle Walk in Austria

The Eagle Walk is a 257-mile (413 Km) hiking trail that traverses the Austrian State of Tirol in 33 stages moving sequentially from east to west.  Each of the 33 stages comprises one day’s walk, and since camping is not generally allowed along this route, this is a “hut to hut” hiking trail.  There is an additional 9-stage Eagle Walk section in East Tirol, which ends at a hut on Grossglockner Mountain, Austria’s highest point (12,461ft/3,798m).

This trail is one of big ups and big downs with more than 100,000 vertical feet of cumulative elevation gain and 88,000 feet of cumulative elevation loss. Its name comes from its shape, as the map of the trail approximately outlines an eagle in flight. Mid-June through September is the recommended time to hike the trail due to its alpine climate; and even though it is ultimately a thru-hike, numerous section-hiking options exist allowing one to customize a trek.

Trail signage showed distance and hiking time estimates
Trail signage showed distance and hiking time estimates

The trail is well marked and the terrain is rugged with high alpine, pastoral and wooded elements as it meanders through alpine meadows, remote farmsteads, pine forests and small villages, while day’s food and lodging is typically found in an Alm (i.e. hut, hutte, chateau, bed and breakfast, etc.).  Trail difficulty ratings vary from easy to difficult, and difficult sections typically have some exposure. The Austrian trail rating system is a standardized reference for each stage of the trail and noted in downloadable brochures available online.

Stages 4-7 of the Eagle Walk span 45 miles, beginning at a train station in Kufstein and ending down the same rail line in Jenbach. This particular rail line runs multiple times daily from Munich, Germany to Bologna, Italy via Innsbruck, Austria.

The Mission

This past September, my colleague Jim Benning and I were heading to Germany to participate in Climate Smart Municipalities, an exchange program between Minnesota cities and German cities in the state of North Rhineland Westphalia (NRW).   This was our fourth year traveling to Germany, and each year we have tried to tack a few extra days on to our work trip to take some vacation time.

Austrian Alps Route GaiaGPS-2020-01-02T20_39_03

For our mid-September 2019 trip to Germany, we put our focus on a trek in the Austrian Alps.  Since we were obligated to seven days of work in and around Dusseldorf, we needed to fly into a German city that would allow us easy and cheap access to the Austrian Alps, while providing the same for our trip up to Dusseldorf.  Our plan was to hike for four days, going hut to hut, and carrying only enough gear for extreme day hiking.  To that end, and after much research online, we picked stages 4-7 of the Eagle Walk.  We selected this route on the basis that it was easy to access and exit from public transportation, the descriptions of the trail sections indicated a sufficient amount of challenge, and the pictures we found online suggested that the hills were alive (with the sound of music).

The visual splendor of the Austrian Alps.
The visual splendor of the Austrian Alps.

Trip Planning and Research

The State of Tirol has a helpful website dedicated to tourists looking to come to the Alps, and there is an English version.  This website has a detailed, stage-by-stage information set for the Eagle Walk with downloadable pdf brochures including trail descriptions, section ratings, maps, coordinates, and lodging contact information.  Each stage even has a GPX file of the trail section for an easy download to GPS units or upload into apps such as Gaia GPS on an iPhone. They also sell a guidebook, but when I was planning this route, I could not find an English version that was available.

Since I had researched the route, it fell to my friend Jim to reach out and make contact with each of the places that we hoped to stay on each night of our trek.  We did not want to have to do an “emergency” bivy in a farm field nor did we want to carry any extra gear, so Jim set about getting us reservations.  Two of the nights were easy enough to secure via email and phone, but the third night was completely booked up and Jim found it impossible to lock down an affordable sleeping option.  We decided to take a gamble on our final night and look for lodging when we arrived in Steinberg an Rofan on the third day.

The small local train station in Langkampfen, about ¼ mile from the start of Stage 4
The small local train station in Langkampfen, about ¼ mile from the start of Stage 4

Transporation

In order to make this trip work, we decided that flying from Minnesota to Munich, Germany was our best bet.  We arrived in Munich a day before leaving for Austria and were able to book our hotel rooms for the day before and after our trek at the same hotel.  This way, the hotel was willing to store our luggage for us while we were in Austria, which is a key logistical consideration when moving out on a multi-day trek with less than 20 lbs of gear.

The trip route that we selected had an entry point in Kufstein and an exit in Maurach, just a few miles by bus from Jenbach.  A high-speed train runs from Munich to Kufstein then Jenbach, all the way through Innsbruck, and on into Italy and back a few times a day.  We purchased our tickets to Kufstein at Munich’s Central Station on the morning of our departure to Austria, and for less than $75 (about 65 Euros); we were able to book one-way train tickets to Kufstein from Munich’s Central Station, a trip of about 90 minutes.

Once in Kufstein, we were surprised to find out that we had to take a local train a couple of stops from Kufstein to Langkampfen, and then get off the local train next to a farm field and hike a quarter-mile into the village to get up and on to the trail.

Whenever we came to a high point, we found a cross and a trail register.

Our exit from the trail was a bit more complicated but ultimately worked out well except for the fact that we came out of the mountains in a resort town and it was the weekend, so buses and trains were crowded. Our exit consisted of a gondola ride down the mountain from the Erfurtur Hutte to the town of Maurach and then a local bus to the city of Jenbach, where we caught the last train of the day back to Munich’s central station.

Food and Lodging

There is no camping allowed along this trail except in an emergency; so, necessarily, each stage of the trail is set up with options for food and lodging.  Most lodging is available in small villages, on farmsteads, or at old familial mountain lodges along the trail.  These trail accommodations are typically referred to as Alms, with the word “alm” added to the end of the Hut’s formal name – such as Buchackeralm, for example.  The Alms are modest bed and breakfast type hotels and often have a small restaurant, communal bathrooms and rustic, yet clean hostel-style rooms.

The Buchackeralm, a wonderful place to stay on a working farm. It even has indoor:outdoor dining!
The Buchackeralm, a wonderful place to stay on a working farm. It even has indoor/outdoor dining!

Austria is primarily a cash-based economy, but we were able to use credit cards at one of the Alms in Pinegg, which kept some extra euros in our pockets.  Lodging with breakfast was typically about $35-45 euros per person for a shared room, and with dinner and beers at night; we each averaged about $65 (about $70 USD) euros per day on this trip.  Breakfast in the morning was big enough to pack a lunch to supplement the trekking snacks we had stowed in our packs from home.

Jim aptly commented that there is only one architect in the Austrian Alps, and when trekking through the small alpine villages and farmsteads it certainly felt true because the classic Austrian Chateau was ubiquitous. Most of these charming old-world houses have large upper decks covered in colorful flowers with open-air doors and windows from which to savor the views.  Being a rural farming area renowned for dairy products, ranging Austrian cows with horns and bells and stern Austrian steer stares often share the meadows with this trail. At night, the cows come home to the very same barns that often make up the back half of the farmstead houses, and in our case two out of the three Alms that we stayed at on our trek.  You get used to the smell.

How to behave around domestic and farm animals
How to behave around grazing farm animals

Day 1: Langkampfen to Buchacker Alm (Stage 4 Eagle Walk)

  • Trail Rating: Red (intermediate)
  • Distance: 7.95 miles – Moving Time: 4 hours 11 minutes – Total Time: 6 hours 55 minutes
  • Elevation Low to High: 1,646’ to 5,289’ – Elevation Gain: 4,268’ – Elevation Loss: 1,795’

The first steps of this trek took us steeply up and through a charming Austrian village nestled against the hard edge of the mountain.  Finding the church at the town’s center, we located our first signs indicating that we were now on the Eagle Walk.  From there, things went straight up in a hurry as we trekked a logging road and then onto a trail running up through the woods.  Apparently, switchbacks are not a big thing in the Austrian Alps and walking a trail that was arguably hundreds of years old, one cannot argue with what works, but this was a big, straight, up.

The small village of Langkampfen at the start of our trek.
The small village of Langkampfen at the start of our trek.

Just our second day off the plane, and still on Central Standard Time, we climbed and we climbed until we reached our first alpine meadow and stumbled upon a mountain inn with an outdoor seating area facing back down toward the valley.  We each ordered a Rattler, which is a beer mixed with lemonade and took our first real break of the day.  The rest of the hike found us grinding upward again until we finally reached the highest point of this stage.  From this point onward, it was a relatively easy ramble through alpine meadows and farm fields leading down to our home for the evening: the Buchackeralm.

The Buchackeralm is a charming mountain inn settled in the middle of a working farm.  As we entered the yard, a mischievous cow was blocking the road and giving us his best Austrian mad cow stare. I am convinced that is a thing. In a matter of moments, the dog and his owner came to our rescue and shuffled us into the Alm.

Making my way up to highest point of our trek
Making my way up to highest point of our trek

The man spoke English but his wife did not, and so he got us settled and then asked us what we wanted for dinner.  Unaware of the menu options, we asked what he recommended and he said, “the schnitzel.”  We gave two thumbs up to that idea and an hour later found ourselves drinking pilsner in the cozy dining area, chatting up our new friend Rolf (a German hiker that was going our way) and enjoying the best pork schnitzel with lingonberries and potato salad that I have ever eaten.  There is definitely something to be said for eating in an establishment in which you can hear the sound of your pork cutlet being pounded in the kitchen, a dinner that was truly homemade in what must be the birthplace of potato salad.

Day 2: Buchacker Alm to Pinegg (Stage 5 Eagle Walk)

  • Trail Rating: Black (Difficult)
  • Distance: 11.54 miles – Moving Time: 4 hours 48 minutes – Total Time: 8 hours 3 minutes
  • Elevation Low to High: 2,245’ to 5,797’ – Elevation Gain: 3,117’ – Elevation Loss: 5,213’

After a 7 am breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, cold meats, cheese, bread, coffee, juice, and fruit.  Jim, Rolf and I packed up the leftovers for lunch and got ready to hit the trail.  Rolf was up and on his way ahead of us, preferring to do his own hike and we took our time getting ready for the trail.  The jet lag was still a part of the equation, but after a decent night’s sleep and a hot shower, I was ready for more big ups and big downs as we made our way to Pinegg.

Where eagles fly, literally.
Where eagles fly, literally.

The first line of the trail description for this section reads, “Suitable for uphill walking enthusiasts, the grade will keep you busy as you follow trails up, up, up.”  What better way to start a section noted for going up than to take a gentle stroll down to the valley below Buchacker as a warm-up.  Having lost sufficient elevation, our trail turned steeply up bringing us to alpine meadows dotted with dwarf pines at the base of the climb to Plessenberg Peak.

The brochure said that this climb was aided by a series of cables, ladders, and steps, and when I was researching this route, it appeared that we would need Via Ferrata equipment to safely complete the section.  We went so far as to purchase the lanyards necessary to complete this kind of climbing safely after reading about the Iron Way and other climbing assisted routes in the Alps and Dolomites.

However, a week before we left Minnesota, I received an email in response to my request for information on this section.  The response, in broken English, was that the Via Ferrata set up would not be necessary.  So, to save weight we just brought our climbing harnesses, a couple of carbineers and webbing in case we felt the need for added protection along with the cables.  In the end, we walked right to the top and used the cables with our hands.  I never felt that the exposure was such that I needed to tie in, but the trail was steep and daunting nonetheless, if not just a little anti-climactic considering the anticipation.

Climbing beside fixed cables and steep cliffs.
Climbing beside fixed cables and steep cliffs.

There was little switchbacking as we steeply dropped from the alpine environs up top on down onto the paved street that runs through the middle of Pinegg. I was regretting bringing only one trekking pole, as is my usual practice because my knees and thighs were on fire from the steep downhill hike.

Once in this tiny village, we set about finding the Gwercherwirtalm, and for a town with only one street, a few houses and the smallest church I had ever seen, the Alm was surprisingly tricky to find.  I correctly guessed and suggested to Jim that maybe it was on the other side of the huge pile of manure stacked up next to the barn by the dairy.  Indeed, I was correct and as we rounded the corner, we found our friend Rolf, sunning his feet on the Alm’s patio under a cascade of vibrant flowers hanging from the deck above.  We quickly sat down, ordered a beer and began to unwind.  Dinner was schnitzel again, and homemade soup and bread served by a wonderful hostess who lovingly referred to us trekkers as “my hikers.”

Climbing up a cable and ladder section, even though it was steep I didn’t feel the need to clip in for safety.
Climbing up a cable and ladder section, even though it was steep I didn’t feel the need to clip in for safety.

Day 3: Pinegg to Steinberg an Rofan (Stage 6 Eagle Walk )

  • Trail Rating: Red (Intermediate)
  • Distance: 12.1 miles – Moving Time: 4 hours 33 minutes – Total Time: 6 hours 57 minutes
  • Elevation Low to High: 2,201’ to 4,331’ – Elevation Gain: 3,510’ – Elevation Loss: 2,438’

Of all four stages of this trek, stage 6 was the most laid back.  Sure, there was a steep up and a steep down, but nothing long and punishing or at least so it seemed now four days removed from Central Standard Time.  This section of the trek led us through many alpine meadows, farm fields, a small village, past countless deer stands, and down into a river valley out through the woods to Steinberg an Rofan, the biggest small town on our route.

Finding our way to the Waldhauslalm, we settled in for beer and French fries asking our waiter, an English speaking South African, if there was by chance any room at the Alm.  She confirmed what we already knew, and then proceeded to tell us about an elderly woman that lived less than a block away that had rooms for let. Without further ado, we walked over to the house as instructed and knocked on the door.

Alm room rates in Steinberg
Alm room rates in Steinberg

What followed was an intricate and comical exchange of hand signals, pantomiming and broken German as provided by Goggle Translate.  The little old lady did not speak one word of English, our German was just as bad, and apparently, Goggle studied French in high school.  Finally, she had mercy on us and led us upstairs to a room.

The final day of our trek was the longest and the hardest, and we had to be at the Jenbach train station by 5:00 pm sharp or we would miss the last train to Munich and then miss our flight to Dusseldorf the following morning.  Therefore, it was determined that we would get up at 4:30 am and be on the trail by 5:00 am.  We would not be getting breakfast nor lunch from this house, which saved us $5 euros each once we figured out how to make our host understand our plan.

Many of the buildings have a common appearance
Many of the buildings have a common appearance

That evening, we found ourselves back at the Waldhauslalm having dinner with Rolf and some German tourists.  When it came time to order dinner, we asked what our waiter recommended, and she brought us back a huge meatball setting on a bowl of Sauerkraut.  It was a mixture of liver, venison, and fat and it was disgusting.  Rolf went with the Schnitzel, a master level move.

Day 4: Steinberg an Rofan to Erfurter Hutte (Stage 7 Eagle Walk)

  • Trail Rating: Black (Difficult)
  • Distance: 13.43 miles – Moving Time: 5 hours 6 minutes – Total Time: 8 hours 41 minutes
  • Elevation Low to High: 2,794’ to 7,062’ – Elevation Gain: 5,266’ – Elevation Loss: 2,589’

I woke up to a fully lighted room at 4:30 am, and there was Jim standing over the bed, sucking down ranch-flavored tuna out of a foil pack.  I was revolted, but I guess fuel is fuel, at least Jim thinks so. We hit the trail by 5:00 am with headlamps and all of our warm gear on.  There was frost on the ground and it was cold.  Our path led us through the town of Steinberg an Rofan, which is not a big town, but spread out along the valley, and our first mile was on pavement.  Once we finally turned off the road and onto the trail, we again began to climb.

Taking a morning break on the porch of an old hunting cabin
Taking a morning break on the porch of an old hunting cabin

The trail guide had said that the day’s hike was only 18km (11.2 miles), but over the previous three days, we had determined that the km claimed in the brochure was not necessarily the km we walked.  I came to call it Austrian kilometers.  By Jim’s reckoning, we had over 13 miles to go to get to the Erfurter Hutte, our final destination before taking the gondola down into Maurach. Fortunately, the first 4 miles or so were on switchbacked mountain roads, and we were able to make great time.

Leaving the gravel roads and approaching the base of the day’s major climb, we took a rest on the front porch of an old hunting cabin.  Looking back down the valley, we could see Steinberg an Rofan in the distance and gauge the elevation we had gained while staring up at a very steep and sustained climb to the alpine lake up above us.

A herd of chamois tried to avoid us and moved off into a boulder field on the other end of the valley.  The trail weaved in and out of huge white limestone slabs.  Reading the guide would give one the impression that the climb on day two was the most dangerous, but this one was by far the most exposed.  The guide does warn against taking this route in inclement weather.

Limestone rock formations make for incredible scenery once we get above the treeline.
Limestone rock formations make for incredible scenery once we get above the treeline.

As we worked our way up, the trail got very steep and the drop was at least 500 feet to the valley floor.  There were cables to hold on to, but we felt safe enough using our hands.  I noted how the adrenaline of exposure erased the fatigue of the climb.  I passed a big marmot sitting on the edge of the cliff, he stared back at me all fat and sassy, with not a care in the world.

Once up above, we entered the high valley expanse that would gradually lead us down to our final destination on this trek.  We began a steady, but sustained descent that was much longer than expected as we walked down to the ski resort and a cold beer at the Erfurter Hutte.

Gear that Worked

Gossamer Gear Ranger 35 Backpack

I’m a big fan of Gossamer Gear packs and the Ranger 35 is no exception.  This workhorse pack was built for a trip like this one and is perfectly sized for hut-to-hut hiking trips. I find this pack to be too big for day hikes, but when you are carrying everything you will need for four days, yet sleeping and eating in an Alm, this pack is the ticket.  I easily carried 15 pounds of gear comfortably the entire trip, and all of my gear was accessible and well organized.  This pack is perfectly sized to be a carry on in an airplane, and it worked well for traveling to and around Europe for the week after completing the trek.

Oboz Sawtooth II Mid Vent Hiking Boots

I finally found a boot my foot loves.  The Oboz Sawtooth Mid Vent hiking boots worked really well for me, right out of the box.  They are sturdy, stable, provide great arch support and feel like you are wearing moccasins.  I can wear these things all day and after the hike is done too, I’ll be buying more Oboz shoes and boots to be sure.

Prana Zion Hiking Shorts

These shorts really impressed me.  They are tough, stretchy and more or less cover my knees when walking.  I wore them almost the entire time I was trekking in Austria, and then I wore them a few times while in Germany without the benefit of a washing.  These are the best pair of shorts I’ve ever owned and they hold up well to the abuse of trail life.

Salewa Hybrid Ortles Primaloft Jacket

I didn’t think I would like this jacket as much as I did, but for hardcore physical exertion in a cold environment, this jacket was the ticket.  Part synthetic puffy and part stretchy mesh fabric, this jacket has the insulation where you need it and the stretchy everywhere else.  The hood is fully insulated and warm, and on that cold last morning that was below freezing, I wore this jacket all the way up to that high alpine lake, where we met the sun and it was time to stuff it back in my pack.

Gossamer Gear Cuben-Q Storage Packs

I have been using these “possibles” bags for a couple of years now.  I have a large and small-sized bag to store all those little things one needs along the way.  The bigger one holds a headlamp and other camp/emergency items; and the small-sized bag holds my personal items like toothpaste, hand sanitizers, etc.  They are dang near indestructible and you can throw them in the pack and know you haven’t lost any of those little things you can’t afford to lose.

Resources

About the author

Erik Birkeland is an avid hiker with a backpacking problem, that is, he just can’t seem to get enough. Living in Duluth, Minnesota with the Superior Hiking Trail just outside his backdoor, daily hikes and weekend treks fill his free time while he contemplates the next big adventure. He has completed numerous backpacking trips into such diverse landscapes as Escalante, the Wind River Range, the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, the BWCA, Isle Royale National Park, and even Iceland. While he hasn’t gone the farthest, fastest, nor the ultra-lightest; he does aspire to establish as many trekking BKTs (best known times) as possible - meeting the wilderness as it is, by simply getting out there.
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2 comments

  1. This looks awesome! Thanks for posting this!

  2. Thanks Eric, and Phil.

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