The highest mountain in Germany, the Zugspitze is a popular hike in the Bavarian Alps near the Austrian border. There are multiple routes to the top, with most hikers opting to make the ascent of the 2,962 meter high mountain over the course of two days. Options for reaching the top range from riding one of the cable cars to rock climbing up, however if you climb you’ll need the appropriate gear. If you’d prefer to to hike then you’ll want to set aside 7-10 hours and start early so you can catch the cable car down from the summit before it closes at either 4:30pm or 6:15pm (July – August) depending on the time of year you hike. In this post we’re going to give details on hiking the mountain from the German town of Garmisch as a single day hike via Partnachklamm Gorge.
Starting altitude: 708 meters
Elevation gain: approximately 2,200 meters (7,260 feet)
Summit altitude: 2,962 meters
Difficulty: Intermediate – long distance over relatively easy terrain turns to via ferrata and scrambling over scree near the top
Distance: Approximately 21km (13 miles)
Beware if you’re afraid of heights, there are a few sheer drops along the path
There is a five euro pp entry fee to Partnachklamm if you enter after 8am, and the cable car and train back to Garmisch costs 31 euro pp.
You’ll start the hike from Olympia-Skistadion in Garmish-Partenkirchen and follow the marked path to the right of the stadium toward Partnachklamm. If you’re driving you can park at the stadium, if you come by public transportation you’ll need to take the RB Train to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, walk outside of the train station and go left. You’ll find a bus stop on the near side of the street where you’ll ride either the 1 or 2 bus to Olmpia-Skistadion. Tickets for the bus cost three euro per person and the ride takes about ten minutes.
Partnachklamm – 750 meters above sea level
After walking down the road for twenty minutes or so, following signs to Partnachklamm, you’ll reach the toll booth for the beautiful gorge that marks the start of the actual hike. After paying your five euro entry fee you’ll head into a narrow canyon with a light, milky-blue river running through it. A man-made path through the rock wall allows beautiful views of the gorge and the small waterfalls dropping from the sides.
The gorge isn’t quite as long as its beautiful neighbor Hollentallklamm, which is the start of another great day hike to the nearby mountain Kreuzeck, and it takes a half hour or so to emerge on the other side. Looking out from the gorge, the mountains rise up in the distance and you’ll get your first impression of how high you’ll actually have to hike over the next 6-9 hours. Continue down the only path until you reach an intersection across a bridge where you’ll follow the signs toward Zugspitze. This sign was a bit alarming as we were already an hour into the hike and the sign claims Zugspitze is 10 hours away, however we found that estimate to be extremely conservative.
Having a hiking GPS unit or Maps.Me downloaded on your phone with the appropriate maps installed is a good idea for the hike since there are a few places where knowing which path to take can be slightly tricky, however if you always follow the signs for Zugspitze or Bockhutte you shouldn’t have any issues. A relatively flat, long few hours will bring you to a nice lodge where you can rest, order some food, and of course get some Bavarian beer.
Bockhutte – 1,052 meters asl
Heading on from Bockhutte you’ll see a beautiful, relatively large waterfall flowing in the distance and jagged peaks surrounding the valley. A five kilometer scenic walk toward Reintalangerhutte is as impressive of a part of the hike as any. Mountains seem to jut straight out of the earth on all sides and forest blankets the meadow the trail winds through.
Reintalangerhutte – 1,370 meters asl
After passing Reintalangerhutte the trail finally becomes steep as you’ll be ascending just under a kilometer of elevation gain over the next three kilometers of distance. Nice views over the valley below helps to distract from the burning legs and shortness of breath on the way up. Switchbacks and gray rock dominate the steep stretch toward Knorrhutte, along with more views of sharp peaks along the way. An hour and a half of ascent at a medium pace brought us to Knorrhutte a bit faster than expected.
Knorrhutte – 2,052 meters asl
Four and a half hours into the hike we arrived at Knorrhutte and saw a pleasant surprise – a sign pointing out the way to Zugspitze with a three hour time estimate on it. Knorrhutte is equipped with restrooms, a restaurant, and of course plenty of beer. The trail had been pretty empty to this point during our hike, however we came across more hikers here that had spent the night on the mountain and were on the second day of their ascent.
Beyond Knorrhutte the clanging of bells drew our attention to the sheep grazing all around the path. Patches of snow were still alongside and on top of the trail during our visit in early July. Ski lifts and gondolas show that the area is indeed used for skiing during the winter and unfortunately detracts just a bit from the beautiful surroundings as you near the final steep ascent.
Another path joins with the one from Knorrhutte and the trail became slightly congested for a short distance before it reached a fork when we visited. To the left you can head to a cable car which will take you the final 400 vertical meters to the top of the Zugspitze, or to the right you can scramble up the loose scree to a section of via ferrata and reach the top on your own. The scree looked a bit more intimidating than it actually was for us, however you will still likely slide back a step for every few you take upward.
Ascending to the top of Zugspitze
From 2,500 meters to 2,700 or so was the loose scree, and at the top of this somewhat unpleasant section is the start of a relatively easy section of via ferrata – or metal cables and spikes/staples. This part can be tough if you’re afraid of heights, however I found it to be a bit of a thrill as I enjoy sheer drop-offs. If you’re decently well coordinated then this section won’t be too tough, and the very top has a pretty incredible view straight into Austria over a ledge that drops away at an almost vertical angle.
The top of the mountain is just a stone’s throw from this point. A short walk to the first cable car building (there are three!) gets you a clear line of sight to the golden cross that marks the summit. The summit isn’t the highlight of the hike unfortunately since the cable cars open up the top of the country to anyone who wants to see it, leading to a bit of congestion. Despite the plethora of out of shape visitors taking selfies atop the mountain, the peak itself is up an iron ladder and across a short section of metal cables, meaning you can likely enjoy it in relative peace.
Getting Back to Garmisch
If you intend to make this a one day hike then you’ll want to catch the cable car closest to the summit down to the Zugspitzbahn station you passed near the bottom of the scree section. This cable car runs until 4:30pm in the off season, and 6:15pm during summer from July 1st onward. The ticket for the cable car which connects to the cog wheel train back to Garmisch is 31 euro per person and takes between an hour and an hour and a half. There is a new cable car that is supposed to be completed in December 2017 that will significantly speed up the descent.
The cable car is nice and modern, and the Zugspitzbahn really makes the steep ticket price worth it as it’s an amazing cog wheel train that runs through a tunnel in the mountain. A narrow, old tunnel through the earth surrounds your train car as it flies down a track with gears between the rails, keeping you from gaining too much speed and crashing. The train stops at the picturesque Lake Eibsee and a half dozen other places before getting you back to Garmisch Hauptbahnhof (central station) where you can either go and pick up your car or grab a train to your destination.