Unknown to much of the outside world but a mini-Black Forest to northern Germans, the Harz mountains cover an area about 100km long and 30km wide where Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia and Lower Saxony meet. Soaring peaks may be absent, but the region is blessed with thickly wooded rolling hills, low peaks and snug valleys in which small villages and modest resort towns nestle, offering pleasant base-camps for a variety of outdoor activities. The key points of interest are Thale for its location at the mouth of the Bode Valley, an attractive hiking destination; the Brocken, the Harz’s highest peak with its captivating associations with the pagan festival Walpurgisnacht; and the low-key ski resort town of Braunlage. Towns in the foothills such as Quedlinburg and Goslar are also possible gateways for forays into the hills, but if you’re reliant on public transport you’ll need to rise early; though offering vital shuttle services to hikers, bus connections around the Harz take time. Trains are a bit faster and – as part of a network of narrow-gauge railways with steam trains – the journeys are a delight in themselves.
The rather nondescript little town of BRAUNLAGE sits in a beautiful location in a cradle of hills that include the Wurmberg (971m), the Harz’s second-highest peak, whose regular snow has made it a reasonable small ski resort – with Germany’s longest cable-car. But it’s often off-puttingly busy at weekends and, in marginal winters, often slushy around its base. At these times, the better option is to repair to the excellent network of cross-country skiing trails on the rolling hills about town, or mess around on a toboggan – and there are good runs both on the Wurmberg and in town for this – look for signs to the Rodelbahn. Gear for all these winter activities is readily available in town: expect to pay around €20 for a ski or snowboard setup.
Braunlage is also a popular summer base for hikers and bikers, and the tourist office publishes useful free brochures on the local trail network.
As northern Germany’s green lung and main range of proper hills, the Harz has been well-developed for all the most common outdoor activities. And some first-class spa and sauna complexes provide the perfect counterbalance.
The rolling hills, low peaks and dark valleys of the Harz offer easy terrain for a huge network of well-signposted trails, while maps are readily available. Recommended are the inexpensive waterproof and tear-proof ones published by Publicpress – with a logo of a sun wearing sunglasses – which cover a number of areas of the Harz at different scales; the 1:50,000 ones are most useful for hiking. With navigation very straightforward and terrain relatively undemanding, it’s easy to forget that the Harz is a highly changeable mountain environment, so be prepared for storms and sharp temperature changes.
With good trails everywhere there’s no single best base for hiking the Harz, though Thale by the Bode Valley, and Schierke on the slopes of the Brocken, are particular hotspots.
Cycling the Harz is a pleasure if you’re reasonably fit, though many of the roads have tight corners and fast traffic, so it’s worth planning routes along the many even and fairly smooth forestry trails that crisscross the range. Again, these are well marked on Publicpress maps, who have a range of cycling maps at a more useful smaller scale. Mountain-bikers will find the network, expertly documented in the book Der Harz für Mountainbiker (€13.60; available from most tourist offices), a bit tame, so adventurous riders should try visiting the main ski areas in summer for their ski-lift-accessed trails. Best are Braunlage and Hahnenklee (bike-park-hahnenklee.de), 16km southeast of Goslar; Thale’s Rosstrappe also has a single reasonable trail (see Thale).
When snowfall cooperates, skiing and snowboarding are possible throughout the Harz and many towns are geared up for winter sports, making equipment rental easy and inexpensive. Tobogganing is very popular, with special runs in many places and the cross-country skiing trail network well developed.
The main downhill centres are at Braunlage and St Andreasberg in the central Harz and Hahnenklee in the north, but there are half a dozen smaller spots too. Braunlage often has the best conditions and offers a good selection of runs to keep most skiers and boarders happy for a long weekend. Check harz-ski.de for conditions throughout the range.
Braunlage is also home to the ice hockey team Harzer Wölfe (harzer-woelfe.de), a reasonably talented, and fairly rabidly supported, outfit who play in the stadium in the centre of town. Catching a game can be good fun for the atmosphere and chants alone.
The finest spas and saunas in the Harz are in some of its smallest towns, where good signposting generally means they’re easy to find; enquire at a local tourist office for bus connections if you don’t have your own transport.
Bodetal Therme Parkstr. 4, Thale,0170 528 55 66. The newest spa in the Harz, with a lovely selection of saunas and steam rooms and the crowning glory of some terrific views. 4hr for €12. Mon–Wed & Sun 10am–10pm, Thurs–Sat 10am–11pm.
Heisser Brocken Karl-Reinecke-Weg 35, Altenau, 05328 91 15 70, kristalltherme-altenau.de. Relatively new and well-designed sauna complex, 20km northwest of Braunlage, with excellent views over wooded hills from several outdoor pools (one with a waterfall). Three hours: €10.80. Mon–Thurs & Sun 9am–10pm, Fri & Sat 9am–11pm.
Sole-Therme Nordhäuser Str. 2a, Bad Harzburg, 05322 753 60, sole-therme-bad-harzburg.de. Rambling pool and sauna complex with many different heated outdoor pools, saunas and steam rooms, including one in which you rub salt into your body. Day-ticket €12. Mon–Sat 8am–9pm, Sun 8am–7pm.
Vitamar Masttal 1, Bad Lauterberg 05524 85 06 65, vitamar.de. Large family-friendly pool and small swank sauna complex, 18km southwest of Braunlage. Three hours: €9.60. Mon–Fri 10am–10pm, Sat & Sun 10am–9pm.
The severe little town of RÜBELAND strung out along the Bode River, 15km from Thale, has been on the tourist map ever since the 600,000-year-old Baumannshöhle cave was discovered by a fifteenth-century miner. Goethe toured the cave three times, as did Heine, treading in the footsteps of Stone Age inhabitants and Ice Age bears, some of whose skeletons are on display. The neighbouring Hermannshöhle is more modest, but its stalagmites and stalactites more impressive. The two sets of caves tend to open on alternate days; call in advance to find out.
The large village of SCHIERKE gathers at the foot of the Brocken (1142m), the Harz’s highest peak, 15km west of Rübeland, and is the last stop for the narrow-gauge Brockenbahn. Hiking up the Brocken is the obvious attraction, but there are many other good rock-climbing, biking and hiking routes in the area, including two enjoyable shorter walks to jagged rock formations: the Feuersteinklippen are just thirty minutes’ walk away, the Scharcherklippen ninety minutes. Pick up free maps at the tourist office. In winter there’s first-class snowshoeing and cross-country skiing on a 70km-long trail network.
Given its mystical reputation (see “Walpurgisnacht”), and as the highest peak in the Harz, the ascent of the Brocken is for many a vital part of a Harz itinerary. So if you’re after peace look elsewhere. Options to ascend it include the Brockenbahn railway (€18 one-way), horse-drawn wagon – or sleigh in winter (both around €20 return; contact tourist office in Schierke) – or on foot. From Schierke, the sealed but traffic-free Brockenstrasse makes for a straightforward 12km hike, but is probably a better descent, taking the more interesting and scenic 7km route via Eckerloch up. The Brockenmuseum by the railway terminus near the summit has exhibits about geology and the mountain’s mythology, but says little about the GDR era, when the Brocken was a military no-go area for Germans. The easy 2.5km path around the summit offers good views over the blanket of trees that covers the Harz and some of the settlements in the foothills.
Upstream along the Bode River, 10km southeast of Quedlinburg, the Harz mountains rear up beside the modest steel-making town of THALE in scenery which awed both Goethe and Heine. In particular, two rugged outcrops – the Hexentanzplatz and the Rosstrappe – capture the imagination, partly for their mythical associations. Both are accessible by chairlift while the lush Bode Valley between them is home to the Hexenstieg, one of the Harz’s most idyllic hiking routes and an easy day-hike. With a further 100km of marked trails in the vicinity, Thale also makes for a superb base for longer walking holidays.
Among railway buffs the Harz is famous for having Europe’s largest narrow-gauge railway network: the Harzer Schmalspurbahn (03943 55 80, hsb-wr.de). Its 140km of track is plied largely by steam trains, and seeing the antique technology in action is as much part of the pleasure as the scenic terrain that’s negotiated by steep gradients and tight corners. It all adds up to an interesting and unusual way to see some attractive, out-of-the-way places without doing the legwork yourself. Tickets can be bought for single journeys, or as a pass to the entire network (available at the main stations): €44 for three days and €49 for five days; children travel half-price, while a €68 family card covers two adults and two children for a day. The network divides into three lines: the Brockenbahn climbs steeply from the Schierke up the Brocken to a height of 1125m, scenically at its best in winter when the peaceful heights are blanketed in snow; the Harzquerbahn is a 60km route that twists all the way across the Harz in seventy bends between Wernigerode in the north and Nordhausen in the south. At its highest point, Drei Annen Hohne, you can transfer onto the Brockenbahn; the Skeletbahn, beginning in Quedlinburg, runs to the Eisfelder Tal where you can change onto the Harzquerbahn. The steam trains along this route are real antiques – the oldest is from 1887.
According to legend, every year on April 30, Walpurgisnacht, witches and warlocks descend on the Harz to fly up the Brocken on broomsticks and goats. Here they gather to exchange tall tales of recent evil deeds as foreplay to a Bacchanalian frenzy of fornication, including with the devil himself. The event was so vividly embellished that for centuries local peasants lived in fear of meetings with stray witches. By hanging crosses and herbs on house and barn doors they tried to protect themselves and their animals; church bells would toll and the most superstitious would crack whips to deter evil forces.
At some point this night became combined with age-old local festivals: the Celts celebrated this as the devil’s final fling before spring triumphs over winter in festivals similar to those in other Celtic lands, including Scotland’s Beltane, while Germanic tribes celebrated the wedding of the gods Wodan and Freyen. The name Walpurgisnacht probably comes from Waldborg, the pagan goddess of fertility. Over the centuries, as Christianity frowned on these celebrations, they became a highlight of the black-magic calendar: Goethe’s Faust joined a “whirling mob” of witches on the Brocken’s summit.
Today, gatherings by New Age pagans and revellers occur all over the Harz on Walpurgisnacht, but the most popular places are at the Hexentanzplatz in Thale where 35,000 arrive for an organized celebration; and the trek up the Brocken from Schierke in which similar numbers come together for a more rough-and-ready experience that lasts until dawn.