HIKING GERMANY’S RHEINSTEIG TRAIL
Few countries have such an obvious love of hiking – bordering on fetishism — as Germany, and the Rheinsteig trail is one of the many exemplary highlights that prove the point. Three hundred and twenty kilometers of hilly, dirt trail stretch alongside and above the Rhine River from Mainz (near Frankfurt) to its northern terminus in Bonn, the former capital of West Germany and birthplace of Beethoven. Everything from castles to scenic, fairytale vistas await in between and it’s all right off the train.
In planning my first three stages of the Rheinsteig Trail, I wanted to tackle what I had read to be one of, if not the, most difficult stages in the entire trail. Logically I thought to put that hike in the middle of the three stages, so my wife and I started with an early morning train ride from Düsseldorf to Lorch – one of the many Rheinsteig Trail towns you’ve likely never heard of.
A side note for any potential German or European readers: You have no idea how good you have it. I feel I need to socratically have this sidebar every time I talk about public transport with European friends and colleagues, especially Germans who will bemoan the supposedly terrible experiences they’ve had with Deutsche Bahn, the dominant national and international train service, either showing up late or canceling trains altogether. To that I’ve always said, at least you have trains to be late or canceled. These same people then look at me in horror as I describe the rail services of the United States, specifically my hometown of Cleveland with just two intercity options a day – both in the middle of the night. The fact that I now have easy access to fresh air and nature is something of a blessing that I thank the powers that be for each and every day.
Now back to the story.
At a quick glance, Lorch appeared to be on the quieter side of train stops along the Rheinsteig Trail. Gray clouds hovered overhead, a Rheinland norm, with the sun pondering an appearance. From here we opted to follow the little blue dot (Google Maps) to the trailhead as I had marked it from the map on the Gastlandschaft Rheinland-Pflaz app where you can pull up your specific stage — generally leaving you with no excuse for getting lost so long as your phone holds a charge.
Once the trail begins, signified by a blue sticker on sign posts or spray-painted marker on trees with a wavy white Rhine River streaking through, it’s straight up on forested dirt trail. This, as I would learn, is how the Rheinsteig Trail operates. Start a stage along the Rhine, up into the hills, then back down to the next Rhineland town where the following stage begins.
Thus far my time on the Rheinsteig Trail has been five stages broken up into two trips. To my admitted surprise, my second jaunt on the Rheinsteig Trail varied considerably (in terms of sights to see) from my first three stages despite generally having picked up where I left off. The nearly 50 kilometers from Lorch to Kestert with Kaub and Sankt Goarhausen in between were resplendent with frequent vistas of the towns on both sides of the Rhine. It was the picturesque stuff you’d see on a postcard outside of a tourist shop.
To the contrary, there was hardly a break in the forest to see anything but green leaves during the 44 kilometers from Bad Honnef am Rhein to Bonn with an overnight in Petersberg. The only significant view came at the Petersberg and the Steigenberger Hotel where the quaint, Medieval-German style town of Königswinter sits below. (Of course a sunken fog at the time obscured much of the view, though it did show how quickly the German forest can turn from a fairy tale into something of an ominous, nightmarish novella. This being, after all, the culture that brought us the tale of a forested hermit trying to fatten up children for her dinner.)
Most who hike the Rheinsteig Trail likely follow the stages to the letter, as I mostly did during my first trip, deviating only slightly to take a ferry from Goarhausen across to Sankt Goarhausen for the hotel. With a little confidence and research, you can make a trip along the Rheinsteig Trail what you want it to be.
Hiking heroes can challenge themselves to cover two stages in a day, you can find “Feirenwohnungen” (holiday apartments) along the trail outside of the towns, or as I did, you can hop off the Rheinsteig Trail to cut through the Siebengeberger Forest on local trails to skip the descent into Königswinter and head straight to the Steigenberger Hotel on Petersberg. (Granted the latter does mean missing the very cool Drachen Schloss – Dragon Castle! – but it’s something I had already previously visited.)
Hiking the entirety of the Rheinsteig Trail (in segments) has since become a thing I will do. Best of all it’s something that as a resident of the Rheinland I can do with short notice. Pleasant-looking forecast over the weekend? I can throw on my backpack, hop on the train, and cover a new stage.
If you’re considering adding onto a German vacation, I couldn’t recommend it enough. Many Germans themselves don’t know about this trail, so you’ll truly head home with an experience relatively few travelers can say they’ve had.
See more photos here.