Disclosure: I traveled as a guest of Tourismus Baden-Württemberg and Die Burgenstraße. As always, all opinions are my own.
The sun is out of hibernation. A perfect brush of green sweeps over the countryside. The historic squares and castles come alive once more. Spring has breathed life into Germany. And life in Germany means one thing — Man muss wandern. Time to hike Germany’s Neckarsteig and the Castle Road.
Hiking in Germany: Neckarsteig and the Castle Road
Germany has no shortage of multi-day hiking trails. There’s the Rheinsteig, the Neanderlandsteig, and the Wilderness Trail in Eifel National Park to name just a few in western Germany alone. The Neckarsteig covers 128 kilometers (about 80 miles) from Heidelberg to Bad Wimpfen along the Neckar River with nine stages total. Like the Rheinsteig, you’re hiking from town to town with most stops offering excellent rail service so all you have to worry about is the gear on your back.
A little bonus that the Neckarsteig offers is that it traces a good chunk of the Castle Road, a tourist route starting in nearby Mannheim that runs to Bayreuth just before the Czech border. The Castle Road (or Burgenstraße) is parallel to the Neckarsteig, meaning you have a number of options to visit the castles if someone in your group isn’t as nuts about spending up to five hours or more in the woods. Trains run frequently along the river and you can cycle the route as well.
For the purposes of this piece, we’re looking at hiking the first three stages of the Neckarsteig.
Heidelberg to Neckargemünd — 18 kilometers (including Philosophen Weg)
The Neckarsteig starts off in Heidelberg, one of the most significant cities in the region and most impressive. You’ll either want to start or end your trip here.
I had a personal interest in starting in Heidelberg because it’s where Mark Twain spends significant time in A Tramp Abroad. After taking the boat to Hamburg (because that’s what you did back then), Twain took a train through Frankfurt and Mannheim to set up camp in Heidelberg. Granted this was before the two world wars, so things have changed a bit since. For instance, I didn’t spend my afternoons watching fencing matches at the university.
That said, the university remains an anchor institution in the city. In fact, you’ll hear more American English here than almost anywhere else in Germany — military bases excluded. Although young passersby and the occasional busker on Karlsplatz will be using English, this is still very much a German city with many of those picturesque sights foreigners expect of Germany. You also can’t escape German food in the very German restaurants — but why would you want to? It was schnitzel for me with a side of roasted potatoes at Hackteufel.
Getting back to the Neckarsteig, we started by adding a bit of a detour. A New Zealand photographer based in Heidelberg by the name of Paul Michael suggested starting with a jaunt along Philosophenweg (Philosopher’s Walk) on the northern side of the Neckar River before heading up to Heidelberg Castle on the opposite side where the Neckarsteig trailhead is. Whether you do it the day before or as a start to your Neckarsteig hike, it’s something to make time for if you’re looking to get some of the best views of the city and the castle. Photographers will want to go the night before since the sun rises over the castle.
One of the many great things about hiking is you’ll never know who you’ll meet along the trail. Not two kilometers into the hike, a man on Philosophenweg starts chatting us up alongside his wife. Turns out he’s from the former Yugoslavia and served in the Israeli military. He was visiting from where they now live in San Diego, “The only place worth living in within the United States” — a point made abundantly clear after we shared that we’re originally from Ohio. Possibly sensing that belittling one’s home state isn’t the most endearing conversation starter, he switched to focusing on our dog, Moses, and suggesting that he make sure to keep his Facebook relationship status to single “so he can find a nice Frau in Germany.”
The only negative of starting the Neckarsteig with the Philosophenweg detour is that you’re adding an extra climb along with padding on even more kilometers. Like most views, you need to go up to get it. Then, it’s back down narrow cobblestone footpaths to cross the Alte Brücke, go through the Altstadt, and back up again to Heidelberg Castle. No judging if you need to take a break at the castle gardens, maybe even grabbing a coffee and bretzel at one of the kiosks.
Heidelberg Castle immediately stands out as one of the most visually interesting castles in the region. Living in Germany, you start to get immune to castles, especially once you realize that few are as truly as impressive as Bavaria’s Neuschwanstein — the inspiration for the Disney castle. Still, Heidelberg Castle dazzles the throngs of international tourists with its blend of restored beauty and interesting ruins.
On a nice day, it doesn’t take long to get a bit overwhelmed by the tourism. Spanish and Mandarin appeared to be the languages of choice over German or even English. After a quick walk through the courtyard, we finally found the nearby trailhead to the Neckarsteig and started following the blue N posted on street signs and trees throughout the length of the trail.
What we didn’t realize, and you’ll get the benefit of this warning, is that the trail immediately goes straight up. I’m talking a kilometer march up stone steps that gets as steep as 45 percent grade. It turned out that the beginning would be the most challenging bit of the first three stages.
Your reward at the top is Königstuhl with yet another view of Heidelberg, this time looking tinier than ever before as you peer down below. From here, like the Rheinsteig, the trail bobs and weaves up and down through the forest before sending hikers down into the riverside town of Neckargemünd.
Tip: Bring plenty of snacks. Unlike the Rheinsteig, you won’t be finding cafés or restaurants along the route.
See hike here on Strava.
Neckargemünd to Neckarsteinach — 12 kilometers
Neckargemünd is the first of Die Romantischen Vier im Neckartal — the romantic four in the Neckar Valley with Neckarsteinach, Hirschhorn, and Eberbach rounding out the group. Here you are firmly off the beaten path of Germany.
There’s no mistaking that Neckargemünd is a small town. After crossing a small bridge into town, you come to a junction of three streets — Mühlgasse, Haupstraße, and Shiffgasse. These, for all intents and purposes, are the three streets of Neckargemünd and you can see the entire town in a short stroll. That means plenty of quiet as you stare out onto the Neckar River. At least so I thought.
Not long after checking into the Art Hotel, I hear the faint echo of marching band music. To our great fortune, it just so happened that a band (dressed in Bavarian-style Lederhosen and Dirndl, for reasons unbeknownst to me) complete with a conductor were out on Marktplatz performing for a small Oktoberfest-style gathering of locals. It seemed to be a fundraiser of sorts with patrons purchasing tickets to then be exchanged for brats and beer, served by baby-faced teenagers working their way down aisles of picnic-style seating. Whatever the occasion, the town appeared to be out in full support.
The church bells rang incessantly starting around 6:30 the next morning — the nearest ones went on for about a minute. I could start to feel my head ringing with each strike of the bell. After about a minute, which seems like an unearthly amount of time when counted in bell-clangs, there’s a brief, blissful pause until another bell, mercifully a bit further away, starts off again.
The bells continued throughout the morning hike to Neckarsteinach as we worked our way through the modest city gate and back up the hillside to wooded trails with exposed roots and the smell of fresh pine permeating. Early on, like in Heidelberg, we run into a talker. She first runs by, offering a polite “Morgen!” but then we catch up with her at a nearby viewpoint. She asks me in German if I use my camera to take pictures of animals. My accent (or lack thereof) lets her know I’m not a native speaker and she switches to our mutually native language, English. She’s from Scotland but lives in the area these days.
“I’ve never done the Neckarsteig, but I really should.” She jumps on and off the trail during her walks and runs. Following a particular route never made much sense for her since she knows the various trails by heart that criss-cross the area.
“Oh, it’s just wonderful here,” she adds as our conversation touches on the beauty of the Neckar Valley.
“The Germans don’t know how lucky they are,” I add in agreement.
Not wanting to keep us (we were weighed down by backpacks, after all), she wished us well on our hike after leaving us with a tip to check out Goethe’s Blick — a short detour off the next day’s hike.
This second stage of hiking is, in total kilometers, comparatively short, but it starts with a steady climb for the first 1.5 kilometers before dipping back down just so you can go back up again into Dilsberg with its historically impregnable 12th-century castle. (That is, impregnable until Imperial forces took it in the 17th Century — though at least the French never did.)
As you approach Dilsberg, you’ll find a sign on your left (if you’re hiking Neckargemünd to Neckarsteinach) pointing to the town and its castle. You’ll climb a short set of stone steps and come out of the woodland onto a nondescript parking lot. This is off the Neckarsteig trail, but signs note that you can pick it back up after your short trek through town. We admittedly failed to find the connection and ended up just backtracking where we originally came out, only to notice the obvious connector trail by Dilsberg Castle as we passed it en route to Neckarsteinach.
Dilsberg, as you might imagine, is quite small but there are a handful of restaurants where you can stop if you can’t wait for the last two to three kilometers when you’ll reach Neckarsteinach. Once you do continue, the trail has a short climb before plummeting down the hillside with Neckarsteinach visible to the north. The path takes you over a dam crossing the Neckar River before turning into paved trail full of cyclists, pedestrians, and fellow hikers. Find a Biergarten and celebrate with a tall one and something meaty.
See hike here on Strava.
Neckarsteinach to Hirschhorn Castle — 20 kilometers
Despite the distance, the trail from Neckarsteinach to Hirschhorn Castle is a slog compared to the first two stages. The climbing isn’t as intense and is spread out over the 20-some kilometers. The Neckarsteig markers take you along the river, aiming for Hinterburg Castle, but a short detour up Schloßsteige (basically, castle climb) takes you to the castles of Vorderburg and Mittelburg. Vorderburg comes in on the right and is apparently private property — something I didn’t know when I meandered to the front, following a dirt path. The mailbox should’ve tipped me off, but the gates were open. What really should’ve tipped me off were the sheep that went sprinting down the hill as Moses started chasing them. After snapping a few photos of Vorderburg’s enviable view of Neckarsteinach, a large gentleman came up to politely inform me that I was on private property and to please keep to the signposts with a shield on them. Certainly, this is a regular occurrence for him.
Next to Vorderburg is Mittelburg. Though this appeared to be a bit more open to the public, there wasn’t much to do other than walk around it and continue toward rejoining the Neckarsteig. The Neckarsteig does, however, take you through Hinterburg just down the path. Admittedly, the castle is nothing visually remarkable, but you are able to climb up inside the wooden tower and get another view of the region. You can even see the fourth castle of Neckarsteinach — Schadeck. There didn’t appear to be a way to connect the two, so we headed over to the switchback that gets hikers up above the town (like the previous stages).
Just under halfway through the stage is Goethe’s Blick, which the Scottish passerby mentioned. Of all the Blicks (views) I’ve seen off German trails, I have to be honest and admit this wasn’t the most remarkable. But perhaps nearing the end of the trip, I was too spoiled by Heidelberg and the first two stages. Nevertheless, there are a couple of benches where you can take a load off, have a snack, and come up with your own opinion of the Blick.
From there, it’s a pretty straight march through the forest on trail wide enough for a vehicle (as evidenced by dusty tire tracks). This portion of the hike flies by, leaving you surprised when you start hitting switchbacks to go back downhill and you see Hirschhorn through the trees.
The third stage ends in Hirschhorn, but since it was my last day, I continued onward through the town and up to Hirschhorn Castle. Unlike the other castles along the Castle Road, this looked like a mix between a farmhouse and Medieval modesty. In fact, the castle used to be a hotel but recently ceased operations. It’s a shame since it’d surely be a lovely place to spend the night and Hirschhorn itself is full of those colorful timber homes that make German towns stick out so wonderfully. (If you want to stay in a castle along the Neckarsteig, there’s Burg Hornberg in Neckarzimmern, which I’m looking forward to in a future hike along the Neckarsteig.)
See hike here on Strava.
Though I usually prefer to stay in the town where I finished the day’s hike, I spent the last two nights in Eberbach, which is where stage four ends and stage five begins. By train it’s just seven minutes or so around the Neckar River to Hirschhorn and around 20 to Neckarsteinach. Staying in one town for a couple of nights came with two advantages. One, the obvious, I was able to leave some things behind in the hotel and carry a lighter load. Second, it gave me an opportunity to get to know the town a bit better. An extra 24 hours can do wonders for your memory and familiarity with a place, especially towns as small as those along the Castle Road and Neckarsteig. I rewarded myself with a delicious piece of Kuchen (cake) at Cafe Viktoria, inhaled a plate of Schwäbische Maultaschen at Restaurant Am Leopolds Platz, and got all my calories back with a German take on the cordon bleu with Spargel inside (white asparagus, a seasonal favorite, and damn-near a religion around here).
On the final morning, we left everything behind and started on a 30-minute, switchback hike to Eberbach Castle (Burg Eberbach) along the Katzensteig. The castle sits in ruins. Nature has all but reclaimed this 12th-century relic. It’s nothing short of beautiful the way the grass and the wet moss has climbed over the old stones and feeds off the sunlight peeking through the forest. The Neckarsteig trail doesn’t actually run through here, but it’s an addition worth making if you’re continuing through.
With that, my Neckarsteig hike along the Castle Road came to an end. But with just six stages to go (and one castle hotel I’m itching to stay in), I’m certain a return trip is in my immediate future.
Looking for more Germany? Check out the Germany off the beaten path travel guide, my top things to do in Germany, German language tips, and how to ride the German train system. Want something more literary? Read chapters from my upcoming memoir on moving to and living in Germany and finding my roots — There Must Be Order.