Germany is home to lots of Steigs. I should know, I’ve now hiked portions of four or five. The latest addition to my Steig-repertoire is the Rothaarsteig — a 97-mile (156-kilometer) trail running south from Brilon in the Sauerland region. I had hiked in Sauerland before, a loop along the Drei-Türme-Weg out of Hagen, which is more or less the gate into the Sauerland region coming from the west. The hike left me with fond memories of dense forests and actual elevation, a gift not to be forsaken coming from rather flat Düsseldorf. Needless to say, it left me longing for a return to the region and I was pleased to find yet another multi-stage trail in the Rothaarsteig.
With an upcoming empty weekend, I reached out to the folks who manage the trail, asking for a stage with the best connection to public transport but still a challenging hike. They recommended starting from the beginning in Brilon, hiking 20-plus kilometers to Willingen and another 20-plus to Winterberg the following day. Indeed, these were excellent choices in terms of public transport, with both Brilon and Winterberg within two-and-a-half hours of Düsseldorf and just one transfer in Dortmund.
Hiking the Rothaarsteig
Allow me to cut to the chase. These were some of the most enjoyable trails I’ve hiked in two years of living in Germany. They were diverse, challenging in both their distance and occasional ascents, and set apart from other trails with their isolation and the inherent beauty that comes with that. Often my wife and I would find ourselves truly alone, nothing but the sound of the passing breeze against the leaves.
If you’re looking for specifics, I can oblige. The hiking for the first seven kilometers was rather unremarkable. Starting in Brilon, typical smalltown Germany with its pedestrianized town center, and into trails that have been etched into the landscape alongside civilization. Around seven kilometers in, we came to Hiebammen Hütte for lunch and continued south toward Willingen where the trail really allowed you to envelope yourself in nature. Whether it was tiptoeing over a hilly, rooted trail or cutting through tall grasses in the plains, the region really felt relatively unspoiled.
Down and Up Again
The only downside is that the first stage essentially ends at the border of North Rhine-Westphalia and Hessen with an offshoot running down into Willingen to spend the night. This trail into town runs downhill and you still have a few kilometers before actually getting into town. I’m not an especially big fan of repeating myself, but you need to in order to return to the junction the next morning and continue onward toward Winterberg. Fortunately, it was a crisp morning and the gradual uphill climb back to the state border proved to be a worthwhile warm up.
Once back at the border, we were practically already at the next highlight — the highest point in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia at Langenberg, marked by a steel cross and various stacks of cairns (the modern variety, of course, which simply marks trails). Since we were already at the highest point, it was mostly downhill for the next 20-ish kilometers to Winterberg, with the exception of the occasional offshoot for a view, like at Clemensberg overlooking a quarry.
Into the Ferienstadt
If I were to be picky about a trail, and I’m going to be, I’d say that the earlier to middle portions of this stage were my favorite. There was a point, and unfortunately I forget when, that I noticed the trail became rather wide and covered in flat gravel with cyclists whizzing by. The repetition after a while became a bit mundane and I found myself wishing I could simply hop on one of those bikes and get it over with. That said, there are still portions where you’re better off on foot and the stage does end with a dip down into Winterberg’s Kurpark, surrounding you with tall rock formations. Regrettably, the dry summer seemed to have killed the stream I imagined flowing underneath the wooden bridge.
Winterberg appeared larger and a bit more popular with German and Dutch travelers than Brilon. There’s a bit of skiing in the area, same as Willingen, and the town proudly calls itself a Ferienstadt or a holiday city. We didn’t get much time in the city, having to catch our train back to Düsseldorf, but we had enough time to grab lunch at Heimatliebe (I went with a Sauerlander take on Himmel und Erde, the typical dish of Düsseldorf with fried blood sausage, potato pancakes, and applesauce) and the German classic of Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) at the charmingly historic Kaffeehaus Winterberg with roots that dig back into the late 18th Century.
We all slept on the train home.
For more information on the Rothaarsteig, visit rothaarsteig.de.
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.