In Europe/ Outdoors

Saxon Switzerland National Park | Hiking and Trail Running

“This might be the most beautiful place I’ve been in Germany,” I told Melanie.

It was just our second day in Saxon Switzerland National Park in southeast Germany on the Czech border (not Switzerland, to most everyone’s surprise). The country had just started to open up again and it felt safe to wear our masks for a two-and-a-half-hour train ride to Bad Schandau on the Elbe River for a short getaway after hunkering down in Berlin for what was starting to feel like a lifetime.

Not more than an hour after our arrival, we had our running shoes on and were heading into the national park through Ostrau and toward a series of jagged rock formations. They look like what you’d expect out of the Martian landscape of Utah but dropped in the damp forests of the Pacific Northwest.

Back at the hotel, I decided I needed more. A lot more. So, I planned to run back-to-back stages of the Malerweg (the painter’s trail), taking me 30-plus kilometers through the national park to Schmilka on the Czech border.

But first, a hike to the Bastei.

The Bastei

View of the Bastei in Saxony Switzerland National Park

If you’ve seen a picture of Saxon Switzerland National Park, you were probably looking at a picture of the Bastei. It’s a rock formation that climbs nearly 200 meters above the adjacent Elbe River. Water erosion from over a million years ago is responsible for the shape of the jagged rocks, and since tourism has been a thing, it’s been the landmark of the national park. Sensing the tourism potential, a wooden bridge was built in 1824 to better connect the rocks for visitors. A sandstone bridge replaced the original 27 years later, which is what you’ll find up there today.

Elbsandsteingebirge, the Bastei Bridge in Saxony Switzerland National Park
Elbsandsteingebirge –– The Bastei Bridge

We went relatively early in the day, hiking up through the town of Rathen from the ferry port. Even in the relative quiet of the early summer days thanks to COVID, we were far from alone. Tourists crowded around the various vantage points to get a glimpse of what inspired artists like 19th-century landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich. The very nature, no pun intended, of the landscape caused bottlenecks along the narrow paths. We were wearing our COVID masks until crowds finally cleared up and we marched back to Bad Schandau.

The bridge is certainly unique to the Bastei, but you can climb similar rock formations deeper within the park and do it without a fraction of the crowds. My tip to travelers heading down there since has been to enjoy the view of the Bastei from the train, and if you’re short on time, head to the Schrammsteine instead where you get basically the same rocks and similar views––and best of all––without the people.

Along The Painter’s Trail

I couldn’t have asked for better weather to run 30-ish kilometers. There was a briskness to the morning and a consistent, cooling dampness in the forest throughout the run. The fourth stage of the Malerweg, my starting point for the day, laid a bit north of town. Fortunately, a dirt trail picks up off of the main Kirnitzschtalstraße not too far north of the park in Bad Schandau. It’s nondescript, but once you find it, it pulls you up a bit over the road and winds you to the Malerweg and into the belly of Saxon Switzerland National Park. From there, it’s a simple matter of following the red paint of the Malerweg, stamped against trees and signposts to Schmilka.

The route took me back to the Schrammsteine, this time climbing the rocks for panoramic views before slithering its way through different peaks and heading back north to the Lichtenhainer Waterfall. Then it was a relatively straight run east until the start of the fifth stage of the Malerweg. From there, the route cut southwest back to Schmilka.

Of course, it’s a tad more challenging than I’ve encapsulated in a couple of paragraphs of text. But as long as you’re prepared, it’s worth it. Plus you can end the run at Bio-Braumanufaktur to nurse yourself back to health with some beer and good eats. I’m not sure if it was my hunger level after nearly five-and-a-half hours in the forest, but their vegetarian lasagne was something of a revelation at that moment. I’ve also since had it confirmed that their Bernstein beer is fantastic, not only when you’re broken from a long run.

Danger Is Green

Our shortest trek came the afternoon after the long run. We planned to take the bus up back over to the aforementioned Lichtenhainer Waterfall and head into the forest for a loop around more rocks. Following the route, we quickly found ourselves climbing one of the said rocks. The smooth incline turned into steps, then there were handrails, and then ladders, and finally handles drilled into the rocks.

I had seen something similar the day before on my long run but it was pretty clear where the trail was heading. This time, to even reach the handles required bouldering a large rock and jumping to the handles.

Melanie went up the rock first but was nervous to continue. I offered to check it out, blocking out any nerves I probably had. Grabbing the handle bars, I pulled myself over the next rock and had a look.

It didn’t seem… great. Or particularly safe without gear. There was a thick wire to hold onto (or better yet, to clip into if you had the equipment), but the adjacent boulder the trail continued on was smooth and without much room for error.

I would’ve vetoed continuing had Melanie not already declared, “I want to get down.”

Expletives followed, mostly directed at the park for not having a big ass sign warning hikers not to continue without proper gear or experience.

“Why is there no sign? How is there no sign?” Melanie pleaded to the Sign Gods.

Turns out, there was a sign further back as we started to ascend. To be fair, it wasn’t particularly large, you needed at least B2 level German to understand it, and there were no colors typically associated with danger, like, red.

So with relatively bruised egos, we trotted back to the main road and took the screeching tourist tram back to the apartment.

Over The Border

View from Schrammsteine, Saxony Switzerland

For someone from the United States, there’s still a novelty to crossing over an international border with no fuss. I’ve hiked over the Austrian and Belgian borders and cycled over the Dutch. Despite already having around 70 kilometers under my feet, I felt we had to recover from the climbing mishap and get one more run in. And since I had already run through the bulk of the park, why not check out the Czech side?

Had we come just a few weeks earlier, we would’ve been met by border guards and been heavily discouraged to cross. As it were, COVID regulations had started to relax and the border crossing was back to being non-existent. We got off the bus back in Schmilka and started a light trot toward the Grenzübergang (border crossing) where a heinous, turd-brown of a building sat alongside the main road. It just oozed communist brutalism and was obviously in much greater use when the Berlin Wall still stood. Today, it’s abandoned with only the ghosts of history.

It’s about a two-kilometer jog into the Czech border town of Hřensko. The main road in town has that Germanic flair about it but it was uncharacteristically lined with street vendors speaking, I believe, Mandarin to one another. Is Hřensko a popular spot for Chinese immigration? I’d love to know that story if anyone has more info on that.

We followed signs out of town toward Kamenice Gorge, thinking it’d be a breezy run alongside the river. It was until we came up to a dead-end. The route could only be continued in a guided raft. Naturally, that slowed us up for the next kilometer of paddling, but once at the other end, we could easily hop back on the trail and keep moving.

Eventually, we popped out of the park and onto a golf course, of all places, before cutting through a small town with a paved path back into Hřensko. It was certainly an interesting mix of trails we cobbled together, especially when those ‘trails’ were simply matted patches of grass between fairways. But no one seemed to mind us running around like a pair of incompetent bank bandits.

Eating in Bad Schandau

In my humble opinion, German food gets unfairly dumped on. People imagine exclusively schnitzel and sausage. Yes, there is that. In fact, had a damn fine schnitzel at Kurparkstübl. (It had a fried egg on top, so I couldn’t not order it.)

But what’s integral to German food done well is using fresh, local ingredients. My impression is that farmer’s markets aren’t a fad here or a recent development. It’s always been important to care about knowing where your food comes from and to eat seasonally. It’s something I’m still trying to improve about my own eating and cooking, thanks to the nudge from German culture.

Homemade Serviettenknödel from the frying pan with creamy mushrooms from Bad Gottleuba garnished with fresh herbs

I mean, hot damn! Look at that dish from Tilia Restaurant and Bar in Bad Schandau. They make a point at the top of their menu to highlight the importance of fresh, local ingredients in the production of Saxon cuisine. They even list where they get their ingredients. Those mushrooms from that homemade dumpling dish above? They’re from Champignonzuch Eichler in Bad Gottleuba. (That’s about 26 kilometers in case you aren’t up on your regional German geography.)

You admittedly don’t have a ton of options to choose from around Saxon Switzerland National Park. But great eats are not hard to find. Just make sure you make a reservation.

Feierabend in Bad Schandau

Bad Schandau and Saxon Switzerland National Park quickly carved a special place in my heart. I felt similarly about it as I did after visiting the Ahrtal for the first time. In a normal travel season, both Bad Schandau and Saxon Switzerland are surely busier. I got a hint of that when I came back a little over a month later for a trail race. COVID restrictions had continued to lighten and Bad Schandau clearly had a bit more foot traffic.

Still, it’s hard to believe how relatively close all of this elevation and dramatic landscape actually is to pancake flat Berlin. It’s just a two-plus hour train ride and you’re in the thick of it. If you were really ambitious, you could wear a backpack onto the train and be in the woods by the summer evening after a day at the office.

That’s actually not a bad idea. I’ll have to try that.

Looking for more Germany? Check out the Germany off the beaten path travel guide, my top things to do in Germany, the most important German travel phrases, 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 — There Must Be Order.

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