Have you ever wanted to go to the top of Germany? Did you know it’s possible to hike up to the summit of Germany’s highest mountain – and you can do it without a guide.
Zugspitze mountain is aptly named the top of Germany, standing at 2,962 metres and towering above bright blue Lake Eibsee. Many people take the cable car route up and pay a whole lot of euros to make the return trip, but fit, experienced hikers have options to reach the top.
There’s several routes to reach the top of Germany – some are technical, and others are a very long hike! But trust me, no matter what route you take, it will be beautiful and it will be worth all the sweat and possibly exhausted tears when you see the 360 degree views from the summit.
I did a lot of research online and chatted to staff at local climbing stores about current conditions before I made the decision on which route to take up the mountain. I was doing the hike solo, so I wanted to make sure it would be safe and within my ability. Also given I missed out on booking a bed at one of the mountain huts near the summit, I needed to be able to get up to the summit in a day before the last cable car left – because that was my way off the mountain!
After a lot of thought and encouragement from a friend who had done the hike, I ended up opting for the Hollental route. It was the shortest route, meaning I could hike up in one day with an early start, and descend via the cable car. It also sounded the most fun with a large portion of the hike consisting of a via ferrata. There was also a glacier crossing on this route!
When to go
You’ll need to visit in the summer months to hike this mountain, and late summer is best when all the snow has melted. I did the hike in early September.
Plan a few days either side of your planned hiking day in case the weather doesn’t pan out and you need to go earlier or postpone. You‘ll need a day with minimal risk of any rain to tackle this mountain otherwise conditions will be treacherous, particularly on the via ferrata. I had to wait two days to attempt my chosen route due to heavy rain – but it was worth the wait!
Duration: 8-10 hours one way
The Hollental route is the hardest and most technical route up Zugspitze. Not only do you need to climb up a very long via ferrata clinging to the rock face, but you also need to cross a glacier.
The Hollental route is strictly for very experienced, fit and fast hikers confident with heights. You will be hiking for at least 8-10 hours, possibly longer, and will be climbing a huge 2,200 metres of elevation in that time. The hike is very strenuous. You will also need to be competent climbing a via ferrata for hours and confident and knowledgable to be able to safely cross a glacier.
The route starts from the town of Hammersbach and goes via the beautiful Hollentalklamm (Valley of Hell Gorge). You need an early start to reach the summit in time to take the last cable car down (4.45pm) so you have the option of ordering a taxi to pick you up, or walk the 5km from Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
I actually did order a taxi, but it never showed and I had to walk. It took me about an hour to reach the trailhead at a fast pace (basically a jog), and I started heading up at 5.30am.
It took me about 1.5 hours to get up through the gorge from the trailhead, but I was moving fast as I’d walked through the gorge the day prior at a slower pace to enjoy it and check out the start of the Hollental route. Be prepared for wet, slippery and cold conditions in the gorge as you walk through tunnels carved out of the rock. I had my rainjacket on most of the way as water dripped down the sides of the rockface.
After exiting the gorge, you head up to the Hollentalangerhutte – a mountain hut with a prime position in the shadow of Alpspitze and the face of Zugspitze looming ahead. With any luck, you’ll arrive just as the sun rises and get a magic view.
From Hollentalangerhutte, you head up to the start of the via ferrata and start climbing. It starts off pretty intense within a few short minutes as you clamber up the rock face via steel pegs, and then you go horizontal for a stretch with a big drop below.
This route is not suitable for anyone with even a slight fear of heights. I’m generally not scared of heights at all but there were a few moments when it was pretty scary crossing the steel pegs with a big drop below, despite being secured to the via ferrata.
After the first section of via ferrata, it’s a steep hike and scramble before you start heading up to the glacier via a long scree slope.
Then it’s time to put your crampons on and take the 30 minute walk across the glacier. It’s not as easy as it first looks as there are lots of crevasses stretching across the glacier. I ended up following a group of locals who had done the hike before to guide me across and even then, following their footsteps, my right foot broke through the snow and I fell into the very edge of a fortunately shallow crevasse and they had to pull me out.
From the glacier, it’s a via ferrata the rest of the way. Once you can get on that is. It’s very tricky manoeuvring crampons off while teetering on the edge of a glacier, and then crossing a small gap to get back onto the via ferrata and clip back on.
The via ferrata from this point onwards is a very strenuous, technical climb with some scary sections teetering on the side of the cliff. Sometimes it felt like I was more rock climbing than on a via ferrata as the ascents were almost completely vertical in some sections – and very exposed. You really want to make sure your carabiners are secure on the iron rope here.
This section will take you at least a couple of hours as you slowly climb up, clip, climb, unclip, clip. My hand actually cramped up at one point from the constant clipping and unclipping to the via ferrata. My legs were tired, my breath was ragged. The last section was very, very hard work but with people behind me I didn’t stop for more than a minute or two, and gradually crept closer to the summit.
When you eventually reach the summit, you’ll be utterly exhausted. But you’ll forget all that exhaustion in a few short minutes when you see the view extending beyond the summit.
You really do feel on top of the world up here if you manage to score a clear day with mountains stretching in every direction. You can see into Germany from one side, and then into Austria from the other.
Expect the summit to be crowded. It’s very small but with many people taking the cable car up, it gets very busy.
To return, I took the cable car down – after a well deserved beer with my newfound German friends that helped me across the glacier. When in Germany!
It was nearly eight hours up to the summit of Zugspitze with only two short food breaks and stops to put on my harness and then later on crampons. It was a mere 10 minutes down!
The cable car takes you down to Lake Eibsee and then there are regular buses back to Garmisch-Partenkirchen or you can also take the cogwheel train.
Reintal Valley Route
There’s no easy way to hike up to the top of Zugspitze – however, the Reintal Valley route is not as hard as the others. You don’t need any technical equipment for this route, but it’s a long walk up requiring two days, so you’ll need to stay at the Reintalangerhutte along the way to complete it.
I didn’t do this route in it’s entirety, but I did take a little walk towards the Reintalangerhutte along the Reintal Valley route after going through the Partnachklamm (Partanch Gorge). The start of the walk was simply a gravel hiking path at the start that gradually climbs up to the summit of Zugspitze. I heard from others that took this route that the Reintal Valley was stunning – but it’s a long way up.
The trailhead for this hike starts at Partnachklamm near the Olympic Ski Stadium.
Another of the route options I looked at was to hike from Ehrwald, on the Austrian side of the mountain. In the end it was too hard to arrange transport there early morning from Garmisch-Partenkirchen without a car. I read up about the route though, and it also takes about 8-10 hours depending on your fitness levels but it is not as technical as the Hollental route – but it still steep with lots of loose scree sections, so care and hiking experience is needed.
Getting there and getting around
The base for hiking up Zugspitze is the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen (affectionally known as GaPa). It’s well connected to Munich, with plenty of buses and trains servicing the area. The trip from Munich to GaPa takes about an hour.
If you’re staying in a hotel or hostel in GaPa, you’ll be given a GaPa transport card, which offers free transport on the bus network during your stay. You just scan your card when you get on the bus.
Buses connect GaPa with many of the hike trailheads in the area such as Hammersbach, Partnachklamm, the Olympic Ski Stadium and Lake Eibsee. Most of the buses started running between 6am and 7am.
If you’re hiking via the Hollental Route, you’ll need to rent a via ferrata set, harness, helmet and crampons. These can be rented at climbing stores in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Expect to pay €30-€35 per day for the via ferrata set, harness, helmet and crampons.
You also will need to bring:
- At least 2L of water
- Plenty of high energy snacks such as museli bars, fruit, nuts and lollies (you will burn a ton of energy on this hike), and lunch to last you for a minimum 8-10 hour hike
- Rainjacket and warm clothing for the early morning start and in case the weather changes
- First aid kit
- Map (this can be picked up at the bookstore at the train station)
- Gloves for the via ferrata
- Hat and sunscreen
- Hiking poles (useful for the first few hours leading up to the via ferrata and also on the glacier crossing)
- Cash or bank card if you’re planning to take the cable car down. The one way trip costs €35.
- Camera to capture all that amazing scenery.
Don’t forget to check the weather forecast before you go – and tell someone which route you’re taking and when you plan to return. If you want to book a mountain hut, you’ll need to book well in advance. The locals told me most beds in all huts are booked by June. Reservations may be possible online via this website – but non German speakers will have to translate it.