Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Gamsgrubenweg

Gamsgrubenweg among the highest peaks of Austria
8 km round trip, 220 meters elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Grossglockner High Alpine Road entrance fee required

The mighty Hohe Tauern, a range within the Alps, climaxes at Grossglockner, the highest peak in Austria and the heart of Hohe Tauern National Park. The Gamsgrubenweg is an easy half day hike from the end of the Grossglockner High Alpine Road that delivers an incredible, close-up look at Austria's highest mountain along with stunning views over the Pasterze Glacier, Austria's largest glacier. The trail is wide and smooth along its entire length as it traverses open meadows in the most spectacular scenery of the Austrian Alps after an initial stretch in mountain tunnels. This is an easy and incredible way to experience the scenery around Austria's highest peak and reaching this hike by driving the Grossglockner High Alpine Road is half the fun.

I hiked the Gamsgrubenweg during a trip to the Alps with my parents. After visiting Salzburg and indulging in days of finding sites relevant to Mozart or the Sound of Music, we made our way south to the Hohe Tauern, which contains the highest, most glaciated, and most spectacular stretch of the Alps in Austria. The most tourist-friendly way to see this range is by driving the Grossglockner High Alpine Road, an extraordinary alpine drive in the same class as the Going to the Sun Road or the Beartooth Highway in the United States. From Zell am See, the road crosses a high pass over the Alps as it cuts through Hohe Tauern National Park and ends at the Kaiser Franz Josef Hohe, a spectacular viewpoint that takes in Grossglockner and the Pasterze Glacier. We split our journey through this extraordinarily scenic mountain region over three days, driving up the High Alpine Road on the first day from the nearby lakeside resort town of Zell am See. 

In a curious phenomenon, many Alpine resort towns have formed strong connections with tourists from certain parts of the world: Zermatt is beloved by Japanese and British tourists, while Russian holidaymakers often head to the glitzy St. Moritz. Zell am See is a popular spot for vacationers from the Middle East: the town spent recent decades advertising itself as a paradise to Gulf states and its efforts have paid off.

Driving south from Zell am See, we followed the Grossglockner High Alpine Road (Grossglockner-Hochalpenstrasse) into the Hohe Tauern, passing the town of Fusch before coming to the toll booth for the road. While the rates for driving the road are nearly as steep as the Alps, it's worth it: this is an extraordinarily scenic experience. The road climbed up from the bottom of the valley via endless switchbacks, passing through thinning forests before coming to the high alpine viewpoint of Fuscher Torl on the slopes of Edelweissspitze. The remarkable view here encompassed the high, snow-capped peaks of the Hohe Tauern, including the impressive wall of Grosses Wiesbachhorn across the valley and the summit of Grossglockner itself peeking out from behind closer peaks. Looking north out of the valley, we could see as far as the Berchtesgaden Alps and Hoher Dachstein. 

View of the Hohe Tauern from Fuscher Torl
The drive encompassed mile upon mile of high alpine scenery, with a number of alpine lakes near the road. After passing through a tunnel under Hochtor Pass, the road came to sweeping views of the Carinthian Alps. We stayed two nights at the Berggasthaus Wallackhaus, which had jaw-dropping alpine surroundings, to savor this beautiful landscape and to easily reach Kaiser Franz Josef Hohe and the Gamsgrubenweg the next day. I really enjoyed the stay at Berggasthaus Wallackhaus: the restaurant was quite good and the rooms were spacious with beautiful views of the mountains.

View of the Hohe Tauern from Hochtor Pass
The next morning, we drove the highly scenic branch of the Hochalpenstrasse that led to Kaiser Franz Josef Hohe. As the road tightly hugged the slopes of the Alps, we passed one scenic wonder after another. The glaciated peaks of the Hohe Tauern held our attention on one side of the road; on the other side, we passed the alpine shower of Fensterbach Waterfall and the calm waters of Stauseeblick, an alpine lake nestled beneath snowy peaks. On Google Maps, the Fensterbach Waterfall has been inaccurately labeled the Energiedusche Waterfall due to that phrase appearing on an interpretive sign here. 

Fensterbach Waterfall
Stauseeblick
The end of this great alpine road was at Kaiser Franz Josef Hohe, a visitor center with exhibits, food, and a very large parking garage. The visitor center is so named because Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary once visited this spot with Empress Elisabeth, known as Sisi to many Austrians. The viewing deck at the platform allows visitors to look out to both Grossglockner and the the Pasterze Glacier, a view that I had looked forward to seeing since I first saw photos of this spot in Kev Reynolds' Walking in the Alps guidebook. When Franz Joseph and Sisi visited, the Pasterze flowed past the point where the visitor center now stands and was thick enough to fill up the valley nearly up to the level of the visitor center. However, seeing the glacier on my trip was a bit of a shock: the glacier had thinned out considerably and had retreated multiple kilometers uphill from its former position.

While the view from the Kaiser Franz Josef Hohe was great, most of the many impressive glaciers in this area were still further up the valley. The Gamsgrubenweg transports hikers further up the valley with minimal effort for closer views of the mountains and glaciers. However, rather than starting in a pristine natural environment, the trailhead for the Gamsgrubenweg led into a concrete tunnel beneath the Kaiser Franz Josef Hohe. The first kilometer of the hike was through this tunnel, which was dark and damp at times but had enough lights at intervals that no supplemental light is necessary. The trail ascended gradually through the tunnel section. The tunnel has both interpretive signage about the Pasterze Glacier and an odd storytelling setup that appears to detail some sort of fairy tale; my German was not good enough for me to really understand what exactly was going on. There were a few brief breaks in the tunnel where we had excellent views up the valley to the Pasterze Glacier and the lake that has formed in the wake of its retreat. 

Grossglockner rises above the Pasterze Glacier
The excitement really ramped up though when the tunnels ended: we emerged onto open, meadow-covered slopes high above the Pasterze Glacier below. A large glacial lake was visible beneath the trail that has formed in recent years with the glacier's rapid retreat; massive calved icebergs that have split off from the glacier floated in the middle of the lake. The trail maintained its gradual uphill grade here, making a constant but gentle climb as it approached the head of the valley. The Gamsgrubenweg was remarkably wide and well maintained, making it a good trail for just about everyone.

Gamsgrubenweg emerges from the tunnels
While the trail initially passed through rockier, more barren slopes, it soon arrived at lush wildflower meadows where verdant grass was mixed with profuse fields of white flowers. We spotted a number of marmots wandering these alpine meadows. We appreciated the relative wildness of this landscape: the Gamsgrubenweg runs through Hohe Tauern National Park, where there are more protections for the landscape, while most popular tourist spots in the Alps (at least to American tourists) such as the Mont Blanc region and the Bernese Oberland are not on protected land. As such, the meadows here were populated with wildlife rather than the cows seen on many Alpine mountainsides. The trail passed by the Gamsgrube, a high alpine bowl to the right of the trail.

Wildflowers blooming on Gamsgrubenweg
Grossglockner's rocky spine rose commandingly across the valley. The peak is the highest in the eastern Alps; while it lacks some of the drama and splendor of the more famous Alpine peaks to the west (Mont Blanc, Jungfrau, or Matterhorn), it is still a thrilling sight. Likewise, the Pasterze- a large valley glacier- would likely receive more international attention if it not for the Aletsch Glacier and the Mer de Glace in the western Alps.

Grossglockner and the Pasterze Glacier
The Gamsgrubenweg delivered spectacular views along its entire length until it ended at the Wasserfallwinkel, a viewpoint of a glacial-fed stream beginning its drop towards the Pasterze Glacier below. The views at the end of the trail are actually not as impressive as many of the views along the trail: while Grossglockner rises mightily across the valley here, much of the Pasterze is hidden from view. The Wasserfallwinkel Glacier fills the valley to the north of here, but not much of it is clearly visible from this viewpoint; climate change has forced it to retreat further up its valley. It is clear that some number of visitors continue uphill from this viewpoint towards the glacier, but as the terrain ahead was rocky and still partially snowbound we chose to turn around here.

Mighty Grossglockner
The glaciers of the Alps have been devastated by climate change and the Pasterze is one of the greatest icy victims. The glacier has retreated over 3 km and lost over half of its volume since Emperor Franz Joseph visited; tributary glaciers that once flowed off the slopes of Grossglockner and into the larger Pasterze are now high and dry, disconnected and confined to Grossglockner's upper slopes. Its glory days are clearly over, so you may want to come soon if you want to see this diminished but still impressive glacier before it shrivels completely over the course of the coming decades.

The rapidly retreating Pasterze Glacier
This was a lovely and easy hike to see one of the most spectacular stretch of the Austrian Alps. Driving the Grossglockner High Alpine Road and hiking the Gamsgrubenweg are a must if you're visiting Salzburg or the Austrian Alps; it's also a slightly quieter alternative to the tourist-packed Swiss and French Alps.

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