Friday, April 16, 2021

Rothbach Waterfall

8 km round trip, 200 meters elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Parking fee, Konigssee boat to trailhead with associated costs

The journey to see Germany's highest waterfall- the Rothbach- packs in so much more scenery, requiring a boat ride down fjord-like Konigssee and an easy hike past the magical waters of Obersee in the soaring mountains of Bavaria's Berchtesgaden National Park. Although this hike does not visit the high country of the Berchtesgaden Alps, it passes some absolutely beautiful scenery in the range's deep, glacier-carved valleys. This is an excellent hike for visitors to the park looking for a pleasantly gentle outdoor experience that takes them beyond the standard Konigssee boat ride. However, be warned that this is an extremely popular hike: this is one of the most beloved spots in the German Alps.

I visited Rothbach Waterfall and Konigssee during a trip to the Alps with my parents. Berchtesgaden National Park is the only national park in the German Alps and is in the extreme southeastern corner of the country; in fact, the closest city to Berchtesgaden is Salzburg, Austria. We stayed in Salzburg and made a day trip to the park, coupling a morning bus trip up to the Kehlsteinhaus with an afternoon boat ride on Konigssee and the short hike to Obersee and the Rothbach Waterfall. From downtown Salzburg, we took B150 and then B160 to the German border, where the route numbering changed to B305; we followed this road past the town of Berchtesgaden to the large traffic circle over the Berchtesgadener Ache, where we took the exit for B20, which ended at the massive Konigssee Parkplatz, a parking area with enough capacity for a few thousand cars. We paid a parking fee to park here.

From the parking lot, we headed over to the visitor center, from where we had to walk another 500 meters down a pedestrian street to the Konigssee boat dock (this distance is not included in the hike length). Along the way, we passed a Romy Schneider exhibition; my mom was quite excited about this as she had enjoyed watching Schneider play Sisi, the Empress of Austria, during movies that my mom watched in her childhood. At the boat dock, we lined up to buy tickets for the boat ride down Konigssee to Salet. In summer, electric boats leave every few minutes, heading down the lake with stops at St. Bartholomew and Salet. There were long lines for buying tickets; unless you arrive early in the morning, you should expect to wait an hour or more to buy a ticket and board a boat in the summer. Check the latest timetable before you go to plan your hike and make sure that you'll make it back to Salet before the last boat of the day.

From the boat dock, Konigssee is pretty but not particularly special. However, after our boat set out and sailed around a massive cliff to reach the main body of the lake, our mouths were gaping in amazement at the steep-sided peaks rising from the lakeshore. The lake has the feel of a fjord, with mountains soaring directly above the lakeshore and waterfalls tumbling directly into the lake. The boat made a stop at St. Bartholomew, a small village along the lake where there is a small but beautiful Baroque Catholic church. Watzmann- the third tallest peak in Germany- rose magnificently behind the church.

St. Bartholomew Church on Konigssee
The lake narrowed and became even more dramatic as we approached its southern end. Here, Schrainbach Waterfall dropped directly into the lake, a scene that evoked the Inside Passage of North America more than it did Germany. However, the Saletalm restaurants and the Salet boat dock at the lake's southern end reminded us that we were indeed in Bavaria. 

Schrainbach Waterfall flows into Konigssee
We disembarked with the rest of the passengers at Salet. There are public restrooms at this boat dock, which marks the start of the hike to the Rothbach Waterfall. The first 300 meters of trail followed the lakeshore of Konigssee south to the Alpengaststatte Saletalm, a restaurant. The views here encompassed the massive limestone cliffs across the lake, Schrainbach Waterfall, and the constant stream of boats arriving and departing from Salet.

Boat dock at Salet
The wide and well built trail crossed over the inlet where Saletbach flows into Konigssee and then began to follow the Saletbach upstream into its valley. We passed a junction with a trail leading to the Mooskaser Saletalm, a cheese shop and restaurant on the south shore of Konigssee. That trail would lead past the cheese shop to connect to alpine trails in the high country of the Berchtesgaden Alps, including routes into Austria and across the divide of the mountains to Maria Alm. Perhaps someday I'll return to explore these paths; but on the day of my visit, my parents and I stuck to the main path, which reached the shoreline of Obersee after 1 km of flat and extremely easy hiking from the Salet boat dock.

Obersee is a truly magical place. The lake's calm and clear waters had a beautiful, blue-green hue and almost perfectly reflected the mountains of the Berchtesgaden Alps that rose around it. From the boathouse at the west end of the lake, we had a stunning view down the lake to rocky limestone peaks that rose high above and the great rocky bowl that defined the head of the valley. Rothbach Waterfall was a slender thread of water dropping precipitously down the cliffs of that bowl into the forests and meadows of the valley below. Many visitors simply do this short walk to Obersee and return to Salet, which is understandable because Obersee is the most beautiful spot on the hike. However, by continuing to Rothback Waterfall, we not only got to see the waterfall but spent more time seeing Obersee from a number of different perspectives.

Waters of Obersee
We followed the trail along the south shore of Obersee. The trail narrowed substantially here as it passed through forest while tracing the lake's shoreline. Although this trail was initially flat, it was soon forced upward to cross the cliffs on the lake's shoreline. The trail climbed about 50 meters here via stairs and portions of the trail were a bit rockier; there was some fenching along this part of the trail as the cliffs on the north side of the trail dropped straight into the lake.

Rocky trail above Obersee
At the east end of the lake, the trail dropped back down to the shoreline of Obersee and came to a trail junction: the trail heading straight led to the Rothbach Waterfall, while the trail to the left headed to Fischunkelalm, a cottage that serves as a cow barn and a rest stop where hikers can buy some snacks and refreshments. Both trails eventually end at the Rothbach Waterfall, but the slightly longer route going by Fischunkelalm is more interesting and scenic, so you should consider taking that detour at least one way on your hike.

We decided to swing by Fischunkelalm on our way in, taking the left fork at the junction and then hiking along the east shore of Obersee to the cottage. From this angle, there were beautiful views back across Obersee, with the Watzmann now rising behind Obersee.

Fischunkelalm was a cottage in the middle of a large pasture at the east end of Obersee. Here, a herd of cows were grazing on the Alpine grass and lounging about. Their cowbells rang constantly as they moved and filled the air with a gentle clanging. Once we reached the cottage, the trail turned to the right and began heading uphill through the pastures, taking us past the herd of cows and their everpresent manure. As we ascended through the pastures, beautiful views of Obersee opened up behind us.

Cows grazing near Obersee
It was about 1.2 km from Fischunkelalm to the Rothbach Waterfall. The trail ascended about 100 meters here, making this the most substantial stretch of elevation gain of our day. Our surroundings alternated between forest and meadows as we approached the head of the massive bowl. We saw more grazing cows and had progressively better views of the Rothbach Waterfall as we approached the base of the massive cliffs. The trail leaving from Fischunkelalm joined back up with the main trail from Salet.

Approaching the Rothbach Waterfall
There is no officially marked end to the hike, but we chose to stop hiking when we reached a large meadow at the base of Rothbach Waterfall. From here, the trail continued on, climbing the steep walls of this mountainous bowl to reach the high country of the Berchtesgaden Alps. We instead followed a side trail that led us along the Rothbach to the base of the falls.

Rothbach Waterfall tumbled 470 meters (1550 feet) down the high cliffs defining the head of the alpine bowl at the head of the valley. The waterfall is most impressive earlier in the summer, as it is fed by snowmelt from the Berchtesgaden Alps, which have few glaciers. Arriving in early July, there was still moderate flow in the waterfall, although I've seen photos of much higher flow and assume those must have been from May and June visits. From close up, the waterfall is truly quite impressive: the main drop is about 300 meters, after which the stream cascades downhill until reaching the valley. The waterfall is tall enough that the water appears to fall in slow motion, hanging in mid-air and gently floating down the sides of the huge cliffs.

Rothbach Waterfall
The hike back was equally enjoyable, packing in more amazing views of Obersee; we had to do another 50 meters of elevation gain on the way back along the south shore of the lake. We made sure to return to the Salet boat dock before 5:30 PM, when the last boat of the day headed back up Konigssee.

This is a superbly beautiful easy hike, a highly recommended way to see Berchtesgaden National Park's limestone Alps and gem-like lakes without a strenuous physical effort. No one should skip visiting Berchtesgaden while in Salzburg and this hike is requisite when you're in this part of the Alps.

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