A Quick & Dirty Guide to the Berlin High Trail

The Berlin High Trail (Berliner Höhenweg in German) is an ambulatory gem of the Zillertal Alps and one of Austria’s finest multi-day treks. During its oscillating course, hikers will traverse breathtaking passes and deep glacial valleys, while enjoying dramatic views of jagged granite peaks and shimmering alpine lakes. I completed the Berliner Höhenweg in mid-October 2019, as part of an extended trip in the Alps. It was the last of four high trails I did during the Austrian leg of the journey; the others being the Stubaier Höhenweg (see Trip Report/Guide), Schladming Tauern Höhenweg, and the Wormser Höhenweg.

Overlooking the Schlegeisspeicher Reservoir from the trail between Friesenberg and Olperer Huts.

Note: The information below is largely directed towards independent hikers, rather than folks going as part of organized trekking groups. 

At a Glance

Distance:  86 km (53 mi)

Average Duration:  7 to 9 days (see How Long will it Take? for details)

Difficulty Level:  Moderate to demanding

Total Elevation Gain: 6,605 m (21,670 ft)

Start:  Finkenberg

Finish:  Mayrhofen 

High Point: Schönbichler Scharte (3,081 m/10,108 ft)

Which direction?: I don’t think it matters too much. The Cicerone guide books referenced below describe the trail in a clockwise direction, whereas useful local websites such as Tirol.at detail the path in a counter-clockwise direction (which is the way I did it).

What’s in a Name?: The Berlin High Trail is also known as the Zillertal Rucksack Route and Zillertaler Runde Tour. For the purposes of this article, I chose to go with ‘Berlin High Trail’ as it seems to be the most commonly used name in Austria, including on Mayrhofen’s and Tyrol’s official websites. For users of the Cicerone Guide books mentioned below, note that in “Walking in Austria” it is referred to as the Zillertal Hohenweg, whereas in “Trekking in the Zillertal Alps” it is called the Zillertal Rucksack Route.

Overview map of the trail (as seen in Cicerone Press, Trekking in the Zillertal Alps)

Getting There & Away:

  • The transport hub of the Zillertal Valley is the village of Mayrhofen, which is serviced by regular bus (2 hrs) and train services (1.5 hrs) from the nearby city of Innsbruck (the capital of the Tyrol region). From Mayrhofen to Finkenberg, you can either walk (4.5 km/2.8 mi) or take bus #4104.

Striking the pose in downtown Innsbruck.

Season:

  • The hiking season in the Austrian Alps is generally between late June to mid/late September. In an average weather year, September is ideal. The school holiday crowds are gone, the summer thunderstorms (generally short) have subsided, temperatures are cooler, and the mountain huts are less crowded. 
  • Off-season: Depending on the snow levels and experience of the aspirant, the Berlin High Trail can also be done in the late spring or early to mid-fall. When hiking at these times, you may require an ice axe and traction devices. Note that the full-service huts are closed at these times, so you will need to carry all of your own food and perhaps a tent/tarp (Note: Most of the huts have small winter rooms (“winterraums” in German) that remain open during the off-season. See Accommodation below for details).
  • Personally Speaking: The Berlin High Trail was the last of my multi-day trips in the Austrian Alps. I hiked it in mid-October, 2019 and apart from a holidaying Russian mountain guide at the Olperer Hutte, I didn’t meet any other ramblers along the way. Due to a long-standing aversion to crowds, I generally prefer to hike popular trails such as the BHT in the off-season, and am willing to accept the likelihood of more challenging conditions in exchange for the gift of solitude. In the case of the Berlin High Trail, I received all that I bargained for and more on the meteorological front, in the form of persistent freezing rain, snow, and icy conditions for much of the second half of the trail. Temperatures during the hike ranged between 12°C (54°F) and -9°C (16°F).

The venerable Berliner Hütte (2,042 m) is the largest mountain hut in the Tyrol region and dates back to the late 1870s. Unfortunately, it was closed during my visit, but its cozy and wonderfully dry winter room (located on the other side of the main building) was open.

Planning Information 

  • Guidebooks: Cicerone Press publish two books that cover the Berlin High Trail. Walking in Austria gives a bare-bones account of the trail, while Trekking in the Zillertal Alps has a much more detailed summary of the famed hut-to-hut route, including trekking notes, basic maps for each section, side trips/alternates suggestions, distance and time estimates, and logistical information on getting to and from the trail. Both books are available in Kindle version or paperback.
  • What did I use for the BHT?: I combined the Kindle Version of Trekking in the Zillertal Alps, with the 1:50,000 Overview map from Kompass Wanderkarte, and a GPX Track of the route from Tirol.at.

Nearing Friesenberg Haus, late afternoon on Day 1 (the only clear day of my hike).

  • Language:  German. Almost everyone you meet that’s under 60 years old will speak English, however, a few simple words and phrases of the native tongue will always be appreciated by locals.
  • Cell/Mobile Phone Coverage: I tend to keep my phone in flight mode while out in the woods, but from what I can gather, during hiking season some (though not all) of the huts on the Berlin High Trail have Wifi/cell reception, along with the opportunity to charge your phone and/or battery pack whether you are overnighting, or just stopping in for breakfast or lunch.
  • Cash or Card?:  All of the huts were closed when I did the BHT, however, it seems that during the hiking season (as of 2022) some of the trail’s refuges’ don’t accept electronic payment. Just to be sure, try calling or emailing the huts at which you plan to stay beforehand, or alternatively, bring along sufficient cash to cover your costs for the trip.

Friesenberg Haus overlooking a small alpine lake.

Resupply & Water:

  • Food:  There are no villages along the Berlin High Route, but meals are never hard to come by during the hiking season as all of the huts are full service. It is also possible to purchase snacks and sandwiches to go.
    1. Breakfast – Usually served from around 6 to 8 am. Continental-style, consisting of bread/butter/jam and coffee or tea.
    2. Lunch – Usually served from midday to 2 pm, though it can vary from hut to hut. Order as much as you like from the menu. Beer and wine are available.
    3. Dinner – Principal meal of the day and usually served between 6 pm and 7.30 pm. The set-dinner option is well-priced, ample in size, and can once again be washed down with your choice of adult beverages.
    4. Costs: Most folks that overnight at the huts go for the “half pension” option, which consists of dinner, bed, and breakfast for between €45 and €55. Lunch is always à la carte.
    5. Off-season: If you are interested in hiking out of season, you will have to carry all your own supplies from start to finish. If you are fortunate – it happened to me on three separate occasions during my time in Austria – friendly locals may have left some beers in the Winter Rooms. 
  • Water: Readily available throughout the hike. It can either be obtained at the huts or from streams along the way. During my time in the Alps, I generally drank directly from sources and had no intestinal issues. The exception was if I was obtaining water downstream from huts or grazing animals, in which case I treated with Aquamira drops.

Ascending towards Schoenbichler Scharte (3,081m) from Furtschaglkal Haus.

Route / Conditions:

  • Overview:  During the summer months the Berlin High Trail is a moderate to demanding trek. It includes more than 13,000 m (42,651 ft) of combined altitude gain and loss, and during its course, hikers will negotiate high passes, exposed traverses, boulder fields, and steep scree slopes. The trail is well marked with splashes of red/white paint, and major junctions are signposted. Some of the steeper sections are tackled with the aid of fixed cables (see photo below). The cable sections can be found on the following stages (hiking in a counter-clockwise direction): 1. Furtschagl Haus to Berliner Hut; 2. Berliner Hut – Greizer Hut; 3. Greizer Hut – Kasseler Hut, and; 4. Kasseler Hut – Karl von Edel Hut. On the section between Berliner Hut and Greizer Hut there is also a short ladder section that needs to be negotiated.
  • If hiking during the shoulder seasons do I need traction devices, an ice axe, or any other specialized equipment?:  During my October hikes in the Alps I didn’t carry an ice axe, but I did use Salewa mountain spikes (similar to Kathoola Microspikes) and was very glad to have them for some of the icy high sections. Also on the footwear front, I periodically wore a combination of merino wool socks and Montbell Gore-tex All Round Socks under my trail running shoes. I’d definitely go with the same system again if I was to return to the Alps in the spring or fall (Note: Depending on conditions, I’d consider carrying an ice axe as well; particularly if tackling some of the recommended side trips mentioned in the Cicerone Guide).

Descending from Schoenbichler Scharte, the highest point on the Berlin High Trail.

  • How Long will it take?: In the “At a Glance” section I mention that the average duration of a BHT hike is 7 to 9 days. That said, the amount of time needed can vary greatly depending on a number of factors. Fit and experienced ramblers carrying a light pack and who have a good run with the weather, can comfortably do the trip in four or five days (Note: The longer daylight hours of summer would obviously help on this front).
  • Highlights: I’m not the best person to answer this question, as I had inclement conditions for much of the trip. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the experience, and my favorite sections were the short stretch between Friesenberg and Olperer Huts, and the icy, knife-edge descent from Schoenbichler Scharte.

A sprinkling of fall colours on a uniformly overcast day.

Sleeping

  • Mountain Huts: Virtually all hikers on the Berlin High Trail stay in the mountain huts. These regularly-spaced refuges usually boast incredible locations, are normally open from mid-June to mid/late September, and along with overnight accommodation, offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As referenced above, the best value can usually be found in the half-board offer, which consists of a three-course dinner, a bed, and breakfast for between 45 and 55 Euros (as of 2022). Note that folks affiliated with certain other European Alpine or Mountain clubs (e.g. UK, German, French) enjoy reciprocal rights.
  • Continued – Mountain Huts: During the peak season months of July and August, accommodation should ideally be booked in advance (three to four weeks is recommended); this especially holds true if you are hiking in a group. For most of the huts, you can choose between bunking down in a shared dormitory or private room. Hiking in a counter-clockwise direction, the accommodation options along the trail are as follows: 1. Gamshütte; 2. Friesenberghaus; 3. Olpererhütte; 4. Furtschaglhaus; 5. Berliner Hütt; 6. Greizerhütte; 7. Kasseler Hütte, and; 8. Edelhütte
  • Is Wild Camping Possible in the Austrian Alps?: Officially speaking………….it’s complicated. There is no “everyman’s right/freedom to roam” in Austria, and alpine zone camping regulations can vary significantly between states. The Berlin High Trail is located in the Tyrol region. According to the Austrian Alpine Club, camping outside of official campsites in Tyrol is prohibited, with the exception of “for a short period of time when required by the occasion.” Before wild campers get too excited, the website also states that “deliberate bivouacking is equated with staying in a tent! Violations can result in fines of up to 14,500 euros, depending on the federal state.” In reality, I suspect if you were to stay well away from huts and farms, set up just before dark in a stealthy spot, leave at dawn the next day, and diligently practice LNT principles at all times, you would be unlikely to have any issues. Click here for a detailed overview of the camping situation in Austria.
  • Winter Rooms (“winterraums”): Although I did carry a shelter on the Berlin High Trail, I ended up spending all of my nights in the winter rooms. These little sanctuaries are a godsend at the end of a long day in rough conditions. They are generally an annex to the main hut and remain open all year round.

Looking back towards the Furtschagl Haus

Mid-morning break at the Furtschagl Haus winter room.

View from the Olperer winter room.

Final Thoughts on the BHT

To some extent, my journey on the Berlin High Trail was defined by the weather. On the first day, I had clear skies, little wind, and comfortable temperatures. On Day 2, things started to deteriorate, though visibility was mostly good with the exception of either side of Schoenbichler Scharte pass. On the third day, conditions turned to shit, and for much of the time, I hiked in freezing rain, snow, and driving wind. With the exception of when I took a break at the Greizer Hut’s winter room, I didn’t stop for more than a minute or two. As for the fourth and final day, it was a carbon copy of Day 3.

I realize that to most hikers, the second half of my journey sounds like it was miserable. And on one or two occasions, I might have even vented my displeasure to the weather gods with language so colourful, that it would have made the cast of Deadwood blush. With that admission out of the way, and as loopy as it may sound, I actually enjoy hiking in such conditions.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a complete nutter. I wouldn’t want to do it all the time. But I’ve always figured that if you’ve got the appropriate gear, skills, fitness, a positive mindset, and an ironic sense of humour, then hiking in such weather is a challenge worth embracing. It shows what you’re capable of in the backcountry when push comes to shove. In my own case, over the years I’ve found that my focus lasers in, and I adapt my pace so that hour after hour I remain in a steady zone whereby I’m not pushing so hard that I sweat excessively, but at the same time I’m not dropping my hiking speed enough that I’m at risk of becoming cold and potentially hypothermic. And if my mind ever starts to wander or negative thoughts creep in, I invariably think of my family, repeat a positive mantra, or recall a funny story from my past, and before you can say, “!#*% me, will this #!%&@*!# rain ever stop!“, I’m back on track again.

So, thank you Berlin High Trail. I couldn’t have asked for a more memorable way to wrap up my Alpine journey of 2019.

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3 Replies to “A Quick & Dirty Guide to the Berlin High Trail”

  1. Hi Cam,

    I am reading this sitting at the Las Palmas airport just having completed the island’s GR131 4 day portion of the trail( which I may add was a treat; I will definitely come back for some or all of the other sections).
    Thanks again for taking the time for a nice write-up of another seemingly amazing trail. This way I will hardly run out of options on where to head next. Much appreciated,
    Stephan

  2. I walked in the Zillertal Alps in late June 2017. It was stunning.
    The mid level fields were awash with spring/summer flowers and the cows mooed to us as we climber higher.
    We did have rain and thunder each night but it was consistently between 5-6.30pm.
    It’s dramatically different scenery from what we see in Australia.
    Fiona

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