It was not a hard decision for us when we went to choose an excursion for our first port of call on our Rhine River cruise. “Explore the dense, lofty fir forests of Germany’s Schwarzwald, the fabled Black Forest”. Like most folks, we had heard of the Black Forest through many works of childhood literature and studying history, so we were excited to experience it – perhaps we would get a surprise rendezvous with Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, or Sleeping Beauty – all from fairy tales set in the black forest. The surprise however, turned out to be the story of a thriving economy in the region that is based on ecological husbandry.
The Black Forest is a region in southwest Germany, in the state of Baden-Wurthemberg, that consists of a large forested mountain range and the associated villages and towns that are nestled into the hillsides and valleys. It is not a “defined” specific forest as we are used to in the States. The Rhine River flows on the west and south, where the region is bordered by France to the west and Switzerland to the south.
Within this region are two state parks and one national park (in English the names reflect German practicality – Southern Black Forest Nature Park, Central/North Black Forest Nature Park, and Black Forest National Park) . The Black Forest is really a consortium of lands owned by multiple agencies. Overall 39% is owned by cities and villages, 36% by private owners, and 25% by the state. Amazingly, they all seemed to have developed a mindset of nurturing their part of the Earth.
On the bus ride from the boat our guide Lynn shared her knowledge of the Black Forest, giving us an introduction to the people and culture of the Black Forest Region.
It was a misting overcast day and what struck us from the bus as we cruised through the valleys and along the ridges was how integrated the isolated antique communities were with the forest and greenspaces that we saw along the way.
By integrated I mean both physically and economically. In this vast region of 2,320 square miles, prudent utilization of the natural resources is the driving force of the regional economy. The three largest industries are agriculture, forestry, and hospitality.
Through the front window of the touring bus, the patchwork greens of the wooded mountainsides stood out.
There was every green imaginable – like a large collection of paint swatches strewn across a table. They went from the bright chartreuse of new leaves of deciduous trees, to the near black of the Norway Spruce and Silver Fir that occur in large numbers and give the forest its name.
Throughout the drive the farming communities seem to be thriving. The farms, both structures and pastures, are well maintained and healthy. Absent was any sign of rural poverty.
A thriving forestry industry was noted by the stacks of both hewn lumber at numerous milling operations, and the piles of recently harvested logs placed along the entry drive to the farms, as select tree harvesting is another revenue stream for the farmers. Historically, through the 19th century, the forests of the region were badly over harvested and a reforestation program had to be initiated, which included the planting of large numbers of Norway Spruce, a non-native species. The forests have recovered and once again are a mature mixed wood. To avoid a recurrence of deforestation the rate of tree removal is regulated by the state.
What one did not see was any evidence of clear cutting, which could be ecologically disastrous given the steepness of the wooded hillsides.
As we drove from village to village we saw innumerable quaint hotels that catered to the thriving outdoor recreation industry. Guests include bicyclists, mountain bikers, and hikers who target the Black Forest. Hiking is the most popular outdoor activity in Germany with 68% of the population having done so within the last year. The Black Forest offers over 12,000 miles of hiking trails, including some ancient footpaths linking the villages. And like the farms, the well maintained hotels suggests that things are going well for them financially. In addition, the area is a wonderland for winter outdoor activities including cross country skiing and snow shoeing, so there is no slow season in tourism. In the Black Forest region over 300,000 are employed in the hospitality industry.
As part of the excursion we had the opportunity to hike in a mature wood. The trailhead for our hike was on the campus of Hofgut Sternen, a resort that featured centuries old hotels and a craft guild that specialized in cuckoo clock manufacturing, glass blowing, and baking. Not all excursion participants were going to hit the trail.
The trailhead laid in the shadow of The Ravennabrücke, a towering railroad viaduct that bridged the valley.
Interestingly, it had survived numerous bombing attempts by the Allies in WWII, only to be blown up by the Nazi forces as they retreated deeper into Germany near the end of the war. It was originally built in 1926 for freight rail, and was then reconstructed in 1947 for passenger service. It is still in use today.
From the base of the viaduct we could hear the roar of the Ravenna, a stream that tumbled down the valley. It had been a wet spring in this part of Germany and the volume of water tumbling amongst the rocks was evidence of that.
The trail mimicked the path of the stream, crossing it on narrow bridges several times.
The first part of the trail was somewhat steep, but gravel made for good footing. Shortly however, the gravel ended and our striding became more challenging with slippery granite rocks as well as numerous exposed roots.
With cautious stepping we continued the climb. At times I was second guessing the decision to go on as I feared a fall, possible fracture, and a rendezvous with with the German healthcare system. But the risk was rewarded with some outstanding views of waterfalls.
Alongside these falls were some metal stairs that were not for the faint of heart. Like everything else they were damp and somewhat slippery.
The well maintained trail continued to wind through the the valley with steep slopes on both sides of the stream.
The trick was not to be distracted by the beauty of the valley itself. With massive trees, ferns, and mosses adorning the rocks, it had a decidedly “Pacific Northwest” feel to it.
Every image, whether micro or macroscopic, screamed moisture.
And anywhere you see a true moss growing on a branchlet it has to wet.
We enjoyed seeing shamrocks in this natural setting. These were about the size of a silver dollar.
The constant here was the stream and what it offered: tranquility despite our crowd, idyllic photo ops, and background white noise.
Eventually I got to a place where the stream was walled in by a steep rock canyon, perhaps the Ravenna Gorge that I have since read about.
The trail went on further but I needed to ensure my return to the campus to catch the bus. The return trek was actually better, as I was more isolated and it allowed me to study things as I am prone to do.
I was in a foreign habitat but I was still able to identify some of the trees based on characteristics common to specific tree families.
The Norway Spruce had the trade mark spruce “pegs” on the stems from lost needles.
The Silver Firs, named for the color of their bark, had the classic round leaf scar of firs on the twigs, but also white stripes on the underside of their needles.
The lance shape buds of the beech family helped me identify this as a European Beech. Its leaves are wider than those of the American Beech. It is the classic deciduous tree of the Black Forest landscape.
I would have loved to have had more time and to carry out the climb as the trail passes many historic structures and eventually leads to Feldberg, the highest peak in the Black Forest at 4897 feet. But it was not to be on this trek as we had a schedule.
In summary, I had no idea that this excursion would have such an impact on me. I certainly got what I expected – a new habitat (a European mature spruce, maple, beech, fir alpine forest) added to my life list. But what I did not expect was the envy I had for the German culture and political leadership that led to such a successful partnership between nature and the community. They demonstrated that by nurturing an ecological resource, rather than blindly extracting from it, you can build thriving communities and economies. Over the years, as I have driven through some of our poorer regions of the U.S., such as Eastern Kentucky, I have often wondered if a healthy economy could be built on outdoor recreational activities rather than large scale extraction ones. The Black Forest region has demonstrated to me that it can be. At the risk of sounding like a marketing piece for Viking Cruises, I must say that this is why we are patrons of theirs. They don’t just whisk you through cities and countries, they immerse you into them. They encourage observation and conversation that leads to understanding, enrichment, and broader views. And lastly, it gives me hope. If an industrial juggernaut like Germany, with their thriving chemical, engineering, and manufacturing industries can embrace environmental protection and alternative energy and make it work, so can we and the rest of the world. The challenge will be to find political leadership mature enough to do the hard work of problem solving and long range planning to move us in the right direction. The irony is that there is tremendous economic opportunity to be had for those countries who lead the way .
Footpathsblog.com posts are released every Sunday morning and some bonus content is added periodically. Please click on a social media icon above to follow for future posts and to make sure that you catch all our reflections on, and adventures with, the great outdoors.
Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns and Patrick Burns. Video credits to Patrick Burns.
Location – Hofgut Sternen, 79874 Hollsteig 76, Breitnau Baden-Württemberg, Germany
Parking – large gravel lot.
Facilities – several restrooms in the buildings located on the campus of Hofgut Sternen.
Trail Conditions – well maintained but many exposed roots and rocks. Also a couple of staircases on the section we hiked. I would rate the trail as moderate but note its steady grade.
Benches – none on trail.
Picnic Tables – none seen. There is a cafe in one of the buildings.
Kids – the grade would be challenging for kids under 6.
Dogs – don’t know