German-French Castle Trail
The German-French Castle Trail (aka Deutsch-Französischer-Burgenweg) brings together the Alsace region of France and the German Palatinate. The trail is strenuous, but absolutely worth the effort. Hikers will enjoy red sandstone cliffs, incredible views of the Northern Vosges Mountains and the Wasgau, massive stone formations, and 8 castle ruins full of handrails and ladders to climb and explore.
In just over 20 miles of hiking, you'll weave through the Franco-German past and visit almost 1000 years of European history.
1. The First Ascent (or Three)
A full day of hiking began with a climb. The forest called to us and our spirits were high. From the village of Schönau, we followed the castle markers up the street into the German countryside to begin our pursuit of castles.
We passed singing birds, deer, woodchoppers and leaves that cascaded to the ground like butterflies. In a peaceful excitement we made our way onto the trail where we ran into our first hiking hiccup—a fork in the road and no clear marker.
We consulted our maps. We opened our GPS. The way was not clear. We chose to head right...but we chose wrong.
And so, our first moment of backtracking began. Thankfully we ran into a German hunter who was familiar with our route and corrected us. With his instructions to ascend 3 steep hills, we found our way once more.
Tip #1 for this trail: At the beginning of this hike, the trail is narrow and steep. If the trail feels wide and easily walkable to you, then this is probably a good indication that you're off course. Our mistake was turning onto logger roads thinking that they were part of the trail... they're not.
Ascending the hillside, the trail intersects with 3 wide logger roads and markers are not clear. The trick is to make sure you cross over these logger roads and catch the narrow trail which continues on the other side (sometimes up the logger road just a few hundred feet). You really have to search for the markers. They're small, black and white, and easily overlooked... especially if you're caught up in conversation like we were.
Tip #2: You really need a full day to hike the first leg of the German-French Castle loop. It is the longest leg of the 2-day trail, ranging from 11 to 14 miles depending on if you stay overnight in Niedersteinbach or Obersteinbach, respectively. I recommend starting around 8am to make sure you're off the trail and snug in your accommodations before dark.
Tip #3: If you're meeting up with a hiking group at the Schönau parking lot then you should know that there is no cell service or WiFi in the village. If someone in your group is running late, runs into car issues, or is lost, then you'll have no way of getting in touch. I suggest carpooling and/or making back up plans if group members haven't arrived by a certain time. We were able to drive a couple villages over and finally get cell service to reconnect, but this put us starting a little late.
2. Castle Number One - Wegelnburg
After the first 3 kilometers of straight up ascent, you'll stumble upon the first of the incredibly massive rock formations. The castle is still another 3 km ahead, with some shorter ascents and descents along the way. (FYI access to Wegelnburg is closed to visitors until the end of 2020 due to construction. You can still view beautiful views of the surrounding forest, but entry to the castle complex is not possible.)
Familiarize yourself with the castle waypoints so that you don't miss any of the sites! Some castles require you to walk a little off the trail to reach them.
You'll get some of your first opportunities to climb stairs and look out over the forest as you reach the Hohenbourg castle ruins at 7km. The stairs are steep and can be slippery, so be careful as you ascend.
3. Lunch Break at Fleckenstein
Reaching castle Fleckenstein is a perfect place to take a lunch break. Fleckenstein is the only castle along the route that requires paid entry. It is also the only spot along the trail with toilets. You can find details about admission hours and rates on their website.
At Fleckenstein there is a place to eat called Café des 4 Châteaux (café of the 4 castles). One of our group members stepped inside and said all the quiches looked delicious! We opted to bring our own food for our hike, with the exception of dinner. (We made reservations at the restaurant hotel where we would be spending the night.)
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, we were unsure if the café would be open. We didn't want to bank on eating at the café, and then be stuck without food to fuel us on the remainder of our hike in the chance that it might be closed. If you decide to hike, you might be able to lighten your load and not carry as much water/food if you eat at the café, but check to make sure they're open and allowing entry before hiking. If you pack your own lunch, then there are picnic tables available at Fleckenstein, but you do have to pack out your own trash.
You may want to budget an extra hour of hiking time if you choose to explore the Fleckenstein castle and eat at the café.
4. Finding Overnight Accommodations
Finding overnight accommodations was not necessarily hard, but definitely took some research and patience. If you choose to begin the trail in Schönau, then you will likely look for overnight accommodations in Niedersteinbach or Obersteinbach.
Niedersteinbach is reached sooner than Obersteinbach along the loop, but will require you to deviate about 2 to 3km from the trail. Obersteinbach is on the trail, and has more accommodation options, but will require you to hike approx. 14 miles the first day. I would say use your judgement. Obersteinbach is a beautiful village with more options when it comes to accommodations and may be worth the extra hiking. Niedersteinbach will save you a mile or two of hiking, but only 1 hotel is there. You decide!
We decided to stay in Niedersteinbach at the Hotel du Cheval Blanc and had an absolutely wonderful stay. We were allowed to pick from several rooms and we were served delicious food throughout our stay. Although we had to leave the trail, we were tired after a full day of hiking and were grateful to not walk the extra distance to Obersteinbach in one day. After the step ascents and descents, we walked along the flat road to reach our hotel, which was a much needed break.
Many of the accommodation options are small pensions, guest houses, or hotels where they speak French, German, and *sometimes* a little English. Many of the options do not have websites or online booking options. I emailed about 10 different accommodations, heard back from about 5, and ended up with 3 reservation options. I found it challenging to figure out which accommodations allowed dogs, so to spare you some digging check out:
Tip: Expect 2-4 days to receive a response to your email. You can certainly make reservations over the phone, too. This is what I ended up doing, but I ended up needing to speak French to make the reservation. Hopefully you'll get someone who speaks English!
5. Eating Delicious Delicacies
So, I know this is horrible... but we didn't photograph any of our delicious food. Sorry! You'll just have to trust me that it looked as good as it tasted.
Many accommodations in this area offer a demi-pension, aka a half-board, which includes dinner, your room, and breakfast. After a full day of strenuous hiking, dining in a French restaurant with a 6 course meal of Alsatian cuisine was 20 times better than any dehydrated meal we would have packed along. It was amazing to me how just dipping across the French-German border opened up an entirely new world to us of French cuisine, language, culture, and class.
As we sat down at our table, we found ourselves quietly speaking English. At a time with U.S. Citizens are unable to enter the E.U. due to COVID-19, we could feel the stares from the French patrons dining around us. They seemed to say, "Who are you? Why and how are you here?" We definitely knew it was a privilege to be traversing and exploring the French-German countryside at a time when so many cannot.
The restaurant treated us well. We were served course after course of fine cuisine with real silver utensils, white table cloths, and eclectic food options. We dined on rabbit, goose liver, veal, caviar, and a whole slew of other things that I'm not even sure what they were. Everything was delicious.
We found ourselves beginning to nod off as the 5th course rolled around. We made our way through our dinner barely keeping our eyes open, and carefully trudged back up the stairs to our cozy beds. We sunk heavily into our slumber, prepared for another day of blissful hiking ahead.
1. Breakfast of Champions
The French have a saying: "tout ce qui est petit est mignon"— all that is little is cute. We sat down to our breakfast buffet in the quaint dining hall of le Cheval Blanc surrounded by hundreds of tiny containers full of delicacies.
Did we look like 3 of the most ravenous animals gathering up our spoils? Yes, yes we did. We filled our arms full of baskets of croissants, cheeses, deli cuts, and jars of jams, hazelnut spreads, cereals, fresh fruits, and yogurt.
At one point Ryan cracked a joke about feeling like The Hulk, because it took about 10 different mini-containers of cereal to get a what we could consider a normal, full-sized bowl.
2. Castles & Sunshine
What a glorious day. With shining sun, we found our way back to the trail through leaves of red, gold, green, and orange. We made our way towards the Wasigenstein, the first castle for us to climb on day two.
The Wasigenstein fell into ruins during the Thirty Years War, but you can still see the castle's dungeon, staircase, rooms with gothic windows, and a cistern. The site can be climbed with railings and ladders.
3. Castles & Sunshine
A few more kilometers, and you'll come up the hill to a ridge where you'll look out over the gorgeous village of Obersteinbach. You'll be hiking back down into this little village, but not until you've explored the Chateau du Petit-Arnsberg.
This castle dates back to the 14th century, and is largely in ruin (as are most of the castles along this trail). Be sure to climb the staircase for an incredible look out over the valley. There are still passages and the high tower of the castle that remain intact. You can walk up the winding stair case as well as step through an old doorway.
4. The Last 10km
As we made our way forward from Arnsberg, we descended into Obersteinbach. The trail takes you through the village and some flat meadows, before you're traversing again in the forest. Gracie LOVED romping through the meadows and chasing every squirrel or deer she smelled.
As we entered the forest, we found ourselves again searching for trail markers. We rounded a corner and saw another hiker. Quickly switching between languages, I hailed a gentleman in French asking if the next castle was up ahead. He immediately responded to me in German, to which I replied in.... English? And we found our common ground. It's been so amazing to me as a foreigner living in Germany how often people are kind, accommodating, and make an effort to help me in my native language.
The last castle comes up in about 9 kilometers, so most of this portion of the trail takes you through the forest, with some lookout points and rock formations. There are several steep ascents and descents in this portion of the trail (from about kilometer 20 to 29).
When you reach the Friedenskreuz-Maimontgipfel, a giant cross on the hill side, you're just about finished! One more castle is ahead, the Burgruine Blumenstein.
5. Hiking at Night
The sun began to set as we made our final 3 kilometers of descent. As darkness fell, I heard creaking trees and cooing owls. Rain began to fall. We hoisted on our rain gear and continued down he hillside. At one point I bent forward and a cascading waterfall launched over my shoulder. I guess rain had been puddling on my pack's rain cover, oops! Thankfully, we stayed dry and warm and made it down safe and sound.
Lessons Learned from the Forest
I have learned that the forest is filled with stories, particularly for the German people. The forest has been called the nation's historian. It has been even said that, "woods reside in the national soul as much as the national soul resides in them."
In history, the forest was a dark place full of witches, sickness, mystery and death. Through the Middle Ages, it became a hideout for bandits and the home of the poor. In recent past, thanks to storytellers and nature seekers, the forest has gained a sense of romanticism, wonder and has inspired fairytales. It is no longer a place of darkness. Instead, it is a place of fairytales, peace, nature, and tranquility.
We go to the forest for protection from chaos and social pressures, for relief from technology, and to find ourselves. In the trees you can forget and remember, all in the same moment.
I love completing a trail like this because it's always a reminder to me that I can achieve something great, even while looking into an uncertain future.
Trail Details at a Glance
Trail Name: Deutsch-Franzosischer Burgenweg—German-French Castle Trail
Start/End: 66996 Schönau, Gebüger Strasse (49.060341, 7.747910)
Parking: Gebüger Strasse, 66996 Schönau (free, dirt parking lot across from the city hall)
Fees: none (unless you arrange for an overnight accommodation)
Distance: 31.8km (20 miles) be prepared to hike a bit longer than this if you intend to explore the castle ruins and/or you think you might get turned around and need to do some backtracking.
Duration: 16 hours
When to Hike: Autumn! The leaves changing colors are incredible
Kid Friendly: nope
Dog Friendly: Yes (FYI there are wild boar and hunters along this trail)
*Although this trail is *supposed to be* clearly marked, we found ourselves backtracking a few times and questioning which way to go. Trail marker signs were often faded and spaced far apart. This trail also intersects with several other trails, so it's easy to take a wrong turn. I highly recommend taking a GPS and a map. We had intermittent cellphone service along this trail and could not rely on the *free* outdoor active trail map. (If you have their membership, then you can download the map to use offline, but we tend to us our Garmin and a GPX file instead.)
*You should always take a map with you for safety, and be prepared for an emergency. Make sure you have a safe place to seek cover in a storm, rain protection, first aid kit, and enough food/water. I recommend a half liter of water for every 30 minutes of hiking. There is no potable water along this route, however it is possible to purchase bottled water at the Fleckenstein castle café. (This is also the only spot with toilets). There are only a few spots along this trail where it will be possible to filter water if needed.
*If hiking during Autumn, be mindful of uneven ground, roots, stones, and holes that can be covered by fallen leaves. Many times we were unable to see a clear path. Some parts of this trail are overgrown with slippery tree roots and require sure-footedness and careful navigation, especially after rain. Sometimes we had to walk around fallen trees and branches that blocked the trail. I highly recommend trekking poles for this route.
*Carry your ID with you and make sure some one knows where you'll be hiking and for how long. If you plan to stay overnight in Niedersteinbach or Obersteinbach, it's a good idea to tell your hotel when to expect you. Our hotel offered to call and check on us if we had not arrived by our scheduled time.
Save for Later
I know right now this trail isn't a possible hike for many of us, due to COVID-19 traveling restrictions. Save this post in your back pocket so you have a great adventure planned for next year.