Visiting Austrian National Parks

When Americans hear the term “national park” different images come to mind for different people. Maybe it’s the Grand Canyon maybe it’s Boston National Historic Park or maybe it’s Dry Tortugas National Park. The list goes on and they are all so different! In fact, the only real requirement for a national (other than annoying government logistics) is that the area has to hold large cultural or environmental significance for many people. A place that is worth saving and protecting and sharing with generations of people forever.

Second, when Americans think national park we also think “America”. Though the worlds first national parks were established in the US in 1872 other countries soon set aside their own national parks.

Austrians began working to set aside their own national park at the beginning of the 20th century not long after Yellowstone NP was set aside, but unfortunately, they soon found themselves embroiled in an economic crisis and 2 world wars. As the dust cleared and the nation began the slow painful process of rebuilding, plans for a national park surfaced again. Finally, in the 1980s the Austrian government officially set aside Hohe Tauern National Park – the first and largest of eventually 6 national parks in Austria.

My parents are park rangers, and growing up they took us to many national parks across the US (their way of also avoiding a trip to Disneyland). Now I am in the midst of various internships at national parks in the US. (It’s safe to say I’m a bit of a park nerd).

Naturally, I could not pass up the opportunity to visit an Austrian National Park. This past weekend I made the trip down to Hohe Tauern National Park. The park itself is 695 square miles and spreads through Salzburg, Carinthia, and Tirol. The mountains in this area are the tallest in Austria and are home to large glaciers as well as unique and fragile plants and animals.

The sad fact was I only had a day to explore!

How do you narrow down where exactly to go (especially in the winter)? How does transportation work in this more rural part of the country?

Like parks at home, it’s always a good idea to visit the park visitor center first. Here you can educate yourself on the area and get recommendations from rangers on the best places to visit and hike (as not much of this is easily available online like it is at home). The Hohe Tauern visitor center was about 2.5 hours from Salzburg by train. As soon as I walked in I noticed the first difference from US parks – here rangers don’t work on weekends and are primarily guides or researchers. Here, the gift shop workers ran the museum and gave directions and recommendations about the park (In the US this is part of the duties of interpretive rangers).

This building was state of the art and included high-end 360 videos from the region as well as an interactive museum on the planet’s animals and geology of the region and a little bit of the history of farming in the region. They had fake marmot tunnels to wiggle through, a rock wall to climb, and a glacier to touch!

Next, I took a 30min mini train that runs throughout some of the immediate regions and then a local bus to get to the Krimmel waterfall trailhead. Sometimes when people think national park they think the area is completely closed off from any sort of modern anything but in both countries, this is only partially true. This region certainly wasn’t a city, but there was a patchwork of small towns and ski resorts nestled into the huge mountains on either side.

Then the real fun began! No sooner had I passed the “hike at own risk: trail not clear of snow sign” then I found myself completely unable to find footing on the vertical foot thick sheet of sheer ice that was the trail. The trail, by the way, parallels a waterfall going up a mountain and had many overlooks as you got higher and higher above the falls. The map, of course, fails to tell you how many kilometers the trail is (kind of important), but the not-actually-a-ranger person told me it was about a 2hr hike up. I had to make sure I didn’t run out of daylight or miss the last bus to the last train to the last train back to Salzburg.

The hike was well worth it despite the rather creative methods I had to use to get up the trail! I was surrounded by a wonderful pine forest that overlooked mountain views, a little town, and of course the roaring falls. Just this small look into the region was amazing and I can’t recommend visiting national parks enough- in any country. It is, after all, the best way to experience history or the unspoiled natural environment.

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