The Karwendel High Trail (Karwendel Höhenweg) is a stunning 6-stage trail in the Tirol region of Austria. The official website describes it as a "demanding, multi-day tour...on a mountain trail in the black (difficult) category". At about 42 miles and 13,000ft of elevation gain, I'd tend to agree with this description. There's nothing overly technical about this route, but there is significant elevation gain and loss, some narrow/high exposure sections, and spots that require (short, straightforward) usage of cables and iron rungs. There are a variety of huts on the route, so you can look forward to a warm bed, cold beer, and dinner each night.
- ~42 miles/67km
- ~13,000 ft/4,000m of total elevation gain
- 6 stages, with 5 incredible mountain huts
- Great options for side summits or more advanced routes
- Can be done either direction
I did a compressed 3-day, 2-night (counter-clockwise) itinerary for the full loop, although you could use it to adapt a longer trip by stopping at intermediary huts. It can also be done the opposite direction.
The time estimations provided should be considered for someone of above average fitness. I didn't do much running (jogged a few short sections), but I was hiking quickly and moving fast through challenging terrain. The main Karwendel Höhenweg website has additional hiking time estimations you can use to judge your own pace.
You can either fly direct to Innsbruck, or fly into Munich and take the train. There are several direct trains (~1hr 48min) each day from the Munich central train station, as well as other routes with transfers (2-3 hrs) that are slightly less expensive. I recommend using Trainline to get a sense of train schedules and costs. While flights to Munich are likely to be cheaper, the convenience of the Innsbruck Airport is hard to beat. It's a short bus/taxi or a ~45 minute walk to the center of town. From Innsbruck, take a short train to either Reith bei Seefeld (counter-clockwise) or Scharnitz (clockwise) to start the hike.
There are plenty of places to stay in Innsbruck, although you could choose to stay in Seefeld or Scharnitz as well.
Mid-range: Hotel Central
I hiked the trail in early June, just days after the huts opened for the season. There were still some patches of snow on the trail, with the most significant being at Stempeljoch. It was also a lower snow year -- the trail is most often hiked in July, August, and September.
The huts are wonderful, but if you plan on going in the middle of the summer (especially on the weekend), be sure to make reservations in advance. It could also be worth it to join the Austrian Alpine Club -- membership gets you discounted rates at huts all across Austria. Be sure to bring cash! While reservations are made online, you'll pay for your accommodation/food/drink at the hut, and they do not accept credit cards.
The hut system makes packing for this trip incredibly easy. I only carried a sleeping bag liner and clothes, and did breakfast/dinner/lunch at a hut, or packed a light lunch from food provided at breakfast.
I built an annotated map of the Karwendel High Route in Felt, with a few images for context and annotations to give you a good idea of different sections. You can also get the full (standard) route GPX file via CalTopo. This does not include the alternate route I took between Nordlinger and Solsteinhaus.
Day 1 - Reith bei Seefeld to Solsteinhaus
10.5 miles, 5400 ft gain, 5 hours hiking time
I started the day with a coffee in Innsbruck, and then caught the train to Reith bi Seefeld, where the hike starts. There's a short section on the main road before a left turn onto the trail. You'll shortly be treated to stunning views of the valley below and the iconic Parish Church of St. Nicholas. The trail climbs steeply through the forest along numerous switchbacks for several miles before breaking into the alpine just below the Nordlinger Hut. This hut has a spectacular view and is a great spot for lunch. If you need to refill on water, you'll have to pay for a bottled water here.
Alternate approach: You can start from Seefeld and take a series of trams/furniculars to Härmelekopfbahn Mountain Station, which cuts off a significant amount of elevation gain.
Side trip: Reither Spitze, which is a short ways from the Nordlinger hut. You're here, why not?
After leaving the Nordlinger Hut I continued on trail 211 towards Ursprungssattel. Here, the standard Karwendel route descends to Breiter Sattel and then traverses the mountainside towards Eppzirler Scharte. Instead of the standard route, I continued along AV211, the "Freiung Hohenweg". This route follows the ridgeline more closely and involves lots of up and down along the ridge, and utilization of cables and iron rungs in a few places. While challenging, with some good exposure in places, it is still not a technical route (no via feratta gear needed). The views are spectacular. If time is of the essence, note that this route will take longer than the standard route for this section. The AV211 rejoins with the standard route near Eppzirler Scharte and descends down to Solsteinhaus.
Solsteinhaus sits in a pleasant meadow with views to the north and south. The hut itself is very well appointed, with modern rooms and comfortable bunks. Dinner was excellent. For sunset, take a walk to the north to watch the light change on the mountains across the valley.
Day 1 overview:
- 1:45 to Nordlinger Hut
- Reither Spitze was a ~20 min detour (10 up, 10 down)
- From Eppzirler Scharte, I took ~3 hrs to get to Solsteinhaus
- ~6 hrs total, including a ~1hr stop at Nordlinger for lunch
Day 2 - Solsteinhaus to Bettelwürfhutte
17.5 miles, 6600ft elevation gain (~5600 loss)
This was a long day. I started quite early because there was rain forecast for the afternoon, and I was glad I did. Later in the summer, with more stable conditions, it may be less of an issue.
The day started with a descent along AV213 from Solsteinhaus. After about 1.5 miles, a cutoff trail along the Gipfelsturmerweg heads towards Frau Hitt Sattel. The trail initially climbs through a verdant forest and alpine meadows to reach a high point, before descending again and wrapping towards the cirque that contains Frau Hitt Sattel. The last bit of ascent to the saddle is quite steep, with lots of scree. It's an annoying, slow section, but significantly easier and shorter than I expected.
From Frau Hitt, you'll take a right turn and then descend the other side to the Brandjochsteig towards Seegrube. This section is a relatively flat traverse of the mountainside, with views of Innsbruck below. The trails cutting across this side of the ridge are super scenic. You'll eventually reach the Nordkettenbahnen Seegrube station, where I stopped for a relaxing cappuccino (hiking in Europe is ridiculous). This is a good place to refill on water or grab a bite if it makes sense for you.
From Seegrube station you have 2 options:
1. Continue past the station before following the 216 trail up series of switchbacks up to Hafekelar
2. Take the Nordkettenbahn to the top for 5 euros. This is what I did. Best 5 euro's I've ever spent. Cuts off some boring switchbacks and saves the legs from a bit of elevation.
From the top of the Nordkettenbahn, I recommend a quick summit of Hafkelarspitze, as it's basically on the way. I continued along the 219 trail; this is an incredible section, cut right into the side of the mountain. After reaching Muhlkarsharte, the 219 descends a bit and traverses around the Mantlspitze to Mandlsharte. Here, your route depends on whether you plan to descend to the Pfeishutte or take a more direct route. I chose to go more direct because I was skipping that hut. Eventually the trail meets up with the AV221 trail to Stempeljoch. It's a steep scree descent from here (early season there can be steep/sketchy snow, as I found out). Make sure you don't miss the left turn for the Wilde-Bande-Steig, which traverses over to Lafatscherjoch. You won't want to hike back up this scree 😂. From Lafatscherjoch it's about an hour to Bettelwürfhutte, which sits perched on the mountainside above the Halltal Valley.
I was quite happy with my early start, as a large thunderstorm rolled in during the afternoon. It was fun to watch from the comfort of the hut, but I would not have wanted to be on an exposed ridgeline. When it wasn't raining, the deck has a fantastic panorama. Have a beer (or three) and enjoy the evening.
Day 2 overview:
- 2:20 to Frau Hitt
- 1hr to Seegrube
- 3 hrs Seegrube to Lafatscherjoch (slowed down a bit here when I knew I was ahead of the weather, and for a few sketchy snow sections)
- 1 hr Lafatscherjoch to Bettelwurfhutte
Day 3 - Bettelwürfhutte to Scharnitz
16 miles, 600ft elevation gain (4200ft loss)
This was a cruiser day. I started by retracing my steps to Lafatscherjoch and then taking a right turn, following signage for the Hallangerhaus. A quick descent drops you into the valley, with views of the imposing granite face of Lafatscher Roßkopf. At Hallangerhaus, take a left turn and follow signs for Scharnitz. It's a wide gravel road from here all the way to town. There are plenty of opportunities for a dip in the river on the way (very cold, but great for the legs), and a stop at Kastenalm for a snack or cold beverage. This part of the trail is e-bike city -- it's a popular day trip from Scharnitz. Put your legs on auto pilot and enjoy the long downhill grade. The last bit into town is on pavement, and I considered my hike 'finished' when I reached the excellent Cafe Land for a well deserved beer! From Scharnitz it's an easy train back to Innsbruck.
Day 3 overview:
- 1hr to Lafatscherjoch
- 40 min from Lafatscherjoch to Hallangerhaus
- 1:10 from Hallangerhaus to Kastenalm
- 5 hrs total (chill hiking, no running) from Bettelwurfhutte to Scharnitz