About this Germany walking region
To call it a mountain range is in fact a little misleading as its highest peak, the Große Zschirnstein, is only 556m/1,814ft, but it gives an indication of the diversity of this wonderfully rugged hiking country.
Also known as the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, Saxon Switzerland (Sächsische Schweiz in German) is a myriad of bizarre rock formations, wild gorges, sheer cliffs and intriguing forests. The countryside is dotted with romantic fortresses, pretty villages, old mills and historical inns - all handcrafted with endless devotion and detail, and which, only now, seem to be awakening from a long slumber.
The peculiar German tendency to name hilly areas after Switzerland began at the beginning of the 19th century, in the period of the Romantic Movement. However, the landscape, far from looking Swiss, is unique in Central Europe, with deep, narrow valleys and dense forests interrupted by outcrops of rock welded into truly fantastic shapes.
The Elbe Sandstone Mountains stretch across the border between the state of Saxony in eastern Germany and the Czech Republic. They seamlessly blend into Bohemian Switzerland on the Czech side, which claims the largest natural stone bridge on the European continent - Pravcická Brána. Both countries have declared their individual part of the Elbe Sandstone Mountains a national park.
Walking in Saxon Switzerland & National Park
Millions of years ago, Saxon Switzerland was carved into labyrinths of stone after volcanic eruptions forced up the bed of a prehistoric lake. The River Elbe and its tributaries cut the ensuing chalky sandstone bed into a bizarre assembly of soaring pinnacles, mesas and rock buttresses – creating a very attractive and varied walking experience, full of enchanting trails, rock castles, lookout points, caves, rock steps and even some Via Ferrata-like iron ladders.
For decades, the area was isolated in a remote corner of eastern Germany but it is now a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. It offers 1,200 km/720 miles of waymarked paths and trails, hundreds of miles of cycling routes, the mighty River Elbe, and a wealth of flora and fauna, although a large part of it is protected as the Saxon Switzerland National Park.
Walkers will discover that signposts indicate walking times, as opposed to distances, due to frequent changes in altitude. Those who tackle the narrow paths, steep climbs, ladders and crevices to reach the top of the table mountains will be rewarded with spectacular views. Just be sure to wear very sturdy boots!
Bad Schandau to Hinterhermsdorf
Czech frontier and the heart of the romantic Saxon Switzerland ● Bad Schandau, spa town on the banks of the Elbe and a great base for hikes ● Kirnitzschtalbahn, a jangling narrow-gauge tram from 1898 ● Secluded Hinterhermsdorf, best-known for its historic Umgebindehäuser – and voted ‘Saxony’s most beautiful village’.
Left of the River Elbe
The impressive mountain top fortress Königstein, one of Germany’s top-rated tourist attractions ● But also tiny spa towns and dreamy hamlets, off-the-beaten (tourist) track and well worth visiting ● Historic Liebstadt – the smallest town in Saxony (population 1,400) ● Truly lovely countryside ideal for gentle walking and cycling.
Pirna and around Pirna
Southeast of Dresden and the gateway to Saxon Switzerland and the Elbe Sandstone Mountains ● Pirna, delightful old market town with a wonderful historic centre ● Don’t miss St. Mary’s Church (Marienkirche) and Castle Sonnenstein (Schloss Sonnenstein) in Pirna ● A good base for day trips to Dresden via train or riverboat.
Right of the River Elbe
Even just for a day-trip: don’t miss Kurort Rathen and its famous Bastei ● Nostalgia pure! Picturesque villages such as Hohnstein and Gohrisch ● Sebnitz town on the northern edge of Saxon Switzerland – authentic, friendly and welcoming ● The little town of Wehlen – picturesque and centrally located on the banks of the River Elbe.