Harz National Park

The NGO Gesellschaft zur Förderung des Nationalparks Harz e.V. (GFN) is the club of friends for the Harz National Park.

Being the first National Park in Germany covering two federal states since 2006, the Harz National Park in its eastern part in Sachsen-Anhalt consists of 8,900 ha land and was set up in 1990. In 1994, the federal government of Niedersachsen established the western part of this park, covering 15,800 ha. This means that the united Harz National Park consists of abt. 24,700 ha now. The park is part of the European nature conservation network "Natura 2000".

The Harz National Park stretches from the low mountain range near Herzberg in the southern part of the mountains, across the Harz massif to its northern slopes near Bad Harzburg and Ilsenburg. It offers the entire range of characteristic ecological systems, variations in height, slopes and rocks. Height varies from abt. 240 m in the north and 270 m on the southern edge up to 1,141 m on the Brocken peak. The park offers an ecologically complex landscape and contains different vegetation zones.

The Harz National Park is virtually uninhabited, but does contain some hamlets. Nearly all the land within the park is forested and belongs to the federal states.

Scientific research has identified numerous habitats which are - based on Middle-European standards - quite close to natural state, such as the high and middle regions or zones of the Harz, rocky biotopes, a lot of running water and a large beech, spruce and mixed forest area. In several sections however ecological changes in afforestation must be carried out, in order to get closer to original, natural forest conditions.

One of the priorities in the future for the Harz National Park consists of carrying out environmental information and education services. With its geographical location, beautiful landscapes and characteristic natural, environmental set-up and layout, the Harz National Park region is one of the most significant recreational areas within Central Europe.
The Harz Tourist Federation calculates more than 5 million overnight stays and approximately 10 million visits to the park area and its adjacent towns a year. A group of 40 rangers and several National Park Visitor Centres contribute a great deal to the services for the guests.

Contact Park: www.nationalpark-harz.de

Tour 1

The Goethe Trail to the Brocken Summit
Ascending the Brocken Mountain in Goethe's Footsteps

Distance: 16 km
Duration: 5 to 6 hours
Old and New Torfhaus (Torfhaus = "Peat House")

Before starting your hike we suggest a visit to the National Park Visitor Centre TorfHaus (www.torfhaus.info). Here you can obtain much information about the area and also procure a good map of the walking trails. A short tour of the exhibit, presentations and slide shows will show you many things you won't want to miss on your tour to the Brocken Mountain and introduce you to the unique landscape. During inclement weather or if a hike to the highest elevations of the Harz should be too strenuous, there is the opportunity to take an audio-visual tour.

The Visitor Centre is located in the Torfhaus settlement, which has a long history. In 1713, when the first cutting of peat in the surrounding moor began, the first building was erected. Torfhaus became known beyond its borders after the German writer Johann Wolfgang Goethe who, accompanied by the Torfhaus forester Degen, began his first ascent of the Brocken on December 10, 1777 from here. The climb through the rough terrain in heavy snow left a lasting impression on the poet who was going through a period of creative struggle then. The experience of untouched nature and the joy of having reached the summit gave him new creative impetus. Goethe incorporated these Brocken impressions in his famous tragedy "Faust" – bringing world renown to the Harz. Exactly which route Goethe took at that time to reach the Brocken peak (1,141 m above sea level) can no longer be determined. It is not the route named "Goethe Trail" today.

Using public transportation, we reach the Goethe Trail by way of the train to Bad Harzburg, and from there with the bus to Torfhaus. We start at the National Park Visitor Centre TorfHaus near the large car park Torfhaus.

Great Torfhaus Moor

Leaving the buildings of Torfhaus behind us we follow along the Goethe Trail, turning to the right into a forest of spruce trees. During the summer months we soon turn off to the left onto a wood board walk. Here the woods thins, revealing a large slightly mounded piece of ground. We are in the middle of the Great Torfhaus Moor, also known as the Radauer Born Moor, a high elevation moor which is one of the largest and oldest in the Harz. Its origin dates back to 8,300 B.C.

The moors are among the most untouched of the Harz National Park's natural landscape. They provide unique environments which are gravely endangered, offering special habitats in which the plant and animal species adapted to these conditions can survive here. In the Great Torfhaus Moor grow, among other interesting plants, the dwarf birch and common bog sedge – two plants which are considered to be relics of the Ice Age.

The most important moor plants are the peat mosses which form a thick lawn here. With sufficient moisture they continue to grow in height while the lower portions die and form peat. In this manner the Great Torfhaus Moor has built a thick layer of peat measuring 6.5 m maximum depth, seldom even in the Harz.

We follow along the man-made water channel, the Abbegraben, which was built after Goethe's walk. This 1,540 m long channel is a part of the Oberharz Water Regal national monument – a many-faceted system of ditches, lakes and underground water courses, which was built between 1536 and 1866 under great effort by the Harz miners to power their various "Künste", that is, their mechanical inventions to facilitate mining.

Quitschenberg Mountain

Although Goethe had to wind his way through difficult terrain, today we use the comfortable walking paths. We reach the Quitschenberg, on which in Goethe's time many "Quitschen" or rowan trees grew. Because the mining process devoured such great quantities of wood, the forests were replanted with fast-growing spruce trees.

Many of the spruce trees you see around you are dead, killed by the bark beetle. It, too, is a natural inhabitant of our forests. In masses they are able to kill the spruces, already weakened by environmental influences, in a short time. On the Quitschenberg, however, in contrast to the usual practice, the multiplication of bark beetles is not curtailed by chain saws, peelers or traps.

On the Quitschenberg, nature is left to heal herself by her own devices. The first positive results can be seen: many small sunlight-hungry rowan trees have overtaken the bare spots. Soon the first spruce trees follow.

The National Park offers us the unique chance to re-naturalise the spruce forests of the High Harz. Very gently the natural transition of the former cultivated forest to natural woodland is being encouraged.

Brocken Narrow Gauge Railway and Brocken Tourism

Our hike takes us further through thick fir forests. We pass the Brockenfeld Moor and reach, a little bit later, the Eckersprung, where the Ecker River springs forth.

We now leave the protecting forest and begin the actual ascent of the Brocken Mt. The Goethe Trail follows along the tracks of the Brockenbahn (www.brockenbahn.info).

Goethe Moor

As we continue along the track of the Brockenbahn we can observe the characteristic vegetation of the Goethe Moor along the sides of the track. The plants of the high moors are especially sensitive to trampling, making the absolute protection of this area mandatory for its preservation. Too much damage was already done during the cutting of peat here between 1745 and 1776.

The cut peat was dried in a very complicated process and then charred for subsequent use in ore smelting. This was an effort to counteract the increasing shortage of wood for use in the mining industry. Forester Degen also pointed out the importance of the moors to the Harz water household to Goethe and awakened his understanding of this unusual environment.

The view across the Goethe Moor is splendid, especially in early summer when the cotton grass is in wooly flower.


We come ever closer to reaching the highest point in the Harz, the Brocken. The higher we go the more dwarfed the spruces become. We have reached the "battle zone" of the Brocken forests, the elevation at which it is difficult for the spruces to exist in the extremely harsh weather conditions. Geologically, the Brocken is a vast mass of granite, which originated in the paleozoic age. The climate at the summit is extremely harsh and is similar to that of the Alps at 2,000 m above sea level. On the Brocken 300 foggy days are recorded yearly and the average temperature is a cool nearly 4 °C. One result of these weather conditions is that the timber line of the Brocken occurs at about 1,100 m, whereas in the Alps it is at least 800 m higher. It is therefore quite natural that no forests exist on the Brocken peak, but rather mainly sub-alpine heath.

Now we, too, have reached the forest-free mountaintop. It is very crowded by visitors. For this reason it is necessary to protect the most sensitive areas with guard fences. The attractive Brocken walkway guides the visitors around the entire mountaintop these days.

We recommend a visit to the Brockenhaus building, which operates as a National Park Visitor Centre and is open daily (www.nationalpark-brockenhaus.de). The numerous interesting presentations here provide information about the Harz National Parks, their flora, fauna, and geology as well as the climate and the changing history of the Brocken. From here we begin our descent, using the same trail.

Hiking Tips

The most environmentally friendly access is by train to Bad Harzburg on the northern edge of the Harz. From here you can travel by bus to Torfhaus. The bus stop "Torfhaus" is the starting and finishing point of our hike. Along the 8 km (16 km up and back) pathway you can experience the Harz National Park from various perspectives. Approximately 330 m elevation change is covered, but the path is easily walked and the climb not difficult. You should, however, be sure to allow adequate time (for up and back about 5 to 6 hours) and bring sturdy shoes.

Useful information about hikes can be obtained at the National Park Visitor Centre TorfHaus, www.torfhaus.info).

Tour 2

Walking around the "Großes Torfhaus Moor" (Great Torfhaus Bog)
Exploring the raised bogs around Torfhaus

Distance: 4.5 km (2.8 miles)
Duration: 1.5 h

Old and new Torfhaus (Torfhaus = "Peat House")

In 1713, when peat cutting began in the surrounding bogs, the first house was built in Torfhaus. The peat warden who used to live there always had to be present at peat cutting. He was even allowed to sell food, beer and brandy. Torfhaus became well known when the famous German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe started here for his first ascent of the Brocken Mountain on December 10th, 1777. He was accompanied by the forest warden Degen. The exact route which Goethe took is unknown, but what is known today is the approximate way he walked. This route is now called Goethe’s Trail and leads the visitor to the summit of the Brocken Mountain.

If you have some time before or after your walk we recommend a visit to the National Park Visitor Centre TorfHaus. Here you can get further information about bogs and maps for hiking and skiing.

The trail begins at the TorfHaus Visitor Centre. After a short walk you reach the "Großes Torfhaus Moor".

A raised bog gets its water from precipitation. Therefore it is lacking of nutritive substances. It is called raised bog because of the curvature in its centre. In comparison, fens get their water from groundwater and surface water and that is why fens are richer of nutrients than raised bogs. The development of a raised bog may start with a fen or directly on mineral subsoil, if it is wet enough.

Raised bogs form an unique habitat for specialists. Only specially adapted animals and plants can exist there.

The "Großes Torfhaus Moor"

In the summer you can turn left onto a footbridge over the bog. From there you can see the large bare area of the "Großes Torfhaus Moor". This raised bog is one of the largest and most impressive in the Harz Mountains. Its origin dates back to 8300 BC.

Enjoy the view you have. If the weather is good enough you will see the Brocken Mountain in the background. With its height of 1141 m (3747 feet) above sea level it is the highest summit in the Harz Mountains. Looking carefully you may recognise that the bog has a slight curvature which reminds you of a watch glass. The footbridge over this raised bog gives you a good insight into the flora of the bogs of the Harz Mountains. The most important plants are the Bog Mosses, which show a quite unique kind of growth: The more they die off at their bottom the more they grow to the top. Because of the wetness in the bogs the organic material does not decompose but forms peat. So the bog grows up – up to 1 mm (0.04 inches) per year.

Bog Mosses can afford this kind of growth because they get their nutrients from rain water only. They have no roots to absorb nutrients. The peat in the "Großes Torfhausmoor“ reaches an average height of more than 6 m (5.5 yards).

The varied mosaic of slightly lifted rather dry "Bulten" and water soaked "Schlenken" in the raised bogs of the Harz Mountains is a habitat for lots of threatened plants.

Some of them have been living here since the ice age. For instance the insect catching Round-leaved Sundew and the Scandinavian Dwarf Birch. One of the most widespread plants is the Deer Sedge, which turns the raised bog into a gold-brown colour in autumn.

"Abbegraben" (Abbe River Ditch)

Having left the footbridge, we follow the "Goetheweg" and accompany a man-made water channel, the "Abbegraben". This ditch was built in 1827 and has an approximate length of 1.5 kilometres (0.9 miles). It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site "Upper Harz Water Management System". This is an extensive system of artificial ditches, ponds and underground water courses which was built by the miners of the Harz between 1536 and 1866. It was used for powering the "Künste", which are the mining machineries in the surrounding mines of the Harz.

By the way, the rust-brown colour of the water and the heavy formation of foam in the Abbegraben are natural. The colouring is caused by huminic acids which are solved out of the raised bogs. Strong currents are the reason for frothing up these acids in connection with proteins, which come from the raised bogs as well.

On the one hand the Abbegraben was very important for the mining in the Harz Mountains. But on the other hand it has a bad impact on the surrounding raised bogs. You can see clearly a lot of little ditches which drain the Magdbett Bog. This bog is located opposite the Abbegraben. In this way the waters supply of both the "Magdbett Moor" and the "Großes Torfhausmoor" are disturbed. This has lead to changes in the vegetation of the bogs. Today the little ditches are partly overgrown. Nature supports the regeneration of the bogs themselves: little marshy areas are shaped on top of overgrown places. So the need for water of the Bog Mosses is supplied and thus a new bog vegetation grows and closes the ditch.

The "Kaiserweg" (Emperor’s Trail)

We have followed the "Goetheweg" up to its junction with the "Kaiserweg". The "Goetheweg" would lead you right to the summit of the Brocken Mountain. However we are going to turn left and to follow the "Kaiserweg".
This trail is an old trading route between Braunschweig, located north of the Harz Mountains, and Nordhausen on the edge border of the Harz Mountains. This route has been used for crossing the Harz Mountains since the Neolithic Age. In 1073 AC, when a rebellion of the Saxons broke out, the later German Emperor Heinrich IV. used it as an escape route out of Harzburg Castle.

Coniferous moorland

Having reached the bridge over the Abbe River you can see coniferous moorland on the left. This kind of forest forms the natural vegetation on the edges of the raised bogs in the upper Harz Mountains. The more marshy the soil is, the more unstable stand the Spruces. Under these bad conditions trees grow extremely slow. Downy Birches are the only broad-leave trees which can stand the acid soil of the raised bogs. Coniferous moorlands are rich in berry bushes (e. g. Cowberries and Bilberries), Purple Moor Grass, Bog Mosses and other typical bog plants.

The centre of a bog is free of trees. They cannot grow up because their roots cannot push down into the subsoil. The layer of peat is too thick. If trees grow on that peat layer, they will slowly sink into the bog because of their increasing weight. Finally those trees will drown.

A rare inhabitant of the edges of the bogs is the Ring Ouzel. This bird is mainly resident in high mountain regions and in Scandinavia. In the Harz Mountains it can be found in the bogs, in rocky areas and on the summit of the Brocken Mountain, which is above the treeline.

Peat cutting

Just before your arrival back in Torfhaus you can see historical peat cutting on the left hand side. Peat cuttings in the "Großes Torfhaus Moor" are said to be the biggest cuttings of all in the Harz Mountains. The border of the peat cutting is shaped by little bushes in the background. The walls give you an imposing idea of the mass of peat in the "Großes Torfhaus Moor".

Peat cutting began here in 1713 during the time of prosperity of the mining in the Harz Mountains. The wood reserves were exhausted and the mining administration looked for alternative energy sources. So the peat was cut and dried in big hangars. After one year of drying the peat was carbonised in charcoal-piles. But because of the rough climate and the bad infrastructure peat cutting was never profitable. So it was stopped in 1786.

Human impact has left marks in the sensitive biotopes of the bogs. The waters supply is still unbalanced by peat cutting and draining ditches. The National Park Administration tries to repair these impacts. Here you can see an example of these efforts. The draining ditches are blocked by small dams to rebalance the waters supply of the bog.

Nevertheless the raised bogs of the upper Harz Mountains are rarely influenced – in contrast to most other bogs in Northern Germany. Those were most likely destroyed during the last centuries. With their great diversity and dynamics the raised bogs of the Harz Mountains are unique in Europe. They are a natural heritage of international importance.

Walking tips

The most environmentally friendly access is to go by train to Bad Harzburg on the northern edge of the Harz Mountains. From here you can travel by bus to Torfhaus.

You should, however, be sure to allow adequate time and bring sturdy shoes. Our small walking guide will accompany you and point out things of interest along the sides of the trail.

Useful information about this walk can be obtained at the National Park Visitor Centre TorfHaus (www.torfhaus.info).

Translation: Dani Guse and Richard Kaatz