My favorite day in Germany was a visit to Berchtesgaden National Park. It happened to be the #1 destination on my list of must see places for this trip and it didn’t disappoint. Well, I am disappointed I only had one day and some of the activities I wanted to do in the area didn’t get to happen… but I was on a mission to see the Ice Chapel and that ended up being a longer adventure (but lots of fun!) then I anticipated.
Königsee (Kings Lake) located within the park is one of its star attractions. The third deepest lake in Germany with crystal clear, turquoise-green water. Formed by glaciers in the last ice age it resembles a fjord with surrounding mountains reaching heights over 8,000ft. The park runs a fleet of electric ferries that quietly whisks you along a magical journey to St. Bartholomä church. The trip takes roughly 30min with a brief floating stop along the way to hear the captain’s trumpet echo a duet against the mountains. There is a guide telling the history of the lake and cracking a few jokes, but note that it’s all in German. From Oct-April this is as far as you can go. In warmer months you can continue another 30min to Salet and visit the Obersee lake and hike to the tallest waterfall in Germany, Röthbachfall, with a drop of 1540ft. Our visit was the end of December, so we disembarked at St. Bartholomä.
St. Bartholomä is very picturesque. There is an eat in restaurant at the church and a small take away food service next door. It looked delicious but my kid had his heart set on McDonalds back at the main port and since I convinced him to go on this hike with me, I figured I probably owed him that. For the less adventurous, this would make a beautiful trip to stop and eat some lunch and walk the easy paths along the water. The views are stunning. Wheelchairs and strollers are allowed on the ferry, however, they must fold up and you will need to be capable of walking the few steps in and out of the ferry. At St. Bartholomä I found the paths were compacted fine gravel and not too difficult to navigate with a wheelchair or stroller. Those paths do run out if you have plans for the Ice Chapel hike and I would classify it as an intermediate level hike as well. I wouldn’t bring young kids. My 11yr old managed fine, with a lot of griping and complaining…
If the Ice Chapel is your destination, continue past St. Bartholomä and stay on the wider path through the forest. There are signs, follow for Eiskapelle (ice chapel). If you have kids along, stop by the river. We spent some time photographing icicles.
Just past the bridge over this river is a small chapel, also photo worthy.
From this point you have an uphill hike for the next 45min to an hour. It took us close to 2hrs to reach the Ice Chapel from when we got off the ferry, but we did stop and play quite a bit as the higher elevation brought on several inches of snow and felt otherworldly to hike through. I will admit that the adults were having more fun playing than the child… he struggled quite a bit on this hike but I’m proud of him for completing it, even if he hates me for it.
In the distance you can hear the booms and crashing sounds of the snow falls sliding down the adjacent mountain. They were both scary and amazing. I tried to catch it on camera but only got a quieter one. It’s worth mentioning here that it is not recommended to enter the Ice Chapel itself, or even walk past the boulder field to get to it as it can be deadly with avalanche or ice collapsing. There is a sign telling you where the safe zone ends and crossing beyond you’ll be at risk. I’m afraid that like most others out hiking that day, we followed along with tourist stupidity and passed that sign. I’m both glad we did and terrified to recommend it as the Ice Chapel had a recent cave in, so the evidence of the danger was literally staring you in the face.
That said, it was breathtakingly beautiful.
If I thought making it to the Ice Chapel was a test of patience and perseverance on my son’s part, getting back to the ferry was a whole new animal. Crossing back through the boulder field a hiker’s happy go lucky dogs came bounding up on Riley and pushed him down some large rocks. Though he wasn’t really hurt (and miraculously cured by the time we got to McDonalds) it did add a new thing to complain about and the return trip got pretty miserable when his shoes got wet too. One of the main things I told him about this trip in general was that I had hoped it would help him mature a bit, to test his limits. Well it did. He found out no matter how much he complained, his feet would still carry him. I marveled at how this one particular hike, for the kid who loves to trailblaze, brought out the highest highs and the lowest lows for him, but he survived and I hope one day he can reflect on it and remember that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Something I probably repeated to him 50 times that day. The hard packed snow on the trail was very icy to walk on, hiking poles might have been nice to have, and the downhill return trip was worse. I ended up cutting straight down the mountain in a washed out trench as it provided much better traction than the trail. It also cut the return trip time in half.
Some pointers for the day: you can drive here and there is plenty of parking from what I could see near the Jennerbahn. We chose buses and took the 840 from Salzburg HOF, note that this bus picks up across from McDonald’s at the “J” platform which is really tucked in down a road next to McDonalds and tricky to find, McDonalds saves the day. It takes 49min to get to Berchtesgaden where you will transfer to bus 481 or 482, both will get you to Schönau am Königssee. Get a Tageskarte (day ticket) and it will cover your buses for the day. Watch your timeline as the last 840 bus back to Salzburg for our day was 6:15pm, if you missed it, you would have to spend more for the train. These buses are crowded, don’t bring big bags or luggage if you can help it. It may be standing room only. Strollers and wheelchairs may be a tight squeeze. Big Boy Travel has great information on this bus route Here.
Once dropped off from bus 481/482 at Schönau am Königssee, there is a strip of shops. Follow the cobblestone pedestrian area and it will lead you to the ferry location to purchase tickets. I recommend to get there as early as you can. We arrived around 9:30am and it was already quite crowded and we had to wait for the next ferry as the one I had timed for was already full. It did give us a few minutes to pick up a Nutella crepe while we were in line though… the reason I say to get there early, the last ferry leaves St. Bartholomä at 4:20pm Oct-April and if you miss it, you don’t get back to port without a very expensive private airlift. It is an hour or two later in the warmer months, check the time tables on their Website. Not to mention, you want to get back up to Berchtesgaden in time for the last 840 bus if you choose that option. Because of that, we just didn’t have the time to see everything I had on my bucket list such as:
Salt Mine Tour – I did try to work out if we could visit this the next day but they were already sold out of tickets for the following 3 days. If you are planning a visit during a holiday period, you may want to get your tickets in advance on the website.
Jennerbahn – really wanted to take the trip up the mountain and see the view of the lake from the top but we simply didn’t have the time.
For summer months May-October, visit The Eagles Nest
Berchtesgaden itself looked like a cute little vacation town and worth staying in if you can. I couldn’t find anything available for a party of 3 during the holidays only a month before that wasn’t budget busting. So we opted to stay outside Salzburg at the Hotel Gasthof Kamml which I highly recommend, great breakfast, a bus stop next door, and a fantastic restaurant.
After 4 weeks in Germany/Austria/Czechia, this is the one place I would love to come back and visit again one day, maybe in the spring or fall, though I’ll admit that it was kinda magical in the winter. I hope you get to visit it too!