Four days on the Elbe Sandstone Forest Trail

Carola and Gritta head out on a multi-day hiking adventure that skirts the border of Saxony and the Czech Republic. En route they encounter idyllic camping spots under the stars, squeaky-clean day-walkers, and flying mattresses. The trail may have been close to home but there was no shortage of memorable moments.

The official website of the Forststeig Elbe Sandstone trail describes it as a “demanding seven-day trekking route for experienced, sure-footed, and well-equipped hikers”. But time is a scarce resource, and from the comfort of my desk chair, 15.5 miles (25 kilometres) per day seemed manageable. I knowingly eschewed the website’s advice and set aside four days for the circuit – an ambitious goal, especially as the trekking huts and bivouac sites on the Forststeig are not ideally distributed for what we had in mind..

Conscious of  this demanding goal, Gritta and I stumble out of Schöna  station, straight on to the Forststeig. Although I’m pretty sure we won’t get the chance to sleep in the trekking huts, we each have three trekking tokens in our pockets. Better safe than sorry. With that we are ready to go. The trail is welcoming with vibrant autumn colours, warm sunbeams and a moderate ascent. On our backs, we are carrying everything we’ll need: warm clothing for the evenings, rain gear just in case, sleeping bag, sleeping pad and enough food for four days. Our plan is to complete the hike unsupported. We are feeling motivated and optimistic – a nice introduction to our autumn tour.

The path is covered with dry, rustling leaves, and shuffling loudly through them takes me back to childhood. On top of the Zschirnstein (the highest hill in the Saxon-German section of the Elbe Sandstone Mountains) we pause for our first snack break: nuts and M&Ms. As a side dish, we get the first impressive view over the forests and  mesas of Saxon Switzerland. Just like islands, the sandstone pillars protrude above the sea of trees – a breathtaking panorama. Once we’ve had our fill (of food and views), we descend into the dense, enchanted forests. Again and again we cross small brooks and springs, regularly topping up our water supplies. I’m glad I stuffed in my water filter at the last minute.

En route we admire the thoughtfully prepared bivouac sites on the trail. The little huts, rustic shelters, and tent pitches are very inviting – however, they are all located too far from today’s destination. At Hühnerberg our route bends toward the Czech Republic, and soon we find ourselves across the border. We follow the stony ridge path upwards then, round a bend, an old tower appears, and the small restaurant nearby beckons us. We resist the urge to stop because we want to do a few more kilometres before the warm autumn sun goes down. And so we walk on, step by step, our feet feeling steadily heavier with each passing kilometer.

Shortly before the Czech village of Sněžník we turn onto a forest path and begin the search for a place to set up camp. Camping is officially forbidden in the protected area of Saxon Switzerland, but stealth camping or bivvying is accepted if you follow the “leave no trace” principle. After a couple of minutes, I find two perfectly placed trees to put up my hammock. Meanwhile, Gritta is setting up her “cowboy camp” on the ground: a sleeping mat and sleeping bag. With our camp sorted we set about preparing dinner on our little camp stove: pasta with pesto. After our long day, this simple dish tastes like a five-star meal. Fittingly, the sky is filling up with stars too. Each minute we spot new ones and soon the sky is sparkling like we’ve rarely seen it before. It is only 21:00 when we retreat into our sleeping bags. Exhausted from the many kilometres we’ve walked, and all the sights we’ve taken in, I fall into a deep sleep the moment I close the zip of my cosy sleeping bag.

I’m awakened by the first morning light. Or at least I think that’s it, until I recognise the faint hissing of the gas stove nearby. Gritta is already up and making coffee at dawn. A little later, she hands me a steaming cup and I finally find the motivation to peel myself out of the warm cocoon. In a flash Gritta prepares our muesli, with the obligatory powdered milk. At 8:00, we have already packed up camp. Where our temporary home was just a couple of minutes ago, is now just an unassuming clump of forest and rock. The first steps on the trail feel easy, I feel refreshed and am confident that we will make our ambitious daily goal today.

This morning’s route takes us up steep rock stairs and along wide forest roads before narrow paths lead us back to the German side without us even noticing. Very occasionally we meet hikers going in the opposite direction, but generally it is just us and the wonderful quietness of the forest. We don’t talk much. For hours we just walk side by side, enjoying nature and its colors, while the sun slowly makes its way across the sky.

At the Biela river I fill up my water again. Who knows where we’ll end up today? We follow the trail’s undulations, going down and then up again to the plateau which divides Germany and the Czech Republic. On the border, a sandstone plateau, we stop to take in the views looking out over the Czech Republic, the village of Ostrov below us. To stick to the schedule and meet our daily distance goals, realistically we’d need to cover a few more kilometres just to complete half of the remaining distance. However, it’s hard to tear ourselves away from such a beautiful spot. After some debate we give in to the temptation to sleep here at the edge of the rock. Once again we set up camp under the stars and head to bed early.

It’s 02:00. The wind has picked up noticeably — so much so that I wake up regularly to check that my belongings are still by my side. Unfortunately I also notice the unwelcome sensation familiar to all campers. It’s dark, windy and cold, and I need to pee. I weigh-up the options in my head, “If I get up now, there’s nothing to stop my air mattress and sleeping bag from flying away,” I think. Ideas run through my mind, “I could put my backpack on top but my rattling pot is dangling from it and I don’t want to wake Gritta. Or instead I could look for some heavy objects to place on my sleeping mat before heading off to a secluded spot.” And that’s what I do. Shivering, I climb out of my warm sleeping bag, hunt around for  some rocks. I place them on my mattress, and then I head into the bushes.

I look up to see my mattress flying in a high arc past me and down the rock.

A minute later I hear a scream, “CARO! Your bed!” I look up to see my mattress flying in a high arc past me and down the rock. Fortunately the wind blows “inland” over the border plateau, so that I only have to climb down four meters (13 feet) and not 400 meters (1312 feet) to recover my mat. So Gritta is awake and I don’t have to pee anymore, seems like all my earlier worrying was for nothing.

At 05.45 in the morning the wind has developed into a real storm. As soon as I let go of my pillow, it will fly away. For Gritta the wind is too much to handle. She pulls her bedding and rucksack from the plateau to a quieter area behind some rocks. I’ve had enough action for one night though, and although moving to a quieter  spot is probably a good idea, I’m too lazy to move again. Instead I hunker down in my quilt and try to get another decent hour of sleep, which proves impossible with the noisy wind and the rising sun. I give up and pack my backpack. We’re back on the trail by 07:00. We don’t bother with breakfast.

At this point we still have 32 miles (52 kilometers) ahead of us to the endpoint of the trail. I’m surprised by how much the terrain limits our ability to cover ground. We’re progressing much slower than I anticipated. After a good three hours we reach the Rotstein hut, a small, simple wooden cabin in the woods. After the night we’ve had we now think it would have been a great place to sleep. The three-hour night hike through rocky terrain in the darkness wouldn’t have been fun though and we accept our decision with this thought in mind. We do take the opportunity to gobble up a big breakfast in the comfy confines of the hut.
Back on the trail, we meet  walkers who smell freshly-showered. The contrast between them and us is stark, which makes us feel even more adventurous. And the  adventurers that we are, we have learned from our mistakes. In the evening, we are smarter than the night before and set up camp in a Boofe, one of the official bivy spots, sheltered from the wind and in the middle of a labyrinth of rocks.

In the end, we finish the route according to plan. A small trail leads through a rock gorge named Hölle, which translates to hell (the steep uphill sections feel like it too!), down to the river Elbe and directly onto the Elbe Cycle Path. In just half a mile (800 metres) it leads us back into the reality of civilization. We try to alleviate the shock of urbanity with a large soft-serve ice cream, purchased from the train station where we left the car.
While Gritta is driving, I re-discover the trekking tokens in my pocket, purchased on day one but soon forgotten as we opted for cowboy camping instead of huts. I decide I will use them soon. Next time completing the forest trail in six days. Because every hike is different, even when you’re walking the same trail.

Text and photos: Carola Keßler

Carola and Gritta used the Multiday-Planner and On-Tour weather to plan their trip.

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