I love the TV pictures of the Brocken, when you see the storm sweeping over the mountain top and people trying to move forward. For that reason alone, it was clear to me relatively quickly that if I’m in the Harz, I have to go to the Brocken.
No sooner said than done! We drove from Bad Harzburg to the small town of Torfhaus in fantastic weather. I was there last time as a child and could only remember a small sleepy place with a ski lift. Today the place is still small, but far from sleepy. There is a huge paid car park where one car after another parks and one hiker after another sets off for the surroundings.
Let’s go hiking!
After we had parked the car, we went down the mountain right next to the Torfhaus drag lift. It was already clear here that the hike was not going to be a lonely one. Although it was the middle of the week, there were many hikers on the way, and the closer we got to our destination, the more there would be!
After a short downhill stretch, the rest of the route was steadily uphill. The ascent should not be underestimated and sturdy shoes and weatherproof clothing are an absolute must for the hike. Especially on the mountain top, the wind can blow strongly.
First, we went through a spruce forest that made me very concerned. After several years of drought, the trees here were so damaged that they could not survive a bark beetle infestation and died. Large parts of the forest are broken, the trees have fallen and dried up – a sad landscape. Thoughtfully, we walked past this tragedy and once again became aware of what climate change is doing to our planet.
A little later we reached a very steep ascent. There are still concrete slabs here from GDR times that enabled vehicles to climb the Brocken.
The climb ended directly at the rails of the Harz narrow-gauge railway. The hiking trail then runs parallel to the rails for some time, which allowed us to see the first train already. The forest now increasingly thins out and heath landscapes become visible. A beautiful landscape and in many places a dreamlike view in the direction of Torfhaus.
Finally, we came across an access road, the Brockenstraße, which would now take us to the summit. Here, at the latest, it was finally clear that we were on one of the top excursion destinations in the region. A stream of people from the bottom to the top and vice versa moved around the mountain top.
Yes, and when we saw a train arriving that was so full that some passengers were only on the platforms, we were glad to have experienced a more peaceful hike after all.
Things to know about the Brocken
The Brocken is located in Saxony-Anhalt, in the Harz Nature Park. At 1141.2 metres, it is the highest mountain in the Harz and one of the most popular destinations in Germany. The border with Lower Saxony runs about 2 kilometres west of the summit.
The mountain has extreme weather conditions due to its location in northern Germany. The summer is short and cool, the winter long with heavy storms and numerous snow days. This means that the weather on the Brocken can be compared to that of an alpine location at 1600-2200 metres or the climate on Iceland. In addition, this is the point with the highest precipitation in northern Central Europe. So if you want to visit the Brocken, you should pay attention when choosing your clothes!
Altitude, climate and subsoil determine the natural habitat of plants and animals. Here, the Brocken is comparable to northern Scandinavia or the Alps. It is the only mountain in the German low mountain range that lies above the timberline. One finds small-growing spruce and dwarf shrub heath. The Brocken flower/anemone is said to be something very special, but unfortunately I didn’t see it. Meadow pipits and ring ouzels breed in the summit area. And if you look closely, you can spot the dark wood lizard. I found it very striking that there were many insects up there, especially butterflies.
Use of the Brocken
The Brocken has always attracted people. Exactly when the first ascent took place is not known. However, Johannes Thal, who wrote about the flora of the Brocken in a book, is known to have climbed the mountain in 1572. Other scientists also came to the mountain in the Harz, e.g. to conduct land surveys (Gauss) or natural research.
The first inn on the Brocken summit was built in 1800. Around 1890, the Brockengarten was created, a German alpine garden to illustrate the vegetation.
The Brocken Railway opened on 27 March 1899. A narrow-gauge railway that still transports countless tourists up the mountain today. The journey must be an experience, but it is also quite expensive.
The weather station on the highest mountain in the Harz was built in 1895 and has been providing information ever since, and today also the impressive images during storms that I love to see on TV.
The Brocken on the edge of two German states
For me, the Brocken was inaccessible as a child. It was in the territory of the GDR and from Torfhaus in Lower Saxony (i.e. in the Federal Republic) you could only cast a glance in the direction of the Brocken.
Until the end of April 1947, the area was still occupied by US troops. In the course of the exchange of territory, the area was then handed over to the Soviet occupation zone. The ruins of the Brockenhotel, which had been destroyed during the war, were blown up, and from 1948 to 1959 tourists could once again conquer the mountain. From 1955, the Brocken Hotel reopened, but a pass was required to enter the area.
In August 1961, the area around the Brocken was declared a restricted military zone. Now you were no longer allowed to walk here. The summit was expanded militarily and surrounded by three-metre-high barrier walls. The border guards stationed there were housed in the Brocken railway station. At that time, the facilities on the mountain were used for surveillance and espionage. The listening stations positioned there were so powerful that they could capture almost all radio traffic in Western Europe.
After reunification, the military installations were gradually dismantled, the hilltop was renaturalised and made available for tourism.
The Brocken and the witches
In the vernacular, the Brocken is also called Blocksberg. And if you dig a little in old books, you will find many legends that refer to events on the Blocksberg.
In the time of the witch hunts, people were repeatedly accused of having taken part in secret witch meetings. Such a witches’ dancing ground is said to have been located on the Blocksberg. A phenomenon that often occurs around the mountain certainly plays a role here. On more than 300 days a year, the fog is here and rare optical effects can form that can be reminiscent of a Brocken ghost and have given many a hiker a good scare.
High up in the Harz Mountains
When we arrived at the hilltop, we first decided to walk along the circular trail of 1.6 kilometres.
Here you not only have a fantastic view, but also pass the Devil’s Pulpit and the Witches’ Altar. The granite cliffs are said to be the meeting place of witches and devils on Walpurgis Night.
I had actually planned to visit the visitor centre of the Harz National Park in the Brockenhaus. However, it was so crowded that I decided not to go. I would have been interested to see what the converted former listening facility looked like from the inside, especially since you can probably also visit the historic antenna system in the dome.
I wanted to see the summit stone despite the many visitors. The stone is in the middle of the Brocken clock. Here you will find 50 plaques embedded in the ground with directions and distances to places and landmarks. Of course I had to see how far it was to Berlin.
There is an altitude marker on the summit stone. This deviates somewhat from the actual height of the Brocken at 1142 metres, but refers to a line that can be seen on the sign.
Before we started our descent, we stopped by the summit station of the Harz narrow-gauge railway. Here, a steam locomotive was shunting and the first passengers were getting into the wagons for the way down to the valley.
Way back to Torfhaus
Actually, we had planned to hike the outward and return route identically. But somehow, somewhere, at some point we must have taken a wrong turn. So we suddenly followed the signposted Hexenweg (witches’ path) and came to a wooden footbridge that led us through the Great Torfhaus Moor. A beautiful path along a stream finally brought us back to our car in Torfhaus.
A really great hike that you can follow on the map.
How do you get to the top of the Brocken?
It is not possible to travel to the Brocken by car or bus.
The Brockenbahn (Harz narrow-gauge railway) shuttles between Wernigerode, Drei Annen Hohe and Schierke to the Brocken. The popular steam locomotives also regularly travel the route.
The trips are very popular, but I find they also come at a steep price. More detailed information is available on this website .
Hiking routes of varying lengths and degrees of difficulty lead to the Brocken.