Germany's protected areas
As we launch our Greentraveller's Guide to Germany, writer Sarah Baxter celebrates some of the country's special protected areas, from wildlife-rich nature reserves to fairytale forests
Germany is gloriously, prolifically wild. Despite being best known for its big, buzzing cities, it has 22,296 protected areas*, ranging from national parks to sites of community importance. Together these account for around 40% of German land and seas. Which makes it – surprisingly – one of the most protected countries in the world.
There is also huge variety in these preserved places. Therapeutic mudflats, meandering rivers, artist-inspiring islands, awesome Alps, forests that seem plucked out of a fairytales – Germany’s protected areas are wonderfully diverse, and often come with a dash of the unexpected.
Nature conservation first hit the agenda here in 1906. However, it was in 2005 that the term National Natural Landscapes was coined, to unite many of Germany’s special spots under one banner. This includes: 16 national parks, where Mother Nature is left to herself; 15 UNESCO biosphere reserves – living laboratories for sustainability; and more than 100 nature parks, which are dedicated to human recreation and nature conservation. They differ in scope and scale – from serene to striking, calming to white-knuckle, secluded to city-accessible. But all share the same aim: to conserve nature while encouraging people to experience and enjoy it.
This is the fun part. There’s so much you can get up to in Germany’s natural landscapes – whether you want an adrenalin hit, a cultural diversion or a total escape from the world. For a start, many of the country’s 200,000km of hiking trails wend in and around these protected places. There are hikes that master mountains, squeeze through canyons, pass innumerable castles, follow rivers or retrace famous footsteps.
There are even trails laced with magic and mystery. In Saxony’s Harz National Park you can follow the Witches’ Trail up Mount Brocken, where sorceresses are said to gather and dance. The Alemannenweg hike passes through the pretty valleys and villages of the Odenwald region, with a stop off at Castle Frankenstein, allegedly inspiration for Mary Shelley’s tale of horror. Brandenburg’s Märkischer Landweg Trail riddles through four different protected areas, from the fjord-like Felburg Lakes Nature Reserve to Lower Oder Valley National Park, where river meadows are a-flap with waterfowl.
The action isn’t all on foot. Germany’s extensive cycle network – including 200 long-distance bikes routes – makes liberal use of the protected areas, with options for all pedallers. Novices could try the gentle Elbe River Cycle Trail, which cuts through the Elbe biosphere reserve, and is consistently voted the most popular in the country. Also, many routes can be made less taxing by hiring an e-bike – the Black Forest alone has 200 hire shops and charging points so you can scoot amid its uplands, ancient trees and clockmakers’ workshops with ease.
Alternatively, try something new. The strange sandstone pinnacles of Saxon Switzerland National Park are the place to test your head for heights – this is the birthplace of free-climbing and beginners can take lessons from pros. In Hamburg Wadden Sea National Park, a wonderfully odd expanse of coastal mudflats, you can squelch through the shallows looking for amber or take a carriage ride to a car-free island rich in pirate legends. In Saarland’s orchid-flecked Bliesgau Biosphere Reserve you can make your own log-raft and punt it downriver via fruit farms and rare species. Or tackle the Ice Age-shaped Peene River Valley, canoeing, rafting or riverboating via Viking history, vast fens and otter dens.
For more things to see and do across Germany, see our Greentraveller's Guide to Germany
All of Germany’s National Natural Landscapes attract wildlife. Bird-lovers should make a beeline for Müritz National Park, where you can take a boat out on one of the 100-odd lakes to look for osprey and white-tailed eagles. Or visit Lake Schaalsee Biosphere, where thousands of migrating geese and cranes stop-off every year. Alternatively, make for the mountains – maybe the Alpine highs of breathtaking Berchtesgaden or Allgäu – to see marmots, ibex and other creatures skittering amid the rocks. In the boulder-strewn valleys and upland forests of Hunsrück-Hochwald, Germany’s newest national park (established in 2015), you might even spy wildcats and wolves.
Germany’s protected areas are not devoid of human history and interaction, however. Many are cultural landscapes where you can trace the relationship between man and nature back for millennia, and where ancient agriculture, feuds, invasions and innovations have shaped the terrain.
For instance, punt amid the Spree Forest’s peaceful maze of waterways to meet the Sorbian people, who’ve populated this area for over 1,000 years and who still practise traditional customs – including some extremely tasty gherkin pickling. Walk in the footsteps of Roman legionnaires in the Teutoberg Forest, site of the legendary AD 9 battle, and where subsequent centuries have seen abbeys, half-timbered towns and natural health spas thrive. Or take a walk or cycle with more recent history, following the Green Belt, the old Cold War ‘death strip’ between East and West, now revived as a nature reserve – the ultimate symbol of regeneration and conservation.
*Stats from ProtectedPlanet.com, a joint project of the United Nations Environment Programme and IUCN.