Taking the High Road

Things to Do, Travel Tips — By Lorraine Seal on September 2, 2011 at 10:18 am

There may be no more dramatic drive from Salzburg than the route along the Großglockner Hochalpenstrasse—in English, ‘Großglockner High Alpine Road’. Just over an hour’s drive from Salzburg, the trip along this 49-kilometre-long marvel of engineering offers visitors a memorable day or overnight excursion.

View of Großglockner Hochalpenstraße from Bikers' Point.

Photo by Lorraine Seal

At its beginning, the road climbs steeply from the green pastures and woods of an Alpine valley, turning back on itself again and again through a series of sharp hairpin turns. To one side, the mountain drops away in a steep gorge. Opposite rises a range of peaks riven by waterfalls fed by the glaciers perched at their heights. Narrow high meadows are grazed by caramel-coloured cows, the clatter of the bells around their necks drifting on the breeze.

Further along, the road rises above the tree line, and the landscape changes to heath-like low-growing vegetation that reveal tumbled stones, jagged outcroppings and heaps of shale, glinting with minerals in the sun.  Cows and sheep graze in meadows which, depending on how early or late in the season you are, also contain patches of snow and wildflowers. If you’re lucky, you may also encounter ibex on the steep slopes.

Before long you reach the Edelweiss-Spitz. A short side road leads from there to Biker’s Point, the highest point accessible by car along the route. At 2,571 metres (8,435 feet) high, the view point offers a spectacular 360-degree panorama of mountains, valleys, and glaciers, as well as the hair-raising road below.

Bikers' Point, the highest point accessible by car on Großglockner Hochalpenstraße.

Photo by Lorraine Seal

Edelweiss-Spitz is one of 12 stops along the well-maintained road. Stops feature exhibits and displays, signed in English as well as in German and other languages. They give a glimpse into the history of the Alps, the geology of the region, native birds of prey, mammals, plants and flowers and the history of the road.

Ultimately, the road’s destination is Großglockner. At 3,798 metres (12,461 feet), this is the tallest peak in Austria. Großglockner has always held mystical associations and is considered by some to be a ‘holy mountain’.  The Pasterze, the longest glacier (two kilometres) in the eastern Alps, flows from its face. The road ends here with a large visitors centre, well-marked trails and informative exhibits.

The Pasterze Glacier viewed from the vistors centre.

Photo by Lorraine Seal

From the railed terrace in front of the visitors centre, you can look down on the Pasterze; hardy visitors can climb down to its surface. Also at the visitors centre is a monument to Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef who, with his wife Sisi, visited Großglockner in 1856 and hiked to the point marked by the monument. Nearby, friendly marmots entertain visitors, and cloughs—high-altitude crows—swoop in close.

A clough and a marmot enjoying the sun.

Photo by Lorraine Seal

The trip, including the drive from Salzburg, can be accomplished in a single day if you don’t care to linger at the stops along the way. If you wish to make it a weekend trip, however, there are many B&Bs and hotels in nearby Heiligenblut. Driving the route from the entrance near Bruck to the end on Day 1 gives you a chance to get an overview. Then, rested and oriented on Day 2, you can explore in more detail the stops that interest you most.

Entrance to the road is €29 per car (€19 for motorcycles).  However, if you stay overnight, the second day is only €6. Just keep your ticket and show it at the toll booth when entering the next day. The trip, over well-maintained roads, is without doubt worth the price.

On entering, you’ll receive a brochure describing the road and the 12 themed stops along the way. Most of stops offer full visitor services, including information centres, toilets, food and drink, as well as gift shops. Many also have playgrounds and exhibits geared toward children. All exhibits, playgrounds within the park, parking and toilets are free, included in the entrance fee.

Whether you take it in one day or two, the drive along Großglockner Hochalpenstraße is truly memorable.

Tags: 'Alpine Drive', 'Dramatic Scenery', 'Pasterze Glacier', Grossglockner, Heilegenblut

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