Travel after the pandemic #7: Grossglockner High Alpine Road, Austria
Time to take the high road
The serpentine, switchback road is like a long ribbon folding backwards and forwards on itself as it follows the course of the natural ground and fits the contours of the mountains like a lady’s glove at a Viennese ball. The twists and turns offer a full 360-degree experience as you pass between mountain meadows green and with colourful flowers, plus rocky rubble, ice and snow, whooshing waterfalls and howling wind in the summit regions.
The downside is crowds on the best days, retreating glaciers and, if there is a lot of low cloud cover with rain or mist, it blots out the view and renders the drive pointless. Admission is charged at this, one of Austria’s very top attractions, to keep the road well-maintained and open as long as possible each year against the elements.
One pre-pandemic statistic is that the famous road was attracting some 270,000 vehicles and 900,000 visitors every year, about 50 million since its opening in 1935. The road is generally accessible only from around early May to around early November, and summer is naturally high season, but even summer is no guarantee against snow.
Day tickets are EUR 37.50 for a car and EUR 27.50 for a motorbike. Tour buses operate from Salzburg, some 100 kilometres away, but of course don’t stop at will. The original Glockner post bus from 1962 runs tourist trips from the Postplatz in nearby Zell am See in July and August. The bus has a sliding roof.
What would have been a challenging arm- and shoulder-straining drive when the two-lane road opened in 1935 is a lot less painless in these days of power steering. Some of it is steep. There are plenty of view points to pull off the road and rest while taking in the beauty of the mountains and valleys. The winding road is lined by a variety of restaurants, souvenir shops and practical service facilities, such as bike safes. The world’s highest charging station for electric vehicles is at 2369 metres, after its opening in 2010.
There are information signboards, walking trails, lookout points, museums and exhibitions, giving visitors an impression of the nature reserve, the road’s construction history, alpine ecology and historic trade routes. Themed playgrounds are available for children. Ibex, a species of wild goat with curved horns, can also be spotted, though not so easily as the marmots, which have become used to the tourists. A rare sight is the Mountain Apollo butterfly.
At the end of the 48-kilometre drive into the heart of the Hohe Tauern National Park is the popular Kaiser-Franz-Josefs-Höhe visitors centre and lookout, 2369 metres above sea level. From here, the Grossglockner, Austria’s highest mountain with a peak 3798 metres above the Adriatic, seems to be within reach. The seven-kilometre panoramic view takes in the longest glacier in the Eastern Alps, the Pasterze.
The visitors’ centre has more than 1000 square metres of exhibition space spread across four floors with diversified displays and film about the Hohe Tauern, Austria’s largest national park covering 1834 square kilometres across the provinces of Salzburg, Tyrol and Carinthia. This is easily the biggest of Austria’s six national parks as well as the largest nature reserve in the Alps.
The Kaiser-Franz-Josefs-Höhe visitors centre and lookout is the starting point of the Gamsgrubenweg trail, or “adventure path“ as it is known, which leads high across the Pasterze through several tunnels to the special preservation area at the Wasserfallwinkel glacier. Light, sound and space installations in the tunnels tell the story of the origins of the Pasterze.
The Kaiserstein Panorama Trail leads to the Wilhelm Swarovski Observatory, where the glacier and possibly mountain climbers and wild animals can be viewed through telescopes and binoculars. The Glacier Trail leads directly to the Pasterze Glacier and on to the Glockner House, which is suitable for six adults and two children to stay.
The Kaiser-Franz-Josefs-Höhe owes its name to the Habsburg regent, who visited Carinthia in 1856 with his wife Empress Elisabeth, also known as Sisi. On this occasion, the monarch, a great fan of mountains, went on a hike of several hours from Heiligenblut that led him to the edge of the Pasterze glacier.
Today he might get a surprise. More than 100 years ago the Pasterze was more than 11 kilometres long but now is less than 8 kilometres and has lost more than half its volume. It is retreating with a speed of 10-20 metres per year, and according to the European Wilderness Society the results are clearly visible and terrifying.
Still, the emperor might find the marmots are friendlier. The usually shy alpine rodents have become used to tourists. At the Mankeiwirt guesthouse, the owner hand-raises them and often serves lunch with one sitting on his shoulder. There is accommodation for up to 17 people.
Construction of the Grossglockner High Alpine Road began in summer 1930. Nearly 4000 men laboured on the six-metre-wide sand road for five years. The most modern high alpine road of its time was ceremoniously opened on August 3, 1935. The adventure begins at Heiligenblut (“Holy Blood”) village.
The road was continuously developed for decades, starting at the end of the 1950s. It was widened to 7.5 metres, the radius of the hairpin curves was enlarged to 15 metres and the number of parking spaces doubled. Hohe Tauern National Park opened in 1981. One of its main sights is the Krimml Waterfalls, Europe’s highest at 385 metres.