Back in 2015 when I started hiking regularly, I fell in love with alpine lake hikes (this one is my all time favorite.) In order for a lake to be considered “alpine” it must be above a certain elevation (somewhere around 5000 feet, or 1524 meters), and is often fed by mountain runoff. In Washington where I am from, these alpine lake hikes start close to sea level, which means it’s quite a climb to see them.
Anyone can visit a regular lake, but you have to work to see an alpine lake.
Here in the Alps there are cable cars to help cut off some of the climbing, but the assistance in reaching an alpine lake doesn’t make the journey any less spectacular. Last summer I was introduced to two lakes in northern Austria very close to where I live, and I had been daydreaming about seeing them ever since. I finally made plans to spend a day in the mountains, and it was a day I won’t soon forget.
These two lakes are within the same hiking region on the Meininger Mountain range in Ehrwald Austria. I have ridden my bike to Ehrwald a couple times, and I originally thought about biking to Ehrwald, hiking to the lakes, and biking back. This brief psychotic episode was short lived thankfully, because that would have been rough.
Instead I took a train (with my bike) to Ehrwald (saving an hour and a half of uphill biking), biked to the cable car where my pal Galiya and I took the cable car up the mountain (saving two hours of hiking) and began our journey to lake number one around 10:30.
First stop: Seebensee.
The views on our way to the lake reminded me of the Swiss Alps, and were far more expansive than any of the hikes I have done in Bavaria just next-door. I couldn’t believe I waited so long to experience Austria in this way. The mountains kept going, and around each corner was a new view unlike anything we’d passed earlier in the day.
It took us about 1.25 hours to make our way to Seebensee, and the terrain was doable for any hiker. I was out of breath a few times, only because Galiya and I were speed walking. After necking it back to enjoy the journey we fell into a comfortable pace. Once we arrived at Seebensee we found ourselves surrounded by other humans, and rightfully so – the lake is gorgeous.
We also found ourselves surrounded by lots of alpine cows. My favorite!
The weather was starting to get quite warm, and I was relating on a personal level to that cookies and creme cow in the above photo. Galiya and I brought our bathing suits so we could dip our overheated bodies into the lake, but we decided to save our plunge for lake number two.
Second stop: Drachensee.
The climb to Drachensee was more intense than the walk to Seebensee. This required over 300M of climbing in a short span of earth. We started the climb around noon (aka the peak heat of the day), and my body was definitely feeling the burn (inside and out.) I took my time, and stopped to savor the view of Seebensee a handful of times while I let my heart rate calm down.
What I love most about hiking in Europe, aside from the jaw dropping views, is the diversity among hikers. People of all ages and shapes come out to hike, and everyone goes at their own pace. I saw more people over the age of 50 hiking to Drachensee than I saw people my age or younger. It’s not only motivational, but inspirational! I strive to live a life that will allow me to continue hiking well into my 60’s and even my 70’s!
We took about 30 minutes to climb the switchbacked hill up to Drachensee, and at the top of this hill lives the Coburger Hütte – a mountain hut where most people stop to savor a bite or a brew. Galiya and I skipped the crowded hut and continued the final few minutes down to Drachensee.
We had every intention of swimming in this lake, until we arrived. Drachensee is a beauty of a lake, but her inner core disappears into a thick darkness hiding whatever lives under the surface (Drachensee = dragon lake.) I don’t like swimming in water where I cannot see what is underneath me, and I have self diagnosed myself with Thalassophobia.
Side note: this Buzzfeed article made me want to vomit and I could not finish looking at the photos!
The deal breaker for me was seeing a large pipe leading into the lake from the shore, and almost immediately disappearing into the darkness. Nope, nope, nope. Instead we sat around the shore of the lake where little to no other humans were, ate a snack, and savored the view while our core temperatures cooled off naturally from lack of movement.
The trails surrounding Drachensee are seemingly endless, for more intense hikers and even climbers there are routes that continue on to the peaks above the lake. There is a Klettersteig route as well, but I like living so I opted for the lake as my “summit.” We planned to go for a swim in Seebensee after avoiding being sucked into the dragons lair of Drachensee, and began our descent back down to our first stop.
Initially I couldn’t figure out why no one was swimming in either of these lakes. When the sun is strong and people are out hiking, it’s hard to find a spot to set up and swim because everyone is out swimming. I was worried all these German speakers knew something we didn’t, but we decided to go for it anyway.
I quickly discovered why no one was swimming.
This icy blue water was just that – icy! The moment I stepped my toes into the water I was met with an overwhelming surge of cold. I slowly continued to wade deeper into the water, hooting and hollering the entire way. Had it not been for my feet slipping on the algae covered rocks I likely would have taken much longer to submerge my body.
I then went in and out of the lake three times. I guess I was a sucker for the pain. Overall it was my feet and hands that suffered the most. I could have kept my core in that water for much longer. After cooling off our internal heaters we sat on the grass next to the lake watching small human specks walk across the mountain peaks surrounding us.
We were in the middle of a cow party, and had a handful of cows come to see what we were up to.
As we dried off and reclothed, we made our way back towards the cable car to start our journey back home. Not before stopping at the Seebenalm for a bite to eat and a chat with a tiny human. A small boy came and sat with us as we ate our food and I proceeded to make him count in German for us (he spoke to us non stop in German, but I only understood 1/10 of what he was saying.)
He was such a sweet and pure soul.
Our original plan was to bike back home (it’s mostly downhill), but after a full day of hiking (we managed ten miles) we decided to train back home. We made it back down off the mountain at 1700 – 6.5 hours later! It’s days like this that make it really, really hard to leave Europe.
Q: Does swimming in bodies of water without a clear view of what’s below you scare you too?