It’s a dilemma we all know: We can easily have endless conversations about the greatest experiences and the most remote villages in Laos. But when we are asked about what interesting things there is to do in our home country, we are left speechless. And although we both grew up in Germany, we have no idea about what backpackers and travelers actually do in Germany (besides Oktoberfest of course).
So coming back from our six-months Asia journey (and just settling down a little bit in Munich), we vowed to explore more regionally.
Saxon Switzerland, a national park in the East of Germany and very close to the historic city Dresden, offers countless opportunities for adventure, from visiting castles, kayaking the Elbe and mountain biking to hardcore (and we mean hardcore) rock climbing.
Hiking the Malerweg in Saxon Switzerland
However, the probably best way to explore the characterstic bizarre sandstone formations is on foot and endless hiking trails link different parts of the national park together. The most popular hike in the region is called the Malerweg, literally the painter’s road, which is said to have inspired painters, musicians and literary greats for their timeless work. Most famous of them all are the paintings by legendary romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich (a pain for most students in Germany to study in arts classes).
Because we really enjoyed our last multi-day hike in Kyrgyzstan, we naturally wanted to conquer the Malerweg as well. However, we had to make several changes to the original route: The entire Malerweg is planned along seven or eight days and we only had three and a half. Plus, the Malerweg is normally done sleeping in guesthouses along the trail but we wanted to set out with our tent.
In the end, we decided to hike the second, third and fourth section of the original Malerweg with some variations that allowed us to spice up our hike with some amazing via ferrata action.
Some Highlights of the Saxon Switzerland
Camping in the Saxon Switzerland
In German national parks, it is generally not allowed to just camp anywhere along the trail. This makes trekking along the Malerweg with a tent somewhat more difficult. In the Saxon Switzerland however, there is a well-guarded secret: Deep within the heart of the national park, there are caves and boulders, called Boofe, which provide a roof over your head. These have been used by free climbers for decades who explored vertical routes along the magnificent sandstone towers. Honoring this rock-climbing tradition, it is now officially tolerated to camp and sleep under these Boofe in Saxon Switzerland, even if you are not a climber yourself.
For the first two nights, we were still not deep enough into the national park to take advantage of the Boofe, so we opted for commercial campsites along the way. Our favorite was Bergoase at Mittelndorf, a cozy campsite with an incredible view over the national park, amaaa-zing showers, a kitchen and very nice owners. You can even tell them what supply you need from the local supermarket and they will buy it for you when you arrive. Reservation is recommended!
Orientation along the Malerweg
All of the Saxon Switzerland is reasonably well marked by large sign-posts along hiking trails. The Malerweg and the most important sights and viewpoints in particular should be rather easy to follow.
While hiking, maps.me proved to be useful even outside of Iran and Kyrgyzstan. The only problem with maps.me is that sometimes, there was just too much detail and too many signposts marked in the app, so that it is easy to get confused. However, a big plus is that maps.me contains the locations of multiple Boofe, which would otherwise be pretty hard to find in the forest!
The detailed guide to hiking in the Saxon Switzerland
Day 1: From Wehlen to Touristencamp Entenfarm at Hohnstein
Arriving in Wehlen by train from Dresden at around noon, we immediately started hiking under the burning midday heat. Our goal was to do the second section of the Malerweg, which goes from Wehlen to Hohnstein, and then continue on to the commercial campsite Entenfarm next to the village.
The hike itself is dominated by the biggest (and most touristy) attraction of the entire Saxon Switzerland, the Bastei, an old stone bridge spanning multiple sandstone towers. The bridge comes after the first steep climb and is around the middle of the hike.
Unsurprisingly, the Bastei is almost reachable by motorized transport so there were lots of people we had to share the still incredible view with. Crossing the bridge and skipping the next tourist attraction, the Felsenburg Neurathen, we continued down towards lake Amselsee and later up again along the Malerweg.
Before reaching our goal for the day, we encountered another highlight of this section, the Wolfsschlucht, or wolf’s gorge. It’s a steep gorge with wooden and metal stairs leading down into the valley of the Polenz river, before we had to climb up again towards the village Hohnstein.
Day 2: From Touristencamp Entenfarm at Hohnstein to Bergoase at Mittelndorf
Breaking camp at Entenfarm, we headed straight back to the Malerweg without going back to the village Hohnstein. Our plan was to mainly follow section 3 of the Malerweg. While there are no real highlights along the trek like the Bastei, there are quite some amazing views along the path.
For instance, shortly after getting back on the trail, we reached the Gautschgrotte, a gigantic natural grotto next to the Malerweg. Back on the trail, the path led through the forest to our next stop, a guesthouse / restaurant called Brand with wonderful views over the national park.
After a short break near the tiny, cosy village of Waitzdorf to rest our tired legs, the next landmark on the Malerweg is the small village Kohlmühle. This place is dominated by a gigantic red-bricked building, a linoleum factory before the company went bankrupt. Even today, a train is still running though Kohlmühle as evidence of the once blooming industry.
After a stop for pictures, we continued onwards along the railway tracks towards Altendorf and then on to another village Mittelndorf. Here the trail followed a so-called Panoramaweg, with beautiful vistas along the way. And at the very end of Mittelndorf, we finally reached the Bergoase with its most-amazing showers.
Day 3: From Bergoase at Mittelndorf to Boofe below the Wilder Kopf
After a good rest and waking up to dramatic views in the morning, we were ready to tackle the longest day of our tour! Our third day is basically a variation of section 4 of the Malerweg, but instead of following trail all the way to Neumannmühle, we stayed in the forest to camp under a Boofe.
To get back to the Malerweg, we took the trail from Mittelndorf to the valley of the river Kirnitzsch and then up again through the Kohlichtsteig. It took some wandering around, but after a while, we spotted other hikers which told us: We are on to something big.
This section is the most impressive of the entire Malerweg, chiefly because it runs through a viewing point from which you can see the absolutely jaw-dropping Schrammsteine. While the Bastei is an incredible piece of man-made architecture, nothing comes close to the natural architecture of the Schrammsteine. It takes some good hiking and climbing head-spinning iron ladders to reach the viewing platform, but the view is so worth the effort. And to be sure, we weren’t the only ones on the viewing platform!
After a short lunch break, we continued via the Gratweg (literally ridge way) along the mountain ridge, until we reached another impressive viewpoint, the Breite Kluft.
After that, we ran a little bit of a detour trekking all across the national park along the Schrammsteinweg until we came to a crossing leading to both the Carolafelsen and the Wilde Hölle. We decided to climb up to the Carolafelsen first, one of the highest peaks within the Saxon Switzerland and were again greeted by wonderful views, this time with less people around.
Descending the Carolafelsen back to the crossing, we entered the Wilde Hölle, or wild hell, a, gorge tumbling downwards with some serious climbing action, which was probably why it was given the name. However, before we climbed out of the gorge completely, we turned right and were suddenly walking along another huge rock formation, the Wilder Kopf.
Here, near the end of the day, we saw a couple of committed rock climbers enjoying the last hours of sunshine. Near the Wilder Kopf, there is also indeed one of the coveted Boofe, complete with tree benches, where we were going to set up camp.
Day 4: From Boofe below the Wilder Kopf to Neumannmühle
Since we were now completely off the Malerweg, we had no idea where to go and what to do. After getting our stuff together, we decided not to go back to the Wilde Hölle, but continue along the trek we came from yesterday.
After a while, we found ourselves standing in front of the Zwillingsstiege, complete with a warning sign not to use this trail without via ferrata equipment. While we were unsure what to do about the situation, two elderly women arrived and told us in a straightforward manner that they were going to do the via ferrata, even without equipment.
Ok, so now we had no excuses left, after all, we were climbers. It was not a very long climb and not particularly difficult, but we almost got stuck in the narrow tunnels with our huge backpacks and also had no balance at all. In any case, we made it out alive and with backpacks still intact.
But shortly after the via ferrata, we found ourselves in front of another one! The Häntzschelstiege. And because it worked so well with the first one, we decided, why not. This one was scary though, because it involved a traverse some 10m above the ground, with nothing to step on but these artificial iron bars. Carrying heavy backpacks did not make things easier. But we also couldn’t climb back down. “Augen zu und durch” is what you would say in German to a situation like this, just close your eyes and walk through (ok, we didn’t literally close our eyes).
After recovering from the near death of the Häntzschelstiege, we found ourselves once again on top of the Saxon Switzerland, with incredible views all around us. Fortunately, there was another way leading back into the valley following the ridge of the mountains and then descending at the Friensteigaufstieg.
From there, we followed the trails north until we finally got back onto Section 4 of the Malerweg! We followed the trail all the way, through the small villages of Beuthenfall, Lichtenhainer Wasserfall, the Kuhstall, all the way to Neumannmühle.
After some cake at the local restaurant, we unfortunately had to call an end to our four-day journey. We would have so loved to continue along the Malerweg, but, there must also be a reason to come back and explore the other sections!