As I savor experiences in Austria’s alpine huts, I’m tempted to write a Traveler’s View editorial praising these facilities rather than to pen a more “objective” article.
But that’s OK! Travel journalism is often just sharing what the writer thinks is great about a place.
When the place is Austria and hiking from comfy hut to hütte is the focus, I won’t pull the main punch—you really need to have this thoroughly European cultural experience.
All over the Alps, in national parks like Austria’s Hohe Tauern, and outside parks, in almost any other mountain range, there are high mountain huts. They range from rough and rustic, in the “refuge” category, to elaborately atmospheric and refined. Many just serve meals, but others feature full-blown overnight accommodations that can range from a basic bunk in a communal snore-fest (you might take ear-plugs) to an almost hotel-like private room.
Check out the video to get the flavor of Austria’s huts.
Any region you find yourself in, local Austrian tourism brochures describe a variety of sample hiking tours that include huts with all the mass transit details. Despite already being an “advocacy journalist” as a “travel writer,” I start off sensitive to being called “too pro-hut.” After all, you need buildings in wild places to hike high trails and spend the night in such structures. In the United States, that means hearing people scream about keeping “everything” out the backcountry (much less wilderness), especially buildings (and no doubt tent sites you could call “glamping”).
Martin Kurzthaler, chief biologist in Austria’s Hohe Taurern National Park, nicely sums it up that in Austria, and around the world: “For the most preservation-oriented people, any facility is too much.”
In Austria, those folks have lost the debate about huts. If I’m wrong—comment and tell me—it would be fascinating to delve deeper into cross-cultural concepts. I digress. The reason these huts do not look like alien overlays on the beauty of the Alps is because of historical context (covered in a few, easily reviewed previous stories and videos, about Hohe Tauern National Park's Alpine agricultural lifestyle and the park's great interpretation and recreation).
Here's that context—
Alpine Reality #1
These shelters-from-the-storm got their start in the “Golden Age of Mountaineering” which happened in the Alps. At Hohe Tauern, alpinism is 150 or so years old. Early mountaineers wearing hobnail boots and haberdashery wanted shelter, and with so much rock around, huts got built. And as is the case today, many of them are so far above trade routes trekked by casual hikers that the value of these huts—and whatever comfort they provide to climbers—was not a topic of controversy. Kurzthaler says 10% of park users stay in high huts.
Alpine Reality # 2
Well below the highest peaks but far above the valleys, farmers practice a seasonal lifestyle of cattle grazing that is central to the Alpine production of cheese, milk, and meat. These folks are up there, living the Alpine lifestyle, in quaint structures—and if you happen to walk by hungry or tired—why shouldn’t they ply you with farm fresh fare and a place to sleep? Of course, there’s a price. Luckily, that income boosts the traditional lifestyle while also being acceptable to urban refugees from Vienna—including Vienna, Virginia, with the current improving exchange rate. The experience enriches the hiker more than the hut keeper.
Alpine Reality #3
Skiing. These huts close when deep snow blankets the Alps and the farmers head down to their valleys—right? Not necessarily. The farmer could be a ski instructor in winter—or they could be selling lunch and schnapps when snow and skiers blanket the open slopes around their huts. The winding road grades of summer permit resupply before becoming easier ski trails.
Alpine Reality #4
Exercise. Ski lifts everywhere achieve a massive leg up for the huts in summer when older folks, families, even the infirm, refuse to sit in front of the television. It is so easy to hop a cable car high into the mountains that there is no excuse not to “take the mountains' good tidings” and plan even a short downhill walk to a great lunch and cold brew. Believe or or not, that’s the case even in Hohe Tauern National Park.
Bottom line—Europeans have turned these traditions into an embrace of exercise that seems more universal than it is in the United States. I enjoyed a restaurant in Tirol where most of the diners actually hiked in around a spectacular lake instead of parking nearby. The irony is, huts may make hiking easier—but they also make it more doable, earlier and later in life for more people.
The huts are an easy way to hike across truly wild landscapes—in Hohe Tauern, they’re four hours apart, max. Others are a stroll from lifts—and they can introduce you to a variety of experiences. I’ve been hut-hiking for decades, but recently I visited the hut Almwirtschaft Acherberg (or Acherberg Alm) high up in western Tirol's Ötz Valley, and then in more easterly Tirol, the Hornköpflhütte, clinging to the Kitzbüheler Horn above Kitzbühel, one of the world’s classic ski and summer mountain towns.
Each was similar, yet different, and a thoroughly enjoyable insight into Austrian culture and the lifestyle of the mountains.
Almost any hut is going to make a good memory. They're everywhere. The similarities include homemade farm fare—and schnapps—music, smiles, distinctive people, and even dogs, whose lifestyle you may end up envying. National Park or not, Austria or Alpine-elsewhere in Europe, the “hütte hop” is a travel experience to be treasured. And here's the editorial—sadly, a hut hiking is not nearly as available it should be in the United States. This piece may not be one of our Traveler's View opinion pieces, but it's the view of this traveler. Do not miss this easy and accessible European adventure.
Sidebar: Here’s how to find the two huts in the video—
Hike to the Hornköpflhütte, Kitzbühel
This “hütte hike” makes an easy add-on to a stay in the world-class mountain town of Kitzbühel, just north of Hohe Tauern National Park, east of Innsbruck. This is a major ski town, so the Hornbahn I and Horn-Gipfelbahn mountain gondolas whisk you to Horngipfel peak at 2000 meters above sea level, just below the towering peak of the Kitzbüheler Horn. Outside the lift station, take the trail past a scenic chapel and wind down through the Alpenblumengarten, a spectacular, above treeline interpretive trail through more than 300 species of Alpine wildflowers from all over the globe. Little Alpine tarns ripple in the wind at 1,880 meters. The Flower Garden ranks among the most beautiful in the European Alps. Buy a copy of the color-photo filled interpretive brochure before you go.
Slab across this breezy, view-packed peak to the Hornköpflhütte for a traditional Tirolean lunch (check them out on Facebook for some great photos). This is a modern, elegant hut where Sepp and Maria Müllman and their son Christof wow you with great food and traditional entertainment. Spend the night, or wander down into the nearby Alpenhaus lift terminal at 1670 meters where the Hornbahn II mountain gondola starts your dip back to the valley.
Of course, there are longer trail routes back to the valley passing other huts.
Hike to the Acherberg Alm, Oetz
West of Innsbruck, the spectacular Ötz Valley is an out-of-the-way destination in Austria's highest parish. From the beautiful valley town of Oetz, where I stayed in the ancient Posthotel Kassl (parts of the hotel date to 1600s), take the Acherkogelbahn and hike to the alpine hut called Acherberg Alm. At the top of the lift, the Panorama Restaurant Hochoetz is a destination eatery with no walking at all. It’s located at 2,020 meters, where the trail largely descends to Acherberg Alm.
There are spectacular valley views from the hut's 1,888 meters. Gotthard and Elli Frischmann maintain an ornately traditional Alpine dining room with elaborate wood work and amazing portraits of local mountain people on the walls. A typical lunch includes locally sourced meats, and homemade cheeses and butter from their modern, spotless dairy in the outbuildings. And of course, there’s schnapps! Hike on to Berggasthof Schönblick and it’s easy to taxi down to town. The hut can also be reached by mountain bike or e-bike. The latter are electronically assisted bicycles that have become wildly popular in the Austrian Alps.
E-bikes, like huts themselves, are just one more example of how accepting Europeans are of ways to make it just a little easier to keep active and outdoors for the long haul. With the Alps in their backyard, no wonder that's a priority.