Italy, Slovenia, & Austria: Alpe-Adria Trail

Trip Summary

What: thru-hike of the Alpe-Adria Trail (AAT).
Where: from Trieste, Italy to the Grossglockner, Austria.
When: May 2 to June 2, 2014 (32 days).
Distance: about 500 AAT miles plus about 75 additional miles before and after the AAT.
Highlights: pleasant mountain hiking and scenery, cultural and habitat diversity, simple planning, easy walking.

Resources

The primary source of information on this route is found at the Alpe Adria trail website.

Trail guide: Alpe-Adria Trail: From the Alps to the Adriatic: A Guide to Hiking through Austria, Slovenia and Italy.

The Alpe Adria Trail iPhone app includes descriptions of the stages and all of the points of interest.

As for all our trips, we used our two favorite mapping tools: CalTopo.com to prepare gpx data and printed maps, and Gaia GPS while hiking.

Why we went

We enjoy backpacking in Europe and are always looking for new destinations for four to eight week hikes. We wanted a trip in the mountains, but didn’t want to travel in the French/Swiss Alps because of the crowds and camping regulations. Our timing was limited to May or June because we had summer plans. The AAT was the right duration, viable in May, and would let us hike in three countries new to us: Italy, Slovenia and Austria. Finally, it was a plug and play route; all the data we needed to organize the trip was easily sourced, so planning was simple.

Click map to open an interactive CalTopo map in a new browser tab. Instructions for using CalTopo. The AAT is the magenta line; our pre and post AAT legs are green. The magenta line is what we actually walked and is not intended to represent the official AAT routing. Do not rely on our exact tracks for your route; use skill and common sense.

Amy’s Assessment

This was a successful and enjoyable hike. The Soca River in Slovenia was especially memorable. The scenery was very diverse and often very attractive.

The routing and waymarking problems described below took a bit of the edge off the trip, so overall I give it four and not five stars. That said, it seems possible, even likely, that those problems will have been fixed by the time I’m writing this report three years later; if so, then future hikers wouldn’t share the negative issues we had.

To put the route problems in perspective, on our wilderness trips in the U.S. we hike off-trail extensively and we are very comfortable reading maps and the landscape, finding optimal routes, and facing the occasional adversity that off-trail travel presents. But long on-trail hikes are different in nature and one of the things I love about them is that they are absolutely free of mental stress or the need to make any decisions at all. Hike, eat, sleep, repeat. Having a long route line in front of me with no need to make any decisions is a unique and very gratifying way to spend a month. Due to AAT route and waymarking problems, we had to puzzle through multiple sources of information at far too many intersections and the result was that I couldn’t consistently enjoy mindless walking.

Although I was disappointed by the Austrian lake-side tourist towns, whose lakeshores are fenced off by private commercial establishments, in reality those towns represented just a few miles of a very long and beautiful route and they proved to be an oddity that contributed to the diversity of the trip.

My overall impression is that the route was designed by tourist boards and not by hikers. While we visited many stunning landscapes and had many miles of fine hiking, the route itself is convoluted and is interrupted too frequently by small scale logging operations, large ski resorts, and tourist towns to be a five-star route. Comparing the AAT to our other European mountain walks of similar duration, I think the HRP and the GTA were more consistently high quality.

James’ Assessment

One way to sum up a walk is to ask: would I recommend this route to someone else? My opinion about the AAT is mixed. Large parts of the trail are attractive and some of the scenery is first rate. The mountains are dramatic and meadows full of flowers. Some of the towns are quaint and interesting to poke around in. The AAT has a lot of diversity and travels through a region we had not visited before. The walking was not a soggy struggle like our trip in Scotland and the weather was generally good. We discuss the problems with the route in the Notes section below. If I separate out the technical problems around navigation from the totality of the walk, I was generally quite satisfied with the experience.

Every long-distance walk is different and there will inevitably be good and bad parts. On the AAT, there was very rarely magnificence, but equally, there were no really disappointing sections. Some of the towns were definitely tackier than I might have wished, but we never experienced any squalor. Diversity is the name of the game on this walk; a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Except for a few too many miles in heavy coniferous forest, it was never boring. Outside of a few areas with heavy logging, the landscape was never trashed. Only a very few small areas were visibly overgrazed. There was essentially no litter and the towns generally very clean and tidy.

One big disappointment was the big lakes (or Sees in German). We had looked forward to visiting these, but reality, the only places the trail meets the water is in or near towns and the lakeshores are almost entirely private and inaccessible. Often the water isn’t even visible, as the shoreline has been built out with structures obstructing both access and the view.

I wish the AAT had a bit more ridgeline walking; it was a bit disappointing to climb 1500 meters and almost immediately descend down into another valley; some of the route is unnecessarily convoluted to drag you through one more town offering commercial services. You could probably chop 100 miles off of the AAT without losing its essential nature and the variety of the experience. The AAT is a little too much of a route designed by the local chambers of commerce instead of the hiking clubs. But this may well be driven by the fact that most users of this route will not carry a tent and will need indoor overnight lodging.

In summary, I think I would give the AAT a solid B. Not the finest route I have ever completed, but it was definitely worth the time and effort to do the thru-hike.

Notes for Potential Hikers

The Alpe-Adria Trail was inaugurated in 2012 and extends from Muggia on the Italy-Slovenia border to the Kaiser Franz-Josefs-Höhe at the base of the Grossglockner in Austria. The AAT is divided into 37 stages and has an alternate routing, the Circular Trail, that adds five stages (six additional stages less one skipped main stage). We included the Circular Trail in our AAT hike, walked a little over 500 miles, and finished in a bit less than 28 days. Our pre and post AAT legs added an additional four days and about 75 miles to the trip.

Trail Access

The southern terminus of the AAT is in the small Adriatic port town of Muggia, Italy. We walked about eight miles from our lodging in central Trieste to the starting point along mostly pleasant urban and suburban streets and paths. Trieste is a moderately large city with many rail links to the rest of Europe and buses to Muggia are available.

The northern terminus is not as easy to get to. The Kaiser Franz-Josefs-Höhe (FJH) is at the end of a paved toll road. The nearest town is Heiligenblut, which is small and a half a day’s walk to the south. We didn’t research transit to or from the FJH as we had planned on walking across the mountains north from the FJH to the Salzach River area after we finished the AAT. None of our exit routes proved to be passable due to unexpectedly deep snowpack and our lack of equipment to cross over safely. Instead, we walked the paved Grossglockner Hochalpenstrass north to Bruck. The spectacular views from this scenic toll road were mostly clouded over, but the walk itself was straightforward and there was little traffic as the tourist season had not yet started.

We had a few days before our flight home, so we walked along the picturesque Salzach River valley west to Hollersbach. From the nearby station in Mittersill, we took trains to Munich where we stayed with friends. Public transit in Austria is widely available, fast, frequent, on time and expensive.

The Route: the big picture

The AAT is a joint project by the Italian, Slovenian, and Austrian tourist boards to encourage walking tourism in the common border region. The trail was laid out with input from their respective alpine clubs with the stated goal that it “was conceived as an easy-to-walk pleasure trail in mainly non-alpine terrain”.

The AAT is an interesting combination of scenery and culture. In Slovenia, the AAT primarily follows the beautiful Soca River Valley from the lowlands to the source of the river. In Italy, there are coastal trails, vineyards, and an interesting “open air museum” section explaining the World War One battlefields found in the area. In Austria, the trail passes flowering valley meadows, small villages, large ski resorts, tourist sites with spas and claptrap, and forested slopes in the higher mountains. Sometimes the route climbs above tree line and there are expansive vistas and fine ridge top walking. Old churches dot the landscape; some are unlocked and you can see their ornate interior ornamentation. Some of the walking is on paved roads, but only occasionally are there any stretches with much traffic. The vast majority of the AAT is on graveled or dirt farm and forest tracks, with only a modest amount on single-track footpaths.

The AAT is laid out so each stage ends in a location where, in season, food and lodging can be obtained, allowing the trail to be hiked without any camping. Because of this, the trail is sometimes routed in ways that we found frustrating. You can be on a fine mountain ridge and the route suddenly drops out of the mountains to a ski-resort or commercial tourist town. Particularly in Austria, the trail gains and loses thousands of feet per day, day after day, apparently to get down each night to commercial facilities. We found this annoying and on a couple of occasions we chose to stay high instead of making an arbitrary descent. But, for the most part, we played the game and followed the described route.

The AAT is not an alpine route; its highest point is around 2400 meters. There are no scree fields or glaciers to cross and there are no technical rock sections to contend with. The AAT is a walking route and makes no claims to be otherwise. It does go into the mountains and crosses a few 1st class and very easy 2nd class peaks. There are many places with stellar vistas. Those who want a true high alpine adventure will be disappointed with the AAT, but conversely, those who want a long, diverse and straightforward walk through the mountains should be generally satisfied.

The published distance for the route as we walked it is 470 miles. The published altitude gain is something over 110,000 feet walking south to north. Your mileage and gain will vary due to diversions, getting lost, visits to towns for food and so forth.

The Route: reality

The AAT, when we walked it, was not quite ready for prime time. The AAT organization has published various conflicting versions of the route. These data sources included:

  • A gpx file from the AAT website that shows the entire route as a single track.
  • GPX files for each stage also downloadable from the AAT website. These stage tracks are often different from the complete gpx track.
  • The 1st edition of the AAT guidebook, available for free in Tourist Information Centers, which includes a map of each stage.
  • A 2nd edition of the same guidebook. This edition has map and route changes from the 1st edition that are not highlighted as changed from the 1st edition.
  • Third-party guidebooks, one of which we examined but did not carry. Most of these guides are not written in English.
  • A downloaded AAT iPhone App.
  • A brochure with a map published by the AAT organization. This map has some significant differences from other AAT sources.
  • The actual waymarks on the ground. These don’t consistently match the gpx tracks, the guidebook, or the app.

We believe the waymarks on the ground usually represented the “best” route. Perhaps the route was initially designed in an office based on looking at maps. When somebody actually went to waymark the route on the ground they found problems with that concept and made changes. Unfortunately, those changes have not made it back into the documentation. Hopefully these discrepancies have been fixed by now. We have not checked to see what data might have been updated since our walk.

Waymarking

The AAT waymarking is nowhere near as useful as it ought to be. European long-distance trails are commonly marked using the French GR system of red and white paint marks or occasionally combination of two other colors to differentiate overlapping trails. This type of waymarking has been used for years in many countries and works well on the ground. Having walked many routes using the GR system, we know that it is possible to comprehensively and accurately designate a trail on the ground.

The AAT designers created their own waymarking system and it is inadequate. Often there are square metal AAT signs placed at trail junctions. Sometimes these signs have no directional information; Yes, I know I’m on the trail, but which way should I go at this point? At other times the signs include a useless arrow that points exactly between two different trail options. On much of the route these metal tags included only southbound arrows, with no information for the northbound hiker. Although the guidebook claims that “The Alpe-Adria Trail is signposted in such a way that it can be walked in both directions”, functional northbound waymarking was missing. Sometimes little AAT stickers are pasted onto existing trail signs; these can be effective once you learn to look for them but in many places the stickers were already peeling off of the signs. Tags were occasionally painted on various surfaces, but were surprisingly obscure because the logo colors blend too easily into the environment and many were already substantially faded. The painted logos never provided directional information. The northernmost stages in Austria were generally adequately marked, but waymarking quality really deteriorated south of Gmund.

The conflicting route information would have been less of an issue if the trail was waymarked for northbound hikers, and if the waymarking was thorough and unambiguous. Following waymarks would have allowed us to ignore the misleading gpx tracks and more easily stay on the route. We sometimes followed gpx tracks into dead-end clearcuts or were routed to non-existent paths. Perhaps this problem will not be an issue in the future when waymarking is more complete and consistent with the published data. The southbound waymarking appeared to be more complete but we cannot attest to its usability.

The AAT organization has constructed elaborate installations on platforms marking the beginning of some of the stages. We believe that they intend to place them at all stage starts. These have very little useful information, particularly considering how big and expensive they are. They do, however, occasionally provide a fine place to set up a tent.

The inadequate waymarking seems so unnecessary; the French GR standard has achieved a high level of perfection and usefulness and does not need to be reinvented. And to reinvent it with a more costly and less effective solution – what were they thinking?

Navigation

We used CalTopo.com to print a set of paper maps. We also used an iPhone with Gaia GPS, pre-loaded with the gpx tracks, topographic maps, and satellite imagery, and the AAT iPhone app.

Gaia GPS was indispensable. In addition to the problems with waymarking and inconsistent track information, there were numerous unsigned logging and farming roads and many of these roads were not on our printed maps.

Timing and Walking Direction

The AAT is described, mapped, and waymarked to be walked southbound, but we hiked it northbound. Everyone we spoke with who was familiar with the AAT said they had never met a northbound hiker. Starting in April or May and hiking northbound avoids seasonal hot temperatures in the southern sections and to allows more time for snow to melt in the northern higher altitude sections. If hiking in September, walking southbound makes sense in order to avoid early season snowfall in the mountains.

Many people told us that during June to August the Alps are mobbed with hikers and tourists. Access to the mountains is easy because roads lace the area and the numerous ski lifts carry people to where the roads don’t go. We wanted to experience the mountains before the crowds arrived, so May was a perfect time for us to go. We believe that September may also be a good period for hiking this route. However, most refuges do not open until the beginning of July and close by early September, so if they are needed for food or lodging, the walking season will be constrained. Hiking the AAT in the off-season without a tent would require advanced planning and reservations as potential sources of accommodation are limited.

We are happy we walked northbound in May, but our plan did have a couple of flaws. There were the northbound waymarking problems described above. Secondly, very heavy snowfall late in the winter of 2013/14 left the higher regions with two to three times the normal snowpack so it was not melted out nearly as much as it normally would have been by May. We also had measurable new snowfall below 1200 meters on several nights in late May which the locals told us hadn’t happened in decades.

Trail Conditions

The AAT is not a purpose built trail; the route was laid out using existing roads, paths, and trails. In general, the walking was on good, well-maintained surfaces and is suitable for anyone with a bit of hiking experience; there is essentially no off-trail hiking. The trails were well drained and mostly dry and mud free even after recent rains. Most streams and rivers were bridged and we had to wade only once or twice. There are many newly installed cable suspended footbridges across the Soca River which add interest to the walk.

There are large altitude gains and losses on the route. We had many days with over 3500 feet of gain and several with over 6000 feet. The trails are occasionally quite steep and are usually relentless, sometimes gaining thousands of feet without a break.

We had problems with recently downed trees blocking the trail due to a severe February 2014 ice storm that destroyed vast areas of forest; in Slovenia approximately 20% of the trees were knocked down. We were forced to use alternate routes in a couple of places as the designated trail was completely impassible. Work was ongoing in various places to clear the trails and it seems likely that this problem will be reduced in the future. A few pieces were so badly covered with tree-fall that the trail may have be to rerouted.

Due to the heavy and late snow, we also had to contend with crossing snowfields that extended as low as 1000 meters on some north facing slopes. This was sometimes tedious, but generally not difficult, although on some stretches we had to kick steps or find ways around a few steep and icy chutes. Normally, snow on the track should not be an issue from mid-May through early October.

The settled areas of Austria were obsessively tidy and well maintained and the locals we met seemed to be very serious people. But, to our great amusement, garden ornamentation there has been taken to wonderful extremes. Elaborate displays of garden gnomes are very popular, fascinating and amazing us and providing another reason why a walk like this can be so rewarding.

Camping

We prefer wild camping to lodging and spent every night in our tent. Camping is usually quieter, always less expensive, often more scenic, and allows us to walk as far as we like each day rather than being tied to room reservations. There are very few basic public campgrounds in Europe similar to American USFS and NPS sites. Private campgrounds tend to be expensive and often highly developed with game rooms, swimming pools, spas and the like. Most people in these campgrounds use caravans (trailers) so camping in a tiny backpacking tent feels a little odd to us.

Most AAT hikers stay in guesthouses and mountain refuges. We met about a dozen other AAT hikers and none were carrying tents; some were even surprised by the idea of camping.

We never had any problems finding a reasonable campsite. We never saw any signs forbidding camping and when people happened by our campsite they either ignored us or were quite friendly. We camped on riverbanks and sandbars, in meadows and in the woods, on an official overlook, in functional and decrepit barns, and a couple of times next to old churches. Most of our sites were quite nice and many were superb. We camped near the snowline a few times, but never on the snow itself. We followed our usual guidelines for stealth and wild camping.

Food and Resupply

We primarily ate food purchased in grocery stores. As it was not yet hiking season, many restaurants in the small mountain towns were closed. One ski town was reported to have over 6000 seasonal overnight beds but only a single restaurant was open in May. Restaurants in Austria were usually more expensive than comparable places in the US, but meals were very inexpensive in Slovenia.

The grocery stores were generally well stocked with a wide variety of foods and prices were generally comparable to those at home. Grocery stores were almost universally closed on Sunday and in the smaller towns were often closed from noon to 3 or 4 PM. In Austria, it was hard to find meat other than pig products. We spent about $23 per person per day for food at a $1.38 per euro exchange rate. Since we don’t cook while backpacking, we cannot offer advice about the availability of freeze-dried meals or stove fuels.

Finding water was not an problem. Almost every town and village had at least one public water source with good tasting clean water. There were also many piped springs along the trails and we needed to treat water just once or twice.

We did not find any laundromats along the route so we made use of public fountains for washing clothes. Some commercial campgrounds may have public laundry facilities but we never explored that option.

Other Hikers

As we were traveling before the start of the hiking season, we met very few other walkers. On weekends we saw day hikers, but otherwise the trails were mostly empty. We passed three or four parties southbound section hiking portions of the AAT. We only met one person heading south who planned to hike the entire trail. We saw no tracks on the snowfields until the very last day where a single set of tracks headed south from the Grossglockner. We had spoken with the man who had made them the prior afternoon and he said he was out for a week or so. Thus, we believe we were the first people to complete a thru-hike that year and are certainly the first people to do so northbound.

Weather

We had great weather. We had only one or two hot afternoons. Although there was often heavy cloud cover, daytime rain was almost non-existent. We had two afternoons with enough rain to be more than a minor nuisance, and very trivial amounts of precipitation on a few other occasions. We had measurable rain and some snow and hail on quite a few nights after we were snug in our tent, but it always stopped by early morning. Night-time temperatures dropped below freezing once or twice. Other hikers should not count on our good fortune; for instance, a heat wave struck the area a few days after we completed our walk, and on average, the region receives significant rainfall one day out three during the hiking season. As in most mountainous areas, the weather patterns can be extremely local: sunshine in one valley and rain in the next one over.

Birds

We enjoy watching birds while hiking but the birding on the AAT was difficult. There was lots of singing, but most birds were very shy and difficult to see. We saw about 110 species, with the long sought after Capercaillie and Fieldfare both being life birds.

Bugs

We had no insect issues to speak of. At only one site were mosquitoes annoying enough that we elected to camp elsewhere. They were totally absent during the vast majority of the walk, but we do not know if insects are a problem later on in the season. We did see some interesting and beautiful moths, dragonflies and beetles.

Dogs

Aggressive dogs can be an problem for hikers. On the AAT, dogs were surprisingly few in number and almost all those that we encountered were either on a leash or under voice control. The yard dogs were almost always tied up or behind a fence and never posed a real threat. We saw far more house-cats than dogs in Austria. Compared to Turkey or Spain the AAT is a dog-free heaven for a walker.

2017-10-20T06:09:25+00:00 Oct 12, 2017|Hike, Overseas|

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