The next stop on our Berchtesgaden natural wonder tour? The Königssee, a deep and fjord-like lake near the Austrian border.
In addition to the stunning mountain backdrop and mirror-like water, the lake is touted as Germany’s cleanest. For those who enjoy a good arctic chill, swimming is permitted in most areas. However, if you prefer to stay warm and dry, the only way to cross the clear waters is via electric or row boat.
Fog covers the lake in the mornings, but lucky for us it melted away just as we set sail.
The battery-powered schooners ferry visitors to several ports: Seelände (Schönau), St. Bartholomä, Salet, and Kessel (on request). Excellent hiking awaits the adventurous at each of these destinations; but if that’s not your thing, you can still stop off for coffee and cake or just a glass of fresh buttermilk.
Since we are wannabe hikers, we chose two paths to tackle in one day, the Ice Chapel (Eiskapelle) and the Röthbachfall (the highest waterfall in Germany.. for reals).
Spoiler alert: we definitely bit off more than we could chew. If you’re in the company of short legs, stick to only one alpine excursion per day.
Goodbye fog, hello crystal clear.
Boarding the boat at Schönau was a cinch, since we arrived early. Lines increase as the day goes on, so get in early if you hate to wait.
The small electric ship putters its way to St. Bartholomä in about 45 minutes. This is a long ride for little ones, so break out the snacks as soon as the skipper starts his speech. Pause for a bit when he plays a tune on the trumpet to demonstrate the excellent echo present at the Königssee. Heads up – the hat will be passed in a shameless request for tips.
The famous pilgrimage church at St. Bartholomä.
Arriving at St. Bartholomä, it’s tempting to snap photos with the onion-domed church. But the day is short and the hikes are long, so hit the trails first.The Ice Chapel route starts out in the forest; our view that day was tinged with autumn. Scarlet here, a hint of gold there. Most impressive, though, was the looming presence of the Watzmann – a rugged, lavender mountain face gently kissed with lime.
The eastern face of Watzmann.
Not far after happening upon a small white church (see photo), the “easy” blue trail turns challenging with plenty of rocks to scramble over and an incline that’ll have you huffing and puffing. In case you’re wondering, this is not a job for Nike or Puma.
Let’s name this one “NOT the Ice Chapel.”
The Eiskapelle is formed by avalanches in the spring that pile snow in a corner of the valley. When the weather warms, the bottom of the pile melts, leaving a giant hole in the ice that some say looks like the entrance to a chapel. However, the entrance is all you’ll see, because extreme danger and the possibility of death are the only rewards for those who cross the threshold.
Unfortunately, we must have missed the glory days of the 2013 snow church. After crossing the most challenging terrain of the hike (the path switches to red once you reach the valley), we realized that only a rotten patch of snow remained where the chapel should have been.
Ah, well, it was still a splendid place for a picnic, if I do say so myself.
That white speck to the right is what remained of the Eiskapelle.
Doc Sci, my mountain man. Btw, this little rock is taller than he is.. and there’s a baby on his back.
Saying goodbye to St. Bartholomä.
We picked our way back over the rocks and down the mountain trail to the dock where we waited only 10 minutes for the next boat to Salet. It’s only possible to visit Salet from the end of April to mid-October, and I highly recommend timing your trip to occur between these months.
The cows at Salet.
Upon arriving at Salet, the last stop on the Königssee boat route, an alpine fairy tale awaits. The air is quiet, crisp. The mountains keep a stern watch over the glassy sea. Cows amble about as they graze, their tinkling bells breaking the silence.
But your dream world comes crashing down all around you once you realize those aren’t mounds of mud your kids are stepping in…
Cow chips the size of dinner plates.
Seriously, watch the poop. It’s somethin’ fierce.
Once in Salet, anyone and everyone strolls past the cafe and hokey souvenir hut and on toward the picturesque Obersee. This small lake will have you oohing and ahhing at how the water mirrors the majestic jewel tones of the surrounding peaks.
Don’t be fooled by the guidebooks that tell you the Obersee is a quiet respite. Since the path is so easy (prams are ok), those picture perfect photographs will be crowded with fellow tourists.
Obersee looking toward the Fischunkelalm.
Gorgeous mirror lake.
To reach the second destination of the day (Röthbachfall on the far side of the Obersee), follow the signs to Fischunkelalm. The route seems easy enough at first, but check your pram at the livestock gate because things are about to get seriously steep.
Step by step, we scaled the rock stairs but with bated breath. With each slippery stone, I fretted about falling, but it was too late to turn back. We were halfway up, and turning around would be difficult with two-way foot traffic on the narrow, chiseled path.
In hindsight, we should’ve just admired the Obersee and ditched our record-breaking waterfall aspirations. It was the end of the day: feet tired, legs sore, protests a plenty. But, we really didn’t think. We just put one foot in front of the other.
The refreshment hut at Fischunkelalm. Only stop here if you fancy spending 20 minutes in line only to find out when you order that they’re out of everything you had any desire to order. I’m not bitter… really..
I’m not sure I want fresh milk from this rustic kitchen anyway… Is that Schnapps on the counter?!
Once we reached the little hut at Fischunkelalm, we still had to cross another meadow teeming with gaseous bovines and steaming landmines. But, suddenly the towering rock face appeared and, wait, oh, yep, sure enough, that pathetic trickle that’s barely more than a leaky faucet is the Röthbachfall.
The totally-not-at-all famous Röthbachfall.
As I’m sure is blaringly obvious to you, these two hikes were more than our boys could really handle in one day. Going in, I thought with enough food, breaks, and “boy stuff” (sticks, boats, cows, mounds of poo) we could make it happen. In all honesty, we should’ve picked a favorite and gone with only one strenuous hike.
Aye, but there’s the rub. Choosing a favorite. Perhaps if I had known in advance that the Ice Chapel had evaporated into thin air or that the highest waterfall in Germany was a dribble instead of a downpour… Eh, if I could do it over again, I really don’t know what we would’ve changed.
Okay, the tantrums. I would’ve erased those. But the rest of the day was.. epic.
Just one last look…
The looming peaks, the glassy water, the luscious meadows, the golden leaves, the enchanting fog.. the Königssee is one of the most impressive natural spectacles I have ever seen. Whether you muscle your way up the trails or just mosey along around the ports of St. Bartholomä and Salet, an excursion the Königssee is guaranteed to knock your socks off.
Practical Tips for visiting the Königssee with kids:
- Do NOT forget your camera!! The area is gorgeous, even in the rain and fog.
- If you’re staying at a Berchtesgaden area hotel, don’t forget your guest card! It’s good for public transportation in the area as well as discounts on parking at the Königssee / Jennerbahn lot and on tickets for the Königssee boat.
- A quick note about Jennerbahn… the view from the top is almost the same view as from the Eagle’s Nest / Kehlsteinhaus, so do one or the other (although there are trails around Jennerbahn that will obviously give you different views).
- Decide in advance if you want to go to Salet or just St. Bartholomä. It’s not possible to extend your ticket to Salet once you’ve reached St. Bartholomä.
- Sit on the right hand side of the boat next to a window that slides open for the best photographs.
- Prams are possible on the boat and at the area around the church at St. Bartholomä. You can also push a pram from Salet to the Obersee. Anything beyond that requires a backpack carrier.
- Public restrooms and fresh water fountains can be found at both of the ports.
- If you don’t want to take the boat, follow the signs from the docks at Seelände to Malerwinkel, a family-friendly trail with excellent views of the lake.
More Berchtesgaden! The Eagle’s Nest and the Almbachklamm gorge.