The article below was published in Pinnable’s newsletter in .


The Goethe Trail to Mount Brocken

Germans tend to enjoy a good hike — they even have a word for it: Wanderlust — and in the Harz the ultimate destination for hikers is Mount Brocken. Thanks to Goethe’s Faust the place is also known to be popular with witches on Walpurgis night. Its top (1,141 m) is just above the treeline, which on clear days ensures a marvellous view over the surrounding area — as Heinrich Heine puts it in Die Harzreise, ‘In hohem Grade wunderbar erscheint uns alles beim ersten Hinabschauen vom Brocken’ — but please note that this is the case only during summer, when the mountain is not covered in fog. At the summit, things have changed a bit since Heine was there in 1824: today we see a 123-m-high transmitter tower, and the ‘Stasi Mosque’, a former SIGINT station used during the Cold War as Moscow’s most western outpost, now a visitor centre.

DR № 99 240 tank engine at Mount Brocken’s summit
The Brocken Railway at Mount Brocken’s summit

Most people go to the summit by train, from Wernigerode or Drei Annen Hohne. Hikers can reach the Brocken on three main routes, of which the Goethe Trail from Torfhaus is the most popular. Depending on the exact route you choose, it takes some five to six hours to walk the 16 or 18 km up the mountain & back, and thanks to its mild elevation gain of 387 m the trail is also suitable for less experienced hikers. Imaginably but not necessarily the same route that Goethe used on 10 December 1777, it passes the Great Torfhaus Moor and continues its way through the Quitschenberg forest, over the former GDR border patrol road, and alongside the tracks of the narrow-gauge Brocken Railway. Temperatures at the summit do not normally exceed 15 °C, so even despite your warm feelings for all the trains steaming by, it can be chilly up there.

Reader comments


Goethe wasn’t the first to establish Brocken’s popularity with witches: drawn in 1732, the map Perspektivische Vorstellung des berühmten Blocken oder Blokenbergs mit der jenigen Gegend, so weit solche von dem, der auf der Spitze des Berges stehet, gesehen werden kan shows six witches flying around Brocken’s summit on broomsticks, and two more dancing on the mountaintop.


On those rare days when the weather on Mount Brocken is clear, writes Friedrich Gottschalck with great German thoroughness in his book Taschenbuch für Reisende in den Harz (1806), you can see a whopping half per cent of the whole of Europe from its summit: ‘Die Ausſicht auf dem Brocken iſt groß und weit, aber ſelten wird ſie in ihrer ganzen Schönheit und Klarheit genoſſen. Man kann einen Grad und 10 Minuten von dem Centralwinkel des Segments von der Erdperipherie überſehen. Rechnet man nun auf einen Grad 15 Meilen, ſo überblickt man 17½ Meile rings umher, folglich ein Segment der Erdkugel, deſſen Durchmeſſer 35 Meilen beträgt. Man wirft daher über mehr als 5 Millionen Mensſchen, über den 200ſten Theil von Europa und den 11000ſten der Erde ſeinen Blick.’ [Gottschalck’s text about the Brocken (p. 131–139) was reprinted in more or less the same form in Bildungsblätter, oder Zeitung für die Jugend on 23 December 1806 (№ 153, c. 1221–1225).]


The quietest hiking path to Mount Brocken & back, and probably also the most beautiful, is the 24-km-long Heinrich Heine Trail from Ilsenburg, which follows the route Heine used to descend the mountain on 20 September 1824. Owing to its elevation gain of 857 m it’s best suited for experienced hikers.


Avoid the Brocken Railway at all costs. Not only is it horribly expensive, it’s terribly overcrowded. On an average summer day, the Brocken easily receives a few thousand visitors, the majority arriving by train, packed like sardines. There are few things more satisfying than relaxedly walking the Goethe Trail while watching the train steaming by, instead of being on it. To see the Harz by rail, the Selke Valley Railway is by far a better choice.