That a valley called Nassfeld (literally “wet field”) would not exactly be a dry desert was something I had already suspected on my journey to the beautiful Gasteinertal valley. Nevertheless, I am quite amazed when I finally arrive at Sportgastein and look down at this wonderful spot of nature and the countless of streams and waterfalls glittering in the sun. Yes, you heard that right, waterfalls. Nassfeld is not only considered the most beautiful valley head in the Hohe Tauern national park, but is also a paradise for all of those that could spend hours watching water do its thing. Like me, for example. And so you can probably imagine how much I was looking forward to this day. But before putting on my hiking boots and taking off, two cows on the pasture right behind the parking space grab my attention. The grass must taste very good here, as they don’t even bother to look up, not noticing me at all. “Just keep on eating, I’ll be on my way then!” Many Gastein farmers like to bring their cattle to the mountain pastures on the plateau during the summer and peacefully munching bovines are thus a quite regular sight around here. But it’s not just the animals that seem totally at ease around here. Hikers enjoy their marches on the trails winding through the valley, jump across little rivulets and keep looking up to the imposing summits of the mountains all around us.
Hiking through the Nassfeld valley
A look at my hiking guide shows me that there are plenty of hiking trails around and that one can also reach many huts and summits via the Nassfeld valley. I decide for a trail called “Rundwanderung Nassfeld” (Circular Trail Nassfeld). Supposedly, it is around three hours long, with many waterfalls, thus the perfect way to explore the valley with all its natural splendour. Just what I need for my morning, because around noon I’m supposed to meet a real ranger at the parking space who will take me up to the mountains. But more on that later. For now, it’s time for me to make my way into the valley. But I keep crossing paths with neat little pasture huts, chat a little with the herdsmen and the farmers and marvel at the natural beauty that seems to expect me at the wayside. Splendidly and seemingly without any effort, the swishing water of the streams circumvents the stones and rocks in its way, the blossoms of the Alpine flowers reach their necks toward the warm sun rays and the grass slightly bends back and forth in the gentle breeze of the wind. I almost have to laugh at myself because I keep on stopping, taking a picture here and a short video there, unable to get enough of all the amazing things here. If you’ve already been here, I’m sure you’ll know what I’m talking about. The hike leads right through the amazing valley, the nature trail makes me realise how much more I have left to learn and at the waterfalls, I find big rocks on which I sit on to take a break and enjoy this marvellous spectacle of nature. Various mountain pastures seem to invite me right in and only with much effort, I manage to resist the temptation of the splendid aromas emerging from the kitchens. How cosy it would be to take a little break in there. But the clock will strike noon soon. I have to return, I am being expected.
A genuine national park ranger
Back in ‘civilisation’, Hans Naglmayr already approaches me, my guide today for the incredible mountainscape extending over the Nassfeld valley. This is exactly how I pictured a genuine national park ranger. Sun-tanned skin, a wide smile from ear to ear, a hat and a very content look. A real character. To my own shame, I have to admit that, until a couple of days ago, I did not even know that there were rangers in the Hohe Tauern national park who inform the visitors about the natural world, explore the park with them and also take care of the flora and fauna. But now I’m here with one of these rangers and I’m super excited about how this day is going to turn out. As I marvel at my surroundings and lose myself in the incredible mountainscape around me, I don’t even notice Hans taking out his telescope and pointing it upwards. “There they are, a whole group!”, he calls out, pulling me out of my thoughts and pointing upward. “At least 7 ibexes, eating right now.” A little confused, I take a step toward the telescope and peak through it. And there they are, a group of ibexes just below a large rock, grazing and completely unaware of the fact that they are being watched from hundreds of metres below. “Look up there, that’s where we’re going next. To the lower and the upper Bockhartsee lakes.” Very well then, let’s go!
Up to the Bockhartsee lakes
On the relatively steep path toward the first lake, Hans tells me a little about his life. The Hohe Tauern national park, incidentally the biggest national park in Austria and the Alps in general, was founded in 1981, can be accessed from anywhere, is completely free of charge and extends across the Alpine parts of SalzburgerLand, Carinthia and Tyrol. Inside the park, you can find large glacier fields, valleys from the last ice age (Hans keeps showing me traces of this), wonderful valley heads, massive alluvial fans and debris cones, Alpine shrubby heaths, as well as extended larch, spruce and stone pine forests. The man’s knowledge when it comes nature, the mountains and the animals is incredible, and so I just keep on listening to him in awe for most of the climb. Over and over again, the ranger pulls out his knife, digs something out and hands it to me. “Here, chew on this root, then you definitely won’t get thirsty today.” Um, come again? Amazing!
After climbing for approximately half an hour, we see the Bockhartsee lake and our hike suddenly changes drastically. Whereas it was an uphill journey until now that also got us sweating quite a bit, we can now hike leisurely along the lake’s shore and rejoice in the splendid reflection of the surrounding summits in the slightly fizzy water. At the beginning of the lake, there is a mountain pasture hut where we could rest a little, but neither one of us is hungry yet and so we just fill up our water bottles and forward we go! And to be honest, we didn’t even need to bring our bottles, because we keep passing by springs that invite hikers to quench their thirst with the splendid, fresh water. As if he could read my mind, Hans tells me that I can drink the water up here without any concerns. How great it must be here to live here so comfortably and to be able to open one’s mouth without a second thought to taste some fresh spring water. What a treasure, our amazing Alps!
Where we’re going, we don’t need shoes!
At the end of the lake, there is a path along a stream up to the upper lake. We keep passing by swishing waterfalls, one more beautiful and impressive than the next, marvel at the traces left behind by mining operations from a forgotten time and jump from rock to rock like young chamois. When the upper Bockhartsee lake finally comes into view, which, incidentally, is smaller but not less beautiful than the lower one, Hans suddenly says “Shoes off. From now on, we’re going barefoot!” Come again? If there’s one thing that I’ve learned during my last few hours here, then it’s that you don’t talk back to Hans, because up here around “his mountains” you can trust him blindly. So, let’s go then. Off with the shoes, the socks, as we make our way through the meadow. What an incredible feeling this is! I sense every blade of grass, the soft mosses feel amazing and the round stones have stored the warmth of the sun. Why have I never done anything like this before? Just before the lake, it gets a little swampy and so we wade through the knee-deep water toward our destination. Easy and yet grippingly beautiful. At the lake, we sit down on a comfortable rock, drink a few sips from our bottles and enjoy the solitude and the tranquillity here. High above us, around an hour of walking distance away, we see the Niedersachsenhaus between two summits. From up there, you can then make your way into the Raurisertal valley. A tour that I definitely want to do one day!
Back in Sportgastein, I can’t thank Hans enough for this incredible adventure. We opt for a well-deserved beef stew in the Valeriehaus (named after the youngest daughter of the Kaiser couple Franz Josef and Elisabeth during construction in 1889) and say cheers to a wonderful day and many precious impressions. Experiences that I would recommend to anyone. With the rangers of the Hohe Tauern national park, you can experience and discover the mountains in a way that might otherwise have remained hidden from you.