Parks Beyond Borders: Austria’s Hohe Tauern National Park—The Best Of The Alps, And A Truly European Adaptation Of "America's Best Idea"

Editor's Note: “America’s Best Idea” has been adopted—and adapted—in the planet’s most spectacular settings. Austria's Hohe Tauern National Park is one such spot. Here’s the first multimedia feature in a series on the park.

Austria's first national park—Hohe Tauern (pronounced Ho-eh Tow-ern)—was just designated in 1981—but it’s the largest natural area in the Alps. Besides being a spectacular landscape—with 85 percent private land, Hohe Tauern shows how uniquely the “national park idea” has morphed across the globe.

This 700-square-mile (1,834-square kilometer) park should be a big part of your plans if Europe is on your itinerary—and it may be. Based on early bookings, travel agents predict more North Americans may visit Europe this summer and fall than any year this century.

The “High” Tauern range of the national park includes Austria’s highest summit, Großglockner or “Big Bell,” at 12,461 feet (3,798 meters). The park’s Krimmler Waterfalls are the highest in Europe, 1,250 feet (380 meters). And almost 10 percent of the park, 70 square miles, lies beneath 342 glaciers.

Alternate Text
Far below snow-capped peaks, the park's outer zone tempts visitors with easy options. Photo by Randy Johnson.

Close to Everything

“After seeing Vienna and the opera, if people want to see nature, they come to us,” says Hohe Tauern’s chief biologist, Martin Kurzthaler.

That’s great for visitors. The park is easily reached from many places frequented by international travelers—such as major airports like Vienna and Munich, Germany. Mozart-crazy Salzburg is close. So is multi-Olympic Innsbruck, "the capital of the Alps." The park is also close to classic ski and summer resort towns such as Kitzbuhel and Badgastein.

The massive ridges of the Tauern Range sprawl across the East Central Alps through three Austrian states—East Tyrol (Osttirol), Salzburg, and Carinthia.

A Hybrid Concept

“This park is globally unique,” Kurzthaler says. “Nearly every square meter is privately owned, either by the farmers, or the Austrian Alpine Club (AAC),” or similar groups.

“One hundred years ago, most of the land was ‘staatsschatz,’ state-owned land, but we became a republic after WWI, and most public land was almost given away,” he continues. “That’s when the AAC bought huge tracts above 2,000 meters, to set up nature reservations”—the strictly preserved “core zone” of the park.

It took till the late 20th century (1981-1992) for Austria’s strong state governments to vet each other’s idiosyncratic needs and reach consensus on how to both permit, and restrict, private uses of high mountains.

Alternate Text
National Park House in Matrei is Hohe Tauern's central information center. Photo by Martin Kurzthaler.

Landowners participate voluntarily in this public/private partnership and get no state funding unless they carry out projects for the park, such as restoring a mountain hut. But Austrian private landowners are used to far more government involvement than people in the United States, for instance.

Farmers have options under national park and nature protection laws, but when trees need to be cut, foresters choose the trees.

Ancient Land—Ancient Lifestyle

After the Ice Age scoured all the vegetation to the south, plants in the Alps did not make their way back north as they did in the Appalachians and Rockies. Pioneering vegetation arrived from the harsh climes of Central Asia, the Siberian tundra, and Arctic. Today’s Alpine forests include larches, spruces and stone pine. Up here, winter is long, summer short and explosive. The result—verdant high Alpine meadows have sprouted an agricultural tradition that’s central to the definition of "national park" in Austria. (Check out the video.)

Alternate Text
These Jagdhaus alpine pastures and stone structures were first mentioned in 1212. Photo by Martin Kurzthaler.

Lofty grazing meadows contain Austria’s greatest biodiversity—and for millennia farmers have summered their cows, goats and sheep on these vibrantly flowering, richly fragrant, herb-filled fields. The highly-prized hay scythed at these heights is stored in separate lofts to protect its high quality.

To fulfill that lifestyle, ancient farmhouse/hunting lodge chalets dot the higher Alps. The Jagdhaus Alpine Pastures, the oldest of these traditional grazing areas and stone structures—date from 1212—but the practice goes back far beyond. Remember the “Ice Man,” called Ötzi, found frozen on the border with Italy? Austria claims him. His realm, and the “Ötzi-Dorf” archaeological attraction, is just south of the park. The name springs from Tirol’s Otztal, or Otz Valley.

This lofty lifestyle continues in the park today, part of the larger landowner-centric economic strategy of Hohe Tauern National Park. In rural areas, young people move away to cities for school and jobs, so the park preserves not just the natural alpine meadows but what Kurzthaler calls “the cultivated landscape of ... mountain hay meadows and pastures that are so rich in different species.”

Alternate Text
Johann Rasinger lives the traditional lofty life of an Alpine farmer at this atmospheric outpost. Randy Johnson photo.

Those are endangered and disappearing throughout the Alps, “but not so in Hohe Tauren National Park,” he says.

“Modernization has taken place even here,” says the park literature, but “very often, this archaic plain lifestyle is still lived with enthusiasm.”

A Living Tradition

I met one of the people “enthusiastically living” this traditional Alpine life (join me, and watch the video). With Martin Kurzthaler, I left the park’s headquarters town of Matrei and headed high up where even Linda Ronstadt singing “Blue Bayou” faded from radio reception as we jostled over truly treacherous, guardrail-free roads. We went up and down switchbacks so sharp, steep, and unprotected that there was one line through—no backing up—and only an inching pace was possible.

Even so, these roads have changed things. Before them, Kurzthaler told me, everything came up on horseback or in a rucksack. When we swung around a ridge into a high valley, I thought—"This looks like Tibet.”

At a cluster of stone huts clinging to the mountainside, I met Johann Rasinger, nearly 80, a robust, affable, sun-toughened farmer with a twinkle in his eye who’s been summering here since he was seven. He finds his way up in late May and back down in September. Bikers and hikers come by, enjoying his lofty realm.

Alternate Text
This hat badge attests to Johann's friend's status as a game warden. Randy Johnson photo.

There are other huts higher up, and his brother and a lifelong friend were heading there to hunt. The badges on these guys identify them as Jagermeisters, true “hunting masters,” and that status goes beyond what they drink (which was schnapps and beer from what I could see). Their pictures adorn the walls of Johann’s more than 110-year old edifice—along with dozens of antlers that evidence years of hunting ibex, chamois, and deer.

These high outposts of traditional agriculture augment their income with locally made schnapps, beer chilled in snowmelt, fresh cheese, butter, breads, and sausages made among the meadows and sold to folks passing by on a walk or a workout.

Kurzthaler and I paused to grab a delicious lunch, complete with an urn overflowing with alpine flowers (join us—watch the video). Rasinger smoked a long, thin, rustic looking cigar that was called a "Virginia." An 1890 New York Times article about smoking in Austria mentioned the popularity of this cigar "with the straw mouthpiece."

We ate, then explored around as the high elevation sun flashed in and out from behind clouds. I went inside to see, and taste, cheeses in various stages of preparation. Rasinger uses some of the milk to feed calves, the rest becomes cheese and butter. He’s up at 6 am to milk and clean the stables.

Alternate Text
Johann Rasinger (with his brother) smokes one of the "rat-tailed" cigars called "Virginias" that have been popular in Austria since the 1800s. Randy Johnson photo.

“It’s hard work, and you’re very tired at the end of the day, but it’s very satisfying,” he tells me through Kurzthaler.

Rasinger’s nephew will continue his Alpine farming lifestyle. What’s the appeal? Rasinger raises his eyes to waterfall high above. “The silence,” he says. “No noise. And freedom. I can do whatever I want when I want to do it.” Then he breaks into a big smile and says, “And the bad people, they stay in the valley. It’s the good people who find their way up here.”

Heading Higher

Some passersby were bound far higher up—including hikers and mountaineers—heading for the nearby Badener Hutte, one of many backcountry “refuges” about four hours apart that make high county travel safe and enjoyable all over Europe. (There are precious few North American locations where this experience is available.)

These high farms are a destination in themselves that offer fascinating insight into a unique national park lifestyle. If that’s your inclination, you won’t find a better place to do it than Hohe Tauern. In one the park’s informational booklets, Martin Kurzthaler captures the appeal of this “buffer zone” of the park:

"Mountain hay meadows in their full flowering glory, strong, healthy domestic animals, delicious products from mountain pastures, Alpine huts and chapels, crystal clear air and the complete seclusion convey an archaic picture of a landscape where it is certainly rewarding to linger a while."

Americans may see irony in the different heritage of national parks in the United States—credited in Austrian park literature as the first step in creating the world’s “3,000 national parks.”

Alternate Text
Hohe Tauern's traditional lifestyle of Alpine farming starts in the valleys and climbs high into the national park. Randy Johnson photo.

Two Traditions—Both National Parks

To appreciate those separate traditions, consider how easy it was to create national parks out of large wilderness tracts in the Western United States. When the national park movement reached Eastern America, that Western wilderness ideal made intruders out of traditional Appalachian farmers living high in the Great Smokies and Blue Ridge.

Those families were ejected.

Today, visitors tour preserved cabins of settlers in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and can only imagine seeing livestock being herded to the region’s high grassy balds (which incidentally, mimic the stunning biodiversity of meadows in the Alps, and are growing closed, in some spots requiring mowing and grazing).

Along the Blue Ridge Parkway, “lands are leased out ... for agricultural use to ensure and perpetuate the cultural and traditional pastoral scenes ...,” says the Parkway’s new management plan. “This blending of the parkway and the adjoining lands helps create the impression of a park that extends, in some instances, to the horizon.”

At Hohe Tauern, the “impression” that the park’s traditional lifestyle extends to the horizon—is reality.

Check out Installments Two and Three in our Series on Hohe Tauern:

Martin Kurzthaler, the park’s chief biologist, has one of the world’s most inspiring national park stories to tell in how he designed an innovative, award-winning nature trail. Read that article and view the video— "Inspiring Interpretation in the Alps' Biggest National Park."

Hut-to-Hut Hiking in the Alps is an awesome experience. Check out the story and video—"Hut To Hütte Hiking—A Premier Acessible Adventure All Across Austria And The Alps."

In the United States, check out our story on hut hiking to LeConte Lodge in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and connect to the Apppalachian Mountain Club's huts in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.