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Parks Beyond Borders: Inspiring Interpretation in the Alps' Biggest National Park; Austria’s Hohe Tauern
Editor's Note: National Parks may be “America’s Best Idea” but the concept has been adopted—and adapted—in the planet’s most spectacular places, such as Austria's Hohe Tauern National Park (pronounced: Hoeh Towern). Here’s the second article and video in our global parks series on Austria.
The Men Behind Zedlacher Paradies
Martin Kurzthaler has one of the world’s most inspiring national park stories to tell. As I followed Hohe Tauern National Park’s chief biologist up the Zedlacher Paradies trail—an interpretive path through a “paradise” of ancient trees—I was amazed at how he came to design this renowned trail.
As a kid, he played in this area. We passed his parent’s former home on the road to the trailhead. His brother is a vet in the area and drives the same roads. And Martin still lives nearby and works at Park headquarters far below in Matrei.
We hiked through this 600-year-old gnarled grove of feathery larches. Towering at times overhead are artistic interpretive sculptures made of metal by noted Matrei sculptor Erich Trost (view the video for more). As we walked I repeatedly shook my head in amazement as he described his life-long relationship with these woods—and with recreation in Hohe Tauern National Park. “My father was a science teacher,” he said in fluent English with an elegant Austrian accent. “He taught a small class of school in our house. He was also a mountaineer and took me out into the mountains and nature, taught me all the flowers.”
This forest was Martin’s “stomping grounds” as a kid, and while he was literally growing up there, his father set out to purchase the ancient trees from the rural land owners. With some funding from the state, his Dad was successful.
But more than these paradisiacal trees stand as his monument. Martin eventually went to college at the University of Innsbruck, and when he got out with a Masters in biology, the park was being formed, he got a job, and actually came to design a nature trail in the forest preserved by his father.
Kurzthaler's vision for interpretation blossomed in his own backyard, literally. The result is a trail that reflects the cutting edge insight that this park’s interpretation staff brings to one of Europe’s top Alpine parks.
In the accompanying video tour of the trail, Kurzthaler explains some of the information stations along the way.
Recreation in Hohe Tauern: Focused on Dispersion
Believe it or not, there are only thirty rangers in Hohe Tauern National Park across three Austrian states. And the park includes 1,834-square kilometers of land (700 square miles), with 1,300 kilometers of trails (808-miles), and thirty recreational overnight hostels called huts (a truly world-class recreational experience covered in our next story).
That park attracts 1.6-million visitors a year, “quite a lot for a national park in Europe,” Kurzthaler says. “But it is a little hard to tell how many people we get. We have few major gates or entrances and no required fees.”
Nevertheless, he says, “Our policy is to make popular areas more popular so the rest of the park can be left in peace.” The diverse ways the park achieves that were profiled not too long ago in the publication “European Models of Good Practice in Protected Areas” issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
The park got its start in a battle between conservationists and a trend toward development of increasingly high-impact forms of development for recreation and even hydroelectric power. “The conservationists won,” the report says, and “ever since, the Park has bent over backwards to do what it can to support the local economy... Nature protection contracts are now one of the main sources of income for farmers.”
As a result, it’s now widely accepted that the future lies with “conserving the natural beauty of the area and building up ... low impact nature tourism,” a conclusion drawn from the number of communities that have wanted “the Park extended to the high alpine zones above them.”
The park’s more than thirty visitor centers are a key part of that interface. Most are small and on main roads, such as the roadside interpretive center high above the little hiking center of Matrei where the park’s Tirol headquarters is located. It’s the main route you’d take on the way over from the classic alpine tourist town of Kitzbuhel.
One of the park’s main attractions—which lies just outside the park, is the Großglockner High Alpine Road, “one of the main visitor ‘hotspots.’ It runs north-south over the Alps, with stunning views of Großglockner (Austria’s highest) and other peaks.” Open from May to October, the toll road is “one of the most scenic routes in Europe, reaching 2,576 meters (nearly 8,500 feet) at its highest point.”
Once devoid of park interpretation, the road has become a key way the park engages travelers. Fifteen “years ago there was almost no interpretation along the road; now there is so much that it is hard for any visitor not to learn about nature and the Park.”
The park itself has large formal visitor centers. The Mittersill mega-center, “Tauern Worlds,” “BIOS” in Mallnitz, or the “House of Water” in St. Jakob, are among the most modern in Europe.
High-tech exhibits at these sites include examples such as—the Eagle’s Flight Panorama—a 3D cinema overview of the Alps. How does the wildlife live? Kids can actually crawl through a big marmot burrow, or marvel at a trout model, 25 times life-size.
At more than forty decentralized parking areas and trailheads, some of which were popular long before the park, multi-panel interpretive signboards and interactive electronic touch screens display information.
One of the rangers’ main jobs is staffing these sites. Trail maintenance gets done by hiking clubs and special contracts, so the ranger staff focuses on interpretation. Ranger-led hikes are a primary duty, and one of the best ways to see the park. Many guided outings are overnight walks with stays in the alpine hostels called huts (which also play their own interpretive role).
The IUCN report says Hohe Tauern’s “visitor management starts not with the visitor arriving in the Park but with how the Park and the local tourism agencies promote the Park to the public.”
For that, the Park maintains partners, commercial businesses where significant displays of interpretive materials and interactive screens offer guidance—including information on the park’s all-important program of ranger-led hikes. I took advantage of one of those sites while staying in the Hotel Outside in Matrei. I really liked the hotel’s indoor spa area, exercise room, spotlessly clean rooms, and balconies that overlook small “downtown” streets, but a as a hiker type, the park materials in the lobby were convenient.
Other partners include restaurants that use foods from local farmers, and these eateries are the choice of the mountain guides who lead visitors in search of the real Alps. Some farmers even ferry older hikers up the valleys to gasthauses for a fee. There are limits to the commercialization, but providing authentic, traditional experiences is a value that ripples through the economic impact this national park bestows on Austria and its culture.
A Taste of Tradition
I sampled the flavor of that tradition on my way back to Matrei after Kurzthaler and I hiked his amazing Zedlacher Paradies trail. We pulled into the Strumerhoff Inn and savored the natural, organic essence of Alpine culture with a single meal.
The pastures that plummet below this aery perch are where the herbs grow that flavor the food served on the expansive porches that dizzyingly overlook Matrei far below. Only later, back in Matrei at dusk, gazing up from my balcony at the Hotel Outside, did I realize this restaurant was the Alpine chalet perched so crazy-high on the mountainside above.
I started with Unkrautsüppchen, a delectable herbal soup the ingredients for which came straight from the surrounding meadows. Sitting on the porch of this authentic Alpine eatery, enjoying the most local foods, I appreciated what “national park” means in Austria.
If you make a reservation for Wednesday between May and October you’ll get a guided tour of the farm’s herb exhibition and a 4-course herbal menu as you avert your eyes from the steep slopes below.
Easy to Engage
Despite dispersed access—in Austria, as in America—“people want to visit great viewpoints,” Kurzthaler says.
Clustered at these popular places are the park’s innovative theme trails. To actively experience the natural side of Hohe Tauern, these paths are a great way to go.(Check out Hohe Tauern's trails.)
The Pasterze Glacier Trail starts at the highest point on the Großglockner High Alpine Road, by the Glocknerhaus Alpine Center. The sustainable trail is luring motorists away from the road, if only a short distance. Another favorite leads to the biggest waterfall in Europe, the Krimmler Waterfalls.
And then there’s the Zedlacher Paradeis. In Hohe Tauern, a variety of trails explore truly enchanted forests—and enchanting stories, too. That includes the one about Martin Kurzthaler’s nature trail, where now, a native son leads parents and their kids through a magical forest that he explored with his own father.