If you browse to a map of Germany and zoom in on its central eastern border, you’ll see a small dark green patch. This region is Saxon Switzerland National Park, one of Germany’s 16 national parks. Straddling the German/Czech border, the park is almost evenly divided between the two countries with about 90 square kilometers of it falling in Germany and the remaining 79 km² in the Czech Republic, where it’s known as Bohemian Switzerland National Park. The two countries work together to manage and protect the entire region of sandstone cliffs, steep canyons, and heavily forested slopes.
On our drive from Germany to Prague for Easter, a slight detour would have landed us directly in Saxon Switzerland, but when we reached the juncture in the road, we opted to head straight to Prague. It was pouring rain near the park, icy cold, and neither of us could get excited about stopping to hike and camp there for the night. Over the weekend, though, the weather improved and we were looking forward to the drive home with a second chance to do some hiking. After breaking down our campsite in Prague the day after Easter, we hit the road and arrived in Saxon Switzerland National Park in just over an hour.
Since the portion of the park that’s located within Germany’s borders is itself divided into two separate sections, we stopped briefly at the tiny tourist office in the town of Bad Schandau to investigate the southern region. Picking up a map, we listened while an employee gave us directions in German about how to take the train into the park. Since we understood almost none of what he said, I whipped out my best Charades moves to mime driving a car, to which he emphatically nodded, pointing out several parking areas near trail-heads and a waterfall. Confident we couldn’t go wrong in finding a good hike, we left town to drive into the park. Annnnnd yet again in Europe, we found ourselves facing down a train. Two, actually.
Suddenly doubting my Charades skills, we eased off the rails, coasted slowly around them, then merged back onto the tracks as an oncoming car approached. Peering intently at the driver for signs of frenzied waving, flashing lights, honking – anything to indicate we were violating basic German traffic laws – the car simply passed us. Eventually we relaxed when we finally saw other cars driving in both directions, including on the tracks where they were train-free. If Germans were doing it, we must be able to do it too!
The tracks eventually ended, the little restaurants dotting the road near parking areas and trail-heads faded, and we found ourselves on a pretty stretch of fairly deserted road. Parking our car, we headed up into the forest for a couple hours of sunshine and fresh air.
After hiking near Bad Schandau, we returned to the main road and continued on to the northern portion of the park.
A brief walk from the parking area led us to the scenic Bastei Bridge.
Probably the most-visited single site in the entire park, the stone bridge now links the “mainland” – with its hotel, restaurant, and gift shop selling glass art – to an outcropping of vertical rocks where the 18th-century Neurathen Castle once stood.
In 1851, the original wooden bridge was replaced by the current arched bridge of sandstone, the same soft stone that makes up the Bastei and its strange rock formations.
These strange rock formations are particularly popular for rock climbers. As the birthplace of the sport in Germany, Saxon Switzerland has over 1000 free-standing rock towers and 17,000 routes for fixed-gear free climbing. From the trails and viewpoints near Bastei Bridge, we could see a number of white rods and rings embedded in the rock. We assumed they were likely for climbers, though it would seem odd to allow climbing so near the touristy and picturesque bridge.
Far below our vantage on Bastei Bridge, the Elbe River lay as a dark gray slick, cut down through the soft sediment over thousands of years.
Above us, another viewpoint with several visitors made even our lofty overlook seem a bit insignificant.
From Bastei Bridge, we climbed to the overlook we could see above.
Spread out far below, we could see the Elbe River, villages dotting its banks, the flat-topped Lilienstein where another castle once stood, and in the far distance, the outline of Königstein Fortress. Despite the chill that had set in as the day grew late, the windy gusts buffeting our viewpoint were surprisingly warm, like sea breezes on a summer day. Disappointed that overnight tent camping isn’t allowed in the park, we stood awhile just enjoying the view, wondering who we’d have to bribe to be allowed to pitch our tent right there on the overlook. With over two million visitors a year, clearly park officials can’t simply allow every Joe Schmo to throw down a home for the night wherever they like. But it would be so incredible to sleep like a castle in the clouds and wake to the sunrise over the Elbe.
- Dogs are allowed in the national park on leash.
- Pay parking is available in two lots very near Bastei Rock in the northern section of the park for a flat rate of €3.
- If the parking lots near Bastei are full, a larger parking area is available near the turn off from Hohnsteiner Str. (see map below). From there, you can catch a shuttle bus to Bastei or walk the 3.5 km through mostly flat, open fields.
- Official site for Saxon Switzerland National Park (available in English)
- Official site for Bohemian Switzerland National park (available in English)