self-portrait Vosges hikingA few weekends ago I took a solo hike across the Grande Crête des Vosges (crête is the French word for mountain ridge). What a glorious day it was! It was an easy 25 or so kilometers from start to finish with around 900 m of elevation gain (that kicked my butt).

The southern section of the Vosges really holds my hiking heart. The Munster, Thur and Fecht valleys are three gems that I feel I’ve only begun to discover. This hike allowed me to become more familiar with the Munster and Thur valleys by climbing up to Lauchenkopf (1312 m) and back down. I was blessed with amazing weather and a chance meetings with two kind fellow hikers who shared their unique stories and encouraged me to keep walking and exploring. Done.

Enjoy a few of my favorite photos from the hike below.

gare de Metzeral

 

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Alex, Violaine, Melissa

 

Hiking with friends is great: you don’t have to take your backpack off every time you need something from your bag, you can blame taking a wrong turn on having become distracted by a good story instead of your sometimes poor map-reading skills and (maybe best of all) you can trade food.

I organized for an afternoon hike with Alex and Violaine – mostly because getting to Lutzelbourg (in Lorraine) is impossible on a Sunday before 2 p.m. Starting a rather long hike (20km) this late is pretty uncommon for me, but since it was one of the longest days all year it was not a problem (June 22nd).

You don’t have to walk very far before you get to the château de Lutzelbourg. It’s a hard 20 minute hike mostly up. The castle ruins overlook the town and the Canal de la Marne au Rhin winding along the valley. We walked on for several hours up and up and across to a small Roman ruins. It wasn’t really evident what the site was since there was no informative sign. It looked like some sort of dwelling to us. We eventually got to a steep descent that took us to the halfway point. It was a water sanitation area with fresh, cool water. For about a half an hour we rested our legs and had a bite to eat. The trail took us back up the other side of the valley where we had splendid views of Lutzelbourg castle from across the valley. Then we hiked along the ridge for quite a while. That was where I spotted the tick neck-deep in my shin. No worries. I had my trusty tick-remover and first-aid kit. What excitement! The final three castle ruins were grouped closely together about 4km from Saverne. We first saw Petit-Geroldseck, then Grand-Geroldseck and finally Haut-Barr. At Grand-Geroldseck, we met a nice Alsatian couple who offered to drive us to the train station and save us the last 3km walking through the residential area of Saverne. Of course we accepted. It was a great day that ended with a cold drink on the terrace of The Atlantico on the quai in Strasbourg.

Lutzelbourg castel ruins

forest

Grand Geroldseck chateau ruins

Grand Geroldseck chateau ruins

 

On the 10th day of train strikes in France, I decided to take a chance and attempt a trip to Lièpvre. It’s located in a valley called the Val d’Argent or Silver Valley. It only takes 40 minutes from Strasbourg: take the TER train to Séléstat and then take a TER bus that runs along the Val d’Argent, stopping in all the small towns.

Note: I had, until the trip to Lièpvre, avoided taking the TER bus connections for some unclear reason. They’re great! And it’s just like the train, but you get to the small towns without train access.

Lièpvre to Sainte-Croix-aux-Mines
Distance: 22km
Elevation gain: 800m
Difficulty level: Hard  – mostly due to the steep ascent and descent

I thought that it would be best to start my hike as early as possible to avoid the heat of the day and also the predicted afternoon showers.The bus dropped me off in Lièpvre at 7:40 am.  The first 5k was on forestry roads through the forest at a rather steep pitch. Also the blazes were confusing, which meant that finding my way with crisscrossing  roads was a challenge.  I eventually got to the Rotzel shelter where the  road ended in a massive sort of parking.

The shelter was pretty basic with an old picnic table…though the surroundings weren’t so great for a picnic – gravel and a parking lot. Up to this point I was feeling a bit discouraged. I had been walking on a road wide enough for two cars and stumbled on a parking lot. Just my luck! But behind the shelter was a “Tranquility Zone” sign. It means that there are no cars and no hunting allowed in the area. Nature was finally left to her own devices…

An actual trail started through the forest just behind the Rotzel shelter. It had obviously not been used much lately. You start seeing the amazing granite rock formations after about 20 minutes of hard walking. Some of the rocks look like they’ve been carved and knocked down like dominoes. There were several remarkable formations with names like “Les Trois Petites Tables” or “Rocher des Géants” or “Rocher des Réptiles”. They take on shapes like table tops, lunar craters or giants’ footprints or heads of reptiles. They sit on the plateau-ish part of the mountain called le massif Taennchel. This is what I was hoping for.

The descent was a challenge. I descended about 700m in less than a hour. There were no switchbacks , only a ditch with all the rubble left over from the winter snow melt. I had 3 “controlled” falls because of the sliding rocks, dirt and branches mucking up the ditch.

However, there was a reward for the effort. Just before going under a bridge to rejoin Sainte-Croix-aux-Mines, where I caught the bus back to Séléstat, I happened upon the most beautiful cherry tree. The fruit was ripe and hanging low. How could anyone resist tart, sweet, tree-ripened cherries?

To be honest, this isn’t a hike that I would recommend to anyone unless they have a car – that way you can skip the slog up on a gravel road and the murderous slog down. Even with a car I would recommend taking a loop up to Taennchel and back down. That being said, if you really want to train hard for trail running this may be the way to go. It’s steep and you could really work on your technical descent.

 

Last Friday I set off for a long-overdue solo tramp in the Vosges. I chose walk no. 24 – Le Ban de la Roche – in my favorite Vosges guide: Randonner avec les TER published by the Club Vosgien in 2003.

Rothau train stationI had planned to take the 7am train to Rothau, but the night before I had worked until nearly 2am. No big deal – I got an extra hour of sleep and took the 8:55am train from Strasbourg. I arrived at Rothau just before 10am.

It took me a bit of time to locate the first blaze – a yellow triangle. Occasionally the blazes start out at the train station, but in this case didn’t. When in doubt, I’ve learned, go to the church. And that’s what I did.

The village of Rothau is nice enough. I didn’t spend enough time there to see much. It has two lovely churches and a major high way that runs right through town, which made walking along the narrow sidewalks feel a bit like playing Russian roulette. So I was happy to make my way into the forest and climb out of the valley. After leaving behind the last house on a gravel road, I found a dirt path that wound around the side of the mountain. A canal ran alongside the path where a few ducks were swimming in the morning sun.

Path with canal

Nature was slowly and carefully waking up on the mountainside. Tufts of grass were peeking out from piles of leaf rot and fallen branches. Tree saplings reached for the sunshine. The mosses covering the rocks were especially pretty with fine stalks sporophytes. I saw an owl swoop across the trail. There was a woodpecker hammering away at a tree above my head.

I hiked for about two hours before I came to a sign directing me to the Cascade de la Serva. It was a steep hike up to reach the most impressive section of the waterfall. 

The waterfall was gorgeous. The roar of the water was nearly deafening. The temperature fell as the relative humidity rose. I could smell the damp rocks. The trail climbed even steeper as it wound around and followed the waterfall to its source at the top of the Champs du Feu.Cascade de la Serva,  Vosges

I couldn’t resist taking off my shoes to feel the ice-cold water on my feet. So I found a sunny spot next to the water. Had it been a bit warmer, I probably would have been tempted to take a dip in my skivvies in one of the small pools.

I couldn’t stop here too long – I still had about 15 kilometers left.

I walked through a forest of naked deciduous trees. This still made it possible to see across the valley to the mountain ahead. Up I climbed to the Champs du Feu.

Well…sort of. I was headed in the direction of the Champs du Feu, but lost my trail at a wild intersection of trails. I spent about 2km figuring out that I was headed in the wrong direction.

I eventually made it to the Champs du Feu – a ski station in the Bas-Rhin. The last bits of snow had become sheets of ice on the trail, which made it tricky for descending to the Col de la Charbonnière before lunch was over!

I didn’t think that lunch was going to be spectacular, but I was mistaken. I ordered the soupe de jour and a portion of cheese. I didn’t think that the presentation would be so spot on or that the serving would be so generous. The meal was just what I needed to power me over the next 10 or so kilometers to Saint-Blaise-la-Roche.Col de Charbonnière, Auberge

The guide indicated that an old castle ruins was ahead, but didn’t give a description of what exactly I should be looking for.

When I made it to the ruins I understood why it was called château de la Roche and was puzzled why the guide book only mentions it, but doesn’t have it marked out on the map. The donjon or stone keep of this 12th century castle was built on a granite rock jutting up to the sky. The Club Vosgien built a steep 105 step staircase that winds around to the top of the donjon ruins. From the top is a gorgeous view of the neighboring hillsides and valleys and a frightful walk down.château de la RocheThe rest of the hike was literally all down hill from that point. I crossed a field with pen full of lamas and then found a forestry road that led me to the edge of Saint-Blaise-la-Roche. At the highest part of town were mostly farmers’ granges with large farming equipment parked inside. Further down, the homes took on the typical Alsatian style with half-timbered fronts and large well-manicured gardens ready for spring planting.

I found the train station with a bit of help from a local and waited a half an hour for my train back to Strasbourg. I was physically tired, but I felt amazing. My legs felt stronger and my mind felt a bit clearer.

Blazes on a tree, balisage

Rothau to Saint-Blaise-la-Roche Total: 22km / +650m

Lutzelbourg, Canal de la Marne au RhinIt was supposed to be a super scorcher in the Lower Rhine on our hiking day, so my trusty walking partner Stefanie and I took the 6:50 a.m. train to Lutzelbourg in order to avoid walking in the heat all day. Neither of us had slept the night before for whatever reason. We must have looked like hell to the commuters on the train. No bother, the day was gorgeous.

Lutzelbourg is a tiny village tucked into a steep valley with the Canal de la Marne au Rhin cutting right down the middle of the valley. The town is completely differently architecturally from it’s neighbor Saverne – it lacks the Alsatian charm and instead feels more pragmatic (whatever that means).

blazes, balisagesThe hike literally starts as you leave the train station…well about 100 meters away. Up we went to the chateau of Lutzelbourg. Then we were on a constant up and down rocky path for the next few hours. While we were in the forest above Lutzelbourg we crossed two walkers, who were in their 60s, with dogs. We chatted a bit and I told them how I was using my favorite hiking book for the Vosges (it’s by the Club Vosgien for hiking and using the regional train). One of the walkers, surprised that I knew the book, told us that had he helped write the section that we were walking. I should have told him that a few of the instructions for the hike were a bit vague, but I instead just gave him my compliments.

Stefanie with slow wormHalfway through we started naming animals we would like to see on our walk. We were excited to see two gigantic hares crossing the path ahead of us as though they were leading the way. We frightened a young deer that leapt in front of us only a few feet away. Then jokingly I said that my day would be complete if I could see a snake. A few minutes later Stefanie yelled up ahead…a snake! Turns out it wasn’t a snake, but a legless lizard called a slow worm (Orvet fragile in French). Nonetheless we got to see a new reptile that I’d never seen in the Vosges.

Grand GeroldseckThe most beautiful portion of the hike was discovered at a chateau ruins called Grand Geroldseck not far from the chateau of Haut-Barr. It was as if we had stepped into a fairytale ruins once we climbed the stairs that had been laid 900 years earlier. A rebuilt dungeon tower and the skeleton remains of a once expansive chateau were perfectly laid out. You could walk along the interior walls and down steps, wander through archways. The water well was still visible. Flowers, nut trees and tall grasses had taken over most of the open spaces, while stinging nettles filled the lowest levels of the ruins. Nature was now king of this castle and it was good.

Once we reached the outskirts of Saverne, I called to an old man walking through a field to ask him what the fastest way to the city center was. He came over to us and our quick question turned into a 15 minute discussion about stress and bone realignment.  Since he was 85 years old, I didn’t worry too much when he started giving me a hand massage and telling us about pressure points. It did get a little weird when he asked for bisous (kisses)….but hey! when in Alsace…