Italy, Slovenia, and Austria: a Thru-hike of the Alpe-Adria Trail
In May 2014, we, Amy and James, thru-hiked the Alpe-Adria Trail (AAT). This long-distance route was inaugurated in 2012 and extends from the Kaiser Franz-Josefs-Höhe, near the base of the Grossglockner in Austria, to the Adriatic coastal town of Muggia close to the Italy-Slovenia border. The AAT is divided into 37 stages, but also has an alternate routing that adds five stages (the Circular Trail: six additional stages less one main stage that is skipped). We included the Circular Trail in our hike and walked 505 miles, averaging something over eighteen miles per day and finishing in a bit less than 28 days. Walking from Trieste to the AAT starting point and post AAT completion hiking added an additional 75 miles to our trip. We hope this report will provide useful information to anyone considering hiking the AAT.
The primary source of information on this route is found at the Alpe Adria Trail website.
We have not sorted through all our images and built our gallery. When it is done we will add the link here. In the meantime, here are a few images to give a sense of the scenery.
The map shows our walk. The AAT is the magenta track and the pre and post trip walks are in green. National borders are yellow. This is a link to the KML file of our route. Note that the file data details what we actually walked and is not intended to represent the official AAT routing. We walked the route northbound.
The southern terminus of the AAT is in Muggia, Italy. This small Adriatic port town is about 8 mostly pleasant urban and suburban walking miles from the center of Trieste, Italy. Trieste is a moderately large city with many rail links to the rest of Europe. There are also local buses from Trieste to Muggia. We chose to walk to the start point from our lodgings in Trieste.
The AAT northern terminus is not as easy to get to. The Kaiser Franz-Josefs-Höhe (FHJ) is at the end of a paved toll road. The nearest town is Heiligenblut, which is not very large and half a day’s walk to the south (we had passed through there on the way north and had no interest in retracing our steps). We didn't research transit to or from the FJH as we had planned on crossing the mountains north to the Salzach River valley. None of our proposed exit routes proved to be viable due to deep snow remaining in the mountains and our lack of the necessary equipment to safely cross them. Instead, we walked the paved Grossglockner Hochalpenstrass out to Bruck. The normally spectacular views along this scenic toll road were mostly clouded over, which was disappointing, but the walk itself was straightforward. Once in Bruck, public transit connections to anywhere you might want to go are easy. Public transit in Austria is widely available, fast, frequent, on time and expensive. We had a few days left before our flight home, so we followed the Salzach River west up its picturesque valley as far as Hollersbach.
The Route: the big picture
The AAT is a joint project by the Italian, Slovenian, and Austrian tourist boards to encourage walking tourism in the region where the three countries share common borders and was laid out with input from their respective alpine clubs. The stated goal of the AAT is it “was conceived as an easy-to-walk pleasure trail in mainly non-alpine terrain”.
The trail has very good diversity, passing through a variety of habitats and cultural sites. In Austria, the trail alternates between flowering meadows in valleys with small villages (or ski resorts) and the higher forested slopes of the mountains. Sometimes the route climbs above tree line and there are expansive vistas and fine ridge top walking. In Slovenia, the AAT primarily follows the beautiful Soca River valley as it travels from the lowlands to its source from a crack in a mountain wall. In Italy, there are coastal trails, walking through vineyard country, and an interesting “open air museum” section through old WW 1 battlefields. Encountered are small and medium size towns, both real villages with quiet ordinary daily life and tourist sites with spas and claptrap. Old mostly Catholic churches dot the landscape; some are unlocked and their ornate and sometimes gory interior decorations can be viewed. The walk combines scenery and culture in an interesting way. Some of the walking is on paved roads, but only occasionally are there stretches with much traffic. The vast majority of the AAT is on graveled or dirt farm and forest tracks with some stretches of single-track here and there to add interest.
The AAT has been designed so that each stage ends in a location where, in season, food and lodging can be obtained, theoretically allowing the trail to be hiked without any camping. Because of this, the trail is sometimes routed in ways that we found frustrating. You can be walking along a fine mountain ridge and the route suddenly drops you out of the mountains and down to the valley floor to some ski-resort or unattractive commercial tourist town. Particularly in Austria, the trail will gain and lose thousands of feet per day, day after day, apparently to get down each night to commercial facilities. We found this quite annoying and on a couple of occasions we chose to stay high instead of making an arbitrary descent. But, for the most part, we played the game and followed the described route.
This is not a high alpine route with lots of summits to climb and the high point is only around 2400 meters. There are no scree fields or glaciers to cross. There are no technical rock sections to contend with. The AAT is a walking route and makes no claims to be otherwise. It does get into the mountains and crosses some 1st class and very easy 2nd class peaks. There are many places with stellar vistas. Those who want a true alpine adventure will be disappointed with the AAT, but conversely, those who want a long diverse walk through the mountains will be generally satisfied.
The published distance for the route as we walked it is 470 miles. The published altitude gain is something over 110,000 feet walking south to north. Your mileage and gain will vary due to diversions, getting lost, visits to towns for food and so forth. Our mileage data is based on our route entered into Google Earth.
The Route: reality
Our view is that the AAT is not quite ready for prime time. The AAT organization has published various conflicting versions of the route, likely in draft form, and these versions are still floating around. Our data sources included:
1. A gpx file downloaded from the AAT website that shows the entire route as a single track.
2. Gpx files for each stage also downloaded from the AAT website. These files are often different from the complete gpx track.
3. The 1st edition of AAT guidebook, available for free in Tourist Information Centers, which includes a map of each stage.
4. A 2nd edition of the same guidebook. This edition has map and route changes from the 1st edition which are not highlighted.
5. Third-party-published guidebooks, one of which we examined but did not carry. Most of the guides are not in English.
6. A downloaded AAT iPhone App.
7. A brochure with a map published by the AAT organization. This also has some significant differences from other AAT sources.
8. The actual waymarks on the ground. These don’t consistently match the gpx tracks, the guidebook, or the App.
As far as we could tell, the waymarks on the ground usually represented the “best” option. This led us to think that the other possibilities were documented based on laying out the trail in concept by using maps; however, when somebody actually went to waymark the route they found problems with that concept and therefore made improvements. Unfortunately, those improvements have not yet made it back into the documentation as of the time we had acquired it. Perhaps these discrepancies have been fixed already; if not, it would be most helpful if the AAT organization makes it a high priority to get all versions of the route data corrected and consistent.
To put this into context, we do a lot of off-trail wilderness hiking, and are very comfortable figuring out how to get to where we want to go. However, on multi-week hikes like this, we prefer to follow well-defined routes so that we can just enjoy a walk without having to spend a lot of time on the ground studying maps and making route decisions.
One big disappointment was the big lakes (or Sees in German). We had looked forward to visiting these, but reality, the only places the trail meets the water is in or near towns and the lakeshore is almost entirely private and inaccessible. Often it isn't even visible, as the shoreline has been built out with all types of structures between the trail and the water.
The AAT waymarking is nowhere near as useful as it ought to be. European long-distance trails are commonly marked using red and white paint marks (or occasionally combination of two other colors to differentiate named trails that overlap). This system has been used for years in many countries and works perfectly well on the ground. Having walked well-marked routes such as National Trails and the Macmillan Way in England and some French and Spanish GR’s, we know that it is not that difficult to comprehensively and accurately mark a route on the ground.
The AAT decided to create their own waymarking system and the results are not as good. Often there are square metal AAT signs placed at junctions. Sometimes these signs have no directional information (Yes, I know I’m on the trail, but which way should I go at this junction?). At other times the signs include an arrow that points exactly between two or three different options, so that the arrow is effectively useless. For much of the route these metal tags include only southbound arrows, with no hints for the northbound hiker. Although the guidebook claims that “The Alp-Adria Trail is sign-posted in such a way that it can be walked in both directions.”, there was usually no functional northbound waymarking. In some regions, little AAT stickers are pasted onto existing trail signs, which is effective once you learn to look for them; however the stickers are already peeling off. There are occasionally painted AAT tags on various surfaces that are surprisingly obscure because the logo colors easily blend into the environment (unlike the bold red and white GR blazes which are very visible). The painted tags are also already substantially faded in places. These painted logos never provided directional information, which the GR blazes do so well. The northernmost stages in Austria were generally adequately marked, but the waymarking really deteriorated south of Gmund.
The conflicting published route information would have been less of an issue if the route was waymarked for northbound hikers, and if the waymarking was thorough and unambiguous. Following waymarks would have allowed us to ignore the misleading gpx tracks and easily stay on the route. We sometimes ended up following the route designated by the GPX tracks into forestry clear-cuts or attempting to follow non-existent paths. Hopefully this problem will not be an issue in future years when waymarking is complete and consistent with the published data and GPX tracks. The southbound waymarking appeared to be more complete, but we cannot attest to its usability.
We are criticizing the inadequate waymarking because it seems so unnecessary. The French GR standard for marking a trail has achieved a high level of perfection and usefulness and does not need to be reinvented. And to reinvent it with a more costly and less effective solution – what were they thinking?
We carried paper maps (OpenCycleMap with the published GPX line superimposed). We also used an iPhone with the Gaia GPS app, pre-loaded with the gpx tracks, OpenHikingMap, and two sets of satellite imagery (Google and ESRI). See the article about how to use an iPhone as a gps/mapping device. We also used the AAT iPhone app.
A GPS was indispensable for our northbound walk. In addition to the above-mentioned problems with waymarking and inconsistent track information, there are also a plethora of logging and farming roads, with very frequent junctions. Many of the roads are new and not yet on any of the maps we could find. Without a GPS, we might have spent an inordinate amount of time following dead-end dirt roads.
For a southbound hiker, our opinion is that a GPS would be very useful as well, based on our assessment that the waymarking is not consistently present and is too often ambiguous.
Timing and Walking Direction
The AAT is described, mapped, and waymarked to be walked southbound. We hiked northbound. Apparently nobody else does this; everyone we spoke with during of trip who was familiar with the AAT said they had never met a northbound hiker. We find that really weird, as it is logical to hike northbound if starting in April or May in order to avoid hot temperatures in the southern low altitude sections and to allow more time for snow to melt in the northern higher altitude sections. If hiking in September, starting in the north makes sense in order to avoid early season snowfall.
Many people had told us that during the peak season, June to August, the Alps are mobbed with hikers and tourists. Access to the mountains is easy with a plethora of roads lacing the peaks and numerous ski lifts transporting people to where the roads don't go. We wanted to experience the mountains before the crowds arrived, and we already had other plans for the summer, so May was a perfect month for us. We understand that September is also a very nice month to hike in the area.
We are happy we went in May, and glad we walked northbound, but our clever plan had a couple of flaws. First, there are the northbound waymarking problem described above. Second, due to very heavy snowfall late in the winter of 2013/14, the higher regions still had massive and far above normal amounts of snow on the ground. In fact, we had measurable new snowfall below 1200 meters on several nights in late May, which locals told us hadn’t happened in decades. They also told us that there was 2X to 3X normal snow depth in the mountains.
We spent every night of the walk in our tent. We prefer wild camping to lodging, and camp all (or nearly all) nights on our European walking trips. We like camping because it is 1) usually quieter, 2) always less expensive, 3) usually more scenic, and 4) allows us to walk as far as we like each day, choosing to stop whenever it suits us rather than being tied to a reservation or specific location. There are few public campgrounds like USFS and NPS sites in the US in Europe. Private campgrounds tend to be expensive and highly developed with game rooms, swimming pools, spas and the like.
Our impression is that nearly all AAT hikers use guesthouses and mountain refuges. We met about a dozen other AAT section or thru-hikers, and none were camping, some even seemed surprised by the idea of camping instead of using commercial lodging. It is important to keep in mind that in the mountains of Europe between the end of the ski season and the beginning of the hiking season, tourist facilities are mostly closed. In the higher mountains, the widespread refuges, upon which the AAT partially depends on for lodging, are closed as well. So, if you don't want to camp, you have to travel in the “hiking season”.
We never had any issues about setting up our tent. We never saw any signs forbidding camping and when people happened to wander by our campsite, they either ignored us or were quite friendly. We camped on riverbanks and sandbars, in meadows and in the woods, on an official overlook, in functional and decrepit barns, and a couple of times next to old churches. Most of our sites were quite nice and many were superb; finding a place to put down rarely took much time. We camped near the snowline a few times, but never had to set up on the snow itself. We built no fires and tried to be discrete, but never felt that someone was going to chase us away. We saw zero rangers during our trip.
Food and Resupply
We mostly ate food purchased in grocery stores. Restaurants were both relatively expensive by US standards and, as it was not yet hiking season, open ones were sometimes difficult to find. In one ski town that had 6600 overnight beds, only a single restaurant was open. The grocery stores we found were generally well stocked with a wide variety of foods and prices were generally comparable to those at home. Two things to be aware of: the grocery stores are almost universally closed on Sunday and in the smaller towns are often closed from noon to 3 or 4 PM. And in Austria, it was really hard to find any form of meat other than pig products. Food costs averaged about $23 per person per day at $1.38 per euro exchange rate. Since we don't cook while backpacking, we cannot offer advice about the availability of stove fuels.
Finding water is not an issue. Almost every town and village has at least one public water source where good tasting and clean water can be obtained. There are also many piped springs to be found along the trails. A few times the springs are marked as non-potable, but that was unusual. We ended up having to treat water just once or twice.
The public fountains are also useful for washing clothing since laundromats are not to be found along the route. Some commercial campgrounds may have laundry facilities that they would be willing to let hikers use, but we never explored that option.
Since we were traveling before the start of the hiking season, we met very few other walkers. People would be out a bit on weekends day hiking, but during the week the trails were empty. We passed three or four parties heading SOBO section hiking portions of the AAT. We only met a single person heading south who claimed to be doing the entire trail. She was just a few days from the start and had two dogs and no GPS, so it was unclear how successful she might be. Crossing numerous snowfields along the route, we saw no tracks from previous walkers until the very last day when a single set of tracks headed SOBO from the Grossglockner. We had spoken with guy who made them the afternoon before and he said he was out for a week or so. Thus we suspect that we are the first people to complete a thru-hike this year and are certainly the first people to do so NOBO.
We have found no published trip reports by any thru-hikers.
The AAT is not a purpose built trail, but a route laid out using existing walking opportunities. In general, the walking was on good, usually well maintained surfaces and suitable for anyone with a bit of hiking experience. There is essentially no off-trail hiking. The trails were well drained and generally dry and mud free, even after recent rains. Most streams and rivers are well bridged and we had to wade only once or twice. Along the Soca are a number of really fine cable suspended footbridges. There are many large altitude gains and losses on the route. We had many days with over 3500 feet of gain and several with over 6000 feet. The trails are occasionally quite steep and are usually relentless, sometimes gaining thousands of feet without a break.
We had problems with significant areas of downed trees blocking the trail due to an unusual and severe ice storm in early February 2014 that destroyed vast areas of forest (in Slovenia it is estimated that close to 20% of the trees were knocked down). Work was ongoing in various places to clear the trails and it is likely that this problem will be reduced over the next several months. A few pieces of trail are so badly covered with tree-fall that they might end up having to be abandoned.
Due to the heavy and late snow this year, we also had to contend with crossing snowfields that extended down as low as 1000 meters on some north facing slopes. This was sometimes tedious, but generally not difficult, although on a few stretches we had to kick steps or find ways around a few steep and icy chutes. Normally, snow should not be an issue from mid-May through October.
We scored big time on the weather. We had only one or two warm to hot afternoons where we started to think about shade. More importantly, rain during the day was almost non existent. We had two afternoons where rain was falling hard enough to be more than just a minor nuisance. We had very trivial amounts of precipitation on a few other occasions but none of it was enough to really be a bother. We had noticeable rain (and some snow and hail) on quite a few nights after we were snug in our tent, but it always stopped by early morning. Temperatures dropped below freezing on a night or two at elevated altitudes. Other hikers should not count on our good fortune. A heat wave struck the area a few days after we completed our walk and we heard reports of buckets of rain coming down in the next valley over. On average, the region receives significant rainfall one day out three during the hiking season. As in most mountainous areas, the weather patterns are extremely local: sun in one valley, rain in the next one over.
Long time readers of this site might recall that we watch birds while hiking. Birding in this part of Europe was difficult. Lots of singing, but most birds were very shy and difficult to see. We observed something over 110 species on the trip with the long sought after Capercaillie and Fieldfare being new life birds.
We had no insect issues to speak of. At only one site were mosquitoes annoying enough that we elected to camp elsewhere. They were totally absent during the vast majority of the walk. Otherwise, we had some fine moths, dragonflies and beetles to provide visual entertainment. We do not know whether bugs are an issue later on in the season.
For a long-distance hiker, aggressive dogs can be an issue. On the AAT, dogs were surprisingly few in number and almost all that we encountered were either on a leash or under voice control. The house-dogs were almost always tied up or behind a fence; some barking may occur, but there was never a real threat. We saw far more house-cats that dogs in Austria. Compared to, say, Turkey, the AAT is dog heaven for a walker.
The AAT organization has constructed elaborate installations on platforms marking the beginning of some of the stages. We think that they eventually intend on placing them at all stage starts. These things actually have very little useful information, particularly considering how big and probably expensive they are. They do, however, sometime provide a fine place to set up a tent.
The inhabited areas of Austria we traveled through were obsessively tidy and well maintained. We were impressed by how serious the people are. But, to our great amusement, garden ornamentation has been taken to wonderful extremes. Garden gnomes are very popular and found in gardens everywhere. This provided much entertainment and is one of the reasons a walk like this so rewarding.
While walking in foreign countries, running across somewhat incomprehensible signs is a common occurrence; customs and language differences account for this. One of our favorites is shown below. Perhaps it is a warning about vicious cows, but who knows.
Small outdoor vending machines selling polished rocks were another surprising find.
Impressions & Assessment from Jim
One way to sum up a walk is to ask: would I recommend this route to someone else. My opinion about the AAT is mixed. Large parts of the trail are attractive and the scenery is first rate in number of places. The mountains can be dramatic and meadows chock full of flowers. Some of the towns are very nice and interesting to poke around in. The AAT has a lot of diversity and travels through a region we had not experienced before. The walking was not a soggy struggle like our last trip in Scotland and the weather was terrific. We have discussed the problems of the route in the above text. If I separate out the technical problems around navigation from the totality of the walk, I was generally quite satisfied with the experience.
Every long-distance walk is different and there will inevitably be good and bad sections. On the AAT, there was very rarely magnificence, but equally, there were no really disappointing sections. Some of the towns were definitely tackier than I might have wished, but we never experienced any squalor. Diversity is the name of the game on this walk; a little bit of this and a little it of that. Except for maybe a few too many miles in heavy coniferous forest, it was never boring. Outside of a few areas of heavier than expected logging, the landscape was never really trashed. Only a very few small sections were goated out by overgrazing. There was essentially no litter and the towns generally very clean and tidy.
I wish the AAT had a bit more ridge line walking in the areas where it is possible. It is a bit disappointing to climb 1500 meters into the mountains and almost immediately descend down into another valley. Some of the route is unnecessarily convoluted to drag you through one more town offering commercial services. You could probably chop 100 miles off of the AAT without losing its essential nature and the variety of the experience. The AAT smacks a bit too much of a route designed by the local chambers of commerce instead of the hiking clubs.
In the end, I think I would give the AAT a solid B. Not the best route I have ever done, but definitely worth the time and effort to complete.
Impressions & Assessment from Amy
Amy is too busy right now to write her piece. She plans to edit this when she has a chance.