For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been writing a fair bit about winter photography. It was mostly theoretical though, so I thought I’d jump into more practical things. With this article, I am starting a mini-series about winter in the Black Forest (Schwarzwald). Why the Black Forest, you might wonder? Well, it’s simple – the Black Forest is one of the absolute best spots to enjoy the snowy landscapes in South Germany. It is a fabulous place to explore and photograph, and I absolutely adore it. Hopefully, by the end of the series, you will see why.
Obviously, Black Forest is immense, and covering all of it would be an impossible task. Therefore, for now, I am going to concentrate on its northern part. And to kick off our journey to the depths of Schwarzwald, I invite you to join me on a little tour of Karlsruher Grat, a picturesque mountain ridge and region’s only via ferrata.
What is Karlsruher Grat
Karlsruher Grat is a mountain ridge near the town of Ottenhöfen im Schwarzwald in West-southern Germany. Despite what the name suggests, it is actually a whole hour’s drive away from Karlsruhe itself. And indeed, the ridge was not always called that. It was previously known as Eichhaldenfirst due to its resemblance to a peaked roof (for those curious, Halden means landslide in German, while First is both a roof crest and a top of the mountain).
As the area grew in popularity, more people started coming in, and soon the first casualties followed. In 1926, the municipality decided to rename the ridge to Karlsruher Grat in honor of the hikers from Karlsruhe who died attempting the climb. And therein lies the warning. With a height of 750m and a length of only 400m, Karlsruher Grat might not appear overly dangerous. But don’t be deceived by these seemingly modest numbers. It can still be deadly if you aren’t paying attention.
As mentioned before, Karlsruher Grat is the only via ferrata in the northern Black Forest. But, if you’re imagining Italian mountain trails with all kinds of equipment, I have to disappoint you. Karlsruher Grat is nothing of a kind. Compared to its Alpine counterparts, it is much easier. There are no metal ropes or any other aids here. All you need is good shoes and some confidence. Still, this doesn’t mean it’s a walk in the park. Experienced climbers like to use it for training, and some sections can be tricky.
The Edelfrauengrab Waterfalls
A great starting point for exploring Karlsruher Grat is Parkplatz Edelfrauengrabwasserfälle. It’s a free parking lot that I imagine gets pretty crowded in summer. In winter, however, there was plenty of room for us to park. From here, just follow the stream to your right to begin the hike.
For the next 1.5 kilometers, the route follows the river through the forest and the occasional stairs, heading steadily up. The total elevation of this initial stretch is about 170m, so the path is not very demanding. What’s cool about this section is that you will be walking past numerous waterfalls of different shapes and sizes. From the tiny little cascades to impressively high falls, there is plenty to explore here. If you are as excited about photography as I am, be sure to have enough time. There are infinite compositions here, so you might find yourself stopping every few seconds for a photo.
Oh, and don’t do what I did. I was so immersed in photography that somehow failed to secure the camera on the tripod. The next thing I saw was my Sony A7III falling into the water. Even though I was able to retrieve it, both body and the lens were fully destroyed. With repair centers all closed on the weekend and my gear obviously beyond saving, I decided to just keep going. This is why most of the images in this article are taken with iPhone 11 and Samsung Galaxy S9. I guess the silver lining is that I got a chance to practice my mobile photography.
To the Ridge
Because of the higher altitude, the area around Ottenhöfen tends to get a lot of snow in winter. If you watch the weather and pick a good time to visit, you will find yourself amidst a true winter wonderland. The trees and fields covered with thick pristine snow have a solemn and beautiful look to them. Photography aside, even walking through a dreamy landscape like this is pure pleasure.
Keep going until you reach an opening with a small kiosk. In summer, there is a self-service bar here, featuring a selection of drinks, including beer. Unfortunately, it is closed in winter, so my hopes for a quick beer-break to lament the camera loss did not come true. Nonetheless, it’s a fantastic idea, and I hope to get back and enjoy that beer later in the year.
From the kiosk, take a sharp left and the path leading up. We have one last uphill section remaining to arrive at the Karlsruher Grat ridge. Shortly before you reach it though, be sure to stop at the rocky outcrop to your left. Here, you will get a beautiful view of the valley below and your first taste of what’s to come.
Views or Safety?
As you arrive at the crossroads, you have an important decision to take. The path to your right leads to the top of the ridge. It offers better views and a more adrenaline-infused experience. You’ll be climbing the rocks and will need to watch your step carefully. To your left, another road runs parallel to Karlsruher Grat through the forest. This is an easy walking trail, but in exchange for safety you also give up most of the views. Both paths go side by side, and there are places where it is possible to switch from one to the other. But from what I have seen, in winter it is not always feasible.
As a word of caution, if you decide to climb, please evaluate your abilities and only do so at your own risk. I do not recommend hiking the ridge to people who are afraid of heights or have no previous mountain experience. I also urge you to be extra careful in wet or snowy conditions, especially if there is ice present. No matter the weather, reliable shoes with good grip are a must. And always remember – no photo is worth risking your life for.
On the day of our visit, there was plenty of snow, but no ice and the climb seemed doable. We made our way through the entire length of the ridge, and even though it was a little unnerving at times, I am happy we did. That said, I had a more experienced buddy with me, and I generally feel quite comfortable in the mountains.
Even though Karlsruher Grat is only 400 meters long, it took us about an hour to pass it. In summer, when the landscape is clearly visible, it would probably have been faster. But in winter, extra caution is crucial. Sometimes what looks like solid ground may well be a hole covered with snow. An easy mistake to make but one that can be fatal.
That said, most of Karlsruher Grat is quite easy. The slope is always to your right, and the passage is mostly wide enough for you to be reasonably far from it. There have been only a couple of sketchy places where I really had to trust my shoes. But even there, it was mostly about staying focused and paying attention.
Even my dog whom I took along managed just fine. Still, for the dog owners out there, I would not recommend bringing your pet here. It will likely need occasional assistance and some supervision. In the end, you will be responsible not only for your own safety but also for your dog’s, so keep that in mind.
And the views? They’re nothing short of spectacular. The sight of the valley below and the surrounding hills all covered in deep white snow is truly incredible. Don’t just focus on getting through Karlsruher Grat as fast as possible. Pick a nice spot and allow yourself a moment to sit down and take in this fabulous scene. And if you brought some tea (or beer), here at the top is a perfect place to open it.
The Winter Wonderland
After leaving Karlsruher Grat behind, you can return the way you came or push on to the opposite side of the valley. From there, Karlsruher Grat looks so small and innocent that you might wonder why it took you so long to get through. Difficulty-wise, there won’t be any more climbing from here. The rest of the way is a leisurely stroll through the woods. But you’d be mistaken to think it boring. Winter in the Black Forest is a fairytale come true. A beautiful and ethereal landscape that you could easily spend hours in without ever getting tired. So don’t put your camera away just yet.
This text is far too long already, so I won’t be going into detail about the rest of the trail. My friend did a short video of our entire route, so check it out below if interested. Otherwise, here are the main things you need to know:
- The total length of the hike: 10.5 km
- Total elevation gain: 550 meters
- Duration: 3-5 hours depending on how far you want to venture
- Difficulty: moderate
- What to bring: water, snacks, layered clothes, water-resistant shoes
- Photo gear: camera, wide-angle lens, and a mid-range zoom (or just your phone!)
- Doable with a dog: yes, though not recommended in winter
I hope you enjoyed this first peek into what the Black Forest has to offer. For me, Karlsruher Grat was a surprising discovery that pushed me to start exploring it more. As I soon found out, it was just the first of many exciting places in the area. We’ll continue our tour with a visit to a lovely medieval ruin, but for now, feel free to roam around the blog or come say Hi on my Instagram or our Facebook page. Happy shooting!