I went on a road trip to Saxon Switzerland and did some hiking, camping and exploring. Where to go and what to do? This is what you are going to find out
Either you get lost in the hundreds of labyrinthic gorges or marvel the vast valleys between the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, Saxon Switzerland will leave you more than once astounded. I visited this national park in Germany and explored its hidden secrets, climbed its gigantic rock columns and hiked for hours and hours among the thick green forest. I also found out which are the best and most scenic hiking routes, as well sightseeing spots to pay a visit.
How to get there
Located just 30km south of Dresden, right at the border with Czech Republic’s Bohemian Saxony National Park, Saxon Switzerland is a great nature getaway for travelers visiting the cities of Berlin, Dresden or Prague. Its central location and accesibility by public transportation makes the park a very popular spot for either locals or visitors.
If you want to visit Saxon Switzerland, the city of Dresden is probably the perfect start to an adventure. It is not only the closest city to the national park, but also home for one of the most beautiful old towns in Germany. Dresden is easy accessible as well, as it is connected from all Germany and eastern Europe by trains and buses that run almost daily.
Even though I planned a road trip to the park, I decided to get first a fast train from Berlin to Dresden and arrive one day beforehand. It took only two hours to get there and ended up paying no more than 15 EUR for a one-way ticket. With prices like this, renting a car from Dresden and not from Berlin was at the end the easiest and most convenient option.
Visiting Saxon Switzerland with public transportation
Once in Dresden, there are several ways to get to the national park. The cheapest and most practical option is taking the S-Train from Dresden HBF (main station) to the villages of Rathen, Königstein, Bad Schandau or Krippen (depending which part of the park you want to visit). A train ride should take anything between 30 – 45 minutes and leave you not far away to any of the key entrances to the national park.
There are also several bus lines going to certain specific spots around the park. However, busses do not run regularly and sometimes is faster to simply start walking from the train station.
Visiting Saxon Switzerland with your own car
As most of my nature getaways, renting a car was my preferred option. I always though it is the best way to travel if you want to keep the budget relatively low, but at the same time explore as much as possible. Renting a car from Dresden is not as expensive as it sounds like. Small vehicles including all insurances and services start at 25 EUR/day and since the distances are relatively short, gas prices will be minimal if you are sharing the vehicle with one or two friends.
During my visit to Saxon Switzerland, I rented a camper van. For me, it was not only the most convenient way to move around, but also a great option to save some costs in accommodation and at the same time visit a different area every day.
With many camper rental options to choose from, I found the best prices and options with following companies:
- Paul Camper
- Share a Camper
At the same time, travelers who are not coming from Dresden, but Berlin or Prague instead, can find more convenient other options like:
- Road Surfer
- Indie Campers
Cycling the Elbe Cycle Route or trekking the Malerweg
Cycling to the national park is also a common choice among local dresdeners. The Elbe Cycle Route is one of the most beautiful cycling routes in Europe. It runs almost 1250 km from the Krkonoše Mountains or Czech Republic to the North Sea and also connects the key spots of the Saxon Switzerland National Park to Dresden City Center. This cycling route to Saxon Switzerland is mostly flat and can be easily done on a day trip.
A slower, but interesting option is to walk along the Elbe river. In 6-7 hours, you will reach the town of Rathen, where you can spend the night and see the Bastei Bridge. Other more experienced adventurers opt for walking the Malerweg (Painter’s Way), a multiple-day long distance trek that can be done in 7-10 days depending on your speed and level of fitness.
Where to stay
Even though most travelers prefer to visit Saxon Switzerland for a day trip, explore one or two key spots easy to access and move further, the beauty and magic of the park is better to be appreciated by staying multiple days in the area. It will not only make the experience way more individual, but also get you closer to the untouched nature that inspired painters like Caspar David or William Turner centuries ago.
Staying in the nearby tows
If you are looking forward to staying in a hotel, finding the perfect accommodation will depend a lot how you are traveling to the park. Having your own vehicle will help you find less expensive and more family guesthouses bordering the national park, while going only by public transportation can limit you to stay in smaller villages, where the train or bus stops.
The most popular villages to stay are Rathen, Königstein or Bad Schandau – with the last one being the closest to the larger area of the national park.
With hundreds of guesthouses along the Elbe, finding one spot to spend the night won’t be a challenge and, in most family-run guesthouses, you should simply give them a call and ask if they have a room free.
Nevertheless, the Saxon Switzerland National Park is one of the few spots in Germany, where travelers can experiment almost every kind of accommodation type. Luxury hotels, family run guesthouses, youth hostels, camping areas, and even wild camping are some of the options you can try and experiment.
Staying overnight inside Saxon Switzerland
The Saxon Switzerland National Park is a protected area and for that reason, there is no lodging inside the national park. However, many hotels are situated right next to the national park and entering its premises is simply crossing the street.
The most known of these options is the Berghotel Bastei, a 4-star lodge right next to the Bastei Bridge viewing platform and perfect for those travelers, who want to see the best view of the Bastei Bridge before the sun comes out, but don’t want to hike at all.
There are also many camping areas surrounding the park, where dozens of families gather and spend overnight each weekend, prepare BBQs and start a full day of hiking. The official website of Saxon Switzerland shows the different camping grounds around the park. Here is a full list of them and their average prices per night.
Still, there is one last option if you really want to be overnight inside the national park. Wild camping, cave camping or boofen is only allowed in Saxon Switzerland and consists in sleeping under a rock or inside a cave inside the protected area. However, boofen is only allowed in several specific spots of the national park and you are not allowed to bring your own tent. It’s only you, your sleeping bag and some food to get energy.
Best places to visit in Saxon Switzerland and what to do
From postcards to giant posters at airports, the Bastei Bridge is the most known spot in Saxon Switzerland. Located only 1km away from the town of Rathen, it is also the easiest highlights of the park to access and one of the most beautiful places to watch the sunset.
To reach the Bastei Bridge, you can easily take a bus from Rathen, that would leave you right next to its entrance (check google maps for the timetables) or do one of the several hikes that ends up there. What makes the Bastei Bridge so trendy and special is not just the beautiful bridge structure located between boulders, but the breathtaking views in all different directions that you can see from their viewing platforms.
Even though there is no entrance fee to the bridge, there is one viewpoint, where a payment of 2 EUR is asked for. Nevertheless, any view to, and from the bridge is marvelous and worth the visit.
Schwedenlöcher (Swedish Holes)
Located right next to the Bastei Bridge, the Swedish Holes is basically an obligatory hike after (or before) you visit the Bastei Bridge.
Even though big part of the hike is simply ascending, or descending (depending in which direction you go) a staircase though stacks of gigantic rocks, the route itself offer some lovely and exceptional views depending from which angle you look at.
One of the most memorable spots during the hike is the view of the Hönigstein reflected on the quiet waters of the Amselsee. Even though there is only one single spot where this photograph can be taken to perfection, the beauty of it really summarizes the magic of the whole hike itself.
Being my favorite spot at Saxon Switzerland, the hike to the top of the Schrammsteine might not be the easiest, but it is definitely the most rewarding.
Located on the south-east part of Saxon Switzerland, the Schrammsteine are a series of massive sandstone boulders that seem to come to life the more you look at them and the closer you get. In order to reach the top of these 400 m giants, there is a very well signalized hiking path, in which you go higher and higher with each step you take.
At some points of the hike, there are also a few ladders, making the climb possible for people of all ages in a normal physical condition.
Once at the top, there are numerous viewpoints offering the most beautiful views of the park (by far) and the rewards of seeing Saxon Switzerland from the top of the world.
If you are experienced and adventurous enough, free climbing the Schrammsteine is allowed and you will end up not only enjoying the sun from one of the highest spots in Saxon Switzerland, but also climbing one of the most fascinating routes in Europe.
NOTE: The mobile app Komoot shows most of the hiking routes inside the national park. My travel partner downloaded the app before reaching the park and it really saved us a couple of times. Even though Google Maps is always a good choice in Germany, sometimes the map had no idea where I was or could not find the best hiking routes to reach a certain spot.
Read more: Europe’s most beautiful natural landscapes
Königstein Fortress Festung
Known as the largest intact fortress in Germany and standing out from the mountainous landscape of Saxon Switzerland, Königstein Fortress is a nice getaway for those interested in the history and the politics of the region centuries ago.
Inside, there are several exhibitions about the past kings and queens who lived in Saxony, as well its time serving as a prison and a hospital during war.
The views from the top of the fortress are also a good reason to go up, as you will be able to see several key spots of the Saxon Switzerland National Park, as well some of the towns and villages nearby.
Tickets, opening hours and more information are available at the official website of Königstein Fortress Festung
Herkulessäulen (Hercules Columns)
Considered by many locals as a climbing paradise, the area between the towns of Bielatal and Rosenthal offer dozens of hiking paths that go through fairy-tale forest, abandoned fortresses and rock formations with the weirdest shapes possible.
Travelers driving to this area will not only pass charming tiny villages with restaurants offering homemade food and beer, but huge forested areas with gigantic rock formations and one or two people climbing to the top. This is the spot to get lunch or definitely a snack before a hike.
The area has hundreds of giant rock formations. However, from all the distinctive boulders in the area, the Hercules columns are by far the most impressive. They are just 800 meters away from a parking spot and due to their fragile structure, you might have the feeling any of the two rocks will crumble down at any moment.
Even though the view of the Hercules Columns is the highlight for the visitors hiking, exploring between the giant boulders and free climbing smaller meter rocks to get a view of the natural reserve is what makes the experience more surreal.
NOTE: Saxon Switzerland is known as a Mecca for climbing in Europe. Free climbing is allowed in many of its areas and there is a big climbing culture inside the park. However, route vary from all levels of difficulty and you should have the required equipment for climbing if you want to try it.
Located on the southern side of the Elbe River, the best way to reach the Labyrinth is by car. Even though it is outside the official premises of the Saxon Switzerland National Park, the labyrinth is a protected area of Saxony.
This natural labyrinth made of perfectly placed rocks in the middle of the forest is a popular getaway for local families with younger children and it can be considered a playground in the middle of the nature. With hundreds of boulders (not taller than 5 meters), caves, passages and multiple levels, it is a pleasant spot to become a kid again and get lost.
Early in the morning it is a great place to take the sun and grab a bite, while in the afternoon, is better to avoid due to the large crowds it attracts.
Other spots you can visit
Saxon Switzerland has thousands of magical spots to visit and limiting a visit to just one or two would be unsatisfying. At the same time, the deeper you get inside the park, the less people you will see and the more personal experiences you will find.
Even though I spend several days traveling inside Saxon Switzerland, I was able to not see even 1% of its beauty and ended up skipping many beautiful places, I wish I went to. Scenic spots like Breite Kluft or the Heilige Stiege offer splendid views of the national park, while the Lichtenhain Waterfall or the rock of Kuhstall offer a calm break for short stop.
Saxon Switzerland is probably one of these places where the more you explore, the more you like it.
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