Stairway to Heaven – Hiking the Hermannsweg

It all started 2 years ago…

On the first weekend of September 2017, Leon and I went on a weekend hiking trip to the Alsace region of Germany and France. We hiked the 7 Burgen Tour. The route takes you to 7 castles in various states of repair, from fully restored to ruins. It was a great weekend, and we both enjoyed it.

view of Fleckensburg ruins
our sleeping bags in a castle room

Instead of staying in a hotel, we slept in a castle ruin. While relaxing in our sleeping bags we heard the sound of a mouse in my backpack. The food had apparently attracted it. I attempted to scare it out, but the next morning I found a hole in the pack’s bottom where he had either escaped or made a second entry for a midnight snack. 

Once back home we both agreed that it was a great hike and we would like to do more of this. However, I would need a new backpack. Kathrin was on the search for a birthday present for me and secretly seized on the idea.  Sometime later we were at Globetrotter, an outdoor store, looking for something for either a geocaching hike or a bike trip. While there, I had a look at backpacks. I found a model I liked but decided to think about it (much to Kathrin’s relief.) On my birthday, she gave me that backpack.

Fast Foward 1 year…

Now it’s Christmas 2018. Leon gives me a “gift certificate” for another weekend hike, this time for the Hermannsweg route. Well, summer came and went, life happened, and we didn’t go hiking in the Spring or Summer.

It was around the end of August 2019 when Leon brought up the subject again. The Hermannsweg hiking trail is in Oerlinghausen, Nord-Rhine-Westphalia (about a 3-hour drive). He outlined his plan and mentioned that there is a backpackers’ hostel where we could spend the night.

Wait one minute here…hostel?

I told Leon that I wanted to use my new backpack on a “real” hiking/camping trip and would rather pitch a tent somewhere along the trail. He explained that “wild camping” is illegal in Germany. However, Leon is an adventurous soul, so he agreed without hesitation. We’ll just wander off the hiking trail a hundred meters and pitch our tent.

So we scheduled our trip for the second weekend in October.

Over Hill, Over Dale

The Hermannsweg route is divided into 8 legs. We were going to hike the last two. Our first leg would end at the Hermann Monument. On the second day, we would go to the Externsteine before ending our hike at the train station to go back to the car. Leon calculated each leg to be about 15 km.

 By 7am we were in the car and on our way. That would put us in Oerlinghausen at around 10am. 

We thought it would be best to park the car close to the train station since it would allow for a shorter walk to the car after the long hiking trip. With our backpacks strapped on, we set off. It was a 15-minute walk to the entrance to the hiking trail. Time: 11:05

The sign reads “Stairway to Heaven. Entrance to the Töns Mountains.”

That wasn’t an exaggeration. It was a long way up the hill to the ridgeline where the trail started.

stairway to heaven sign

With a full day of hiking ahead of us, I was expecting a moderate pace. Leon, excited that we had finally begun this trip, started off like an ICE train. Not being a whiner, I kept up with him. Fortunately, there were plenty of smaller monuments and placards to stop and look at. 

WW1 Memorial
A memorial to fallen soldiers in World War 1.

These stops quickly came to an end and after about a kilometer there was nothing to do but hike. Don’t get me wrong, the hike was enjoyable. Leon and I had interesting conversations. The time and distance went by quickly, and before we knew it we arrived at the Hermann Monument. Time 15:05.

We bought our entrance tickets and climbed the stairs to the balcony, which is just above the arches of the rotunda in the photo above. The view from above was enjoyable, we had an overview of the path we followed along the ridgeline leading to the memorial. Satisfied that we have seen everything there is to see here, we made our way down and made a short stop at the bathrooms. Walking towards the trailhead, we found an ice cream stall that we just couldn’t pass up. So after a delicious ice cream treat, we continued our hike. Time: 16:05 (we started noticing a pattern with our timing)

The Hermann's Monument

We were both feeling the effects of hiking for several hours but thought about it and decided that stopping now in the middle of the afternoon didn’t make much sense. There were still plenty of hours of daylight, and what would we have done if we were to set up camp now? So our goal was to go as far as we could before sunset.  Each kilometer further today is a kilometer less tomorrow. With a slightly slower, but still enthusiastic pace, we set off again. 

cooking dinner on the trail

Two hours later, the path led downhill. It was at this point that my knees told me I had gone far enough. They were calling it quits. Leon was also tired and feeling a bit sore. It just so happened that when we both admitted this, we were at an excellent spot to set up camp. There was a picnic table for dinner and a relatively level spot to pitch our tent. So we dropped our backpacks and began making dinner. 

Leon brought his camper’s stove. It’s big enough to heat a pint of water. We brought two dehydrated noodle dishes for dinner. I had pasta pomodoro and Leon had pasta parmesan.  After pouring the boiling water into the packets, we stirred and waited, then stirred some more. After 10 minutes it was soft enough to eat. Despite my best efforts to mix everything, I still occasionally had some crunchy noodles. It didn’t matter though, after 28 km of hiking it was delicious.

Leon used his jacket to insulate our dinner pouches. The trail mix was our appetizer.

Once dinner was done we began setting up camp. By this time, the two mountain bikers who were taking a break at our chosen campsite had left. We were on our own to set up our illegal campsite. We brought Leon’s tent rather than mine for two reasons, 1. His is lighter and 2. I had to carry it, so I had a vested interest in saving weight. We had it up in 3 minutes but it was still too early to go in, so we had a seat at the rest stop and enjoyed the sunset. 

It turns out our campsite was in an excellent location. With an overview of the town below, we had good cellphone reception. So we could catch up on emails and messages as well as sit and talk. Eventually, it slowly started to rain, and we went inside the tent. All in all, a pleasant end to the day.

view from our camp site

Leon bought a new sleeping pad for this trip, and it was over twice as thick as mine. I was a bit jealous, however, I still had a good night’s sleep. It was hard not to after such a strenuous day!

The Final Leg

The autumn sunrise came with little notice on our part, so it wasn’t until  7:30 when we crawled out of the tent. We were not on a schedule though, so we weren’t worried about it. It took us a few minutes of walking around to limber up and get the fluids circulating. Soon we were moving somewhat normally and had everything packed up and ready to go. Neither of us had much of an appetite yet, so we went to Externsteine park first and have breakfast afterwards. 

The hike to the park was relatively easy, and so we arrived in less than an hour. The only other people in the park were some photographers.

Beautiful lake view at Externestein
Early morning at Externestein
Externsteine Hermannsweg

We had the stones to ourselves. Leaving our backpacks on a park bench, we began climbing up the steps to the top of one of the stones. It was easy going, and the top of the stones offered a nice view of the lake. Unfortunately, the staircase leading to the bridge connecting two stones was closed. We both would have liked to have crossed that bridge! 

Once we were satisfied with our quiet tour of the stones, we walked to the only picnic table in the small park to have breakfast. It was a simple meal of cheese, tortillas, and an apple. 

With the morning meal done, it was time to get back on the trail. We loaded up and passed through the stones to continue the hike. We saw a sign that said 10.2 km to the train station. That didn’t sound too bad. 

After an unknown number of kilometers into the hike, we came to an intersection of trails. One branch led up a steep rise, another one led straight ahead. I was really, really, REALLY hoping for the straight-ahead option. My hopes were dashed when we looked at the sign. Our destination was over the steep trail. With a grunt, I started up the hill. When we reached what I thought was the top, all I saw was more uphill. UGH! step by step we continued for another 20 minutes. Finally, we reached the top and found this marker. 

We figured this marked the high point of the ridgeline. After taking our photos we continued our trek, confident that the rest of the trail would be downhill.

Unknown marker along the Hermannweg route
high point marker along the Hermannsweg

All Aboard

The rest of the hike was indeed more relaxed. We had an easy-going walk from the “summit” of the ridgeline down to the village where we then walked the few hundred meters to the train station. According to the sign at the stop, our train was arriving in less than 1o minutes, which allowed for a short break. 

Once the train arrived, we jumped up and slung our packs on our backs and moved into position to board. After the doors opened I had a moment of panic. “How am I going to lift my legs to get into the train!” But then a step emerged from under the door. That was a relief to see.

The ticket machine was onboard the train. First Leon, then I tried to get the tickets, but we ran into trouble. Then a nice young woman began helping us. She advised us as to which stop in Oerlinghausen to choose, how to pay, etc. With her help, we had our tickets, but this is just the beginning of the story. Turns out the train tracks were undergoing some repair work before we were to reach our stop. That meant that we had to get off the train, find the replacement bus, and take that to a train station after the construction. The woman who helped us with the tickets was so concerned about us that once we were at the train stop, she asked several bus drivers where we needed to go. One of the drivers knew the answer. Having done all she can for us, she and her boyfriend boarded their bus. Apparently, she never recognized that Leon was german and was fully capable of asking around and getting the information. 

The rest of the trip back to the car went smoothly. The 3-hour drive home was a welcome rest. Once home and after a good night’s sleep, we both felt much better. Leon and I decided that before any future journeys, we are going to do some practice hikes to better prepare ourselves!


One response to “Stairway to Heaven – Hiking the Hermannsweg”

  1. Alice Murray Avatar
    Alice Murray

    Sounds like quite the adventure!

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