Ask a hiker why he or she spends countless hours or even days walking up a steep hill when it would be much easier to just watch TV and you will probably get the answer that it’s nice, refreshing, good for your body and so on. Indeed these things are all true and while many people know the benefits of a good hike, others give not a damn about all those rocks and trees. Mountains are dangerous, you could get lost or caught by the rain. Those fancy panoramic pictures look nice on Facebook, but walking up steep inclines just to take a selfie is out of the option for some people.
Luckily for all those naysayers there is an easier way. You see, back in the 1930s some Austrians had a nasty problem. Being from a mountainous country, they always had to climb everywhere if they wanted to visit their neighbours or, say, pop to the shops. It was especially difficult for those living under the Grossglockner – the highest pointy bit in the country at nearly 4.000 meters above sea level. Cars were the new fashion and they were tired of walking anyway, so they decided to build a road that would take them across the surrounding highlands, connecting the regions of Salzburg and Carinthia.
But building such a high alpine road was no mean feat. More than 4000 workers had to work in harsh conditions for over 5 years, but eventually they got it done and in early August 1935 the Grossglockner alpine road was open for business. It was 48 kilometers long, featured 36 bends and took it’s users over 2500 meters above sea level. Trade was quickened significantly as traveller no longer had to look for high mountain passes on foot and to celebrate the occasion, there was an automobile race the day after the opening.
As cars became commonplace the road’s popularity quickly began to spread and people were eager to experience the thrill of driving up into the mountains. The economic potential of this was soon realized and a number of tourist accommodations, cafes and museums were added to make the destination even more appealing. Soon the road itself had to be widened as traffic grew. Today this is one of the top 3 tourist spots in Austria with almost a million visitors coming here every year.
The curse of mass tourism
Come here on a sunny summer weekend and you will see long lines of cars and motorbikes at the entry toll station. Daily car admissions go for 35€ a piece and will grant you free access to most of the museums relating to the history of the road and life in the area. Further up the hill dense traffic and bursting parking lots; space is limited on the mountain, but it seems admissions are not.Of course weather plays and important role here; winter snows stick around well into spring time and the workers only clear it away around late April. The road itself is open for visitors from early May until late autumn.
When it is open, it’s marketed as a thrill ride for keen drivers and bikers, and it would be if one had enough space to safely open up the throttle. In reality you will mostly be part of a slow-moving convoy of cars, busses, caravans and cyclists climbing ever higher in search of stunning views of the surrounding mountainsides.
The stampede culminates on the Edelweissspitze, the highest point of the road at over 2.500 meters up. A steep and narrow cobbled road leads up from the last big parking lot and ends at a smaller summit area, but you can still take your car there. This is the most gridlocked section of all, as everyone tries to squeeze their machines into what little space there is.
Upon successful summitting and parking everyone flocks to the panoramic terraces and pulls out his phone, camera and selfie stick and fires away. The views really are stunning and the pictures I’m providing here do nature no justice. I tried my best to avoid getting the crowds of people into my frame, but you have to take the good with the bad when visiting such a popular destination.
The true heroes of the climb
Alongside all the motorists you will see surprisingly many cyclists pushing their pedals tirelessly up the steep inclines. They are the real heroes of the day and hopefully an inspiration to many people speeding by in their air conditioned vehicles. As a cyclist myself I tip my hat to everyone who has managed to climb up the road on any kind of bike. It is a real challenge in the best of conditions, but top that with summer heat and busy traffic, and you have the makings for a climb that is not for the faint-hearted.
Once you do manage the climb though, you are richly rewarded with some of the best views you will ever see. Several 3.000 meter peaks open up in front of you, and clouds roll lazily around them. The highest of them is of course the mountain that lent the road it’s name, and it is truly a sight to remember.
Whether you are a nature lover, a passionate cyclist, a motorbiking fan or just looking for your next trip, the Grossglockner alpine road is an experience that leaves a long lasting memory. If you can, visit it away from the main tourist season when it’s not so crowded and enjoy the stunning vistas it has to offer.
Head on over to their official website for more info.