Vast juniper heathlands with bleating flocks of sheep, a mysterious stalactite cave, a valley where mammoth hunters once roamed, a deep meteorite crater, a cliff covered with shells and hugged by turquoise water – this may sound like dreamland but will become reality as you hike the Albschäferweg (Alpine Shepherd’s Trail) in the Swabian Alb.
This long-distance hiking trail leads you 160 kilometres (100 miles) in a large circuit through the entire Eastern Alb. You will roam through wonderful forests and pretty meadows, passing various rock formations which tell the tale of incredible history. You will meet shepherds and their peaceful sheep many times along the trail. But, should you miss them in real life, you will find steel sculptures of shepherds marking the Albschäfer Trail along the way. They tell stories about the everyday life of traditional shepherds.
Shepherds have been wandering with their herds through the valleys and plateaus of the Heidenheim Brenz region since the 15th century. The Albschäfer trail (Alpine Shepherd's Trail) follows the tracks of the wandering shepherds and takes you past sheep farms, juniper heaths and rocky outcrops as it winds its way through the gently hilly landscape following picturesque, near-natural paths and stopping at idyllic villages and magnificent castles en route.
The official starting point of the Albschäferweg is in Giengen an der Brenz. To get there, take the Brenztalbahn train which runs between Ulm and Aalen. Free parking is also available at the station if you decide to travel by car. Since the Fernwanderweg is a circular route, you can start at any point along the route. Heidenheim is a great alternative starting point as it also has good rail connections.
If you want to shorten the hikes, you can divide the circuit into smaller routes or try out one of the 10 circular day routes known as the ‘Albschäfer-Zeitspuren’ (Shepherd’s historical footsteps.’
Each stage of the Albschäfer Trail except one ends in a village with good overnight accommodation. Here you can choose between guesthouses, holiday rentals and hotels. Along the trails, you will also find a few places to stop and replenish your drinks and snacks. With your rucksack full of goodies, you can relax on a bench and enjoy a break in wonderful places with great views. What could be better than enjoying this together with the happily grazing sheep? This is peaceful hiking at its best.
Your first stage starts in Giengen an der Brenz. You start your hike at the train station, first follow the path along the Brenz and then cross the river to the south.Immediately you leave the small town behind you and you are in peaceful nature. The Albschäferweg leads you over wide fields and along small wooded areas. After a while you cross a country road on a bridge and reach the ruins of the Güssenburg on a narrow mountain spur. Here you can stroll around between the old walls before you circle around Hermaringen on the hiking trail on extensive juniper heaths and get back to the banks of the Brenz. Treat yourself to a break in the shady willow tent on the bank. The hot water has the right Kneipp temperature.You follow the course of the river, sometimes closer to the water, sometimes a bit further away and walk through Bergenweiler to Sontheim an der Brenz.
The Albschäferweg leads you along the edge of Sontheim and with good visibility you can see the Alps from here.The last section to the stage destination leads you through a quiet forest and finally over some fields before you reach Stetten ob Lontal. At the end of the village, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Vogelherd Cave is embedded in a theme park. There you can get in the mood for your hike through the primeval Lone Valley.On your first stage, there is a refreshment stop at the Sportheim Hermaringen right on the way. You can also make a detour to Sontheim to take a break in a restaurant, please inquire about the opening times. In both places you will also find supermarkets and bakeries to stock up on your provisions.At the end of the stage you will spend the night in a hotel with a restaurant or in a guest house with a shepherd's cart.You can also do a short day round tour on the Albschäfer time track Brenzberge and Brentalblick. More on this at albschaeferweg.de
After a restful night, you start your second day on the Albschäferweg in Stetten ob Lontal. After a few steps you have left the village and will soon cross the Lone Valley and the Lone. The path leads you on the other side of the valley up into a dense forest and you continue walking on leisurely paths in the direction of Kaltenburg. To get here, you leave the Albschäferweg for a short stretch. The castle complex has been renovated in recent years and now towers over the valley, visible from afar.The Charlottenhöhle is located directly below the castle ruins. If you like, you can pay a visit to the dreamy and large stalactite cave and take a look at the cave museum before you continue your hike.You continue hiking, cross the A7 motorway and then dive back into the forest. You can reach the Domain Falkenstein on comfortable forest paths. A sustainable agricultural business is housed in the outer bailey of the former Falkenstein Castle. There are hardly any traces left of the actual castle on an offshore rock spur, but the view of the Eselsburger valley is definitely worth a visit.Between forest and fields, the Albschäferweg leads you on partly curved paths down the hillside forest towards the stage destination Anhausen. Here you will find a friendly B&B where you can relax for the next day.On this stage you can either take a break in the HöhlenHaus near the Charlottenhöhle, before crossing the motorway at the rest stop there or on a detour to Eselsburg. In Eselsburg you will find the Eselsburger Talschenk right on the river, where you can strengthen yourself for the rest of the way. Next to it is the imposing thatched building with an organic shop and café. The dangling through the valley, past the legendary Stone Virgins, is also recommended if you want to spend the night in Herbrechtingen.
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On the third stage, the quiet and secluded nature of the Swabian Alb awaits you. You leave Anhausen and follow the Albschäferweg over comfortable forest paths and along extensive pastures to Heldenfingen.Right on the edge of the path you will find the Heldenfinger Kliff, a remnant of the steep coast of an ancient sea that was branded against the rocks here 15 million years ago.You continue hiking from here and you will soon reach the extensive Hungerbrunnental, past the Banzhaf sheep farm and Wacholderheiden. The lush valley is surrounded by forest on both sides and apart from other hikers and a few sheep, nothing will remind you of civilization here. After a short crossing of the country road, you follow the beautiful, natural path and can switch off from your everyday life perfectly.Shortly before your destination in Gerstetten, you can take a break at the tree-lined Egleen lakes and enjoy the magnificent view on a bench. From here it is only a short distance to the center of the village.On the third stage you will find both the Banzhaf bakery and the Ochsen country inn in Heldenfingen. The bakery supplies you with fresh baked goods from Monday to Saturday from 5.30 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. and from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., the shop is only closed in the afternoons on Monday, Thursday and Saturday. The inn is open daily from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., only closed on Wednesday afternoons. Seasonally, the traditional roast lamb with Heidenheimer Knöpfle is on the menu.At the end of the stage in Gerstetten, you may have to look for an overnight stay in Gussenstadt or in Ochsen in Heldenfingen. The transport there will be organized by your hosts. If you just love it, then take a look at the Kulturhof Erpfenhausen. There is a shepherd's cart ready to stay overnight.
On the fourth day you follow the Albschäferweg through picturesque mixed forests and over narrow heather areas. With the Steinheim basin at the end of today's stage, a unique nature experience awaits you.You start in Gerstetten, leave the Egleen Lakes behind you and walk past the water tower. On Sundays you can even go to the viewing platform. From above you get a nice overview of the surrounding landscape.Soon you will leave the open fields behind you and hike along forest and forest paths through extensive mixed forests. Occasionally the trees give a view of meadows and heathland and again and again you have the chance to meet sheep.You pass the small Albdörlein Küpfendorf and after another piece of forest you reach the Steinheimer basin. The path leads you in Sontheim to the Burgstallfelsen and through the nature reserve. Surefootedness is required on the Burgstall. Alternatively, you can stay on the edge of the heather at the bottom. On the next dirt road you will come across the blue sign with the shepherd symbol. From the highest point of the rock, the clearly visible and 15 million year old meteor crater spreads out at your feet. The basin lies well below the surrounding Alb landscape and the crater edges can still be seen today. You continue walking over the edge of the crater, cross the country road and after the Knillberg you reach the Schäfhalde, a beautiful area with wide juniper areas, where you have to be particularly careful to stay on the marked paths. There is a glider airfield on the flat elevation and right next to it you will find the Heiderose excursion restaurant.After a well-deserved rest, it goes around the airfield and down into the Steinheim basin. At Schafhof Smietana you can stock up on sheep sausage for your picnic today or the next day at the Regiomat. In Steinheim, the Ostalb lamb from the Schafhof is on the menu at Kreuz.
On your fifth stage, you leave the Steinheim Basin in the morning and climb to the northern edge of the crater. With a beautiful view of the crater, you walk comfortably along the edge of the forest and soon after you reach the Wental.In the Wental there are countless large and small rocks and stone formations made of dolomite limestone. The Albschäferweg leads you directly through the valley and its unique landscape. After you have marveled at all the rocks, the hiking trail leads you through a dense mixed forest towards the stage destination.While you hike along the forest paths and forest roads between the towering trunks, you will find a unique calm in the peaceful nature. Happy and satisfied you finally reach the stage destination Zang. There you can spend the night in a rustic, but with a little more luxury in the wooden wagons at the Löwenwirt. It's easier in the deer.The Landhotel Wental with an attached restaurant is halfway through the Wental. If you don't have a backpack vesper with you, you can take a leisurely break here. The restaurant is open from Tuesday to Sunday. Otherwise you can easily get provisions in the supermarkets in Steinheim. The Löwenwirt in Zang serves dishes from the Ostalb lamb.
After your relaxing night in the small Albdorf Zang, you stroll a few more steps through the village. If you feel like it, then the detour to the small village pond is worthwhile. The pond is idyllically located between the small houses.Then you leave the village to the east. The Albschäferweg leads you along the edge of the forest and after a short stretch of forest you will already reach the first houses of Königsbronn. Before you continue hiking towards Itzelberger See, you can make a detour to the rocky spur of the former Herwartstein Castle. From up here you have a great view over the place and the idyllic Brenztal.If you like, you can leave the Albschäferweg at the castle to have a look at the Brenztopf in Königsbronn (there and back about one kilometer). But you can also stay in the valley and hike via the cloister courtyard to Lake Itzelberger See. The rock-lined source of the Brenz is in the middle of the village, where you can also find a café and a butcher's shop.The Albschäferweg then leads you along the banks of the Itzelberger See with further refreshment stops and a boat station. Here you leave the Brenztal and hike through a large mixed forest with a protected forest area to the stage destination Heidenheim.This tour ends at the Naturfreundehaus hiking home on Hahnenschnabel. above Heidenheim and is surrounded by heathland and forests and peppered with viewpoints. Unfortunately, the Naturfreundehaus is currently closed. But you can already find places to stay on the way down to town.
The seventh stage on the Albschäferweg is quite short with a distance of around nine kilometers. Therefore, the detour to Hellenstein Castle is definitely worthwhile. The detour is already included in the tour and it extends the distance from 9.1 kilometers to 14.5 kilometers. If you want to save yourself the detour, simply delete the detour to the castle in the route planner.To get to the castle, you wander a bit through the streets of Heidenheim. The castle, the symbol of the city, towers visible from afar on a hill above the houses. After a short ascent, you can visit the castle and the museums before continuing your hike on the Albschäferweg.Back there is a short distance through the city before you reach the Brenzpark. This is open from March to October and costs a small entrance fee. Nevertheless, the way through the beautifully designed park is worthwhile. After you have left the Brenzpark, you are back on the Albschäferweg.It goes a bit up the Brenz before you leave the city and hike up in the direction of the disused quarry. You cross a wonderful piece of forest then you reach the Ramenstein cave via a path that is not easy to walk (an alternative is signposted). The cave is barred between November and April to protect the bats, but is otherwise freely accessible.From the cave it is only a short distance to the stage destination in Nattheim at the sheep farm of the Heidenheim city shepherdesses.On this stage you will find a place to stop for refreshments along the way in the Heidenheim city area and on the Moldenberg. Otherwise you will stock up on supplies in Heidenheim before you start your hike. On the Moldenberg you will find a picnic area and benches and nice places to rest again and again.
On the eighth stage on the Albschäferweg you hike over the plateaus of the Härtsfeld. The Härtsfeld has a considerably more rocky subsoil than other regions in the Eastern Alb and therefore the agricultural yields used to be considerably lower. This made the landscape particularly popular for the traveling shepherds. Today they are responsible for maintaining the juniper heaths, which are important for species protection and the landscape.You leave Nattheim and walk past fields and meadows towards a dense forest. You cross the forest on comfortable paths and then pass the towns of Fleinheim and Auernheim. With a great view, you hike above the fields and meadows along the edge of the forest towards Neresheim, today's stage destination. Long before you reach the place, you can already see the famous monastery looming over the plateau.On the eighth stage you will not find any refreshments on the Albschäferweg. Unless you take a short detour into the town at Fleinheim. With a little luck, the Ochsenwirt will serve you a traditional roast lamb with knöpfle. Ideally, you should otherwise equip yourself with a backpack vesper and simply take your break according to your own needs. On the heath between Fleinheim and Auernheim and shortly after Auernheim you will find a nice rest area for this.
The penultimate and ninth stage on the Albschäferweg leads you to three historical buildings.Only a few minutes from your starting point in Neresheim you get to the huge Benedictine monastery complex Neresheim. Today only ten monks live in the large buildings, but you can take courses here and spend the night in the monastery. A special highlight is the huge abbey church with its radiant interior.The next stopover is Katzenstein Castle. The well-preserved fortress can be visited from March to December and the cozy castle tavern is perfect for a leisurely rest.Over the wide fields of the Swabian Alb you continue to hike to the Härtsfeldsee. In summer you can cool your feet in the water and have a nice rest. The reservoir is not designated for official swimming.You follow the Albschäferweg to Dischingen, where the impressive parish church awaits you. Then you follow the course of the Egau for a while in and above the Egau valley to the stage destination Ballmertshofen.Note on this tour that the castle tavern in Katzenstein Castle is closed in January and February, and is only open to a limited extent in November and December. Incidentally, a food voucher is included in the entrance fee to the castle. If you go on your hike during these months, you should provide yourself with sufficient provisions in advance.A tip: the Café-Stüble Sofa in Dischingen is open on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. You can find it at Torstrasse 7, just a short distance from the path.
The last stage of the Albschäferweg is also the longest tour of this long-distance hike. So you have enough time before you have to say goodbye to her.You leave Ballmertshofen heading west and you will soon reach the Bavarian border. The Albschäferweg meanders through dense forest and across meadows past the small town of Zöschingen. Above Zöschingen at the small chapel there is a nice resting place with a Kneipp facility. Shortly after the place you will find another at a natural pond. In the following forest you will encounter the giants of wind energy.Again and again today, short pieces of forest alternate with fields and heathland and after nine days you have quickly found your rhythm again. Satisfied and full of energy, you continue hiking and cross the border to Baden-Württemberg again.Soon afterwards you leave the forest completely and the wide meadows and heaths of the Heidenheimer Brenz region spread out in front of you. Enjoy this last section with wide views over the gentle barren hills of the Alb before you now have to say goodbye to it.It goes leisurely with a fantastic view down to Giengen. Before you reach the city center, it is worth making a detour to the pavilion. From the small viewing platform you can take a last look at Margarete Steiff's birthplace.Unfortunately, the last stage does not offer you any refreshments along the way. A detour (there and back about 3 kilometers) to Oggenhausen would be worthwhile. Two establishments offer traditional Swabian dishes at lunchtime. Otherwise, you should stock up on provisions for breakfast in Ballmertshofen.