Hiking and E-Biking in Austria’s Zillertal Region

E-biking beside reservoir

The ascent through the Zillergrund Valley and up to the dam that helps provide the power to keep this part of the Tyrol illuminated is almost 1000m by e-bike. The asphalt road winds back and forth, forever climbing, through pastures and small clusters of houses up towards the severity of the arched dam wall.

It is more than 20km away from the centre of Mayrhofen, our departure point, and the climb – whilst through the most stunning alpine scenery – is relentless.

Gaining altitude

What makes it possible for the average, non-Olympic, cyclist to get up to the dam is the technology of the e-bike, which gives you power and oomph when needed for the steeper inclines.

But be warned; you can’t just sit back and let the electric motor do the uphill work. “E-biking is a sport,” my guide Stefan Kröll explains. “You still have to put in the effort, and you have to use the battery carefully and conserve it, otherwise it can be very hard work indeed because of the weight of the bikes.”

We set off just after 9am, slowly gaining altitude. By the roadside, water cascades down, waterfalls topple over ledges or are chaperoned over the road by concrete funnels. In the fields, cows mother calves and the clanging of bells leaving you in no doubt you are in the Austrian mountains in summertime.

Further up, farmers are cutting grass, harvesting the silage that will keep their herds fed and bedded as the snow approaches, for we are also in ski terrain.

Turquoise reservoir beyond Zillergrund Dam
Turquoise reservoir beyond Zillergrund Dam

Zillergrund Dam

The higher we climb, the harder I need to pedal, but also face the decision of when to shift from eco-power to touring mode. The bikes also have ‘EMTB’ mode for the extra push, and turbo, though Stefan didn’t mention that until we were at the top! Smart move as my battery may have not made it otherwise, but the e-bike is definitely taking the strain.

One of the strengths of an e-bike is the way it opens up challenging mountain routes for leisure cyclists whilst also delivering a decent workout.

We pause to negotiate the barrier, the line where cars are no longer permitted and continue along the winding asphalt route at its hairpin bends.

Ahead looms the solidity of the Zillergrund Dam and soon we are beneath it, giving Stefan the opportunity to explain how one of his friends rode down the dam wall on a snowboard.

A series of tunnels takes around the side of the dam and then, as we enter sunlight again, we are on the top of the wall looking back down the valley and the seemingly stupendous height we have just ridden up.

In the other direction, the turquoise reservoir fills the valley.

Little Tibet

This is the end of the journey, if I wish, but Stefan convinces me to ride further up to Little Tibet, a gathering of huts set in a landscape that are said to resemble the Tibetan terrain. As we proceed, this time along a shale path, the turquoise of the water is inviting, with marmots basking on shoreline boulders.

At Little Tibet, we park our bikes, pop a few euros in an honesty box and enjoy a drink as we savour the view.

The return soon sees us back at the dam and then free-wheeling down and braking to hold back our speed, which touches 45kmh. An hour later, we re-enter Mayrhofen.

This is a popular hiking and e-biking route up to Zillergrund Dam, but one of many across the Zillertal region during the summer.

Mark Nicholls and Stefan Kroll
Mark Nicholls and Stefan Kroll in Zillertal

Biking guide

Stefan, 31, is a biking guide and former competitive mountain biker and accomplished snowboarder, who competed at the Youth World Champions in 2007 with the Austrian team, before the inevitable injuries and surgery that curtail so many promising careers on the snow.

He tells me:

“I started with biking as part of my rehabilitation from snowboarding injuries and then competed in mountain bike races.”

He now runs Different bike (www.diffrent.at) and ski rental, but still loves to hit the slopes in winter while guiding for e-bikes and mountain bikes in the warmer months.

“In Zillertal there are many bike trails for all levels; beginners can ride along the river, or it is possible to climb 2000m in one stint. There is a good mix of everything, from easy to hard, and for e-bikes and non-e-bikes.

“What is so good about e-biking is that groups or families can do it together. They may be different levels, but one rider may be on eco-power and another on the touring setting, meaning they can all go at the same pace.”

Summit of Grubelspitze
Summit of Grubelspitze in Zillertal

Hiking trails

While some choose pedal power, others prefer to hike across the mountainous landscape, with trails for all abilities and fitness levels.

In August, with temperatures in the high 20s in Zillertal, an early start is the order of the day. I left my hotel in Mayrhofen before 6am to catch the bus to Lanersbach 20 minutes away, where I joined a small group of hikers and our guide Andreas.

After a drive to our starting point at Waldhoaralm, we ascended a further 600m on foot over the next two hours to the summit of Grüblspitze (2395m above sea level) through cow pasture and lush grass as the sun rose higher in the clear blue sky before we paused at the summit for a picnic breakfast.

Chamois and Marmots

In the distance, the Hintertux glacier glistened in the morning sunlight. On the mountain, we saw chamois and marmots, small eagles soaring on thermals, and paragliders doing similar.

Even in early August, the mountain still has colour with the last few blooms of alpine rose, swamp sweetheart and other flowers.

From there, we followed a ridge down to Stoankasern hutte for a bowl of gulasch suppe, over the Zilljöchl to the Junsalm, and further down into the valley to Lanersbach at 1280m.

Hopping on the bus back to Mayrhofen and a return to the Elisabeth Hotel meant a swim, a soak in the serenity pool, and the steam room to relax aching muscles.

Elisabeth Hotel in Mayrhofen
Elisabeth Hotel in Mayrhofen

Elisabeth Hotel

The spa at the Elisabeth is a relaxational delight: the pool is warm, there are beds inside and out on the terrace; saunas and steam rooms, and a range of treatments available.

With lovely modern rooms and an excellent restaurant, the hotel also rents e-bikes (though be aware you will have to source your own cycle helmet).

The restaurant offers a delicious five-course daily menu where you can enjoy Tyrolean specialities, pork medallions, celery-pear cream soup, smoked trout, cheeses, shrimp cocktail, grilled calamari, gnocchi, Thai curry, and ice cream and parfait, among many other dishes, with a wholesome traditional Austrian salad to begin.

For those in search of a mid-afternoon snack, there’s soup, meats and cheeses, fruit and apple strudel.

High-quality cuisine is an increasingly important appeal in Austrian Alps and there are numerous huts and restaurants across the Zillertal region.

The Elisabeth, which also has an excellent wine cellar, is the perfect base for exploring Zillertal in summer, either on foot or by e-bike.

Fact Box

Accommodation: Mark Nicholls stayed at the Elisabeth Hotel in Mayrhofen.

Summer activities: In Zillertal, there are almost 1500km of hiking trails, plus themed adventure trails, and just under 1400km of bike routes, while the Nature Park Zillertal Alps covers around 400 square kilometres. Other summer activities include climbing, rafting, canyoning and paragliding and 10 summer cable cars operate across the region. The Zillertal Activcard offers discounts to attractions and highlights, and access to public transport and cable cars, and costs 100 euro (adult) for six days.

Flights: Summer transfers are generally via Munich (three hours from Mayrhofen), though Innsbruck airport is only an hour away.

For more information please visit: www.zillertal.at.

Mark Nicholls is an award-winning freelance travel writer and author, based in the UK and has written for a range of national titles, specialist magazines and international websites and operated as a war correspondent in locations such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Photographs by Mark Nicholls

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