Submitted by Susanne Bacon
As a teenager I laughed when I read in a book by Paul Watzlawick that Americans visiting my mother country allegedly ask whether the Black Forest was open on Sundays. It never occurred to me that it could not be open. Or that people might expect to have to pay an entrance fee or have an annual pass for it. Germany has its National and Nature Parks as well as Bio-spherical Reservations, but they work a bit differently from what Americans are used to from their National and State Parks.
By now you have probably guessed why. Germany is a lot smaller and has been densely settled for thousands of years, way before the concept of Nature or National Parks evolved. Germany’s oldest Nature Park is the Luneburg Heide, constituted in 1921. The largest is the Southern Black Forest, which also is part of the National Park Black Forest. A quarter of Germany is dedicated to Nature Parks. But … they are all sprinkled with settlements through and through. The concept has been built around what hamlets, villages, and towns were there already.
Therefore, when you visit e.g. the Luneburg Heide, you will find areas of the typical mix of sandy and peaty landscape, firs, lakes and heath, dolmen tombs from ages of yore, and, above all, quiet that permeates everything. But not all too far from these areas kept for hikers and maybe bikers – none of whom are permitted to leave the paths (these are sometimes even wired off at ankle height) – you will run into human settlements. A bee keeper’s home here, a sheep farm there, a hamlet with a friendly Gasthof (pronounce “gust-hof”, i.e. guest court), i.e. rustic restaurant, maybe even a carriage service for those who like to experience the landscape in a more convenient fashion. And then there are gorgeous towns, above all Luneburg, Soltau, and Celle, each with their own amazing history, architectural jewels, and cultural offers. So, is a German National Park or a German Nature Park open on a Sunday or during winter? You bet.
The other way round, an uninformed German tourist arriving in Washington State in late fall with the wish to visit the summit of Mt. Rainier would run into some interesting facts specifically American. The highest location of a ranger station cum lodge and restaurant is way beneath the summit in Paradise, and the summit can only be reached by some Mt. Everest style climbing. In Germany, there would be quite a few alpine cottages every winded mile further up, with restaurants and maybe even rustic overnight facilities. Here, you pay a fee for getting into the National Park. And the National Park is not always accessible or only to some point, especially when it has been snowing. Areas without cell phone connections? Here it is a given, over there it is unknown.
So, which of the two concepts do I prefer? I have to admit that I have no preference. I love remembering hikes in the German Alps or in the Black Forest, ending up for lunch at one of the afore-mentioned cottages on an alpine meadow or in a quaint village. I also love the immensity of almost inaccessible primeval landscape and being all by yourself, just meeting very few other hikers in places. I love the concept of integrating human settlement into protected nature. But I also love stepping into protected nature as if it were a separate room, a sanctuary, with the park entrance as its door. I love the loop trails that my mother country provides seemingly everywhere – you never walk back the same trail, but still end up where you started from, on safe paths with bridges and railings. I like the concept of hikers being just guests, too, and Nature showing you her strength in washing out a path, ripping away a bridge, and suddenly you are forced to either rethink or return. German National Parks are tame compared to the American wilderness.
I am looking forward to hiking with my husband this summer and fall again. Only recently we bought a book with suggestions for interesting tours all around Western Washington, some of the quality of a leisurely saunter, some quite challenging. Hiking books – I grew up on them, and I’m happy to find them around here as well. So, let’s strap our rucksacks, bind our boots, grab our sticks, and head out to the great outdoors! And let’s return refreshed and with a new set of memories made by Nature. Wait – did we renew our Discovery Pass already?