For 50 years and counting, Austria’s national parks have preserved some of the country’s most striking habitats.
Central Europe is famously civilized, with constant reminders of centuries worth of culture. But I often long for something that predates even that – the open skies, tranquility and solitude of the wilderness. Fortunately, hiking the Hohe Tauern national park lets me scratch that itch without having to be overly adventurous, with easily accessible mountain trails among peaks like the mighty 3,500 meters-tall Rötspitze, where glaciers sparkle in the midday sun.
It is these glaciers – sadly shrinking year by year due to climate change – that feed the Isel, which flows entirely free from its source to its confluence with the Drau. Up here, it’s still a crystal-clear mountain creek; as I followed it along the gently rising IselTrail, I paused to sit on a rock, sipping some spring water I’d collected in a flask as I watched the river gurgle past on its 70 km run to Lienz. To see this untouched landscape in all its splendor was to feel a shot of hope that a balance between development and conservation can still be found.
The fact that I could enjoy this pristine corner of Austria has a lot to do with an agreement signed 50 years ago at the foot of Austria’s highest mountain, the Großglockner. It was there on October 21, 1971, in the small town of Heiligenblut that the governors of Carinthia, Tyrol and Salzburg agreed to create a designated alpine biodiversity sanctuary: The stage for the first Austrian national park had been set.
Rather typically, Austria was late to the party. Yellowstone National Park was established at a time when the American West was still Wild – a startling reminder that our cousins across the pond used to be progressive on conservation. Sweden established the first European National Parks in 1909, and, by 1914, sensible Switzerland quietly went about establishing the first Alpine nature preserve.
It took a full decade for the agreement in Heiligenblut to become a reality – and only the Carinthian section at first. But by 1993, Hohe Tauern National Park was up and running, soon to be joined by 5 more preserves over the next 9 years: From craggy mountains where chamois scramble and eagles soar to deep forests, expansive grasslands and even temperate jungles where rare turtles bask in the sun, Austria’s national parks showcase the country’s staggering biodiversity.
Conservation and Coexistence
While stunning, these national parks are vital if Austria is to play a role in the global fight against extinction. We are not immune here: According to a recent study called the InsektenAtlas, Austria’s insect population is estimated to have declined by 75 % over the past 30 years. As climate change accelerates, we are belatedly realizing that intact forests and rivers are not pretty backdrops but the cornerstone of our existence: They provide clean water, cooler air, protection from landslides and avalanches and are havens for dwindling insect populations which make agriculture possible.
Over the past pandemic months, I visited all six of Austria’s national parks. My first was the Thaya Valley, a stretch of dark and mysterious forest along the eponymous river on the Austro-Czech border. The Iron Curtain used to run through here, and remnants of old watch towers still stand on the Czech side. It was misty and raining when I visited, giving the area the melancholy mystique of a John Le Carré thriller.
As I squelched through oozing mud under a tunnel of emerald leaves, Julian Haider, a goateed park ranger, urged me to slow down, stop and just observe the subtle majesty of nature. “You can sometimes see otters swimming past, or a white-tailed eagle flying above,” he whispered as heavy rain splashed off his wide-brimmed hat. We crouched on a moss-covered log and gazed across the river into verdant foliage. “And when you look carefully at the meadows, you’ll find interesting trees and plants. Such diversity in such a small geographical area is really exciting and special.” Indeed, this gully of meandering river bends and gentle cascades is home to 1,290 species of flora, 100 types of bird and even the recently returned wildcat.
It was a very different experience at the Donauauen National Park. The scorching heat gave this small pocket of water and primeval forest (just 93 square kilometers) an almost Amazonian feel as I paddled down a channel in the labyrinthine wetlands with the deeply-tanned ranger Rosemarie Grimm. Our wooden canoe glided serenely between green lily pads, passing herons and kingfishers as I reveled in the buzz of rich insect life and the squawking of birds. Below the surface, fish darted through an underwater forest of plants.
It felt like Eden, but this was nearly paradise lost. In the early 1980s, a proposed hydro-electric plant near Hainburg threatened to drain the wetlands. Yet, in an era when civil disobedience was almost unknown in Austria and environmentalism was a niche concern, something remarkable happened: The people said “No!”
A mass sit-in, led by the WWF but soon embraced by a broad section of Austrian society, eventually made the government reconsider, and, ultimately, create the Donauauen National Park in 1996. Even a young Othmar Karas, nowadays a conservative MEP, showed up dressed as a cormorant. The momentum from the protest created a new eco-consciousness in Austria, eventually leading to the formation of the Austrian Green Party, now a junior partner in the current national government.
Lakes on a Plain
Not far south from the Au on the border with Hungary, you’ll find some very different wetlands at the Neusiedlersee-Seewinkel National Park. A Mecca for birds both migratory and local, the expansive reed belts and salty sodic ponds of these shallow lakes are deeply alkaline, allowing insects to thrive and providing a veritable avian buffet – just the ticket when flying to Africa for the winter, or returning in the spring.
On a windy evening, I stood with conservationist Alois Lang, staring out with binoculars at some thin-legged birds tip-toeing through the shimmering shallows as the sun went down. “I want to show you something else,” said Lang, and so we hopped into his electric 4×4 and jolted along a rough track until the lake was behind us. Before us were wind-swept grasslands as far as the eye can see – with some romantic exaggeration, reminiscent of the Mongolian steppe
To add to the illusion, a herd of Przewalski’s Horses roamed in the distance, nibbling on grass tufts. A hardy but endangered species from Central Asia that were brought here in co-operation with Schönbrunn Zoo, they were joined by elegant white long-horned cattle that, Lang told me, play an important role in keeping the grassland healthy.
I found this surprising, as I’d been taught the overly simplistic “beef is always bad” view of ecology, but small-scale grazing has its role. “Consider the factor light,” Lang pointed out: less light means less diversity, but cattle and horses keep the plains open by eating shrubs. This means more animals can find the right place for reproduction, food and rest.
If the Thayatal, Donauauen and Neusiedlersee-Seewinkel National Parks primarily showcase wetlands, the Kalkalpen and Gesäuse National Parks are the green heart of Austria, covered in deliciously wild, mountainous forests with foliage so thick that lynx can flit from branch to branch. Both preserves allow trees to complete their entire life cycle, to grow old and die – none are preferred, and different species compete for space and light, resulting in a kaleidoscope of colors come autumn. Some are very old indeed, with one beech in the Kalkalpen nearly 550 years old – already a sapling before Columbus found the Americas. While the Upper Austrian Kalkalpen are more rounded, the Styrian Gesäuse are spectacularly vertical – but both are stunningly beautiful symbols of health and resilience.
For my year among Austria’s national parks, I’d saved the Hohe Tauern for last. It’s not just the original, but also the giant among them, stretching over almost 2,000 square kilometers of remarkably diverse landscapes. I started in Salzburg’s Rauris Virgin Forest, a mystical world of giant spruce and pine trees bedded on lush green moss, and passed dark moorland ponds which make you feel transported to the wilds of Scandinavia. Now here I was, over a 100 km away by road, above the snowline and nearing the source of the river Isel, a symbol of freedom in overly-harnessed Europe. An early season avalanche rumbled down a steep rockface across the valley. This was wilderness.
For many of us accustomed to regular international travel, the onset of the pandemic has meant burying our passport at the bottom of the drawer and feeling “stuck” and claustrophobic. But I will never forget exploring the wild nooks and crannies of my adopted homeland. There was so much to discover, so much to learn and so much to marvel at; all of it a brief train ride from Vienna. I met passionate, poetic guides and learned Austria’s history along the way. But most important of all, I came away with a sense of responsibility as well as wonder. These are pockets of protection in a country where not enough is safeguarded. So much of Austria’s natural landscape is vulnerable to logging, hydropower dams or industrial development. The natural treasures of Austria are priceless. We have to appreciate them and protect them.
The Scenic Six Austrian National Parks
- Hohe Tauern
Austria’s oldest and largest national park is shared by Salzburg, Tyrol and Kärnten, showcasing high altitude environments from glacier fields to coniferous forests. It is home to nearly every indigenous alpine species from Ibexes to vultures, marmots and golden eagles.
- Neusiedler See- Seewinkel
Featuring lakes with large reed belts and wide steppes, this region in Burgenland is a paradise for insects, amphibians and the birds that feed on them. Right on the Hungarian border, the Fertő-Hanság national park adds nearly 24 hectares of protected habitat.
Right outside Vienna, this is one of the last remaining places where the Danube still flows freely, granting sanctuary to beavers, kingfishers, turtles and numerous fish among its wetlands, forests and waterways.
The largest continuous forest in the country, Upper Austria’s Kalkalpen also boasts over 70 limestone caverns and hosts hawks, owls, otters and the country’s only lynx population.
A continuation of Czechia’s Podyjí National Park, the lazy bends of the Thaya are home to nearly half of Austria’s known species of flora thanks to its location on a climactic boundary, as well as woodpeckers, elks and wildcats.
From whitewater creeks to dramatic cliffs and untouched forests, Styria’s Gesäuse possesses a staggering amount of environmental and biological diversity, with over 230 endemic species and numerous bats, frogs and butterflies.