The Rheinsteig is a 190 mi (320 km) network of walking trails following the Rhine (Rhein) River in Germany from Bonn to Wiesbaden. The network was officially completed in 2006 and has been steadily gaining fame since then—and for good reason. The scenery is breathtaking, the history impressive, and the people lovely.
I stumbled across this trail when trying to figure out how to walk from Koblenz to Bingen along the Rhine, as Richard Halliburton did in 1921. The day before I started hiking I pieced together some information from the very thorough official website and some independent blogs. It was enough info to go ahead with my impromptu plan, but my research definitely left me with some questions, the answers to which I would simply have to learn on the road. The problem with the internet sources is they’re largely aimed at either Germans (who already know what’s up) or at foreigners who put a lot of time and energy into their plans. I am neither.
Four days later, exhausted and footsore, I arrived in Rudesheim (across the river from Bingen) and compiled my story and my information here, for you, so you can sleep soundly the day before you start hiking. Enjoy!
Note: my observations took place along the Upper Middle Rhine from Koblenz to Bingen—I have no idea what the rest of the trail is like.
My big questions were about the following things: accommodation, luggage, maps, food and water. This is what I found out:
- Book a hotel at the beginning and end of your trip. The middle bits don’t matter (more on that below), but with a starting and ending point you can send your luggage ahead of you! Aha! This way you don’t lug 15 kg of useless crap with you through the Rhineland hills.
- Go to the Deutsche-Bahn website and schedule your luggage to be sent ahead of you. Enter your starting and ending addresses (don’t forget to include the names of your hotels!) and timeframe, pay the €17.50 with credit card, and rest easy. That last part was hard for me—I looked online and found nothing about people using this service. Did it work? Did it exist?! Yes and yes. DB uses the company Hermes to fulfil these orders and it appears they do a damn fine job of it as my backpack was awaiting me in Rudesheim. Oh, and be sure to email your destination hotel and let them know your luggage will be arriving before you.
- The Rheinsteig is really a simple trail to follow. It is clearly marked along its entire length, and you don’t even need a map. Now, bearing that in mind…I highly recommend you get a map. This could just be me, but I love maps. I don’t care if I’m sitting at a trail junction with a sign that says “Sarah, your destination is THIS WAY”, I still want to look at a map and see where I’m going, what the terrain will be like, the name of that mountain over there, and ooh look, a scenic overlook in 2.5 km! But more than that, a map of the Rheinsteig will help you create your own shortcuts when you no longer feel like going an extra 6 km just because it’s pretty (more on that below). There’s a shop in Koblenz called “Reuffel”—they sell a few Rheinsteig maps there (more on that later, too).
- At a minimum, bring snacks, and if you’re cheap like me, bring lunches, too. I actually found a shop in Koblenz that sells “American style peanut butter”. The amazing part wasn’t its smooth texture and slightly sweet flavor, but that it came in a plastic jar. Hey, I’m an environmentalist all the way, but there’s no way in hell I’m toting around a glass jar of peanut butter. Kind of defeats the purpose. There are plenty of towns along the way to stop and have lunch in, but many of them require a detour [read: a steep descent followed by a steep ascent]. I preferred to eat lunch at one of the many scenic benches along the way.
- Water is a similar problem—yes, there are towns, but you’ll have to come across them at the right time, you’ll have to access the towns, and you’ll have to procure water. And as a heads up, there are NO water fountains in Germany. Seriously, not a one. I don’t get it. Anyways, I hate buying and throwing away plastic bottles (except peanut butter jars), but also dislike imposing upon hard-working business owners and asking them to fill my bottle for me, so I just took my Steripen (which I happen to love) and purified water from steams and these cute little basins that looked clean and pure…but why take the chance? Also, I’m a camel and did fine with one bottle, but most people will want two. It’s hot and humid in those hills.
On the trail:
After adequately preparing for the hike, all I had to do was find the trail. The map came in handy for getting me off on the right foot, but once you’re on the trail it’s hard to lose it.
The trail is thoroughly marked with little “Rheinsteig” markers and arrows. There’s one at every junction, and then another one within the next 50 m to confirm you went the right way. This is true in towns and forests, vineyards and intersections. In towns, the same symbol on a yellow background will lead you back to the main trail. Every so often you’ll come across a marker that makes you say “huh?” but a 1-minute wander should answer your questions. Additionally there are frequent signposts telling you the distance to the next town or landmark.
And, because you didn’t book any of the middle accommodation, you can stay in whatever towns you want to along the way. I mean that literally. If you do an internet search for hotels along the Rheinsteig you’ll find they’re all expensive and booked out. Don’t worry—they’re booked because they’re online. In non-internet reality, every town is rife with accommodation, everything from three-star hotels to rooms in people’s homes (these people advertise with a sign that says “zimmer frei”. The rooms are lovely and cheap, rather like a home-stay). Hotel prices ranged from €30-45 for a single. Traveling with another person will make accommodation much less expensive.
It should be noted that scarcely any of the townsmen along the Rheinsteig speak English. Hell, for that matter, not a single hiker on the Rheinsteig spoke English. Not that they should, just be prepared to ask for a room in German (single or double? How many nights?) and to recognize the German word for breakfast (Frühstück) which should be included.
Which reminds me…unless you’re into cold cuts for breakfast, you may be a little disappointed.
Oh, and because this is wine country (!!!) make sure you can ask for a glass of wine (no, not with breakfast…unless you’re into that).
And, one more thing—don’t plan on sticking to a vegetarian diet. This is rural Germany, after all.
Also, the hotel owners tend to be very efficient in a way that may seem rude to an American but is really just…efficient:
Me: “Sorry, I don’t speak German. Einerzimmer?”
Her: “Yah, okay.” Scribbling on paper, €42, “Mit Frühstück. Okay?”
Me: “Yah, gut.”
Her: Walks me to the room, points at the remote control for the TV. “Dankeshön!” Leaves.
The trail is relatively smooth and easy to walk on. The underlying rock of the area is almost exclusively shale and sometimes you’ll be walking on that (every single roof in the Rhine gorge is made of shale, too). Anything that’s remotely sketchy has accompanying ropes or cables to hold on to. Most of the “trail” is actually composed of unused logging roads, but sometimes it’s single-track.
Scenery ranges from dense green forest (most of the time) to dry, scrubby ridges, the occasional wheat field or goat pasture, lots of vineyards, and sometimes the cutest little towns you can imagine. Oh, and there are castles everywhere. Seriously, I longed for a bungalow.
The only downside of the trail has to do with how scenic it is. The route strives to be high-up all the time so the hiker can have great views at every opportunity. But have you ever tried staying high-up while walking the ridge of a gorge? Little secret—you can’t. Every time a stream or river comes in from the side you either have to descend into it and climb back out, or make a long detour following the same contour. This is why the Rheinsteig from Koblenz to Bingen is 70 mi (120 km) long with almost 13,000 ft (4,000 m) elevation gain whereas the river itself only flows 38 mi (64 km) and changes by just, what, 100 ft (30 m)?
Again, the map comes in handy here. I created my own detours and shortcuts, not only to make the route a bit easier, but also to add a bit of diversity. Once a day I’d cut off a bend of the river by heading over the hilltop through beautiful agricultural land and cute farming towns, and I finished every day down on the bike path following the river, just for the change of pace (okay, and the shorter distances).
Well, I think that’s all I have to offer! If you have any questions about the section of the Rheinsteig I completed, don’t hesitate to contact me or leave a comment below. Happy hiking!