WIESBADEN, Germany - After hiking through the mine for an hour or so, we half expected to see a hobbit or a dwarf ahead of us in the dimly lit passage. As the murmur of fellow marchers faded into the distance, the only illumination was the glowing orange salt rock in the walls and stones on either side, snared by the beams of headlamps and flashlights.

The journey began outside the Merkers Mine in Thuringia. After joining a large crowd of hikers waiting to pick up a start card, obtain a helmet and to descend 500 meters by elevator into the mine, we were ready to set off on the rock-hewn trail far below the entrance.

After walking four kilometers, all the while peering into other passages on either side of our trail, we reached the first control point. Our start cards were stamped and water was provided. Then it was off for another four kilometers, descending another 300 meters along the way, to reach the crystal cave set just beyond another control and water break.

While some of us turned around at the point and hiked back uphill some eight kilometers through the darkness to the mine entrance, others hopped aboard waiting trucks which made their way up another passage back to the base of the elevator.

Among the many volksmarchers in the mine on Nov. 23 were members of the Wiesbaden International Wandering Club.

"The Wiesbaden club is a legacy of the Heidelberg Wandering Club," said James Meredith, a civilian employee with U.S. Army Europe and club membership chairman. "The club is actually still growing."

With regular meetings and bus trips to volksmarches all over Germany and beyond, the club welcomes anyone interested in making new friends and exploring the trails around Europe.

"Interested people can come to our monthly meetings or visit our website, www.wiwc-volksmarching.de for more information," Meredith said.

Participation in a volksmarch with the Wiesbaden International Wandering Club offers lots of benefits, he added, including the chance to "get involved with the local culture, nature and history; taste the local food; enjoy music and meet the people. And it's healthy too.

"In addition to all of the on-post events, this is important for the Americans to get involved with the local culture," he said. "It's safe, easy and a comfortable way to get involved with the local community -- and stay healthy. You can also make new friends -- an all-around good experience."

Many of the club's hikes combine volksmarching with a unique visit to a notable site in Europe. While the recent hike at Merkers offered a chance to wander through the former East German salt mine and a visit to the nearby, U.S. border post/turned memorial at Point Alpha on the former inter-German border, upcoming trips include marches and visits to the Cologne Christmas Market and Paris.

The club meets the third Monday of the month at 7 p.m. at the Im Landchen Restaurant and Sportsbar in Wiesbaden-Erbenheim. Visit the website for the address, details on upcoming trips and membership.

The Merkers mine, which is about two hours northeast of Frankfurt between Bad Hersfeld and Bad Salzungen, hosts various sporting events and concerts deep underground throughout the year.

Having ceased functioning as a working mine in 1993, today it serves as a museum.

Tours are available all year long, during which visitors will learn about the mine's history, including its use as a hiding place for gold and artwork by the Nazis during World War II.

For more information visit the Erlebnis Bergwerk Merkers website at www.erlebnisbergwerk.de.