NEUSCHOENAU, Germany -- The first hint that something extraordinary awaits explorers in the woods beyond the village of Neuschoenau is a glimpse of an otherworldly dome peaking above the tree line. The giant wooden structure remains hidden, summoning the traveler to drive further into the undulating hills of giant spruce and fir trees. Soon, though, the car is parked and the answer to the mystery lies at the end of a narrow walking path, set dizzyingly high above the forest floor.
While the vast Bavarian Forest National Park (Bayerischer Wald) has many natural wonders worth visiting, the manmade Baumwipfelpfad -- literally, a "treetop walk" -- may be the most intriguing marvel in the whole forest.
The Baumwipfelpfad begins with a short elevator ride or stair climb to the ticket booth, a mere 26 feet above the parking lot. As hikers begin the leisurely walk down a 4,300-foot long wood path, the ground begins to gently fall away -- or so it appears -- as the path inclines almost imperceptibly, making it easily accessible for parents with strollers. It is obvious the creators of the Baumwipfelpfad wanted to make visitors feel a part of the natural environment. The path advances freely through the forest, leaving the mature pines forever undisturbed.
Like many forest trails, this one has a destination -- the strange dome that first beckoned visitors into the woods. Before that, though, the treetop walk has a few surprises of its own. Several adventure stations briefly divert from the main path. Short, heart-quickening obstacles lie on each miniroute, including a narrow wooden plank enticing hardy trekkers to balance on the beam.
You need not worry as the "obstacle" is fully-enclosed with a safety net and offers a rewarding view of the earth 50 feet below. Interspersed with the daredevil treats are information stations, each describing the unique flora and fauna elements of the Bavarian Forest. The descriptions are in German, but free English translation brochures are available at the ticket booth.
The entire experience of walking through the stark tranquility of the treetops builds anticipation for the main event. A sharp left turn of the path, now towering 85 feet high, brings the dome into full view. It looks startlingly out of place, like a giant egg-shaped space vehicle anchored to the path, awaiting liftoff. The steel and wood tower rises 144 feet, completely enclosing three ancient fir trees in its hollow shell.
The path continues in gently meandering circles, up and around the structure. Open-air views of the forest and picturesque valleys appear on the right; on the left, a lofty view of the trees normally reserved for birds and other small animals. The crown of the Baumwipfelpfad is a 360-degree deck that affords an outstanding prospect of the Bavarian Forest's greatest landmarks, including Mounts Lusen and Rachel, as well as the far-flung woods spread out below.
The Baumwipfelpfad is arguably an enjoyable enough attraction to make the journey to the Bavarian Forest, however, there are other things to see. A brief walk uncovers the Wildlife Enclosure, housing 36 native woodland species including lynxes, wolves and owls. The intrepid hiker will enjoy hundreds of miles of crisscrossing trails through the nearly 60,000 acres of wild national forest. Finally, forest play areas, campgrounds and idyllic Bavarian villages dot the landscape throughout this beautiful region.
If you go
The Baumwipfelpfad is open year-round (except for Dec. 24). The entrance fee for adults is 8 euros, 6 euros for children 6-17 years of age, and a family ticket (two adults and their children) is 19 euros. Located east of Regensburg, the Baumwipfelpfad is easily accessible by both car and train. Additionally, there is an extensive and easy-to-use bus and railway system inside the park.
For more information on this area, visit www.baumwipfelpfad.by or www.nationalpark-bayerischer-wald.de.