The Iseltrail

Hiking along the blue-green glacier river

On September 24, we take the train from Vienna to Lienz. It is the "Day of Rivers" - which is fitting, as the next day we start a hike along the Isel, the longest free-flowing glacial river in the Eastern Alps.

Stage 1: From the city to the sandy beach

After breakfast, we fill our water bottles and buy lunch provisions for two days. We shoulder our rucksacks and march from the train station to where the Isel flows into the Drau. Although it should actually be the other way around, as the turquoise Isel seems far more powerful than the gray Drau.


This is where the approximately 75-kilometre-long Isel Trail begins, on which we will experience the wild glacial river and its changing character as well as our own river of movement and lingering. Our guiding star is a small yellow arrow with the Iseltrail logo, as it is not always possible to hike directly along the river.


From the edge of the town, we are mostly out in nature, even if we can hear the traffic humming quietly on the other side of the river. There are bays, gravel banks, sandy beaches, pools and alluvial forests, with the protected German tamarisk growing on the gravel islands, which needs the dynamics of the glacial river to survive. The sandpiper breeds there in spring, which is why the islands should not be entered. In the play of colors of sun and shadow on the water, we recognize the Iseltrail logo, which runs from blue to green. The special color is created by the "glacier milk", the glacial polish that floats in the water.


The fact that the longest still free-flowing glacial river in the Alps is allowed to spread out like this between Lienz and Matrei is thanks to the hydraulic engineer Alfred Thenius: when the Isel was regulated after the devastating flood disasters in 1965 and 1966, he planned large widenings where the river could spread out during floods and deposit stones, sand and alluvial wood. In 2018, after much pressure from the EU and nature conservation organizations, the Isel was designated a Natura 2000 protected area by the state of Tyrol.


After 16 kilometers, we reach the destination of the first stage of the day, the municipality of St. Johann im Walde. Unfortunately, there is no possibility for a one-night stay here. If you are still in good shape, you can continue for around five kilometers to Huben. We prefer to take the bus, as our feet and shoulders first have to get used to the heavy rucksack and we are craving coffee.

Die majestätische Isel fließt an Sandbänken nahe Lienz vorbei und hat eine tropisch-türkise Farbgebung.
Majestätisch wirkt die türkis strahlende Isel nahe Lienz. Foto: Ramona Waldner

Stage 2: It gets wild

On the second day, we continue towards Matrei. Under a bright blue sky, we follow the left bank and observe how the river changes with every kilometer. It becomes narrower, steeper and wilder, the large stones in the riverbed make the turquoise water foam up white.


In the alluvial forest, we discover a long concrete wall that extends far into the land - groynes that protect the banks from destruction. From a viewing platform, we can see the cataracts of Feld, the first major drop, which makes its presence felt with loud rushing water and rumbling debris. Now we have to walk a little steeply uphill and continue above the Isel. Two years ago there was still forest here, but it fell victim to the bark beetle. It becomes shadier again on the descent. Passing beautiful old farmhouses and a pasture with curious goats, we reach Matrei, where we will spend the night.

Stage 3: Gorges and forests

Well rested and stocked up on the day's provisions, we set off on the third stage of the day: from the road towards Virgental, turn left at the transformer house, walk along the Isel for a while, turn right at the four wooden wayside shrines and walk up through the hamlet of Ganz. We walk through farming villages and forests, across meadows and streams, pass a fish pond, meet sheep and cows. The Isel flows far below the hiking trail in places, even through a deep gorge between the villages of Bobojach and Welzelach. A suspension bridge was recently built over the gorge so that you can take a look into this inaccessible wilderness.


Shortly before Prägraten, we admire the variety of stones that the Isel has brought with it from the mountains on a large gravel surface. On the bank, a large, somewhat faded plaque tells us that the Isel was declared a "river sanctuary" in 1998. Despite this, ten years later plans were made to divert a large part of the water to a power station at the end of the valley. Only the tenacious resistance of the local population and the designation of the Isel as a Natura 2000 site stopped the project. We walk up to Prägraten and take the bus to our accommodation in Hinterbichl.

Auf der dritten Etappe bahnt sich die Isel ihren Weg in Richtung Tal.
Auf der dritten Etappe, zwischen Matrei und Hinterbichl, fließt die Isel teils weit unterhalb des Wanderweges. Foto: Ramona Waldner

Stage 4: Roaring water and ice

Up to Hinterbichl, the Iseltrail is also suitable for people who are not used to alpine hikes. However, the last two stages require sturdy hiking boots, warm clothing and a hut sleeping bag. First, the trail climbs steeply up towards the glacier, past the Umbal Falls waterfall trail. From viewing platforms, we look down into the thundering water and deep gorges - it's hard to imagine that insects such as the glacier stream mosquito or birds such as the dipper can live here.


After the waterfalls, we walk above the tree line on a narrow path past alpine flowers and currants to the Clara Hut of the German Alpine Club, which is tucked into the slope. Karin, the landlady of the hut, serves us coffee and cake and gives us tips for the rest of the way: it now takes around two hours to reach the source of the Isel, the Umbalkees, she says, as the glacier has retreated considerably due to global warming. Only very fit mountaineers can manage the route from Hinterbichl to the source of the Isel and back, which is why an overnight stay at the Clarahütte is recommended. Depending on the length of the day, your physical condition and the weather, you can continue to the Umbalkees and back to the hut in the afternoon or start the next morning and then descend to Hinterbichl.


On the way towards the glacier, at more than 2,000 meters above sea level, the Isel becomes a young wild spring, foaming white and noisily leaping over the rocks. A shallow lake has formed in front of the glacier. Behind it, a wire rope helps you cross the slabs of rock that have been polished smooth by the glacier to reach the not-so-eternal ice. It is the end of September, the sun is a balmy 25 degrees and you can literally watch it flow away. At the finish, there is a pyramid made of steel and stones for a "summit photo". Now you should think about how long the way back to the Clara hut is so that you get there in time before nightfall.

Ein Regenbogen vor mächtigen Felswänden, unter denen die Isel tosend in Richtung Prägraten am Großvenediger fließt.
Mächtige Felswände säumen die tosende Isel auf Etappe 4 in Prägraten am Großvenediger. Foto: Ramona Waldner

Stage 5: Proud and steep downhill

After a peaceful night under a stunning starry sky and a hearty breakfast, it's time to make our way home. First we walk briskly across meadows and past waterfalls to Hinterbichl, then the bus takes us back to Lienz. Isel, we'll be back!

Der Pfad des Iseltrails führt an der Isel entlang immer höher hinauf.
Über Wiesen und an Wasserfällen vorbei bergab bis Hinterbichl: auf der 5. und letzten Etappe des Iseltrails.

from Sonja Bettel


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