Touring the National Parks of Austria
If you are travelling in Austria, you will almost certainly plan to go to some spots of natural beauty. There is no shortage of National Parks in Austria (www.nationalparks.or.at), there is a total of six in the country: Hohe Tauern (1), Kalkalpen (2), Gesäuse (3), Thayatal (4), Donau Auen (5) and Neusiedler See (6). There′s also a state park sometimes included, the Nockberge (7).
Why not making the National Parks a theme for a tour? They reflect the diversity of landscapes and topographic features very well. In the following, you will find a review of all National Parks. I hope this helps you with planning an itinerary following the natural bits of Austria. The list goes from West to East (as usual).
1) National Park Hohe Tauern in Tyrol, Salzburg & Carinthia
The National Park Hohe Tauern (www.hohetauern.at)is the biggest of Austria and one of the biggest National Parks in Europe. It covers a total area of 1800 square kilometres and land in the three provinces of Tyrol, Salzburg (biggest share) and Carinthia.
The National Park includes the Central Alps with the highest mountain ranges of Austria, including Mount Großglockner (3798 metres high) and Mount Großvenediger (3666 metres high). The "Großglockner Hochalpenstraße" is an alpine road to near the mountain top and offers spectacular scenery. On the way upwards (or downwards), several museums tell the story of its construction in the 1930ies (mostly to fight unemployment and support tourism), the ecology of the region and other aspects of the "Tauern" mountains.
Unsurprisingly, the Großglockner Hochalpenstraße is Austria′s second most popular attraction after Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. Beyond this busy part of the park, there are plenty of areas that offer excellent hiking opportunities. The Krimml Waterfalls are another famous sight in the Hohe Tauern.
2) National Park Kalkalpen in Upper Austria
The National Park Kalkalpen (www.kalkalpen.at) in the South of Upper Austria covers 21 square kilometres of land including the Sengsengebirge Mountains and Reichraminger Hintergebirge Mountains, parts of the Northern Alp Foreland and parts of the Northern Calcareous Alps.
The park was opened in 1997 and is famous for its many brooks and sources. It offers great hiking opportunities, the highest mountain in the park is the Hohe Nock Mountain (1963 metres high). Approximately 80 percent of the park is covered with forest, which host some 50 species of mammals, 80 songbirds, 1600 butterflies.
From the botanical point of view, there more than 1000 different species of higher plants. Much of the flora and fauna of the park is typically alpine. The National Park Kalkalpen is also near some of Upper Austria's most attractive historical spots, such as the towns of Enns or Steyr.
3) National Park Gesäuse in Styria
The National Park Gesäuse (www.nationalpark.co.at) was opened on the 26th of October 2002 (the National Holiday in Austria). In includes parts of the Styrian communities of Admont, Johansbach, Weng, Hieflau, Landl and St Gallen. This region is well-known for its centuries old culture and many market towns of the area have historical centres. The National Park itself, however, is known for its steep mountains with sharp edges and rough gores.
The park covers a current area of 110 square kilometres. There are plans to expand it to some 125 square kilometres. It is great for hiking along the river Enns, especially in late summer or autumn.
4) National Park Thayatal in Lower Austria
The National Park Thayatal (www.np-thayatal.at) covers 1,330 hectares of land in the North of Lower Austria, just by the boarder to the Czech Republic. It is attached to the Czech Natioanl Park Podyji and famous for the narrow valley through which the river Thaya runs.
The steep cliffs are covered by forests, and the special geological base (granite) influences both landscape and vegetation. There are two castles within the boundaries of the Park, the Burg Hardegg and the ruined Castle Kaja. In the park one can find approximately half of all plant species native to Austria. Due to the rough structures of the granite landscape, microclimates can be sustained, allowing such high biodiversity.
The animal world is similarly prominent and includes a high number of very rare vertebrate species. In terms of sport, cycling and hiking are the most popular activities in the park.
5) National Park Donau-Auen in Vienna & Lower Austria
The National Park Donau Auen ("Danube River Meadows" - www.donauauen.at) consists of the last large river meadow landscape that remains in Central Europe. It covers only 9,300 hectares, following the Danube for 30 kilometres from Vienna to the border with Slovakia. At its broadest point, it is only 4 kilometres wide.
It was opened in 1996 after many years of vicious fighting between environmentalists and the government with energy lobbies. By 1984, the government had plans to build river stream power plants and regulate the Danube for this purpose. The beginning of this development can be traced back to the rebuilding efforts of the 1950ies. Since the power plant "Hainburg" would have destroyed the last remaining bit of river meadows, environmentalists and celebrities like the behavioural biologist and Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz helped to organise resistance.
As a result, the area was protected; the plans for the power plant were abandoned; and - stoked by other issues, too - the Green Party of Austria formed. The current park is home to some 700 species of higher plants, 30 species of mammals, 100 species of birds, 8 species of reptiles (including Austria′s only native turtle), 13 species of amphibians and 60 species of fish. The park is great for strolling or a soothening day out of Vienna, but does not provide the stunning scenery of the Alpine National Parks.
6) National Park Neusiedler See in the Burgenland
The National Park Neusiedler See (www.nationalpark-neusiedlersee.org) is a very special one, covering 95 square kilometres of flat plains including the Lake Neusiedler See in the Burgenland, a large steppe lake. It was founded in 1993 and is connected to the Hungarian National Park Fertö-Hansag Nemzeti. Together, the two parks include approximately 300 square kilometres of land.
The climate of the region is very mild, with little rain (approximately 600 millimetres per annum). The many shallow ponds and pools ("Lacke") of slightly salty water supports a unique flora and fauna. It is famous for migratory birds and British tourists watching them. An impressive 320 species of birds were reported over the course of a year, some 120 nest within the park′s boundaries.
This includes the largest flying bird of Europe, the Great Bustard (Otis tarda) and large colonies of wild geese (Anser anser). A high number of arthropods, vertebrates and plant species are - at least for Austria - characteristic for this park and the Seewinkel area.
The National Park′s administration is particularly interested in getting the local agriculture involved with the maintenance of the park. Most of the park′s surface is actually a cultured landscape and requires certain measures to maintain the current species abundance. There are two visitor centres, one in Illmitz (Austria), the other in Sarrod (Hungary).
7) The not-quite National Park Nockberge in Carinthia
Due to agricultural use, the so-called National Park Nockberge (www.nationalparknockberge.at) in Carinthia is not internationally acknowledged. It covers approximately 216 square kilometres of Carinthian Alps. In the 1970ies, there were plans to use the Nockberge Mountains for new ski resorts, but a citizen movement and environmentalist groups protested against this.
In 1987, the park was opened, but is considered to be a protected nature reserve rather than an actual National Park. There are now plans to make it a "Biosphere Reserve" by international standards, a development that will continue in the following years. From the touristy point of view, there will change very little: It already offers great views and hiking opportunities and has a visitor centre like a "real" National Park.
The Highlights: My personal recommendations
What are my personal favourites? I have a soft spot for the National Park Neusiedler See, the one that differs most strongly from the region where I grew up (Salzburg). I used to go there for ornithology excursions as an undergrad and loved the place for its exotic touch, the wine and mildness of the area.
The National Park Hohe Tauern is also a winner: It is certainly among the most impressive landscapes in Europe and gives convenient access to some of the highest mountains on the continent. Finally, the National Park Thayatal is a pleasant wild-card, with beautiful landscape shaped by the granite grounds.
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