We’d already heard lots about Austria’s Kaiser Mountains, located in the Austrian state of Tyrol. Part of the Northern Limestone Alps, a sub‑section of the Eastern Alps, they’re just over the border from Germany and are made up of two ridges: the Wilder Kaiser and the Zahmer Kaiser – the “Wild Emperor” and the “Tame Emperor”. So when the Kaiserradrunde (“Kaiser Bike Tour”) was mentioned to us one sunny autumn weekend, we didn’t hesitate to jump on a train from Munich to the town of Kufstein in Tyrol. About 75 minutes later, we and our e-bikes arrived at this charming small town on the river Inn.
The Kaiserradrunde is an ideal day ride for ambitious riders or if e-bikes are involved. But for those who prefer to take their time, perhaps riding with their family, it’s a fine 2-3 day ride with lots of places to stop off and things to see.
The start point is in Kufstein and it’s well worth making a short detour into the town’s historic centre. Riding along the ancient cobbled Römerhofgasse is like travelling through time. And the mediæval fortress should definitely not be missed. First recorded in 1205 but indubitably much older, the Kufstein Fortress’s strategic importance meant it was frequently a focal point during conflicts between Bavaria and Tyrol, from the Middle Ages up to the 18th century. The Fortress has been completely renovated and a visitor centre and funicular railway make visiting the museum areas easy. There’s also a modern covered arena which is used for cultural activities, with numerous concerts and a variety of other events taking place throughout the year. It’s well worth taking a look at their programme.
After the sightseeing we get going on the ride itself, along the cycle track that runs beside the river Inn out of Kufstein towards Ebbs. Very soon, our surroundings change from urban to a spectacular natural landscape. The path leads through a few kilometres of forest before taking us through open meadows and pasture land. As the sun beams through the trees, everyday life fades away – peace and relaxation have taken its place.
It’s not long before our first stop‑off point starts to make itself known, in the form of the sound of chirping and other animal noises. At the Raritätenzoo Ebbs (“Ebbs Exotic Zoo”), we behold some of the more than 70 species from around the world that reside there; the expressions on the faces of visitors from a nearby kindergarten make it clear that it’s a great place for children. Heading off again in the direction of the border with Germany, our next stop is just three kilometres further along the path – a culinary recommendation this time, located in the village of Sebi. The Käserei Plangger produces excellent cheeses local to the region; as soon as you step into the shop you’re hit by the piquant aroma. The cheeses mature in the Käserei’s own cheese cellar, which can be viewed through a glass wall from the café area.
After a short stretch along the main road to Walchsee, the route takes us onto a quiet road that leads first through forest and then through more meadows and pasture. This is where we meet the first and probably the steepest uphill part of the route. Five kilometres and 145 metres of climb later, the Schwemm nature reserve is our next stop. This is North Tyrol’s largest moorland area; it was created through the silting up of a lake and is now a 65 hectare water landscape of enormous ecological importance containing numerous rare plants and animals. Viewing towers have been installed, and guided tours are provided for those who would like to take a closer look.
From here we ride along mainly flat terrain to the nearby Walchsee lake, which is a fine place to relax a while and perhaps take a dip during hot summer weather. The café See la Vie is situated on the edge of the lake and right by the cycle path; we stop here and spoil ourselves with some excellent coffee and cakes. The flat lake shore is ideal for children to swim from.
From Walchsee we pedal relaxedly for another eight kilometres or so, still off the main road, mainly through open farmland, wooded areas and small hamlets until we reach Kössen, a small, welcoming town in the Leukental valley with numerous places to eat and stay the night. Wedged between the foothills of the Chiemgau Alps and the imposing Kaiser massif, we enjoy the warm evening with a glass or two of wine.
The next day can begin with an alternative to cycling: when the weather’s good, it’s worth taking the cable car to the summit of the Unterberg horn to enjoy the spectacular view of the Kitzbühel Alps. For anyone who’s not in a rush, it’s also possible to do some hiking around the summit – but beware, time soon flies when you’re amidst such beauty.
Back in the valley we’re on our bikes again, riding on a quiet track along the Großache river, flanked on both sides by forests and mountains. The river begins at the Thurn Pass, and during its 80 winding kilometres through Tyrol and into Lake Chiemsee in Germany it enjoys several different names, all variants of Ache. (It’s a lot nicer than it sounds in English: the name “Ache” is actually related to the Latin word “aqua”, meaning “water”.)
The beauty of the surroundings and the fresh mountain air fill us with energy as we ride along the Ache. Signs of civilisation become increasingly frequent along the way. After 15 kilometres or so we encounter the idyllically‑situated Achenkapelle (“Ache Chapel”), a perfect spot for a short rest in Kirchdorf.
Arriving at the small market town of St. Johann five kilometres further along the river, we make a small detour to visit Aggstein Edelbrände, artisanal producers of schnapps now into their fifth generation. In the public distillery it’s possible to taste their wares while seeing how the schnapps is produced. Afterwards it’s definitely worth stopping off in the town itself, to refuel in one of the many restaurants and cafés to be found in the well‑preserved, pedestrianised historical centre. The substantial baroque church by the town square features spectacular ceiling frescos and offers an opportunity for a moment of quiet contemplation.
As we head out westwards, our surroundings revert to the natural beauty of the Tyrolean landscape. The Niederkaiser element of the Kaiser range, with the 1280 metre Gscheuerkopf, appear before us. Looming behind it is the Wilder Kaiser massif, which at its highest point of the Ellmauer Halt reaches 2342 metres.
In the second half of the 19th century this area saw numerous mountaineering first ascent milestones achieved. Still today, the “Koasa” – as the locals call it – is a popular destination for hikers, mountaineers and climbers.
Further along in the direction of Going (another intriguing geographical name for English‑speakers – it’s pronounced “Goyng”), it’s worth stopping for a short walk through the Moor & More Erlebniswelt nature reserve on the southern side of the Wilder Kaiser, with its panoramic mountain views. The rewilded moorland within the Ramsar nature reserve combines natural environment with excellent information displays describing rare plants and animals that can be seen in the area. 10,000 years ago a raised bog emerged between St. Johann and Going, now mostly disappeared. If you’ve got some time to spare, guided tours are available.
From here the route takes us back downhill, with a fine view of one of the most beautiful swimming lakes in Tyrol, located at Going. We’re glad to be able to stop off and refresh ourselves before the last four kilometres to Ellmau, where we spend the evening and night enjoying typical Tyrolean hospitality.
The gorgeous scenery around the town is widely known as the home of the Austrian TV series Der Bergdoktor; the building used as the setting for the mountain doctor’s surgery is particularly beautiful and is open to visitors. From Ellmau we continue mostly downhill past Scheffau and Söll and through Stockach to Egerbach: another 15 kilometres of Tyrolean mountains and forests, which continue to release us from the stresses and strains of everyday living.
The Hintersteiner Lake, situated above Scheffau, is another worthy detour. It’s an extra five kilometres and a 400 metre climb, but it’s a lovely ride – certainly worth the effort for experienced riders and anyone on an e‑bike. If you fancy a hike, leave your bike at the Steinerne Stiege and follow the watercourse for about an hour up to the western shore of the lake. The lake is natural, not a reservoir, but a modest amount of water is extracted here for electricity generation. The water flows 300 metres through a two-metre diameter pipe and then a natural 1200 metre tunnel before driving a pair of turbines further down the valley.
The crystal‑clear lake is situated at 882 metres above sea‑level and lies within the Wilder Kaiser nature reserve; it is supplied by underground sources. Its water is a radiant turquoise colour and icy cold – just what we need at that point in time. So in we jump! It’s such a beautiful place, really very rare. Idyllically‑situated cafés offering typical local cuisine resolve our nutritional needs. There’s also the option to visit Kreuzbichl, a hamlet close to the lake with a number of excellent inns serving local food – for example Kaspressknödel soup.
We ride on, over the Eiberg to Egerbach. From there it’s five kilometres or so to Kufstein, our starting point. As we exit the forest, countryside soon gives way to town.
Crossing the bridge over the Inn river, we pause to enjoy the view across to the Kufstein fortress. The final kilometre or so of the route runs directly along the river, before finishing in the town centre.
The whole route is around 83 kilometres; the ascents add up to a total of around 700 metres, generally with gentle gradients. There are plenty of excellent places to stop for food along the route. We chose to start at Kufstein, but obviously the ride can begin and end at any point. Frequent and distinctive light‑blue signs make the route easy to follow. For our next visit we will definitely be packing our hiking boots so that we can climb one of the summits in the Wilder Kaiser range: the stunning views of their precipitous cliffs have left us wanting more…