The varied and complicated character of Austria's terrain has divided the country into a number of natural regions. Today, most of these areas enjoy some degree of self-government as well as rich and deeply ingrained local traditions.

Except for the fertile valleys of the Danube and the section of eastern and southeastern Austria that borders on Moravia and the great Hungarian plain, almost three-quarters of the country is mountainous. The country's average height above sea level is 915m (3,000 ft.). Austria marks the eastern terminus of the Alps, which cover about two-thirds of the country's surface. The remaining mountainous third is geologically distinct -- part of the ancient granite mass of the Bohemian massif.

Geologists divide the alpine regions of Austria into the central, southern, and northern districts. All three are quite naturally beautiful. The highest peaks and longest glaciers are in the central region, in the region of the Ötztal; Silvretta; the Stubai Alps; and the Hohe Tauern, site of the country's most powerful glaciers.

A large belt along the eastern slopes of the Grossglockner and a section of the Schobergruppe Massif have been earmarked as the Hohe Tauern National Park, which features some of the most dramatic landscapes in the country. Lakes, forests, and alpine pastures -- set against a backdrop of powerful and protecting glaciers -- riddle the park. These glaciers advanced north at least 10,000 years ago, spreading across the Bavarian plateau, almost to the border of what today is the city of Munich. All this glacier movement created natural amphitheaters called "cirques." They also formed what geologists call "hanging valleys," which are marked by towering waterfalls.

The creation of national parks has helped conserve valuable biotopes -- high-altitude forests, water marshes, and the specialized plant life of steep cliffs and mountain banks. The parks protect this fauna from the detrimental effects of mass tourism yet keep them accessible to respectful admirers. Water lilies, flowering meadow shrubs, patches of moss and fern that grow in the dank darkness of forests, the snowdrop, and the pink hues of meadow saffron, even the gorgeous colors of the mountain rose and gentian -- which punctuate the flowering alpine meadows -- are finest in their natural setting, not wilting in some makeshift bouquet. On the contrary, bluebells, pinks, cornflowers, buttercups, daisies, and primroses blossom in such abundance that they can be picked at will.

The season for mountain wildflowers varies depending on spring temperatures and snowpack; expect most to have blossomed by the end of July or early August. In autumn, the perennial changing of the leaves is another colorful and splendid sight. If you're interested in learning more about high altitude flora, visit an alpine garden or walk down an instructional guided path.

You might even find a snack along the way, in the form of a wild berry or mushroom (but be careful, as some varieties are poisonous). Wild raspberries, strawberries, bilberries, blackberries, cranberries, flap mushrooms, chanterelles, and parasol mushrooms quell a hiker's hunger with astonishingly favorable tastes, particularly when hand-picked, but can be easily confused with inedible or poisonous varieties.

Nearly half of the vegetation is remnants of deciduous forests, such as mixed mountain forests. Most alpine forests consist of conifers, including the spruce, the larch (the only European conifer to lose its needles in winter), the Austrian pine (with a darkly fissured bark), and the arolla pine, with upward curving branches that evoke candelabra.

Nearly a third of the vegetation sprouts on rock debris and in alpine meadows. A mixed mountain forest thrives below 1,372m (4,500 ft.), whereas a coniferous forest exists at an altitude of 1,678m (5,500 ft.). Above that, wind-dwarfed bushes and alpine meadows predominate.

In spring, summer, and autumn, many different rare species of plants flower. They don't live long once picked, so please leave them for the next person to enjoy. The flora coexist with a variety of alpine animals such as the chamois, ibex (reintroduced in 1930), marmot, snow hare, alpine salamander, golden eagle, ptarmigan, black grouse, capercaillie, alpine chough, black woodpecker, and three-toed woodpecker. Other animals, such as the wolf, lynx, bear, and golden vulture, once thrived in the Alps but have not survived.

After its mountains, Austria's great defining feature is the Danube. With the exception of a handful of streams in the country's west that flow to the Rhine, and a few in the north that empty into the Moldau (a tributary of the Elbe), all of Austria's creeks, streams, and rivers empty into the Danube. This, Europe's longest river, originates in Germany's Black Forest and enters Austria near Passau. A few miles from the Austrian border the Danube is joined by the Inn River (from which comes the name Innsbruck); the water provided by this great tributary, which flows from the Bernina and the Tauern Alps, is what makes the Danube navigable. One of the most important watercourses in European history, the Danube runs west to east across the Vienna basin, as the fertile plains of central Austria are called. The river bisects both Vienna and Budapest (capital of Austria's historic partner, Hungary) and links together in navigable form many towns and settlements of south-central Europe.

Austria is also graced with many freshwater lakes that are beautiful and draw sports enthusiasts to their shores.

The Wild Alps

Many alpine animals such as the lynx, otter, and alpine ibex have all but disappeared during this century in the Alps. Other animals are endangered, including wildcats, susliks, certain nesting birds, toads, and fish.

An effort to reintroduce species eradicated from their habitat by hunters and ranchers has been an unqualified success. Brown bears have been sighted in increased abundance over recent years, along with migrating elk. Although wolves have not reemerged since being killed off in the 1950s by ranchers, the deer and stag population has enjoyed such exponential growth that in some regions hunting has become necessary to keep the population and natural balance in check.

Other species continue to thrive in the alpine environment. Unobtrusive hikers will find the Alps teeming with creatures. You might behold the chamois gracefully bounding up alpine trees or watch a golden eagle in circling flight above. The griffon vulture's 9-foot wingspan may intimidate even the most seasoned hiker. A hiker might even be befriended by a marmot or an alpine chough basking in a sunny meadow. (But if you threaten the gentle marmot, you might learn why it's nicknamed the whistle pig.) The hill country and lower mountain ranges are often home to badgers, martens, and hares. Hedgehogs are rare, one of the endangered species of rodents.

Ornithologists have a field day in the Alps, as the breadth of birds is immense. Great white herons guide you down the Danube like a teasing trail of gingerbread crumbs; they pause for respite along the banks long enough for you to catch up to them by riverside trail, only to depart in flight to another sanctuary 20m (66 ft.) downstream. Storks, marsh warblers, gray geese, spoonbills, and terns can also be spotted. A bird-watcher might sight a diving blue kingfisher, particularly its extended underwater search for insects below ripples of streams and rivers. The distinctive red-and-black wings of the gray alpine wall creeper set it apart from the cliff faces it ascends. The spotted woodpecker, the goldfinch, the redstart, the thrush, and the blue lit sing for wintertime food from nearby human settlements, but the finch, the lark, and the song thrush save their voices for spring. Keen eyes only will spot falcons, buzzards, and other birds of prey. When hiking at night, don't forget nocturnal birds like the tawny owl.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.