The Berchtesgaden National Park occupies the southeast corner of Germany, comprising a large portion of the state of Bavaria and bordering Austria's province of Salzburg. The park was established in 1978 by a decree from the Bavarian government. It is a lush expanse of 218 sq. km (85 sq. miles), with altitudes ranging from 540m (1,771 ft.) at lowland Königssee to the towering Watzmann Mountain.

The 2,670m (8,758-ft.) Watzmann, the Königssee, and parts of the Jenner -- the pride of Berchtesgaden's four ski areas -- are within the boundaries of the national park, which has well-mapped trails cut through protected areas. Conservation goals and preservation of the natural ecosystems take precedence in the park. An effort is made to keep visitor impact low and to make visitors aware of the ecosystem's fragility.

Limestone dominates most of the rock bed, suggesting that this was once a highly aquatic region. Formed by sediment deposited on the ocean floor 200 million years ago, the rock folded and lifted. Although most of the accompanying sandstone has eroded away, the limestone remains. The steep mountain valleys and moraines suggest recent glacial recession was responsible for many of the grand landscapes found in the park. Of the several Alpine lakes that dot the landscape, the most significant is the Königssee, Germany's cleanest, clearest lake.

Atlantic and continental influences characterize the climate. A substantial annual rainfall fosters the heavy forestation of the region. The valleys receive approximately 152 centimeters (60 in.) of rainfall a year, while the mountains are doused by approximately 279 centimeters (110 in.) annually.

Vegetation varies according to the altitude. Nearly half of the vegetation is deciduous forest, interspersed with spruce and pines, and a third of the vegetation sprouts on rock debris and in crevices. The mixed mountain forest thrives below 1,350m (4,429 ft.); the coniferous forest above it reaches up to 1,650m (5,413 ft.); and above that, wind-dwarfed bushes and Alpine meadows predominate. Once the forest was exploited for salt mines; it's now overpopulated and overgrazed by game.

In spring, summer, and autumn, many different rare species of plants flower. (They are protected, and don't live long once picked, so they should be left for the next person to enjoy.) 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 still inhabit the area, but other animals -- the wolf, lynx, bear, and golden vulture -- once thriving inhabitants, have not survived.

Information about hiking in the park is provided by the Nationalparkhaus, Franziskanerplatz 7, 83471 Berchtesgaden (tel. 08652/64343).

The Natural World of the Alps

Many Alpine animals such as the lynx, otter, and Alpine ibex have all but disappeared from the Bavarian Alps. Other endangered animals include wildcats, susliks, certain nesting birds, toads, and fish.

An effort undertaken to reintroduce species eradicated from their habitats by hunters and farmers has been an unqualified success. Brown bears have been sighted in increased numbers over recent years, along with migrating elk. Wolves have not reemerged since their ultimate annihilation in the 1950s (attempts in the U.S. to reintroduce wolves in the American Rocky Mountains have been mired in controversy). Without any check on their numbers by their natural enemies, the deer and stag population has enjoyed such exponential growth that hunting in some regions has become necessary to keep the population in check and preserve the natural balance.

Other species continue to thrive in the Alpine environment. Unobtrusive hikers will find the Alps teeming with creatures -- the chamois gracefully bounding up Alpine heights, golden eagles in circling flight, the griffon vulture floating with its intimidating 9-foot (2.7m) wingspread. A hiker might even be befriended by a marmot or an Alpine chough basking in a sunny meadow. Never threaten the gentle marmot or you might learn why it's nicknamed the whistle pig. The hill country and low mountain ranges are often home to badgers, martens, and hares. Hedgehogs are rare, one of the endangered species of rodents.

Ornithologists literally have a field day in the Bavarian Alps. The range of birds is immense. Great white herons guide you on a teasing trail -- they pause for respite along the Danube's banks long enough for you to catch up to them, only to depart in flight to another sanctuary 66 feet (20m) downstream. Storks, marsh warblers, gray geese, spoonbills, and terns can also be sighted. The streak of blue you see may be a blue kingfisher, diving for insects in the rippling of streams and rivers. The distinctive red and black wings of the gray Alpine wall creeper distinguish it from the gray cliff faces it ascends. The spotted woodpecker, goldfinch, redstart, thrush, and bluelit barter sing all winter, but the finch, lark, and song thrush save their voices for spring. Keen eyes only will spot falcons, buzzards, and other birds of prey. Don't forget to watch for nocturnal birds like the tawny owl if you're hiking at night.

Of course, if you spend the entire time with your head in the clouds, you'll miss what's underfoot. Edelweiss are the harbingers of spring. They blossom ahead of most wildflowers, often cropping up amid a blanket of snow, enjoying a short and fragile life. The season for mountain wildflowers varies depending on spring temperatures and snowpack. Most wildflowers blossom by the end of July or early August. Many are protected; it is against the law to pick them or take the plants. More than 40,000 plant species are threatened by extinction worldwide, and the Alps are no exception. In any case, the snowdrop, the pink meadow saffron, and the gorgeous colors of the mountain rose and gentian are finest in their natural setting in flowering Alpine meadows. You can, however, pick the bluebills, pinks, cornflowers, buttercups, daisies, and primroses that blossom in such abundance.

You might even find a snack along your trail -- wild raspberries, strawberries, bilberries, blackberries, cranberries, flap mushrooms, chanterelles, and parasol mushrooms are often found. However, edible varieties can be easily confused with inedible or poisonous varieties -- know what you're picking and be careful. Autumn in the mountains brings an array of colors and splendor with the turning of the leaves. Those interested in finding out more about the flora of Bavaria can visit an Alpine garden or an instructional guided path.

An ongoing effort is being made to conserve the area's valuable biotopes -- high-altitude forest, water marshes, and the specialized plant life of steep cliffs and mountain banks. Nature reserves buffer the detrimental impact of agriculture and forestry, and outside their domains, farmland has been reallocated to include low-yield cultivation and extended pastures. But it's also important that hikers be sensitive to their ecological impact as they enjoy nature in the Alps.

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.