When hiking I really enjoy a route with a purpose, and what better purpose than to visit another country for the day?! As soon as I heard of the Pfitscher Joch trail linking the Ziller Valley to South-Tyrol in Italy, it went straight to the top of my list of hikes to do. And the experience didn’t disappoint. The trail has everything a good hike should have; stunning scenery with waterfalls, glaciers, reservoirs and much more, gentle sections to enjoy the beauty of the trail, a challenging climb at the end to earn your lunch, a great hut and even a fascinating history.
To reach the start of the Pfitscher Joch, take a bus (or drive) from Mayrhofen, through the picturesque village of Ginzling, to the Schlegeis reservoir in the heart of the Zillertal Nature Park. Keen cyclists may like to go by bike, but beware; this journey involves an ascent of almost 1000m (to 1760m) before you even start the hike! The alpine road (which is a toll road) is an experience in itself with 8 hairpin bends and 4 tunnels leading up to the impressive reservoir.
Technology meets nature
On a sunny day, the still waters of the Schlegeis reservoir are a spectacular, sparkling blue reflecting the surrounding peaks (many over 3000m) and untouched glaciers. In my opinion, this amazing location makes the reservoir more lovely than many of Tyrol’s natural lakes. The 725m wide and 131m tall dam is a stark but strangely beautiful contrast against the wild nature of its surroundings. Hydroelectricity has been harnessed here since 1972 and those who want to find out more about this can enjoy a tour within the dam (daily, from June to October).
The smuggler’s path
Follow the road around the reservoir until you reach the far car park and ‘Zamsergatterl’ snack shop. Path 524 is well signposted and easy to find. Following the gushing ‘Zams’ stream, it starts on a gentle incline past green meadows and grazing cows. Impressive waterfalls can be seen on the opposite mountainsides and a rock marked ‘Venedig’ (Venice!) helpfully tells you that you are headed in the right direction. Whilst the path today is well walked and well maintained, it remains conspicuously remote and the altitude, wild landscape and nearby glaciers are testament to the challenges faced by travellers before tourism arrived. It is difficult to imagine that this path has been used since the stone ages and was once a popular route for smuggling valuable commodities such as salt, sugar and tobacco.
Slowly, the path begins to get steeper until you pass the Lavitz Alm (after approximately 1 hour). At this point, the final climb to the border is visible in front of you. I’ve heard it called ‘the hiker knackerer’ (!) and certainly this is the steepest part of the hike. However, this section isn’t long and, taking it slow and steady, you will be rewarded by fabulous views back down the valley to the reservoir and, soon enough (at 2276m), the border post to ‘Italia’!
Pazzo di Vizzo (Pfitscher Joch)
Just beyond the border post lies the Pfitscher Joch hut, the oldest private protected mountain hut in Alto Adige (South Tyrol). It was first built by the Great-grandfather of the present owner in 1888 and was even used as customs hut following World War II. The hut has a large terrace overlooking the Italian side of the path and those who wish to continue can descend further into Italy. Whilst there is no pizza on offer (!), the bilingual menu will give you the opportunity to learn the name of Tyrolean specials in Italian too and Spaghetti Bolognese is included for those who want to feel that they are truly in Italy!
Back to Österreich
The reward for the approximately 2 hour ascent to the hut is that the return to the reservoir (along the same path) is all downhill. There is a circular route, less busy than route 524, via the Olperer hut, but this is a difficult path which will add approximately 4 hours to your hike. If you arrive early for your bus, the Dominiskus hut or Schlegeis restaurant are perfect places to wait, rest your weary feet and enjoy some last views of the reservoir.
Once is not enough!
Since, the first time I hiked the Pfitscher Joch I have returned again and again, taking friends and family as well as guiding visitors while working as a tour guide. Each and every person I have walked with has been captivated by this trail, and for many it is one of the reasons why they return again and again to Mayrhofen-Hippach.
For bus timetables visit www.mayrhofen.at/service/fahrplaene/