With my left hand clenched on the via ferrata fixed line and my right hand cradling my camera, I looked over my shoulder to see how the other three were faring. Not far from reaching our first col of the day—a small saddle between two jagged peaks—the trail was steep and slick from overnight rain, and visibility was comparable to a bowl of soup.
Jenny smiled back at me with her signature grin, bundled in all of her warm layers, plus a few of mine. Her brother, Chris, wasn’t far behind, taking a moment to frame up his own shot of the mist dancing around the ridgeline. This small cirque was stunning, making it hard to put our cameras down and keep walking forward. Annelie, the last in our party, had opted for a different route, and wasn’t far behind.
The Eagle Way is Austria’s premier hiking trail, stretching 256 miles through the heart of the Alps. We were tackling just the section in East Tirol, the most mountainous and rugged province, over the course of a week. Each night we stayed at a small mountain-top refugio, enjoying a warm home-cooked meal and comfortable bed. This also allowed us to carry just a daypack’s worth of gear, and go farther each day. This route is the European version of the Appalachian Trail, but with a much deeper history and culture surrounding it. Soldiers used the Eagle Way in World War II to fortify positions, mountaineering pioneers used it to access historic climbs, and many hikers today consider it a must-do pilgrimage.
Many sections are steep and rugged, yet very well marked with red and white paint on rocks, and signposts at every junction. We often joked that you barely need a map because the route is quite easy to follow. It’s almost as if the Eagle Way is woven into the fabric of the mountains, almost as old as the rocks, glaciers, and streams that it meanders by. For those interested in following our footsteps, here are the basic logistics for making it happen.
Getting There: Planes & Trains
We opted to fly into Innsbruck, Austria, and take a two-hour shuttle to Tirol. This is the conventional and easiest way to do the southern Tirol section because it is the most remote. For most of the Eagle Way, Innsbruck is the best jumping off point, with many trailheads in the peaks just outside city limits. For the far western reaches, it’s a train ride from Zurich. Or for the eastern end of the trail you could fly into Munich and train to Austria to start your hike. Generally speaking, the best option is a roundtrip ticket to Innsbruck.
Gear & Food: The Hut-to-Hut Experience
We stayed at a different remote mountain hut each night, starting in the quaint hamlet of Ströden and making our way to the slightly larger town of Ködnitzhof—a total of 65 miles of hiking. Along the way, we stayed at Johannishütte the first night, nestled in a quaint alpine valley. The second night we stayed at Bonn Matreier Hütte, perched high with stunning 36-views, and were warmly welcomed by the family owners. The next night we stayed at Matreier Tauernhaus, in the small town of Tauer. The fourth night we stayed at Kalser Tauernhaus, another family-owned and incredibly welcoming abode. On the last day, we stayed at Gasthof Ködnitzhof.
Each hut was slightly different, some with shared rooms and some with private ones, and each had their own homemade menu, history, and flavor. These safe havens allowed us to pack light, carrying just a daypack while still feeling safe and well-prepared. There were also huts mid-hike, giving us places to have a tasty lunch, a warm cup of coffee on a rainy day, or even a mid-afternoon beer if we liked. Some of our favorites included Essener Hütte, Sajathütte, Eissee Hütte, Badener Hut, and Stüdlhütte on our last day.
Other than the basics, like a smart first aid kit, water, headlamp, and sunscreen, I had a few items that really made the trip comfortable. I wore a new pair of HOKA Mafate Speed 4s which proved to be the perfect footwear, drying quickly after wet days, giving me great grip on loose terrain, and being comfortable for long, eight-plus hours hiking each day. I wore an Arcteryx Beta LT Rain Jacket, which proved bomber in a few downpours, and a Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Hoody for an extremely lightweight, warm layer. I loved the Julbo Meta sunglasses for style and function, and tracked the entire route on the Garmin Enduro 2, which I consider the best GPS watch on the market. All of this was thrown into a Patagonia Slope Runner Expedition pack prototype that has since launched and is worth the hype.
Weather & Why You Should Go
Like most mountains around the world, weather in the Austrian Alps is fickle and changes quickly. The best time to visit is June through September, but you’re never guaranteed a warm, sunny week. Even in mid-summer it can storm for days on end. That said, the huts offer a great place to dry out and warm up, so even if you’ve been hiking in the worst of it, the trip will still feel comfortable and safe.
The biggest draw wasn’t the vastness of the place or the beauty of the peaks that surround the trail (both of which are impressive in their own right), but instead the people we met along the way. For an entire week, we didn’t see another American. The trail was relatively empty and the folks we did meet along the way or in huts were almost exclusively Germans and Austrians, taking a holiday or a long weekend hike. This made us feel like we were locals, not just visiting for a week.
Further, every single hut we stepped into was warm and inviting, even as we struggled our way through ordering drinks and food using the few German words we knew. Most of them are run by a family, and you can see the parents and kids all helping out in the kitchen and with chores all around the property. It’s an experience unlike anything you can get in the U.S., making the entire trip a whole lot richer.