The Harz Mountains, the highest of the lower mountain ranges in Germany, attract countless visitors from all over Germany every year with its castles, half-timbered towns, rivers and valleys. The Harz Mountains cover 25,000 hectares and there are countless ways to explore the national park. Undoubtedly the most romantic is a ride on the Harz Narrow Gauge Railways. In our article, we introduce you to the three main lines, take a look at the history of the Harz Narrow Gauge Railways and show you the most beautiful locomotives and carriages. At the end, we have summarized some practical tips for you.
The routes of the Harz Narrow Gauge Railways
The Harz Narrow Gauge Railways network covers 140 km of track. This makes it the longest route network in Germany that is operated by steam locomotives. You can explore the Harz Mountains between Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia with the historic steam locomotives all year round.
Trans-Harz Railway (Harzquerbahn)
The route is 60 kilometers long and runs from Wernigerode in Saxony-Anhalt to Nordhausen in Thuringia, thus crossing the Harz Mountains from north to south. The Trans-Harz Railway is therefore the longest of the three Harz narrow-gauge railroads and is ideal for train fans who want to take a leisurely ride.
Wernigerode, with its many half-timbered houses, beautiful town hall and castle with museum, is an ideal starting point for the journey that follows. If you are more interested in aerospace technology, why not visit the Aviation Museum in the north of the city?
300 meter difference in altitude
Soon after leaving the town at an altitude of 234 m, the steam locomotives have to perform a real feat of strength, as the difference in altitude over Steinerne Renne to Drei Annen Hohne is a full 300 meters! The journey takes you through the Drängetal valley, the transition point between the Brocken massif and the Harz mountains with its landscape characterized by slate and granite.
The only tunnel of the Harz narrow-gauge railroads is also located here – a special experience! In Drei Annen Hohne, you’ll be spoiled for choice: you can either make the most of this hiking paradise and climb the Brocken from here. If this is too strenuous for you, you can change here to the Brockenbahn (Brocken Railway) and make your way up the highest mountain in the Harz Mountains in comfort by train.
Perfect air for world boxing champions
Would you prefer to continue straight away? No problem, we’ve only completed about a quarter of the route so far. At roughly the same altitude, the route now leads over several plateaus to Benneckenstein, where the famous heavyweight boxing world champion Max Schmeling once trained for his fights. We have already covered half of the route here. Just a few minutes later, you reach Eisfelder Talmühle station, where you can connect to the Selke Valley Railway.
Mining and schnapps in northern Thuringia
The route now leads through deep valleys with forests to Ilfeld with the Beretal valley, which is often referred to as the gateway to the Harz Mountains. Near Ilfeld, you can find out about ore mining in the southern Harz at the Lange Wand show mine. The journey then takes you past several rivers to Nordhausen Nord, the terminus of this line of the Harz Narrow Gauge Railways .
Nordhausen is already located in the north of Thuringia. Beautiful half-timbered houses and several museums await you here too. If you need a schnapps after the long drive, why not visit the Nordhausen distillery? Among other things, the famous Nordhäuser Doppelkorn is produced here – cheers!
Selke Valley Railway (Selketalbahn)
The Selke Valley Railway was originally known as the Gernrode-Harzgerode Railway, but the new name is much more catchy. The railroad owes its name to the Selke river, whose course it partly follows. The Selke Valley Railway has been in operation since 1887, making it the oldest of the Harz narrow-gauge railroads.
In fact, it should no longer exist, as the tracks on part of the line went to the Soviet Union as a reparation payment after the Second World War. In the 1980s, however, it was reinstalled, partly to supply a combined heat and power plant with lignite. The Selke Valley Railway now starts in Quedlinburg and ends at Eisfelder Talmühle station, where you can change to the Trans-Harz Railway.
Quedlinburg – half-timbered town with UNESCO World Heritage Site
Quedlinburg is best known for the treasure in the collegiate church of St. Servati, which contains valuable sculptures, paintings and many relics. Due to its unique historical buildings, the city is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, so you should take enough time to visit it before setting off. Quedlinburg has only been part of the Selke Valley Railway since 2006. The historic line ended in Gernrode, from here trains ran in standard gauge. However, Deutsche Bahn discontinued operations on this section and fortunately the Harz Narrow Gauge Railways took over and extended the section to Quedlinburg.
From the cuckoo clock to the waterfall
It’s worth taking a break in Gernrode. The VEB Harzer Uhren was located here and cuckoo clocks are still made here today. How about a visit to the museum of this traditional company? Here you can also admire the world’s largest cuckoo clock outside the Black Forest. From Gernrode, the route continues along the historic route past the Osterteich pond and the Holy Pond to Sternhaus and from there on through the eponymous Selke Valley. You can take great photos in the picturesque landscape with its high cliffs. Between Mägdesprung and Alexisbad is the Selke Falls, an artificial waterfall created in the 19th century.
From Anhalt in the Harz Mountains to the mining museum
The route then continues onto the Harzgerode plateau. In Harzgerode, a 14th century castle awaits you, where the Anhalt princes once resided. Harzgerode also marks the end of the first section of the Selke Valley Railway. Via Silberhütte you reach Straßberg-Glasebach. The region was already characterized by mining in the Middle Ages. You can find out about the history of mining in the region at the Glasebach Mine Museum.
Watch out, mousetrap!
Now you leave the plateau and the Selke Valley Railway leads uphill again to Güntersberge. There is actually a mousetrap museum here. And because that’s not crazy enough for the people of Güntersberg, many other curiosities have been collected here. Via Friedrichshöhe and Albrechtshaus, the route continues to Stiege, where it branches off to Hasselfelde, the end of the second section of the Selke Valley Railway. The railroad continues along the connecting line to Birkenmoor and then downhill to Beretal and then to Eisfelder Talmühle station, where you can change to the Trans-Harz Railway.
Brocken Railway (Brockenbahn)
A ride on the Brocken Railway (Brockenbahn) is one of the most beautiful vacation experiences in the Harz Mountains and the route is perhaps the most beautiful of the Harz Narrow Gauge Railways. The route has existed since the end of the 19th century and the steam locomotives give the impression that time has stood still here. It takes a good 1 hour and 40 minutes to get from Wernigerode to the south on the same route as the Trans-Harz Railway, before you can change to the Brockenbahn at Drei Annen Hohe.
Once in a circle around the Brocken
If you want to get on the train there first, the journey only takes around 50 minutes. The beauty of the route is that you not only travel through picturesque forest and mountain scenery on the way, but the train virtually circles the mountain once before reaching the summit. So you can admire the Brocken from all sides.
At 1142 meters, the Brocken is by far the highest peak in Saxony-Anhalt and Northern Germany. This section of the Harz narrow-gauge railroad ends with the breathtaking view you can enjoy from here. The station is located 1125 meters above sea level, making it the highest narrow-gauge railway station in Germany. The last few meters on foot should then no longer be a problem thanks to the well-developed paths.
Goethe and the witches on the Brocken
There are few places in our country that are surrounded by as many legends and stories as the often icy cold Brocken. This is mainly due to the fact that the Brocken is often surrounded by fog. Demons, witches and many other creatures have always stimulated people’s imaginations. The Brocken is said to be the meeting place for the witches’ Sabbath on Walpurgis Night, which not only inspired Goethe to write his “Faust”. Whether you believe in witches and demons or not – there really is a ghost here! The Brocken ghost is a natural phenomenon and is based on a mirage. Strange outlines in the fog really do look as if the place is haunted!
Find out more about nature in the Harz National Park
On the Brocken you can visit the National Park Visitor Center Brockenhaus about the history and nature of the region and be taken on a virtual flight with a witch’s broom! The trip is possible all year round. In summer, up to eleven trains go up the Brocken every day, in winter there are six. Whether in summer or winter, a ride on the Brockenbahn is definitely an experience at any time of year! The only disadvantage is that the journey on the Brockenbahn is not really cheap, currently costing 31 euros for a one-way trip and 47 euros for a return trip.
Locomotives of the Harz Narrow Gauge Railways
First of all: not only old steam locomotives run on the lines of the Harz Narrow Gauge Railways , but also quite ordinary diesel locomotives. The route is the same, but a ride on the trains is of course an experience, especially because of the old locomotives. You should therefore find out which locomotive is used on which line at which time in order to have the best travel experience.
997231 to 7247
25 steam locomotives are still in operation. The vast majority of them are of type 997231 to 7247 (old designation 99 231 to 247) and were used by the Reichsbahn, as the railroad was called in the GDR, from the mid-1950s, and then in modernized form from the 1970s. In the GDR, the locomotives were equipped with an oil main firing system for several years. After the energy crisis at the beginning of the 1980s, however, they were converted back to coal operation.
99 5901 to 5903
However, many of the locomotives are much older and date from the first half of the 20th century. Three of the locomotives 99 5901 to 5903 (NWE 11 to 22) still exist today, but only two of them are still operational. They were manufactured in the 1930s by the Berliner Maschinenbau-Actien-Gesellschaft.
Locomotive 99 5906 only exists once. However, it is currently being repaired and, like the locomotives from Berlin mentioned above, is a so-called Mallet locomotive. This type of locomotive was specially developed in France for winding lines and is therefore ideal for use on the lines of the Harz narrow gauge railroads. It was built in Karlsruhe in 1918 and was originally intended for military purposes.
99 6001, 996101, 996102 and 99 7222
One example of the LOK 99 6001 (NWE no. 21) has also survived. The company responsible was Krupp from Essen. It is the only example of this prototype in the world. After reunification, it was briefly painted green, which is why it was also known as the “Laubfrosch”, but today it is back to its classic black color. “Pfiffi and Fiffi” are the names of the two beautiful locomotives of types 996101 and 6102 (NWE 6 and 7). They were manufactured by the Kassel-based company Henschel during the First World War. The final locomotive is 99 7222, which still runs today mostly under the old designation 99222 and was manufactured in Berlin.
As mentioned above, there are also some diesel railcars and diesel locomotives. Of course, a ride on such a train is less exciting, but the models from Dessau, Aachen and Heidelberg, which date back to the 1930s and 1950s, are beautiful to look at. Some of the newer models are also standard locomotives that have been specially converted for use on the narrow gauge.
Practical tips on the Harz Narrow Gauge Railways
All important information about the Harz Narrow Gauge Railways can be found on the website of the operating company HSB. It is responsible for all three lines and also organizes the special tours described below.
The practical thing about the Harz Narrow Gauge Railways is that their terminus stations are well connected to the German rail network. Wernigerode, the starting point of the Trans-Harz Railway, can be easily reached by train from Hanover, Braunschweig, Goslar, Halberstadt, Magdeburg, Berlin, Halle an der Saale and Leipzig.
The Brocken Railway starts at the station at Drei Annen Hohe. You can either take a section of the Trans-Harz Railway to get here, or you can park your car here, as there are plenty of parking spaces available.
Finally, Quedlinburg marks the start of the Selke Valley Railway and is easy to reach from Halberstadt, Magdeburg, Berlin, Halle an der Saale and Leipzig.
The HSB organizes a variety of special tours, which you can view here. There is a whole range of exciting tours at different times of the year, for example on New Year’s Eve, in the run-up to Christmas or at Easter, as well as special trips at dusk, with a murder mystery dinner or a wine tasting.