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    My First Long-Distance Hike: Walking the Isel Trail in 5 Days

    A long-distance hike for people who never thought they'd walk a multi-day trail

    Isel trail, stage 5

    The Isel Trail at a Glance

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    • Distance
      73.5 km (45.7 mi)
    • Difficulty
      medium
    • Walking time
      22 hours
    • Best time of year
      May – September
    • Starting point
      Lienz, East Tirol
    • End point
      Umbalkees / Ströden, East Tirol
    • Highest point
      2,500 m (8,200 ft)
    • Elevation gain (uphill)
      2,120 m (6,955 ft)
    • Elevation loss (downhill)
      1,380 m (4,528 ft)

    Going on a hike with all your luggage in tow? For many hikers, this might seem like a serious challenge. But once you give multi-day tours and long-distance hikes a chance, you'll quickly fall for their charms. On the way from picturesque villages to traditional mountain huts, you are able to experience more – more nature, more hospitality, more adventure. And somewhere along the way, your journey of self-sufficiency will become one of self-discovery too, finding moments of calm and mindfulness as you make your way through the Austrian countryside, carrying everything you need on your back.

    The Isel Trail

    This is where the Isel Trail comes in – a long-distance trail in East Tirol, opened in 2020. Hiking the entire course of the river Isel in 5 stages - from its mouth in the city of Lienz to its source at the Umbalkees glacier - we experience different worlds: sunny valleys, picturesque villages, fairy-tale forests, breathtaking waterfalls, and even arctic glacier landscapes.

    The first three stages in particular are suitable for families and beginners. You can also take a break and spend a day in one of the chocolate-box villages along the way, getting to know the land and its people. The best time of year to walk the Isel Trail? Between May and September.

    Your 5-Day Plan for Hiking the Isel Trail

    Day 1: Sandy Beaches and Forest Canyons

    From Lienz via Ainet to St. Johann im Walde

    • Distance: 16.2 km (10 mi)
    • Difficulty: medium
    • Walking time: 4 hours 15 minutes
    • Highest point: 752 m (2,500 ft)

    As we set out, the Isel river gently gurgles through Lienz, capital of East Tirol, a medieval town filled with colourful facades that contrast starkly with the rough Dolomite mountains behind them.

    Starting at the railway station, we stroll through the streets towards the medieval Bruck Castle towering over the city. With its turrets and crenellations, it looks like it came straight out of a children's drawing.

    We leave the city behind; the landscape starts to change. The first islands appear, then gravel banks, followed by unexpected sandy beaches that give the river an exotic touch.

    And then, the Isel shows us its magical side, when we take a quick detour into a forest canyon, where the Daberer Waterfall rushes over mossy rocks. We return to the Isel's banks and accompany the river all the way to St. Johann im Walde, a hamlet with 300 inhabitants and a red church steeple. This is where we spend our first night.

    Where to eat

    Where to sleep

    Private accommodation in St. Johann im Walde: 

    Day 2: The Turquoise, Roaring River

    From St. Johann im Walde via Huben to Matrei in East Tirol

    • Distance: 15.5 km (9.6 mi)
    • Difficulty: medium
    • Walking time: 4 hours 15 minutes
    • Highest point: 975 m (3,200 ft)

    A morning on the Isel is a good morning: We say goodbye to our hosts and leave the picturesque village of St. Johann im Walde as we head towards Huben, passing the local quarry. And again, the Isel shows us a new face, featuring numerous elongated islands and a milky blue-green colour created by melt water and attrition, reminiscent of the cocktail on our last beach holiday.

    In Huben, the time for a short break has come – from Café Landerl's panorama terrace, we marvel at wooden balconies overflowing with flowers. Later that afternoon, the valley becomes more narrow, the river wilder, both visibly and audibly: the first boulders have the water rushing and rustling. At dusk, we arrive in Matrei, located in a broad basin valley and, with 4,600 inhabitants, a veritable city.

    Where to eat

    Where to sleep

    Day 3: Of Forests and Wild Waters

    From Matrei via the Isel gorge to Prägraten am Großvenediger

    • Distance: 16.7 km (10.4 mi)
    • Difficulty: medium
    • Walking time: 5 hours 15 minutes
    • Highest point: 1,323 m (4,340 ft)

    It's day 3 already – we're starting to feel like long-distance hiking pros. And not a moment too early: today will not be easy. But at first, the Isel Trail grants us a grace period, full of wonderful woodlands. We hike south of the river through the shady valley and its dark green forests, where we feel both very small and very alive.

    Then, we spot the mountain village of Virgen on the other side. With its red roofs in front of magnificent summits, it seems to come straight out of an old film. Below the village, the Isel sweeps through a forest canyon, a harbinger of what's to come - the rough Isel gorge a few kilometres upstream.

    Here, there are no hiking paths along the river; from time to time, we are able to sneak a precious peek of the ravine. We are enjoying the wild river Isel, and then the calm river Isel again, until we reach our next stop, the village of Prägraten am Großvenediger.

    Where to eat

    • Restaurant Ortnerhof in Virgental valley: a hotel, restaurant, and horse ranch located in a 130-year-old farmhouse
    • Gasthof Schwaigerhof in Virgen: the Kuchlmair family serves up East Tirolean fare and perhaps the Virgental's best ice cream

    Where to sleep

    • Pension Schneiderhof in Prägraten: guest rooms and holiday apartments by the Isel river with views of Großvenediger mountain

    Day 4: Four Waterfalls and a Mountain Hut

    From Prägraten via Islitzeralm hut to Clarahütte hut

    • Distance: 12 km (7.5 mi)
    • Difficulty: medium
    • Walking time: 4 hours 15 minutes
    • Highest point: 2,038 m (6,686 ft)

    Today, on the fourth day of our journey, the Isel will show us its most dramatic side. It begins, as it often does, quietly: at first, the turquoise river ripples and gurgles along cheerfully. Then, the first moment that takes our breath away: in the Gloschlucht gorge, we carefully step out into a rock pulpit and see the water thunder over the rocks in white arcs, whilst the water spray conjures up rainbows in mid-air.

    Waterfall number 2 is the Strödener waterfall, at first only visible as a mysterious beauty spot from the Strödener bridge. We pass the Islitzeralm hut – a great lunch spot serving East Tirolean "Schlipfkrapfen" (filled dumplings) and Kaiserschmarren pancakes – towards the Lower and Upper Umbal Falls. And never before during our journey was the term "breathtaking" so apt: pure white water thunders down rocky steps; thanks to 30-metre-high steel constructions, we can get closer to the water than ever and are immersed in spray mist.

    And then, our surroundings change: the forest clears, and soon we're walking on treeless terrain, which - apart from a solitary shepherd and his flock - is completely untouched by human activity. Tired and happy, we arrive at Clarahütte hut, surrounded by rock-spiked slopes and truly the only lodging option on this stage of the hike.

    Where to eat

    • Gasthof Islitzer in Hinterbichl: cosy sun terrace with views of an ancient mill
    • Islitzeralm in Prägraten: traditional Tirolean cuisine and home-made cakes

    Where to sleep

    • Clarahütte: remote mountain hut, 8-bed dormitory (advance booking required!)

    Day 5: Heady Glacier Bliss

    From Clarahütte hut to the Umbalkees glacier tongue and back to Ströden

    • Distance: 16.1 km (10 mi)
    • Difficulty: medium
    • Walking time: 6 hours
    • Highest point: 2,504 m (8,215 ft)

    Today, on our last day, we are completely immersed in the glacier landscape. The surrounding land will turn steep and sparse, the Isel's water icy cold. First, we hike over meadows dotted with flowers and solitary rocks, then a terrace that was covered in glacier ice just a few decades ago. We now enter the arctic climate zone – and the sunny town of Lienz seems very far away.

    At an altitude of 2,500 metres, we reach the glacier tongue, the Isel's birthplace, where pure ice turns into blue-green water. The Umbalkees glacier's icy draught transports us to a new world, and we realise that we have now experienced the entire Isel river, from portly old age all the way to its birth. Now, we make our way back to Ströden, where we will take a bus to Lienz. We say goodbye to the Isel and the best first long-distance hike we could have wished for.

    Where to eat

    On the way back to Ströden: 

    Where to sleep

    Lienz offers a wide variety of hotels, bed & breakfasts, and private accommodation for the nights after your hike - here's a list.

    The 5 Most Beautiful Places Along the Way

    • Lower Isel in Oberlienz
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    • Isel Gorge
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    • Umbal Falls National Park Hohe Tauern East Tirol
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    • Iseltrail stage 5
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    • Iseltrail stage 5: Umbalkees glacier tongue
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    In A Nutshell

    Iseltrail in East Tyrol

    Useful Links

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    What is long-distance hiking?

    The terms multi-day tours, long-distance hikes or walks, and trekking are often used interchangeably for all hikes that take place in multiple stages and over more than one day. The term "multi-day tour" is sometimes only used to refer to shorter hikes (2-5 days), whilst "long-distance hikes" is usually used for longer tours. "Trekking" denotes hikes in uninhabited terrain that requires more equipment.

    What is the Isel Trail?

    Opened in 2020, the Isel Trail is a long-distance hiking route in East Tirol, Austria. It runs along the entire course of the Isel, the longest free-flowing glacier river in the Alps. The trail is 73.5 km (45.7 mi) long and can be hiked in 5 or more stages. Along the way, hikers will encounter a variety of landscapes, from sunny valleys and roaring waterfalls to the Isel's source at a glacier tongue. The Isel Trail's distinguishing feature is that it is not designed to offer an "easy" walk, but rather lets people experience untouched nature the way it is – even if that is not always comfortable.

    What do I need for a long-distance hike?

    Before hiking a long-distance trail for the first time, test your stamina on a longer day hike carrying a heavy backpack and choose an easy route. A good option for beginners is to take longer breaks at one or more of the villages where they are spending the night.

    In any case, don't forget to bring:

    • Multiple changes of clothing for all weathers (including rain gear)
    • Toiletries
    • First-aid kit
    • Water bottle
    • Food
    • Pocketknife
    • ID (passport)
    • Headlamp
    • Powerbank 
    • Hiking app
    Hiking equipment
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    Isel Trail: The Route

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