Obergurgl. It sounds different to any other Austrian resort because, well, it is different. Very. Despite being situated in the Tyrol but in many ways atypical of a traditional Tyrolean ambiance, this certainly doesn’t detract from the unique cachet it holds in the minds of hikers, skiers and those wishing to find peace at literally the ‘end of the road’.
Obergurgl, in complete contrast to the likes of St. Anton is a small, sleepy settlement, albeit relatively enlivened in the winter when the ski season can start as early as mid November. As part of the triumvirate of ‘gurgls’ in the area – Untergurgl and the purpose-built and more elevated satellite settlement of Hochgurgl being the other two – Obergurgl has a purported population of 400 but on a quite summers day one wonders where even these people reside. Some higher altitude resorts have a feeling in the summer months of being closed for business and whilst much of Obergurgl’s accommodation stock is shut between May and November, I have never felt the village to resemble a ghost town, perhaps due to the strange fascination I have with seeing how the empty hotels are ceaselessly being developed to eek out another suite of rooms, a further Wellness centre or an extension to an existing dining room, all on improbably small parcels of land. Of course, with the summer season being Obergurgl’s off-peak period and the only months where snow is unlikely to fall in vast quantities, these are the months where the preparation for the long winter season takes places in earnest. Usually accompanied by the obligatory yellow Liebherr crane moving silently and indefatigably against the stark mountain vistas, construction work over the last fifteen years has seen Obergurgl grow exponentially to surely now its absolute limit. Considering a village literally at the end of the road has only a finite amount of land to work with, it has at times become difficult to the untrained eye to work out where one hotel ends and another begins. Whilst the builds are tasteful and seemingly of the highest quality, the interminable desire to out do the hotel next door or one down the road, not to mention the next resort, has gone from being laudably entrepreneurial to something bordering vulgar. Talking of such, I am at a loss as to how anybody in the planning department in Imst, or whichever town hosts the decision-makers for Obergurgl, could sanction the construction of the Josl and Lohmann abominations. Having never stayed in either hotel I am not in a position to condemn the service they provide but purely from an aesthetic point of view, I find their respective designs to be distasteful and incompatible which such a dramatic and historic location.
Obergurgl is my first Austrian love and as a consequence, I have only ever ventured there in the summer and early autumn. I say this from a perspective of not wishing to see the village overrun with a disproportionate amount of skiers, which, despite reports I hear of short queues at ski lifts and uncongested pistes, I can only assume arrive en masse for the almost cast-iron guarantee of natural snow, if the size of the hotels which are shut in the summer months are anything to go by. No hard-nosed Austrian businessman is going to build a monolithic hotel without the promise of it being filled by skiers for five months of the year.
It is therefore the hiking which draws me to Obergurgl. Granted, despite its status as Austria’s highest parish, at 6300 feet at village level alone, the walking is not the hardest, albeit at an intermediate level but a notch or two down from the likes of Lech, Galtuer and St. Anton. Harder walking though doesn’t necessarily make it more pleasant and I think therein lies the issue with Obergurgl. The walking is of a sufficient standard to keep even the most experienced hiker interested and with the odd exception, doesn’t stray into dangerous, expert-only territory. Nevertheless, the usual precautions that should be observed in the Alps apply never more so than here but regardless of your ability and experience, there is, after a certain level of acclimatization, walking to suit all.
The village itself, aside from the already mentioned mixture of open and closed hotels (they are of course all open in the winter) contains the usual suspects: a well stocked Spar supermarket, a couple of cafe bars, an excellent bakery opposite the Hotel Hochfirst, tourism office and a well stocked sports shop, usually offering an excellent sale section containing the likes of Salomon and Deuter. Without any uphill momentum though there is little point in visiting Obergurgl but thankfully, as you would expect in Austria, the village is extremely well-serviced by two cableways, the Hoehe Mut, centrally located and close to the ever popular, if somewhat leviathan-like Hotel Edelweiss and Gurgl and The Hochgurglbahn, situated on the extreme edge of Obergurgl and more, if anything, in Untergurgl. The Hochgurglbahn, unlike the Hoehe Mut which operates daily, usually runs every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday and subject to visibility levels which can be particularly capricious, even on the most bluebird of days in the Oetztal, takes passengers to the Top Mountain Star restaurant at just over 3000 metres, a truly spectacular piece of modern architecture, notwithstanding the position it finds itself in. From here you have the Oetz valley in front of you, Italy to your rear. It is also possible to scale the Wurmkogel peak from the Hochgurglbahn top-station, a walk that will take 10-15 minutes to the gipfelkreutz and is secured with metal cables, for those who might find the ascent a little hair-raising. A truly memorable experience, if one is afforded the requisite kindness from the visibility gods.
There are innumerable walking opportunities for those based in Obergurgl, too many for this blog which doesn’t wish to personally discriminate without knowing the particular abilities or desires of its readers. It would though be a shame for those with lesser ambitions to miss out on visiting the Schonweishuette, a short but steep walk from the Hoehe Mut middle station, as it would for those advanced in alpinism to pass up the opportunity of scaling the Hangerer peak. Topping out at 3021 metres and presenting those embarking on its summit with a real, technical test, the “Oetztal Matterhorn” is best approached from the top station of the Hoehe Mut. Intermediate tests of ability can be found by walking to the Langtalereckhuette and further still the Hochwildehaus, a more appropriately named (high and wild) refuge you will struggle to find. This is also a fine base should one wish to embark on a multi day hut-to-hut tour including the highlight of trekking over the Gurgler glacier, although, this should without any exception be done only when accompanied by a local guide. You will also have to make special provision in your travel insurance should you wish to trek at altitudes over 3000 metres AND if you desire to walk on and across glaciers.
Many people will have heard of Otzi the mummified iceman, found in 1991 and carbon-dated to be over 5300 years old. Whilst his moniker suggests that he was found in the Oetz valley he was in fact located above the nearby village of Vent, only marginally lower in altitude than Obergurgl and situated in the charming Venttal, accessible by road and by public transport from Obergurgl, changing buses at Zwieselstein. The exact location (fundstelle) where Otzi was found is only really accessible as part of a multi-day hike but as less strenuous alternatives, a mock up of how Otzi MIGHT have lived can be found down the Otz Valley in Umhausen, or, and more preferably, to view the man himself, a trip over the border to the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano is a perfect antidote to a rainy day in Obergurgl. Otzi Dorf in Umhausen offers a unashamed slice of tourist kaese, complete with actors/actresses dressing in the style of the 3300 BC day, to accompany ‘authentic’ living accommodation. For me, the best reason to visit Umhausen is to view the Stuiben waterfalls, the highest in the Tyrol and perpetually spectacular, especially after high levels of precipitation and during an accelerated period of snow melt.
This blog post only wishes to serve as a mere introduction to all that Obergurgl and the wider Oetz Valley has to offer. I hope my short taste of its riches inspires you to find out more.