“Hohegeiß: The capital of the oldest trees in the Harz Mountains.”

They’re giants from a time long gone. 50 metres tall, they tower above all other trees in the Wolfsbach valley near Hohegeiß in the southern Harz Mountains. The “Dicke Tannen” (“Thick Firs”) – as they are called – are at least over 300 years old, but are slowly reaching their age limit. There are still 18 of them. The Wolfsbach Valley is a unique biotope in which “small primeval forests” alternate with mountain meadows. If you are looking for absolute silence – only interrupted by the clattering of the black stork, the knocking of the woodpecker and the cooing of the stock dove – the four-kilometre-long hiking trail will be an experience of a special kind for you. For tourists who would like to explore the secrets of the forest, Hohegeiß is a “secret tip”. This becomes clear in a conversation with the local district forester Matthias Lüttgau.

Hohegeiß is the capital of the oldest trees in the Harz Mountains. In the gnarled branches woodpeckers find a bountiful table – small caterpillars and other insects.

“In the Valley of the Dicke Tannen”

The giants of the Wolfsbachtal, of which there were 119 in 1893 (58 in 1978), are scattered over an area of four hectares. According to Matthias Lüttgau, their exact age cannot be clearly determined. They could even be up to 400 years old.

Calling them “Dicke Tannen” (“Thick Firs”) is actually not quite correct. The vernacular often uses the term fir for the spruce of the Harz, and older Harzers would sometimes have called the spruce “red fir”.

Are the “Dicke Tannen” the highest trees in the Harz? Lüttgau does not want to commit to it. “In any case, the oldest.” There once were quite high spruce trees in Westerhof between Seesen and Gandersheim, as well. “Nobody has probably measured yet, whether those in Hohegeiß are higher.”

Although the “Dicke Tannen” stand in the valley, they tower over sycamores, beeches, ash trees and elms of the same age. This becomes particularly clear when the deciduous trees have no leaves.

“Up to 5 meters circumference”

Although the trees stand deep in the Wolfsbach valley, they easily overlook the sycamores, beeches and ash trees of the same age. The strongest of them have a circumference of five meters. Apparently they managed to survive the last hurricanes unharmed…. “Unfortunately not.” Lüttgau replies. “During the storm ‘Friederike’ some of them were blown over again. The spruce trees have now reached an age limit. ” In forester jargon some would say they are “a little red-rotted inside.” Triggers can be for example the Hallimasch mushroom or the bark beetle. On the other hand, Friederike also affected a very healthy tree with wonderful white wood. “He was really twisted off by a strong gust.”

Sometimes it doesn’t even need a storm to make a giant fall. Lüttgau: “On a windless summer day, my wife and I were sitting on the terrace when a thick spruce fell over. It crashed so hard that you could sense it all the way up to Hohegeiß. After that, I went straight down to the valley to check it out.”

“Ancient beauty”

Even after 300 years: Still a full needle dress from the top to the bottom.

But there are still very healthy, ancient spruces. A splendid specimen can be found at the entrance of the Wolfsbach Valley, near the hotel/restaurant “Wolfsbachmühle”. It is wearing a wonderful needle dress from the top to the bottom and from one side you will get a surprising view of the arm-thick branches – the woodpeckers’ favourite place, for here they’ll find a bountiful table.

Of course, a forester like Lüttgau, who is responsible for a total of 1,620 hectares of forest, knows the reason for the magnificent needle dress: In former times the spruce could have been a solitary tree standing on a meadow, always getting enough light and thus being able to develop well without the competitive pressure of other trees. Spruces, which actually love sour soil, benefit from standing in a mixed forest, as the leaf fall provides a wide array of nutrients.

How come the spruces never landed on the radar screen of the sawmills? Matthias Lüttgau assumes that the valley was inaccessible in the 17th and 18th century, especially since the removal of tree trunks was carried out with horses at that time. Later, they became uninteresting for the timber industry as they no longer fitted into the saw frame due to their circumference. At some point someone had the idea to put the trees under protection.

“Taking care of the ecological heritage”

For valuable habitats such as the Wolfsbach Valley, protective measures are a matter of course. In 1989, the district of Goslar thought the same way and declared the area “Dicke Tannen” a natural monument because of its “rarity, uniqueness and beauty”. “Unfortunately, this decision was reversed in 2008,” Lüttgau regrets, “because securing the hiking trails against falling branches costs the district a lot of money. “Today the protective function is part of the forest administration’s responsibilities again.”

One of the main tasks of district foresters is to deal easily and naturally with technical terms such as process protection, FFH Directive, Harz landscape conservation area, hotspot and natural forest development. It is not easy for outsiders to keep track of such things. Which of these measures are important for the Wolfsbach Valley, Mr Lüttgau? On European level, it’s the FFH Directive, according to which plants (flora), animals (fauna) and habitats can be protected. On district level there is a regulation called “Landscape Protection Area Harz”. From Matthias Lüttgau’s point of view, however, the “Natural Forest Development 10” programme has the greatest significance. The areas protected by this programme will no longer be touched.  Speaking in technical jargon, this means “absolute process protection”, i.e. there are no forestry activities at all. Fallen trees remain lying, dead ones remain standing. Only hiking trails are cleared and protected from falling branches, as are streams so that the water is not dammed up.

Matthias Lüttgau is one of those who advocated the comprehensive process protection of a selected area from the outset – previously only individual trees and groups of trees were placed under protection. “Thus in the forest’s phase of aging and decay a valuable habitat for many animals and plants is created.” A consistent process protection can be observed in many places of the Harz today. The 4.2-hectare habitat tree area in the Wolfsbach Valley is also the reason for the enormous biodiversity of this habitat. Lüttgau: “In the past, you would have used the term ‘hotspot’ for such an area, as a paraphrase for the highest, most worthy of protection.”

Doesn’t the process protection lead to conflicts with the timber industry and a loss of revenue for the tax authorities? For Matthias Lüttgau this view is not valid. According to the forester, there are still enough forest areas that can be used for forestry. And the Lower Saxonian State Institute of Forestry, based in Braunschweig, is not urged to achieve fixed sales targets either. On the contrary: The demand to protect a certain percentage of the forest has come from the Landtag.

“50 endangered plant species”

As a forester, Matthias Lüttgau is always enthusiastic about the diversity of species in the Wolfsbach Valley: “It is, so to speak, a small national park. Here woodpeckers find insects in abundance and old woodpecker holes, in turn, can be used by stock doves to brood. In hardly a corner of the Harz there are as many spotted woodpeckers as here.” Because of the mountain meadows and many brooks, the black stork also likes to come here and, as a very rare guest, the Peregrine Falcon, whose breeding sites Lüttgau does not want to reveal, for a good reason.

Something else that makes the district forester’s eyes spark is talking the numerous rare plant species, among them the red-listed moon-viole. It feels particularly comfortable in humid brook valleys and has a moon-shaped leaf that takes on a transparent, silvery tone in autumn. On the mountain meadows of Hohegeiß you will find 50 other endangered plant species, including six different orchids, arnica, globeflower, spignel, cranesbill, tiger lily and meadow saffron.

Pure idyll: The forest guesthouse Wolfsbachmühle.

“Eye-catcher: Wolfsbachmühle”

The name of the Wolfsbach valley and the Wolfsberg remind us that there were wolves here about 250 years ago. Lüttgau: “The last one was shot in 1756 between Hohegeiß and Zorge.”

If you start your hike in the town centre of Hohegeiß, you can stop off after about 800 metres at the “Wolfsbachmühle” forest inn – a world away in a pure idyll. Matthias Lüttgau only has words of praise for the home-made cooking offered here (“great food, nice service, real prices”). Sometimes, trout and game can be found on the menu as well.

The building was built shortly after 1700 and operated as a grain mill for 200 years. Since the mill’s closure it has been used as a hotel and restaurant.

View on Hohegeiß

“Tourism is making good use of Hohegeiß’ capacity”

What characterizes Hohegeiß today? Matthias Lüttgau doesn’t have to think long: With 1000 inhabitants and located at an altitude of 642 metres, it is the highest spa and winter sports resort in the Harz Mountains. An old mountain village on the former inner-German border, from where you can look far into the Thuringian Mountains.

Today Hohegeiß is strongly based on tourism, on people who would like to enjoy the silence of nature, hiking or mountain biking. For some time, the place had been on a descending branch. But this changed after the opening of the border, because of the larger catchment area – Halle, Leipzig and above all Thuringia. Lüttgau:  “Holiday flats and hotels are now well booked again. And more and more Dutch people are buying houses here. “Whether this is already due to the coastal towns’ fear of climate change, Lüttgau leaves open. But he does say one thing about this topic: “While many in the lowlands complained about the hot summer weather, it was three to four degrees cooler and thus more bearable in Hohegeiß.”

“Panoramic: Not all wishes have come true”

Not always all wishes come true in tourism. When the Panoramic Hotel was built in Hohegeiß in 1972, according to Lüttgau, the town was promised a spa house in return. “Today’s reality, however, has little to do with the hopes of the past. The spa house has long been closed and one of the two towers of the Panoramic accommodates holiday apartments. The other is used as a hotel but has seen several changes in management. This is a great pity, especially as the complex stands in front of a magnificent forest panorama,” says Matthias Lüttgau, hoping for a more successful future with sustainable ideas.

“Hikes on the old bobsleigh track”

Around Hohegeiß there are many interesting hiking trails. For example, the old bobsleigh track, where even toboggan competitions were held after 1900. It lies in the southeast of Hohegeiß and reaches almost down to Zorge.

Very popular, too, is also the so-called Briefträgerweg (“postman path”), which the postman used when coming from Braunlage. Time passes and the name Briefträgerweg remains.

“View as far as the Eichsfeld Cathedral”

When did Matthias Lüttgau, who comes from Vienenburg, discover his heart for Hohegeiß and the forest? He has always remembered one story from his childhood: At the age of nine he embraced the thickest spruce tree of the Wolfsbach Valley together with his father, mother and two friends from Düsseldorf. He had also been on school trips to Hohegeiß a few times. “It was probably at this time that my enthusiasm for the forest was born.”

When Lüttgau stands on the terrace of his forester’s lodge, his gaze not only wanders over magnificent mountain meadows, but he can also see the Eichsfeld Cathedral in Mühlhausen, about 60 kilometres away, as a small point on the horizon.

District forester Matthias Lüttgau in his forestry office.

After 32 years as a district forester in Hohegeiß, Matthias Lüttgau is by no means tired of his job. On the contrary: the extent to which he is attached to his task becomes clear in his plans for the future. “By the end of the year, I’ll be 62, then I’ll have another three years. Maybe they’ll grant me an extension, too.”

This, despite the fact that the challenges in the forest district are anything but easy. In the year 2018, storm damage meant that around 12,000 cubic metres of timber had to be moved, almost as much as the amount of the annual wood harvest. While, in the past, Lüttgau used to work with his own people, today the work is done with contractors.

“Red deer has increased strongly.”

The care and maintenance of forestry areas also includes the observation of wildlife populations. In particular, red deer have increased strongly in their territory in the recent years. Therefore, every year 80 to 100 of these animals have to be shot. The marketing of the venison is carried out by the forestry office in Bad Lauterberg. It is predominantly sold to game traders, but private individuals also have a chance. They usually pick up the venison in Zorge, where there’s a special refrigerator.

At the same time, Lüttgau makes it clear that the aim in decimating the population is to avoid damage caused by game. “We need the red deer, just want a little less. A forest without game is not a forest!”

“Mountain bike race with 250 participants in the district”

Mountain bikers don’t bother Matthias Lüttgau. “They are quiet and don’t make a mess,” he sums up the problem in one sentence, “and they only drive on certain forest paths.” In spring there even was a mountain bike race with 250 participants in his district. “Anything that doesn’t stink and rattle, we’re happy to support.” He is also glad that, unlike other corners of the Harz mountains, hikers in Hohegeiß are rarely bothered by motorcycle noise.

“Better than three years of biology class.”

After talking to Matthias Lüttgau, one has to think: “One hour with a district forester in the forest is more effective than three years of biology lessons when it comes to understanding ecological contexts. Lüttgau considers it an important task of his to bring young people closer to nature again. There are several country hostels in Hohegeiß and the town also takes part in the project “Erlebnistage Harz”. The forester reports about a school class from Brudstadt in Bremen. “The young people had never been in the woods by night. It was a special experience for them, which they will not forget.”

“Mountain meadows: The characteristic of Hohegeiß”

Like a red thread the “mountain meadows” come up again and again in the conversation with Matthias Lüttgau. “They are the characteristic of Hohegeiß” he says, pointing out that all the meadows in the direction of Nordhausen have been preserved. Although there are many meadows in Clausthal-Zellerfeld as well, those are no longer “cultivated originally”.

Since many mountain meadows cannot be driven on and mown because of their hillside location, in Hohegeiß they are grazed – as ever – by sheep. “Sheep,” enthuses Lüttgau “wipe the slate clean.” They even do not spurn young maple trees. Only in this way the meadows can be preserved in their original state.

But there are also other areas that have to be grazed by cows. Lüttgau points to a meadow where six different species of orchids are at home. “The cows eat out exactly those plant species that would otherwise eliminate the orchids” he explains. In total, there are 11 endangered plant species in this area. And he adds enthusiastically: “It’s a great thing how nature manages that.”

“Mine shafts as Bat Quarters”

The fact that iron ore was once mined in the Wolfsbach Valley is evidenced by some old mine shafts – corridors up to 20 metres long. Today these corridors are barred because they are used as winter quarters by bats.

“A comeback for the Harz Mountains”

The book “The Secret Life of Trees” made it to number one on the bestseller lists. Magazines follow the trend and publish long stories about the “power place forest”, yes there is even talk of “forest bathing”. For Matthias Lüttgau, all this is no coincidence: “In times of digitalization and increasing acceleration, people long for silence and nature in order to find their way back to reflection and mindfulness. Even the younger ones will rediscover their love for hiking and nature. I’m convinced of that. The Harz Mountains are about to make a comeback.”

Text, Photos and Design: Michael Hotop, Jochen Hotop


How is the name ‘Hohegeiß’ originated

There was no town in 1444 when monks from the Walkenried Monastery, 11.5 kilometres away, built a small church in the woods and gave it the Latin name “Alta Capella” (“high chapel”). Generations later it became “Hohe Geiß”. The reason: The latin word “capella” not only meant chapel, but also goat (“Geiß”). Students of Latin apparently preferred the goat for the translation. That is why the emblem of Hohegeiß is today dominated by the billy goat, instead of the “high spiritual” church.

The ‘Nonnenbanksweg’

At that time nuns and monks made regular pilgrimages up to the chapel. There were two benches on their way. One for the nuns, and the other for the monks. “Of course, they were not allowed to sit together on one bench” smiles Matthias Lüttgau. “I can’t believe it was like that.” The pilgrim’s path still exists. Today it is called Nonnenbanksweg.