3 January 2019.
Sinking back into my seat, the swirling brown water of the Rhine River drifts into my periphery as the train tracks veer right. Flashes of vivid green spring into view and I catch my first glimpse of the Ahr Valley.
Blue-grey slate terraces cascade steeply down the wide slopes, perfectly manicured grape vines streak the hillsides in a patchwork of juicy green and quaint white-washed villages stand brightly from amidst the sea of vineyards.
Weaving through this wonderfully peaceful pocket of greenery, the Ahr Valley, one of Germany’s smallest wine regions, feels a world away from the hoards of tourists that descend on the nearby Mosel and Rhine during summer.
Instead, this area has managed to remain a closely guarded secret where wine and walking have been paired perfectly together to create the Rotweinwanderweg – the red wine trail. An easy-to-navigate track that leads you in stages past castle ruins, lush forests charming villages and dozens of wineries.
The Ahr Valley makes an excellent day trip from Bonn or Cologne, or you can take your time and spend a long indulgent weekend rambling about between the vineyards.
Here’s everything you need to know about hiking the Rotweinwanderweg in the Ahr Valley – including the prettiest sections to walk, where to eat and drink and the best time to visit.
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What Is The Rotweinwanderweg?
The Rotweinwanderweg is a 35 km walking trail that winds through the Ahr Valley (Ahrtahl in German) past hilltop ruins, countless vineyards, forests and open fields between the villages of Altenahr and Bad Bodensdorf. That said, you certainly don’t need to hike the entire route.
Most visitors explore the area on a day trip and focus on one small section of the Ahr Valley, but you could also take it slow and spend a long weekend moseying between the wineries and villages and cover the full length of the trail at a leisurely pace.
As you may have guessed from the name, the Ahr Valley is famous for its red wines, in particular the rather hard to pronounce Spatbürgrunder or Pinot Noir.
The route is well-trodden and clearly marked by bunches of red grapes painted on posts and trees to guide you along the route. Otherwise, the way is marked out on Maps.Me which can be helpful for gauging the distances between villages.
Which Section Should I Walk?
The prettiest stretch runs between Altenahr and Ahrweiler where you’ll find the steepest terraces, plenty of lush vineyards and lovely views across the Ahr Valley’s picturesque villages. If you’re only visiting for a day, I’d recommend sticking to the Altenahr to Dernau stretch.
For a full breakdown of distances between each village, check here, but bear in mind that many sections are actually shorter as you probably won’t be popping into every town along the way. By sticking just to the red wine trail, the distances are approximately:
Altenahr to Mayschoß via Burg Are | 5.5 km
Mayschoss to Dernau | 5.5 km
Dernau to Ahrweiler | 10 km
Hiking The Red Wine Trail
I was lucky enough to visit the Ahr Valley twice last year, once in early summer when the vineyards were bursting with luscious foliage, and again in autumn when the vines were heavy with grapes and the colours were just beginning to change. The first time I hiked between Altenahr and Walporzheim and the next only going as far as Dernau which tends to be the most popular choice for daytrippers.
From Altenahr station, cross the bridge and continue down the street before taking the steep track uphill toward Burg Are, a smattering of hilltop ruins that offers up fabulous views across the forested landscapes that rise above the Ahr Valley.
Setting off again, it’s not long before you’re shifting between vineyards and forests, tracing the curves of the Ahr River in the valley below. Emerging from the dense trees, you’ll find a tight cluster of slate-grey rooftops creeping up the hillsides that indicate Mayschoß (pronounced Mayschoss).
Meandering past the village above the tight bends of the river, it is along this stretch that you’ll find the steepest terraces crisscrossed with vines that spill toward the roadside. Beyond the flat pastures of Rech, you’ll soon lay eyes on Dernau, one of the larger villages along the Rotweinwanderweg, and an excellent endpoint for a decent day’s hike with plenty of places to mooch about tasting wine and traditional German fare.
If you’re continuing on, the valley opens up from here and the dramatic scenery begins to peter out as rolling meadows and the sprawling mass of Ahrweiler comes into view. At this point, I backtracked down to Walporzheim to catch the train, but it’s possible to continue on toward Ahrweiler or Bad Bodensdorf, though the scenery here is less impressive and more developed.
The Best Time To Visit The Ahr Valley
The best time to visit the Ahr Valley is undoubtedly in early autumn (September and October) when fiery autumn hues are just beginning to wash across the landscapes, the vines are heavy with plump bundles of grapes, the harvest is in full swing and lively wine festivals become a weekly occurrence.
At this time of year, the trail bursts to life with plenty of day hikers arriving to enjoy the festivities. The best part, however, is that wineries from the region set up small stands at various point along the trail to sell their wines to passers by, by the glass or bottle. Federweisser, a wonderfully light, subtly sweet, slightly sparkling wine made from young grapes, is also on the menu and is far too easy to drink. It’s something of an autumn tradition in these parts and a must-try when hiking the route.
You can also pack your own snacks and enjoy a small picnic along the trail while overlooking the vineyards and nursing your glass of wein, or simply buy a bottle and drink it along the way. I saw a number of people stashing their half drunk bottles in the side pouches of their backpacks and refilling as needed. I mean, if that’s the local way, I’m all for it.
Weekends are festival time and whichever village is acting as host is where the merriment will reach its climax, often involving a small parade, outdoor music, plenty of food stalls and, of course, free-flowing wine.
For the full list of festivals check here.
Outside of the harvest season, it’s still a beautiful place to visit from late spring onwards when the vines are lush and the new grapes are just beginning to peak between the foliage. During winter though, the landscapes remain relatively bare as the vegetation loses its leaves.
Where To Eat + Drink Along The Rotweinwanderweg
Not only is the Ahr Valley heaven for wine enthusiasts, it’s also a fabulous place to dine in a beautiful setting. You’ll find a number of the region’s most prestigious wineries and excellent restaurants set in the villages, but as I was also here to hike, I chose to stick to the places nestled nearby the trail instead, of which there are just a few.
My second visit also happened to coincide with the festival season so I was able to try plenty of wines from the stalls scattered along the path without having to venture into every town for a tasting.
These are the places I stopped at while hiking the Rotweinwanderweg, both on the trail and in the villages.
Weinhaus Michaelishof | At the intersection that leads you downhill to Mayschoss, you’ll find this beautiful restaurant bound by fruit trees and colourful flowers. The bright open-air terrace overlooking the vineyards is a lovely place to stop in for a bite to eat and your first glass of the day after about an hour and a half of walking.
Hofgarten Meyer Näkel | As the region’s most decorated winery, including a prize for the World’s Best Pinot Noir in 2008, Meyer Näkel is an essential stop on any Ahr Valley itinerary. Either pop into the bright, plant-laden courtyard restaurant or stop by the nearby winery for a tasting. Unfortunately, it was full on both the days I visited, but it’s definitely on the cards for next time.
Winzerwirtshcaft Baltes Dernau | After a day filled with walking and drinking, a hearty feast was just what we needed. We stumbled upon this family-run restaurant in an effort to escape the cold and were delighted to find excellent and reasonably priced meals, washed down by a glass of local Riesling. Check their website here. Otherwise, Im Burggarten also looks to be a great option for a filling dinner in Dernau.
Kloster Marienthal | A short walk beyond Dernau, this winery sits among the thoroughly atmospheric ruins of a monastery. The open courtyard acts as the cafe, while inside you’ll find plenty of wine to buy. If you’re eating, try the flammkuchen, a type of thin crust pizza, and the Blanc de Noir which is completely delicious, so much so that I bought the bottle.
Wine Stands | During the harvest, most wineries set up stands along the trail, usually selling their newest batch of Federweisser and vintages from previous years. If you’d rather spend more time on the trail than scuttling about the towns to find their brick-and-mortar establishments, this is yet another reason to visit during the harvest. Prices are around €2 to €5 per glass, plus a refundable deposit for the glass itself.
Whether you’re beginning at Altenahr, Bad Bodensdorf or one of the villages in between, you can arrive by direct train from Bonn or Cologne (written Köln in German).
The train departs every hour and stops at most villages in the Ahr Valley, so if you’re more keen on the wining, and less so on the hiking, you can easily chop and change your plans without having to rush about to catch the train. The trip takes around 1 hour depending on where you start and end. Check rates and timetables here.
Otherwise, it’s also possible to travel through the Ahr Valley by car or bicycle.
Where you stay in the Ahr Valley will depend on how you choose to do the route.
If you’re spending a weekend in the area, Dernau is a comfortable walking distance from Altenahr and retains plenty of countryside charm making it an excellent base for exploring the region. There’s not a huge choice of accommodation though so be sure to book well in advance. Check rates and availability here.