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EISRIESENWELT IN WERFEN AUSTRIA - THE LARGEST ICE CAVE IN THE WORLD

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One of the best day trips from Salzburg is to the Eisriesenwelt Cave. With a length of 26 miles (42 kilometers), it is the world's largest ice cave. Its name means World of the Ice Giants.

Ice stalagmite
Ice stalagmite
Source: Österreich Werbung
Photo credit: Eisriesenwelt

Eisriesenwelt is located in Werfen, a village located one hour southeast of Salzburg. (If Werfen looks familiar, it's because scenes from The Sound of Music and Agents Die Lonely, with Richard Burton, were filmed here.)

To get to the Visitor Center, we drove up a steep three-mile (five-kilometer) paved road from Werfen. The road offered spectacular views of Hohenwerfen Castle, perched on a hilltop. (If you don't want to drive, you can book an ice cave tour from Salzburg.)

How to get to Eisriesenwelt

The road ended at a parking lot where we left our car and walked for 20 minutes to the valley cable car station. A six-person cable car whisked us in four minutes to Dr. Oedl House, located 5,250 feet (1,600 meters) above sea level.

We enjoyed lunch at the mountaintop restaurant before continuing our journey. The narrow zigzag path to the cave entrance at 5,460 feet (1,665 meters) overlooks a green valley. Below us, tiny patchwork fields and the village of Werfen nestled below Hohenwerfen Fortress.

Cave temperature

After 20 minutes, we met our guide beside a gaping black hole in the mountainside, 65 feet (20 meters) across. All tours of the Eisriesenwelt cave must be with a guide.

Path leads to cave entrance
Path leads to cave entrance
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Our guide distributed acetylene lamps and then opened the door to the cave. A blast of cold air greeted us. Because the temperature inside Eisriesenwelt is 32 degrees F (0 degrees C), we were happy that we wore warm clothing and sturdy shoes.

Ice wall

Just beyond the entrance, an imposing ice wall, 445 feet (136 meters) high and 100 feet (30 meters) deep blocked our path. We were pleased that it was cool when we discovered that there were 700 steps to the top!

From here we followed a narrow ice-covered passage to a majestic domed hall filled with gigantic ice towers and lofty ice ramparts. Many of the formations have names such as the Ice Chapel, a 50-foot (15-meter)-high structure formed by the junction of a stalagmite and a stalactite, the Ice Organ with pipes made from enormous icicles and the 60-foot (18-meter)-high Ice Men.

Illuminated formations

The guide used magnesium flares to illuminate the giants and enhance the beautiful blue-green colors of the ice. These configurations were formed when cold winter temperatures froze the water which trickled down through the cracks in the rocks from the mountain above.

In May, when Eisriesenwelt opens for visitors, the wooden walkways are buried in ice up to three feet (one meter) deep. It sometimes takes up to two months to dig them out completely. Ice cave tours stop at the end of October.

Eisriesenwelt discovery

Following a 67-foot (20-meter)-tunnel through solid ice, we arrived at the largest room in the cave, the Alexander von Mork Cathedral, which measures 230 feet (70 meters) by 153 feet (47 meters).

Anton von Posselt-Czorich first discovered the ice cave in 1879. Before that, people had seen the hole in the mountain but they were afraid to explore it because they thought it was inhabited by evil spirits.

Although he documented his find, Eisriesenwelt was forgotten until Alexander von Mork, a surveyor from Salzburg, explored the cave to a depth of 4,450 feet (1,358 meters). To enter the cathedral, early cave explorers had to swim through ice water in a 100-foot (30.5-meter)-long lake.

The cathedral contains a white marble urn holding the ashes of von Mork. In 1914, he was fatally wounded in World War I. Before he died, he requested that his ashes be kept in the cave.

Tour of Werfen Ice Cave
Tour of Werfen Ice Cave
Source: Österreich Werbung, Photo credit: Eisriesenwelt

Length of tour

The tour ends in the Ice Palace, a hall with breathtaking reflections of ice in water. A tunnel from the palace continues for another 26 miles (42 kilometers) into the mountain.

It takes about 75 minutes to walk one mile (1.6 kilometers) into the cave. When the cave was first explored in 1913, it took two weeks to travel through the labyrinthine passages of the mountain.

How strenuous is the cave tour?

During the climb into the cave, we ascended 440 feet (135 meters), about the height of an apartment building. The Eisriesenwelt are not accessible to visitors in wheelchairs, however they can enter the Visitor Center and ride the cable car to the Dr. Oedl House restaurant.

If you are energetic, you can hike to the Eisriesenwelt from Werfen in 90 to 120 minutes. Experienced mountain trail hikers can ascend the path between the cable car entrance and the summit in 90 minutes.

Early tours of the cave lasted 9 to 12 hours. Unfortunately, tourists began taking stalactites as souvenirs, so the state closed parts of the cave to visitors.

Nevertheless, even the shorter trip into the Eisriesenwelt allowed us rewarding glimpses into the frozen world of the ice giants.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Eisriesenwelt Cave

Austrian National Tourist Office

More things to see & do in Austria:

Vienna's Hofburg, Schonbrunn, Belvedere Palace and Grinzing Tour

Innsbruck, Heiligenblut and Wattens Crystal World Tour

Durnstein and Weissenkirchen in Austria's Wachau Wine Region

Melk Abbey Driving Trip From Vienna

Graz Austria Tour