This post has information about the Externsteine Rocks in Teutoburger Wald (Teutoburg Forest), which is Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia State.
Would you believe me if I told you that Germany has it’s own Stonehenge like natural site with rocks that standing there since the ice age?
I wouldn’t believe me, but thankfully I have visited this place twice. It is called the Externsteine, and it is often called the Germanic Stonehenge because of Wilhelm Teudt, an archeologist who popularized this term.
The Externsteine rocks are massive, and have a strange beauty about them as they appear to be jutting out of the earth out of nowhere.
Living in Germany, I have visited a lot of destinations within the country but this place left a strong memory in my mind. The sheer magnificence of the Externsteine rock formations will leave you in awe of the geology, the nature and the history. I loved this place so much that I visited it twice already.
These rock formations are a part of the Teutoburg Forest and are protected. If you have read about the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD, then you probably recognize the name of the forest.
If you’re a history buff, or a nature lover or even an adventure lover, you will enjoy your time here. Here’s everything you need to know about visiting the Externsteine in Teutoburger Wald.
Everything You Need to Know for Visiting the Externsteine in Teutoburger Wald
The Externsteine – What’s with the Name?
The oldest recorded names for the Externsteine were Agistersten and Eggesterenstein. The word “steine” means stones or rocks in German language but many historians and linguistic specialists have different thoughts about the name.
Many linguistic researchers in the recent years say that the name “the Externsteine” means “sharp pointy rocks”. In older texts it was also written as “the Eastern Rocks”.
The most popular meaning of the name Externsteine is “the rock of the magpies”, which was popularized by Hermann Hamelmann. Now you’re thinking who is Hermann Hamelmann – well, he’s an important part of the Externsteine’s recent history and we will talk about him later in this post.
By the way, if you are into massive rock formations, then you should also check out my post about Jasmund National Park in Germany, which is famous for its white cliffs.
Where is the Extersteine, Teutoburger Wald?
The Externsteine is in Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) state. Many travelers don’t spend much time in this state because it is mostly industrial, except if they are visiting the famous city of Cologne. (Of course, there’s a lot more to see in the state like Burg Eltz, Winterberg, Münster city, etc.)
These rocks are a part of the Teutoburg Forest (Teutoburger Wald in German), which are forested hills that cover an area of 4000 square kilometers. The forested ridge of Teutoburger Wald are mostly in NRW and some in the Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen) state.
If you want to be specific, then the Externsteine is 30 KMs from Paderborn or 50 KMs from Bielefeld. The nearest town is Horn-Bad Meinberg.
How old are the Externsteine rocks? A MILLION YEARS.
It is shocking but it is believed that the Externsteine rocks are 120 million year old. No, it doesn’t mean that this exact structure is so old but the rocks are. They were laid down around 100 million years ago during the early Cretaceous era.
These rocks were originally horizontal layers but about 70 million years ago they were folded to an almost vertical position. The pillars look like this today after years of weathering as well as having been modified and decorated by humans over the centuries – wow!
It is interesting to know that these are outcropping of sandstone rocks in a region that is usually has no rocks.
A Brief History of the Extersteine
I like knowing a little history of everything but I don’t like to go too deep in it every single time. So, keeping that in mind, I will make it short and sweet to include just the main points.
First Use of the Externsteine in the Prehistoric times
The first use of these rocks was by nomadic groups who used them for temporary shelter. This was the prehistoric time and the stone tools daring back to 10,700 BC from 9,600 BC from the Ahrensburg culture were recovered. After that, there hasn’t been any evidence of the use of the Externsteine site in the bronze or iron age.
The Externsteine as a Christian Sacred Site
As per historians, the Externsteine site was mentioned in some historical documents to be used between the 10th and 15th centuries but these documents were destroyed in the Second World War. The thermoluminescence dating of the cave walls did suggest that this location was used between the the 10th and 15th centuries.
Some historians also say that the Externsteine was used in the 9th century as a Christian sanctuary.
The rocks of the Externsteine have caves and passages within them, and there are inscriptions on some of the walls. One inscription suggests that the Externsteine was declared sacred in 1115 by the Bishop of Paderborn – Henrico or Heinrich II. von Werl.
Use of the Externsteine as a Hermitage
There are historical documents that suggest that the Externsteine was also used as a Hermitage – a temporary place for refugees. It is important to keep in mind that the place wasn’t always called the Externsteine and the documents describe the place but not name is exactly as it is known today.
Between 14 and 16 centuries, the Hermitage at the Externsteine was used as a hiding place for bandits. It was then in the 16th century that the Hermitage was dissolved here and eventually all the church activity stopped too.
Externsteine as a Sacred Pagan Site
Do you remember I mentioned the name Hermann Hamelmann in the section where I talk about the name of the Externsteine? Well, he plays an important part in the history of the Expernsteine around this time in the Early Modern Period.
Hermann Hamelmann was a reformer from Westphalia who believed in works of Martin Luther. He was a theologist who worked as a priest and later as a pastor. In 1564 he wrote that the Extersteine was used as a site for Saxon pagan worship. Till date, many Germans believe that the Externsteine was indeed a pagan worship site.
Even today the Externsteine is believed to be a sacred pagan site and thousands of people gather here every summer for the Walpurgis Night. I do mention this in detail in the section about “when to visit the Externsteine”.
Dilapidation and then Sudden Interest in the Externsteine
The Externsteine wasn’t taken care of in the early 18th century but revived soon after and then it became a tourist destination. Due to this, the interest in the Externsteine grew and people because curious about its purpose historically.
In 1860s – 1870s, many publications wrote about their speculations of what may have been the history of the Externsteine and what it was used for. There were mentions again of pagan worship and around this time a lot of excavations were conducted.
An important moment in the history of Externsteine was in 1926, when it was declared to be one of the oldest and important nature reserves in Lippe. It was around this time that the Externsteine was called “the Germanic Stonehenge” by the archeologist Wilhelm Teudt.
The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest
The Battle of Teutoburg Forest of 9 AD occurred most likely in or around this area. This battle was one of the most significant defeats of the Romans. This battle abruptly ended the period of expansion under Ceasar Augustus and stopped the Romans plans for conquering Germania.
Archeologist and hiostorians have tried to conduct excavations in 1880s to find evidence of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in and around the Externsteine, but none were found back then.
There is a small lake that’s next to the Externsteine columns. It is actually a pond that was created artificially by making a dam on a stream of River Wiembecke which was earlier flowing past the rocks.
This pond is called Wiembecke Pond and is offers stunning photo possibilities of the Externsteine and its reflection in the water.
Hermannsweg Hike or Hermann Trail
The Externsteine is also a part of the Hermannsweg Hike, which is a Germany’s one of the most beautiful high altitude hiking trails that goes through the Teutoburg Forest.
This 156 KM trail starts at Rheine and ends at Lippe Velmerstot rock formation, which is another rock formation that’s close to the Externsteine.
How to Reach Externsteine
Just like any other destination in Germany that’s not a main city, the best way of reaching the Externsteine is by driving to it. Put “Parkplatz Externsteine” on your navigation system and enjoy the drive through the beautiful forest.
I did mention hiking in the previous section. You can take a part of the Hermannsweg Hike, or do the full trail to reach the Externsteine.
It is easy to reach the Externsteine by train & bus too. Look for R51 train from Paderborn train station and get off at “H-BM-Horn, Jahnstraße“. H-BM is Horn-Bad Meinberg. From here, the walk to the Externsteine is 1.3 KMs.
If you want to minimize walking, then arrive in Horn-Bad Meinberg city by train and look for a bus 782 to Horn-Holzh – it is 450 meters from the Externsteine. You can search for bus tickets here.
The Externsteine car park is just 500 meters away from the rocks. There’s a visitor information center, a restaurant and a small playground for children. The parking charge is around EUR 4.50 per day.
The walk from the parking place to the Externsteine rocks is easy and goes through the forest. In the middle, there is a lovely moment of wonder at the first glimpse of the rocks through the trees.
What to do around the Externsteine
Walk around the Externsteine & Wiembecke Pond
The most obvious thing to do when you arrive here is to walk around the rocky columns. There is a path that goes through between two of the columns which is probably the first thing you will notice.
This is a small trail that goes through the rocks and around the Wiembecke Pond. The trail will just take you 5-10 minutes and you can catch a glimpse of the rocks from the other side of the Wiembecke Pond.
Climb on top of the Externsteine rocks for the view
The rocks are connected to each other with a series of steps. The path is narrow and can be slippery in rain if you’re not wearing the right shoes. It isn’t free to climb on top of the towers and I remember the fee per person being EUR 3.
One the days when the Externsteine is closed, a small part of the staircase is open and the remaining is closed. So you can still go a little higher and look at the view from top.
See the Grottos of Externsteine
There is a cave inside the rocks with three chambers that are connected by passages. This part is called the Grottenfels – or the Grottos. These are man made grottos.
See the Markings and Drawings on the Rocks
The marking and drawings on the columns of Externsteine are all different. They are very interesting to see. There is a carving that depicts the Christ’s Descent from the Cross.
One of the rocks of the Externsteine shows the coat of arms of the Counts of Lippe, which of course is one of the newest markings.
Explore the Beauty of Teutoberg Forest
Don’t forget that the Externsteine is just one of the many places in the lovely hilly forest of Teutoberg. Take out some time to explore the nature.
We did a slightly longer walk that went through the forest and it was very enjoyable in summer. On our second visit, we picked the smaller trail because there was snow and everything was slippery.
You can explore the forest on foot or you can bring your bicycle too. Pick one of the marked trails and see the beauty of the nature.
Please be careful of ticks while walking around the forest, some of them can be poisonous.
Enjoy a Picnic next to Externsteine
If you’re visiting on a warm day, then you can also carry your picnic mat and snacks for a memorable day here with friends.
When to visit the Externsteine?
All the seasons are good for visiting the Externsteine and offer something different.
If you visit in Winter, with a bit of luck you can catch the beauty of the forest with snow. We did too. Although the main tourist office of the Externsteine isn’t open in winter weekdays but only the weekends, but you can still do everything except climb on top of the towers.
Unfortunately the grass and the benches will most likely be wet during a typical winter day, so you can’t sit and enjoy the nature, but that shouldn’t stop you from visiting.
Spring and summer months are when the most of the people visit this site. The forest is sense during these seasons and you will see a lot of flowers and bees. Carry a mat and some snacks, because it’s the perfect time for picnic.
On April 30 – May 1 every year, many locals camp here and jam (perform music together) – to celebrate Walpurgis Night. It of course helps that there’s national holiday of the labour day on May 1. However, it didn’t happen during the peak of corona pandemic in 2020-2021.
Autumn is the best time for me to visit the Externsteine, particularly right before the leaves start to fall because of the stunning bright colors of an otherwise green and grey landscape.
Closing Thoughts on the Externsteine
The Externsteine is a an incredibly beautiful rock formation which will leave you in awe of the geology, the nature and the history. The sheer size of the rocks will amaze you and this is sure to be a place which will remain on top of your list of memorable places.
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