It’s a solitary quest, indulging my fantasy of being reincarnated as a 19th-century explorer discovering the source of a mighty river. That the Rhine has been well-mapped for millennia doesn’t matter; there are still personal discoveries to be had. Traveling alone means I can go where I like, when I like.
Even the most desultory student of Western Europe’s history and culture must be awed by the significance of the Rhine. In Roman times, it formed the boundary between Gaul and Germania. More recently, of course, pivotal battles of two World Wars were fought here. From this river’s waters sprung 19th-century Romanticism, from Heinrich Heine’s “Lorelei” poem to Richard Wagner’s “Rheingold.”
Where does the Rhine begin? You can’t help but wonder. And there’s yet another impulse that propels me upstream: Whether jumping out of a Grand Canyon raft to let my body bob through the Colorado’s rapids or lying in a Vienna Woods rivulet after drinking too much new wine , serious (immersive!) travel to me has come to mean baptism in foreign waters.
To begin the quest, I fly into Zurich; its namesake lake ultimately drains (via rivers Limmat and Aare) into the Rhine roughly 50 miles upstream of Basel. A bit farther upriver is Rheinfall (“Rhine Falls”) — by most measures, at 75 feet high and 500 feet wide, Europe’s largest waterfall. Faced with such a daunting obstacle on an otherwise navigable Rhine, some would-be engineers in the 17th century wanted to blow it up with gunpowder. Still, that thankfully aborted plan didn’t prevent the Rhine from becoming one of the world’s most engineered rivers, with a comprehensive system of levees, dredged and straightened along much of its length.
After a day recovering from jet lag, I take an early morning commuter train (S-Bahn) to Neuhausen am Rheinfall. The sleek, comfortable ride takes less than an hour, and costs around $50 round trip. Despite damp and overcast weather, the waterfall viewing sites are flooded with visitors, including a bridal party from Japan doing a photo shoot. Formed about 15,000 years ago during the last Ice Age, the falls display a raw, magical power with their spray and roar captivating observers over the years. The great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe visited here three times and used waterfall imagery — “a mist-created rainbow” — in the redemptive ending of his well-known work “Faust.”
On either side of the waterfall sits a castle, repurposed to provide food, drink and other services for visitors. I choose Schloss (“Castle”) Laufen, and order a big bowl of roasted pumpkin and apple soup, while spreading out on the white tablecloth yet more reading material about the Rhine. This section of the river, flowing westward from Bodensee (or Lake Constance) to Basel, forms the border between Switzerland and Germany and is known as the Hochrhein (“High Rhine”). The Old Rhine Bridge in the town of Konstanz marks “Kilometer Zero” as the start of the measurement system known as “Rheinkilometer” — ending 1,033 kilometers downstream at the river’s mouth in the Hook of Holland.
To explore what lies upstream of Kilometer Zero, the next day I check out of my Zurich Airbnb, rent a car and head toward the Bodensee’s very eastern end. It is here, where Austria’s Vorarlberg region begins, that the Rhine enters the lake from a southerly direction. This section of the river is called the Alpenrhein (“Alpine Rhine”). I book a hotel in Bregenz for just one night, but innumerable attractions tempt me to linger: from the lakeside promenade to the cable car running up the surrounding mountain, from Roman relics to Baroque-cupola churches.
What’s not an attraction in its own right, I’m disappointed to discover, is where the Alpine Rhine enters the Bodensee, just a couple of miles outside Bregenz. The Rhine here has been so tamed — for flood control and land reclamation — that it seems more like a sluice or canal than a real river racing toward the sea. Huge levees trap the water in a straight and narrow conduit. But at least on top of the earthen dams are well-maintained bike and walking paths.
In my rental car, I speed south on Route A13, which parallels the Rhine and feels a lot like a U.S. interstate highway. The river, in turn, delineates the Swiss-Austrian border and then, in about 20 miles, brushes up against tiny Liechtenstein. What country I’m in at any moment — not to mention what currency to use, euros or Swiss Francs — can be confusing. The relentless pinging of my cellphone, announcing a different country’s telecom services, can be annoying.
Hard up against Liechtenstein is the Austrian town of Feldkirch, which becomes, in effect, a base camp during the coming days for my final assault on the source of the Rhine. Perhaps lily pad would be a better designation for the comfortable studio apartment from which I’ll make daily excursions — hopping ever further upstream. The town, whose origins trace back to the Iron Age, is situated on a Rhine tributary called the Ill. The name derives from the Celtic word for “hurry,” appropriate for the fast-moving waters.
The next day, I intend to hike the five-mile path along the levees to the Rhine confluence but turn back halfway when I realize the flat terrain and straightened river will bring no surprises. I’d rather explore the winding streets of Feldkirch’s old town, with Schattenburg castle towering above the well-preserved and carefully decorated medieval buildings. In more recent history, as Austria’s westernmost town, Feldkirch witnessed the farewell address of the last Habsburg emperor as he traveled into exile after World War I.
Only 20 miles further up the Rhine at the confluence of another tributary, the Tamina, are the thermal springs that gave rise to one of Switzerland’s notable spa towns: Bad Ragaz, my next day-trip destination. In what’s beginning to feel like an ersatz boat (my VW rental), I float up the broad, river-carved valley with rugged, snow-capped mountain peaks abruptly rising on either side. This landscape is marketed as “Heidiland,” I discover in the town tourist office housed in a Beaux-Arts spa house. Johanna Spyri’s novel “Heidi” — written “for children and those who love children” and set in the Alpine Rhine valley — remains widely popular around the world, though first published in 1881.
About 30 miles south of Bad Ragaz, the Rhine forks into the Vorderrhein and Hinterrhein — translated as the “Anterior” and “Posterior” Rhine. No signs marks the confluence; I spend almost the entire next day wandering across various bridges until I locate it. Which branch leads to the ultimate source of the Rhine?
I hedge my bets. I’ll devote one day to following the Hinterrhein, which is judged lesser in length but larger in volume. Then, the next day, I’ll drive along the Vorderrhein toward Tomasee, a small lake at 7,694 feet elevation, which is often cited as the Rhine’s “official” source.
Ancient transalpine travelers would hug the Hinterrhein — as Route A13 now does — seeking safe but torturous passage through the mountains. But what once instilled fear now inspires awe, as I can safely park my car at observation points and marvel at how the river carved the rocks into a narrow, stunningly beautiful canyon almost a third of a mile deep. In the tiny village of Zillis, I turn my gaze upward to take in the 900-year-old wooden frescos on the ceiling of the Romanesque church. A few miles further rises the highest peak in this part of the Alps, Rheinwaldhorn (11,161 feet), the start of the Rhine watershed. At the San Bernardino Pass, a four-mile tunnel now connects the A9 highway to Italy and its Po River watershed.
It’s chilly and overcast the following day when my car begins its ascent into the clouds hanging over the valley created by the Anterior Rhine. I’m on Route 19, a secondary road that splits from A13 very near where the two Rhine branches split. Also following the Vorderrhein is a railroad, whose famed “Glacier Express” connects the mountain resorts of Zermatt and St. Moritz.
Negotiating seemingly endless hairpin turns and switchbacks, I find myself for the first time missing a traveling companion: someone to take the wheel so I can relax and enjoy the unfolding panorama. As it is, I’m anything but relaxed, with nets on my right to catch falling rocks and flimsy snow-pole roadway markers on my left as the only barrier preventing a cliffside tumble to certain death. Animal crossing signs only increase the anxiety, as I wonder how to react should a chamois, ibex, elk, deer or marmot dart in front of the car.
Instead of bypassing charming villages, the twisting, turning road becomes their cobblestone main street. The quaint shops, historical buildings and churches with elongated, needlelike spires demand more attention than glances out the car windows. But I don’t have to debate with a traveling companion whether to stop; the solitary pilgrim can push on. I do stop, however, to marvel at two covered bridges, one over a tributary’s gorge, the other over the Vorderrhein itself, with the biggest hand-hewn timbers I’ve ever seen.
The higher the car climbs, the colder it gets, contradicting the calendar that says early spring (March). Soon, I must flip on the windshield wipers to disperse melting snowflakes. I’m now less than a half-hour away from the short hiking trail that would take me to Tomasee, the official source of the Rhine. But it no longer feels like spring, and I begin to worry about road conditions on the return trip.
Pulling the car off to the side of road, I roll down the window and listen to the trickling murmur of melting snowpack. I open the door and pick my way around the rocks and boulders to river’s edge. As the sound of the rushing water builds into a chorus, I unlace my hiking boots and peel off smelly socks to dip my feet into the ice-cold water. Resigned, I realize this is as close as I’ll ever get to fathoming the beginning — not just of the Rhine but, perhaps, of anything at all. At least I got my feet wet.
More from Travel:
If you go
Where to stay
Am Steinenbach 9,
6900 Bregenz, Austria
On Lake Constance’s eastern edge, this up-to-date four-star hotel, just minutes’ walk from the lake, has been rebuilt on the site of an 18th-century guildhall. Rooms from about $113.
Grand Resort Bad Ragaz
7310 Bad Ragaz, Switzerland
Overlooking the Tamina Gorge near that river’s confluence with the Rhine, this elegant and historic five-star hotel offers fine dining, golf and a spa with thermal baths. Rooms from about $500.
Where to eat
Schloss Laufen am Rheinfall
8447 Dachsen, Switzerland
Overlooking the Rhine Falls, this setting offers dining options from informal self-service to a formal five-course tasting menu. The latter features high-quality seasonal ingredients from the region, accompanied by wine from the castle cellar. Tasting menus start at about $75 per person.
6800 Feldkirch, Austria
Located in a castle and museum towering over a Rhine tributary, the restaurant is locally known for its specialty of Viennese-style schnitzel (pork escalope fried in bread crumbs). The portion is so large that it hangs off the edge of your plate. With mixed salad and beer included, about $22.50.