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The Rhön Mountains are a group of low mountains in central Germany, located around the border area where the states of Hesse, Bavaria and Thuringia come together. These mountains, which are at the extreme southeast end of the East Hesse Highlands (Osthessisches Bergland), are partly a result of ancient volcanic activity. They are separated from the Vogelsberg Mountains by the Fulda River and its valley. The highest mountain in the Rhön is the Wasserkuppe (950.2 m) which is in Hesse. The Rhön Mountains are a popular tourist destination and walking area.


The name Rhön is often thought to derive from the Celtic word raino (=hilly), but numerous other interpretations are also possible. Records of the monks at Fulda from the middle ages describe the area around Fulda as well as more distant parts of the Rhön as Buchonia, the land of ancient beech woods. In the Middle Ages beech was an important raw material. Large scale wood clearing resulted in the "land of open spaces" (Land der offenen Fernen), 30% of which, today, is forested.



Lying within the aforementioned states, the Rhön is bounded by the Knüll to the northwest, the Thuringian Forest to the northeast, the Grabfeld to the southeast, Lower Franconia to the south, the Spessart forest to the southwest and the Vogelsberg mountains to the west.

Division by type of volcanic activity

Thanks to former volcanic activity the Rhön can be divided into the Vordere Rhön (Vorderrhön or "Rhön foothills"), the Kuppenrhön (geographical region 353, "Kuppen Rhön") and the Hohe Rhön (354, "High Rhön").

Vorderrhön and Kuppenrhön

The terms Vordere Rhön (Vorderrhön) and Kuppenrhön (Kuppige Rhön) are somewhat misleading, since the Vordere Rhön also consists mainly of Kuppen or low mountains with dome-shaped summits. The name has genuine historic origins: the Vordere Rhön, as viewed from Thuringia, forms the foothills or "front" (vorne) of the mountain region.

In this gently rolling landscape numerous individual dome-shaped mountains rise on both sides of the border of Hesse and Thuringia and also, in some places, in Bavaria. These Kuppen are the remnants of former volcanos or volcanic activity.

Five mountain regions may be distinguished:

  • Vordere Rhön
  • Auersberger Kuppenrhön
  • Soisberger Kuppenrhön mit Hessischem Kegelspiel
  • Milseburger Kuppenrhön
  • Brückenauer Kuppenrhön

Hohe Rhön

The Hohe Rhön (or Hochrhön) extends into all 3 states and is bounded by the Vordere Rhön in the northeast, the Grabfeld in the southeast, the Spessart in the southwest and the Kuppenrhön in the northwest. It also has five main mountainous regions:

  • Wasserkuppenrhön
  • Lange Rhön
  • Dammersfeldrücken
  • Kreuzberg-Gruppe
  • Schwarze Berge


The most well-known peaks in the Rhön Mountains include the:

  • Wasserkuppe 950.2 m (3110 ft), Hessian Rhön, highest peak in the Hohen Rhön and in Hesse.
  • Dammersfeldkuppe 928 m, Bavarian-Hessian border, Hohe Rhön.
  • Kreuzberg 927.8 m (3040 ft), Bavarian Rhön, Hohe Rhön.
  • Schwabenhimmel 926 m (3040 ft), Bavarian Rhön.
  • Heidelstein 925.7 m, Bavarian-Hessian border, Hohe Rhön.
  • Himmeldunk 887.9 m, Bavarian-Hessian border, Hohe Rhön.
  • Milseburg 835.2 m (2740 ft), Hessian Rhön, highest peak in the Kuppenrhön.
  • Feuerberg 832 m (2730 ft), Bavarian Rhön.
  • Ellenbogen 814 m (2670 ft), Thuringian Rhön.
  • Gebaberg 751 m, Hohe Geba, Thuringian Rhön, highest peak in the Vordere Rhön.


The following rivers rise in the Rhön Mountains or flow by or through them (length given in brackets):

  • The Franconian Saale (Fränkische Saale) (142 km) – rises in Grabfeld, passes the southeast Rhön, flows southwest and into the River Main and therefore belongs to the catchment area of the River Rhine. The valley of the Franconian Saale in the area around Bad Neustadt forms part of the southeast border of the Rhön with the Grabfeld.
    • Streu (40 km) – rises in the Rhön on the southern slopes of the Ellenbogen and flows southwards into the Franconian Saale.
    • The Brend (30 km) – rises at Oberweißenbrunn in the Rhön, flows southeast into the Franconian Saale
    • The Kellersbach (--km) – rises from the numerous springs between Kreuzberg and the Black Mountains (Schwarzen Bergen) and takes a south-easterly course into the Franconian Saale
    • The Thulba (31 km) – rises on the Platzer Kuppe in the Rhön and flows southwards into the Franconian Saale
    • The Schondra (31 km) – rises in the Rhön and heads south into the Franconian Saale
    • The Sinn (50 km) – rises in the Rhön near Wildflecken and flows southwards into the Franconian Saale
  • The Fulda (218 km) – rises in the Rhön on the Wasserkuppe and is the left headstream of the Weser. The valley of the Fulda in the area around the town of Fulda separates the Rhön from the Vogelsberg Mountains to the west.
    • The Haune (64 km) – rises in the Rhön and flows north into the Fulda
    • The Lütter (16 km) – rises below the Wasserkuppe and flows westwards into the Fulda
  • The Werra (298 km) – rises on the boundary between the Thuringian Forest and the Schiefergebirge, runs past the Rhön to the northeast and flows northwards. It is the right headstream of the Weser. The valley of the Werra between Bad Salzungen and Wasungen separates the Rhön from the Thuringian Forest to the east.
    • The Herpf (22 km) – rises in the Rhön and flows east into the Werra.
    • The Ulster (56 km) – rises in the Rhön and flows north into the Werra.
    • The Felda (40 km) – rises in the Rhön and flows north into the Werra.


The name Rhön is believed to be of Celtic origin. Evidence of this is the Celtic settlement of Milseburg where there was a Celtic town with 1000 inhabitants. Furthermore there are circular embankments that could be both of Celtic and of Germanic origin in the Kuppenrhön on the Stallberg and the Kleinberg mountains. Many names of places, mountains and meadows in the Rhön have their origins in Celtic root words.

Up to the 10th century parts of the Rhön belonged to Altgau Buchonia. This term was coined by the Romans in Late Antiquity and described an ancient beech forest in the Rhön and the neighbouring low mountain ranges of the Spessart and Vogelsberg. Expansive stands of beech still exist today in the area.

Due to the outstanding field of view from the Rhön mountains, they became sites for hilltop castles in the Middle Ages. One example is Hauneck Castle (Burg Hauneck) on the Stoppelsberg, the ruins of which can still be seen. It served to oversee and protect traffic on the ancient road, the Antsanvia, as well as protecting the villages in the Haune Valley.

In the Middle Ages the Würzburg Defences (Landwehr) were erected on the Hochrhön for the protection of its farmers.

Biosphere Reserve

In 1991 UNESCO declared the Rhön a Biosphere Reserve on account of its unique high-altitude ecosystem.

Flora and fauna

As a result of its geography and geology the Rhön is an area with higher-than-average number of different habitats and species. But man, too, has generated valuable secondary habitats by creating a rich cultural landscape.

Plant life

Compared with other low mountain regions, the Rhön is particularly rich in plant varieties. Its natural vegetation would probably be dominated by beech woods with scattered groups of other trees, but today beech trees are very much in decline. A few of these ancient woods were identified as core elements of the Rhön biosphere reserve. The higher beech woods are a habitat for rare, sometimes isolated, species of plant such as the Alpine Blue-sow-thistle, Giant bellflower and Annual honesty. The vegetation of the lower-lying beech woods has a mix of mountain and other varieties. In addition to common wildflowers like the Martagon lily, Lily of the Valley, Wild Chervil and Wild Garlic, various orchids also flourish here including Cephalanthera orchids, the Yellow Coralroot, Bird's-nest Orchid, Lady's Slipper and Lady orchid.

Only small areas of the Rhön landscape are essentially open: the high-moor bogs, the rock outcrops and the stone runs. These habitats are home to highly-specialised species. The high-moor bogs of the Langen Rhön - the Red Moor (Rotes Moor) and the Black Moor (Schwarzes Moor) are floristically important links between the northern and Alpine high moors. Here, for example, can be found sundews, crowberry and cottongrass. Growing amongst the rocks of the volcanic mountains are rare species such as Cheddar Pink, Sweet William Catchfly, Oblong Woodsia and Fir Clubmoss.

There are no naturally-occurring coniferous forests in the Rhön, but notable species of wild flower such as the Lady's Slipper Orchid, Creeping Lady's Tresses and Burning-bush are found in the forests of mixed pine.

The cultural landscape formed by mankind over the centuries also has a great variety of habitats and plants however, today, the extensive grassland areas are amongst the most threatened and heavily cultivated habitats. It is on the semi-arid grasslands and juniper heaths that the Silver Thistle, symbol of the Rhön region, grows, alongside gentians, Pasque Flowers and Wood Anemones, as well as orchids like the Early Purple, Fragrant and Fly Orchids. Rarer flowers include the various Bee orchids and the Military, Lady, Burnt, Green-winged, Man, Pyramidal, Frog and Lizard Orchids. Along the southern fringes of the Rhön, on the so-called slopes of steppe heathland (Steppenheidenhängen) grow warmth-loving plants such as White Rock-rose, Erect Clematis and Honewort.

Amongst the most valuable habitats in the Rhön are the mountain meadows and fields of mat grass (Nardetum strictae) on the higher slopes.[1] Characteristic plants here include the Monkshood, Northern Wolfsbane, Common Moonwort, Martagon Lily, Greater Butterfly Orchid, Perennial Cornflower and Wig Knapweed.

Bog-bean, Grass of Parnassus' Western Marsh Orchid and Lousewort are found in the wet meadows and low marshes; and the extremely rare Large Brown Clover, Hairy Stonecrop and Pyrenean scurvygrass in the springwater marshes of the Hohe Rhön.


The wildlife in the Rhön mountains is similar to that of other low mountain ranges, but there are also some unusual species. In addition to the more common mammals such as roe deer, fox, badger, hare and wild boar, there are also smaller mammals such as the dormouse, common water shrew and Miller's water shrew. One unusual regional species is the alpine shrew. Birds occurring here include the black grouse, the capercaillie, the black stork, the eagle owl, the corncrake, the red-backed shrike and the wryneck. There are also two species endemic to the Rhön: the rove beetle and a local snail, the Rhönquellschnecke (Bythinella compressa).

Rhön umbrella brand

The Dachmarke Rhön project (Rhön umbrella brand project) is run by the Rhön working group and its aim is to promote a common identity for the Rhön region and to present a unified view of the area to the outside world and to harmonise the marketing measures of the three participating federal states.


These mountains are a popular tourist destination. Hikers come for the nearly 6,000 km (3,700 mi) of trails through the picturesque scenery, and gliding enthusiasts have been drawn to the area since the early Twentieth century. More recently, farm holidays have been flourishing in the region.


Villages and towns in the Rhön

Towns in the vicinity of the Rhön

Towns and larger villages within striking distance of the Rhön are:

Walks and hiking trails

There are well-marked walks and hiking trails in the Rhön which are looked after by the Rhön Hiking Club (the Rhönklub). Among the most impressive is the Rhön-Höhen-Weg ("Rhön Heights Walk" or RHW) which is marked with a horizontal, red teardrop. It is 137 km long and runs from Burgsinn in Main-Spessart district through Roßbach, Dreistelz, Würzburger Haus on the Farnsberg, Kissinger Hütte on the Feuerberg, Kreuzberg (monastery), Oberweißenbrunn, through the Red and Black Moors, over the Ellenbogen and the Emberg via Oberalba, past Baier to Stadtlengsfeld and on to its destination at Bad Salzungen on the Werra River.

Also highly recommended are:

  • The Geological Walk on the Wasserkuppe
  • The Auersberg Nature Walk near Hilders
  • The Milseburg Prehistoric Walk
  • 10 circular walks in Thalau; a total of 160 kilometres

In addition the following run through the Rhön:

  • The Main-Werra Weg ("Main-Werra Way") from Gemünden over the Kreuzberg and Wasserkuppe to Vacha, signed with a red arrowhead (176 km)
  • The Rhön-Rennsteig-Weg ("Rhön-Rennsteig Way") from the Wasserkuppe over the Geba to Oberhof (89 km), marked with a blue "RR" on a white background
  • European long-distance trail No. 3 via Fulda to Mellrichstadt, signed with a blue cross
  • European long-distance trail No. 6 via Hünfeld, Gersfeld to Bad Königshofen, signed with a white cross on a blue background

Walking maps and guides

  • Topographische Karte Naturpark Bayerische Rhön (map), 1: 50,000
  • Topographische Karte Naturpark Hessische Rhön (map), 1: 50,000
  • Fritsch Wanderkarte Naturpark Rhön, 1: 50 000 (walking map), ISBN 3-86116-068-4
  • Wanderkarte der Touristgemeinschaft "Thüringische Rhön" (walking map), 1: 50,000
  • Rad- und Wanderkarte RHÖN (cycle and walking map), RV Verlag, 1: 50,000
  • Ravenstein-Wanderkarte RHÖN (walking map), 1: 100,000
  • Schneiders Rhönführer – official guide of the Rhön Club, ISBN 3-7900-0365-4
  • Wanderführer Rhön, Bergverlag Rother, walking guide with 50 walks, ISBN 3-7633-4182-X

See also



  • Hanswilhelm Haefs: Ortsnamen und Ortsgeschichten aus der Rhön und dem Fuldaer Land. Rhön-Verlag. Hünfeld 2001, ISBN 3-931796-99-X
  • Marco Klüber: Orchideen in der Rhön und ihre Lebensräume. schützen – pflegen – bewahren. Landkreis Fulda, Sachgebiet Biosphärenreservat Rhön (Hrsg.), 2007.
  • Meyers Konversations-Lexikon, 4. Aufl. 1888–1890, Bd. 13, S. 795 f.

External links

  • Rhön tourism portal
  • Rhön Biosphere Reserve website
  • The Rhön hiking club (in German)
  • White pages and websites of Fulda and the Hessian Rhön (in German)
  • 360° virtual tour through the Hessian Rhön (in German)
  • Orchids of the Rhön, with much information the local flora (in German)
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