Only a few kilometers from the lavender fields "Petit Provence" of my previous blog, near the town of Horn-Bad Meinburg in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, you'll find the legendary and impressive rock formation called Externsteine.
For international readers of this blog unfamiliar with German geography:
the Externsteine are located in the middle of a forest, in the middle of nowhere, somewhat north and west of the middle of Germany.
I got up at 4 am, drove 30 minutes from where we were staying, hiked the short trail and arrived at the Externsteine just before dawn, around 5:15 am. I had read that at sunrise they are particularly photogenic and its true.
At that hour it was still dark and I heard men howling at the moon somewhere in the woods surrounding me. Since I was alone on the trail, I suddenly worried about my personal safety in a non-Corona, old-fashioned „dark alley of Chicago“ way for the first time in years and hurried towards the clearing.
Later on the same day, once I was back home safely, my husband told me that people had been murdered at the Externsteine, and I wondered why did he let me go there alone at that hour?
Impressive geological and rock formations fascinate people all over the world. Yet, the Externsteine seem to fascinate a very special type of tourist: esotericists, gothics, gypsies and followers of cults who make a pilgrimage here around the Summer Solstice because of its reputation as a "pagan sacred site". Perhaps the men I heard howling at the moon were part of some cult? More likely: they were just very drunk.
Geological Origin of Externsteine
The Externsteine consist of a special sandstone, called Osningsandstein and emerged during the early Cretaceous era about 100 million years ago during the time when a large shallow sea covered large parts of northern Europe.
Most of the overall rock formation is hidden in the forest for several hundred meters and only a small portion is exposed. About 70 million years ago, some of the horizontal layers shifted into an almost vertical position creating 13 column-like pillars which are 37,5 meters tall at the highest point. Thousands of years of erosion washed the soil from these columns and then weathered the surface.
Brief History of Human Usage of Externsteine
The Externsteine have been used, lived in, modified and decorated by humans over the past 1000 years. Since the past 100 years, the Externsteine have been a popular tourist attraction, with up to 1 million visitors annually in recent years.
It remains controversial whether the site was used by Celts or Teuton tribes (Germanen) for rituals. There is no evidence from archelogical studies to support this stubborn theory. On the other hand, its fairly clear that Christians started using the Externsteine as a place of worship sometime between the 8th and 10th century and by early Middle Ages had established a hermitage at the site which later became a chapel.
The Reformation in 1538 ended all Christian activity at the site and the lands were then used by the ruling class. In the 17th century the Count of Lippe used the area for hunting. The reflecting pool called Wiembecke was created for decorative purposes in the 19th century by damming up a nearby creek.
In 1926 the Externsteine were given national monument status and a nature preserve approximately 27 acres in size was established. During the period of Nazi rule, the Externsteine became a focus of nationalistic propaganda and in 1933, the "Externsteine Foundation" was established. After the war ended, starting around 1950's, the Externsteine opened to tourists again.
Catching up to the present: In 2006 the Externsteine were declared a national geological biotop and in 2010 local authorities prohibited camping and alcohol consumption. Since 2020 there are ever-changing Corona-related restrictions for visitors.
The stone stairway between the pillars leads to the first viewing platform. Futher up a wooden bridge connects the rocks II and III at the top. On top of rock III there is the highest viewing platform.
In the image above, I see a face in the pillar on the right side. Do you? Strong jaw and an open mouth - the bridge going right through the eyes...
From the reverse angle "behind" the Externsteine you get a feeling for their fragility and the delicate balance, particularly the rock perched on the 3rd pillar from the left.
The excursion to the Externsteine was the first time I used my new K&F Concept tripod and I love it!
I didn't go inside the Externsteine nor the Visitor's Center because I didn't want to wait another 3 hours until the park officially opened up at 10AM. Instead I headed back in time to join the family for breakfast.
Practical tips for visiting as a photographer:
The Externsteine "park" is easy to get to once you are in the region. There's 24/7 access to the parking lot (€4/day). You will need a ticket to get onto (i.e. go up the stairs) or into the Grottos inside the Externsteine. You can buy the ticket or get something to eat/drink at the Visitor's Center when it's open.
In the summer there are guided tours also at night in addition to all day.
It's an easy 10 minute walk on a broad gravel path from the parking lot to the Externsteine and it's a short 20-30 minute walk on narrow forest paths around the pond and around the formations (full circle path).
I imagine they would appear more mystical in the fall when there's morning fog and .... you wouldn't have to get up so early to capture them .... :-)
The detailed and historical information in this blog was paraphased or copied directly from these sources: