The Jasmund National Park may only have been awarded its protected status in 1990 (just before the fall of the Berlin Wall) but it's not hard to see why this astonishingly beautiful part of the world would have been afforded this honour.
Walking through the ancient beech forest of the park is the stuff of fairytales, and it's thoughtprovoking to realise that much of the northern part of Europe must have looked like this once. We visited at the beginning of autumn when the leaves were just showing a hint of colour, which was beautiful: it must be breathtaking a couple of weeks later, when the leaves are in their full autumnal glory, or in early spring with the neon green of new leaves.
We walked through the forest to the Koeningstuhl viewpoint from the car park at Hagen - about 3km along an unpaved but flat path (which can get boggy in places after rain). After the event, we realised that there was actually a shuttle bus that would have saved us the effort, but looking back, the forest trek - which passes by the beautiful Hertharsee Lake - is at least as impressive as the cliffs.
You could spend hours in this forest. Kids will play endless games of hide and seek, hunt for mushrooms and seek out (and probably pester) woodland creatures whilst adults will appreciate the exquisite detail of the ecosystem - for what it's worth, I think that beech forest is the most beautiful forest ecosystem I've yet encountered. If you do nothing else on Ruegen, then don't miss this!
Update (July 2011): Last month, Germany's ancient beech forests were granted World Heritage Status by UNESCO, just one more endorsement of why these environments are so very special. I quite agree, as they are my all time favourite types of forest!
As we approached the chalk cliffs that Caspar David Friedrich had immortalised, I began to fret - after all, that picture was the reason we had chosen to come here in the first place. What if the cliffs were a hybrid figment of his imagination and in reality, weren't as impressive as he had depicted? What if they had been eroded over the 200 years since he painted his picture, or, worst still, had been destroyed by insensitive tourist developments?
I need not have worried: the cliffs are every bit as beautiful and impressive as I had dated imagined, and just as he captured them all those years ago. Incidentally, the chalk that forms these cliffs is the same geological formation that gives rise to the White Cliffs of Dover on the English Channel - clearly the stuff of iconic landscapes - but, for my money, it is far more impressive here, because of the counterpoint of white cliffs, milky turquoise sea and exquisitely detailed beech forest.
The best way to see the cliffs would be a 10km hike from Sassnitz through the Jasmund National Park. However, we had small children in tow and limited time, so this wasn't an option for us, and we had to content ourselves with a stunning 3km hike through the forest from Hagen (see my travel tip).
At the entrance to Koenigstuhl viewpoint, there is a tourist centre, which is informative but not outstanding, and by this point, all you want to do is get to the cliffs!
In my opinion, the Jasmund National Park - both forest and cliffs - is THE 'must do' Ruegen experience, so don't miss it!