We’re now hiking in Spain, where the people we’ve met have been as warm as the weather, and the weather’s been beautiful. Just inland from the Costa Dorada is a compact mountain range near Tortosa called Els Ports, where we hoped to find good hiking but instead found a wealth of sensational hiking. We’ll tell you about it in our upcoming post next week. (To enlarge a photo, click on it once. To enlarge fully, click on it again.)
Posts tagged “best hiking blog”.
How Hikers Should Do Europe
For the past six months we’ve been hiking in Europe: primarily the French Alps, but also the Italian and Swiss Alps, and now the mountains along Spain’s Costa Brava and Costa Dorada. All our hikes on this sojourn have been dayhikes. We’ve camped every night in our campervan.
We’ve now travelled in Europe (always with a focus on hiking) by nearly every means possible. We’ve backpacked hut-to-hut. We’ve backpacked carrying a tent, stove, food, etc. and wild camped (free camped). Between backpack trips, we’ve travelled via trains and buses. We’ve hitchhiked extensively. Even on our current trip, hitchhiking has enabled us to complete long, one-way dayhikes. We’ve also rented cars in Europe and, between dayhikes, pitched our tent in village and city campgrounds, or stealth camped free of charge in all kinds of settings. Other times, we’ve rented apartments for several weeks, used rental cars to access mountain trailheads, and returned each night to our village base. Occasionally we’ve stayed in hotels, but largely avoiding hotels has helped us afford longer journeys.
So, which approach do we prefer and recommend?
It’s a question we’ve often pondered and discussed. Now that a couple readers have asked for our advice on the matter, it’s time we commit to an answer.
We’ve enjoyed it all. Each approach has distinct pros and cons, of course. Which one will best suit you depends on your budget and personal preferences. But during all our previous European hiking journeys, we envied the hikers and climbers we saw camping in vans at trailheads. Now that we’ve done it, we can say with certainty that—for us—traveling and living in a campervan is the optimal way to hike Europe.
First, a clarification. What we call a “campervan” in North America goes by different names in Europe. The British call what we’re now driving and living in a “motorhome.” The French call it a “camping car.” The Spanish call it an “auto caravana.” In North America, our vehicle would be considered either a small motorhome or a large campervan. In this blog post, we’ll continue calling it a “campervan,” because (1) it’s possible to travel and live here nearly as comfortably as we have in a slightly smaller vehicle that’s definitely a campervan, not a motorhome, and (2) because many motorhomes in Europe are notably larger than our vehicle and would certainly be considered motorhomes, not campervans, in North America.
We prefer the campervan for many reasons. We’ll elaborate on them presently. Topping our list, however, is a personal bias unrelated to campervans that makes a campervan viable for us: In Europe, we prefer dayhiking to backpacking (either hut-to-hut or self-supported).
That’s heresy, we know. The European mountain hut system is a venerable one. Long distance, hut-to-hut hiking is a life-list dream for many North American hikers. And many European hikers are hut-to-hut devotees. Slashing your burden by eliminating a tent, sleeping bag, and cooking equipment, and carrying little food, enables truly ultralight hiking: relaxed and comfortable. Having delicious meals cooked for you and served to you is a luxurious indulgence. Still, we’d rather dayhike.
Staying at huts costs about 20 to 30 Euros per person. Eating at huts costs about 15 Euros per person just for dinner. At those prices, we couldn’t afford to hike in Europe for long.
Huts are crowded and noisy. Often you’ll have a stranger sleeping within nudging distance of you, perhaps two strangers: one on each side. Often you’ll sleep (or lie awake) with perhaps 20 to 60 other hikers in one room. Some will snore or cough. Some will retire late or rise early. Some will be noisy because they’re either clumsy, unable to sleep (tossing and turning), or just inconsiderate. Some will get up to pee in the middle of the night. Your sleep will almost always be compromised at a hut.
Huts can drain the energy you need for athletic hiking. Having to socialize with strangers at the dinner table every night, particularly people whose language you struggle to speak, can be stimulating and rewarding but also severely draining. Forgoing all but the barest stitch of privacy can prevent you from fully relaxing. And if you’re also not enjoying deep, uninterrupted sleep, your strength and endurance will wane, preventing you from fully enjoying each day on the trail.
Huts can also compromise your nutrition, further sapping your energy. Though eating meals at huts can be a marvelous luxury, it requires that you relinquish control over what and how much you eat. Some huts serve delicious, generous meals, others don’t. Europeans’ concept of breakfast is less hearty than that of most North Americans, so you’ll leave some huts in the morning with less than a full tank. No hut we’ve heard of includes a PowerBar, or any kind of sports-nutrition supplement, in the packed lunches they provide for hikers. If you have special dietary requirements, such as a need to avoid gluten, hut fare will not suit you.
We’re becoming increasingly aware that what we eat before, during, and after a hike profoundly affects our physical capability, our attitudes, and ultimately our level of fulfillment. We know precisely what we need to eat and how much. For example, we consume huge servings—literally platefuls—of fresh vegetables before and after hiking. Huts cannot be expected to serve the quantity of fresh veggies we think is a healthy-hiker requirement. While on the trail, we favour dried fruit (apricots, figs, goji berries, Turkish mulberries) and nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans), but we also rely on sports nutrition (especially PowerBars, PowerBar Energy Blasts, Honey Singer Protein Bars, Isostar Cereal Bars, and Isostar Sport Drink). Huts cannot be expected to cater to hikers who fuel themselves as if they were competitive athletes.
Yet another disadvantage of hut-to-hut hiking is that huts require reservations, typically well in advance. That means you relinquish flexibility and spontaneity. When you finally begin hiking to the first hut you booked, you could be heading into a week of rain. We much prefer to choose each day’s hiking destination according to the latest weather forecast.
Occasionally, while hiking trail A, we’ll see an intriguing peak or col that requires us to hike trail D, which we hadn’t planned on doing. Or, while hiking trail J, we’ll overlook the area probed by trail M, which was on our agenda, but now we can see it’s much less compelling than we’d imagined. Dayhikers can always, easily adjust their plans. Hut-to-hutsters are locked in.
Hut-to-hut hiking is almost never the continuous, blissful, peaky-horizon-always-in-view, alpine cruise that most hikers imagine it will be. Most days on most hut-to-hut routes entail long, grinding ascents, and long, pounding descents. Usually there’s a col, and sometimes a couple cols, between huts. Often there are long stretches between huts where the trail remains in forest. This is where dayhiking offers a significant advantage, because mountain trailheads in Europe are located at much higher elevations than are mountain trailheads in North America. Many are well above treeline, yet accessible via paved roads. So dayhikers who study their topo maps and choose their trails carefully are likely to spend more of each day striding above treeline than are hut-to-hut backpackers. Which is to say, dayhiking can be both easier and more scenic.
Hut-to-hut hiking is a revered tradition and immensely popular. It tends to keep you immersed in a crowd. Not only when you’re at the huts, but also while you’re on the trail. This past summer, we dayhiked several stages of established, hut-to-hut routes. Those were always the days we encountered the most hikers. On the stages we hiked of the Tour de Mont Blanc, for example, other hikers were constantly in view. On most of our dayhikes, we did not follow established hut-to-hut routes, and we were often alone.
Most stages of the popular hut-to-hut routes sacrifice interest for efficiency. So in addition to denying you optimal scenery, the trails themselves are sometimes boring. Following the easiest, most direct routes, long stretches of many hut-to-hut trails are broad, eroded pathways. They don’t engage you. You simply plod them. But many European trails are more compelling than North American trails because they forge more daring lines. Dayhikers who opt for these surprising, challenging routes will find them thrilling. With the exception of some of the high-level variants on some hut-to-hut routes, hut-to-hutsters often find themselves in a mundane, heavily-trod rut.
Dayhiking in the Alps, by the way, isn’t necessarily the round-trip, out-and-back, same-scenery-twice experience it tends to be in North America. There are far more trails in the Alps than you’ll find in any North American mountain range. Imagine a spiderweb dropped over the mountains. Each thread linked to the others. That’s the Alps: a web of trails, ensuring loop hikes are often possible. Constantly forging into new terrain makes dayhiking much more appealing.
Finally, hiking hut-to-hut—depending on your beliefs regarding safe mountain travel—might not be the carefree, ultralight saunter you’ve imagined. Should you really set off on a multi-day hike through mountains you’ve no experience in, without carrying a shelter, sleeping gear, extra clothing, and food that might enable you to survive an emergency bivouac? What if the weather suddenly turns violent and visibility plummets while you’re between huts? What if you make a navigational error that, come nightfall, leaves you well shy of the hut you’d intended to reach? What if an incapacitating injury befalls you or a companion? What if all of the above happen? That’s why, when hiking hut-to-hut, our packs have been far from weightless. We were always prepared to survive a night out if our plans unspooled into drama.
In summary, we’ve enjoyed hut-to-hut hiking, but for all the reasons explained above, we much prefer dayhiking. Dayhiking makes a campervan viable for hiking-focused European travel. And a campervan is… ooh la la… the way to travel, for the following reasons:
• Renting a campervan is, admittedly, not the cheapest way to go. But if you add up the cost of staying in huts, eating in huts, plus the cost of accommodation (probably hotels) and transportation (even public transportation) when travelling between trails, you’ll realize that travelling via campervan is surprisingly cost-competitive.
• It’s possible to camp free-of-charge every night in a campervan. Free-camping in a campervan is especially easy in France, where campervans are—by and large—welcomed or at least accepted. And free camping in France is by no means a hardship. It’s an advantage. This past summer, we camped 140 nights free of charge in our campervan, and all but a few times our “campsites” were excellent. We tucked into forests. We pulled off atop alpine passes. We overlooked picturesque villages. Often we were next to or within earshot of a stream. Many times we had superb views of the surrounding mountains. Almost always we enjoyed more tranquillity and privacy than we would have had we paid to stay in a campground, where incessantly chatting campers, screaming kids, and barking dogs are a frequent annoyance. While free camping, we never trespassed, violated regulations, or—to the best of our knowledge—annoyed anyone. Finding a place to comfortably camp free in a campervan sometimes requires a little creativity, courage or determination. But it also makes the journey more interesting and fun. And free-camping is what makes renting a campervan affordable, because the rental fee covers both transportation and accommodation.
• Throughout France, you’ll find “aire de services” specifically for campervans. At an aire de service you can, usually free-of-charge, responsibly empty your grey- and black-water tanks. You can also refill your fresh-water tank. Many aire de services allow campervans to stay overnight—free of charge. Aire de services are so common in France that, clearly, the nation has made a concerted effort to accommodate campervan travellers. As a result, campervan life is relatively easy in France, and campervan travellers feel welcome.
• A European hiking journey via campervan allows for very efficient travel. At trailheads where you have several hiking options, you can simply stay, camping free each evening after you return from dayhiking. No need to repeatedly drive back and forth between down-valley accommodation and high-elevation trailheads. Camping free at trailheads saves time, gas money, and allows for more relaxation.
• You can stock a campervan with enough groceries to last a week. That allows you to shop less frequently, at larger supermarkets offering lower prices and more choices. That means you save time and money, and eat what you want, as much as you want, whenever you want. That ensures that each day you set out on a dayhike, you can pack the precise trail foods you prefer. And it ensures that every morning before you hike, and every evening when you return from a hike, your breakfasts and dinners are ample, nutritious and delicious. There’s a particular brand and flavour of tea that you love? You can carry a dozen boxes of it in your campervan. You find a boulangerie that makes the best bread you’ve ever tasted? Buy a couple loaves—one for today, one for tomorrow. And, of course, campervans have refrigerators, so you can stock up on your favourite fresh foods and always enjoy an ice-cold, post-hike beer.
• Speaking of refrigerators, campervan fridges have freezers, which provide a key benefit specific to dayhiking: therapeutic ice packs. Each time we returned to our campervan from a long, demanding dayhike, we would apply ice packs to our knees and ankles to help reduce inflammation. This, plus occasional massage, helped keep us on the trail six days a week. Hut guardians are, to say the least, unaccustomed to having trekkers show up and ask for ice packs.
• A campervan can be a mobile gear closet. No need to severely limit your hiking gear. Campervans have enough storage space that you can bring a variety of clothing and gear, which you can choose from depending on the terrain and weather you anticipate encountering on each dayhike. That means you don’t always have to pack your heavier, Gore-Tex Pro Shell. If it’s a shatterproof, sunny day, you can keep your pack weight minimal by instead carrying your ultralight Gore-Tex PacLite shell. Most hikers travelling in Europe have just one pair of hiking boots. With a campervan, you can carry heavier boots for rougher terrain, a lighter pair of boots for easier trails, a pair of walking shoes for urban hiking, a pair of sandals for kicking back at the campsite, plus a pair of down booties for inside the campervan at night. Most hikers travelling in Europe have to wash their few items of clothes frequently. With a campervan, you can carry enough changes of hiking clothes that finding a laundromat becomes necessary only about once every couple weeks. This past summer, we always had precisely the gear we needed. This allowed us to keep our pack weight minimal and hike as comfortably as possible. It also ensured we never had to do laundry on a day when the weather was optimal for hiking. We could choose to do laundry only on those days when the weather was poor or we wanted or needed a rest.
• A campervan is a reasonably comfortable home in foul weather. Unlike a tent, a campervan has a heater, plus enough room that you can stand up, move around, lounge, do yoga. Unlike in a tent, you can hang your damp hiking clothes in a campervan, so they’re dry by morning even if it rains all night. And because a campervan has abundant storage, it can be a mobile library, containing all the guidebooks and maps you need. When you elect not to hike on a rainy day, you can make optimal use of your time by spreading out your maps, perusing several books at a time, and planning your hikes.
• Your bed in a campervan is your bed. A different bed in a different hotel every night (unless you’re staying at expensive hotels) leaves you vulnerable to a poor night’s rest: an uncomfortable mattress, a room that’s too hot, too cold, too stuffy, a room in a noisy location, etc. With a campervan, you’re almost always in control of the physical and audio atmosphere in which you sleep. That makes it the most consistently homey accommodation possible for a traveller.
There are, however, some drawbacks to European campervan travel you should be aware of:
• Many roads in Europe are narrow. Much narrower than North American drivers are accustomed to. This makes it a challenge to pilot a campervan. You must be a skilled, confident driver. You must always be vigilantly alert behind the wheel. You must drive slower than you might prefer. And you need a co-pilot always on duty as shotgun (a second pair of eyes attentive for potential trouble), navigator (constantly glancing up at directional signage and down at a road map), and ground crew (exiting the van to direct the pilot, and perhaps coordinate traffic, whenever it’s necessary to back up the rig).
• The only access to a few European trailheads is via one-lane roads. Even if you’re driving a small car, some of these roads pose difficulties should you encounter another car traveling in the opposite direction. In a campervan? Fuhgedaboutit. That’s when we’ve parked our campervan and hitchhiked. Compared to North Americans, Europeans are less fearful, more at ease about picking up hitchhikers. Europeans who are themselves hikers will reflexively stop for anyone geared-up to hike and obviously en route to a trailhead. Our hitchhiking attempts never failed, even when several rides were necessary. And hitching always enhanced our day. A lively, cultural exchange ensued every time we climbed into someone’s car.
• With all your hiking gear and valuables (laptops, portable hard drives, passports, etc.) in your campervan, you have more at risk when you leave the van parked at a trailhead than you would if you’d left all your gear and valuables locked in a hotel room and parked a relatively empty car at the same trailhead. We don’t know anyone who’s parked more vehicles at more trailheads in both Europe and North America than we have, however, and we’ve never been broken into on either continent. Our sense is that trailhead theft is less common in Europe than it is in North America, perhaps because trailheads in Europe tend to be busier: too public for easy thievery. Still, we remain vigilant. We always go out of our way to leave our campervan parked where it will be in view of people coming and going. And we always take the extra time necessary to disguise and hide our valuables within the campervan. Campervans have excellent hidey holes that would be difficult for a thief to find.
• In most of Switzerland, free-camping in a campervan is verboten. In Spain and Italy, it’s possible to camp free, but it’s less safe to leave an unattended campervan parked at trailheads. Outside France, we’re less enthusiastic about hiking-focused travel via campervan. Bear in mind, we have not travelled via campervan beyond France, Switzerland, Spain and Italy. If hiking is the focus of your journey, however, you’ll find much of the world’s best hiking in the Alps. And the French Alps, as we can attest, are ideal for campervan travel and free camping.
So, how to come by a campervan in France? Don’t try to buy one. (We explain why not in our post titled “U-Turn,” July 12, 2012). Rent one from the same people we did: France Motorhome Hire (www.francemotorhomehire.com). They’re located in Montargis, just south of Paris. Their email address is <email@example.com>. Their international phone number is +33 238 97 00 33. They are Hannah and Phill Spurge. Starting with their response to our initial email enquiry, continuing through what is now our sixth month on the road with one of their rentals, they have been unfailingly honest, fair, creative, flexible, helpful, responsive and enjoyable. We emphatically recommend them.
Our campervan journey through the French Alps has enriched us beyond measure. If you’re a hiker, you’ll likely feel the same. Start planning now.
Someone recently wrote us asking what ten hikes we would rank as the world’s best. Here’s what we said:
(1) Parc National des Calanques, France. On the edge of Marseille, this is the country’s newest national park (www.calanques-parcnational.fr). It’s an astonishing, fascinating massif comprising huge, fissured, white, limestone cliffs rising abruptly from the Mediterranean. Numerous, sea-to-cliff-top trails thread through the park between the town of Cassis and the sprawling city of Marseille. Vast panoramas are frequent. Several days of unique, world-class dayhiking are possible here. Ideal times: spring and fall, but winter can also be pleasant. Base yourself in Cassis. If camping, stay at Camping Cigales (http://www.campingcassis.com/). This is where we are now, having finally been pushed out of the French Alps by cold temps, rain, then snow. After touching our trekking poles in the sea near Nice, we spent a couple rewarding weeks hiking in the Pre Alps, primarily in the Haute Var. But rain and cold temps again pushed us south to the coast. From Parc National des Calanques, we’ll nip back up into Provence for a final week of hill-hiking in France, then we’ll drop into Spain. There, we’ll begin writing our Alps book and, we hope, continue hiking several days a week in the mountains along the Costa Blanca. We’ll keep blogging, of course.
(2) Berg Lake, Mt. Robson Provincial Park, B.C., Canada. You’ll find complete details about backpacking to Berg Lake in our book, Don’t Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies, The Opinionated Hiking Guide.
(3) Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit, Yoho National Park, B.C. Canada. You’ll find complete details about backpacking to Berg Lake in our book, Don’t Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies, The Opinionated Hiking Guide. We also blogged about it: http://www.hikingcamping.com/blog/2010/07/lake-ohara/
(4) Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Chile. Seven-day, loop backpack trip.
(5) Hermit and Boucher trails, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, USA. We’ve blogged about this three-day backpack trip: http://www.hikingcamping.com/blog/2011/04/grand-and-deep/
(6) Paria Canyon, near Kanab, Utah, USA. Four day, one-way backpack trip through the canyon, into Arizona.
(7) Tour du Vanoise, Parc National de la Vanoise, France. Four-day loop near glaciers in the French Alps, above the villages of Termignon and Pralognon.
(8) Gioberney, Vallée Valgaudemar, Parc National des Ecrins, France. The supreme dayhike in the French Alps.
(9) Col du Gran St. Bernard, Switzerland. We’ve blogged about this dayhike on the Italian/Swiss border, between Aosta and Verbier: http://www.hikingcamping.com/blog/2012/10/14-premier-dayhikes-in-the-swiss-alps/
(10) Gertrude Saddle, Fiordland, South Island, New Zealand. We described it here: http://www.hikingcamping.com/free-hiking-nz.php
We’re grateful to still be putting distance between us and normal life, in which routine elbows exploration aside, society orders nature off the premises, and sedentary work pins physical fitness to the floor.
We’ve been hiking in the Alps since mid-June. We’ve remained injury free, rainy spells have been brief, and we’re disciplined about keeping down-time (shopping, driving, resting, etc.) to a minimum. So we’ve actually hiked most of that four-and-a-half months. In summer, we hiked six days a week. Fall weather and shorter days have recently reduced our average to four or five days a week. Of the 135 days we’ve now been here, we’ve spent approximately 108 days on the trail.
This has been our Endless Summer. The classic film of that title follows surfers on their quest for primo waves rolling toward exotic beaches. Our quest has been for fascinating trails probing sensational mountains. We’re fulfilling a dream. We’re not at home, living a relatively normal, work-constantly, hike-when-possible life. We’re traveling, living a highly unusual, hike-constantly, work-when-possible life.
We have and will continue to blog about our sojourn. Our chief goal—certainly in our books, but even in our blog—is to inspire others to hike and guide them on especially rewarding trails. But during this endless summer of hiking we’re also exploring metaphysical terrain. The terrain to which we turned our attention when we wrote the book titled Heading Outdoors Eventually Leads Within. It’s this terrain we’re compelled to write about now.
Hiking constantly—far and fast—limits human contact. In summer, on some trails, yes, we crossed paths with many hikers. But even then, we were alone most of the time. Now it’s fall, and we’re inching southward, toward the Med, away from the big, famous peaks. We’re encountering few hikers. When we do meet others—on the trail, or in towns—they’re French. We speak little of their language, they little of ours, so discourse is usually simplistic and fleeting. We don’t have a cell phone. We get internet access rarely—perhaps once a week—in places where we can’t or don’t want to linger long. So communication with friends, family or business affiliates is minimal. Plus, the way we’re traveling—driving a campervan, free-camping in the loneliest, quietest spots we can find, usually at or near trailheads—also limits human contact.
This near-constant state of solitude is conducive to frequent, penetrating introspection.
During a recent spate of rain, for example, when we’d declined to hike for a couple days, we were holed-up in our van, writing. A quiet backroad allowed us to tuck into the forest beside a stream. The trails had been ours alone on our previous two dayhikes. Nobody drove or walked by our van that day in the rain. It was quiet, save for the water music. Fat clouds waddled slowly among the treetops. Fog slithered through the forest. I became aware of how isolated we were were at that moment, how we’ve always isolated ourselves even at home in North America, and how this summer—despite being in heavily populated Europe—we’ve been especially isolated.
I said to Kath, “I feel like we’re in a very small sailboat, far out at sea, on a trans-ocean voyage.”
“I know,” she said. “I feel the same.”
A long discussion ensued, punctuated by several realizations:
• It’s not the hiking that’s difficult for us. Ever. It’s when we’re off the trail, between trailheads—that’s when our life doesn’t always flow smoothly. During those lulls, we’re in a kind of limbo. Like those couple days we were hunkered in the forest, sitting out the rain. That’s when we get antsy. That’s when our minds sometimes become infested with conventional thought: “Should we be doing this? What are we doing? It’s been four and a half months, isn’t that enough? Maybe we should end the trip, go home. Wouldn’t it be better if we had some friends with us? I wish I could be with my family right now. Maybe instead of hiking, gathering info for a future book that might not be profitable, we should be at our desks, marketing our current books.” And on, and on, and on.
• When hiking, we’re immune to all that monkey-mind stuff. On the trail, we’re almost always relaxed and content. We feel very present, fully alive, completely engaged. We never question why were doing it. It feels absolutely right. When hiking, we feel we’re being our true selves. Just as some people have a meditation practice, or a yoga practice, we have a hiking practice. Doing yoga frees the body from tension. Meditating frees the mind from aimless wandering. Hiking frees us from uncertainty and anxiety.
• We’re now engaged in our hiking practice with the same level of devotion as are those for whom meditation or yoga is central to their lives. When getting ready for a hike, we don’t think about the getting ready. We don’t question if we should go hiking or not, if we’ll enjoy it or not, if the trail we chose is the optimal one for that day, if the weather will cooperate… and so on. Mindfully, but without mental static, we simply prepare, then set out. Pre-hike, it’s as if we’re propelled not consciously, but subconsciously. We’ve come to believe that the adventure ahead is more apt go smoothly if, before setting out, we’re calmly focused rather than frantic and anxious.
All that monkey-mind stuff? The uncertainties and anxieties that bubble up when we’re between trailheads? That’s our conscious minds seeking distraction. Distraction from whatever is: the sound of rain dappling on the roof of our van, the difficulty or tedium of writing, the realization that we are utterly alone, etc. Often, whatever is, just doesn’t seem to be enough for the conscious mind. We think we want, need or deserve… something different than what is. Precisely what that difference actually is, we’re not sure, but our conscious minds insist that whatever is just isn’t satisfactory.
• Observing our conscious minds seeking distraction is a new insight for us. We’re now able to recognize the seeking of distraction for what it is, which allows us to let go of it, and settle back into contentment. This glimmer of understanding is one of many that have arisen during our endless summer in the Alps. They’re the result of our new level of dedication to our practice.
• We’ve also seen, with distilled clarity, how little we want. Health, each other, good food, deep sleep, agreeable weather, and wildlands to hike. That’s it. The swarm of concerns, the pile of possessions, the restricting obligations, and the frenetic busyness that seem to consume most people’s lives have, for us, fallen away. We’re completely comfortable—absolutely at home—alone in nature. Noise, crowds and urban bustle have become increasingly agitating. There’s a simplicity and focus to our present existence that’s immensely fulfilling. Wanting so little feels liberating.
• But questions now loom on our horizon: What happens when our endless summer ends? Will we be able to adjust to a life in which we cannot be as dedicated to our hiking practice as we are now? What would it take to indefinitely continue our present level of dedication to our hiking practice?
Meanwhile, our endless summer continues into fall. And each time we look back over our shoulders—at normal life, in which routine elbows exploration aside, society orders nature off the premises, and sedentary work pins physical fitness to the floor—we’re grateful we’re still putting distance between us and it.
Thanks for following us.
1. Col du Gran St. Bernard (Italian/Swiss Border, between Aosta and Verbier)
2. Sentier de Chamois (Verbier, Val de Bagnes, Valais)
3. Pas de Chevres (Arolla, Val D’Herens, Valais)
4. Bisse du Ro (Crans-Montana, Wildstruble, Central Valais)
5. Bisse du Lens (Crans-Montana, Wildstruble, Central Valais)
6. Cabane du Grand Mountet (Zinal, Val d’Anniviers, Valais)
7. Rifflealp to Gornergrat (Zermatt, Mattertal Valley, Valais)
8. Kreuzboden to Saas Almagell (Saas Almagel, Saastal Valley, Valais)
9. Faulhorn (Between Interlaken and Grindelwald, Berner Oberland)
10. Jungfraujoch / Eiger Trail (Above Kleine Scheidegg, Berner Oberland)
11. Rhonegletscher (Grimselpass, Berner Oberland)
12. Sidelhorn (Grimselpass, Berner Oberland)
13. Tierberglihutte (Sustenpass, Berner Oberland)
14. Albert Heim Hutte (Furkapass, Berner Oberland)
• Skip below for notes about each of the these premier dayhikes, and to learn which dayhikes we suggest you not do. Bear in mind, our blog-post descriptions are not as complete as those we provide in our guidebooks.
• Continue reading here for our overall commentary about dayhiking in Switzerland.
The Opinionated Hikers, On Patrol for You
Determined to experience many of the Swiss Alps’ most exciting trails, we hiked fast and far nearly every day for three weeks. The scenery was frequently astonishing. It’s as if the human neck doesn’t have sufficient range of motion to constantly appreciate such massive, vertical mountains.
Most high-elevation Swiss villages are perched between 1400 and 1700 m (4592 and 5576 ft), while the peaks top out at 4000 to 4500 m (13,120 to 14,760 ft). So Swiss summits truly “soar.”
Our chief point of reference is the Canadian Rockies, and it was obvious that the Swiss Alps are another order of magnitude. A few calculations reveal the Alps generally out-soar our home range by 1000 to 1500 m (3300 to 4920 ft). So the Alps are more impressive as well as more challenging.
Starting at a Swiss-village trailhead at 1700 m (5576 ft), a trail will typically climb 1000 to 1200 m (3280 to 3936 ft) to a pass or col at 2700 to 2900 m (8856 to 9512 ft). As a daily hiking regimen, ascending and descending that much elevation is grueling. So most hikers pay (dearly) to ride the ski lifts, cable cars, cog railways and gondolas that corset many Swiss massifs. Or sometimes they ride the Post buses* that link nearly every hamlet in the nation. This eliminates the first 800 to 1000 m (2624 to 3280 ft) of ascent and makes constant dayhiking sensible (presuming you can afford it) and enjoyable.
The expense, crowds and commercialism of the most famous Swiss hiking areas do diminish the hiking experience in ways that the scenery—marvelous as it is—cannot compensate for. Still, the scenery is worth it. For example…
We cringed when we drove into the road’s end campground in Tasch and had to wedge our campervan within an arms length of other campervans on each side. We were rattled by the huge sum we paid to ride the train to Zermatt and the cablecar to Rifflealp. But that afternoon we were spellbound as we hiked into the icy embrace of Monte Rosa. It wasn’t a mystical wilderness experience, but it ranks among the most powerful sights we’ve seen in a lifetime of hiking.
If you’re a dedicated hiker coming to Switzerland, expect to (a) tug plastic out of your wallet about half the time you tug on your boots, (b) marvel at manmade wonders (such as the “Top of Europe” complex straddling the slender Jungfraujoch at 3454 m / 11,329 ft) while marveling at the mountains and glaciers, and (c) be alone on the trail rarely, and then only briefly. Unwilling to stride through those deterrents, you’ll miss much of what makes Switzerland a famous hiking destination.
But you’ll also miss some of Switzerland’s best hiking if you don’t venture away from the famous skiing/hiking towns. Several of our favourite hikes in Switzerland were on relatively obscure trails that departed highways crossing high-alpine passes.** From near Sustenpass, for example, we ascended to Tierberglihutte. It cost us nothing.*** There wasn’t a ski lift in sight. We saw other hikers but were alone most of the day. The scenery was riveting: one icefall beside the route, another beside the climactic promontory. It was one of our most enjoyable scrambles ever.
*In North America, “bus” is synonymous with “cheap.” Not so in Switzerland. The Post bus system is impressive in every way: modern, clean, yellow buses bearing the brass-horn logo; punctual arrivals and departures; frequent, daily service from early morning to late at night; vast service area including tiny, remote villages; and eye-popping fares that will empty not just your change purse but your wallet. We learned about Post bus fares when we wanted to hike beyond Goscheneralpsee to view the glacier bearing, 3630-m (11,906-ft) peak called “Dammastock.” The road from Goschenen to road’s end at Goscheneralpsee was a bit narrow for our campervan, we knew parking would be expensive, and we suspected the parking lot might be full. So, having already driven above Goschenen, we decided to ride the bus the rest of the way. When it arrived, the driver casually stated the fare: “32 francs.” We were stunned. That was the equivalent of $32 USD—for a mere 20-minute round trip for two people. We declined, of course, then drove away and hiked elsewhere.
**Some trails departing highways at high-alpine passes are obscure, but the highways themselves are famous among motorcyclists. They come from all over Europe to tour Switzerland. In summer, a constant stream of bikers screams through these high-alpine passes. The noise grates like… well, like hundreds of full-throttle motorcycles passing you at close range. It begins at sunrise and continues until after sunset. It happens daily, spiking on weekends and holidays. So study your map. Don’t choose a trail paralleling a highway. You want to put as much topography between you and the pavement as quickly as possible.
***It cost us nothing because we didn’t pay to drive the private access road to the actual trailhead. We hoofed it, free of charge, on a bypass trail, which increased our round-trip time by only 1.5 hours. Private access roads such as this are common in Switzerland. Though they’re signed and gated, you can’t see that on a map, where they look like any other road. Only by paying a sometimes outrageous fee can you drive past the gate. Our first encounter with such a road, we stopped at the “Private Road” sign. We waved down a car descending the road and asked if we could proceed. The driver, a local, assured us we could. (In hindsight, it’s apparent he meant the road would accommodate our campervan, not that it was free-of-charge.) So we drove blithely onward. Halfway to our destination—a lake named “Engstlensee”—we were surprised to reach a gatehouse, where a man walked up to our campervan and asked, “You want to see the lake?” We said “yes.” He held out his palm and said, “40 francs.” That was the equivalent of $40 USD. We were shocked. The entire road—from highway to lake—was only about 18 km (11.2 mi) long. We had to coerce him into letting us turn around without cost. He initially insisted we pay the entire fee for having driven just part way.
Dayhikes we recommend in Switzerland:
Italian/Swiss Border, between Aosta and Verbier
1. Col du Gran St. Bernard
Before driving from Italy into Switzerland via Col du Gran St. Bernard, Kath intently studied maps of the area. (She averages two hours of map study per day on a journey like this.) She saw a loop dayhike was possible starting at the col and suspected it would be excellent. Though we wouldn’t arrive at the pass until afternoon, she insisted we’d just enough daylight if we booted up as soon as we arrived. We did, and she was right. Walking back to our campervan at sunset, we agreed we’d just finished our favourite dayhike in the French, Italian, or Swiss Alps. Since then, we’ve hiked several more months in the Alps, and we still rank Col du Grand St. Bernard at the top of our list.
The entire loop is well above treeline, and it’s between the Mont Blanc massif and the extraordinary, 4314-m (14,150-ft) Grand Combin, both of which are visible. So awesome scenery is constant. Plus the immediate terrain is gorgeous: tarns, lakes and lichen-illuminated boulders amid rolling, green alplands and sculpted bedrock.
En route, you’ll overlook three, deep valleys and see numerous ridges. You’ll cross three cols and pass five lakes. From the 2757-m (9043-ft) Col du Bastillon, you’ll gaze across an abyss (Italy’s Val Ferret) to the Mont Blanc massif, specifically the Grandes Jorasses and Mont Dolent. Also within view is 3734-m (12,248-ft) Mont Velan.
Here are the stats… Distance: 12.5-km (7.75-mi) loop. Elevation gain: 929 m (3047 ft). Hiking time: 5 hours. Bring L’Escursionista map #5, titled “Carta dei sentierei Gran San Bernardo.”
Though a paved, two-lane road pierces the Col du Gran St. Bernard, it’s easy to imagine it as the rough, isolated, daunting passage that, for centuries, was crossed by pilgrims, merchants, armies, and travelers. Straddling the road at the crest of the col is an historic hospice (a lodge run by monks) still in operation today. If you make reservations (www.gransanbernardo.it) and arrive on foot, you can pay to dine and spend the night there. In summer, many hospice-bound trekkers march up the steep trails ascending both sides of the pass.
From Aosta, Italy, drive national road 27 north to Col Gran San Bernardo. Be alert approaching St-Rhemy-en-Bosses. This is where the toll highway through the Gran San Bernard tunnel departs (left / W) from the small, no-fee, national road. Opt for the national road, which actually crosses the col. The tunnel is efficient but expensive (30 Euro one way) and prevents you from enjoying the scenery.
Upon arriving at the col, park on the Italian (S) side, above the SW shore of the lake, at 2445 m (8020 ft). Find the historic, stone mule-track just before Hotel Albergo Italia. It’s marked 103 and 13A. Follow it E, just above the N side of the road. In seven minutes, reach the road where it crests the col at San Bernard Hospice. Walk the road about 30 m/yd beyond the last building. Find the signed trail departing the left (NE) side of the road. The trail ascends gently, curving N into wild terrain, away from the road, which drops ENE.
You’ll soon be walking a gorgeous, ancient, stone path across the rocky slopes of 2889-m (9476-ft) Grande Chanalette. In about 45 minutes, reach 2716-m (8908-ft) Pas des Chevaux at 3 km (1.9 mi). Here you have a choice: (a) follow the main trail, which descends, or (b) fork left and stay high on a narrow route traversing steep slopes. Both options take about the same amount of time. They rejoin about 15 minutes below (SE of) Col du Bastillon. Option A is on a comfortable trail but is slightly longer and entails significantly more elevation gain. Option B requires you to be sure-footed on a rocky, airy route
• 3.25 km (2 mi)
• 0.5 km (0.3 mi) longer than option B
• gaining 200 m (656 ft) more than option B
Follow the main trail switchbacking down to the stream at 2400 m (7872 ft). Then ascend back up to 2500 m (8200 ft) on a grassy plateau between two tarns: Petit Le (left / W), and Grand Le (right / NE).
2.75 km (1.7 mi)
• 0.5 km (0.3 mi) shorter than option A
• bypassing 200 m (656 ft) of ascent compared to option A
Stay high on the steep, rocky slopes of Pointe de Drone. Contour at about 2550 m (8364 ft), gradually gaining elevation the last 1.5 km (0.9 mi). The path is about the width of two boots. It’s obvious but blazes offer assurance. Only in about 3 or 4 places might you need to use your hands for balance. In the 1800s, the hospice monks followed this path through Col du Bastillon to Val Ferret (1057 m / 3467 below), where they cut firewood, then hauled it on horseback up to the hospice. The path has been abandoned by all but the rare hiker who prefers a challenging shortcut.
Options A and B rejoin at 2680 m (8790 ft). The distance to this point—via the main trail—is 6.25 km (3.9 mi). Continue ascending NW to 2757-m (9043-ft) Col du Bastillon at 6.75 km (4.2 mi). The panorama here is spectacular. The Grandes Jorasses and Mont Dolent on the Mont Blanc massif are W. Grand Combin and Mont Velan are E. The quiet valley of Le Ban Darray is SW.
From the rugged col, drop steeply N, then SW on rough trail to the Lacs de Fenetre. Reach a junction on the NW shore of the largest lake at 8 km (5 mi), 2472 m (8108 ft). Continue S toward the outlet stream (2457 m / 8060 ft). Above the lake’s S shore, fork right (S) at 8.5 km, 2490 m (8167 ft). Ascend through scree to 2698-m (8850-ft) Fenetre de Ferret pass at 10 km (6.2 mi). Visible far below is the road you drove to Col du Grand St. Bernard.
Reach a fork about five minutes below the pass. Go left (E) on a faint trail traversing the grassy basin and crossing several small cascades. It climbs over a slender shoulder, descends sharply, then traverses again. Soon intersect another faint trail at 11.3 km (7 mi), 2515 m (8250 ft). Go right, descending SSE. This trail fades. At that point, it’s a steep-but-short descent to the road.
Intersect the road at 11.8 km (7.3 mi), 2385 m (7823 ft). Turn left and follow it to the avalanche tunnel. Hike along the tunnel, just outside it, on the downhill side. Shortly beyond the tunnel, cross the road and ascend left on trail. Within a few minutes, descend to Lago del Gran San Bernardo, where you began hiking the 12.5-km (7.8-mi) loop.
Verbier, Val de Bagnes, Valais
2. Sentier de Chamois
Verbier is a posh, ski resort. In summer, it’s very popular with parapenters and mountainbikers. But hiking is surprisingly limited here. There are, however, two Verbier trails we enthusiastically recommend.
Starting at Le Chable or Verbier, ride the gondola to Les Ruinettes, at 2192 m (7190 ft). Slightly below the gondola station, pick up the trail signed for Cabane du Mont Fort. It follows a bisse (historic, manmade, high-mountain, irrigation channel). Soon continue on the Sentier de Chamois. Massive, glacier-mantled, 3987-m (13,077-ft) Grand Combin dominates the view S. From Mont Fort at 2457 m (8059 ft), go SSW then SE along a spectacular, balcon trail (a contouring traverse of a steep, airy mountainside) to 2648-m (8585-ft) Col Termin.
From Col Termin, you can descend past Lac de Louvie (an impressive sight, far below at 2213 m / 7259 ft), then to Fionnay (on the valley floor at 1497 m / 4910 ft). From there, catch the bus down-valley to your starting point.
We suggest you decline that long, steep, punishing descent. Instead, make this a round-trip by retracing your steps to Mont Fort, then along the bisse to Les Ruinettes.
You can also continue beside the bisse in the opposite direction, contouring high above Verbier (which is constantly visible below) and enjoying distant views of Grand Combin. (From the gondola station, you must briefly descend a steeply switchbacking trail before resuming along the bisse.) But don’t follow the bisse all the way around the cirque, into the dense forest on the far side. Descend (on the network of roads and trails) to Verbier while the village is still in sight.
If you intend to drop from Col Termin to Fionnay, check the bus schedule in advance, then start early enough so you’re sure you won’t miss the last down-valley bus. If you intend to make this a round trip, check the gondola schedule in advance, then start early enough so you’re sure you won’t miss the last ride down.
While in Verbier or Le Chable, stop at the tourist office. Ask for the free, Valais map titled “Les Tours.” It’s a helpful highway map, but more importantly it indicates several 4- to 6-day treks or “tours.” It’s not sufficiently detailed to use while hiking, but it will help you plan where to hike.
Arolla, Val D’Herens, Valais
3. Pas de Chevres
Arolla is a tiny village in the upper reaches of Val D’Herens. The village is so unassuming, and the entire valley so raw, that it’s startling to come here after visiting the neighboring Saastal and Mattertal valleys, which are highly developed and whose reigning villages—Saas Fee and Zermatt—are world famous. There’s one dayhike from Arolla that makes driving 25 km (15.5 mi) up Val D’Herens worthwhile.
From the parking lot—immediately below the antiquated ski lift and just before the final switchback (right) to Arolla—walk the road ascending into the village. Then bear left and follow the road up to the charming, gorgeously-situated Grand Hotel Kurhaus. At the hotel, pick up the trail signed for Pas de Chevre and Col de Riedmatten. Heading generally W, briefly climb through forest into the alpine zone. 3637-m (11,929-ft) Mt. Collon walls-in the head of the valley. 3796-m (12,451-ft) Pigne d’Arolla looms nearby. The trail passes beneath Glacier de Tsidjiore Nouve. Ignore the right fork leading to Col de Reidmatten. Bear left and proceed to Pas de Chevre.
After gaining 855 m (2804 ft) in about 2.5 hours, crest 2855-m (9364-ft) Pas de Chevre. Here, 3870-m (12,694-ft) Mt. Blanc de Cheilon demands attention. The far side of the pass is vertical. Immediately below is Glacier de Cheilon. Two, 50-m (164-ft) steel ladders bolted to the rock grant passage to the boulders and scree below. From there, it’s about 1.5 hours (across the glacier and extensive moraines) to Dix Refuge (visible from the pass), or about 45 mights right (N) to 2919-m (9574-ft) Col Riedmatten. From the col, a trail descends back to intersect the one you ascended, thus allowing a circuit. But the view from the col is no better than that from the pass. Unless the prospect of descending the ladders thrills you, don’t. Instead, find a perch above (right / N of) Pas de Chevre and admire the icy, rocky vastness before hiking back down to Arolla.
Crans-Montana, Wildstruble, Central Valais
On the north side of the Rhone Valley, above Sion and Sierre, the mountains are known as the “Wildstrubel.” Though topped by craggy ridges, the peaks here are lower and the slopes gentler than elsewhere in Valais. We think the area looks remarkably like the Canadian Rockies. Within the Wildstrubel you’ll find numerous trails that afford an unusual and, in our opinion, fascinating hiking experience.
These trails follow “bisses,” which are historic, irrigation channels, some dating back to the 14th century. By the late 1800s, there were 1800 km (1116 mi) of bisses in Valais. Bisses made agriculture possible on dry, low-elevation slopes by transporting water from high-elevation cascades and streams. Many bisses have been carefully maintained for their cultural-heritage and recreational values.
Incredible daring and effort was necessary to construct a bisse, because it carried water from one canyon to another, often across sheer cliffs for long distances. This makes bisses exciting to walk. Some bisses are still in use, so you’re constantly walking next to flowing water, the sight and sound of which is soothing. And because bisses had to descend at a barely perceptible grade (the more horizontal, the farther they could carry water), bisse trails are virtually level, so they offer Swiss Alps hikers a refreshing change and welcome respite.
When you stop at a Valais tourist office, ask for their brochure “Hiking the Bisses.” Cultural geography intrigues us, so we briefly became “bisse hunters,” tracking down and sampling several of these remarkable trails. Bisse due Ro and Biss due Lens were our favourites.
4. Bisse du Ro
Bisse du Ro, built in the 14th century, has long sections in which there’s nothing but air beneath the bisse. You’ll be walking on wood planks suspended mid-cliff. The interpretive displays en route help you appreciate the dangerous travails of bisse construction and maintenance.
Drive to the ritzy, relatively new, resort towns of Crans-Montana. Stop at the boulangerie near the tourist office in Montana. It has a huge selection of superb breads and pastries. We’ve sampled the wares at hundreds of French and Swiss boulangeries, and this one was exceptional. (But we do think they should rename the shop “Wildstrudel.”) With your carb level topped up, on to the bisse…
From Crans, drive Route du Rawyl past Lac Etang Grenon. Continue W, ascending to Plans Mayens. The signed trailhead parking lot is on the left, at 1628 m (5340 ft). The trail initially descends through forest. Intersect the bisse in about six minutes. Turn right, and follow the bisse trail up-canyon. At 5 km (3.1 mi), 1760 m (5773 ft), reach a signed junction at Er de Chermignon. We suggest turning around here and retracing your steps to the trailhead.
It’s possible, however, to lengthen the hike by continuing (on road, then trail, but not along a bisse) to Lac Tseuzier, at 1778 m (5832 ft). It’s also possible to catch a bus at the lake, and ride back to Crans, making this a one-way hike, but that would deny you the thrill of hiking Bisse du Ro twice.
5. Bisse du Lens
This two-hour round-trip hike is shorter than Bisse du Ro. And it doesn’t have Ro’s long, suspended, airy sections. But Bisse du Lens builds to a more climactic finale, because it leads down-canyon. After following a gentle, forested slope, it too becomes a cliffside wonder, then turns a corner and delivers you to a bench overlooking much of the Rhone Valley.
The vista is vast, beautiful, and instructive. The Rhone River supplied water for agriculture on the valley floor. But farmers on the dry, south-facing slopes at elevations just below this viewpoint bench had no means of pumping Rhone River water uphill. That’s why they risked their lives building bisses.
In the hamlet of l’Cogne, find the small parking lot at 1060 m (3477 ft). The signed trail begins just up the road from there, opposite recycling bins. Head S, past a few houses. Continue on unpaved road. It narrows to trail once it begins following the bisse. About one hour after departing pavement, arrive at the bench overlooking the Rhone Valley. It’s possible to continue following the bisse trail another hour, down to Chermignon d’en Bas, at 910 m (2985 ft).
Zinal, Val d’Anniviers, Valais
Summer 2012, the villages of Val d’Anniviers, extended a generous invitation to visitors. Every day you paid the tourist tax, for example on a campsite or hotel room, you could ride—free of charge—any ski lift or Post bus in the valley. Zinal, the preeminent village at the head of the valley, has a parking lot above a roaring river, where, in summer, they allow self-contained campervans like ours to park and spend the night, free of charge. So, at the Zinal tourist office, we paid tourist tax on—essentially—nothing. It cost us just 2.50 francs per day, per person, to camp free in the parking lot and ride the buses and ski lifts.
Zinal is a gorgeous village, well worth taking time to stroll through. Marion, at the Zinal tourist office, was one of the friendliest, most helpful people we met in Switzerland. The Zinal tourist office will give you a free, hiking-trail map: “Plan de Promenades.” Studying the map, knowing all the local transport was cost-free, we decided to stay several days in Zinal. In retrospect, we should have moved on sooner. This is the only Val d’Anniviers trail we recommend:
6. Cabane du Grand Mountet
The cabane (refuge) is popular with mountaineers. We jockeyed with more than two dozen of them while hiking into the upper reaches of Val d’Anniviers. Their goal was to climb the peaks comprising the cirque that rings the cabane: 3668-m (12,031-ft) Besso (SSE), 4063-m (13,327-ft) Ober Gabelhorn Peak (S), and 4358-m (14,294-ft) Dent Blanche (SSW). The icy faces of those peaks, and the engaging, cliffside trail itself, make this a premier hike.
The way is long and steep. Surmounting the 1200-m (3936-ft) ascent to the cabane takes about 4 to 5 hours. If that outstrips your desire or endurance, stop after gaining about 900 m (2952 ft). That will spare you the final, very steep push to the cabane. You won’t attain the climactic view of the cirque, but you’ll have seen enough to feel well rewarded for your effort.
The trailhead parking lot is at road’s end, shortly beyond Zinal. Cross the bridged creek to the signed trail on the right (W) bank, then turn left (upstream). 4221-m (13,845-ft) Zinalrothorn is visible SE. Cross a bridge to the E bank and begin the steep ascent on the skirts of Mt. Besso. Reach Cabane du Grand-Mountet at 2886 m (9466 ft).
Zermatt, Mattertal Valley, Valais
Like many mountains, it has dual citizenship. In Italia, they call it “Monte Cervino.” In Switzerland, they call it “the Matterhorn.” We hiked above the Italian village of Cervinia, expecting we could say, “It’s just as impressive from the Italian side.” But it’s not. It’s known the world over as “the Matterhorn,” because the Mattertal Valley, in Switzerland, affords the most striking perspective of the iconic peak.
Yet we can say this: The Matterhorn—even from the Swiss side—is an overrated sight compared to Monte Rosa, the sprawling, complex, multi-glaciered peak that lords it over the head of the Mattertal Valley. Monte Rosa, as the name suggests, straddles the Italian-Swiss border. And we inspected it from the Italian side, by hiking above Cretaz (a quaint village just below Cervinia) to 2775-m (9102-m) Colle di Nana. Monte Rosa is impressive from there, but from the Swiss side it’s overwhelming.
Hiking from Rifflealp (where the Matterhorn dominates) to Gornergrat (where Monte Rosa outstripped our esteem for the Matterhorn) is the reason hikers should drive up the Mattertal Valley and visit its “capitol” village: Zermatt.
Yes, Zermatt is among the most developed, famous, busy, tourist attractions in a country full of developed, famous, busy, tourist attractions. Nevertheless, we think it has charm and deserves at least a 45-minute stroll, ideally in evening, just before sunset.
Yes, visiting Zermatt and probing the mountains above is costly, even if you camp and cook for yourself, because only by paying to ride the train high into the alpine zone can you avoid the tedious, approach trudge and make the most of your precious hiking time. Ask yourself, “Will I ever be in Zermatt again?” If the answer is, “Perhaps not,” then don’t stint while you are there.
Yes, the trails above Zermatt are perpetually crowded. But the mountain scenery has such electrifying voltage that it makes the presence of other hikers tolerable. And even here, it’s possible to avoid the throngs. In mid-August, we left our campsite in Tasch at 12:30 p.m. By the time we hiked past Rifflesee, most hikers were already drifting down-mountain. On our final ascent to Gornergrat, we were alone, and the late-afternoon light on Monte Rosa was celestial.
7. Riffelalp to Gornergrat
If you’re not splurging on a Zermatt hotel, you’ll likely be lodging or camping at Tasch. The Mattertal Valley road ends at Tasch. From there, you must ride the train (or walk, which we stupidly did 29 years ago, and adamantly do not recommend) to Zermatt. When purchasing this ticket, also buy one for the train from Zermatt to Riffelalp. Upon exiting the train station in Zermatt (elevation 1616 m / 5300 ft), walk directly across the plaza and board the train to Riffelalp. On the ascent, the Matterhorn is visible from the train, but wait to photo it until after exiting the station at Riffelalp (elevation 2211 m / 7252 ft).
From Riffelalp, with the Matterhorn fully in view, hike S then SW to Riffelberg, at 2566 m (8416 ft). Proceed S, then SSE. Skirt the W side of the 2535-m (8315-ft) peaklet, so you’re farther from the train, closer to the glacial trench.
Follow signs to Riffelsee, a tarn at 2757 m (9043 ft). A 10-minute detour onto the nearby ridge will enable you to escape other hikers and photo the 4164-m (13,658-ft) Breithorn soaring just beyond the massive Gornergrat Glacier.
At the signed, Riffelsee junction, bear right. Follow the trail traversing the S slope of 3131-m (10,270-ft) Gornergrat, with the Gornergrat Glacier visible directly below. About 40 minutes farther, reach a junction at 2695 m (8840 ft). Ahead is the route mountaineers follow across the ice. Turn left (N) and begin a steep ascent on a seemingly minor trail.
Even strong hikers will churn for about 50 minutes before topping out on the 3095-m (10,152-ft) summit ridge of Gornergrat. But there’s nothing to obstruct your vision the entire way, and the view of Monte Rosa is wondrous. Turn left (W) on the summit ridge. Soon arrive at the Gornergrat hotel and train station. If, like we, you elected not to pay to ride the train all the way down from here, hike down to Riffelalp following the well-signed trail. At a brisk pace, it takes only about 1.5 hours. Board the train at Riffelalp and ride down to Zermatt.
The evening we were here, we “swept the mountain,” meaning we were the last hikers descending the trail from Gornergrat. We stayed left, descending mostly on bedrock, avoiding the trail paralleling the train line. Looking up, seeing the Matterhorn in silhouette, was thrilling. Behind us, the evening light on Monte Rosa was celestial. We reached Riffelalp shortly before dusk.
Total hiking time for our afternoon venture was four hours. Our total on-foot elevation gain was 884 m (2768 ft). Our total train-travel time was three hours.
The next day, rain dissuaded us from hiking Hohbalmen. These alluring, rolling, green benchlands are visible from Riffelalp and Riffelberg. Hohbalmen is beneath glacier-capped Zinalrothorn, at about 2600 m (8528 ft). From there, about twenty 4000-m (13,120-ft) peaks are within view. Among them are the Matterhorn, Taschhorn, Allalinhorn, and Dufourspitze (whose icier, eastern side is visible from hike 8, in the Saastal Valley.
The Hohbalmen hike is manageable without help from a train. Walk the pedestrian avenue up-valley, through Zermatt, to the Hotel Post. Follow the signed trail right, across Triftbach stream. Ascend to the 2741-m (8990-ft) highpoint at Schwarzlager, opposite the Matterhorn’s N face. Total elevation gain: 1125 m (3690 ft).
Saas Almagel, Saastal Valley, Valais
Summer 2012, the villages of the Saastal Valley (like those of Val d’Anniviers) extended a generous invitation to visitors. Every day you paid the tourist tax, for example on a campsite or hotel room, you could ride—free of charge—any ski lift or Post bus in the valley. That included the inside-the-mountain transport from high above Sass Fee, to Allalin station at 3500 m (11,480 ft). There’s no hiking from Allalin, because it’s at the top of a glacier, near the vertical, Michabel Wall. The view comprises immense glacial rubble, snow-moving equipment, and machine-scraped ice. Still, being whisked that high is an astonishing experience, and the view is sensational.
You intend to camp in the Saastal Valley? Just above Saas Grund is Camping Michabel, where your hosts will be a Belgian couple who are the very incarnation of “hospitality.” Their kindness, warmth and humour bolstered our faith in humanity during our voluntary exile among the dour Swiss.
8. Kreuzboden to Saas Almagell
Catch the Post bus near the entrance to Camping Michabel. Ride the short distance down-valley to Saas Grund. Then board the gondola ascending the valley’s east wall to Hohsaas, at 3200 m (10,496 ft). Spend about 40 minutes walking the very scenic loop immediately above the gondola station, beside the glacier. Then ride the gondola back down to Kreuzboden, at 2397 m (7862 ft).
From Kreuzboden, follow the signed trail generally S, then SE, toward Almagelleralp, above Saas Almagell. Views are constant, and the hiking is easy on this mostly contouring trail. You’ll traverse a scree basin and round the shoulder of 3395-m (11,136-ft) Trifthorn. Across the valley, towering above Saas Fee, is a spectacular massif comprising, from left to right, Allalinhorn (4027 m / 13,209 ft), Taschhorn (4491 m / 14,730 ft), Dom (4545 m / 14,908 ft), and Lenzspitze (4294 m / 14,084 ft). Dom is the highest peak entirely within Switzerland. The western section of the massif is known as “the Mischabel Wall.”
After wrapping ESE around Trifthorn’s southern slopes, the trail eases into Almagelleralp, at 2194 m (7196 ft). It’s blessedly undeveloped: little more than a restaurant and ski lift. From there, a trail descends through beautiful larch forest to Saas Almagell. But we recommend continuing SW on the trail from Almagelleralp to Furggstalden.
Between Almagelleralp and Furggstalden, you’ll cross suspension bridges, negotiate short ladders, and hike airy expanses of trail where fixed cables offer protection. It’s fun. And it’s relatively safe and easy, unless you’re affected by vertigo. From Furggstalden, at 1893 m (6209 ft), ride the ski lift down to Saas Almagell.
Regardless how you reach Saas Almagell, catch the bus from there, down-valley, to Camping Michabel.
Hiking from Kreuzboden to Furggstalden takes about 4.5 hours and entails very little elevation gain: about 200 m (656 ft).
Between Interlaken and Grindelwald, Berner Oberland
The eastern Bernese Alps, clustered around the Jungfrau and the Aletschgletscher, comprise 30 peaks exceeding 4000 m (13,120 ft) and shoulder much of Switzerland’s glacial ice. Hikers are inexorably drawn here, basing themselves at Lauterbrunnen or Grindelwald for several days of walking.
If you’re camping, we recommend the campground at Lauterbrunnen. It’s huge. It’s packed all summer. It’s expensive—and worth the price. The facilities are excellent and superbly maintained. The staff does a commendable job of serving everyone’s needs. The campground is deep in the vertical-walled valley, so the setting is beautiful and—despite all the campers—feels intimate. We nabbed a creekside campsite and slept like boulders every night. The train station is just a 20-minute walk from the campground, so it’s inaudibly distant yet conveniently close. We had no need to drive during the four days we stayed there.
If you’re tempted to base yourself in the car-free village of Wengen, bear in mind that a long descent via train will be necessary each time you want to hike elsewhere in the area. Plus the train clacks, screeches and rattles through the village, morning ‘til night.
If you could devote but one day to appreciating the famous mountains above Interlaken, we’d recommend the 15-km (9.3-mi) hike from Schynige Platte to First, via Faulhorn. A train and gondola allow you to make it a one-way trip. The trail starts high and stays high. You’ll gain only 600 m (1968 ft) during the 6-hour hike. Panoramic views of the Jungfrau-massif peaks and glaciers are constant.
From the Wilderswil train station just N of Interlaken, ride the cog railway to Schynige Platte, at 1987 m (6517 ft). Upon disembarking, go left (SW) to the restaurant. Proceed onto, and around, the restaurant balcony. Just beyond and below the far side of the restaurant is a signed trail junction.
Follow the trail called “Panoramaweg,” which ascends over the 2069 m (6786 ft) Oberberghorn and grants a spectacular, aerial view of the Brienzersee 800 m (2624 ft) below. Rejoin the main trail—Faulhornweg—at 2230-m (7314-ft) Loucherhorn.
Faulhornweg leads E, through intriguing karst terrain. To the S, are the celebrated peaks ringing the Grindelwald Valley: Wetterhorn, Monch, Eiger, Jungfrau, and Schrekhorn.
About 4 hours from Schynige Platte, contour immediately below Faulhorn. Perched on the summit is the oldest and highest hotel in the Swiss Alps. It was built in 1832. From there, the trail descends to Bachsee, at 2265 m (7430 ft), about 4.75 hours from Schynige Platte. The lake itself (actually a reservoir), and the road-width trail beside it, are—for those wooed by the local tourist hype—a disappointing sight. But the horizon beyond is grand. Across the Grindewald Valley are Wetterhorn (3701 m / 12,140 ft), Schrekhorn (4078 m / 13,376 ft), and Finsteraarhorn (4274 m / 14,020 ft).
Follow the road/trail from Bachsee down to First, which is the upper station (2167 m / 7108 ft) of Europe’s longest gondola (5 km / 3.1 mi). Ride the gondola down to the gorgeous village of Grindelwald. From there, ride the train down to Wilderswil.
From First, the trail does continue contouring to a saddle at Grosse Scheidegg, but the scenery changes little on that stretch. Better to end the hike at First.
Above Kleine Scheidegg, Berner Oberland
Construction of the railway climbing through (literally inside) the Eiger to emerge atop the 3454 -m (11,329-ft) Jungfraujoch was completed in 1912. So the centennial celebration was—lucky us—summer 2012. Normally, roundtrip train fare to the “Top of Europe” (apparently the Swiss do not recognize Mont Blanc as Europe’s highest peak) cost 195 francs (the equivalent of $195 USD) per person. For the centennial, they offered three days of unlimited transportation on all the gondolas and railways in the area, plus one roundtrip to the Jungfraujoch, for 225 francs per person. On our first, multi-month, dirt-bag journey through Europe together 29 years ago, we thought riding to the Jungfraujoch was an extravagance beyond our paltry budget. So we were grateful for a second chance at this not-to-be-missed opportunity.
Though the tunnel and train are engineering marvels, riding the train is actually rather dreary—dark, crowded, slow—except for the couple times it stops to let you peer through glass portals on the face of the Eiger. But the Jungfraujoch panorama is wondrous, in particular the S perspective, down Europe’s longest (22 km / 13.6 mi), widest river of ice: the Aletsch Gletscher. What we enjoyed even more than the view, however, was hiking along the uppermost edge of the Aletsch Gletscher, immediately beneath the S face of the Monch, about 45 minutes to the Monch Hutte. We were among an international crowd: East Indians, Russians, Chinese, South Koreans, and of course many Europeans. The “perfect” weather—sunny, warm, calm—lofted everyone’s spirits, sparking a festival atmosphere. What none of us knew at the time: While we were on the ice, the temperature reached the highest ever recorded on the Jungfraujoch. (Go to http://www.wunderground.com/blog/weatherhistorian/comment.html?entrynum=87 to read alarming facts about how climate change has accelerated glacier loss.)
10. Jungfraujoch / Eiger Trail
The earlier you arrive at the Jungfraujoch, the more likely a clear sky will greet you. Plus, we’re suggesting you hike part way down. So start early. Be at the Lauterbrunnen or Grindelwald train stations no later than 9 a.m. Ride the train up to Kleine Scheidegg, then continue on the train to the Jungfraujoch. When you ride the train back down, get off at the Eigergletscher station (2320 m / 7610 ft). To your right, find the signed Eiger Trail. Follow it generally W beneath the looming cliffs of the 3970-m (13,022-ft) Eiger. In about 1.5 hours, after descending 704 m (2310 ft), arrive at the Alpiglen station (1616 m / 5300 ft). Board the train here and ride down to Grindelwald or Lauterbrunnen.
Grimselpass, Sustenpass, Furkapass / Berner Oberland
About a 2.5-hour drive E of Interlaken is a 180-km (112-mi) stretch of highway looping through three spectacular passes, each of which serve as high-elevation trailheads. On the N side of the loop is Sustenpass. From there, descend the Meiental Valley to Wassen, drive S to Andermatt, then ascend SW to Furkapass. About 10 km (6.2 mi) farther W is Grimselpass, cradling a lake at the SW end of the loop. Beneath Grimselpass and Furkapass is the Rhone Valley. The two hikes starting at Grimselpass, and the one from Sustenpass are superb. If you must eliminate one from your itinerary, skip the Furkapass hike.
The Rhonegletscher is the glacier feeding the headwaters of the Rhone River. Departing the N side of 2165-m (7101-ft) Grimselpass, you’ll ascend about 2.5 hours to where you can overlook the glacier from a 2870-m (9414-ft) promontory. The culminating viewpoint is grand, but the trail itself is reason enough to hike here. Meticulously constructed, it follows an engaging route through beautiful, alpine terrain: grass, bedrock, tarns. You’ll pass a small, stone refuge shortly before topping out. Total, round-trip hiking time: about 4 hours. Total elevation gain: 755 m (2476 ft) including 50 m (164 ft) on the return.
Departing the S side of 2165-m (7101-ft) Grimselpass, the trail ascends high above Grimselsee (a reservoir fed by glacial meltwater) to the 2879-m (9443-ft) Sidelhorn. The ascent is aggressive but efficient. An athletic pace will earn you the summit panorama within 1.5 hours. To the W, you’ll see the enormous Oberaargletscher and, above it, many of the peaks that are also visible from the world-famous village of Grindelwald: 4274-m (14,020-ft) Finsteraarhorn, 4078-m (13,376-ft) Schreckhorn, 3701-m (12,140-ft) Wetterhorn, and the 3970-m (13,022-ft) Eiger. Instead of retracing your steps to the trailhead, loop back. Descend S, across the summit, to a signed junction. Turn left here. Drop through scree, into bouldery meadows. Continue bearing left, hugging Sidelhorn as you descend back to the lakeshore in Grimselpass. Total hiking time: about 3 hours. Total elevation gain: 714 m (2342 ft).
From the trailhead just below 2224-m (7295-ft) Sustenpass, you’ll ascend 700 m (2296 ft) in 4 km beside the Steinlimigletscher icefall (right / W). You’ll top out at Tierberglihutte—on a glacier-surrounded promontory, where scrambling ends and mountaineering begins—in about 2.5 hours. (A “hutte” is a hut or refuge.)
As the stats suggest, this venture begins as hike but soon becomes a scramble. The trail and subsequent route are well marked, easy to follow. Though the scramble route is airy, actual exposure is minimal. Hands-on effort is necessary only occasionally.
The hike begins three switchbacks (two short, one long) below the W side of the pass. Here, at 1866 m (6120 ft), a private road (gated, fee required) ascends behind a restaurant. It leads 4 km (2.5 mi) generally S to the actual trailhead. Instead of paying to drive that short distance, park in the lot across the highway, and proceed on foot. Follow the trail starting on the right (W) side of the private road. It’s an easy, scenic, 45-minute walk. En route, you’ll pass Steinsee (lake) at 1934 m (6344 ft). The road’s end trailhead is at 2095 m (6872 ft).
The trail switchbacks upward across talus. It soon steepens into a route, climbing through rubble and over sculpted bedrock. About 45 minutes up, at 2430 m (7970 ft), be sure to go right on the red-and-white blazed route. Do not go left on the Klettersteig (via ferrata). Reach Tierberglihutte at 2796 m (9171 ft). The panorama includes 3447-m (11,306-ft) Hinter Tierberg (SSW), 3421-m (11,220-ft) Gwachtenhorn (S), 3503-m (11,490-ft) Sustenhorn (SE), and 3238-m (10,620-ft) Titlis (N).
14. Albert Heim Hutte
Within 2 to 3 hours, you’ll see most of the Furkapass alplands including glacier-clad Galenstock and the spires of Winterstock. Much of the way you’ll hike beside a glacier-born stream urgent to join the Rhone River.
On the E side of 2431-m (7974-ft) Furkapass, just 200 m (220 yd) beyond the hameau of Tiefenback, an unpaved road ascends 1 km (0.6 mi) to the trailhead. Instead, we parked our campervan in a pullout, beside the highway, next to a cascade (flowing beneath the highway via a culvert) at 2000 m (6560 ft). There’s a stone fountain between the pullout and the cascade.
Ascend the path right of the cascade. It quickly lofts you into a meadowy basin. Continue following the smaller trail nearest the stream. Do not turn left to cross the bridge spanning the torrent. Bear right and continue ascending past a tarn. A mere 2.5 km (1.6 mi) from the highfway, reach Albert Heim Hutte at 2541 m (8334 ft).
For solitude and an improved panorama, probe beyond the hut. Ascend S on the ridgecrest trail to about 2591-m (8498-ft). Either retrace your steps, or complete a circuit by continuing (bearing right) down the ridgecrest
Dayhikes we advise against in Switzerland:
Hotel Weisshorn to Zinal
We disagree with Kev Reynolds, who raves about this stage of the Haute Route. Even if you hike in the easiest, most scenic direction (up-valley to Zinal), the trail fails to excite. Crowds are constant from St. Luc to the hotel. The hotel is devoid of architectural appeal and constantly mobbed. The contouring trail beyond the hotel is road width, thus lacks intrigue. And the final descent into the village is on a steep, dusty, poorly signed, heavily eroded trail/route/road deep in forest. Between the hotel and the forest, the mountains visible up-valley are impressive, but they’re better appreciated from the trail to Cabane du Grand Mountet (#6, described above).
Zinal to Col de Sorebois
Even if you ride the gondola from Zinal, which vanquishes all but the final ascent for you, this hike is not worth the cost or the effort. The upper gondola station and restaurant are old and ugly. Yet they draw a daily crowd. The hike from the upper gondola station to the col is through a ski bowl: boring. Lac de Moiry fills the featureless valley on the other side of the col and therefore dominates the scenery. It’s not a lake. It’s a reservoir behind a huge dam. Important? No doubt. Beautiful? Definitely not. Yes, there are glaciers and peaks at the head of the valley, but they’re not fully visible from the col, and investing yet more time and effort to see them—by hiking up-valley above the “lake” is a waste of time.
Aletsch Gletscher via Rhone Valley
Driving into the upper Rhone Valley, NE of Brig, you’ll see Aletsch Gletscher billboards. They urge you to ride the cable car from Fiesch (1050 m / 3444 ft) to Fiescheralp (2210 m / 7250 ft). From there, it’s a 1.75-hour hike to a ridge, where you can continue hiking 1.5 hours SSW overlooking the 22-km (13.6-mi) Aletsch Gletscher—longest and widest in Europe. But the view is up-glacier. And the lower reaches of any glacier tend to be dark, rather than white, because they’re covered with rubble. If, like most of us, there’s a limit to how much time and money you can spend in Switzerland, splurge instead on the train to the Junfraujoch (#10, described above). There you’ll be above the top edge of the Aletsch Gletscher. You’ll look down on a vast river of gleaming, pure ice.
The Trift Gletscher is in the Gadmental Valley, ENE of Innertkirchen. Hiking to the Trift is recommend in a “Best of the Swiss Alps” guidebook. Part of what makes the hike appealing is that the trail crosses the world’s longest suspension bridge. And part of what makes the hike difficult is the expense of riding yet another cable car. It ascends 1000 m (3280 ft), whisking you above the forest. Not riding is not a reasonable option. Devoting that much time and effort to toiling through that much forest—while visiting Switzerland to see the Alps—slashes your return on investment. You brought a war chest full of cable-car money with you to Switzerland? By all means, ride and hike to the Trift Gletscher. You’re budget conscious? Hike from Grimselpass toward the Rhonegletscher (#11, described above), or from Sustenpass to Tierberglihutte (#13, described above). We believe you’ll find either of those cable-car-free ventures just as rewarding as Trift Gletscher.
Though the French Alps are the focus of our journey, we also wanted to hike in Switzerland. And we knew that veering into the Swiss Alps was necessary to increase our understanding of the Alps, so we could write about them from a broader perspective.
We’ve just returned to France after hiking every day for three weeks in Switzerland. We spent all that time in the big mountains of southwest Switzerland, specifically in the Valais and Bern cantons. We were especially keen to probe the Bernese Oberland, home to more glacial ice and 4000-m (13,120-ft) peaks than anywhere else in Europe.
Here are some of our observations:
• There’s an unwelcoming streak within Switzerland. We have Swiss friends who are warm and kind, who we like very much, and whose friendship we value. But many of the Swiss we encountered in Switzerland—on hiking trails, buses and trains, in villages, cities and stores—maintained a cold, stern demeanor. They often did not say hello. If they said hello, it seemed perfunctory, begrudging, because they’d usually say it without smiling. Frankly, we found many people we met in the Valais and Bern cantons to be unkind bordering on rude. This kept us slightly on edge the entire time we were in the country and prevented us from enjoying it fully or staying there longer.
Our first afternoon in Switzerland, a hotel proprietor greeted us. He ran out to our van and berated us for parking in “his” lot, which was not clearly signed as such, which was adjacent to a major trailhead, and which, at the time, was empty but for three vehicles. He demanded payment. Then he demanded we come to his hotel bar and buy drinks. When he realized we would do neither, he cursed us and stormed off.
Our last day in Switzerland—literally during our final hour in the country—two Swiss men bade us farewell. First, a driver flipped us off when our van encountered his car on a road so narrow it required both of us to stop and carefully maneuver. Later, a Swiss gas station attendant angrily lectured us because he returned from lunch and found us using the station’s outdoor water faucet to refill our van. (I’d sought permission when we arrived, but the station was closed and unstaffed at the time.)
By comparison, we’ve always felt completely at ease in France. The overwhelming majority of the thousands of French we’ve met throughout the country have been relaxed, warm, welcoming. We also find the French much less nationalistic, which we interpret as more confident, less defensive, more at ease with diversity. Seeing the red-and-white Swiss cross plastered everywhere, on everything, became grating, because we felt we’d glimpsed the collective personality of the people who were, in essence, waving that cross in our faces.
Our experience interacting with people in the Bern and Valais cantons was dispiriting. In a lifetime of worldwide travel, neither of us could honestly say that about any other region of any other nation. And we found other travelers—Spanish, French, Italian—shared our dismay and disappointment.
• The Swiss cantons we visited in Switzerland lack the preponderance of old-world charm we find so alluring in France. In Switzerland, we observed little architecture of note. Nearly all the homes we saw were simply huge, multi-story boxes with peaked roofs. Yes, the profuse, red flowers overflowing the balconies are a pleasing touch. But we find French towns and villages more beautiful (particularly more colorful), and more architecturally varied thus more intriguing than those we saw in Switzerland. And the French adorn their homes and civic spaces with flowers just as enthusiastically as do the Swiss.
• The level of industrial activity (sites, vehicles, structures, projects) in Switzerland grated on us. Maybe it’s a sign that the Swiss economy is robust. If so, the Swiss no doubt applaud it. But as visitors, there was enough industrial activity to mar our appreciation of the valley scenery. Southeast France is bustling, as is most of Europe, but driving between trailheads here we don’t observe anything close to the level of industrial activity that we did in Switzerland. And industry is not what we, like most travelers, want to see.
• The commercialization of Switzerland’s famous hiking destinations was probably necessary in order to prevent far worse forms of degradation due to heavy, year-round tourism. And some aspects of this commercialization—particularly the ski lifts and cog railways—are what, for most people, make hiking feasible. Otherwise, only climbers and supremely fit, determined hikers would launch themselves onto such vertical terrain. Even we took advantage of opportunities to be whisked upward and begin hiking high in the alpine zone. Yet we found the intense commercialization psychologically and emotionally fatiguing. We simply didn’t enjoy hiking there as much as we do in places where the scenery is less spectacular but the atmosphere more pristine and tranquil. The French have also wantonly commercialized many of their mountains, but we contend that in France it’s easier to find relatively pristine backcountry than it is in Switzerland.
• We’d been to Switzerland before, many years ago. But our time there was brief and we did not hike extensively. So we returned to Switzerland this time with unrealistic expectations of the mountain scenery. We, like most people, thought of Switzerland as profusely green: the land of sweeping alpine meadows. The Alps are carpeted with more vast meadowlands than are North American mountain ranges, but the Swiss Alps are not predominantly green above treeline. They’re profoundly rocky, heavily glaciated, strewn with moraines, covered with scree. Shades of grey and black dominate. Often, the Swiss Alps appear as stern as the Swiss themselves. So the high-mountain scenery in Switzerland wasn’t as pleasing as we expected it to be. It was awesome, to be sure, but often rather menacing as well. We prefer the French Alps, which, though slightly less towering overall, are nearly as impressive yet vastly greener, more welcoming, more beautiful. We concede that’s highly subjective. For us, however, it’s absolutely true.
• “No camping” signs are prolific in Switzerland. Most of the signs are very specific, indicating that fully self-contained motorhomes are as verboten as tents. We can understand the reasoning behind this, but it’s another barb in the strict, Swiss culture that pricked us. It prevented us from camping alone, in quieter settings. It forced us into campgrounds, which are just grassy parking lots. It required us to spend more money.
Even in the absence of “no camping” signs, Swiss municipal police shooed us away. Once, we weren’t even camping. It was midday. We were parked on a quiet backstreet of a small town. We were in our van, eating lunch and studying maps. The officer grimly insisted that if we remained, we’d be ticketed.
In France, “camping cars” as they’re known (a term that includes everything from VW vans to American-size motorhomes) are generally welcome to park and spend the night anywhere reasonably discreet. The French attitude toward free camping is indicative of their laissez-faire way of life, which we resonate with and greatly appreciate.
Still, hiking in Switzerland was necessary for us. We’re glad we went. We saw astounding mountain scenery. We did meet a few smiling Swiss. And we enjoyed several superb hikes, some of which are relatively obscure. We’ll tell you about them in our next post. After that, we’ll resume blogging about the French Alps.
FOLLOW-UP POST, Friday, December 14, 2012
Several people have written to us regarding our “No Swiss Bliss” blog post. Some have posted their commentary as responses on our blog. A couple people have bristled at what we said. Others have stated they too felt the Swiss they met in Switzerland were decidedly unfriendly. And a few people have misunderstood us, which was perhaps our fault. We hope the following answers your questions and clarifies our position:
• We want to state emphatically that we never intended to paint all Swiss with a one-colour brush. We’ve made a couple edits to our original post to ensure subsequent readers do not get that impression. Blogging invites spontaneity. Spontaneity lets haste sneak in. Haste slams the door on precision. Some of our wording was imprecise. We regret that, apologize for it and have corrected it.
Our intention was this. When hikers from North America consider visiting the Alps, they instantly think of the Swiss Alps. We wanted to alert hikers to the possibility of having an equally enjoyable, and perhaps superior, hiking vacation in the French Alps. There are many reasons why we believe the French Alps trump the Swiss Alps. One key reason: The Swiss we’ve met in the Swiss Alps have been much less welcoming than the French we’ve met in the French Alps. Yes, that’s merely an opinion. But it’s an opinion we stand by. If we were reading a blog post on the Swiss Alps vs. the French Alps, it’s the kind of opinion we would want to be aware of.
• Prior to leaving North America, we knew about the differences between France and Switzerland regarding campervans. We’d discussed this with our Swiss friends. They reminded us that the Swiss are far less welcoming of campervans, and much less tolerant of free camping, than are the French. They told us we should expect to pay to camp every night we were in Switzerland. So none of this came as a surprise to us. What surprised us was the general unfriendliness we encountered in Switzerland. And that unfriendliness—the vast majority of the time—had nothing whatsoever to do with our campervan. True, in our blog post we cited a couple examples involving our campervan. We cited them because they were dramatic, explicit. Most of the time, however, our campervan was not an issue in Switzerland, because we abided by Swiss custom: We drove, parked and camped exactly as directed. The unfriendliness we encountered in Switzerland occurred when we were far from our campervan. We were just two people on foot—on trails, on sidewalks, in stores, or riding buses or trains—interacting with the people we met along the way.
• Whenever we’re outside English speaking countries, we always greet people in the local language. (The people of the Valais canton speak French, so we said “Bonjour.” The people of the Bern canton speak Swiss German, so we said “Gruetzi.”) We also try to make gentle, brief eye contact. We smile—without fail. And, out of respect, we’re usually prepared to speak a few common, conversational phrases in their language should they engage us. We don’t expect a grin in return. We don’t expect conversation in return. A glimmer of recognition—the merest hint of a smile, or just a quick nod—is all we hope for, because, in our experience, that’s common courtesy the world over. In general, we make a consistent effort to display friendly deference whenever we meet a stranger. Any stranger. Anywhere. And we continued to make this effort in Switzerland even after we felt emotionally ground down by responses ranging from cold to suspicious to gruff.
• We spent three weeks in Switzerland’s Bern and Valais cantons. Within the first few days in each we felt uncomfortable, unwelcome. And we maintain it’s reasonable for us to say so. (1) Because this was a startling, unique experience for us, who’ve traveled to more foreign cultures (and immersed ourselves in them for longer periods) than anyone we know. (2) Switzerland depends on, so it strenuously promotes, international tourism. Virtually all Swiss are aware of this. It’s the universally acknowledged responsibility of any host to at least initially attempt to make visitors feel welcome and comfortable. Even if it means reaching slightly beyond one’s own cultural norms. Even it means doing so repeatedly, to more visitors than one might want to endure. And especially if one is earning immense financial profit from the guests. (3) A smile, a friendly nod, a gracious gesture… these are not unique to certain cultures. These are not arcane nuances of behaviour. Most human beings are capable of smiling and know what it means to smile. They also know what it means to not smile. Or to glare. We’re disinclined to accept “culture” as an excuse for inhospitable behavior, unless we’re talking about, say, a tribe in Borneo that has not yet encountered outsiders.
• While in Switzerland, we were keenly unaware that some people we encountered might not be Swiss. By the end of our first week in Switzerland, we had experienced enough unfriendliness from people we assumed were Swiss, that we began paying more attention to nationality clues. And there are many such clues. People driving, exiting, or re-entering a car that bears a Swiss license plate and bears no indication of being a rental car, are probably Swiss. People employed in Swiss businesses (grocery stores, tourist offices, bakeries, banks, gas stations, post offices, outdoor shops, etc.) are probably Swiss. Hikers wearing and carrying a preponderance of Mammut hiking gear (a Swiss brand of which the Swiss are justifiably proud, and that are not widely owned/used by hikers of other nationalities), and speaking either Swiss German or French, are probably Swiss. It’s also relatively easy to identify people (on sidewalks, at bus stops, in cues, etc.) who are residents of that town. Dress, language, behaviour… all these can be strong clues. It was clear to us that we were encountering unfriendly Swiss, not unfriendly tourists from other nations.
• We’re confident that, while in Switzerland, we did not consistently behave in ways that would spark unfriendliness among otherwise well-meaning, hospitable people. We don’t expect the norms of every nation to be the same as ours. (How could we? We’re citizens of two nations.) We don’t habitually leap to the worst possible conclusions based on minimal evidence. A lifetime of experiences in many cultures has trained us to be aware of and appreciate cultural differences. (Craig lived and worked on the Pacific island of Vava’u, in the Kingdom of Tonga, for two years, almost exclusively among Tongans.) We’re not grumpy travellers. We love travelling. We simply recognize unfriendliness when confronted with it repeatedly, as happened in Switzerland.
• Nobody is always able to accurately interpret based on their observations. But it’s often necessary to interpret based on observation, even if one’s interpretation might ultimately prove inaccurate. Life would come to a standstill if most of us, most of the time, did not make interpretations based on our observations.
• This is what travellers do: They interact, they observe, they draw conclusions—some correct, some erroneous, some a mixture of true and false. Context determines how others respond to a traveller’s presentation of his or her conclusions. If we read a traveller’s blog post stating that, after spending several weeks in, oh, let’s say Burundi, “unfriendly” seemed to be the norm there, we would base our opinion of that report on whatever context was available to us: how the writer expressed herself, what she revealed about herself in the process, and, ideally, other writing of hers that we’d read. In the context of all we’ve posted on our blog, and certainly in the context of all our published work, we believe most readers would think us reasonable and would consider our “No Swiss Bliss” blog post to be a fair summary of our social experience in Switzerland.
• When you’re travelling, it’s not difficult to ascertain how people are receiving you. It obvious. You see it. You feel it. When people recognize you and appreciate your presence, it’s instantly refreshing. It lightens, warms and relaxes you. This did happen to us in Switzerland. The 94-year-old Swiss couple we met while hiking above Saas Almagel were a joy and a thrilling inspiration we’ll always remember. But they were an exception. In Switzerland, the people who touched us positively were rarely Swiss. They were visitors, like us. It was the Koreans—shy yet brightly aware and beaming with curiosity—with whom we shared a train car and a lively conversation. It was the Italian family nervously, giddily inching along an airy, precarious trail but who took time to be fully present with us. It was the East Indians with whom we chatted and laughed while splashing and skidding through sloppy, melting snow atop the Jungfraujoch. It was the Mallorcans we camped next to in Lauterbrunnen, who chuckled, rolled their eyes and shook their heads in dismay when we asked, “How are the Swiss treating you?”
Click once to enlarge. Click again to further enlarge.
Internet access is rare for us while traveling in Europe. Purchasing a plan from Orange (the primary provider in France) was prohibitively expensive. So we snag free wifi when possible. Sometimes at French tourism offices. Occasionally at McDonalds, which we would otherwise never visit but is the one place that consistently offers free wifi in Europe. Most of the time, we’re either on the trail, or camping (free, in our campervan, usually near trailheads) in small, high-mountain villages, so we’re able to get online only occasionally, and then only briefly because we’re eager to get back into the mountains.
Today is gorgeous, the next summit beckons, so this post will be simply comprise some of our impressions from the 644 km (400 mi) we’ve hiked so far on our Hautes Alpes odyssey.
• The Alps are blazingly green. Meadows everywhere. More wildflowers (more colours, more varieties) than we’ve seen in any other mountain range. Many of the flowers strike us as extremely exotic: in particular the orchids that thrive above 1800 m (5904 ft).
• The Alps are more sharply vertical than North American mountain ranges. The valleys are narrower, tighter. The mountains have startling prominence. We’re constantly staring upward in amazement.
• More French hike than do Canadians or Americans. We see hikers here of all ages: from very young children, to seniors who appear to be quite old yet are clearly robust. The other day we met an 84-year-old man trekking alone. He was slow, but he maintained a consistent pace on a very steep trail. And he instantly understood when we told him we greatly respected him. He said he’d been hiking all his life. He loved it and was determined never to stop.
• Sometimes we see huge groups of 10 to 20 people hiking together. We’ve seen many seniors groups, ranging from age 60 to 80. A few women-only groups. Lots of families. And astonishingly young children (well equipped, thanks to their parents) who seem to be loving the experience. And we see all shapes, including the soft and portly, covering significant distances and gaining substantial elevation. We find this universal love of hiking to be very inspirational. Why is it that comparatively few of our fellow North Americans don’t hike?
• Nevertheless, we don’t find the trails here crowded. Sure, the most popular trailhead parking lots are frequently full. But there are no more cars parked at these trails than you’d find on a weekend at the most popular trailheads in U.S. or Canadian national parks. It’s a myth that all the trails in the Alps are crowded. Sure, the trails around Mont Blanc or the Matterhorn are very crowded. But for the most part, we are not among crowds. Frequently we’re alone on the trail, with few if any other hikers in sight. Often we reach our destination—a summit, col, a lake—and we’re the only ones there.
• One reason why hiking is so popular here, and why the trails we’re hiking are generally uncrowded, is because there are so many trails: far more options than you’ll find in any North American mountain range. Typically, from one trailhead you’ll find a couple trails surmounting a peak, a couple more running up or down valley. A couple more traversing various ridges. In the Hautes Alpes, the trails don’t stop; they spiderweb throughout the range. Except when confronted with a glacier, we never reach “trail’s end.” There seems to be no such place. We turn around out of choice, not necessity. This vast trail network gives people the opportunity to spread out. To us, it’s constantly exciting. Frustrating, too, because it requires us to study maps diligently to ensure we’re devoting our time and energy on the most rewarding trails. So our campervan is now a mobile library. We’re transporting enough maps and guidebooks to fill a suitcase. (No “Don’t Waste Your Time” guidebooks on the Hautes Alpes—yet.)
• The trails here are in great shape. Most seem to be well maintained. Some appear to be little used. Many deserve engineering awards. Here, far more often than in North America, we’re hiking on routes that forge clever, wily, cunning passages through seemingly impassably steep terrain.
• Do we yearn for North American wilderness? Actually, no, we don’t. Genuine wilderness has a unique atmosphere, to be sure. And we’ve yet to find it here, but we don’t miss it. The scenery in the Hautes Alpes is so consistently fantastic, amazing, startling, gorgeous, awesome, ______________ (choose whatever superlative you wish, they all apply) that we don’t mind passing a herd of goats, or a few shepherds and their flock of sheep, or some grazing cattle, or the occasional (usually abandoned) stone hut, or even the odd, high-mountain road. These, too, are atmospheric in their own way. Suggestive of an ancient way of life that seems to us rather romantic. The myth is that civilization has destroyed the Alps. The truth is that this has not and will never happen. Yes, we’ve seen mountainsides strewn with ski lifts. But for the most part, we’re hiking through unspeakably beautiful, absolutely unspoiled wildlands. Wilderness? No. But wild enough to keep us enraptured. As for wildlife, on yesterday’s hike we saw numerous chamois. A few days ago, we watched two, male ibex in cliff-edge combat: staring one another down, coiling their muscles, then exploding into each other, their tremendous horns clacking so loud it seemed both animals would be knocked out cold. And marmots? We hear their shrill cry in every hanging valley, and we often see them scurrying across meadows and diving into their burrows.
Thanks for checking in with us. We’ll post more about the Hautes Alpes as soon as possible.
“Find what is for you a river of infinite, meaningful fascination. Dive into it, and keep swimming.”
That thought came to me today, while hiking in Parc National des Ecrins, in the Hautes Alpes of southeast France. It struck me as an apt summary of how to make life as rewarding an experience as possible. It also summarizes why Kath and I are now in the French Alps instead of the Canadian Rockies.
For us, the the river of infinite, meaningful fascination is hiking the Earth. We dove into that river in 1989, when we moved to Calgary, Alberta—ostensibly because of a job offer but really so we could devote weekends and vacation time to hiking the nearby Canadian Rocky Mountain National Parks. From then on, where and when we would hike has been a central consideration in every major decision we’ve made. As a result, hiking soon became—and still remains—not just our passion but the basis for our livelihood.
And when your passion and livelihood are aligned, you’re no longer swimming upstream through life. You’re going in the right direction: pulled along by a strong, if often unseen, current, because you had the foresight, courage, or just good fortune to dive into your river of infinite, meaningful fascination.
This is where “opportunities” arise that to others might appear to be pure luck but are in fact the result of the life-changing decision you made to dive in. You’re looking for these opportunities and are able to recognize them because your attention is focused rather than fractured as it is for most people. You’re not just seeking these opportunities, you’re instinctively—and sometimes laboriously—doing what’s necessary to create them.
So, while it was logical for us to return to the Canadian Rockies this summer after working all winter in Utah canyon country, what we really wanted to do was spend this summer hiking the Alps. We assumed we were heading back to Canada for the summer, and that’s what we told friends, but we’d long been sleuthing out ways to comfortably yet affordably resume exploring the Alps, researching a future book.
We were prepared. To make it possible, we’d even gone so far as to sell our home in Canmore, Alberta, before heading south to Utah for the winter. We loved that home. But we knew we could rent an apartment, or live in our trailer, upon returning to Canada. Moreover, we knew that the freedom to hike when and where we wanted required complete—particularly financial—flexibility. That’s how committed we are to our river of infinite, meaningful fascination. Swimming downstream isn’t necessarily easy. Staying in the current sometimes requires extraordinary devotion.
Our sleuthing focused on buying a used campervan in Europe. On our last trip to the Alps, we rented a car and camped in our tent for months. Occasionally we abandoned the car and backpacked, or hiked hut to hut. Prior to that, we’d hiked in the Alps while relying solely on public transport. This time, we wanted to be more comfortable, particularly because we’d be working: writing, managing photography, and conducting business when not hiking.
We eventually learned, however, that non-E.U. residents cannot legally register and insure a vehicle in Europe. Yes, there are companies—mostly in Holland—that sell used campervans to non E.U. residents. They do it by registering and insuring the van for you, in their company’s name. They even promise you a “guaranteed buy-back.” But insurance companies are expert at finding reasons not to pay claims. A wrecked campervan owned by a non-E.U. resident but insured by a Dutch auto dealership is sure to spark suspicion. It’s easy to see how you could end up impoverished, slogging through debt the rest of your life if you had a major collision while driving a campervan purchased from a sly, Dutch salesman.
Next we looked into renting a campervan. We were unable to find one we could afford that was big enough to comfortably live and work in for months. So, we were off to Canada… until we connected with France Motorhome Hire (www.francemotorhomehire.com). We’ll tell you more about them in a future blog post, but within a few days of corresponding with Hannah—who owns and runs France Motorhome Hire along with her husband, Phil—we made a u-turn and were on our way to France. Hannah understood and appreciated our hiking/writing project and offered us a long-term rental that was within reach for us.
I’m writing this blog while sitting comfortably at the table inside our “Sky 20” motorhome, parked next to a roaring, glacial stream, in Parc National des Ecrins, in the Hautes Alpes of France. We summitted a minor peak here today: Tete le Maye. The culminating panorama was dazzling. We stayed up there for a couple hours, gazing at massive peaks and glaciers in every direction.
So most of our blog posts for the next few months will be about hiking in the Alps. We hope they inspire you to hike here. When that time comes, we hope you’ll find our suggestions helpful.
And… if you haven’t yet found your river of infinite, meaningful fascination, we hope you do.
Here’s one of the Canadian Rockies’ easiest, most convenient trails: a blessedly undemanding, scenically captivating, foothill ridgewalk usually available by June. You’ll begin hiking after a mere one-hour drive from Calgary. The path quickly lofts you above treeline, where constant scenery will pull you onward.
Jumpingpound is popular with mountainbikers, but hiking is equally rewarding here. The broad, level, grassy ridgecrest often allows effortless striding. The views are vast—out across the prairie and deep into the Rockies’ front range. Wildflowers—including moss campion, alpine forget-me-not, and rock jasmine—are abundant.
Want a short, simple, round trip? Begin and end your hike at the Jumpingpound trailhead. We prefer to hike 17 km, one way along the entire ridgecrest between the Jumpingpound and Dawson trailheads. This necessitates a two-car shuttle (unless you’re willing to hitchhike), entails an elevation gain of 640 m, plus an elevation loss of 976 m, and requires 6 to 8 hours hiking time.
You’ll find complete directions to Jumpingpound Ridge in Where Locals Hike in the Canadian Rockies. It’s Trip 45, on page 231.