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How Hikers Should Do Europe

Advice from 35,000 Miles on the Trail

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 <francemotorhomehire@gmail.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.

Join us—in person, or in print:

14 Premier Dayhikes in the Swiss Alps

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.

9. Faulhorn

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.

11. Rhonegletscher

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.

12. Sidelhorn

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).

13. Tierberglihutte

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.

Trift Gletscher

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.

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Hiking in “Crowded Europe”

Hiking in the mountains along the Mediterranean coast this winter (see previous posts) has reminded us that North Americans cling to a uniquely narrow definition of hiking.

In the U.S. and Canada, hikers expect to depart civilization at the trailhead and remain severed from it for the duration of their hike. Anything less than pristine wilderness, they believe, sullies the experience. In Europe, civilization is often integral to hiking. European hikers don’t expect to always leave civilization behind; they know they’ll encounter it at least occasionally. This doesn’t disappoint them; they appreciate it.

The majority of European hiking trails are historic. Outside the high Alps, many trails are on terraces held in place by ancient stone walls. Others are cobbled for long distances. European trails frequently pass, or grant views of, villages, castles, and myriad structures that are either still used or are now in ruins. Sometimes European trails briefly merge with roads, even paved roads. At higher elevations, most trails link huts or refuges, where hikers who’ve reserved ahead will have everything they need waiting for them: a hearty meal, a comfortable bed, and perhaps a hot shower.

So is hiking inferior in Europe? In our opinion, no. We love hiking here. The European definition of “hiking,” which embraces rather than spurns civilization, allows far more opportunities to hike. It can even make hiking more intriguing and rewarding. Spiderwebbing networks of trails in Europe allow you to tailor each trip to your circumstances, sometimes on the fly. Loops, in which you never retrace a step, are frequently possible. Here, trailheads disperse rather than funnel hikers.

North America and Europe are as different—geographically, historically, culturally—as they are distant. North America, with its vast tracts of wilderness, allows hikers the luxury of insisting that civilization and hiking be mutually exclusive. And many European hikers travel to North America to immerse themselves in “pure nature.” But relatively few hikers from North America reciprocate. They wince at the thought of hiking in “crowded Europe.” We believe their assumptions of Europe are inaccurate, and their view of hiking is blinkered.

We’ve devoted our lives to hiking. The wilds of North America are our natural habitat. Our home in the Canadian Rockies backs onto a mountainside frequented by grizzly bears, cougars, and elk. Yet the months we’ve hiked in Europe—ascending mule tracks through olive groves and medieval hamlets to mountaintops crowned with shrines, frequently greeting our fellow hikers en route—and the months we’ve backpacked in North America—through remote mountains and obscure canyons where we were utterly alone—have been equally joyful.

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Hiking and camping in the wilderness can be dangerous. Experience and preparation reduce risk but will never eliminate it.

Information published in a book or on a website—regardless how authoritative—is not a substitute for common sense or sound judgment. Your safety is your responsibility. The unique details of your specific situation and the decisions you make at that time will determine the outcome.

When hiking, threats to your wellbeing are unpredictable; you must always be aware. In the backcountry, risk is subjective; you must gauge it for yourself. Away from civilization, small mistakes can have severe consequences; you must vigilantly prevent injury and avoid becoming disoriented.

Never hike alone. Before setting out, check the weather forecast and current trail conditions; adjust your plans accordingly. Always carry a map and compass, a first-aid kit, extra clothing, a personal locator beacon, plus enough food and water to survive an emergency.

If you doubt your ability to negotiate rough terrain, respond to wild animals, or handle sudden, extreme weather changes, hike only in a group led by a competent, licensed guide.

The authors and the publisher disclaim liability for any loss or injury incurred by anyone using information published on this website or in the books presented on this website.