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Should You Hike the Alps, or the Pyrenees?

Most North American hikers planning a trip to Europe don’t ask themselves, “Should I go to the Alps or the Pyrenees?” They dream only of the Alps. And they assume the range is entirely within Switzerland.*

Having trekked throughout the Alps for many months, we much prefer the French and Italian Alps to the more famous and crowded Swiss Alps.** And now, having devoted June through September of 2014 to hiking the Pyrenees, we realize the “Alps vs. Pyrenees” question is one all North American hikers bound for Europe should ponder.

The Pyrenees

The Pyrenees

It’s a worthwhile debate because the Pyrenees are spectacular, deserving of comparison with the Alps, yet the two ranges are distinctly different.

Had we ignored the Pyrenees, our mountain education would be deficient. Our perspective on the world’s vertical topography would be incomplete. We would have missed out on several trails that—in a lifetime devoted to hiking—rank among our most exhilarating and memorable.*** And we would have passed up a marvelous adventure. Our entire time in the Pyrenees, we were keen to stride. The range enthralled us. We treasured our days there.

Looking back on our summer, however, we’re aware that… drum roll… we favour the French and Italian Alps over the Pyrenees.

Yes, that verdict is subjective. But it’s reasonable—substantiated below by a point-by-point comparison. Bear in mind, our goal isn’t to bend you toward our conclusion. It’s to shed light on a topic rarely discussed even among dedicated hikers, and perhaps help you decide where to invest your precious trail time in Europe.

•Hiking almost anywhere in Europe entails visiting many villages. We savoured this aspect of our journey through the French Alps. So we eagerly anticipated seeing and staying in Pyrenean villages. But we were generally disappointed and sometimes dismayed. French Pyrenean villages are distinguished by an absence of charm. Structures with exterior stone are few. Drab plaster (cream, grey, beige) dominates. Flower boxes (ubiquitous in the French Alps) are rare in the French Pyrenees. It seems the residents long ago abandoned any effort to beautify their homes and woo tourists. Pride of ownership appears to have succumbed to hard times. Few French Pyrenean villages occupy noteworthy locations, whereas many villages in the French Alps are impressively perched. And, what? No water fountains? Potable water flows from fountains in most French Alps villages, suffusing them with a “Welcome, travelers!” ambiance. But we eventually gave up searching for village fountains in the Pyrenees.

Granted, many villages in the Spanish Pyrenees are pretty and lively. Here, dwellings and buildings with stone exteriors are common. We lingered in and admired many Spanish towns and hamlets, including Panticosa, Sallent de Gallego, Torla, Benasque, Biescas, Jaca, Alcazar, Ainsa, and Vio.

The Spanish Pyrenees, however, were severely disfigured by the development surge that ended abruptly in 2008. Condo complexes are prolific. Most are tasteless, constructed thoughtlessly, quickly, cheaply. Many are enormous, yet devoid of residents. Some were abandoned mid-construction yet still have cranes poised above them. A few, only partially finished, are already collapsing. All are monuments to greed. They give the impression an army of spendthrift dilettantes briefly conquered the region but were recently routed.

So, if we were judging a civic beauty contest, we’d say that, on the whole, Pyrenean villages do not compare to the villages of the French Alps.

Driving in the French Alps is a joy. The roads—often lined with gorgeous stone walls—climb to remarkable heights and cross sensational passes: Col du Galibier (2645 m / 8678 ft), Col du Lauteret (2770 m / 9088 ft), Col de l’Iseran (2770 m / 9088 ft), Col du Mont Cenis (2083 m / 6827 ft), Col du Noyer (1664 m / 5459 ft), to name a few. Driving in the Pyrenees didn’t elicit in us anything approaching the wonder we frequently felt in the French Alps. One notable exception in the French Pyrenees was the D918 highway between Col d’Aubisque (1709 m / 5607 ft) and Col du Soulor (1474 m / 4836 ft) where several times we stopped and marveled. The best-known Pyrenean pass—Col du Tourmalet, of Tour du France fame—is a jaw-dropping disappointment. The peaks ringing Tourmalet are nondescript. The huge, gleaming-white observatory atop Pic du Midi is a monstrosity. And the extensive development near where the road pierces the 2115-m (6939-ft) col is a ghastly goulash.

Trailhead elevations in the French Alps are generally higher than those in the Pyrenees. In the Alps, smooth, paved roads nearly always deliver you to trailheads in or near the alpine zone, where trees are few or nil, and where the scenery opens up immediately, or soon after you begin hiking. In the Pyrenees, particularly on the French side, approaches are longer, more forested thus less scenic, and require more elevation gain. Bear in mid, they’re never as demanding and tedious as is common in North America. But nowhere in the Pyrenees is there anything comparable to, say, driving up Valgaudemar, between soaring mountain walls, to the Gioberney trailhead, where several, premier, French Alps trails launch you into the alpine zone.

Trail signage in the French Alps is consistently excellent. We never faced a navigational quandary there. Trail signage in the Pyrenees varies from ideal, to poor, to nonexistent. We hiked sections of all the primary GR (gran randonneé) trails in the Pyrenees, including the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne (HRP), which uses the GR 11 in Spain, and the GR 10 in France. The HRP in particular requires trekkers to be confident, skillful navigators.

The Pyrenees are reputed to be significantly less crowded than the Alps. That’s true, but only if the Alps in question are Swiss. We’re convinced it’s a myth that the Pyrenees are less crowded than the French Alps. Our impression is that the two ranges are equally popular. You certainly shouldn’t choose the Pyrenees over the French Alps expecting to avoid crowded trailheads and busy trails. If you do, you’ll be disappointed. If anything, the Pyrenees are busier longer. Most French start their summer vacations in mid-July. The French Alps attract mostly French hikers, so the crowds diminish when most French return to work mid-August. But the Pyrenees attract hikers from both France and Spain, and most Spanish take their summer vacations later than do the French. While both the French and Spanish are on vacation, you can expect to see a hundred or more vehicles parked at the most popular Pyrenean trailheads.

Lakes are a prominent feature of the Pyrenees. We saw notably fewer lakes in the French Alps. It’s an oversimplification to say the Pyrenees are half granite, half limestone, but the range has that appearance. And in the granitic regions, the Pyrenees are splashed with lakes. Many of those lakes, however were dammed, thus are actually reservoirs. When the water levels are low, you’ll see unsightly, unnatural “bathtub rings.” Regardless of water level, the dams themselves, particularly those in the alpine zone, are eyesores.

If it’s sharp, soaring peaks you want to see, the French Alps will please you more than will the Pyrenees. Of course, the Pyrenees are occasionally peaky, but overall it’s a range of rounded, broad-shouldered summits. Pyrenees elevations are not comparable to those in the French Alps. And the undramatic shapes characteristic of the Pyrenees give the impression the peaks are more modest than they actually are. The three highest summits in the Pryenees are Pico de Aneto (3404 m / 11,168 ft), Pico Posets (3375 m / 11,073 ft), and Monte Perdido (3355 m / 11,007 ft). Compare that to the Mont Blanc massif (shared by France and Italy), where numerous peaks stand well above 4000 m (13,123 ft). Mont Blanc itself is Europe’s highest at 4810 m (15,781 ft). But even well beyond the shadow of Mont Blanc, the French Alps comprise many peaks nearing or exceeding 4000 m (13,123 ft), for example La Barre des Écrins (4,102 m / 13,458 ft), and La Meije (3,984 m / 13,071 ft).

Glacial ice is rapidly disappearing the world over. Still, the French Alps shoulder a readily-visible abundance of glacial ice. But the Pyrenees have almost none. This absence of white is startling, because it’s obvious glaciation was once a pervasive, powerful force here.

Low cloud—what we called the “French Fog Factor”—seemed to be an almost daily occurrence along the north slope of the Pyrenees. The cloud would begin forming early, become dense enough to obscure the peaks by midday, and not dissipate until evening. Many times we ascended the Spanish side under a blue sky, only to reach the crest of the range and witness a sea of cloud just below us on the French side. While the FFF often made it difficult to enjoy hiking on the French side of the Pyrenees, we never witnessed anything like it during our four months in the French Alps.

Our summer in the Pyrenees was consistently hotter and more humid than was our summer in the French Alps. That’s not to say this is always the case. But we were often, notably less comfortable—specifically more sweat-drenched—while hiking in the Pyrenees. Hiking above Valle de Hecho on the Spanish side of the range in mid-September, Kath succumbed to heat exhaustion for the first time ever.

Thunderstorms are another weather phenomenon that, based on our experience, distinguish the Pyrenees. Never, in any other mountain range, have we witnessed such frequent, apocalyptic storms. Sure, a few storms swept over us in the French Alps. But they were nothing compared to the hours long, carpet bombing, firmament illuminating, peak blasting, tree bending, tent-shaking tempests that regularly engulfed us in the Pyrenees. Fortunately, we were almost always in our very-storm-worthy tent at only moderate elevations when the lightning and thunder began swirling about, so we generally found the storms more fascinating than annoying or worrisome. But some hikers would surely find the Pyrenean thunderstorms frightening, perhaps unbearable.

In the Swiss Alps, trailhead-access toll roads and pay-to-park trailheads are annoyingly common, as well as bank-account depleting. We don’t recall any in the French Alps. But you will encounter them in the Pyrenees, for example the Pont d’Espagne trailhead (above Cauterets, France), and the road accessing the trail to Col de Madamète (above Saint-Lary-Soulan, France). To reach the Ordesa Canyon trailhead (above Torla, Spain), or the Cirque de Troumouse trailhead (above Gavarnie, France), you must pay to ride a shuttle bus, which underscores how crowded these must-see Pyrenean sites are.

The French Alps are green. The Pyrenees are greener, or at least that was our impression. Sweeping, undulating carpets of alpine grass were among our favourite features of the Pyrenees. But these aren’t just meadows, they’re pastures, so we shared them with cattle and sheep. Grazing seems to be more pervasive and intensive in the Pyrenees than in the French Alps. Even if no animals were in sight, their shit was often underfoot. Sheep shit has an astringent stench that we will forever associate with hiking in Europe, particularly the Pyrenees.

Speaking of “underfoot,” the Pyrenees are not an easy-striding range. Many of the trails are rough and bouldery, entailing lots of gymnastic, even choreographic, hiking. This is especially true in the granitic regions of the Pyrenees. In the French Alps, we were more often able to enjoy heads-up trekking on smoother trails.

Compared to the French Alps, the Pyrenees are thin. Arriving at a crest, col, or summit often grants a vista extending out of the mountains, to the flatlands beyond. In the Alps, attaining a vantagepoint usually rewards you with the impression you’re deep in the range and suggests there’s infinitely more to explore.

For cultural immersion, the Pyrenees and the French Alps are about equal. In the French Alps, it’s a safe bet the next hiker you see will be French. During our four-month, 1,000-mile summer in the Pyrenees, we crossed paths with only three people from our home continent. We shared Pyrenean trails and huts with a few Germans and Dutch, but the overwhelming majority of Pyrenean hikers are French or Spanish. You’ll meet more French on the French side, more Spanish on the Spanish side, but the range belongs to both nations. Trails, therefore hikers, constantly cross the frontier.

Most Spanish are sociable and garrulous. They also tend to hike in large groups, so those groups can be very loud. Nonstop, lively conversation punctuated by frequent laughter seems to be intrinsic to the Spanish hiking experience. (That’s fact, not criticism. The Spanish readily acknowledge this cultural trait.) The French, too, often hike in large groups, but the French tend to be quieter. If you prize tranquility, this distinction is one you should consider. In the Pyrenees, tolerating (or distancing ourselves from) noisy hikers or hut mates was a daily experience. Not so in the French Alps.

Pitting the Pyrenees against the Alps, and illuminating how—from our perspective—the Pyrenees fall short, might give the impression the Pyrenees disappointed us. They did not. We stand by the statement we made earlier in this post:  “Our entire time in the Pyrenees, we were keen to stride. The range enthralled us. We treasured our days there.”

Might we return to hike in the Pyrenees? Yes. Would we do so with eager anticipation? Yes. But returning to the French Alps is a higher priority for us.

Next post coming soon: “The 677-page Hiking Guide to the Canadian Rockies that’s now Ultralight Gear”

*In the Swiss Alps, we met hikers from all over the world, including Canadians and Americans. In the Italian Alps, we encountered fewer North American hikers. In the French Alps, our fellow hikers were almost exclusively French.

**Here’s an excerpt from our many posts about hiking in the Alps (www.hikingcamping.com/blog/?s=french+alps). It summarizes our feelings about the French Alps vs. the Swiss Alps: “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.”

***Our July 31, 2014 post titled “Best Trek You’ve Never Heard Of” details one of the Pyrenean trails we believe rank among the world’s best: www.hikingcamping.com/blog/2014/07/best-trek-youve-never-heard-of/

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

(A)

• 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).

(B)

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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Backpacking Washington State’s Inland Fiord

The Chelan Lakeshore Trail

On a recent trip to Washington State, we allowed a couple extra days for what we believe is one of the world’s premier backpack trips: the Chelan Lakeshore Trail. You’ll find a complete description of it in our book Hiking from Here to WOW: North Cascades. We hope the following field report will nudge you to pick up a copy.

Last winter left a deep snowpack in the mountain ranges of western North America. Trails that would typically be hikeable by late May remained snowbound this year. Lake Chelan, however, though wedged between lofty mountains, had been snow-free for several weeks prior to our arrival. And while unusually cool, rainy weather continued badgering western states and provinces, the conditions at Lake Chelan were ideal when we arrived: sunshine, blue sky, daytime highs of 25°C (82°F).

So Lake Chelan earns The Opinionated Hikers’ Seal of Approval for early-season availability. Yet there’s another, even more compelling reason to hike here: four-star scenery.

For the two or three days you’ll follow this trail—among stately pines, over exposed rock, past exuberant wildflowers*, in and out of lush drainages—the lake is constantly visible. So are the North Cascades rising abruptly from the far shore. Sometimes you’ll drop to lake level. Occasionally you’ll contour steep cliffs. Often you’ll rise over headlands granting a godly perspective of this 55-mi (88.5-km) long, inland fiord.

We’re continually surprised to discover Lake Chelan is not as well known as it deserves to be. On our way there, we stayed with friends in Kelowna, B.C., who’d never heard of it. After leaving Chelan, we stayed with friends in Seattle who’d never heard of it. “Where’s Lake Chelan?” they asked. It’s on the east side of the North Cascades, off Hwy 97, about 45 minutes north of Wenatchee.

The elevation of Lake Chelan is 1098 ft (335 m), which explains why it’s reliably snow free in early season. The peaks directly above rise to 5000 ft (1524 m). The water is 1486 ft (453 m) deep, plunging 388 ft (118 m) below sea level. Measured from the lake bottom to the height of land, it’s a deeper abyss than the Grand Canyon.

From the town of Chelan, drive to Fields Point Landing, on the lake’s west shore. Leave your vehicle in the spacious, secure (locked nightly) parking lot. Board the Lady of the Lake II, a tour boat that departs daily at 9:45 a.m. Disembark at Prince Creek, on the east shore. From there, follow the trail north 18 mi (29 km) to the hamlet of Stehekin (lodge, campground, store, cafe, bakery). Then catch the Lady at 2 p.m., returning down-lake to Fields Point. The round-trip boat fare is $40 per person.

On day one, we hiked 11.5 mi (18.5 km) to Moore Point. (That distance includes the 0.5 mi / 0.8 km spur down to the campground.) The total elevation gain on this undulating leg is about 1000 ft (305 m). It’s also possible to hike just 8 mi (12.9 km) and camp at Cascade Creek. From Moore Point, on the morning of day two, we hiked 0.5 mi (0.8 km) up to the lakeshore trail, then 7 mi (11.3 km) north to Stehekin.

It’s possible to catch the first boat, which departs Stehekin at noon. But why? We spent the morning doing lazy yoga on the old wharf at Moore Point. We reached Stehekin in time to slowly pick apart a locally baked cinnamon bun big as a frisbee. We caught the Lady at 2 p.m. We were back at Fields Point, loading our packs into our car, shortly after 5 p.m. A few minutes later, we pitched our tent and took hot showers at nearby Chelan State Park.

For more details about the Chelan Lakeshore trail (and other trails up-valley from Stehekin that afford several more days of fruitful exploration), purchase our book Hiking from Here to WOW: North Cascades. You’ll find it at Mountain Equipment Co-op, REI, Indigo/Chapters, Amazon.com, and right here at hikingcamping.com.

*The wildflowers we saw in early June, 2011, included lupine (purple), columbine (orange and yellow), penstemon (lavender), paintbrush (red), and Goat’s beard (yellow).

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“Hiking the Grand Canyon was Like Contracting Giardiasis: The Bug Lives On Inside Me”

Like sandpaper, the gritty details of daily life grind down our memories’ sharpest edges. How else to explain the surprise and wonder we feel when repeating a momentous event that we thought we recalled vividly?

Kath and I have backpacked in the Grand Canyon more than a half dozen times. We’ve rafted the Colorado River through the Grand.* Its been just two years since we last hiked in the Grand (North Rim to Thunder River). And still we were startled to once again peer into this great gash in the Earth.

Hiking there last week was as grand and deep an experience for us as it was the first time decades ago. Perhaps more so. Our ability to notice and appreciate detail seems to be growing. (A sign of maturity?) But it’s also the canyon itself. The more scenic wonderlands we witness, the more we marvel at this one.

Kath believes ingesting the beauty of this mile-deep canyon by hiking it, she contracted the emotional equivalent of giardiasis. The bug lives on inside her, she says. The symptoms disappear, but not forever. Eventually they recur, nagging her until she comes back for treatment: another Grand Canyon sojourn.

What neither of us can comprehend are North American hikers—particularly those living in the West, within a couple days’ drive of northern Arizona—who assume the more distant a hiking destination is, the more compelling it must be. We know such people. They’ve trekked in Ladakh, summitted Kilimanjaro, but express no interest in the Grand Canyon. Overawed by the exotic, they ignore the nearby.

Despite the noise (see our previous post regarding scenic overflights), the backpack trip we completed last week in the Grand topped any we’ve ever done—anywhere. It was a mere three days, two nights, but every step was captivating. From Hermit’s Rest, we descended the Hermit trail to the Tonto trail. The first night we pitched our tent at Monument Creek. Next day, we followed the Tonto back across Hermit Creek and continued west to our second night’s camp at Boucher Creek (pronounced Boo-SHAY). Finally we ascended the Boucher trail up and out of the canyon, back to Hermit’s Rest. (See distance and elevation details below.)

Camping at Hermit Creek is vastly more popular than camping at Monument Creek. But we find Monument a more impressive setting: a broader drainage where the canyon’s soaring walls are visible.

Most people who carry backpacks down the Hermit trail also ascend the same way. But looping back via Boucher, as we did, makes the journey a little more adventurous and a lot more scenic.

The Tonto trail, which runs much of the canyon’s length, contours along the Tonto Plateau, just above where the Colorado River—architect of the Grand Canyon—surges through the sheer-walled, inner gorge. The most exciting section of the Tonto is between Hermit and Boucher creeks, where the trail hugs the edge of the precipice, grants frequent views of the river directly below, and affords constant vistas up and down the canyon.

It’s actually surprising the National Park Service (whose concern about visitor safety is, to put it mildly, extreme) keeps this airy section of the Tonto trail open to the public. We found it thrilling, but there’s little room for a misstep. As for the Boucher trail, the NPS describes it using the words “climb” and “exposure.” They exaggerate to dissuade the inept. Much of the trail is a steep, rough route requiring strength, endurance, and confidence born of experience. But there’s no climbing required and no exposure. A few sections qualify as scrambling, but they’re easy and short. We enjoyed the Boucher trail immensely. In comparison, the broad, dusty, Bright Angel trail, which accommodates tourist-laden mules, is dull.

Ascending the Boucher trail (much easier and more fun than descending it), the way forward is not always obvious, which makes it intriguing. The terrain changes rapidly and abruptly, from constricted gullies, to broad benches, to narrow ledges on nearly-vertical walls. Ultimately the trail provides a startling, aerial perspective of the Hermit Creek drainage and much of the trail we hiked on days one and two.

An adrenaline rush at a walker’s pace? Yes. Certainly in the Grand Canyon. Definitely on the Boucher trail. The misconception that “hiking is boring” is perpetuated by the lazy and incurious who’ve waddled into a soporific forest, seen nothing of note, and haven’t ventured beyond pavement since. Granted, some trails are boring. And some hikers are bored even amid stimulating scenery, so they either zone out or chat nonstop with companions. But the Boucher trail has the power to grab most hikers by their sternum straps, bringing their distracted minds to heel in the here and now.

Hikers who reside in Canada and the northern U.S. will appreciate that the optimal time to backpack in the Grand Canyon is late fall / early winter (November) and spring (March through mid-April), when the weather at home is no longer, or not yet, conducive to hiking. Last week, the nights were chilly (near freezing) on the 6900-ft (2104-m) canyon rim. But the daytime highs ranged between 70° and 80° F in the canyon at 3000 ft (915 m). It was even warmer, of course, on the canyon’s 2300-ft (701-m) floor, near the river. Perfect for hikers. By late spring (May), it’s too hot for most of us to comfortably backpack in the Grand Canyon.

A cautionary tale…  Two years ago, while we were backpacking off the Grand Canyon’s North Rim en route to Thunder River, I (Craig) stupidly ignored my own symptoms and succumbed to heat exhaustion. By doing so, I ruined our trip and risked my life. It was mid-May. The temperature was 100° F at 6 p.m. on the slickrock Esplanade within the canyon.

By 7 p.m. we’d completed about three-quarters of the 4800-ft (1463-m) descent. Suddenly, nausea and dizziness forced me to slow, stop, sit. Minutes before, I’d been hiking briskly. Now I was prostrate on the trail, vomiting. What motivated me to continue, and what saved my life, was that we were within 30 minutes of where the Thunder River originates, blasting out of the canyon wall.

I staggered and stumbled the final distance. Kath pitched our tent on a ledge beside the torrent. She doused me with frigid water late into the night. The vomiting continued till morning. I spent the next day alternately dozing in the shade and shivering beneath a small cascade, letting the icy water lower my core temperature. I ate nothing, because I couldn’t, but I sipped electrolyte-rich Emergen-C.

Though I was terribly weak, we knew I’d soon be too weak to hike out, so we packed and began slowly ascending at 7 p.m. We continued into the dark. We made it to the Esplanade at 10:30 p.m. By then I could nibble on a PowerBar.

That night, our second in the canyon, was gorgeous—clear and still—but difficult to appreciate. I seemed to be recovering but now Kath was feeling weak. She vomited. We were both unnerved knowing this was a medical emergency and our self rescue required another day’s effort we were unsure either of us could muster.

We packed and were hiking before our enemy, the sun, pounced on us again. The water we’d cached on the way down was now more vital than we’d imagined possible. What we didn’t drink we poured over our heads and down our backs. We ascended at a plodding pace unfamiliar to us. For me, it was “the march of repentance.”

Upon arriving at our car on the North Rim, we were exhausted, grateful, wiser. We’d written about heat exhaustion, warning others to avoid it, but now we fully understood how stealthy and overwhelming it can be. Kath—who never sleeps while I drive because she’s constantly studying maps and guidebooks—slept for most of the six-hour drive to my parents’ home in Scottsdale, Arizona. I continued feeling strangely, deeply fatigued for several days, which suggests I’d been dangerously close to heat stroke.

So this year, we hiked into the Grand Canyon much earlier: the end of March. It was ideal timing. True, the upper reaches of the South-Rim trails can still be snow-covered in March (requiring hikers to use traction devices on their boots for the initial descent), but the Hermit and Boucher trails gave us a snow-free welcome.

Spring hiking in the Grand Canyon is not only more comfortable and safer, it’s the optimal time to appreciate the desert’s botanical diversity, which far outstrips that of mountain environs. From a distance, a green hue washes across the Tonto Plateau. Leafy, blossoming trees give the drainages an oasis appearance. Flowers—purple, lavender, white, yellow, red—add bursts of vivid colour to the infinite canyon-rock palette of reds, browns, oranges, mauves, tans, mustards, maroons…

Many trails plunge below the Grand Canyon’s soaring-beyond-comprehension cliffs. We’ve hiked most of them: Bright Angel (from the North and South rims), South Kaibab, Hermit, Tonto West, Tonto East, Boucher, Grandview, and Tanner. We’ve also hiked into Havasupai Canyon—a tributary of the Grand, far to the west. All are marvelous, inducing a constant “how can this be?” state of mind. Yet some are even more engaging than others. Here are our recommendations:

Backpack Trips

(1) From Hermit’s Rest, at 6650 ft (2027 m) on the South Rim, descend the Hermit trail. Intersect the Tonto trail and follow it around to Monument Creek. Next day, retrace your steps on the Tonto, then continue past Hermit Creek and along the Tonto Plateau to Boucher Creek. On day three, hike the Boucher trail back up to Hermit’s Rest. Circuit: 26.7 mi (43 km). Descent and ascent: 4500 ft (1372 m).

(2) From Monument Point, at 7200 ft (2196 m) on the North Rim (west of Jacob’s Lake), descend to the Esplanade. Cross it, then continue down to Thunder River. Camp in Upper Tapeats Gorge, at 2400 ft (732 m). Return the same way. Round trip: 18.4-mi (29.6-km). Descent and ascent: 4800 ft (1464 m). From camp, it’s 2.2 mi (3.5 km) farther to the Colorado River at 1950 ft (595 m).

Dayhikes

(1) From Grandview Point, at 7399 ft (2256 m) on the South Rim, descend the Grandview trail to Horseshoe Mesa. Continue to the end of the mesa’s left (west) arm, at 4923 ft (1501 m). Return the same way. Round trip: 8.4 mi (13.5 km). Descent and ascent: 2476 ft (755 m).

(2) From the South Rim, at 7240 ft (2207 m), descend the South Kaibab trail to the Tonto trail. Go west, contouring to intersect the Bright Angel trail near Indian Gardens. Ascend the Bright Angel to the rim at 6860 ft (2091 m). Ride the Park shuttle bus between trailheads. One-way trip: 13.6 mi (22 km). Descent: 3440 ft (1049 m). Ascent: 3060 ft (933 m).

(3) From Hermit’s Rest, at 6650 ft (2027 m) on the South Rim, descend the Hermit trail. Turn west onto the Dripping Springs trail, then hike the Boucher trail generally north to 5429 ft (1655 m) on Yuma Point. Round trip: 8.2 mi (13.2 km). Descent and ascent: 1579 ft (481 m).

(4) From Hopi Point, at 6095 ft (1858 m) on the South Rim, hike the Rim trail generally west, past Mohave Point and The Abyss, to Monument Creek Vista. Ride the Park shuttle bus between trailheads. One-way trip: 2.8 mi (4.5 km). Elevation change: negligible.

Details
Visit the national park website (www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/overnight-hiking.htm) to read more about the trails, view a map showing backcountry campsites and trail distances, and download a backcountry-permit request.

If you intend to camp on the canyon rim before or after your backpack trip, stay in Mather Point Campground. Generators are prohibited on the Pine Loop, so campsites there are quieter. Reserving a site is necessary in summer but not during spring or fall.

*Rafting the Colorado River is a thrilling adventure. Kath has done it three times, Craig once. We urge you to do it, too. Sure, it’s expensive. It’s also priceless. If you’re a hiker, choose a company offering a trip catering to hikers. It will afford numerous opportunities for two- to four-hour dayhikes into fascinating, tributary canyons that you’d never otherwise see.

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Hiking The Maze, in Canyonlands National Park

The Opinionated Hikers on Patrol for You

We’ve been hiking all over the Colorado Plateau for 28 years. The guidebook we wrote—Hiking From Here to WOW: Utah Canyon Country—describes “90 trails to the Wonder Of Wilderness” in this astounding region. Books have space limitations, however, so there were many WOW trips we could not include. One of them is The Maze—the most remote district of Canyonlands National Park.

Faced with the need to cull, we excluded The Maze from our book because reaching it by foot is too rigourous a journey for the vast majority of people, and because vehicle access necessitates high-clearance 4WD and requires you to endure a long, rough road.

Having just returned from the Maze, however, we want to supplement our book with this field report, which we hope will inspire anyone with curiosity, energy, a yen for canyon country, and a stalwart 4WD vehicle to explore this high-desert enclave.

Why visit The Maze? Because…

  • It’s extremely isolated and therefore very lonely. You’ll probably see others at the Maze Overlook and on the ascent/descent route, but you can easily find solitude if you backpack beyond.
  • It’s weirdly, mysteriously, uniquely beautiful. Before seeing it, you think, “Ah, come on, can it really be that different from all the other canyons I’ve seen?” The answer is “yes.”
  • You can hike to 16, little known yet spectacular arches within The Maze.
  • The Harvest Scene Panel, a mere 2-hour hike from the Maze Overlook, ranks among the most fascinating rock-art sites on the Colorado Plateau. It was painted by the Archaic People who roamed canyon country 8,000 to 2,000 years ago.
  • It’s possible to feel a piquant sense that you’re truly exploring here. Not just following bootprints on an established trail, but delving into the unknown.
  • The long, forbidding approach to the Maze Overlook trailhead, as well as the scarcity of water within the Maze, enhance the experience by requiring commitment, heightening your anticipation, and later boosting your sense of accomplishment.
  • Before or after The Maze, you can dayhike into nearby Horseshoe Canyon to see the justifiably famous Great Gallery pictograph panel, which, like the Harvest Scene Panel, was created by the Archaic People.

The unpaved road into The Maze departs Highway 24 just 0.5 mi (0.8 km) south of the paved spur leading to Goblin Valley State Park. The initial 46 mi (74 km) to Hans Flat Ranger Station is an easy drive in almost any 2WD car. Shortly beyond, high clearance is necessary. A bit farther is a 2-mi (3.2-km) section of steep, rocky, narrow, switchbacking, 4WD-only road known as “the Flint Trail.” After descending the Flint Trail, it’s another 13 mi (21 km) on a rough (but never steep or dangerous) road to the Maze Overlook, where the on-foot descent into The Maze begins. Total distance from Highway 24 to the Maze Overlook: 75.5 mi (122 km). Because you must check-in at the ranger station, and because the road beyond, even when in good condition, prevents swift progress, allow a full day to reach the Maze Overlook.

Overall the road is not seriously challenging. You don’t need a diploma from 4WD School (4wdschool.com) as long as you’re piloting a capable, high-clearance, 4WD vehicle. Though short, the Flint Trail is the crux. Care and vigilance, more than skill, are what you need to safely negotiate it. Be prepared to make a couple three-point turns within a few feet of sharp, vertical drops. Here, as well as elsewhere en route, you’ll want a spotter: someone who can get out and confidently direct you through obstacles where the driver’s seat does not grant the optimal view of where to steer the tires for easiest passage.

A few intrepid backpackers start hiking at Hans Flat, explore The Maze, then hike all the way back out. Between the ranger station and the Maze Overlook (14.5 mi / 23.3 km), they follow the North Trail, about half of which is on the road. The distance seems trivial until you realize it’s entirely dry. Carrying sufficient water to keep you hydrated until you reach the first spring in The Maze? Later repeating that grueling task on the return trip? We don’t recommend it. If the weather’s hot, you’ll risk heat exhaustion, possibly heat stroke. And the scenery isn’t worth it. The beauty and allure of The Maze is evident only after you arrive at the Maze Overlook. So driving to road’s end is undeniably preferable.

Upon arrival at the Maze Overlook (5160 ft / 1573 m), one more hurdle remains: scrambling to the canyon floor (4580 ft / 1396 m). Some might call it “climbing.” Your perspective depends on your experience, and therefore confidence, on steep rock where you must use your hands to prevent an injurious fall. Departing the Maze Overlook, you’ll initially be hiking, but the cairned descent route soon requires you to scramble/climb where the bulbous folds of Cedar Mesa sandstone are too vertical to walk.

The young ranger at Hans Flat said, “You might want to bring 20 feet of rope to lower your packs.” The guidebook we used said the same. Both implied that only one short section of the descent posed minor difficulties and that most people, after roping their packs down, easily friction-walk through it. But you’ll find our commentary below considerably more detailed, accurate and helpful.

It’s true that some backpackers drop from the Maze Overlook, into The Maze, without roping up. They use a rope only to lower their packs in one place. But that one place requires closer to 100 ft (30 m) of rope if you want the pack-lowering exercise to be simple, easy and quick. A 20-ft (6-m) rope isn’t nearly adequate.

The scrambling, however, is exposed. Most people should, and will want to, rope-up in a couple places, then have someone in their party belay them while they down-climb. It’s unlikely an adept scrambler will fall here. But the scrambling does require agility and cool, and the consequences of falling—particularly in such a remote location—are serious. The chief benefit of roping up, of course, is increased self-assurance. That alone is usually sufficient to prevent a misstep.

We recommend you bring a 120-ft (36-m) length of climbing rope, light harnesses for the climber and belayer (or enough one-inch webbing to make swami belts), several carabiners, and some prusik cord. Assessing the descent, you might decide you don’t need the climbing equipment. Fine. But if you want it, and you don’t have it, game over.

Dayhikers—if they twice rope-up and establish belays—might take an hour to descend from the Maze Overlook to the canyon floor. Backpackers might take an additional 30 or 40 minutes if, at those two points, they also use the rope to lower their packs.

Dayhikers should remember they’ll face an approximately 45-minute ascent from the canyon to the Maze Overlook at day’s end. Having already grappled with the terrain while descending, they’ll surmount it quicker on the way out.

Excluding numerous, minor, scrambly steps on the descent route into The Maze, you’ll encounter six places that—whether or not you view them as impediments—are distinctly recognizable:

  • A 9-ft (2.7-m) sheer drop into a small, slickrock bowl. It’s relatively easy thanks to contemporary moqui steps. Once the most capable scrambler in your group is down, he/she can spot everyone else.
  • A concave, slickrock ledge that narrows and is increasingly slanted until you pass the midpoint. Our acrophobic friend walked it with only a little support from the rest of us.
  • A keyhole pouroff where you must lower yourself to a barely-visible platform below. From there, a slender catwalk leads left to a tiny alcove. Below that you must down-climb a vertical 12 ft (3.7 m). Hand and footholds are solid, but most people won’t attempt it without a sitting belay from the alcove. It’s also possible to anchor a rope above the keyhole and belay someone from the top of the pouroff to the bottom of the down-climb. The acrophobe in our group turned back above the keyhole pouroff.
  • A short but very narrow crack. Most people will wiggle down through it without hesitation.
  • A longer, sharply descending crack devoid of hand holds. Working down through it is awkward, uncomfortable, time consuming, but most people won’t feel the need to rope up, because falling doesn’t seem as likely as getting stuck. Below the crack are a couple steps that are airy, exposed, but most people will take a deep breath, compose themselves, and stride over them.
  • A slickrock plunge: gradual at first, then vertical. Though contemporary moqui steps lend substantial aid, most people won’t attempt it without being roped-up. A boulder immediately above serves as a solid belay anchor.

Let’s back up. Did the word “dayhike” surprise you? Perhaps you’re thinking that after such a long drive into The Maze, it would be crazy not to backpack. But dayhiking is viable here. The Maze Overlook is a gorgeous place to car camp. If you enjoy the ascent/descent enough to do it repeatedly, and if you allow yourself at least three full days, you might love dayhiking here. The 9-mi (14.5 km) loop to Chimney Rock is one of several dayhiking options.

Backpacking is preferable, however, because it allows you to explore much farther and grants you the sense of being a temporary resident of The Maze.

Whether you plan to backpack or dayhike, bring the Trails Illustrated 1:40 000 topo map titled “Canyonlands National Park, Maze District, NE Glen Canyon NRA, Utah, USA.”

Remember that you’ll be in a national park, so you’ll need a backcountry permit for car-camping at the Maze Overlook as well as for camping down in The Maze. Phone the park office well in advance to make reservations.

Fill your vehicle’s gas tank at Hanksville immediately prior to departing pavement. Driving slowly in 4WD is inefficient, so you’ll be getting poor gas mileage. You don’t want to see your gas-gauge needle dropping to “E” when you’re way out in the wopwops. You’ll probably want a full jerrycan as well, just in case.

Load your vehicle with plenty of extra food and water. Rain or rockfall could make the road temporarily impassable. Getting stranded is bad enough. Stranded, hungry and thirsty is much worse.

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YOUR SAFETY IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY

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.