The green side of Switzerland
Top Swiss summer experiences
It seems such a waste, in so many ways, that many outdoor-orientated explorers only venture into the embrace of Switzerland’s mountains when they’re all tucked up under a blanket of snow. The country has some of the planet’s premier skiing, no doubt about it, but some of the best fun comes when the sun melts the white stuff and the frozen crystals turn to cold cascades, crashing down canyons and beautifying already stunning cycling and trekking trails with waterfalls such as Staubbachfall and the rumbling, tumbling Trümmelbach.
Each spring Switzerland reveals its not-so-secret bank account of green-season adventures – a tidy fortune spread across some 60,000km of backcountry trails. There are myriad ways to enjoy this newly hatched wonderland – in the saddle or with a paddle, helmeted and hanging from a rope in the fold of a canyon or flying high upon the alpine thermals beneath a bluebird sky – but all you really need is a pair of boots, maybe a map, and a willingness to go wandering about.
Following are some seeds of inspiration to be sown into your diary, for intended flowering in the lazy, hazy days of the early summer up in the Northern Hemisphere: plant them in the reach of full sun and sprinkle with a little gla-
SWITZERLAND IS Europe’s most mountainous country, but you don’t have to climb to the very pointy part of those peaks to enjoy them – hiking through the valleys and around the flanks of the voluptuous hills is just as enjoyable an experience, coming complete with all the Toblerone-style vistas and often possible in shorts and Tshirt, but minus much of the huffing, puffing and panting.
The 17.6km Four-Lake Hike is a five-hour perambulation in the central Jochpass region, which is one of Switzerland’s best single-day adventures. The four-puddle route leads interlopers along a trail that wends around the wonderfully hued H2O of the magical Melch, blue-eyed Engstlen, turquoise Tannen and finally the translucent Trüebsee, where the shimmering face of an aquatic alpine mirror turns surrounding mountains – including towering Mt Titlis – upside down.
Start from the station of Melchsee-Frutt, pass the little chapel, mooch by Lake Melch and Tannen Lake, and then trek towards Tannalp. After you’ve dropped down to appreciate the azure allure of Engstlen Lake – a picturesque place for a picnic – the ascent to Jochpass beckons, taking you up and over the toes of the Titlis Massive. Your sweat and sweating are amply rewarded when you reach the sensational saddle, which straddles the divide between the Bernese Oberland and Central Switzerland, with eye-popping views over Trüebsee, the finishing point shimmering and winking at you to come hither.
For more one-day dalliances with Europe’s most coquettish countryside, check out the low-traffic trail from Pfingstegg to the hut at Bäregg, above the lower Grindelwald glacier, or luxuriate in the landscape on display during the meander from Mürren to the Lauterbrunnen valley floor. Alternatively, test your knees and lungs during the oneway hilly hike from sensational Schynige Platte to the summit station of the Grindelwald-First cableway (take the easy way down), or wander the national Swiss William Tell Path from Rütli to Bauen. Still got energy to burn? Go and gallop the Glacier Trail between Bettmerhorn and Fiescheralp, via Grosses Gufer and Märjelen lakes, or dare to leg wrestle the ogre on the iconic Eiger Trail from Grindelwald to Alpiglen station, contemplating the dark mountain’s infamous Mordwand (Murder Wall) as its notorious North Face frowns down from above.
For a longer escapade, consider the Hinteregasse, an eightday mission through the Bernese Oberland. This alpine epic is for those who love to properly immerse themselves in mountain scenery, overnighting in huts operated by the Swiss Alpine Club, high-elevation eyries offering stunning views across the valleys and peaks.
The route’s moniker won’t appeal to those with a babblefish implant, translating from German to English as ‘rear alley’, but don’t worry, we’re not giving you a bum steer and this is far from an arse-end amble. The name, which can also be interpreted as ‘backstreet’, refers to the fact that this trail is an umbilicus between Switzerland’s prealpine environment and the country’s cracking high-alpine peaks, which also gives you a clue to the elevation gain involved. But you’re here to get high, right? Well, there’s no better way to score that alpine buzz than by sucking hard on some increasingly oxygen-light alpine air.
An iteration of the route is also known to the Swiss as the Bärentrek (Bear Trek), although sadly (or gladly, depending on how you look at it) the real bears have long disappeared from this lofty part of Europe.
Starting from Meiringen, the route rambles up to Kleine Scheidegg (2061m), a dramatic and drop-dead gorgeous pass between the imposing Eiger and lovely Lauberhorn peaks. From there you stroll to Sefinenfurgge (2612m), crossing the col between the Hundshore and Bütlasse Hohtürli. Then head through Hahnenmoospass (1950m), which splits the peaks of Regenboldshorn and Albristhorn, to Trütlisberg Pass (2072m) and to finally aim for Chrine.
Unfortunately, wild camping doesn’t fly in highly regulated Switzerland – and there’s scarcely any level land to pitch your tent and lay your head anyway. However, you can splice together some awesome overnight foot-powered adventures by staying at inns, pensions and huts all through the Oberland and many other areas, such as the Engadin in the south east, where an Alpine valley traces the River Inn right across the country, from just west of glitzy St Moritz to Austria.
Multiday hikers can also consider taking on the sensational Haute Route, an absolute alpine classic that connects Mont Blanc in Chamonix, France, with the marvellous Matterhorn above Zermatt, in Switzerland. The route is non-technical and stays comfortably below 3000m, but it is a 12-day commitment (and well worth every minute).
You can splice together some awesome overnight foot-powered adventures by staying at inns, pensions and huts all through the Oberland
CYCLING THE AARE
FOLLOWING the flow of Switzerland’s longest River, the full Aare cycling route rolls for 305km, from the glacier-fed lake on the Grimsepass to the river’s confluence with the regal Rhine at Koblenz, via Switzerland’s outdoor adventure capital Interlaken and the country’s actual capital, Bern. Alternatively, you can join it in Interlaken, by Lake Thun, or simply bite it off bit by bit, cycling a section or two at a time.
The big bike ride is best done in seven stages. It’s a waymarked mixed terrain adventure through rural and urban environments, with 64km of the route venturing off road onto unsealed terrain, so a sturdy touring steed with reasonably knobbly tyres or a decent hardtail mountain bike with reliable lockout on the front forks and tyres that aren’t too aggressive are both good choices. Myriad accommodation options are available en route, including campsites, so pack those panniers wisely.
After hurtling down from Grimsepass (2164m), the trail skirts the Aareschlucht gorge and shadows the shores of Brienzersee and Thunersee, with Interlaken splitting the two lovely lakes. Going beyond Bern and Bielersee, towards the Seeland, the route takes a meandering riparian course through Mittelland forests, going via mediaeval Solothurn and Jura’s Baroque towns to the trail’s conclusion at Koblenz on the Rhine, not far from the famous falls.
For those who would prefer to stay away from sealed surfaces altogether, Switzerland offers endless mountainbike trails to mooch around and bomb down, from the singletrack-stacked resorts of Zermatt and Verbier, to the pedal powered playground that is Crans-Montana in Valais, and the less-ridden trails around Saint-Luc. If you fancy cycling on the shoulders of the Ogre, Grindelwald’s annual Eiger Bike Challenge (www.eigerbike.ch) sees 1500 rough riders taking on an 88km circuit with 3900m of altitude gain every August.
After hurtling down from Grimsepass, the trail skirts the Aareschlucht gorge and shadows the shores of Brienzersee and Thunersee…
SWITZERLAND’S shudderingly cold high alpine lakes are, by and large, placid puddles, perfect for playing around on if you’re into sailing, stand-up paddleboarding and flatwater canoeing. Those looking for more of a boating buzz can explore the numerous whiter waterways that plunge down the side of the Alps as the snow and ice melts each spring.
Kayaking and rafting are both possible on the class IIIIV rapids of the River Sarine, which charges dramatically into the Pays-d’Enhaut just outside Interlaken, thundering through spectacular Vanel and Gérignoz gorges. The sport of riverboarding is popular here too – which sees rapid runners replace their boats with bodyboards, to get a lot more close and personal with the churning water. The Ruinaulta, occasionally referred to as the Swiss Grand Canyon, is a super scenic gorge on the Swiss section of the Rhine, a waterway that boasts III-IV rapids and some impressive falls, and shouldn’t be missed by paddlers. Both the Aare and the Arve are far calmer, but well worth exploring by canoe or kayak.
A tragic accident in 1999, when 21 young people including several Antipodeans were killed by a freak deluge of water while canyoning in Saxet Brook near Interlaken, proved that this niche sport isn’t without its dangers. This is still the first thing many people read about when they look into canyoning in Switzerland, however the awful incident forced a complete rethink of the outdoor industry in the country – and well beyond, as shockwaves were sent around Europe – and now, almost two decades later, such guided adventure activities are super-organised, and populated by regulated and highly qualified professionals.
Canyoning involves a mixture of scrambling, clambering, abseiling, jumping, sliding and swimming. It is not uncommon to find yourself reverse climbing through waterfalls, and the sport is sometimes described as whitewater paddling without a boat. The pursuit arguably reaches its absolute apex within the otherworldly emerald gorges of Switzerland, especially the Ticino region, where ghostly white-walled caves and long slippery chutes cause it to be considered the country’s canyoning capital. Standout gorges include Chli Schliere, Lodrino, Pontirone, and Iragna.
As history has shown, expert guidance and proper equipment is essential when canyoning, and it’s not something you should undertake independently, unless you are experienced and have excellent local knowledge.
Autumn evening mood on the Susten Pass.
The small church on the shores of Lake Melch at Melchsee-Frutt, a holiday resort above the Melch Valley, Obwalden.
High altitude hiking is one of the most popular outdoor activities in Switzerland and it is easy to see why.
Mountain bikers at Lake Stellisee in Zermatt. In the background is the mighty Matterhorn (4478m).
A canyoning group exploring the Viamala gorge.