Hiking in Switzerland
Updated: Jul 4, 2021
We love hiking.
It’s not the same kind of high adrenaline activity like skiing, mountain biking, or rock climbing. It rarely pushes your comfort zones, you don’t need to train for years to hone your technique, and it's because of this that we love it.
I love “extreme” sports. I love the adrenaline of skiing a steep pitch, flying down a slope at 50mph or leading a new route at the local crag. The adrenaline and excitement comes from the inherent risk that these sports bring; if I’m skiing a 40º couloir, there’s very little room for error, and that’s exciting. However, because these sports can be dangerous, and you have to be so focused on the small inputs your body is making, whilst moving so fast, there’s very little time to look around and enjoy the environment you’re in.
That's where hiking comes in.
We love where we live. This spring and early summer we have spent much of our free time exploring the mountains on our doorstep, and then when we’re not exploring the Zermatt valley, we’re driving to some other part of Switzerland to explore a completely different set of mountains.
You could argue: “why not explore those mountains by mountain biking or climbing them?” You absolutely could, but the amount of detail that you would experience during those activities is so much less than if you were to instead hike in those same mountains. Biking is often so fast that you’ll miss the small animals leaving their burrows, climbing is often so intense that you’ll be so focused on the rock in front of you that you’ll miss the deer in the field below.
It’s exactly because hiking lacks the adrenaline that makes it so exciting.
Here are some of our favourite hikes from the last 2 months.
Kulturweg - Zermatt
6km - Round Hike
We are extremely lucky to live where we do in Zermatt, as this relatively gentle hike goes almost straight past our bedroom window. If you’re starting from the town centre, it takes you up the Western, non-skiing side of the valley. The first kilometre is quite a steep climb to get above the buildings of Zermatt, but you quickly find yourself amongst the farming huts and livestock, with beautiful views from an unusual perspective over Zermatt.
After the initial steepness, the hike flattens and along the route you’ll find lots of information signs with the history of the surrounding landmarks. The route continues along the valley towards the hamlet of Zmutt which dates back to the Middle Ages. In Zmutt you can find a beautiful mountain restaurant to refresh and refuel you before the descent back to Zermatt. You can return to Zermatt by the same route, take the lower path back on the same side of the valley, or cross the bridge to head back via Furi.
Edelweiss - Zermatt
3.1km - Round Hike
This hike starts on the same route as the Kulturweg to Zmutt, but once you get above Zermatt, instead of following the valley up towards the Matterhorn, you continue perpendicular to Zermatt up the side of the valley towards the Edelweiss Restaurant and the Trift Glacier beyond.
The hike to Edelweiss is short but quite intense, with the Triftbach river roaring past you as you make your way into the trees above Zermatt. When you break out of the trees you find the restaurant perched on a rock with the perfect view of Zermatt and the mountains beyond. After the obligatory coffee and homemade carrot cake (highly recommended), you have a few options of where to go.
The first and most obvious is right back the way you came, but we like to keep things fresh, so we took the higher path to Zmutt and headed south towards the Matterhorn. Unfortunately, when we got to the hamlet of Hubel we encountered some avalanche debris that blocked our path, so we headed back down to Zermatt. This loop took us 7km, with 612m of ascent.
The other option is to keep following the Triftbach to the West up towards the Berggasthaus Trift, a mountain refuge that opens up access to the Wisshorn, Platthorn, and Matterhorn above.
Oeschinensee - Kandersteg
10km - Out and Back
We absolutely love lakes!
Luckily, Switzerland has a tonne of them.
Oeschinensee is a beautiful alpine lake sitting at an altitude of 1578m, above the town of Kandersteg at 1170m. Kandersteg itself is in Canton Bern, about a 30min drive from Spiez on lake Thun. If you’re coming from Valais, like we were, it’s just the other side of the Lötschberg Tunnel, a 20min trip on the car train from Goppenstein.
The hike itself is one of the most consistently picturesque that we have done this spring, with stunning views of the meadows across the valley and the many waterfalls on the cliffs above. However, the views on the way up can’t compare to the sight that greets you at the top. The beautiful glass-like surface of Oeschinensee opens out in front of you, mirroring the striking mountains rising out of it. With a terraced restaurant, row boats moored up to a jetty and a waterfall in the distance, it’s like a scene out of a movie.
Monte San Giorgio - Brusino Arsizio - Ticino
17km - Out and Back
A few weeks ago, we took a two night trip to the absolutely breathtaking Lake Lugano in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino. We stayed in the beautiful little village of Brusino Arsizio, on the south shore of the lake and right on the border with Italy.
After a morning of paddleboarding on the lake, we hiked to the summit of Monte San Giorgio.
Compared to everywhere else we have been in Switzerland so far, the topography in Ticino is completely different. Instead of evergreens covering steep mountains, as you come out of the Gotthard Tunnel into Ticino you are greeted by smaller peaks covered in lush green deciduous trees, giving the mountains a much softer look compared to the hard, stony faces of the 4000m giants we are used to.
All this meant that for the majority of our hike to Monte San Giorgio, we were engulfed by the trees and vegetation, obstructing our view of the lake below.
However, this turned out to be a blessing for a few reasons. Firstly, it was a super hot day, somewhere around 27ºC in the shade, so the canopy above was welcome cover. Secondly, it meant that the reveal of the panoramic view from the top of Monte San Giorgio was something that I will never forget.
Riffelsee - Zermatt
16km, Out and Back
This one was a very special hike.
We love sunrise, so we decided to wake up at 3am and hike up towards Riffelsee to watch the first rays hit the peaks above.
The peacefulness of being outdoors in nature that early is something that everyone should experience.
It reminds me of when I went caving in Yorkshire as a child, once we were deep underground, where no light could reach us, my uncle (our guide) told us to turn off our head torches. The darkness was so complete, so impenetrable, that it took my breath away. The near absence of sound as we walked under the trees in the early hours of the morning took me back to that moment.
Then, as we hiked higher, we started to have an awareness of the world waking up. Slowly at first, with the sky brightening in the East, then all at once as the birds awoke and filled the forest with their songs and the squirrels jumped from tree to tree.
Not long after we left the trees behind, the sun hit the very tips of the mountains behind us, and then, surprisingly quickly, started to spread down their faces.
This was a special hike, but it was also a tough hike. The biggest vertical distance that we had hiked so far, after having woken early and slightly sleep-deprived, as we slogged up the trail below Riffelberg, we started to question our choices.
However, as we passed the ski lifts and the patches of snow, we saw the slopes in front of us bathed with a golden light, and that gave us the motivation we needed to get to the top. We had to navigate our way round old piles of snow (which probably should have given us a clue as to what we would find at Riffelsee) but we forged on. Along the way, we passed lots of smaller lakes, containing spectacular reflections of the Matterhorn beyond.
As we finally found our way back onto the trodden path from Rifferlberg to Riffelsee, we hiked the last meters to the lake and crested the final hill to find the lake… still frozen.
The unseasonably wet and cold May meant that even with the recent high temperatures, the lake had yet to thaw. It was a bit of an anti-climax, but the sights and experiences of the hike up, more than made up for it.
It was a perfect example of one of our favourite mottos.
“The Journey, not the Destination.”