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SWITZERLAND and the ALPS hiking guide

The Alps in Europe are a paradise for hikers. This article describes how to plan your hiking trip beneath spectacular peaks such as Eiger, Jungfrau, Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, and Piz Palü (in the Bernina Range). Here are the Alps in a nutshell:

  1. Switzerland: Berner Oberland and Loetschental.
  2. Mont Blanc and the High Route: Trek the Haute Route from Chamonix’s Mont Blanc (France) to Zermatt’s Matterhorn (Switzerland). Hike the Mont Blanc Circuit or day hike from Chamonix and Courmayeur (Italy).
  3. Switzerland: Engadine Valley trekking advice and itinerary for 5+ days.

Separate articles cover the Dolomites in Italy and Slovenian Alps:

Alps favorite images from hiking in Switzerland, France, Italy, and Slovenia

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Practical advice for self-guided trips in Switzerland and the Alps

A geographic travel map of Switzerland shows a month itinerary starting from Zurich and doing 20 hikes in Berner Oberland, Chamonix (France), Zermatt, and Engadine Valley, Europe. (Tom Dempsey)

Right: Switzerland travel map of 20 hikes in one month connected by trains, from Zurich to Bernese Oberland, Chamonix (France), Zermatt, Engadine Valley, and back.

Weather and hiking season in the Alps (Switzerland, France, Austria, Italy)
Global warming is quickly melting most Alps glaciers

1. Switzerland: Berner Oberland and Loetschental

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In 2001, UNESCO listed Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn as a World Heritage Area featuring the most glaciated part of the Alps, Europe’s largest glacier, and a range of classic glacial features such as U-shaped valleys, cirques, horn peaks, and moraines. The ongoing uplift and compression that formed the High Alps has left an outstanding geological record. A diversity of flora and wildlife thrives in a range of Alpine and sub-Alpine habitats. In the wake of retreating glaciers, witness the colonization and succession of flowers and plants. The impressive vista of the North Wall of the High Alps, centered on the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau peaks, has played an important role in European art and literature.

Berner Oberland and Loetschental hiking tips, Switzerland

The Berner Oberland (Bernese Highlands, Bernese Oberland, or Bernese Alps) is the southern and higher elevation part of Bern canton, in Switzerland.

How to get there: From Zurich downtown train station, ride 4 hours to Interlaken, where you board a train to scenic Grindelwald Valley or spectacular Lauterbrunnen Valley.

2. Mont Blanc and the High Route: Trek from Chamonix’s Mont Blanc to Zermatt’s Matterhorn

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Mountain excursions in Chamonix, France
Hut to hut walking on the High Route
Mont Blanc Circuit (Tour du Mont Blanc)
Hikes and lifts in Courmayeur, Italy
Hikes in Zermatt, Switzerland

3. Switzerland: Engadine trekking advice: Itinerary for 5+ days

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The En or Inn River flows through the Swiss valley of Engadine, which is Engadin in German or Engiadina in Romansh. Don’t miss hikes near the glacier-clad Bernina Range in this suggested itinerary:

Ratings:  **** four stars = Fantastic.  *** three stars = Must do.  ** two stars = Worthwhile.  * one star = only if time allows.

  1. ** Day 1: Stay at in Scuol**, which has very attractive historic buildings and a covered bridge over the Inn/En River, with high mountains for an impressive backdrop. Hotel Guardaval** in Scuol has a great view and very friendly staff.
  2. ** Day 2: Walk from Scuol** to Guarda***, via Tarasp** historic castle and Ardez** (great sgraffito).
    • Alternative Route: Hike a longer, remote, higher route which starts from atop Motta Naluns ski lift, hiking via the pleasant & remote Tasna valley* along high pastures and forest to Guarda***.
    • Stay at Hotel Meisser** in beautifully preserved historic Guarda*** (call ahead).
    • * Optional Extra Day: Hike from Cinuos Chel Brail train station to Val Susauna* (a small village with a pretty church in an isolated valley) to Zuoz*, which is bigger but has a pleasant town square. A nice view of Upper Engadine opens out as you approach within a mile of Zuoz and on into the town.
  3. ** Day 3: From Muottas Muragl funicular** hike to Segantini Hut down to Pontresina via Alp Languard’s Sessellift (chair lift)**.
    • Optional extension: From Alp Languard, you can also add (or do on its own) a great loop trip along a ridge to Chamanna Paradis** Restaurant, which has a spectacular view of Piz Bernina massif and Morterasch Glacier. Nice moderate grades and great views, but very popular, so don’t expect solitude.
    • Pontresina lodging: Hotel Steinbock** had a tasty buffet included with excellent dinner.
  4. **** Day 4: Walk from Morteratsch (second train stop from Pontresina towards Bernina Pass) to Boval Hut. Boval Hut offers close views of Morteratsch Glacier amid an impressive cirque of the icy Bernina Massif. Optionally stay overnight in Boval Hut for a good sunrise light on the spectacular massif. The trail is well graded, not steep, only 5 or 6 miles round trip and 2700 feet gain/loss. Return via lower trail for partial loop. A world favorite day hike!
    • *** Alternative or extra day: continue from Pontresina on the Bernina Express*** train line (the most spectacular train in Switzerland) to the top of the pass, and get off at an interesting area such as Alp Grüm. Optional day hike to Sassal Mason hut. Optionally take the Diavolezza*** lift to stunning views, similar to Boval Hut but 1500-feet higher.
    • *** Alternative or extra day: Spectacular hike from Pontresina up the Roseg Valley to Coaz Hut and over Surlej Pass down to St Moritz. Or hike round trip to Tschierva Hut (a long day, 15.5 miles roundtrip, 2800 ft), also in Roseg Valley.
    • Sils Maria* is a quiet, pretty village on attractive Lake Segl*, reached via Post Bus, more relaxed and cheaper than staying in St Moritz. In Sils Maria, Hotel Edelweiss** is very luxurious, with dinner and good breakfast in a huge ornate ballroom with live piano. Alternative: Explore scraffito in the village of **Samedan, overnight.
    • * Extra Day: Walk from Sils Maria to “pasturesque” Grevasalvas* (setting for the movie Heidi, with some nice old stone buildings), to Lake Lunghin, and optionally up to alpine Piz Lunghin** then descend to Maloja Pass to catch the Post Bus back to Sils Maria.
  5. *** Day 5: Walk from Cassacia (or Vicosoprano) to Soglio*** village (11 miles, 2000 feet up, 2900 feet down) on the Sentiero Panaramico***, a scenic trail marked with little yellow hiking signs. All three villages are on the Post Bus line. If starting at Cassacia (via Post Bus), the first hiking hour is through pleasant pastures and woods, but within earshot of a busy highway, and follows powerlines, past a dam retaining pretty turquoise water, and within view of another dam (forming lake Lagh da L’Albigna) looming amazingly high on the other side of the valley. After a few hours the Sentiero Panaramico leaves the power lines and progressively gets more aesthetically pleasing, with more and more spectacular views of the Sciora Range*** the closer you get to Soglio***, an attractive town with medieval narrow streets.
    • Lodging in Soglio***: Hotel La Soglina*** has a great view and large, modern, comfortable rooms.

Recommended Alps travel guidebooks from Amazon.com:

Search for latest “Alps travel books” on Amazon.com (look for updates every 1 to 3 years).

Bring a good country guide plus a detailed hiking guidebook:

2015: 2014: 2013:

2014: 2010: 2010: 2010:

8 thoughts on “SWITZERLAND and the ALPS hiking guide

  1. Curt Johnson says:

    Gorgeous photos, and lots of useful info — thanks! My wife and I are limited to day hikes, up to 6 miles or so, and up to, say 1200 (maybe 1500) feet or so of elevation change. My reading suggests that the Bernese Oberland area would be fine for us. Would the Chamonix area also work? If yes, how would you compare the two? Thank you, Curt

    • Tom Dempsey says:

      The Bernese Oberland is full of wonderful beauty and variety, a great place to hang out, with quite a few hikes up to 6 miles/1200 ft, especially if you take various lifts.
      Chamonix is truly spectacular but may not have as many easy hikes or alternative activities when weather clouds the trails. Happy travels!

  2. Frances says:

    I am interested in photographing fall foliage and lake reflection. I was told that Engadin Herbst is beautiful and also Dolomite. Would you recommend these places? When is the time for fall foliage in such places? Is it early, middle October or end September? What means of transportation is available for someone like myself who is interested in shooting fall foliage? Is renting a car a must? Are there any photo tours? Thank you for your sharing!

    • Tom Dempsey says:

      In Switzerland, colorful fall foliage (autumn/Herbst) begins its stunning beauty in late September through about the third week of October. Look for golden larch tree needles in early to mid October. Engadine has more glaciers and snow (around Pontresina and the Bernina Range), which I think enhances beauty of the landscape compared to the drier Dolomites. You can travel most everywhere in Switzerland by train and post buses, made economical with a special pass purchased first in your home country. Dolomites are better traveled in a private car, because buses are more limited. Photo tours can be found most everywhere, and local tourist offices can put you in touch.
      Check out my tour in Switzerland covering the Matterhorn and Eiger areas: Summer
      2013 June 29-July 6: Develop Your Photographic Genius with a Pro in the Alps.

      • Frances says:

        Dear Tom, thanks for your reply. I have checked out your 2013 photo tour and interested in possibly joining the tour next year. I also look forward to your tour for fall foliage some day.

        I am interested in seeing fall colors in Switzerland. Where would you recommend for the best fall foliage? Engadine? What is the difference between Engadine and other places such as Lauterbrunnen for fall photography? Is the first week of October a good time time?

        On your description of the 5 day tour for Engadine, would you recommend one renting a car to move around? I am carrying various camera gears and tripods and concerned the walking distance each day. Yet, will the train, buses and cable cars bring one close enough to the photo shooting spots? Or is extensive walking, trekking or via car necessary for photographing in the area?

        Would you recommend one staying at a place as a base and explore the Engadine area? Would Pontresina (youth hostel) be a good spot as the base for sun-rise and sun-sets spots and also taking day trips around the Engadine area? Or is Pontresina too hustle/bustle?

        Thank you for your advice.

      • Tom Dempsey says:

        Second week of October may be an approximate peak of a month of fall foliage colors in Switzerland (which varies by altitude, tree species, climate, etc). Anywhere you find extensive golden larch and colorful deciduous tree forests (such as Zermatt in Valais Canton) should look great. Searching on Google finds some great fall color images of Engadine, which is easily toured by train and Post Bus (with a Swiss Pass purchased first in your home country), which take you close to most trailheads, which are well marked. Staying at one place for 2 to 5 days lets you relax and see how the photo light plays over the course of a day and makes good light and good weather more likely, plus you don’t waste as much time shifting luggage and learning the ropes of a new area. Pontresina is a relaxed small village on the Bernina Express train line (the most spectacular train in Switzerland) centrally located for day trips via trains/lifts to the best of Engadine. If you book some lodging flexibly as you go, you may find a better place to stay higher in the mountains for sunrise/sunset, if 2-3 day weather forecast is sunny: look for lodging at the top of lifts and end of mountain roads in Switzerland!

        If you don’t mind the extra cost of car rental+gas, driving gives your photography a flexible freedom as the weather and light change each day (as I did in Norway in 2011). Aesthetically, getting out walking and hiking away from roads and trains gives you an athletic and artistic high with a more pristine connection to nature.

        For travel, I recommend minimizing photo gear as described on my BUY>CAMERAS menu, such as one high res camera with 11x zoom and tripod, plus pocket camera for macro and backup.

        For more specific recommendations of where to tour, contact my friend Greg Witt at info@alpenwild.com (who is guiding my 2013 June 29-July 6 Alps Photo Workshop). Greg spends all summer guiding people through Switzerland and offers an October 2013 “JRR Tolkien Tour”: http://www.alpenwild.com/trip?trips_id=29.

  3. blm says:

    Let me know about photo trips in these areas 2012 or 2013. This year I’m going to either engadine region or bernese oberland grindelwald. Which would you do.

    Thanks for great info…..

    • Tom Dempsey says:

      My vote for the best part of Switzerland is the Bernese Oberland: for beauty, relaxed setting, and variety of spectacular hikes with glacier views. You could easily spend at least 1-2 weeks hiking in the Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald area. In comparison, the Engadine region has colorful sgraffito art on historic buildings (as in characteristic Guarda village) and offers a scenic day hike from Morteratsch to Boval Hut. Also hike up Roseg Valley to Coaz Hut and over Surlej Pass to St Moritz, or hike round trip to Tschierva Hut (and let me know how it is as I haven’t yet walked Roseg Valley). Engadine has more of a Romansch and Italian flavor and feels a more like a ski resort for the rich in St Moritz area. Engadine adds refreshing variety to extend your experience of Switzerland. Regarding my trips open for public sign-up: We’re already past my summer 2012 workshop that was scheduled with AlpenWild.

      Please join me in summer 2013 (on the menu for BUY>CLASS SIGN-UP). Master your digital camera in a setting of breathtaking inspiration in the Bernese Oberland and Matterhorn areas! Short walks to areas of concentrated beauty make this 8-night Alps tour especially attractive for those with limited vacation time. With professional Alps guide Greg Witt leading our trip, my time is freed for teaching photographic skills to our cozy group of 5 to 10 participants. -Tom

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