SWITZERLAND and the ALPS hiking guide

The Alps of 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. Here are the Alps in a nutshell:

  1. Switzerland: Berner Oberland & neighboring Loetschental.
  2. Mont Blanc and the High Route: Trek the Haute Route from Chamonix’s Mont Blanc (France) to Zermatt’s Matterhorn (through Switzerland’s Valais/Wallis canton). Hike the Mont Blanc Circuit, or day hike from Chamonix and Courmayeur (Italy).
  3. Switzerland: more in Valais/Wallis canton: Fiesch (Eggishorn); Verbier (Lake Louvie)
  4. Switzerland: Engadine Valley: trekking advice and itinerary for 5+ days.
  5. Appenzell: trek for 1-5 days through a splendid microcosm of Swiss traditions.
  6. Schaffhausen canton: see attractive Schaffhausen’s old town, Rhine Falls and historic Stein am Rhein. 

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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In the above video captured at unforgettable Eigeralp farm in Bussalp above Grindelwald, the cheesemaker gave an impromptu accordion concert, inspiring some to dance.

Practical advice for self-guided trips in Switzerland and the Alps
  • Transportation:
    • In your home country before departure, buy a Swiss Pass for free travel on most Swiss rail lines and Post Buses (discounted for 2+ people traveling together, or age 60+, or under age 26) and discounts on most lifts. Various Flexi Pass options save money for public transportation on days of your choice everywhere in Switzerland.
      • For one-way hikes within Switzerland: Post your luggage ahead to train and Post stations, or have hotels send your bags ahead.
    • Renting a car can beat train prices for 3 or more people traveling together (though parking can be a problem in big cities).
  • Money: Switzerland costs are similar to resort areas of the USA. From 2005-2016, exchanging the US dollar for Swiss Francs has been better than for the Euro (used in France, Italy, and Austria).
    • Save on food: Pack a thermos bottle to fill at your hotel in the morning for hot drinks during the day, along with a sack lunch from the Coop or Migros grocery store. Restaurants are expensive. Finding a flat with kitchen was our favorite deal in the Dolomites.
  • Use hiking poles (as do Europeans) to assist ascents, protect your joints on descents and improve hiking stamina by 20%.
  • Time change: set your watch +9 hours from Pacific Standard Time (PST=west coast USA) to get Central European time (CEST is GMT+1). Allow a full day to recover from travel weariness and severe jet lag, plus 2 or 3 days to recover your sleep schedule.
  • Guidebooks: Buy a travel guidebook plus hiking guidebook at bottom of this article for planning and reference along the way.
Switzerland map 1: five-week hiking itinerary, August 2016
A geographic travel map of Switzerland shows a month itinerary starting from Zurich (doing 25 hikes in 35 days July 27-August 30) in Schaffhausen, Stein am Rhein, Appenzell, Berner Oberland, Valais canton (Fiesch, Verbier, Zermatt) and Engadine Valley, in Europe. (Tom Dempsey)

Map 1: A geographic travel map of Switzerland shows a 5-week itinerary starting from Zurich (doing 25 hikes in 35 days July 27-August 30, 2016) in Schaffhausen, Stein am Rhein, Appenzell, Berner Oberland, Valais canton (Fiesch, Verbier, Zermatt) and Engadine Valley. (Tom Dempsey)

Switzerland map 2: one-month hiking itinerary, September 2005
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)

Map 2: In 2005, Carol and Tom Dempsey hiked 20 days during a month in Switzerland, via Zurich, Berner Oberland, the High Route from Chamonix (France) to Zermatt, and Engadine Valley. (Tom Dempsey)

Weather and hiking season in the Alps (Switzerland, France, Austria, Italy)
  • July 1 through August 15 is high tourist season, after which local kids go back to school and parents don’t have as much time to visit the tourist areas, which are then less crowded. Our trip July 27-August 30, 2016 had almost perfect weather, vast variety of wildflowers, and little problem with crowds (lots of lodging options).
  • July to early August has the best wild flower displays. We were still impressed by flowers in September 2005.
  • Late August through September is a great time to go for good weather and also avoiding crowds. Yellow larch and other impressive fall colors begin in middle to late September. Many mountain huts start closing in early September. Stay in valley hotels all year. Hiking season continues through October in the Dolomites, Italy, which are consistently clearer, warmer and drier than the Alps of Switzerland, France & Austria, which are further north.
  • Swiss hiking season ends about late September or early October due to snow in the mountains and the closure of many visitor facilities. When winter snowpack builds up a few months later, the Alps throng with skiers, creating bigger winter crowds than summer in ski areas such as Zermatt, where building booms have provided lots of lodging.

Mountain weather varies by region:

  • A north wind generally means good weather in the Alps.
  • Check the useful weather forecast for specific ranges, peaks, and altitudes:
  • Check weather forecasts and start hiking early in the morning. In many mountain areas, sun heating the ground in the morning can often build up clouds and thunderstorms in the afternoon. Patient photographers can look for attractive cloud breaks in the hours around sunset.
  • Switzerland:
    • The Valais, Zermatt, and Matterhorn tend to be sunny and dry with the highest hikes in the country.
    • Bernese Oberland and the Eiger are much rainier than the Valais and Engadine. The astounding beauty of ice clad peaks soaring high above verdant green pastures sprinkled with wildflowers must be seen to be believed.
  • France: Chamonix climate is somewhere between Geneva and Zermatt, one of the drier alps areas in the rain shadow of Mont Blanc. September to early October is best hiking weather.
  • Dolomites, Italy (click for article): September through October are consistently clearer, warmer, drier in the Dolomites than in the Alps of Switzerland, France & Austria. Southern and southeastern areas are foggier than the rest of the Dolomites. Excellent overnight hut walking options include:
    • Rifugio Lagazuoi
    • Tre Cime di Lavaredo (in Italian), Drei Zinnen (in German), or “Three Pinnacles” (in English) circuit with refugios.
Global warming is quickly melting most Alps glaciers

1. Switzerland: Berner Oberland and neighboring Loetschental

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.

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UNESCO lists 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

See the external site: www.myswissalps.com/berneseoberland/ which thoroughly describes most Berner Oberland hikes, of which I’ve done these:

1a. Mannlichen Gipfel
  • is the wonderful site of my best-selling imageEiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau 81ALP-04-15.
  • Männlichen Royal Walk: Männlichen mountain (2343 meters elevation or 7687 feet) gives a stunning view of the peaks of Eiger (Ogre 13,026 feet), Mönch (Monk), and Jungfrau (Virgin 13,600 feet) with a foreground ridge enhancing the sense of scale. Männlichen can be reached from Wengen by the Luftseilbahn Wengen-Männlichen (LWM) cable car, or from Grindelwald using the Gondelbahn Grindelwald-Männlichen (GM) gondola. Then walk 15 minutes on a paved path to the summit. Go before 1:30PM to avoid frequent afternoon cloud buildup. Return down the hill, then traverse 2 leisurely hours to Kleine Scheidegg train station, facing stunning mountain views at every turn! A special cog train runs from Lauterbrunnen to Wengen to Kleine Scheidegg to Grindelwald and back.
1b. Lauterbrunnen Valley
  • Wander around Lauterbrunnen for amazing views, including 1000-foot-high Staubbach Falls, in one of the world’s most spectacular glaciated valleys.
  • Hike from Mürren (or Gimmelwald) up towards Birg and the Schilthorn as we did, and take the cable car back down for a very scenic day (or lift up and walk down).
    • Or walk Mürren to Griesalp one way 10 miles, 3000-4000 feet gain, then take the Kiental bus out. Optionally stay overnight in Griesalp and continue walking from Griesalp to Kandersteg.
  • On a rainy day, visit “Trummelbach Falls inside the mountain,” an underground slot canyon (entry fee).
  • We loved hiking to the quiet retreat of Berghotel Obersteinberg, which offers tremendous views of waterfalls and peaks in Upper Lauterbrunnen Valley, spotlit at sunset. Lit by candle light at night, this romantic escape built in the 1880s recalls an earlier era without power. The main luxuries here are flush toilets down the hall, and traditional Swiss hot meals. The private double rooms lack electricity, and bowls of water serve as bath and sink. Obersteinberg is a 2-hour walk from Stechelberg, or 4 hours from Mürren. From Obersteinberg, don’t miss the 2-3 hours round trip to the deep-blue tarn of Oberhornsee in the upper glacial basin, beneath snowcapped Grosshorn, Breithorn and Tschingelhorn.

Video from within the slot canyon of Trummelbach Falls, Lauterbrunnen:

1c. Grindelwald Valley
  • Faulhorn Trail from Schynige Platte to First is one of the finest hikes in Switzerland.
    • Walk 6.5 hours, 9 miles, ~2700 feet elevation gain. (Optionally reverse direction for less uphill, 2300 feet total, arriving at Schynige Platte by 17:00 or 18:00 to catch the last train.) A sunny uncloudy day is required to see vast mountain views. See hike #39 in “100 Hikes in the Alps” by The Mountaineers. Directions: Stage the hike from lodging in Grindelwald. Take Wilderswil cog rail 1 hour to trailhead at Schynige Platte (2068m). Hike by fantastic rock shapes in a deep valley. Walk on the east side of Bachalpsee. Ascend 15 minutes side trip to Faulhorn. Optionally overnight on top in atmospheric Berghotel Faulhorn for stunning sunset and sunrise views. Photographers should plan to reach spectacular First at the end the hike in the afternoon, because sun striking early morning haze obscures mountain details. At First (2168 meters elevation), lift down to Grindelwald, or from Mittelläger take the ~hourly Post bus.
    • Better yet, start at Eigeralp farm (optionally overnight, eigeralp.ch) in Bussalp (above Grindelwald) with a fresh farm breakfast, watch alpine cheese-making, then hike a shorter route to First gondola. Hike a very spectacular trail from Eigeralp farm in upper Bussalp, around Faulhorn to Bachalpsee, finishing at the gondola lift station at First, which descends to Grindelwald BGF. Every day, Eigeralp farm produces a variety of artisan cheeses and Alpine butter from raw milk in a large cauldron over an open fire. For breakfast, enjoy fresh bread from the oven, Alpine butter, various cheeses, yogurt, homemade jams, coffee, tea and fresh milk! While Eigeralp’s huts were built in 1892, its traditional cheese hut dates from the 1600s. While breakfasting, gaze over the peaks of Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau in astoundingly spectacular high meadows. Getting there: ride the private GrindelwaldBus.ch to the last stop in Bussalp, then ascend 40 minutes on foot.
  • Hike comfortably along a steep hillside from Pfingstegg gondola to eat tasty desserts at scenic Berghaus Bäregg (5 miles round trip, 1500 ft) across from the eastern foot of the Eiger, high above the White Lütschine river.
  • Walk boardwalks and tunnels through the dramatic Gletscherschlucht of Grindelwald, a deep gorge of the White Lütschine river, flowing from Lower Grindelwald Glacier. From Gletscherschlucht Hotel-Restaurant, a wooden walkway leads over raging water, through galleries and rocky tunnels over 1000 meters into the ravine, under 100-meter high cliffs. To test your fear of heights, totter across a blue net over the foaming torrent. Walk there in 35 minutes from the center of Grindelwald (recommended via the LandArt-Grindelwald.ch exhibit along the river), or take the bus.
1d. Rosenlaui valley and Meiringen
  • Hike from First gondola lift station above Grindelwald, across Grosse Sheidegg pass, then walk down the quiet, protected pastures of Rosenlaui valley beneath soaring peaks, to Rosenlaui PostBus station for a ride down to Meiringen. Meringue, the dessert made from whipped egg whites, was invented in Meiringen.
  • Along the way, explore a narrow walkway carved through Rosenlaui Glacier Gorge / Gletscherschlucht. In this deep ravine, the Weissenbach River has eroded potholes into a natural cathedral of slate and limestone.
  • Nearby, Grimselpass / Grimsel Pass has interesting bare granite geology colored by lichen, but the extensive system of hydro-electric dams built in the 1920s and 1950s dominates the scenery and the aging hotels didn’t look attractive. We considered but didn’t do the Sidelhorn hike: Starting at Postbus stop at Historic Alpine Hotel Grimsel Hospiz, take Sidelhorn aerial cable car to the foot of Sidelhorn mountain, an easy hike 1-3.5 hours with panoramic views of Grimsel area, Goms area, Bernese Alps, Rhone & Oberaar glaciers, rivers and 12+ alpine lakes (Lake Grimsel, deep blue Totensee at top of the pass and alpine tarns on southern flanks). Along the descent, see idyllic Triebtenseewli and Bäregg hut from where the panorama opens out onto the UNESCO World Heritage area. Return via Chessituren and the pass road to Grimsel Hospiz or along Oberaar road back to Grimsel pass. Or lift back down.
1e. Kandersteg

is a scenic base for several hikes, reached by train or road from Brig to the south or Spiez to the north.

  • Oeschinensee is a wonderful alpine lake walled with high cliffs, one of my favorite Swiss sights. To avoid crowds, start early and go midweek. From the top of Gondelbahn Kandersteg – Oeschinensee, walk 15 minutes to reach the lake. Follow the lakeside trail then complete a counterclockwise loop via Ober Bergli back to the lift (5.2 miles with 1395 feet gain) via the higher, more-spectacular ledge trail. Overnight options: On a one-way traverse, we took the higher trail for the best lake views then climbed steeply over Hohtürli Pass (where you could sleep in dorms at Blüemlisalp hut), then down to comfy Griesalp Hotels where we rested in the remote valley of Kiental (1120 meters up and 1380 m down in 13.3 km). Although stairs and ladders helped handle the exposure, the route felt much longer than 8 miles due to steep, exposed rocky & gravelly slopes for a grueling 3700 feet up and 4500 feet down. We rode the Postbus (steepest in Europe) out of Kiental instead of hiking over Sefinenfurke pass to Lauterbrunnen Valley (which saved our weary bodies from climbing another 4000 feet in the same scenery that we had just descended).
  • Walk through the deeply glaciated U-shaped valley of Gasterntal (or Gasteretal / Gasterental) to explore the idyllic headwaters of the Kander River. A family-friendly 7 km walk (390 m gain) wanders up to Selden, starting from the bus stop for Luftseilbahn Kandersteg-Sunnbüel (a lift to the scenic Gemmipass hike, for next time). From Selden, take the PostBus back (reservations required) to Kandersteg Hauptbahnhof (train station). Or stay in quiet Selden at Hotel Gasterntal or Hotel Steinbock. The next day offers an epic traverse of a rapidly-melting glacier (where hiking poles help you to cross the snowfield and to hop rocks):
  • The next day from Selden, we enjoyed an adventurous traverse across Lötsch glacier and Lötschen Pass (German: Lötschenpass, Swiss German: Lötschepass) to neighboring Lötschental in Valais canton. The walk starts with a reserved Postbus ride from Kandersteg to Selden, climbs 1350 meters, descends 925 m, and ends 13 km later at Lauchernalp lift station, which descends to Wiler in Lötschental, to reach Goppenstein via Postbus, back to Kandersteg via train. You can also reverse the route or stay overnight in dorms at Lötschepass hut.
1f. Lötschental / Loetschental

is a lesser-visited valley in Valais Canton (over Lötschen Pass, just south of Kandersteg):

  • Stay in attractive Blatten. Enjoy a 3-mile walk one way up valley to Kuhmad Chapel (built 1758), past historic wood hayloft buildings and restored wooden chalets. Catch bus at Fafleralp and return to Blatten.
  • For best views of Loetschental and the sharp ridge of the Bietschorn, from Fafleralp, hike to Krindellücke (5 miles round trip, 2.5 hours, 1542 feet gain). See Hike #30 in “100 Hikes in the Alps.”

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

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2a. Mountain excursions in Chamonix, France
  • Lac Blanc: Hike 4 miles, with 2300 feet vertical gain one way from atop La Flégère cable car, to finish at Index lift (Google maps). Behold the stunning Mont Blanc Massif across the valley. (La Flégère cable car ascends from Les Praz de Chamonix, one train stop from Chamonix or 10 minutes by bus.) End by walking 1 hour to Index lift down. Optionally stay overnight at Refuge du Lac Blanc for sunset and sunrise reflection of the spectacular rock needles rising above Chamonix Valley. Lifts and weather may allow hiking from about June 1 to Nov 1. See hike #12 in “100 Hikes in the Alps.” Or try a less-crowded version that keeps amazing Mont Blanc looming in front of you: start with the earliest bus to Col des Montets, where you walk southwest gaining 3000 feet to Lac Blanc, then finish at Index lift down to La Flégère cable car which descends to Les Praz. (Doing the High Route eastwards, we descended from Lac Blanc 3700 feet in 3.4 miles to Argentiere (or 5.3 miles total from La Flégère).
  • Lacs Noirs and Cornu, 5.5 miles, 2000 feet: Take Le Brévent télécabine (gondola lift, 20 minutes). Optionally combine with the above Lac Blanc hike. See hike #13 in “100 Hikes in the Alps.”
  • Aiguille du Midi: Don’t miss the Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi cable car from Chamonix (France) to a spectacular shoulder of the Mont Blanc Massif.
    • Take the world’s highest vertical ascent cable car, from 1035 meters to 3842 m (12,605 feet elevation) for an unforgettable, must-do experience.
    • If weather is good on top of Aiguille du Midi, board the Vallee Blanche Aerial Tramway (Funivia dei Ghiacciai, or Télécabine Panoramic Mont-Blanc) to Pointe Helbronner.
    • Optionally take the cable car (Funivie Monte Bianco) from Helbronner Point to Refuge Torino to La Palud near Courmayeur, in the Aosta Valley, Italy.
      • Walk a short distance on snow from Refuge Torino station to Col du Géant for stunning mountain views.
    • In good weather, take the lifts round trip. Or bus from La Palud or Courmayeur through the Mont Blanc Tunnel back to Chamonix.
2b. Hut to hut walking on the High Route
  • The 112-mile Haute Route (High Route) from Chamonix-Mont-Blanc (France) to Zermatt (Switzerland) offers Old World charm and dramatic scenery from Mont Blanc to the Matterhorn. The whole trek takes two weeks.
  • The first three days of the Haute Route grandly introduce the Alps:
    • Day 1 (2-5 hours hiking): Start with Lac Blanc (as above) and stay in the a hut for panoramic views, with sunset and sunrise reflections of the spectacular rock needles rising above Chamonix Valley.
    • Day 2 (5-7 hours): Look for ibex (wild goats) on the way to Col de Balme, the first of 11 high passes on the Haute Route. End the day at Refuge du Peuty.
    • Day 3 (5-7 hours): After a rocky climb to Fênetre d’Arpette, with views of the Glacier du Trient, descend through meadows to the bus at Champex (or keep walking onwards to Zermatt to complete the Haute Route).
  • My High Route photographs continue as follows, with help from lifts and buses letting us hike high in the alps, then sleep low in valley hotels:
    • In 2016, we hiked scenic Lac Louvie (see further below), well worthwhile.
    • In 2005, we continued from Haute Route Day 3 above with public transit from Champex to Arolla, in the municipality of Evolène, in Val d’Hérens. Hiking upwards from Arolla past herding sheds in Alp Pra Gra, we saw the peaks of Les Dents des Veisivi reflected in a tarn. You can optionally stay in dormitories in mountain refuge Cabane des Aiguilles Rouges overlooking Aiguilles de la Tsa and Mont Collon (3637 meters / 11,932 feet) at the head of Val d’Hérens. But we stayed comfortably in a private ensuite double room down in Hotel du Pigne d’Arolla.
    • From Arolla in Val d’Hérens, we crossed Col du Torrent, seeing Dent Blanche (“White Tooth” 14,291 feet / 4356 m) in the Pennine Alps, descending to the turquoise reservoir of Lake Moiry. Fireweed bloomed pink along the trail. Overnight in ritzy Hotel Bella Tolla in the French village of Saint Luc.
    • We walked eastwards from St. Luc, rode up the Tignousa funicular, then walked up 2500 feet to Meidpass, then descended 3400 feet to the German village of Gruben, for a total hike of 9 miles. Meidpass is boundary between French and German cultural areas in Valais/Wallis canton.
    • In Gruben the next day, snow in the passes caused us to take public transit to reach Zermatt instead of hiking, to complete our High Route.
  • Lodging options:
    • Huts/refuges cost $25 to $80 per night per person with meals (2005). Photographs can capture more spectacular sunrise/sunset light up in huts than from hotels down in valleys. Hut info: ohm-chamonix.com and Swiss Alpine Club.
    • Valley hotels: Take lifts, hike high, and sleep low in comfortable hotels or hostels nestled in each valley. We loved a 10-day self-guided “Hiker’s Haute Route” luxury package from Ryder-Walker Alpine Adventures.
2c. Mont Blanc Circuit (Tour du Mont Blanc)
  • is one of the great treks of the world, very spectacular and more crowded than the Haute Route. Hike hut to hut, from France to Italy to Switzerland, all on foot in about 8-10 days around the Mont Blanc Massif (or Monte Bianco in Italian).
  • Or day hike the highlights from hotels based in Chamonix, France (above) and Courmayeur, Italy (below).
2d. Hikes and lifts in Courmayeur, Italy
  • Mont Blanc in French is called Monte Bianco in Italian.
  • Courmayeur, Italy, is a short bus or car ride from Chamonix through the convenient Mont Blanc Tunnel.
  • In clear weather, don’t miss the cable car from La Palud (via Refuge Torino) to Pointe Helbronner, then lift to Aiguille du Midi. Optionally take cable car down to Chamonix.
    • Hike Col du Géant: Near entry to Mont Blanc Tunnel, take La Palud cable car to Refuge Torino (3375 meters elevation). Optionally stay overnight in Refuge Torino (250 beds, reserved 1 week ahead with Italian Alpine Club, CAI) to experience a magical sunset and sunrise. Walk a short distance on snow from Refuge Torino to Col du Géant, a stunning mountain view. See over Vallée Blanche from the Brenva Face of Mont Blanc and over the Aiguilles to Géant.
  • Monte Bianco View: 8 miles one way, about 4.5 hours. From Courmayeur take the Val Veni bus westwards to end of pavement at 1955m, hike back via Col Chécrouit. Optionally take cable car from or to Col Chécrouit. Hike to Lac Chécrouit for a picturesque reflection. See a stunning view of mountain savagery (Aiguile Noir) from a spur of Mount Favre. Eat a festive lunch at La Maison Vieille on the mountain near the cable car. See hike #23 in “100 Hikes in the Alps.”
  • Hike northeast of Courmayeur:
    • Montagne de la Sax ridge: ~9 miles, ~4000 feet gain one way Courmayeur to Lavachey, sleep there or bus back. Hike high above Val Ferret through larch forest to some of the widest and grandest panoramas of the Mont Blanc Circuit. See back up Val Veni to Col de la Seigne and whole Mont Blanc Massif. Closer rocky peaks form an impressive wall: Géant, Grandes Jorasses, Leschaux, Triolet, and Mont Dolent.
    • Grand Col du Ferret: Drive car 6 miles or bus 10 miles, and hike steeply up ~2700 feet gain. Or hike into Swiss Val Ferret, and bus/train back to Courmayeur via Martigny, or continue hiking around the popular Mont Blanc Circuit.
    • See hike #24 in “100 Hikes in the Alps.”
2e. Hikes in Zermatt, in the Pennine Alps, Switzerland
  • How to get there: The famous mountaineering and ski resort of Zermatt lies at 1620 meters (5310 feet) elevation at the head of Mattertal (Matter Valley) in the Pennine Alps, Valais canton, Switzerland. Most visitors reach Zermatt by cog railway train from the nearby town of Täsch (Zermatt shuttle). Trains also depart for Zermatt from farther down the valley at Visp and Brig on the main Swiss rail network. Small electric taxis serve Zermatt, which bars combustion-engine cars to help preserve small village atmosphere and prevent air pollution.
  • Gornergrat is spectacular cog train terminus located at 10,134 feet / 3130m elevation. The Gornergrat is the first point on a ridge that runs out to Hohtälligrat (3286m) and Stockhorn (3407m amidst a sea of ice) all linked by cable car from Gornergrat.
    • The Gornergrat cog wheel train ride takes 47 minutes from Zermatt station. 25% discount for holders of the Swiss Pass. Take the special dawn train for great a sunrise lighting up the Matterhorn. Leaving Zermatt, the earliest departures are 07:10, 08:00, 08:24… and the last departure is 19:12 as of 2005.
    • Sit on right-hand side of Gornergrat cog train for magical Matterhorn vistas. Hike up or down any portion:
      1. Take the cog rail to the Rotenboden stop, then hike east to Gornergrat 1000feet / 300m up in 1 hour, in 2.1 miles / 3.5 kilometers.
      2. A short walk on foot will reveal a sunrise reflection of the Matterhorn in Riffelsee and other tarns (ponds). Hike back via Gagihaupt peak (2568m).
      3. Hiking one way from Gornergrat down to Zermatt is 7.5 miles, down 5060 feet/1535meters, down in about 4 hours.
      4. Overnight option: Riffelberg Hotel (a stop of Gornergrat cog train) sits on spectacular exposed platform above the valley. Dorm beds 75 Swiss Francs per person with half board (dinner & breakfast, 2005); open until mid-October.
    • See hike #33 in “100 Hikes in the Alps.”
  • Höhbalmen offers great views of the Matterhorn from high pastures uncluttered by ski lifts. We hiked this 13.4-mile loop (21.6 km) via Bergrestaurant Edelweiss, Trift Hut, Hohenweg trail, and the interesting Zmutt Valley, with a punishing 4000 feet cumulative gain and loss. I was delighted by the route, except Carol’s feet hurt badly on the final stretch.
  • Stellisee & Fluhalp: the popular Five Lakes Trail (5-Seenweg) starts from Sunnegga Express funicular (a fast 7-minute underground train on east side of Visp River in Zermatt halfway between cemetery and Gornergrat cog rail).
    • Although especially nice for families, the 5 Seenweg (7 miles with 1800 ft gain circling up to Fluhalp) is blemished with ski slope infrastructure throughout (dusty roads, power lines, lifts, snow-making sprinklers, 5 dammed artificial lakes, etc). In compensation are the venerable wood buildings in upper Findeln, the beautiful reflecting lakes of Grindjisee and Stellisee, and majestic views of the Matterhorn.
    • Directions: Exiting atop Sunnegga, follow 5-Seenweg Trail past Leisee pond and switchback down 60 meters to upper Findeln (Findelen) village to admire authentic Walser houses, barns, and stores built of larch timber blackened by the sun. [The Walser people are named after Wallis (Valais, the uppermost Rhône valley), where they settled from the 900s in the late phase of the migration of the Alamanni (confederation of Germanic tribes) crossing from the Bernese Oberland.] Among the five lakes, the dammed Mosjesee and Grüensee (halfway dried up in August) were least attractive and can be skipped by returning to Sunnegga and taking the lift to Blauherd for quickest access to Stellisee:
    • Scenic Stellisee is a 30-minute walk up from Blauherd lift station. Stellisee best reflects the Matterhorn during the glow of sunrise, which you can see after an overnight stay at Bergrestaurant Fluhalp (half board meals, coin showers, private rooms & dormitory; 40 minutes walk up from Blauherd lift, or 1.5 hours hike up from Sunnegga). Views around the Sunnegga-Blauherd-Rothorn lifts may be prettiest when covered in snow during ski season.
  • Gorner Gorge (Gornerschlucht) is a pleasant outing if you have extra time, such as on a rainy day.

3. Switzerland: more in Valais/Wallis canton

3a. Fiesch: Eggishorn lift (in Valais Canton)

offers stunning views via cable car viewpoints and ridge walks above the Aletsch Glacier, biggest in Europe:

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In clear weather, don’t miss the amazing cable car ride from Fiesch to Eggishorn (2893 meters) to see the magnificent Grosser Aletsch Glacier (Großer Aletschgletscher) which flows from Jungfrau. Starting our ridge walk from the Eggishorn cable car’s mid station Fiesheralp unnecessarily added 1100-foot elevation gain. Instead, start from Betten train station, lift to Bettmeralp, then lift to Bettmerhorn, where you walk 5 miles almost entirely downhill along the spectacular ridge to Hohbalm, Moosfluh, Hohfluh, fancy Berghotel Riederfurka and Riederalp, where a cable car goes down to Morel, where a train goes back to Fiesch, or down valley to Brig. (Fiesch is 2.5 hours by train from Kandersteg.)

3b. Verbier: Lake Louvie

Nearby Martigny is a handy base for hiking scenic Lake Louvie, starting with gondola lifts in Verbier resort area:

The peaks of Grand Combin (4314 metres / 14,154 feet on left), Combin de Corbassière (center), and Petit Combin (right) rise above Cabane de Louvie hut on Lake Louvie in the Pennine/Valais Alps, Switzerland, Europe. Optionally stay overnight in dorms at Cabane de Louvie. The dramatic Chamois Path (Sentier des Chamois) starts at La Chaux ski lift and ends at Fionnay PostBus. Cross Col Termin (2648m/8688 ft) in Haut Val de Bagnes nature reserve and descend to Lake Louvie via 1800s stone barns to the north, then to Fionnay (640 m up, 1415 m down in 8.5 hours). (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

The peaks of Grand Combin (4314 metres / 14,154 feet on left), Combin de Corbassière (center), and Petit Combin (right) rise above Cabane de Louvie hut on Lake Louvie in the Pennine/Valais Alps, Switzerland. Optionally stay overnight in dorms at Cabane de Louvie. The dramatic Chamois Path (Sentier des Chamois) starts at La Chaux ski lift and ends at Fionnay PostBus. Cross Col Termin (2648m/8688 ft) in Haut Val de Bagnes nature reserve and descend to Lake Louvie via 1800s stone barns to the north, then to Fionnay (640 m up, 1415 m down in 8.5 hours). 

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

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The Swiss valley of Engadine translates as the “garden of the En (or Inn) River” (Engadin in German, Engiadina in Romansh, Engadina in Italian), and is part of the Danube basin. Don’t miss hikes near 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: Ride the Bernina-Diavolezza cable car for spectacular views of the Bernina Range. If not afraid of heights at Diavolezza, don’t miss the short, scenic, rocky hike to Munt Pers*** which gains 265 meters over 2 km one way.
  6. *** Day 6: Hike from comfy 1881 SportHotel Pontresina*** up idyllic Roseg Valley** to Fuorcla Surlej**** for stunning views of Piz Bernina and Piz Roseg, finishing at Corvatsch Mittelstation Murtel cable car. Walking 14 km, we went up 1100 meters and down 150 m. Then take the cable car upwards to Corvatsch top station to see the impressive view, before lifting downwards to Murtel and Lake Silvaplana to catch the PostBus. Optionally shorten the day to an easy out-and-back hike of just 4 kilometers via round trip lift from Murtel.
  7. *** Day 7: 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.

5. Appenzell

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Appenzell offers wonderful trekking for 1-5 days in picture-perfect Swiss scenery, supported by lifts and cozy private double mountain hotels! Appenzell Innerrhoden is Switzerland’s most traditional and smallest-population canton (second smallest by area). The Appenzell Alps rise in northeast Switzerland between Lake Walen and Lake Constance.

Appenzell: a perfect trek of 2-4 days

  1. Our great walking trek (with Alpenwild.com tours) started with a 10-minute bus ride from quaint Appenzell village to Brülisau, where a cable car whisks up to Hoher Kasten (1795 m/5876 ft) mountain in the Alpstein limestone range of the Appenzell Alps. A spectacular ridge walk above the Rhine Valley reaches Berggasthaus Bollenwees, founded in 1903 at scenic Fälensee lake, a wonderful place to stay overnight in private double ensuite (or dormitory rooms). If you choose to ascend Hoher Kasten summit (1794 m) on foot instead of taking the lift, optionally stay overnight midway at Berggasthaus Staubern. Via cable car, Hoher Kasten ridge can also be done as a long day hike.
  2. The next day, admire sunrise on Fälensee lake. Cross Bötzel pass (in sight of Santis peak, our goal for day 3). Descend to Berggasthaus Meglisalp, which can only be reached on foot in the spectacular heart of the Alpstein range. This authentic mountain hostelry, owned by the same family for five generations, dates from 1897. Meglisalp is a working dairy farm, restaurant and guest house surrounded by majestic peaks (Altmann peak 2435m) rising above green pastures.
  3. From Meglisalp, a long ascent reaches Berggasthaus Rotsteinpass (2120 m) for lunch at a remote restaurant. Everyone was excited to see a large family of ibex crossing rocky & snowy slopes above. Weaving through limestone outcroppings, we ascended the stunning Lisengrat, a sinuous chain-protected trail to the summit of Säntis, one of the most exciting trails in the Alps. The rocky route is safely assisted by chains, but can be scary for those with fear of heights. Shared by three cantons, Säntis can be reached easily via cable car or with effort via trails, to see vast mountain views across six countries: Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, France and Italy. Säntis makes a great day trip, dining experience, or overnighter including fun walking the Lisengrat. When starting at Säntis (2502 m / 8218 feet elevation), the full Lisengrat ridge route goes down to Rotsteinpass then up to Altmann (2435 m / 7989 ft), connecting the two highest peaks in the Alpstein.
  4. In good morning weather atop Säntis, continue walking to scenic EbenalpBerggasthaus Aescher, and Wildkirchli cave, then descend to Wasserauen via cable car to catch the bus. (On Day 4 we escaped rain with a quick cable car descent from Säntis back to Appenzell via bus.)

6. Schaffhausen canton

is worth an excursion from Zurich or staying overnight a few days exploring the impressive Munot castle reflecting in the Rhine River at night, Schaffhausen’s old town, and nearby Rhine Falls:

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If you have extra days near Zurich or Schaffhausen, don’t miss the photogenic fresco-covered village of Stein am Rhein and historic St. George’s Abbey:

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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:

ITALY: Venice, Dolomites 2013, 2011

Romantic Venice and the scenic Dolomites mountains together make a perfect trip of a week or more in Europe! Teaching a photo workshop in 2011 helped me plan our exciting 2013 trip full of classic day hikes in the glorious Dolomites of Italy, with 4 nights in romantic Venice plus a varied loop through Slovenia and Croatia. At bottom, see our recommended 30-day Itinerary: “Self-guided Dolomites driving & hiking tour.

Tom photographed the Italy galleries below in summer 2013 and while teaching his Alps Photo Workshop in 2011.

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For trip planning, study our suggested Itinerary (at bottom) and use the following wonderful hiking guidebook (the basis for our trip):

Venice

Venice Marco Polo airport (VCE) gives quick access to historic Venice Lagoon (just 40 minutes by bus) and the striking Dolomites Mountains (2.5 hours by car).

Ryanair Airlines: Once you learn its many rules and add-on fees, Ryanair’s inexpensive flights efficiently connect Venice to suburban airports in many European cities. Oddly, Ryanair.com web site rejected my USA credit card address, requiring booking by phone, where their customer service phone fees per minute almost totally ate up my cost savings versus competitors. Beware! Carefully weigh your bag to fit within 15 kilograms, or else pay significantly more for 20 kg luggage limit (as I did). But in the end, I enjoyed the conveniently direct Ryanair flight from Venice to Oslo Rygge Airport, Norway.

Venice gallery 1: St Mark’s Square, Rialto, gondolas, canals, architecture

Explore Saint Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco, including the Piazzetta which extends to the Venice Lagoon) and Saint Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace of the Republic of Venice, Rialto Bridge, Redentore Festival July 2011 pontoon bridge and fireworks, fish & produce markets, gondolas, canals, flowers, and architecture.

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Venice gallery 2: Murano, Burano, and Torcello islands

In 1291 AD, to avoid risk of fire, all Venice glassmakers were forced to move to Murano island, which has become a world renowned center for glass making and lampworking (modern torchworking). Take the vaporetto (public boat) 40 minutes further to colorfully painted houses in the quiet village of Burano, my favorite photo spot in the Venice Lagoon.

Then a short ferry hop takes you to historic Torcello island, where the Church of Santa Fosca and Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta date from the 1000s AD. Italy’s Veneto region is named for the ancient Veneti people from the 900s BC. Barbarian invasions, such as Huns in 452 AD, drove mainland Veniti people to settle some of the more than 100 small islands that spread across the marshy Venetian Lagoon (along the Adriatic Sea). The population of Torcello actually peaked in the 900s AD with more people than the city of Venice. The Republic of Venice was a major maritime power during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, a staging area for the Crusades, and a major center of art and commerce (silk, grain and spice trade) from the 1200s to 1600s. The wealthy legacy of Venice stands today in a rich architecture combining Gothic, Byzantine, and Arab styles.

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Global warming: sea level is rising on Venice

Built on a sinking marsh, Venice floods often due to tides and weather. On one island, a Roman walkway is now 5 feet below sea level. Industrial pumping of groundwater (now banned) unfortunately sank Venice by 10 centimeters from 1920-1970. But global warming now raises sea level by 1.3 inches (3.2 centimeters) per decade, much faster than the marsh sediments are compacting downwards. See for yourself as the ocean rises on historic structures of Venice. Global warming is quickly melting most Alps glaciers:

Brenta Dolomites and Venice locater map, Italy, Europe (from Google Earth). (Tom Dempsey)

Above map of northern Italy: When visiting Venice, don’t miss the nearby Dolomites − both are impressive UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Our driving route shown in purple connects all major Dolomites Groups, including the separate Brenta Group marked with red arrow.

Dolomites geology, weather, and history

200-265 million years ago, Permian-Triassic coral reefs became deeply buried by marine sediments and gradually fossilized into Dolomite rock. During the Tertiary (between 60 and 5 million years ago), collision between African and European continents deformed the earth’s crust to lift the Dolomites along with the Southern Limestone Alps.

World War I divided the Euroregion of “Tyrol-South Tyrol-Trentino”; now Italy and Austria share this semi-autonomous, culturally-independent area. The Dolomiti range is shared by the Veneto region and Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol (South Tyrol) region of Italy. These spiky peaks rise impressively from blocky groups rising above fertile green pastures interspersed with manicured resort villages.

Dolomites mountain weather forecast for specific peaks: www.mountain-forecast.com/subranges/dolomites-1/locations

Dolomites galleries

Dolomites Groups map, Italy, Europe (from Google Earth). Mapped Dolomites Groups include: Brenta, Rosengarten/Catinaccio, Langkofel/Sassolungo, Geisler/Odle, Sella, Marmolada, Monte Civetta, Monte Pelmo, Pale di San Martino/Pala Group, Ampezzo, Braies/Prags, Sesto. (Tom Dempsey)

Above: Dolomites Groups map: A cluster of knife-shaped peaks served with ski resort lifts makes the Dolomiti range a perfect playground for summer hikers, climbers, and bicyclists. Our driving route is shown in purple.

Dolomites gallery 1: Cortina d’Ampezzo and the Sesto Group

The mountain ski resort of Cortina d’Ampezzo (Ladin: Anpëz, German: Hayden, at 1224 meters/4016 feet elevation, at the top of Valle del Boite) makes a central home base to visit much of the Dolomites. Arriving in the pricey peak season of early August, we settled on the Hotel Olimpia (on its quieter north side) in Cortina for 3 nights, after finding that local apartments require 1-week minimum stay. From Cortina, take the spectacular lift to Tofana di Mezzo, third highest peak in the Dolomites. Another lift to Forcella Staunies on Monte Cristallo gives unforgettable views over Parco Naturale delle Dolomiti d’Ampezzo and beyond. Day trips by car take you to some classic hikes with optional overnight stays at the many rifugios (mountain hotels, lodges, or huts). From atop the Rifugio Auronzo toll road, walk the spectacular loop around Tre Cime di Lavaredo (“Three Peaks of Lavaredo,” also called Drei Zinnen or “Three Merlons” in German), with unforgettable views of spiky Cadini di Misurina. In the area, stop at scenic Lake Misurina, Lake Antorno, Lake Dobbiaco/Toblacher SeeLandro Lake/Dürrensee, and Lake Santa Caterina. Walk historic World War I trails and bunkers around Cinque Torri in the Dolomiti Ampezzane. Hike or drive onwards to scenic Passo di Giau which offers excellent hiking in several directions. Stay overnight and see sunset/sunrise. Book a hut to hut hiking trip to better experience sunset/sunrise mountain photography and escape urban life.

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Dolomites gallery 2: Corvara in Badia, Val Gardena, Val di Funes, Puez-Geisler (Odle) Park, Castelrotto

Corvara in Badia is a mostly Ladin-speaking a mountain ski resort town in the Dolomites. Don’t worry, you can usually find an English speaker. Explore nearby Val di Funes (Villnöß valley) with its onion-domed Church of St. Johann in Ranui and stunning peaks of the Geisler/Odle Group. See the Alps town of Kastelruth (or Castelrotto) near Alpe di Siusi (or Seiser Alm, the largest high altitude Alpine meadow in Europe).

The beautiful ski resort of Selva di Val Gardena (German: Wolkenstein in Gröden; Ladin: Sëlva Gherdëine) makes a great hiking base. For our favorite hike in the Dolomites, start from Selva with the first morning bus to Ortisei, take the Seceda lift, admire great views up at the cross on the edge of Val di Funes/Villnöss, then walk 12 miles (2000 feet up, 5000 feet down) via the steep pass Furcela Forces De Sieles (Forcella Forces de Sielles) to beautiful Vallunga (trail #2 to 16), finishing where you started in Selva. The hike traverses the Geisler/Odle and Puez Groups from verdant pastures to alpine wonders, all preserved in a vast Nature Park: Parco Naturale Puez-Odle (German: Naturpark Puez-Geisler; Ladin: Parch Natural Pöz-Odles), including the deeply glaciated U-shaped valley of Vallunga (Langental).

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In Italy’s province of Alto Adige/Südtirol/South Tyrol, 64% speak German as mother tongue, 25% speak Italian, and 4% speak native Ladin (from Vulgar Latin) as of 2001.

Dolomites gallery 3: Brenta Group

The Brenta Group (Italian: Dolomiti di Brenta) is an impressive subrange of the Rhaetian Alps in the Southern Limestone Alps. Because geologically they are the only dolomitic group west of river Adige, they are sometimes called the Western Dolomites. From the ski resort of Madonna di Campiglio in South Tyrol, Italy, the Passo Groste lift takes you directly into the Brenta Dolomites to enjoy scenic mountain hiking trails.

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Dolomites gallery 4: Marmolada, Passo Pordoi, Sella Group, Bindelweg/Viel del Pan

Many spectacular hikes surround Passo Pordoi (or Pordoijoch, the highest paved pass road in Dolomites), at the top of Val di Fassa, on the border between the Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol (South Tyrol) region and the Veneto region of Italy. We enjoyed a wonderful apartment at Hotel Gonzaga, where a pond reflects Langkofel/Sassolungo Group. On the Padon chain, hike the wondrous Bindelweg/Viel del Pan trail, directly across from glacier-clad Marmolada (3343 meters/10,968 feet, highest of the Dolomites). Lake Fedaia reflects peaks nicely. A lift to Sass Pordoi on the Sella Group gives another great perspective. From Malga Ciapela village, take my favorite Dolomites lift: to the top of Marmolada above the biggest (and only skiable) glacier in the Dolomiti. At the middle lift station, a World War I history museum describes the amazing City of Ice (Die Eisstadt, 1917), where Austrian soldiers inside the Marmolada Glacier built quarters in tunnels extending 12 kilometers.

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Dolomites gallery 5: Rosengarten/Catinaccio Group, Bolzano

The Rosengarten/Catinaccio Group is yet another impressive mountain massif in the Dolomitesl. Nearby, see a great reconstruction of the 5000-year-old Iceman (Ötzi) plus his actual mummy in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology near Walther Square in Bolzano. From Pera di Fassa village (in Pozza di Fassa comune) in Val di Fassa, we took a bus to visit Rifugio Gardeccia Hutte (also accessible by lift plus 45 minute walk) and to hike in the Rosengarten/Catinaccio Group.

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Dolomites gallery 6: Pala Group/Pale di San Martino

Among the most striking of the Dolomites is the Pala Group (Italian: Pale di San Martino, Dolomiti delle Pale, or Gruppo delle Pale). Rising majestically above Passo Rolle, the sharp pyramid of Cimon della Pala (or Cimone, 3184 m/10,446 ft) is known as the Matterhorn of the Dolomites (il Cervino delle Dolomiti). Visit the mountain resort of San Martino di Castrozza, in Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol (South Tyrol) region of Italy.

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Dolomites gallery 7: Monte Civetta, Monte Pelmo, Alleghe Village

Monte Civetta (3220 meters or 10,564 feet) rises high above hiker trails accessible via lift from Alleghe resort village, in the Dolomites, Belluno province, Veneto region of Italy. Admire or hike around Monte Pelmo (3169 meters or 10,397 feet) to the northeast. Monte Cernera rises above Santa Fosca/Pescul village on the way to Monte Pelmo along a scenic back road, Strada Statale 251.

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Itinerary: classic Venice & Dolomites of Italy, plus Slovenia & Croatia

We suggest 1-3 weeks of day-hiking in the Dolomites (using valley accommodation or mountain refuges) starting from Venice, optionally looping into Slovenia and Croatia. We heartily recommend the following bible of wonderful Dolomites hikes, the basis for our 2013 trip (referred to as SWD Hike# in our itinerary below):

Pre-booking a hut-to-hut hiking package in the mountains lets you escape urban life and experience beautiful photographic sunsets/sunrises, with no worries for day after day. Or, rent a car like us and stay spontaneously in comfortable valley apartments, where kitchens saved money and freed us from hotel meal schedules:

Self-guided Dolomites driving & hiking tour

Driving stress was greatly reduced by pre-programming our Garmin Nuvi 2595LMT GPS (installed with City Navigator Europe NT) to speak turn by turn directions to hotels and hikes marked on its 5-inch map using Garmin BaseCamp. Drivers should be alert for constantly aggressive tailgaters and motorcycles passing on blind curves, which is standard practice in Italy.

Arriving in a new town by morning or mid day usually let us find good lodging, often with the help of the local valley tourist office (which often don’t cover adjacent valleys). In peak season, reduce your worries by booking at least one night ahead in popular areas such as Cortina, CorvaraVal di Funes/Villnöß, and Innichen/San Candido. Nice three-star-rated hotel rooms with half board (dinner + breakfast; with breakfasts usually after 7:30, dinners after 19:30) deliciously tempted us to overeat, but often didn’t jive with our hunger times or prime hours for photography. In comparison to mountain refuges, the valley hotels or apartments (our favorite) offer better meals and cheaper rooms per person with much more privacy, especially for a couple/Double. Plan to finish hikes by about 15:00, as afternoon thundershowers are common in July.

Itinerary key:  ***Amazing/must see.  **High priority.  *Do it if time allows.

  1. July 12, 2013 Fri: Fly Seattle late afternoon overnight to Amsterdam.
  2. July 13 Sat: Arrive in Venice late afternoon. Venice night 1 of 4. We enjoyed **Antica Raffineria, a clean, quiet hotel with air conditioning (crucial in summer), one of the best values in Cannaregio sestiere. Relax while you overcome jet lag.
  3. July 14 Sun: Venice night 2 of 4, Antica Raffineria.
  4. July 15 Mon: Venice night 3 of 4, Antica Raffineria.
  5. July 16 Tues: Venice night 4 of 4, Antica Raffineria.
  6. July 17 Wed: Venice car rental > drive 4 hours > ***Brenta Dolomites: Rifugio Tucket and Rifugio Brentei are perfect destinations for day hiking or sleeping overnight. SWD Hike #49. If you stay in Madonna di Campiglio, **Hotel Italo offers friendly staff and good meals.
  7. July 18 Thu: Hike out. Flexible/rain day. Drive 1.7 hrs > Bolzano: see the *Iceman (Ötzi) and  *Castelo Roncolo/Runkelstein Castel.  
  8. July 19 Fri: Drive 45min > **Karersee/L.Carezza, **hike 0-5+ miles/0-1500+ feet gain, SWD Hike #38. Rosengarten/Catinaccio Group: *Rif. Paolina lift+night+hike, SWD Hike #37.
  9. July 20 Sat: Hike the **Inner Catinacchio to Passo Principe (with optional steep side trip to * Vaiolet Towers and Rifugio Vaiolet 3+ hours round trip), SWD Hike #36. Stay at spectacular ***Rifugio Gardeccia Hutte via shuttle bus (or lift+walk).
  10. July 21 Sun: Bus (or hike+lift) down. Drive 2 hours > ***San Martino di Castrozza: Rosetta lift (plus optional SWD Hike #46 if snow allows). Walk from ***Passo Rolle hotel to see ***Rifugio Segantini at sunset, optionally trekking as far as SWD Hike #45. Our best view from a Dolomites Hotel was of Matterhorn-like Cimon della Pala peak, right outside our window at roadside ***Albergo Vezzana.
  11. July 22 Mon: Drive 1.1 hr > **Alleghe: hike on Civetta 5-10 mi/1800 ft to Lake Coldai and beyond, overnight option Rifugio ColdaiSWD Hike #17.
  12. July 23 Tu: Malga Ciapela: ***Marmolada lift (plus SWD Hike #432 miles/500 ft gain, if snow allows), including World War I history museum. Passo Pordoi: ***Bindelweg hike 4+ mi/1500 ft (optional lift, bus, or walk round trip), SWD Hike #41. Great apartment with kitchen and view: ***Hotel Gonzaga.
  13. July 24 Wed: **Passo Pordoi: north lift to Sass Pordoi for view (plus optional SWD Hike #40 but patchy snow made us instead choose ***Bindelweg SWD Hike #41). Passo Sella: *Rifugio Demetz lift + options for overnight and SWD Hike #39. Flexible free time.
  14. July 25 Thu: Stay in ***Selva di Val Gardena/Wolkenstein at the great Bed & Breakfast ***Garni Murfried to stage our favorite Dolomites hike: take the first morning bus to Ortisei (or St. Christina), take  ***Seceda lift, admire great views up at the cross on the edge of Val di Funes (Villnöss), then walk 12 miles (2000 feet up, 5000 feet down) via the steep pass Furcela Forces De Sieles to beautiful Vallunga (trail #2 to 16), finishing where you started in Selva. The hike traverses Puez-Geisler Group from verdant pastures to alpine wonders to U-shaped Vallunga valley, all preserved in a vast Nature Park: Parco Naturale Puez-Odle (German: Naturpark Puez-Geisler; Ladin: Parch Natural Pöz-Odles). Or try a shorter **SWD Hike #31 or easy *SWD Hike #32.
  15. July 26 Fri:  ***Geisler/Odle Group SWD Hike #29 or flexible day. ***Val di Funes (Villnöß/Villnoss) : Santa Maddalena: sunset/sunrise photos.
  16. July 27 Sat: *Passo delle Erbe. Optional **SWD Hike #28: 10mi/3700 ft.
  17. July 28 Sun:  Drive 1.5 hrs > **Lago di Braies hike 0-10 mi/0-3300 ft, SWD Hike #1 or #2.
  18. July 29 Mon: Drive 40min > ***Sesto: Val Fiscalina loop 10.5mi/4000ft, SWD Hike #8 with 3 scenic Rifugio overnight options. Our best value Dolomites apartment: ***Gruberhof (Köch Anna/Koeck Anna), St.-Silvester-Straße 6 (in Winnebach/Prato Drava village), 39038 Innichen/San Candido, telephone 0474 966684 (be prepared to speak German), near the Austrian border.
  19. July 30 Tue: Hike out from overnight hut on *** Sesto: Val Fiscalina loop. *Croda Rossa lift. Flex day.
  20. July 31 Wed:  Drive 1 hour > ***Cadini di Misurina 5 mi loop SWD Hike #10 (overnight option **Rifugio Savio). Cortina: ***Forcella Staunies lift.
  21. Aug 1 Thu: **Lago Sorapiss 8 mile loop SWD Hike #13. Stay at a scenic pass above Cortina d’Ampezzo: ***Hotel – Restaurant Passo Giau. Good nearby walks include **SWD Hike #10 Round the Croda da Lago for stunning larch fall foliage colors or *SWD Hike #20 Cinque Torri which is good all summer and includes a World War I outdoor history museum.
  22. Aug 2 Fri:  Drive 50 min > **Rifugio Lagazuoi lift to lodge with private or dorm rooms + optional SWD Hike #23 or 24. *World War I history center.
  23. Aug 3 Sat:  Depart Rifugio Lagazuoi. Drive 2.5 hours > Domegge + gravel road + very short walk to Rifugio Padova. Optional 8mi/3300 ft hike SWD Hike #15.
  24. Aug 4 Su: Drive from Rifugio Padova Domegge > drive 3.5hours > see Vrata Valley, Slovenia.
  25. Aug 5 Mon: Slovenia (read my separate article)Krma Valley hike 6miles/3900 feet gain one way to stay overnight in scenic Stanicev Dom hut  (or 12.5 mi round trip in a tiring day) or further up to Kredarica Hut. Above the huts, demanding iron routes (vie ferrate) provide cables and hand grips on steep, exposed (non-technical) paths to the summit of Triglav, not advised for those with fear of heights.
  26. Aug 6 Tues: Slovenia: Stanicev Dom hut: hike out 6 miles > drive 40min > Lake Bled.
  27. Aug 7 Wed: Slovenia: Lake Bled > drive 3.5 hrs > Croatia: Plitvice Lakes NP: walk in for evening views.
  28. Aug 8 Th: Croatia (read my separate article): Get up 6:00am, ticket office for boat shuttle opens at 7am, then walk Plitvice Lakes NP.  Drive 3.5hrs > Piran Youth Hostel, Slovenia.
  29. Aug 9 Fri: Slovenia: Piran > drive 1 hour > Skocjan Caves > drive 2.5 hours > ITALY: **Titian Inn includes free shuttle to adjacent Venice Marco Polo (VCE) airport.
  30. Aug 10, 2013 Sat: Fly early morning Venice > Seattle at lunchtime.

For an expanded list of hotel and hiking options, click Tom’s 12-page “Italy’s Dolomites & Venice + Croatia, Slovenia: drive/hike tour.”

Mobile phones tips in Europe

Before leaving the USA, we contacted T-Mobile for the simple codes to unlock our Sony Ericsson Equinox 4-band GSM phone for use with other SIM cards and mobile phone networks worldwide. If you expect to call home or multiple countries outside of the SIM card’s home, buy a prepaid international calling card in USA such as from Costco.

Wind Telephonia Mobile store in Venice sold and installed a cheap 25 Euro SIM into our phone, good for our month in Europe. Wind helpfully texted our credit balance automatically after each call (but ask how to check balance before leaving the store, anyway). When the store activates the SIM, test using the shop’s or other phone. Using your phone’s menu, turn off the option to require a password on each call. If calling from the SIM card’s home country, expect about 10 to 20 cents per minute for domestic calls to fixed lines, more to mobile phones, more if roaming outside SIM’s country, and free to receive calls.

How to use mobile phones in Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia

  • When calling within Italy leave off the 39, then dial entire number, including initial zero (no “city codes” anymore) plus area code (even from within it).
  • Italian land line numbers all start with a “0” (041 for Venice, 06 for Rome, 055 for Florence).
  • Italian cell phone numbers start with 338, 339, 439, or any other trio of non-zero numbers. Toll-free numbers in Italy now start with 800, free within the country but cannot be called from outside.
  • In Italy, to call home, first dial Italian international prefix 00, then your country code (US/CAN: 1, UK: 44, AUS: 61, NZ: 64), then area code and local number, but this is expensive unless using an international calling card (Costco’s) or using Internet cafe email or Skype.
  • When calling to Italy from outside countries, start with your country’s international dialing prefix (US/CAN: 011, UK/IRE: 00, AUS 0011, NZ: 00), then dial number with initial 39.
  • How to call Slovenia from Italy: dial 00 + 386 + number.
  • How to dial Croatia from Slovenia: 00 + 385 + Areacode + #. Mobile phone: 00 + 385 + 9xx.xxx.xxx.
  • Only within Croatia do you dial the number (0) shown within parentheses.
  • Slovenia uses tri-band GSM. Buy €10 SIM card from Mobitel or others. Ignore the number within parentheses +386 (0)2 when calling Slovenia from outside, but within Slovenia you must dial it plus area code, for example: 02…

Recommended Italy books from Amazon.com

Search for latest “Italy travel books” on Amazon.com (look for updates every 1 to 3 years). Get the latest Ebook versions (for tablet, PC, or phone) quicker than printed books.

2014: 2014: 2014: 2014:
2013: 2012: 2010: 2012:
2004: 2010: 1992:

  • Bring good country and city guides on the trip:
  • Hikers and trekkers should add a walking guidebook:
  • Get a glossy guide for exciting pre-trip planning and handsome souvenir:
  • Recommended historical fiction:
    • Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic (2005 book) by Tom Holland. “In 49 BC, the seven hundred fifth year since the founding of Rome, Julius Caesar crossed a small border river called the Rubicon and plunged Rome into cataclysmic civil war. Tom Holland’s enthralling account tells the story of Caesar’s generation, witness to the twilight of the Republic and its bloody transformation into an empire. From Cicero, Spartacus, and Brutus, to Cleopatra, Virgil, and Augustus, here are some of the most legendary figures in history brought thrillingly to life. Combining verve and freshness with scrupulous scholarship, Rubicon is not only an engrossing history of this pivotal era but a uniquely resonant portrait of a great civilization in all its extremes of self-sacrifice and rivalry, decadence and catastrophe, intrigue, war, and world-shaking ambition.”
  • Recommended videos:
    • Rome: The Complete Series (11 disc DVD collection from HBO Home Video 2009) by Kevin McKidd, portrays Roman times with more depth and drama than ever before seen on film! This lavish spectacle of Rome in 52 BC expertly weaves human dramas of historical figures and fictional characters, featuring family dysfunction, treachery, betrayal, brutal violence, and graphic sex. It’s my favorite dramatic series.
    • Gladiator (Three-Disc DVD Extended Edition 2005) starring Russell Crowe. One of my favorite dramatic movies, the best on Rome (next to the above HBO series).

Fiction:  DVD: BlueRay:

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