From July 19–August 4 in 2022, our group of five trekked ten stages of the beguiling Swiss Via Alpina (National Route 1) plus nearby hikes. Surprising wonders were revealed along the journey: the valley that inspired J.R.R. Tolkein’s magical Rivendell in “The Hobbit”; the striking waterfall where fictional Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty tumbled to their deaths; the proud hometown of legendary William Tell; and more. We traversed the Glarus, Uri, and Bernese Alps, ending in Grindelwald under the Eiger’s North Face and beautiful Lauterbrunnen Valley at the base of icy Jungfrau.
Below: On Via Alpina Day 1, rays of morning sun spotlighted the vista of Mels, Sargans, and the Rhone Valley as we walked along manicured grape vineyards. As we ascended the pastoral Wiesstannen Valley, the urban outlook transitioned into rural farms alternating with lowland forest.
Our itinerary of 5.5 weeks in the Alps included trekking the Tour du Mont Blanc, recharging in Saas-Fee, then hiking the Via Alpina. From June 28–August 5, we walked 200+ miles and ascended 56,000 vertical feet. Alpenwild.com sponsored my photography and booked our epic Self-Guided packages. Luggage transfers provided between comfortable hotels lightened our day packs every day (except for three overnights in refuges). See Tom’s abridged gallery “2022 Alps favorites: TMB, Via Alpina, Saas Fee“; or full portfolio “2022 Alps: all TMB, Via Alpina, Saas Fee“
In our 17-day Via Alpina itinerary across central Switzerland, we hiked a total of 90 miles, ascending 22,000 vertical feet and descending 20,000 feet. Aided by lifts and rides, this modified Via Alpina sweated uphill about 40% easier per day than our Tour du Mont Blanc. Best guidebook:
- “The Swiss Alpine Pass Route – Via Alpina 1: Trekking East to West across Switzerland” by Kev Reynolds, Cicerone Press 2017
Upon afternoon arrival in Sargans in the Swiss canton of St. Gallen, record heat reached up to 96 degrees Fahrenheit! Stifling air in the high 80s F. made sleeping uncomfortable in rooms without air-conditioning at Hotel Schweizerhof in Mels. The next day, rising heat caused a very sweaty hike on Stage 1 of the Via Alpina. Fortunately, most ensuing days at higher elevations were more temperate for hiking, in the 50s through 70s F.
Day 1 (Stage 1): We hiked from Hotel Schweizerhof in Mels to Hotel Gemse Wiesstannen in Switzerland (6.5 miles, 2200 feet up, 600 ft down).
Above: The Counts of Montfort-Werdenberg-Sargans built Sargans Castle in the 1100s (Schloss Sargans / Château de Sargans) in the village of Sargans. Since 1899, it has been run by the local church and now houses the Sarganserland museum.
Day 2 (Stage 2): From Hotel Gemse in Wiesstannen, we arranged a taxi to save 4.2 miles of walking to Alp Walabutz, from where we hiked over Foopass to Elm (9.1 miles, 2840 feet up, 4100 ft down). Upon arrival in Elm in mid afternoon, we bought groceries then skipped around Stage 3 via PostBus to Schwanden and train to Linthal Braunwaldbahn Talstation, to catch the funicular to Braunwald, where we walked 0.6 mile with 340 feet ascent to Alexander´s Tödiblick hotel. Below: we ascend foggy Foopass from Wiesstannen:
Skipping Stage 3 of the Via Alpina avoided a strenuous hike of 15 miles from Elm via Richetlipass to Linthal, which would have required a punishing 4900-foot ascent and 6000-foot descent.
Day 3 (Stage 4): From Braunwald, we walked to Urnerboden (8 miles, 1080 feet up, 1000 ft down). From Urnerboden, we rode the PostBus up to Hotel Klausenpass (saving 6 miles of walking).
Day 4 (Stage 5): From Hotel Klausenpass, we hiked to Unterschächen, in Uri canton (6.25 miles, 115 feet up, 3070 ft down). From Unterschächen, a PostBus spirited us to Bürglen, where we walked from the William Tell Museum to Hotel Höfli in Altdorf (1.1 miles, 280 ft down).
Swiss history and the myth of William Tell
Tales of William Tell speak of a Swiss hero who defied a tyrannical Austrian overlord and inspired the creation of Switzerland more than 700 years ago. Despite no evidence for his existence, Tell’s stirring story spread widely in folklore. You may recall the story of him shooting an apple from the head of his son, and also Rossini’s William Tell Overture (popularized as the “The Lone Ranger” theme tune of a US television and radio series). In the early Romantic era of nationalist revolutions, the legend of Tell depicted as a national hero spread worldwide through the evocative 1804 play “Wilhelm Tell” by the German dramatist Friedrich von Schiller.
According to legend, William Tell was a proudly accomplished crossbow marksman who lived under a tyrannical bailiff named Albrecht Gessler, an agent of the Hapsburg duke of Austria, based in Altdorf. One day, risking a penalty of imprisonment, Tell proudly refused to bow to foreign Hapsburg authority represented by Gessler’s hat perched symbolically on a tall pole. After Tell’s arrest, Gessler slyly proposed that William could win freedom by shooting an apple from atop his son’s head in one arrow shot. After doing so and being released, Tell admitted that a second arrow was reserved to kill Gessler if his son had been hurt. Enraged, Gessler rearrested Tell. On the way to prison by boat across Lake Lucerne, Tell escaped and later assassinated Gessler from a sniper position.
Up to this point, the apple story is remarkably close to an earlier tale from Denmark involving the historic figure King Harald Bluetooth in the 900s. But Tell’s legend goes a step further, claiming that Tell incited rebellion and conspired on Rütli meadow with three other men to form a defensive alliance of their three rural communes against foreign influence.
Tell’s story wasn’t recorded on paper until 1569–70 (250 years after the events) by historian Aegidius Tschudi, who among other mistakes gave the wrong year of 1307 for Tell’s rebellion and meeting on Rütli meadow. Much later, in 1758, the original Oath of Rütli was rediscovered on paper, documenting the representatives at Rütli meadow, but none were named Tell! Now corrected to “the beginning of August 1291,” events in the old legend had to be moved 16 years earlier. Today, Uri (where Tell was ostensibly born) remains the only Swiss canton which stubbornly clings to the discounted date of 1307, which they proudly inscribed on the Tell Monument in Altdorf back in 1895 (photo below).
The Swiss Federal Constitution in 1848 established the country of Switzerland as we know it today. Established officially in 1891, Swiss National Day is now celebrated with bonfires and flags every August 1, honoring the famous meeting at Rütli meadow in 1291. The Federal Charter of 1291 agreed between the cantons Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden is now considered the Swiss Confederacy’s founding document (although similar alliances probably existed decades earlier).
Below: Altdorf proudly displays Swiss national flags (with a white cross on red background) around the William Tell Monument. The Uri canton flags display not a bull, but an aurochs, a now extinct European bison, thought to have been plentiful in Uri and domesticated by the locals, hence the nose ring.
Day 5 (Stage 6): From Altdorf, we rode the PostBus to Attinghausen Seilbahn, a cable car which ascends to Brüsti, from where we hiked over Surenenpass to Fürenalp cable car (8.8 miles, 3360 feet up, 2340 ft down) which we rode plus PostBus to reach Hotel Sonnwendhof in Engelberg.
Above: We rode the Titlis Rotair, the world’s first rotating cable car (completed in 2014). The Titlis cable car system connects Engelberg (996 m or 3,268 ft elevation) to the summit of Klein Titlis (3,028 m or 9,934 ft) via stations at Trübsee and Stand. At Klein Titlis, we visited the illuminated Glacier Cave (shown below) and Titlis Cliff Walk, giving impressive views across the Alps. We then descended to enjoy walking 2 miles around scenic Trübsee.
Day 6 (Stage 7): From Hotel Sonnwendhof in Engelberg, we again rode the Titlis gondola lift to Trübsee, where a 0.7-mile walk reached a chairlift which whisked us through heavy fog to Jochpass, where we walked down to Hotel Engstlenalp, nestled in mountain pastures high above Innertkirchen, in Bern canton (2.3 miles with 1250 feet of descent, our shortest Stage on Via Alpina).
Above: Colorful flowers greet visitors at Hotel Engstlenalp.
Day 7 (Stage 8): From Hotel Engstlenalp, we hiked along Erzegg Ridge to Planplatten (6.7 miles, 1990 feet up, 750 ft down). From Planplatten, we rode 4 lifts down to Meiringen [via Gondelbahn to Mägisalp (Eagle-Express), Bidmi, and Reuti then via Luftseilbahn to Meiringen], where we walked to Hotel Victoria (0.4 miles), in the valley of Haslital, in the Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland.
Above: As the last ice age melted 10,000 years ago, the impressive Aare Gorge was carved by the river Aare through a limestone ridge, near the present town of Meiringen. Walking to Aareschlucht (its German name) from our Hotel Victoria was worthwhile as a 3-mile addition from 3-5:00pm on Day 7. A reasonable fee is charged to access this elaborate walkway, a series of tunnels and cantilevered boardwalks open to the public since 1889. The Entrances (aboveground West and underground East) are each linked to stations on the Meiringen-Innertkirchen railway.
Day 8 (Stage 9): From Hotel Victoria in Meiringen, we walked 0.8 miles to Reichenbachfallbahn, a funicular which ascends to a viewpoint between the lower and upper Reichenbach Falls, a striking series of cascades. Then we hiked uphill to Schwartzwaldalp (6 miles, 2000 feet gain), where we caught the PostBus over the pass of Grosse Scheidegg to reach Hotel Gletschergarten in Grindelwald.
The death of Sherlock Holmes at Reichenbach Falls
Above: Fictional Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis Professor Moriarty died after falling while fighting from a ledge near the 320-foot upper Reichenbach Falls, shown here. After 10 years of reader complaints, author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle resurrected Holmes in a short story where the famous detective reappeared and told his astonished friend Dr. Watson about faking his own death to fool his enemies. Below: Rychenbach stream cascades in the upper steps of Reichenbach Falls:
Staying two nights in Grindelwald allowed options for rest or more hiking.
Rebecca and I chose a steep hike to Gleckstein Hut (Glecksteinhütte), a steep hike high above Grindelwald (6 miles round trip, 3000 feet up and down). Run by the Swiss Alpine Club, the hut is at 7600 feet elevation, with great views of the Upper Grindelwald Glacier. Climbers use it as a base for the ascent of the Wetterhorn and the Schreckhorn. It makes a wonderful goal for hardy hikers or overnight trekkers. A couple of adventurous families brought their children, with everyone roped and harnessed. Beware of cliff exposure which may frighten those who are afraid of heights. What was exciting for me was scary for others. Cables are provided to hang onto for security. A fun feature was walking behind a small waterfall, where metal gratings provided secure steps. Directions: From Grindelwald, take the PostBus towards Grosse Scheidegg and stop at Abzweigung Gleckstein at 1557 m elevation, halfway between Hotel Wetterhorn and Grosse Scheidegg pass. (Note: hiking from Hotel Wetterhorn trailhead at 1275 meters elevation will add 900 feet of climb for 3900 ft total gain.)
Below: Gleckstein Hut is a good place to spot ibex (Capra ibex, steinbock, or bouquetin), a species of wild goat native to the European Alps. Ibex were hunted to near extinction in the 1800s but were successfully reintroduced and protected.
Stage 10, the Kleine Scheidegg to Grindelwald portion, was hiked downhill by Tom in 2016. However, he instead recommends replacing Stage 10 with two superior hikes: 1) from First to Schynige Platte (optionally via Faulhorn overnight) and 2) from Männlichen to Kleine Scheidegg (further below).
Overnight stay at Berghotel Faulhorn
Day 9 (alternative Stage 10a) from Bort to Faulhorn: The fantastic hike from First to Schynige Platte makes a spectacular alternative to Via Alpina Stage 10 (to get from Grindelwald to Lauterbrunnen). We enhanced further by stay overnight at Berghotel Faulhorn to experience the impressive vistas in magical light at sunset and sunrise. Directions: From Grindelwald, we took the First gondola to Bort, then hiked via First to Berghotel Faulhorn (6 miles with 3650 feet ascent, 130 ft descent). (Or you can save effort by starting at First instead of Bort.)
Berghotel Faulhorn was built in 1830, one of the oldest mountain hotels in the Alps. Earplugs are recommended for sleeping, as the old walls are thin. Perched on a remote precipice, Berghotel Faulhorn has flush toilets, but no drinking-water supply, nor guest showers. To save money, carry extra liters of drinking water from Grindelwald. In 2022, Berghotel Faulhorn charged 4 CHF per liter for hikers’ tea, and 12 CHF per 1.5-liter bottle of drinking water. The hut’s roof-gathered water is undrinkable (and our squeeze-filter failed to remove the bad taste). For personal hygiene, cold water is provided in the dormitory washroom, and the private rooms have nostalgic water jugs and bowls.
Below: Escape crowds at Bachalpsee and find good mountain reflections (if no wind) by proceeding to the lake’s northwest end, where I found purple flowers of Aconitum genus blooming (also known as aconite, monkshood, wolf’s-bane, in the family Ranunculaceae.
Day 10 (alternative Stage 10b): From Berghotel Faulhorn, we hiked a spectacular trail to Schynige Platte (6.9 miles, 400 feet ascent, 2660 ft descent). Below: A delightful cliff walk near Schynige Platte affords impressive views over Lake Thun, Interlaken, and Lake Brienz (Brienzersee).
We stayed three nights at comfy Hotel Silberhorn in gorgeous Lauterbrunnen, the valley which may have inspired the invention of fictional Rivendell, a magical elvish sanctuary featured in “The Hobbit” (1937) by J.R.R. Tolkein, who visited Switzerland in 1911.
In Lauterbrunnen, Hotel Silberhorn features a great breakfast and superb restaurant. For dinner, one of us ordered a delicious Swiss Rösti (above photo), the national dish, made mainly of potatoes sautéed in a pan. Rösti was originally a breakfast dish, commonly eaten by farmers in the canton of Bern, but is now eaten all over Switzerland and around the world, for any meal of the day. It’s also known as rööschti, or röstis bernois in French.
Above: After a favorite walk from Männlichen to Kleine Scheidegg, we rode the Wengernalpbahn down to Lauterbrunnen (2,631 feet elevation), shown nestled between cliffs under the Lauterbrunnen Breithorn (12,402 feet). Wengernalpbahn is the world’s longest continuous rack and pinion railway — running from Grindelwald up to Kleine Scheidegg and down to Wengen and Lauterbrunnen.
Below: In Lauterbrunnen Valley, don’t miss seeing Trümmelbach Falls (German: Trümmelbachfälle), a series of ten glacier-fed waterfalls plunging inside the mountain, ingeniously made accessible by stairs, illumination, and a tunnel-funicular built in 1913. The creek called Trümmelbach drains the northerly glaciers of the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau peaks. To avoid crowds, arrive in the morning a few minutes before first opening. Walking the stairs both up and down avoids lines of people waiting for the optional lift.
Above: On a clear day, the Schilthorn offers fine views of Sefinenfurgge Pass (aka Sefinenfurke or Sefinafurgga), seen on the upper right. Hikers labored on steep slopes far below. Stage 11 of the Via Alpina goes from Lauterbrunnen to Mürren then over Sefinenfurgge Pass and very steeply down to tiny Griesalp village.
Below: Looking the other direction, southeast from Birg station of Schilthornbahn cable car, we contemplated the stunning array of Eiger, Mönch, Jungfrau and other peaks framing the entire Lauterbrunnen Valley.
Day 11 (Stage 11 softened): Taking the easy way up in summer 2022, we rode the Schilthornbahn cable car from Stechelberg via Gimmelwald and Mürren villages to Birg station and the Schilthorn (9,744 ft / 2,970 m), which offer grand views over Lauterbrunnen Valley and the Bernese Alps.
Back in 2005, Carol and I day hiked part of the spectacular Stage 11 area, from Mürren via Wasenegg Ridge to Birg (3500 ft gain in 4 or 5 miles), and descended on the Schilthornbahn (avoiding the Schilthorn top due to obscuring clouds). This time in 2022 the clouds partially cleared atop the Schilthorn, making the pricey ride round trip worthwhile.
Piz Gloria, the panoramic revolving restaurant at Schilthorn summit, was featured in the 1969 James Bond movie “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” After considering a number of locations, the stalled construction of the sports bar atop the Schilthorn was chosen when the film’s producer financed the completion of the now-famous revolving platform for the right to use it for his film. In 2022, the James Bond exhibits at Piz Gloria were mostly hokey and passé, but the short video about making the 1969 Bond film was fascinating, albeit cringe-worthy for its sexist 1960s sensibilities.
Above: Since 1981, one of my favorite viewpoints in the Alps is the area around Männlichen gondola station, featuring a superb panorama of the Eiger (Ogre 13,026 feet), Mönch (Monk), and Jungfrau (Virgin or Maiden 13,600) above Lauterbrunnen Valley.
With world-class wonders around every bend, a delightful path goes from Männlichen Gipfel to Kleine Scheidegg under the looming Eiger North Wall (Nordwand). Grindelwald Valley drops to the left and Lauterbrunnen Valley to the right. The world’s longest continuous rack and pinion railway (Wengernalpbahn) serves the area from Grindelwald up to Kleine Scheidegg and down to Wengen and Lauterbrunnen. A gondola (gondelbahn) connects Grindelwald with Männlichen, where a cable car goes down to Wengen (Luftseilbahn Wengen-Männlichen). From Männlichen station, first walk northwards uphill to Männlichen Gipfel (0.4 miles, 335 ft gain) for a stunning summit view, then walk to Kleine Scheidegg (for a total of 4.6 miles, 400 feet ascent, 900 ft descent). This is a spectacular side trip from the Via AlpinaStage 10, or worthy replacement.
Stage 12 of the Via Alpina was day hiked by Carol and I in the direction from Kandersteg to Griesalp in 2016. Starting with a lift from Kandersteg, we followed cliff trails above the beautiful turquoise lake of Oeschinensee, then traversed steeply over Hohtürli Pass (highest point of the Via Alpina 9,114 feet) and down to Griesalp in the remote valley of Kiental, Switzerland. The ascent of 3670 feet (1120 m) and descent of 4500 feet (1380 m) over 8 miles (13 km) was challenging due to steep, exposed scree slopes, assisted by stairs and ladders. It was an epic adventure! (You can optionally stay overnight at Hohtürli Pass in Blüemlisalp Hut to spread the effort over two days instead of one.)
Stages mentioned in this article are from the excellent book by Kev Reynolds (Third Edition 2017):
“Swiss Alpine Pass Route — Via Alpina 1: East to West across Switzerland [Amazon]”
Created in 2000, Europe’s Via Alpina covers five international trails through eight countries (Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Italy, France, and Monaco) over 3100 miles and 342 stages. The National Route 1 Via Alpina spans Switzerland from East to West, from Liechtenstein and the Rhine Valley to Montreux and the shores of Lake Geneva, covering 230 miles in 19 stages, of which Carol and I have walked eleven stages.
Ballenberg Swiss Open-Air Museum, near Brienz
An excellent cultural side trip from Lauterbrunnen, Grindelwald, or Interlaken is the Ballenberg Swiss Open-Air Museum, near Brienz (1.5 hours one way via train and bus, seen on our way to Zurich Airport). Founded in 1978, Ballenberg displays traditional buildings and architecture from all over the country, making it a Swiss heritage site of national significance. Over 100 original buildings have been transported from their original sites. Farmyard animals are raised, and some of the buildings give live demonstrations of traditional rural crafts, techniques, and cheesemaking.
The above photo highlights are excerpted from my trip gallery “SWITZERLAND: Via Alpina“. Click any image to load into my Portfolio where images can be added to your cart for licensing.
To plan your next trip, see Tom’s online guide to the Alps.