Spring Wanderwegs: Best Spring Hikes in Switzerland
*Updated June 2019*
Spring is a weird time in Switzerland. No, not weird - bipolar. I’ve never experienced weather as unpredictable as this. All four seasons in a single day. March sunshine, April snow. It’s odd. And very difficult to dress for.
But now, in late April, it feels like we have finally reached a turning point. I hope so, because if there is a freak May snow storm I might just lose my mind. I also put away all my winter clothes, because gosh darn it, tulips and wisteria and daffodils are blooming and I refuse to wear a parka anymore. Side note: You’ll see in some of these pictures that I did, in fact, have to (begrudgingly!) unpack my jackets and hats for a few of these hikes. Sigh.
And so the summer longing begins. More specifically, summer hiking. But mountain transport doesn’t generally doesn’t start until Mid-May (at the very earliest), and even then most alpine trails don’t open until late June, and so to satiate our outdoor thirst, Raunaq and I have discovered a variety of other hikes.
These hikes are all lower altitude, with trailheads that generally start from a bus or train stop. The elevation gains and descents aren’t that dramatic, which makes all of these perfect for your reintroduction into Swiss hiking shape. None of these trails are in the Zermatt or St. Mortiz area (too high altitude for spring), and so they are easily reached as a day hike from Zurich. And while I’m calling this post “spring” hiking trails, the truth is you can probably do them in any season. We hiked quite a few in the snow during the winter months, and they were magical. The main factor here is that none of these trails require mountain transport. Happy trails!
Lauterbrunnen Valley, Jungfrau Region
In the summer, Raunaq and I are focused on high alpine hiking. But in the spring, when all the snow packs are melting, there’s no better time to wander through a Swiss valley - especially if that valley is the land of the 72 waterfalls. Lauterbrunnen might just be the most whimsical place in all of Switzerland. Which, in a land full of storybook towns and rolling green countrysides and aquamarine lakes, is saying something. It’s modern-day Rivendell, and it is spectacular.
The day we went was cold and foggy, so while you couldn’t see the very tops of the Bernese Alps towering above, the wispy clouds mixed with the snow-dusted treeline created an mesmerically ethereal effect. All of the lower trees were different shades of green, creating a startling ombré effect with the lime and emerald and hunter green shades. The trail was the 6.7 km path from Lauterbrunnen to Stechelberg, a wide, mostly paved path that meanders through the valley floor. Sheer mountain cliffs race up toward the sky, while countless waterfalls gracefully cascade down the rock faces. There are plenty of places to stop and have a picnic, some of the sites even equipped with firewood and a barbecue. And as the trail is dotted with small farms and villages, you’d probably be able to pick up fresh cheese along the way. If it’s a clear day, it might be a nice idea to ride the gondola up to Schilthorn (you’ll pass the station) - but due to the fog, we just ended at Stechelberg and took the Post bus back to Lauterbrunnen.
Definitely make the short detour to the subterranean Trümmelbach falls, with it’s ten glacial waterfalls thundering inside the mountain. It’s worth it. I’ve never seen anything like it. Trümmelbach drains from the enormous glacial snow packs of the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau, and the waters have carved these beautifully smooth slot canyons through the rock. It’s power on a grand scale, and you can walk right up to it.
Walensee and Seerenbach Falls, Eastern Switzerland
The Swiss call it their Riviera, but Raunaq and I have dubbed this area of Walensee “Swiss Kauai.” There’s something about the way the mountains plunge into the lake, the jagged cliffs, the lush-looking vegetation and the crystal blue-green waters that transports us straight to the Garden Isle. But without the sharks, so maybe even a smidge better? Most of the trails here ring the lakeside, with lots of opportunities to pop over to one of the many small, rocky beaches for a lunch break and swim (if you are brave). Even in the height of summer, the Walensee waters are deep and cold.
We’ve done a hike that starts at the Ziegelbrücke train station, goes through Weesen and along the lakeside (sometimes sharing the road with cars as an FYI), then continues to Betlis and the Seerenbach waterfalls. It’s also possible to take a ferry from Weesen to Betlis, but I personally liked walking the sections along the lake, especially because you can find those great secret spots on the water. Betlis is a small little storybook town, with a small chapel on the hill. Behind Betlis is the trail to the waterfalls, which will be at their biggest in May and June thanks to the melting snow from the Churfinsten mountain range. This whole area of Switzerland is just a personal favorite of mine.
Waldstätterweg Stage 1 (Brunnen to Vitznau), Central Switzerland
I was embarking on my first solo hike in Switzerland in early June, and this hike ticked all the boxes: tough, long but not too longer, gorgeous panoramic views of the lake the entire way, and not too far from civilization (you know, just in case). The trail officially starts by the lake in Brunnen, in Canton Schywz, following trail #98. As with most non-alpine trails, this one had sections that were through towns or on main roads, but I don’t think that took away from the overall beauty of the hike. Once you leave Brunnen and ascend up into the lakeside forests, all the city life and traffic noise melts away. Fair warning, there is a mini “cliff walk” near the start of the trail, where you’ll be walking on a suspended metal grate bridge that is affixed to the side of the mountain. But I trust Swiss engineering with my life (literally), so I had no problems.
There are views of snow-capped mountains, charming little lakeside villages (Gersau marks the halfway point, and seems like a weekend destination in its own right), cows and goats, even a little trailside cheese and honey stand. I dropped seven francs into the basket and took home a jar of Zitronenhonig. 15 kilometers, 760 meter ascent, and about 4.5 hours one-way. I was hot, sweaty and happy as a clam by the end of it. It’s possible (and faster) to take a bus and train from Vitznau back to Zurich, but this is certainly the place to take the long way home. If you’ve never taken the ferry ride from Vitznau to Lucerne, you are in for a treat. It’s one of my favorites. Pro tip: bring sandals and/or bathing suit to chill by the lake in Vitznau while you wait for the ferry.
The Waldstätterweg in its entirety leads around the whole of Lake Lucerne. There are seven stages total, and after doing the first one, I have plans to complete the entire circuit.
Weg der drei Wasserfälle, Brienz, Bernese Oberland
Spring is unquestionably the best time of the year for waterfall hiking. A trail with three waterfalls, all along the stunningly blue Lake Brienz? Sign me up. This 18 kilometer trail goes from Bönigen via Iseltwald to Brienz, and can be split into two sections (Isetlwald serving as the midpoint) or one long day hike. There are a couple long ascents and descents, but nothing too challenging. It’s more about pure endurance on this one. Luckily, the three waterfalls are pretty evenly spaced out so there is always something to look forward to (if the color of the lake and the Alp views are enough!). The first section leads to the light-flooded Eschwanden waterfall, and then follows a forest path to the fishing village of Iseltwald.
After Isetwald (a nice place for a lunch break), I had to backtrack a little bit. It’s a bit confusing to get back on the Weg der Wasserfalle, but best course is to follow the signs for Isch. Otherwise, you’ll end up on a lakeside path to Brienz, which I’m sure is lovely but then you will miss the next two waterfalls. Mülibach falls is next, right after the underpass from the motorway. The best is saved for last. Giessbach Falls is huge and thunderous, and for me, completely unexpected! The cascades tumble pass the historic Grand Hotel Giessbach, which looks like a fairy-tale castle, and pour into Lake Brienz.
Once you get to Giessbach, find the Engi Postbus stop above the hotel. From there, you can take the Axalpstrasse, which will follow the shore to Lake Brienz. I did not do this, and THIS IS IMPORTANT, because this is where I took a wrong turn and got myself in quite the pickle, ending up on a narrow mountainside road. With lots of cars speeding both ways and no pedestrian path. It was terrifying, and I ended up sprinting down the road as fast as I could, to get off the highway as soon as possible. So once you get to Giessbach, look for the Azalpstrasse.
Brush with death aside, this entire trail is a lovely way to experience the Bernese Oberland region. The trail might be named for three waterfalls, but this whole area has waterfalls sprouting all over the place. It’s magical, and celebrates Swiss spring in all its glory.
Uetliberg and Felsenegg, Zurich, Central Switzerland
Uetliberg is Zurich’s “little mountain,” with beautiful views of the city and the lake. On super clear days, Uto Klum offers panoramic views of the Alps which seem to go in every direction. Zurich, we have you surrounded, the mountains seem to be saying. Our favorite route is about 2-3 hours (depending on the trail conditions), taking the short but steep trail from the base of Uetliberg at Albisguetli to the very top, then following the ridgeline to Felsenegg. Lake Zurich to one side, cows and countryside to the other, Alps as far as the eye can see. It’s a low(ish) effort, high reward hike.
From there, we spend the rest of the afternoon on the deck of the Felsenegg restaurant or picnicking on the grassy knolls, before catching the cable car down to the Adliswil train station. It’s a classic, local hike, especially great for those who live in Zurich and just want to spend a couple hours outside. It’s right on the outskirts of the city but feels a world away once you get up into the forests of Uetliberg. Even if it is a foggy day, check the webcam! Most of the time, the peak and ridge are above the clouds.
This is one that can be done in all seasons, not just spring. In fact, it’s a fun trail to explore during all the different seasons to see how the foliage changes. Summer is sunny and green, fall puts on a spectacular color show, winter is a wonderland, and daffodil fields pop up in the spring. Just make sure to wear waterproof boots with good grip for the climb up to Uetliberg Klum if it’s been snowing. Otherwise you’ll be slipping and sliding on the sometimes icy trail, and need to resort to pulling yourself up the mountain using the guardrails. I speak from experience.
Uetliberg to Langnau, Zurich, Central Switzerland
This builds upon the above hike, for those with the time and stamina. It’s not difficult, but tacks on an additional 3-4 hours to the Uetliberg-Felsenegg route. Once you past Felsenegg, continue through the tiny little settlement of Buchenegg and follow the signs to Albispass. This part of the hike is quite nice in the spring. The trees are just coming to life, the grass is shockingly green, and bird songs are mixed with cowbells. It all feels quintessentially Swiss. The path is fairly easy, undulating at a steady pace but there aren’t that many steep ascents or descents.
The wooden Hochwacht tower is worth the (surprisingly high) climb, for incredible views of the Alps, Zurichsee, Zugsee and back along the Kulm. It’s a bit taller than the look-out tower on top of Uetliberg, and - it’s free! After the tower, the views start diminishing as you descend into the forest, so this is where we decide to cut down into Langnau. It’s a fairly steep descent, but you pass through some charming little villages on the way. They almost seem a bit more Japanese than Swiss, especially in the springtime when the cherry blossoms are out and the zen backyard gardens in full bloom. The trail pops you out right at the S4 Langnau train stop, and will shuttle you all the way back to Zurich in under 30 minutes.
Creux-du-Van, Noiraigue, Northwestern Switzerland
The Creux du Van is a giant, gaping hole in the ground, with sheer limestone cliffs shooting straight down 160 meters. It looks like one day, someone decided to reach down from the sky and scoop out the side of the earth. So different from what you come to expect from a typical Swiss hike, with their snow-capped mountain ranges and icy blue alpine lakes. We also had our first wild animal sighting, a small group of Ibex, which are a sort of Swiss mountain goat with impressive curled antlers and are much better suited to the sheer cliffs than us humans.
This area is in Western Switzerland, close to the border of France and a bit far from any major mountain range. The climate is different, slightly more predictable, and can make a nice escape from April showers or spring fog. I wrote a more in-depth account of the hike to the Creux-du-Van, and our absinthe adventures in the entire region, here.
Zurichsee Rundwung, Canton Zurich, Central Switzerland
One lake, 10 possible stages of hikes, and really unlimited possibilities. We’d been doing variations of the different stages of hikes without knowing they were all part of the same route - because truly, walking anywhere along Lake Zurich is going to be a gorgeous walk any time of year. But if you want to get specific, the last one we did was the Horgen–Richterswil section (stage 3). It’s long and flat and leads alongside the water most of the way. Ok, maybe it’s not necessarily a “hike,” but it’s a couple notches up from a stroll. There are a few stretches that feel a little bit industrial, but just power through them. You’ll get back to the views soon enough. If the hike starts feeling a bit long, there’s always the option to turn around at the Wädenswil train station, or just take a break at the lovely lakeside promenade.
My favorite part of this route was discovering the Halbinsel Au (the Au penisula). It was something I had seen from both the ferry and train but never had a chance to explore. There’s a marshy lagoon, small castle, and winery and restaurant with sweeping views of the Alps.
Final note: Maybe it was because there was no ascent or descent distraction on this trail, but the hanger hit me harder on this path than any other hike. We had to make an emergency pitstop at McDonalds. I’m not proud. I did, however, discover the surprisingly delicious Quinoa Curry Burger. Did anyone else know McDonald’s offered this? I was SHOOK, it was that good. Raunaq’s sad little cheeseburger really paled in comparison.
Caumasee and Rhein Gorge, Canton Graubünden,
Caumasee is well worth a trip in the summertime. But, in the off-season, it’s almost a little bit nicer: free entry, little to no crowds, same jewel-toned lake. We took the train to Chur, then hopped on the cheery yellow Post-bus that ferried us to Flims Waldhuas Caumasee. From there, it’s a short jaunt through the forest, where I may or may not have made the mistake of drinking water from a horse trough (I did). Outside of summer season, the funicular down to the lake is closed, but there’s an alternate path that winds it way down to the water. All the facilities will be closed, but you can still walk the path around that impossibly-colored blue lake.
After Caumasee, we continued onto the Rhein Gorge viewpoint. The path is groomed in the winter, and I imagine it would be spectacular in the spring. There are a couple of different turn-offs and viewpoints along the way, but the crown jewel is the Rheinschlucht Aussichtsplatform. It’s a fitting name. It’s what you will say when you see the view of the Rhine Gorge - and if you have any fear of heights. The platform is suspended, leaning out over the canyon, to give unparalleled (if not vertigo-inducing) panoramas. Ausshichts, indeed. It’s possible to hike down into the gorge, but there was too much snow for us to safely descend. Instead, we continued down to Conn to catch the bus back to Chur for post-hike beers.
Brunni Alpthal, Canton Schywz, Central Switzerland
Full disclosure: We got impossibly lost on this hike, due to unexpected spring snow, trying to take this route. The good news? There are no bad hikes in Switzerland. No matter how off-route you may get, you can generally always expect a few things: mountain views, mountain huts, and friendly mountain hikers to help you get back on track. We found all three. Bingo!
Things started off fairly straightforward, though. We planned to bypass the cable-car from Brunni to Holzegg, opting instead to hike the 300 meters. Turned out to be a good thing, because the cable car didn’t seem to be running. Always a good idea to check these things online first. Slushy spring snow made the hike up a bit more difficult, but we managed our way up to the Holzegg station, standing in the shadow of the impressive Grosser Mythen mountain. Since we are not yet in Swiss shape, we opted against hiking up the Mythen and instead continue along the ridge. It was here where things went a bit haywire. The trail turnoff was completely missed, but we did end up at the top of Rotenflue, where we had lunch while watching a group of paragliders sail amongst the mountain peaks.
After walking in circles in the snow for a bit, we finally found out way to Alpwirtschaft Zwäcken. It was afternoon, the weather was near perfect, and we had a table with unobstructed views - so we threw in the towel and settled in for a few beers. It was easy enough to make our way back down to Brunni a few hours later. No matter where you end up, this area is beautiful.
No matter where you end up, this area is beautiful. I can’t think of a more fitting description for any hike in Switzerland than that.