Summer Wanderweg: Favorite Hiking Trails of 2019
It’s here, it’s here, it’s HERE! HIKING SEASON!
Maybe Raunaq and I get unnecessarily excited for hiking season. But given that it is one of the major reasons we decided to move to Switzerland in the first place, it is something that we like to take full advantage of when the season rolls around. Wanderweg is, after all, the inspiration for the name of this blog. AND IT’S HERE! I have zero problems skipping drinks to go to bed early on a Friday night (although, let’s be honest, that was happening before we moved to Zurich. Hi, early thirties!), and even crazier, almost never complain about a 6am wake up call. Almost. I’m human. We spent most of the summer of 2018 hiking our buns off, and now, we are ready for round two! This will be a “living” list, and I’ll be adding to it all summer long.
Note: All directions noted are coming from Zurich Hauptbahnhof (Zurich HB). Generally, I always wear my hiking boots, but I’ve noted trails would be fine with regular running-type shoes. And my ratings? Take ‘em with a grain of salt. I hike a fair bit and am generally active, but I think most, if not all, of these hikes can be done by anyone with good stamina and a good attitude. For those who are new to Swiss hiking, check my Swiss Hiking 101 guide, too.
Mark Twain Trail, Mount Rigi, Central Switzerland
The best way to get yourself into Swiss hiking shape at the beginning of summer is to hoof it up the Mark Twain Trail, from Weggis to Rigi Kulm. It’s a 10km, 1350 meter ascent, but considered a “moderate” trail because it’s not technical and pretty straight forward (just also straight up). Mark Twain famously hiked this route when it was the only way up the mountain (pre-RigiBahn days), and maybe more famously, took three days to get to the top. That’s because our man Mark liked to start his day at about 3pm. Raunaq and I made it in about 3 hours, keeping a brisk (and really sweaty) pace. By the time we got to the very top, though, the fog and clouds rolled in so thickly you could barely see the communication tower at the top of Rigi-Kulm. If this happens to you, just wait it out for a bit. The fog sometimes dissipates as quickly as it develops!
The Mark Twain trail winds through forests, small hamlets and cow pastures, with panoramas of Lake Lucern and the surrounding Alp landscape the whole time. You’ll be climbing pretty much the whole time, but in the words of Twain, you’ll also be treated to views “as charming as glimpses of dreamland,” too. The one big downside to this trail? The hordes of tourists that await you at the top, thanks to the RigiBahn that whisks them straight to the summit. It does take a little bit away from the ambiance - so I’d recommend soaking in the view 15-20 minutes before the summit, where it’s a bit quieted.
**Note: Rigi mountain transport one of the included bonus excursions in GA passes and the Swiss Travel Pass - so if you have one of these passes, you don’t need to buy any additional tickets.
Start: Weggis, Dorfplatz
End: Rigi-Kulm (take the cogwheel train back down either to Arth-Goldnau or Vitznau)
Basic Route: Weggis - Felsentor - Rigi Kaltbad - Rigi Staffel - Rigi Kulm
Length and Rating: Moderate. It’s a strenuous hike due to the consistent ascent, but anyone with stamina can manage. 10.4km, 3-4 hours.
Heuberg Trail, Oeschinensee, Bernese Oberland
For panoramic views, I think the Heuberg trail might be my new favorite. I’m like a broken record this summer - every hike we do is my new favorite. But can you blame me? It’s hard to say which is more beautiful: the turquoise Oeschinensee, the snowy peaks surrounding it, or the valleys beyond. There were stream crossings, so many (unexpected!!) waterfalls, and rocky paths carved right in the mountains. It’s a fun one!
To start, most people take the gondola up to the Oeschinensee summit station, but we decided to walk up from Kandersteg through the valley floor (which I would definitely recommend, though it will tack on about an hour+ at a steady incline). Once you start the panoramic trail, the views are phenomenal the entire way. A couple portions of the ridge are exposed, but as long as you aren’t too scared of heights you’ll be fine. And here’s a good tip: nearly everyone stops for lunch at the Heuberg lookout point (trust, you’ll know when you’re there) and it can get a little crowded. But, if you continue just 10 minutes further there are a few additional places to sit that are empty.
Start: Kandersteg Bahnhof
End: Oeschinensee gondola down to Kandersteg
Basic Route: Kandersteg - Oeschinensee. From Oeschinensee, following signposts to Läger. From Pt. 1685, follow signpost to Heuberg, Ober Bärgl - Oeschinensee.
Length and Rating: Moderate. To make it a little shorter, take the Kandersteg-Oeschinensee cable car and start from the top. 13km, 4.5 hours.
Wasserauen to Ebenalp, Appenzell, Eastern Switzerland
For the past year, we had been hearing so much about this region of Switzerland, and our first foray into Appenzell and the Alpstein did not disappoint. We did one of their classic routes, but backwards. My knees and I will always prefer a long ascent to a long descent, even if that means 1000+ meters of sweaty climb. Seealpsee, with the mountains reflected in its still green waters, is probably the most famous image of this region. Amazingly, this was only the first of many, many stunning views on this hike.
The first leg was a short but steep trek from the Wasserauen train station to Seealpsee, than a second steep ascent alongside a mountain stream to Mesmer. It was windy and chilly (thanks to all the sweat) and our cold bread and cheese seemed a bit sad, so we decided to have lunch at the Berghaus. Maybe it was the exhaustion, but I ordered a rosti with two fried eggs and it was quite possibly the most delicious rosti I’ve ever tasted. Take that, Denny’s. But the most amazing thing was watching all the other Swiss hikers eating, because they were also throwing back a few beers. After lunch, we pressed on for three more hours, with a few more big ascents to go. It was a tough 5 hours of hiking, and you’ll lose elevation only to have to make it back up again. There were a couple snow fields, and a cliff-side section secured with steel rope for support. But honestly, the only true technical skills needed is the ability to squeeze your way past the cows, who all laid down for a nap right on the trail. We made it to Ebenalp just as a strong and fast storm developed, and waited out the rain with a couple well-deserved Appenzeller beers.
Start: Wasserauen Bahnhof
End: Ebenalp cable car station, ride down to Wasserauen
Basic Route: Wasserauen - Seealpsee - Mesmer - Atlenalp - Fuessler - Ebenalp
Length and Rating: Fairly challenging. The ascent and the length requires stamina, but the views definitely pay-off. 12km-13km, 5 hours.
Sentiero Verzasca, Ticino, Southern Switzerland
Ticino, in the Italian area of Southern Switzerland, is another world completely. The language turns melodic, the foliage grows lush, the train chatter becomes louder, the vibe warms with the weather. One of Ticino’s most famous hikes is the Sentiero Verzasca, 32 kilometers through the truly idyllic Verzasca valley from Sognono to Locarno. Hiking the full trail is a bit too long for a day trip from Zurich, so Raunaq and I created our own mash-up. The first section, from Tenero to Mergoscia, is pretty tough. The first hour was a seemingly never-ending series stone steps up to the top of the valley, through the quaint Ticinese neighborhoods. And then, another hour up a winding mountain path to the village of Mergoscia. After two hours, we stopped for lunch outside of the Mergoscia chapel, eating under the shade of palm trees and with a view of the Verzasca dam and Lago Maggiore.
At Mergosica, we linked up with the official Sentiero Verzasca trail (route 74). The hike follows an old mule trail, and ancient stone buildings, chapels, little bridges, waterfalls and vineyards all slowly unraveled before us, echoing an old but not forgotten way of life. The whole valley is steeped in history and beauty, but this section of the trail, from Mergosica to Corippa, is truly extraordinary. The tiny town of Corippa emerges out of the forests, just a handful of slate gray houses perched on a hill, and it so picturesque is hurts. The trail finally begins to descend down to the valley floor, and ambles along the emerald Verzasca river. We ended in Lavertezzo, at the double-arched Roman bridge known as the “Ponti di Salti.” The color of this water is unbelievable. It’s perfectly clear and glacially cold, the best way to end a 5 hour sweaty hike.
Start: Tenero Stanzione (to shorten the hike, take the Post bus from Tenero to Mergoscia)
End: Lavertezzo Paese, then a Post Bus back to Tenero Stazione
Basic Route: Tenero - Contra - Mergoscia (start of official Sentiero Verzasca trail, #74) - Corippa - Lavertezzo
Length and Rating: Moderately difficult. While the “grade” of the trail is easy, the fitness level is difficult. 15km, 5 hours.
Brisen Peak and Haligrat Ridge, Nidwalden, Central Switzerland
This one was a challenge. Physically demanding, yes. Tough, absolutely. But I wasn’t expecting it to be so mentally taxing. This required more courage, confidence and (for me) nerves of steel than any other hike we’ve embarked on so far.
The trail starts from the Niederrickenbach village, a tiny and quintessentially Swiss town in the Engelberergtal valley, with a Benedictine monastery and lots of cows for cheese for Musenalp cheese. The first half, from Niederrickenbach to Steinalper Jochli, is a standard though demanding 1000 m ascent through alpine pastures and boulders. But after Steinalper Jochil, the path transforms into nothing more than a narrow ribbon on a steep stony hillside, passing around the northern side of a large wedge-shaped outcrop. On the way to Brisen peak, we needed to traverse a steep, icy snowfield on the way. The path through the snow was well-trodden, but only wide enough for one foot in front of the other. It was long and tricky and in the moment, quite scary. The snowfield was passable, but I wouldn’t recommend trying it without crampons (and poles). The last few meters to the summit were steep and relatively safe, although I willed myself not to look down on the precipitous drops to the sides. Make sure to sign your name in the book at the top - you deserve it!
And once you summit Brisen Peak (2404 m), there is the next challenge: descending down the crest of Haldigrat ridge. I don’t get vertigo, but I can get scared of heights, and much of this trail is narrow, airy and exposed. However, the ridge isn’t too long (50 minutes, although it took us nearly 2 hours), and the views are extraordinary: the sights extend from the Säntis to the Bernese Alps and practically the entire central Swiss Alps region. I felt pushed to my edge in a good way, in a way that left me feeling both accomplished and humbled. Raunaq considers it one of the best hikes in Switzerland.
So, am I recommending this hike? A resounding YES. This route is epic and dramatic and one-of-a-kind, and the whole area feels like a hidden local gem. But should EVERYONE do this hike? Probably not. I’d only recommend to those who are sure-footed and have a head for heights! Will I do it again? Ask me next summer!
Start: Niederrickenbach (this train stop is “by request only,” so make sure to push the button). Take the Dallenwil-Niederrickenbach cablecar to the village.
End: Haldigrat. From Haldigrat, take the chair lift to Alpboden, and walk 2km back to Niederrickenbach.
Basic Route: Niederrickenbach - Brändlisboden - Brisenhaus - Steinalper Joch - Brisen Peak - Zickzackweg - Haldigrat
Length and Rating: Difficult. I’d only recommend this for those who are sure-footed and have a head for heights. 6 hours (it took us an additional hour to descent the ridge), 10km.
Gurnigel to Stockhorn, Bernese Oberland
A panoramic path along the Gantrischkette that is known as one of the most beautiful in the Alps, and rightly so. Getting to the top of Stockhorn, the highest mountain in the Gantric range, is certainly a climb, but in terms of “mountain summits,” it’s completely doable as a sweaty day hike (even a solo day hike!). There are actually only two big ascents: one at the beginning to Leiterenpass, and the last push at the end from Bachegg to Stockhorn. That last climb to the finish is not exposed, but you can see how high up you are, and I just mainly forced myself to not look down. The middle is one big, beautiful panoramaweg starring the Bernese Alps. The trail starts at the Gurnigel watershed Post Bus stop (Wasserscheide), which feels like the middle of nowhere in the best way. I got on the trail a bit late, but managed to make it to the summit in time for a quick victory beer before catching the last gondola down to Erlenbach.
*Note: There is one section after Leiterenpass where the trail forks and it’s unmarked. Take the trail to the right, the lower trail that winds around the mountains (not the trail that heads upward).
Start: Gurnigel Watershed bus stop
End: Stockhorn mountain station (cable car down to Erlenbach in Simmental)
Basic Route: Gurnigel -- Leiterenpass - Chuelouenen - Oberi Walalp - Bachegg - Stockhorn
Length and Rating: Moderately difficult. it’s 12km and nearly 1000 meters of ascent.
Walenpfad Hike, Engelberg, Central Switzerland
After a sudden cold snap, I thought summer hiking season might be over, but then in early September we got a sunny day in the middle of the week and I thought - “to heck with it, I’m going hiking!” This trail leads from the Brunni-Engelberg region to Bannalpsee, with a couple tough sweaty ascents, but nothing technical. There is one “tricky” section just past Walegg, where the trail hugs the mountainside with a steep drop-off to one side. There are steel cables to keep this part from being truly exposed, but it is a little rocky and could be vertigo-inducing nonetheless. The benefit of hiking the trail in this direction means you get to end at Nidwalden’s jewel, the lovely Bannalp lake.
However, if I were to do this hike again, I would consider doing it in the opposite direction, starting at Chruzhutte and ending at Ristis. This way has more downhill, but you’ll be facing the mountain ranges the whole time (instead of them being at your back for the majority) and it will end with spectacular views of Titlis and the whole of the central Alps. Finally, the Chruzhutte cable car is quite small and locally owned, meaning it doesn’t run that often and is quite small. The cable car takes you down to the tiny village of Oberrickenbach, where the Post Bus only runs once per hour. So, it could easily take 3 hours to get back to Zurich once you finish the hike going in this direction. But - the benefit is that you end up at the lake, which would be a wonderful place to soak in the late afternoon sun. There is no bad option there. The choice is yours!
Start: Ristis mountain station (connection from Engelberg)
End: Chrüzhütte cable car station (connection to Oberrickenbach)
Basic Route: Ristis -- Brunnihütte -- Walenalp -- Walegg -- Alp Oberfeld -- Berggasthaus Urnerstaffel -- Chrüzhütte
Length and Rating: Moderate. 12km, 4 hours, 800 meters ascent.
Three Lakes Trail and Aletsch Glacier, Valais, Southwest Switzerland
The "Big Three Lakes" trail suffers from poor marketing. Yes, you get to see the three lakes of Bettmersee, Blausee, Märjelensee - but they are pretty small (one is basically a puddle at the height of summer) and the hike description glosses over the best part: the Aletsch Glacier! The trail takes you right along the biggest glacier in the Alps, and you get unparalleled views of this massive river of ice. You can even go all the way down to the glacier's edge to really take in its sheer size - and also understand how quickly it is receding :( Full disclosure: I didn't do this hike myself, but Raunaq (my partner in crime in hiking, and in all things) embarked on the trail while I was in California and gave it rave reviews. He noted that it’s the type of hike I would have a “moment of despair” on, meaning it’s probably pretty long and tough. 21km, 6 hours, 3 lakes, 1 glacier. I can't wait to check it out for myself.
Start and End: Betten Talstation, then Bettmeralp cable car up to Bettmeralp.
Basic Route: Betten talstation - Bettmeralp – Bettmersee – Blausee – Biel – Hohbalm – Roti Chumma – Märjelensee – Obers Tälli (tunnel) – Fiescheralp > Bettmeralp > Betten talstation
Length and Rating: Moderately difficult. It’s going to be a long, full day, especially if you are making this a day trip from Zurich.