Passes & Highs on Switzerland’s Via Alpina

Looking back towards the Rotstock Hut on the Via Alpina | Nicola Croom
Looking back towards the Rotstock Hut on the Via Alpina | Nicola Croom

On the Via Alpina in Switzerland… I see blue skies, green pastures, high rugged mountains, turquoise lakes and window boxes full of flowers.


Did you know that UTracks now offers a one-week section of the Via Alpina Green Trail (1), the long-distance trail across Switzerland? The route is also known as the Swiss Alpine Pass Route, which is part of the full Via Alpina across eight countries. Our itinerary covers the stage from Meiringen to Lenk, crossing some of Switzerland’s most stunning Alpine scenery. Nicola, from our London office, hiked this classic trail during the first week of September with her partner and sat down to review the trip. 

Why did you choose to walk the Via Alpina with UTracks?

After having experienced the Mont Blanc Guided Walk a few years ago with UTracks, we wanted to do another hike high into the mountains during the European summer. This time we wanted something that was challenging but with some comfortable hotels for our overnight stays. Having researched the Via Alpina green trail, the one-week trip seemed to fit exactly what we were looking for. It is self guided, meaning we had the freedom to walk at our own pace. We had high expectations of seeing the classic Swiss scenery, green pastures dotted with cows, pretty wooden houses with window boxes of flowers, and high, rugged snow-capped mountains.

Hiking down off the Hohturli Pass |  <i>Nicola Croom</i> Via Alpina Signpost |  <i>Nicola Croom</i> Grindelwald, the view from our hotel after a day out hiking on the Via Alpina |  <i>Nicola Croom</i> Ladders on the way up to the Hohturli Pass (2778m) |  <i>Nicola Croom</i> Lake Oeschinensee near Kandersteg on the Via Alpina |  <i>Nicola Croom</i> Rotstock Hut |  <i>Nicola Croom</i>
 

What were your highlights of walking in Switzerland?

As soon as we were on the train from Zurich Airport to Meiringen, I knew we had made the right trip choice. Out of the window were those classic postcard views. It was meeting all our expectations and we hadn’t even started hiking yet! The views were wonderful every day, but especially down the Lauterbrunnen Valley with the waterfalls tumbling off the cliffs. It must be one of the most beautiful parts of Europe. I loved the pretty villages and green pastures, but one of the biggest highlights for me was the sense of achievement of getting across the highest passes on the trek, very rewarding days.

What were your accommodations like?

They were all charming properties, and well located in the village centres. It was great to finish each day with a comfortable bed and a warm welcome from the friendly, Swiss hosts. We opted to upgrade our accommodations, so enjoyed some great spa facilities in a few locations along the trail.

Being the highest pass on the route, how did you find the Hohtürli Pass?

Wow! This was the best day of the trip, and at the same time one of the hardest. I totally understand why this part of the Swiss Alps has received UNESCO World Heritage status.
We were lucky to wake up to clear blue skies, ideal hiking weather. Leaving our traditional wooden chalet-style hotel in Griesalp, the trail begins quite gently. Soon we were hiking up steep gradients though, with some sections quite eroded. So, you need to be sure-footed. As we got higher, the scenery got more and more spectacular. Then you reach the stairs – the Swiss have efficiently arranged a set of staircases to cross the steepest scree slopes. They made crossing the unstable slopes relatively easy – except of course you are hiking up a very steep gradient. Then, before we knew it, we were at the top!
Just above the pass is the Blüemlisalp Hut, it means just a short 10 mins or so of extra climbing and you can have a cold beer or hot chocolate, depending on the weather of the day! From the hut it is a long descent down to Kandersteg, down scree slopes and some exposed paths passing the turquoise lake of Oeschinensee. The lake is really something to behold. I had seen pictures before I went and just assumed filters had been used to make the lake appear so blue. But it really is that blue in real life! We eventually walked into Kandersteg happy, but exhausted, after an 8-hour hike on the strenuous terrain. Again, it was great to arrive to a warm welcome at our central and comfortable hotel in the village, where we could toast our achievement with a beer and make plans for dinner.

How did you train for this hiking trip?

We were both experienced hikers, but a bit out of practice. So, we used our weekends leading up to the Switzerland trip to get some good hiking miles under our belts in preparation. We also planned a long weekend in the Lake District in the UK to get prepared for the ascents/descends on rough terrain.

What time of year do you recommend to hike the Via Alpina trail?

The hiking season in Switzerland is relatively short. You are crossing high passes on this trip, which can be buried by deep snow over the winter. This means that, depending on the spring weather, some of the passes might still be closed early in the season. UTracks can offer the trip in late June, but you should be aware that deviations might be needed on the trails if the passes are closed. For the best chance of crossing all the passes, I would recommend to do this walk between mid-July and early September. Keep in mind that this is a real alpine walk and the weather is very changeable. Two days after we crossed the Hohtürli Pass for example, there was significant snow on the pass, luckily it was still open to trekkers.

On the Via Alpina hiking above Meiringen |  <i>Nicola Croom</i>

What weather should I expect in the Swiss Mountains?

Everything! Hopefully you get glorious sunshine every day, but let’s be realistic, this is the Alps and the weather can change at any time. We had brilliant sunshine for some days, but then also days of rain and low cloud. You just need to be prepared for all weathers with your clothing (layer up!).
Even in the rain, the area is still very beautiful. Yes, if it is raining you might not see the high mountain tops, but hiking through the verdant green valleys with moody dramatic clouds has a certain charm too.

Isn’t Switzerland a very expensive holiday destination?

It is definitely one of the more expensive places to visit in Europe, but by planning ahead you can help keep your costs down.  We actually spent far less than we expected to. We purchased our lunches from the supermarkets each day, which you can do so for a very reasonable cost. Bringing a packed lunch box and some cutlery from home can be useful for this! I found public transport from the airport was one of our biggest extra expenses. But we saved a considerable amount by buying “super-saver” train tickets online from the Swiss Rail website. Or if you are planning on doing a more extensive trip in Switzerland, consider buying one of their half-price passes, which gives you 50% off travel. 

Who would you recommend the Via Alpina in Switzerland for?

Anyone who is a fit hiker and who is looking to explore the Alps, but likes home comforts. You have some classic views on this trip of the Jungfrau (4158m), Schreckhorn (4078m) and Mönch (4107m) together with the famous Eiger (3970m) and the Wetterhorn (3692m). Spectacular!

Where next?

Mmmmm… I am not sure. But I have our new self guided Monte Rosa Alpine Walk, Dolomites Guided Walk, and Transylvania Mountains & Castles on my radar for the future! Or maybe a cycling trip like our new Cycle Croatia to Albania trip, it looks like a fascinating region I would like to explore more.

 

Want to talk to Nicola about walking in the European Alps? Contact her in our London office.

 
Switzerland, Alpine Walks

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