Photo by: swiss-image/Roland Gerth
The Grand Tour of Switzerland takes travellers all over the country for a driving experience that stretches 1,600kms long and spans 4 linguistic regions.
A circular route, it hits interesting villages and towns along the way. From Zurich, you can visit Appenzell for a unique high-altitude whisky tour, and then proceed south towards Graubünden and explore the massive Swiss National Park along its myriad hiking trails.
You can then visit Lugano in the Ticino region, where you can explore beautiful hikes along the Riviera. Proceed along the Tremola road – the most daunting of all mountain roads – to reach the top of the 2,106m-high Gotthard Pass and into Valais, home of the Aletsch glacier. For more, visit www.myswitzerland.com.
APPENZELL: Whisky Trek in the Alpstein
Located amidst a landscape of rolling hills, the village of Appenzell is situated in a region known for its rural customs, colourful frescoed buildings, gastronomical offerings, and its profusion of hiking trails. German-speaking Appenzell is the cultural centre of the Appenzell Innerrhoden, the smallest Swiss canton.
Appenzell benefits from a dense network of rambling trails, ranging from ‘experience trails’ like the barefoot trail near Gonten, to more punishing mountain hikes like Kronberg (1,663m) and Hohe Kasten (1,795m). A cableway takes you to the Ebenalp (1,644m) – the gateway to the hiking region of the Alpstein mountains.
Switzerland may not be famous for whisky – it was first produced in 1999 by Locher, a local beer brewer – but it has won international awards due to the special barrels in which they are produced. There are 6 types of Säntis Malt whiskies, all made with soft spring water from the Alpstein mountains, and then aged in historical oak wood beer barrels.
The barrels are then hand-carried up the mountains to the 27 inns spread throughout the Alpstein. Thanks to the different height and climate situation of each inn, every whisky tastes different.
When you hike up to these mountain inns, you can reward yourself with a glass of whisky while enjoying the panorama. Every inn has a store of its own unique whisky, which are available in a glass or in small 100ml bottles which are signed by the cask keeper to ensure that the exclusivity of the various whiskies is preserved.
TACKLE THE WHISKY TREK
Catering to whisky drinkers who also love the great outdoors, the Whisky Trek – the highest in the world at 2,502m – allows hikers to explore 27 mountain huts in the Alpstein to sample locally-made single malt whisky along the way.
Starting from the village of Appenzell, the Whisky Trek is not so much a preset route as it is a collection of mountain hutsthat you can visit. There are 2 versions available: the shorter one covers 9 inns of your choice plus their respective whiskies (CHF150), or the full tour which covers all 27 inns plus a collector’s box to hold all 27 bottles (CHF400). You can purchase booklets for the 2 tours, and get them stamped at the huts to claim your 100ml bottles.
You can visit one mountain inn per day, or combine a few on a one-day hiking trip, although some hikes are easier than others. Some huts are also reachable by cable car or car.
Appenzell is easily accessible via a 1.5-hour scenic train ride east of Zurich. Visitors staying at least 3 nights are entitled to the Appenzell Card which offers free rides on public transport and cable cars (Ebenalp, Hoher Kasten and Kronberg), free entrance to museums and other attractions.
GRAUBÜNDEN: Wildlife Hike in the Swiss National Park
The Swiss National Park – which at over 170sq.km. is the largest protected area in Switzerland – is located in the far eastern part of the country in Graubünden, and encompasses an impressive piece of Alpine landscape. Founded in 1914, this is the oldest National Park in the Alps and central Europe, and remains the country’s only one.
Along with a host of colourful Alpine flora, the park is known for its variety of Alpine animals such as ibexes, chamois, marmots, northern hares, lizards and innumerable birds. Situated in lower Engadine, the park is only open in summer (June to October).
EXPLORING THE PARK
The entire park can easily be explored along the 80kms of hiking paths and nature trails. There are 21 marked routes of varying degrees of difficulty; as the park is mountainous – it lies between 1,400m and 3,200m – many of the trails tackle considerable differences in altitude and go above the treeline.
The main entrance to the National Park is at Zernez, situated in the upper part of the Lower Engadine. It is the starting point of many hiking trails within the Park.
Hiking along the Inn River from Zernez to Lavin
(17.4km, 3.5 hours)
This is an easy hike that takes you along the flat terrain following the scenic Inn River. Along the way, the scenery is of wild forests that alternate with green meadows, with the mighty peaks of the Lower Engadine rising around the trails. The hiking season here stretches from June to October, with chances of blooming flowers in the spring.
The trail starts from Zernez and heads towards the picturesque village of Susch, located at the foot of the Flüela Pass, which is home to many houses built in the Graubünden style. The trail ends in the village of Lavin, where there is a railway station with regular services to Zernez.
The National Park Panorama Trail
(14.4 km, 7 hours)
The trail traverses the National Park, with striking views from the top of the Murterpass down into the wild Cluozza Gorge. Starting from the secluded Vallun Chafuol, it involves a long, steep climb to Fuorcla Murter (2,545m) which permits clear views of the Piz Quattervals, the highest point in the Park, along with the pristine valleys on its flanks.
The Cluozza-Tals valley crossing is considered the most beautiful section of the route. Around the midway point of the hike is the Chamanna Cluozza hut, a simple log cabin where you can fuel up or spend the night.
The hike proceeds past steep valley walls, which require a head for heights, before arriving at Sarasinstein and ending at Zernez village (1,473m). Best hiked from July to September, there may be chances of snow on high-level sections.
National Park staff lead guided trips every Thursday into the Trupchun valley (14km, 7 hours), which is an alpine region inhabited by deer, as well as marmots, chamois, and ibex. The guided hike starts from the National Park Visitor Centre in Zernez.
The picturesque Engadine village of Zernez is the gateway to the Swiss National Park, and is easily accessible by rail from Zurich in under 3 hours.
TICINO: Hiking the Sentiero in Cresta
On the southern side of the Alps lies Ticino with its Mediterranean flair – palm trees, beaches and piazzas dominate this Italian-speaking region. However, the mountains are always close by, where the wooded hills rise to high peaks from the shores of Ticino’s lakes. Here, a multitude of activities can be had: hiking, skiing, canyoning, mountain biking.
Lugano is the largest town in Ticino; as a hub of transport, you can easily access many of the surrounding mountains via cable cars.
SENTIERO IN CRESTA HIKE
The summit of Monte Lema is both a destination and a starting point for numerous ridge hikes, as well as mountain biking and paragliding. While mountain bikers can enjoy the downhill trails and bike park further down the valley, those who prefer to explore the ridgeline will be rewarded with some of the most scenic views Ticino has to offer.
One of the most famous routes is the Sentiero in Cresta (13km long, 5.5 hours), taking hikers from Monte Lema (1,624m) to Monte Tamaro (1,962m) along a ridge that is a classic amongst Swiss high altitude hikes, featuring panoramic views that stretch from Valle Levantina over the surrounding valleys up into the Pennine Alps in the west and the Grisons Alps in the east.
This hike runs almost exclusively along the ridge close to the Swiss-Italian border, and is best tackled between May and October.
Access to Monte Lema is via cable-car from Miglieglia in the Malcantone region. Right from the start, you have Lake Lugano on one side, and Lake Maggiore on the other, both scenically embedded in the mountains of southern Ticino.
This panorama remains a constant companion along the hike, which includes only 2 major climbs towards the end of the trail: one up Monte Gradiccioli and the final climb up to Monte Tamaro. There are also easy alternatives for bypassing both challenges.
At Monte Tamaro is the Capanna Tamaro hut, nestled close to the mountainside beneath the summit. Offering homemade specialties and stunning views from its terrace, it also has accommodation. Numerous hiking paths lead to all directions, including Indemini (930m), a typical Ticino village famous for its stone houses, slate roofs and wooden outbuildings.
From Tamaro’s peak, it’s a stone’s throw down to Alpe Foppa (1,530m) which is famous as the site for the Santa Maria degli Angeli church that was designed by architect Mario Botta and features paintings by Enzo Cucchi.
A gondola rail from here links travellers back down to Rivera, where buses and trains connect to Lugano (to the south) or the UNESCO-listed castle town of Bellinzona (to the north).
Ticino is accessible via the international airports of Zurich and Milan (Italy), both offering direct rail links into Lugano, taking 3 and 1.5 hours respectively. In addition, the newly-opened Gotthard tunnel will shorten the SBB journey to Ticino by an hour from other parts of Switzerland.
From 2017 onward, guests staying in hotels, youth hostels or campgrounds will be able to use all forms of public transportation in Ticino for free for the entire duration of their stay.
VALAIS: Mountain Biking in Aletsch Arena
With its unique and diverse landscape, Valais is a land of contrasts: to the north lie mountains rising to over 4,000m, with glaciers along the Rhone valley, while to the south are sprawling vineyards bordering Lake Geneva.
A highlight of this region is the impressive UNESCO-listed Aletsch Glacier which is 23km long and holds 27 billion tons of ice; its meltwater flows through the wild Massa Gorge into the Rhone.
With its alpine air, the Aletsch Arena is a good base to explore the region, providing a box seat view of the Aletsch Glacier and clear views of the Valais’ prettiest 4,000m peaks. Traditional Valais homes and chalets lend charm to the villages in the valley.
The sun-drenched resorts of Fiescheralp, Bettmeralp and Riederalp – at an elevation of about 2,000m – are easily accessible from the Rhone Valley. For those looking for adventure, there are hundreds of kilometres of hiking and mountain biking trails to explore.
From spring right through to autumn the Aletsch resorts of Fiesch, Fiescheralp, Bettmeralp, Riederalp and Belalp offer beautiful high-altitude walks, glacier crossings and breathtaking views of the surrounding Alps.
The village of Fiesch, where you can see typical Valaisian houses, is located at the entrance to the Fiescher valley. It is the ideal starting point for excursions into the area round the Aletsch Glacier, the Goms Valley, over alpine passes and into the town of Brig.
The region around Fiesch is a haven for mountaineers and hikers, with its innumerable mountain tours and over 100kms of hiking paths.
The Aletsch Arena boasts 100kms of MTB routes with varying difficulty, catering to riders of all abilities.
The leisurely Fieschertal Runde (11.5km, 1.5 hours) route passes idyllic hamlets like Lambrigge and Wichel, and crosses old Roman bridges along dirt tracks and forest paths. Beginning from Fiesch, it follows the old Kirchweg trail towards Fieschertal, partially following the Wysswasser stream.
The demanding Fiesch-Freichi trail (46.5km, 4.5 hours round trip) is all about variety, with plenty of technical challenges, scenic landscapes, idyllic Valais villages, and a rapid descent at the end. From Fiesch, the ride takes you through the Twingi Gorge and the hamlets of Ze Binne and Binn. You’ll also pass the beautiful village of Imfeld with its traditional Valais houses, where you can rest before an ascent along a dirt track to Schinerewysse, the highest point on the route (2,215m). From here, a rapid descent takes you through the the beautiful landscape of Freichi and the Twingi Gorge.
Mountain bike rentals are available in the Aletsch Arena. The best times to mountain bike are from June to October.
On 18 June 2017, the village of Bettmeralp will host the Aletsch Half Marathon, considered the most beautiful – and demanding – half marathon in Europe. Starting from 1,950m, the 21.2km-long course takes runners high along the very edge of the Aletsch Glacier, culminating in a steep final climb to finish line at 2,650m. Register at www.aletsch-halbmarathon.ch.
Fiesch, located in the Aletsch Arena, is accessible by road and rail from Zurich or Geneva, and is also located along the scenic Glacier Express train route.