Trekking the Swiss Alps

The Haute Route
By Karen Walker, Ryder Walker Alpine Adventures

The Haute Route can be followed from Chamonix, France through to Saas Fee in a week to ten days or more , depending on how much of a purist you are and how much transport you elect to use. A good intermediate jumping off point is Arolla, and the traverse through to Saas Fee encompasses five hiking days on a more or less standard route through the most spectacular portions of the Valais. Along the way, the villages of Les Hauderes, Grimentz, Zinal, St. Luc and the tiny outpost of Gruben offer provide primarily simple lodging with a smattering of better two and three star accommodations. Once in the more highly developed western part of the German Valais, there is a full range of hotels, all the way up to five star hotels and sybaritic, gourmet hideaways. Typically, the hiking is strenuous, involving four thousand or more feet of vertical ascent to a remote pass most days. The views from these vantage points are stunning. One can see far into the French Alps and ahead to the peaks of the Mischabel range, which form a unique and rarely seen or photographed perspective, the Wiesshorn, Dent Blanche, and the Zinal Rothorn-- all names familiar to those interested in the gory history of alpinism.

Of course, all treks in the Alps are not strenuous and remote. One of the most fascinating and charming inn to inn walks winds along the flanks of the broad and sunny Engadine valley and offers moderate hiking with the added bonus of exceptionally atmospheric, antique inns and first class hotels. From near the Austrian border you can follow the Via Engiadina Bassa and connect the fascinating, pristine villages from Vinadi through Tschlin, Vna, Sent, Scuol, Tarasp or Ftan, Ardez, Guarda, Lavin, Zuoz and Zernez. The possibilities for shorter or longer outings are almost limitless and the relatively frequent local buses make a number of escape hatches possible along the way.

The walking is constantly engaging; the Silvretta and Lischana ranges overlook the valley, where 17th century villages rest almost unchanged on the sunny hillsides. Beneath flows the En River and at Tarasp stands a regal castle, a remnant from the Hapsburg Empire. The architecture itself is reason enough to visit, with elaborate painted plaster decorating the homes, carved wooden doors large enough to permit a hay wagon to pass, ornate metal grillwork, and of course, window boxes filled with exuberant flowers. The culture is a unique remnant of the Roman empire known as Romansch, and the rare Romansch, or Ladin, tongue, which accounts for only one percent of the languages spoken in Switzerland, can be heard in the villages or in masses at the local churches. The lower Engadine leaves one with a sense of having traveled not only to a far away place, but to a faraway time.

As you hike up the En River, the villages become larger, and the southern, or upper, end of the valley is home to some famous resort villages, including the overbuilt St. Moritz. Opt instead to link the villages of Pontresina and Sils Maria or Sils Baselgia and take advantage of the region's transport systems. After half a week of wandering along the flanks of the lower Engadine valley, you will be ready to hike high up on the ridges (or ride a cable car or funicular there) for views of the snowclad Bernina massif. The Muottas Muragl lift offers gentle to moderate hiking with extensive panoramic views of the Bernina range and the broad En valley with its sparkling lakes. Numerous gentle to moderate trails link Pontresina to St. Moritz and Sils. Accommodations through the upper Engadine tend to be high end-- first class hotels and inns with every amenity and service -- with a price tag to match.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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