Choosing a destination or two to visit in Switzerland is rather like choosing from a dessert cart: everything looks wonderful! Some villages are good for a day or two, others merit weeks of exploration. Typically, the more developed resorts are good for up to a week of hiking, while the smaller villages offer two or three days of varied walks. Within Switzerland, there are three regions of particular appeal to hikers: the Valais, the Oberland, and Engadine.
The Valais to the French speaker, or Wallis to the German speaker, is an arid canton with many of Europe's highest, glaciated peaks. Typically, the weather is sunny and dry, making a hiker's paradise. Numerous trails follow ancient bisses, or hand built irrigation channels, that cross the hillsides and link farming hamlets and high pastures, or alps, and carry the hiker back in time. The Valais is home to the world famous destination of Zermatt, with its icon of adventure, the Matterhorn, and the resort town of Saas Fee, set beneath tumbling glaciers and home to two of the Alps' finest high level walks.
If you prefer to get more off the beaten path, consider visiting Kippel or Wiler in the Lotschental, a valley that time forgot, just north of the Rhone. Otherwise, travel into the French speaking portion of the canton south of the Rhone. There, the hiker can find unspoiled Valaisian villages with original, blackened timber houses, citizens (especially the older generation) in traditional costume, plenty of miles of untrammeled hiking, and fabulous and unusual views of the snowy, glaciated Pennine Alps. The villages of Arolla, Les Hauderes, Grimentz and the quirky artist's colony of St. Luc offer primarily simple accommodations and access to hundreds of miles of good trails: but come prepared with maps and map reading skills!
The Oberland, including both the Jungfrau region and the southwestern Oberland, is Switzerland at its most classic. Snowy peaks tower over green meadows filled with the world's most happy and beautiful cows. Pastoral culture is alive and well (largely subsidized by a government that recognizes the value of regional culture in a touristic economyand hooray for that!), and trails wander through meadows and climb high into the peaks with views over Europe's most famous mountain scenery, including the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau. Through all of this, little slat-seated cog railways chug, red cable cars ascend, airy funiculars slide, and bright yellow post buses wind their way and blow their characteristic three-note horns on the mountain curves. In the Jungfrau region, consider staying in one of three villages. . .
Grindelwald, below the daunting north face of the Eiger, is colorful, cosmopolitan and costly.
Wengen, over the Kleine Sheidegg from Grindelwald, is quiet and car free with spectacular views over the Lauterbrunnen valley and to the Jungfrau.
Murren , the sleepiest of the resort villages, is perched opposite Wengen above the Lauterbrunnen valley, commands beautiful views of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau, and offers a small selection of modest to moderately expensive hotels.
For less touristy destinations, Gimmelwald, near Murren, is a tiny hamlet that offers beautiful views over the end of the valley and a youth hostel and simple, friendly pension. Wilderswil, at the mouth of the Lauterbrunnen valley, is a small Swiss town with a convenient location, an untouristy feel, and a few hotels with reputations for good value.
The southern and western portions of the Bernese mountains offer spectacular hiking without the crowds of the Jungfrau region. To the south, Kandersteg lies beneath the mighty Blumlisalp massif and offers a network of trails that climb high among the peaks to alpine club huts and a number of gentler valley walks and lift accessed trails. Nearby, Adelboden lies at the head of a long valley south of Thun and offers a blend of pastoral and mountain scenery and turn-of-the-century, Victorian resort flavor, including a couple of grand old hotels. Lenk is a largely undeveloped and unpretentious little town ideally situated for hikes in the Simmental region and forays to the western reaches of the Oberland and into the French speaking Pays D'Enhaut, where two villages are also worthy of a visit: Gstaad (despite its glitzy reputation) and Chateau D'Oex (despite its lack of one).
Perhaps the greatest hiking region of all is Engadine. Canton Graubunden in the southeastern portion of Switzerland is an intriguing corner to explore, not only for the hiking but for the culture, architecture and ambiance. The broad valley of the En or Inn River is home to a number of villages and towns that are perfect hiking bases. The southern or Upper Engadine is better known and offers a highly developed trail and transportation system. Pontresina offers access to fabulous trails of all difficulties and a well developed lift system. Tiny, sleepy Sils Maria is a jewel of a village located on a plain between two sparkling lakes studded with brilliant wind-surfers. Samedan is a larger town, bustling with contemporary life, free from tourists and filled with intact examples of Engadine architecture. From any of these locations you can enjoy fabulous hiking with views of the snowy Bernina massif, glacier clad peaks and the lakes along the valley floor or venture south into the Bregaglia region, which offers remote and beautiful hiking with views of the granite spires of the Sciora Range.
Less well known than the upper Engadine is lower Engadine to the north. Ringed by the Silvretta range to the north and the lower Lischana group to the south, the region is home to numerous, tiny, antique villages and is traversed by a long distance, panoramic trail. There is excellent moderate walking and some strenuous, longer forays into the higher peaks, but do not expect the lifts, mountain restaurants, or other touristic conveniences of the upper Engadine. Here you will get a chance to see the unique Romansch culture still intact: you will hear and see the language written, observe the architecture unspoiled, meet the people who will greet you with their joyous"allegra!" and walk through villages almost unchanged from the 18th century. The regional center of Scuol is a good base and an authentic town with both antique and modern culture and a futuristic spa. Throughout the region are sprinkled a number of first class hotels, and charming small inns. Tarasp, Ftan, and Guarda give visitors the opportunity to stay in a small village and allow access to some of the region's hikes.
Thanks to Karen Walker of Ryder Walker Alpine Adventures for sharing her knowledge about Swiss hiking with us!
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication