Switzerland is a wonderland for the hiker: not only are there green pastures, quaint villages, snow capped peaks, contented cows and tumbling glaciers, but you will find that the Swiss have provided an infrastructure that makes hiking a pleasure. A world famous transportation system, superb maps, well-marked and designed trails and a full range of accommodations make getting about the country and to the trailhead part of the fun of visiting this alpine land where hiking is taken seriouslynot only as a national pastime, but as a national industry.
Public transportation offers access to trailheads, some in very remote places, and the rail and bus schedules in busier hiking regions tend to support the hiker's daily routine with additional transport scheduled between 8 and 9 a.m. and 4 and 5 p.m. The rail and postbus system enables hikers to travel from point to point and use public transportation back to the village where they are staying. Additionally, if you are hiking point to point, it is possible to send your baggage ahead by rail and carry only a daypack. Try to do that in the Rockies!
The easiest way to get around on the network is with a Swiss Pass that provides unlimited access to the rail, postbus and lake steamers of the country and provides some discounts on touristic conveyances such as chairlifts, cable cars, and private cog railways, many of which provide a boost to spectacular, high level trails high above the valley floors. If your pocket book is slim, there are also less comprehensive and less expensive packages vailablebut for those moving around a bit, the Swiss Pass provides both flexibility and freedom. Swiss Rail Passes are available through Rail Europe.
Swiss maps are incredibly detailed. Downside: they're expensive -- a good one runs around $20!and usually printed on paper that absolutely disintegrates when it becomes damp, so bring extra zip lock bags.
Trails are well posted in most regions of the country. Typically, the signs are yellow and list at each intersection and at village centers destinations followed by the amount of time each takes to reach. This is abbreviated on the sign as Std. for the German Stunde or hours.
Unlike in the United States, it is not customary to backpack and camp out in the Swiss Alps. In fact, primitive camping is banned most everywhere, and campgrounds offer relatively expensive and crowded conditions. When in Switzerland, do as the Swiss do, and stay in one of the myriad hotels, inns, or chalets (vacation apartments or ferienwohnung) in the villages, or in a berghaus, or hut, higher in the mountains. A comprehensive list of hotels and inns can be obtained from the Swiss Hotel Association, and lists of chalets and berghauses from tourist offices in the villages you wish to visit.
A half pension arrangement, including breakfast and dinner, is usually a good package offered by hotels and inns, but you may prefer to stay in a bed and breakfast arrangement and find your own dinner if your appetite is light or if you prefer the intrigue of dining out. Unlike in the States, the restaurants associated with hotels are often quite good, and you may find that you get your best meals right at your hotel. Breakfast is always included in the room rate. One note: hotels designated as garni do not offer dinner.
Berghauses, or mountain inns, offer idyllic and remote lodging in simple accommodations, often without showers and with toilet facilities on the hall or in an outhouse. What they lack in plumbing, they often make up in charm and you may find yourself tucked up in a wood paneled room with lace curtains, a white down comforter, and a candle to light your way. Swiss huts, conversely, are more spartan, offering bunk style accommodations, often with bunkmates who have been climbingand wearing the same set of polypropylenefor days.
One misconception about the huts in Switzerland is that one may easily organize hut to hut excursions.Actually, Swiss huts are primarily run by the Swiss Alpine Club to provide shelter and access to the higher peaks. Typically, they are at the end of a trail and are not logically and sequentially linked as are the huts in Austria. Additionally, many require climbing equipment, skills and knowledge of glacial travel to access.
If you'd rather leave it to the pros, (since what you envision as a moderate hike to a charming inn might turn out to be a grueling endurance test ending at a spartan bunkhouse) there are a few Swiss tour operators who design independent itineraries to reflect your personal vision of hiking in the Alps: from meadow wandering to high alpine passes, and berghauses to five star splendor.
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