My trip was for three days of hiking, through the Jungfrau region, taking in Meiringen, Grindelwald, Lauterbrunnen and Wengen. The hotels and baggage transfer service, which was seamless, was supplied by tour operator Eurotrek.
The Via Alpina route.
My article is a taste of some of the most beautiful sections of the Swiss Via Alpina 1 route. However, the Via Alpina organisation is a collaboration of eight countries, with routes spanning 5000km of differently graded trails, that ascend to 3000m at its highest. The routes were created to improve access to remote alpine regions, improve tourism and access to the distinct cultures and, of course, create some of the most epic hiking to be had in Europe. The different routes are colour coded.
The Swiss section, the Via Alpina 1, is a 350km route. It isn’t too technical, but to complete this walk solo with all your baggage onboard is a serious walk and requires a decent level of walking experience and good fitness. Think the Pennine Way on steroids each day, but with the convenience of a different town each night to refuel and rest.
The Via Alpina 1 is marked regularly along its path by very obvious trails with a red and whited banded way-marker.
The navigation for the Via Alpina is extremely easy. Maps and a compass are essential on any mountain journey, however I only ever needed to use a map each evening, as I visualised the route for the following day. The route marking is so regular, with many of the trails being highly defined and well used, that I had no need to consult a map. It would be very hard to get lost and this translates to many high alpine routes in the region.
It is possible to wild camp the route in places though to do the route in its entirety in this style would take a good level of experience and carrying really lightweight gear. I am a keen solo hiker and have the necessary ultralight shelters required, but my trip had some luxury hotels thrown in and Swiss Travel Pass. I was lucky to be able to take full advantage of the baggage transfer service with Eurotrek. It felt like cheating compared to my solo adventures elsewhere, but I was definitely glad as I arrived at each hotel at the end of a hard day.
I met several hikers along my trip, who were completing the entire Swiss Via Alpina 1 and they were mainly using hostels and cheap hotels en-route. Each section is divided into achievable distances for one full days walking, connecting each town along the route. With this in mind, the Via Alpina is best tackled in summer, or the prime walking season of September, as I did. The weather is warm and sunny, sometimes seriously warm too, but it lacked the belting heat of July to August and allows enough daylight to complete each section without panic or having the maps out and a headtorch on. The section based route also allows you to dip into some of the route and it’s possible to tick off the entire journey over several trips if that’s how you like to travel.
Day 1 Meiringen to Grindelwald
My schedule meant arriving in Meiringen the evening before, via train from Zurich. I was supplied with a Swiss Travel Pass. Please see my previous article on the travel pass (LINK) for more details. The passes are not cheap, but they offer a huge amount of flexibility. Crucially the travel pass allows you to cut out sections of a hike, utilising buses or funicular trains to tick off some altitude if needed. I freely admit to ‘cheating’ on two of the days, avoiding a huge climb from Meiringen and latterly in Lauterbrunnen.
Meiringen is a small and sleepy town, most famous for the Reichenbach Falls, immortalised by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and the falls are where Moriarty and Holmes famously fought on the cliffs and fell to a watery demise. There is a funicular cog rail car to the falls and it is definitely worth a look. The falls are visible from the town and lit at night, you can hear the water thundering into the gorge.
There’s a small selection of cafes, bars and restaurants in Meiringen and I arrived in the tail end of the season with the majority of people eating or drinking being locals I stayed at the Hotel Alpin Sherpa, which is conveniently situated next to the train station and several restaurants.
The next morning I used my travel pass to catch a bus from the valley, up to Rosenlaui, a classic Belle Epoch hotel that sits next to the bus stop with the Rosenlaui glacier gorge just above. This proximity shaved a three hour walk up through forests and placed me at the head of the trail to ascend to cow-filled pastures and beyond to Grindelwald, my destination on day one. Before I headed off, I spent an hour walking through the Rosenlaui gorge. An amazing and powerful glacial river has carved cave like structures through the mountainside and is definitely worth a visit.
The Via Alpina in Switzerland is all about a lot of up and generally, an equal amount of down at the end of each day, as it uses mountain pass routes on each leg.
The route from Meiringen to Grindelwald is relatively easy walking, slipping through forest and grazing pastures of the Gschwantenmad plain, with the Wellhorn always to my left, before arriving at the mountain pass at 1962m above sea level. On arrival at the Grosse Scheidegg pass, I was greeted by a local cheese festival, with many locals and tourists out in the sunshine drinking and eating. It was a great introduction to Swiss rural culture in the Jungfrau region.
Amazing views of the Wetterhorn, hugely imposing and flanking my descent into the Grindelwald valley, gave way to the Bernese Oberland and views of the rear of Jungfrau, Monch and the Eiger
The Eiger, with it’s north face looming over the town of Grindelwald, became an inescapable feature of the next day’s walking too, until I passed over the Kleiner Scheidegg pass towards Wengen.
Grindelwald is a beautiful town, dominated by the 1800m north face of the Eiger. I checked into the fantastic Hotel Kirchbuhl, a traditional ski hotel with a beautiful sun terrace,
I walked into town on weary knees to eat out. I ate at Barry’s, a great restaurant and retired to Bar Avocado, an independent place run by a friendly Australian guy sinking a few well-earned beers on their balcony under the Eiger then staggered back up some steep paths to bed.
Day Two – Grindelwald to Wengen/Lauterbrunnen
Out of each day’s walking, this was my least favourite route. The Eiger loomed so steeply above the trail to my left that I couldn’t even see the summit, as I walked up a gravel path that follows the railway line to the Kleine Scheidegg pass.
On arrival at the pass, there is a busy railway terminus and several hotels and restaurants surrounding the station, including the iconic Belle Vue Des Alpes – one of the few remaining Grande Hotels of the 19th Century. Part of the hubbub is of course caused by the Jungfraujoch railway, the most expensive rail journey in the Alps I would guess, but a quick route to get you to the hallowed 3466m Jungfraujoch summit. Tourists flocked onto the train as I sat and ate the obligatory Bratwurst and Rosti on my lunch stop. I was quick to move on to avoid the crowds, leading me down again into pastures and then a lovely forest section to Wengen. Wengen on arrival felt very sleepy, but as I neared the town centre it came alive.
Wengen is perched above the exceptionally beautiful Lauterbrunnen valley, a wide gorge flanked with imposing cliffs that boasts numerous waterfalls. It is a must on any Swiss trip and the train journey down steep slopes into the valley bottom is amazing.
I stayed at the Hotel Victoria Lauberhorn, right in the town centre of Wengen.(PHOTO) This hotel has a fabulous spa facility in the basement, included in the room rate, so naturally I headed to the steam room, sauna and pool and relaxed before an excellent meal in their restaurant.
I can’t recommend this enough after two full days hiking and my legs felt almost totally rejuvenated. I also took a trip on the cable car to the summit above the town, using the Royal Ride, where you stand on top of the cable car with uninterrupted views of the surrounding mountains. Highly recommended but highly priced too.
I fell into bed and watched TV, feeling very much a tourist but excited at the prospect of the next day’s walking.
Day 3 Lauterbrunnen to Griesalp
I need a good few days to get into the swing of strenuous walking. All too soon I was on my last leg to Griesalp and my legs felt great. This is the second hardest day on the entire Swiss Via Alpina and despite the tough ascent and descent, it was breathtaking. The next leg from Griesalp to Kandersteg is the toughest route along the Via Alpina 1 and I am determined to go back and complete more legs in the future.
I caught the cable car from the valley floor in Lauterbrunnen, then jumped on the funicular to Murren, which cruises across the cliffs above Lauterbrunnen.
There were major works going on that day across several routes and trekkers had warned me to avoid the climb and catch the train. I took little convincing and I was so glad I took the train, as the ascent is brutal.
The weather was perfect, warm, full sun and I had the trail out of Murren to Griesalp to myself for several hours.
There were surprisingly few people using the Via Alpina and aside from honey-pot areas, I encountered less than twenty people on the more remote sections, over three full days of hiking. There are huts along the route, but not many and with this in mind, you need to be a competent hiker and confident if alone.
Stopping for lunch by the path, I met up with a chap called Ben from London. He’d been solo walking the whole Via Alpina and we’d walked together down into Wengen the previous day. He had a 70 litre pack on and everything including the proverbial sink in his pack. Hats off to him, but seriously; if you value your knees and want life to be easier, then try and lighten any loads if you do a solo attempt of the Via Alpina. I gave him my poles and this helped him considerably. Despite the town-based living at the start and end of each leg, I can’t stress enough, this is a tough walk!
We stuck together for a bit of company and walked the last leg down to Griesalp, where I left him to take my room at the Hotel Griesalp which has lovely rooms and offered a perfect quiet spot to recuperate before heading straight back to Zurich the next morning, via the Post Bus, the ubiquitous alpine bus service that can negotiate the tough rural roads.
I enjoyed my taste of the Via Alpina immensely. I was treated to excellent weather as to be expected in the September walking season in the Alps.
My trip was certainly a luxurious one, in comparison to some of the self-supported journeys I often make. If you have the budget, then I recommend using hotels or hostels in the towns along the Via Alpina. Utilising the Eurotrek service, to transfer my bags daily meant I only had a daypack with food and mountain essentials onboard. As I mentioned, I met others doing it the hard way and I would recommend that an ultralight approach is taken to make the experience easier and more enjoyable on the body and mind.
If I am to try the whole 350km route in the future, I will be doing it on a shoestring and will wild camp where I can. Switzerland is famously expensive and I would expect a 3 week trip with hotels and rail transfers to be a costly affair. Yet it is possible to do this journey cheaply, using supermarkets and cheap cafes and restaurants to refuel. Also, like any end to end through hike, it’s possible to choose which end of the country you will begin, or even ‘cherry-pick’ your way through the different sections of the Via Alpina 1.
It is definitely my perfect way to visit Switzerland, enjoying the excellent hotels and resorts then escaping into the remoteness of its mountains.