Of all the countries I have visited, Switzerland leads the pack, in the amount of natural beauty it manages to pack into such a small geographic area. And the Swiss with their trains, gondolas and tunnels carved into mountainsides make it so easy to explore. But even with this added benefit, a lifetime wouldn’t be long enough to find all the beautiful vistas this country has to offer.
The Matterhorn Region
The area around Zermatt is a landscape photographer’s dream. Tucked away in the upper reaches of the Matter Valley (Mattertal), Zermatt is the gateway to an alpine wilderness of rugged beauty. Like much of southern Switzerland, the region’s history is dominated by glacial activity, and a number of large glaciers remain here today. Then there is the Matterhorn, which dominates the horizon for miles around.
Here are a few suggestions to start your adventurers in this region.
Stellisee – This small mountain lake lies above the Matteral to the east of Zermatt, and can be reached via a 20-minute hike from the Blauherd Summit Gondola station.
Riffelsee – This is a small mountain lake west of Zermatt near the base of the Matterhorn. It is accessible via the Gornergrat Bahn cog railway. After you get off at the Rotenboden station it is a 10 minute walk.
Lago Goillet – This lake offers another beautiful vantage point of the Matterhorn from the Italian side. Its a bit of a journey from the Swiss side, via the Trockener Steg Mountain Station. The alternative is to come up from Breuil-Cervinia, Italy.
Kulmhotel Gornergrat / Gornergrat Rail Station – Both locations offer a beautiful view of the Gornergrat Glacier valley and the landscape around the Matterhorn above the Matteral. For those interested in extending their adventure further, I recommend investigating the trek across Gornergrat Glacier to the Monte Rosa haute.
Its between Schwyz and Lucerne that several mountain ranges and glacially carved lakes converge to create one of the most beautiful natural landscapes I have ever witnessed. And its from the high peaks that dot the landscape that the views go from great to spectacular.
Hwy 8 Scenic Viewpoint
My first introduction to the Schwyz-Lucerne area was during a return trip to Switzerland from Germany and Austria via Hwy 8, which makes its way into the Schwyz canton from the north. There are several pullouts along this section of highway, with the last one (see above) before you drop into the village being the most breathtaking. It also gives you a sense of the amazing photographic potential of this area, especially given the inclination of the Swiss as I have come to know them, for making it relatively easy to visit many high points in the Swiss Alps.
Grosser Mythen is a prominent mountain peak just to the north of Schwyz. From the village a hiking trail rises to Holzegg Pass, passing along the way, the monastery of St. Josef. From Holzegg the trail ascends steeply to the top of the mountain, which offers both a trekking haute, where overnight accommodations can be made, and an amazing panoramic view of the Swiss Alps, Schwyz, and the lakes of Lauerzersee and Lake Lucerne (Vierwaldstättersee).
Flickr: Photo Gallery
Stoos Ridge (Klingenstock to Fronalpstock)
Stoos Ridge bridges two prominent peaks south of Schwyz (Klingenstock and Fronalpstock) and offers breathtaking views of Lake Lucerne, and the surrounding glacial valleys. Reaching the ridge requires a series of trips via cable car and chair lift, starting in the valley below the car-free village of Stoos. Once in Stoos, chair lifts are available to both peaks, with many hikers starting at Klingenstock and hiking in a northwest arch toward Fronalpstock. The complete journey is approximately 5km unless one chooses to forgo the chair lifts and hike the complete loop.
And for those famished after their hike, Fronalpstock offers a restaurant, the highest one in Schwyz Canton.
Flickr: Photo Gallery
Of the mountain views I discuss here, Mt. Pilatus, is much closer to Lucerne than Schwyz. Like the others, it offers a different view of the same intertwined lake and mountain system common to the area. It is also the most famous, probably because of how accessible it is. During much of the year, visitors can reach the top of the mountain via the village of Alpnachstad and the world’s steepest cogwheel railway, which has been in operation since 1889. Alternatively, gondolas and cable cars operate year-around from Kriens. And if you so desire there are trails to hike up to the top under your own power.
Both Kreins and Alpnachstad can be accessed by car and the Swiss Rail system.
As the largest glacier in the Alps, the Aletsch (Aletschgletscher) by default is a must see for landscape photographers, especially those who enjoy a wild landscape of rock and ice. The most popular viewpoints are from the Bettmerhorn and Eggishorn, which can be accessed via cable cars. The Eggishorn viewpoint is the one most familiar to the author and can be reached starting in the village of Fiesch, where the Swiss Rail system has a station. Other access points include gondolas from the village of Morel and the Betten train station. These carry you to the top of the same ridge that overlooks the glacier.
If you want a glimpse of rural life in Valais, be sure to stroll through one of the three villages (Belalp, Riederalp and Bettmeralp) that lie between Eggishorn and Bettmerhorn.
On a clear day one can see the Matterhorn on the southern horizon.
If time is the photographers overriding consideration when visiting Switzerland, the place I would probably recommend first is the Lauterbrunnen Valley, and its surrounding mountains, hillsides, and villages. Only a few hours from the Zurich airport, Lauterbrunnen is the epitome of the u-shaped glaciated valley. And centuries removed from the melting of the glacier that formed it, the valley and hills above have filled in with the beautiful colors of life.
The starting point for most is the ride into the valley, either by car or train, and this alone is worth the visit. But once you have stopped in the village of Lauterbrunnen, and admired the wonders of this valley from below, don’t forget to jump on a train or gondola and see it from above. Whether its the villages of Gimmelwald, Murren, or Wengen that cling to the slopes above the valley, all offer commanding vistas of this natural wonder of the Swiss Alps. But if you have enough time, another level of beautiful vistas awaits. There is the rotating restaurant on the peak of Schilthorn, made famous by the James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, as well as the highest rail station in Europe at Jungfraujoch. From the train station at Kleine Scheidegg perched above the village of Grindelwald in the valley east Lauterbrunnen, the railway winds makes it way up to a col between the mountain peaks of Jungfrau and the Mönch. On the journey the train passes through a tunnel carved through the Eiger and Monch, and offers an open air stop at Eigergletscher (Eiger Glacier).
Murren-Gimmelwald Via Ferrata (The valley at its most spectacular, but not for the faint of heart).
The Kandersteg, the valley immediately to the west of Lauterbrunnen, and south of Interlaken offers its own variety of alpine splendor, with the crown jewel being the glacially fed or Lake Oeschinen. Its this glacier melt that gives the lake its distinctive turquoise color, and when the winds are calm and the lake turns to glass, the view becomes magical. The lake is a popular summer retreat accessible by gondola and hiking trail from the village Kandersteg. The best views of the lake are from the hiking trail that rises along its northern edge. For the adventurous, the trail rises high into the Bernese Alps to Blümlisalphütte (an alpine lodge), where those with prior reservations can spend the night.
The Trift Gorge carved out mostly from runoff by the upstream Trift Glacier (Triftgletscher) is located in the Urner Alps near Gadmen. Centered in the Grimselwelt region of the Bern Canton, the hike in offers a spectacular view of the Triftsee, a lake that formed in 2002 as a result of global warming and the shrinking glacier. Before the glacier receded, hikers would cross the glacier to various mountain huts in the surrounding mountains, but the melting made that impossible to do. This led to the construction of a foot bridge, the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the Swiss Alps, in 2004. The bridge crossing and the view it offers is the reward for those willing to make the journey up the canyon.
Hikers have the choice of starting their hike in Gadmen, or taking a cable car part way. For those with extensive alpine experience, the trail continues onto the Trifthuette, where advanced reservations can be made. More family friendly accomodations are available at the Windegghutte, which is accessible via a side trail prior to reaching the Triftsee Bridge.
The Unteraar Glacier located in the Grimselwelt region is by far the most remote area covered here, and is reminiscent of the experience you might expect in similar glacially covered landscapes like Alaska. Roads are few, and gondolas non-existent. Getting in requires a long hike, at least 8 hours round-trip. Unterraar offers a rugged, primal beauty, that forgoes the forested mountainsides and pastureland of other Swiss alpine valleys. But the reward at the end, near the Lauteraarhütte, is well worth the trip.
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