Sometimes a story can be told in numbers. Switzerland has a long-standing reputation as the go-to Mecca of winter sports, but certain statistics would suggest there is a whole lot more to this blessed country than good times in the snow.
65,000 kilometres of walking trail extend throughout Switzerland. If you walked 20km every day, it would take you nine years to complete that distance. With the initiative the Swiss take in making the most of their landscapes, there would probably be even more than 65,000km by the time you crossed the finish line – what with 1,500 volunteers setting up and maintaining over 50,000 signposts and way markers that make hiking here both efficient and safe.
Many Aussies are realising the opportunities that await them patiently over in Europe, while others remain in the dark; half of Australia’s visitors to Switzerland go hiking. With this in mind we thought we would take a closer look at three of the best long-distance hikes on offer.
‘Via Alpina’. What lovely words. Saying them feels good. But hiking the Via Alpina feels even better. Beginning in Vaduz in Liechtenstein and finishing in Montreux, this incredible 390km walking trail traverses 14 of the country’s most spectacular alpine passes and heads through six cantons, the Swiss equivalent of states.
It’s just about the whole array of human experience condensed into 20 days of your life. You really are up in the alps; you ascend 23,600m in total, walking to great heights from which you can look down at the landscape surrounding you and feel big.
But then, you really are down in the valleys, too. The walk descends a total of 24,800m, so in other parts you can look up at mountains from the valley and feel small – and yet at home in the majesty of nature.
The diversity runs deeper. You pass through bustling towns with buzzing atmospheres, then you pass into rural silence, where friendly farmers offer you hand-crafted cheeses and overflowing mugs. You pass geologically brutal mountainscapes, the lush enclosure of the forest, and rolling valley farmlands.
THE ALPINE PASSES TRAIL
Then there’s the 34 day Alpine Passes Trail. On this epic trail, hikers make their way from Chur, through the southern Alps, to Lake Geneva. En route, they head through 32 passes, in the Graubünden and Valais Alps. You’ll be on a high alright; some of the peaks surrounding you are 4,000m plus. This is proper alpine territory; fittingly, you can nestle down in mountain huts come night-time, with the stars rippling overhead in profusion.
Untouched is perhaps the best word to describe this landscape. Close second is wild. And with 32 passes, those moments of discovery are repeated again and again. How special it is to approach a crest, not knowing what is on the other side, and then – as if a curtain has been pulled back – to suddenly experience another view, in all its glory, glowing in the afternoon sun.
A 34 day trek is not everyone’s cup of tea. Particularly given how challenging this one is; it spans 610km and gains 37,500m of altitude, counterbalanced by 37,700m of descent. Fortunately you can break it up, joining or leaving the track at any valley between passes. But just imagine, for a moment, that feeling of completion upon arriving at Lake Geneva – that feeling of accomplishment, as you collapse lakeside by the trembling waters.
JURA CREST TRAIL
Ever wonder what hiking was like back in the day, before backpacks with built in water bladders and high-performance compression stockings? When hiking was pure, a simple matter of putting foot before foot? The Jura Crest Trail gives you the chance to hearken back; it’s the oldest long distance trail in Switzerland, having received its first signpost back in 1905, and is blessed by its relative obscurity to international tourists.
This trail links Zurich and Geneva through the Jura mountains; specifically the hike stars in Dielsdorf and wraps up in Nyon, spanning 320km. It both ascends and gains 13,700m, and paints a sweeping arc north-west. Technically it is easy, but physically, it is demanding. Expect views of the alps, but also of the Black Forest and the Vosges, a low mountain range in neighbouring France. In the more immediately vicinity, you can expect deep ravines, endless meadows, mysterious forests, and alpine lakes and springs that pop up out of nowhere, unexplained. Sample the landscape, sure, but don’t forget to sample the range of local cuisines on offer, either.