Hiking Across Switzerland on the Via Alpina

“The best way to see a country is to walk across it,” they said. I could not agree more. After about 200 miles, 70,000ft of elevation gain, and 13 passes, I hiked across Switzerland through the Alp mountain range on the Via Alpina. This trail is hard. It’s steep. It’s rocky. It’s majestic. Have I mentioned before that I like to do hard things?

After flying to Geneva and taking a four-hour train across the country, I met up with my two hiking gal pals where we began our journey on the border of Switzerland and Liechtenstein in the fairytale town of Sargans. We filled up our water bottles in the town fountain and then set foot on trail with an immediate climb towards our first pass. Steep. First on neighborhood roads, then through tree shaded trail, and then through cow pastures. So. Many. Cows. All with cowbells that produce a beautiful melodic sound. The wind chimes of Switzerland. Do the cows get annoyed with constant sound, or do they get used to it? Although the cows are cute (and the cheese is delicious), deforestation for the use of cow pastures is a serious problem. Obviously poses a problem for the environment but selfishly also means lack of shade for us hikers. Hot and sweaty, we keep ascending. The trail changes to alpine meadows full of vibrant wildflowers. The amount of colors is truly magical. I had a mini “The Sound of Music” moment. As we ascend, the trail changes to rocky, scree fields until we make it to the top. Foopass: 2223 meters. Our first pass and boy was it beautiful. Our first view of the ever-expansive Alps. Beautiful snowcapped mountains. My happy place. I sigh, this is why we do hard things. We enjoy the moment and then begin our descent. We quickly realize that going down may not be easier than going up. Like I said, this trail is steep. RIP my knees. We also quickly realize that finding a flat camping spot may also be tricky. Exhausted from the day we finally find a flat-ish spot to set up and sleep for the night. We can’t be pitch princesses every night. Oh to falling asleep to the sound of wind chimes, I mean cowbells.


The next morning, we wake up to views of the Alps from the tent door, pack up camp, and finish the descent to get to the town of Elm. Talk about quaint. Houses with flower boxes in every windowsill, people tending to home gardens, and children running through the empty streets.  We got pastries from the local bakery and resupplied from the small market. We’re ready for the next pass. However, it’s actually 2 passes with a small valley in the middle. Steep. Hot. Cows. Wildflowers. We climb and we climb. As we’re approaching the first pass, we notice some dark clouds in the distance. Concerned, we start to hike faster. We make it to the top. Stunning views of the Alps span in all directions. However, we’re feeling rushed to beat the storm, so we press on. As we’re descending into the small meadow valley between passes, we notice a small shelter. A gift from God himself. We run to the door only to find it locked. Clouds are getting darker. We press on but I’m getting scared. I suggest to the group to go back to the shelter and check to see if the windows are unlocked. As we surround the shelter to look for any signs of a breach, we notice a small barn in the back that is open. Thank God! There’s an axe in the corner, rope hanging from a hook, a plastic sheet crumpled up in a pile, and a goat skull with horns on a pile of hay. A scene from a murder movie? Probably. A safe spot to wait out a storm? Definitely. Soon after we piled into the small room, it started pouring down rain with loud claps of thunder booming overhead. We have never been so grateful for an emergency shelter. As soon as the rain stops, a thick blanket of fog rolls in and envelops the mountains. The visibility is zero. Where I could see a babbling brook right outside the barn door, I could see only white. However, just as quickly as the fog came, it quickly went away, and bright blue skies opened up. The birds started chirping and the sun started shining. Weather is crazy, man.  It was late in the day, and we knew the next pass was supposed to be steep, so we decided to sleep in the said mentioned murder scene/barn/emergency shelter. It goes without saying, I didn’t sleep too well that night.

The next morning, we woke up ready to conquer the next pass and excited to get to town. We quickly climbed over Richetlipass only to discover even greater views on the other side. Dang, Switzerland is something else. We then had to descend 6,000ft to get to town all while dodging snails, slugs, and salamanders that covered the trail. Trying not to use the trekking poles in hopes of not accidentally puncturing a slimy creature, my knees were feeling the downhill. We stumbled into town and ate lunch at the first place we found. We ordered lunch communicating through very broken English and enjoyed a beer as we figured out our next plan. We decided to get a room at a hostel in the next town over to get a shower and a good night’s rest. Shoutout to the Swiss-German speaking chef at the restaurant who called his “good friend” at the hostel to help us book a room. After a wild hitch with a young teenage boy with a cowbell hanging from his rear-view mirror, we took showers and enjoyed dinner on the patio overlooking the mountains. We met a Swiss hiker who was hiking a section of the Via Alpina. We drank beer and shared stories of our experiences on the trail so far.

Another day, another pass. But this one with a stop for some Alp cheese. One amazingly, great thing about this trail is that there are random mini fridges along the trail full of cheese. You just drop a few francs in the pot and take a slice of cheese to go. If not a mini fridge, there are also many barns/alps where the people who tend to the cows in the high mountains sell cheese, coffee, tea, etc.  Nothing like taking a bite out of alp cheese made by the alp cows eating alp grass while hiking in the Alps. We descended with a longgg road walk into the town of Altdorf where we stayed at a beautiful campground next to a lake. We talked to multiple people who were all doing various epic hiking/biking adventures. Just when I think I’m cool, someone is doing something cooler. Always.

The next day, we begin the ascent at the gondola station, and we notice a sign that says the pass is closed. Perplexed, we ask the lady at the desk. She describes the trail as very dangerous with snow bridge crossings with potential for falling in “neck deep” ice cold rivers. Fear stricken and with no other quick way to go around the mountain, she sells all of us a lift ticket to skip the pass. As we rode the ski lift up to Jochpass, we notice two things. One, there is literally zero snow on the trail. And two, there is literally zero stream or river on or even near the trail. We see a beautiful dirt path with lush green grass all around it. We got fear mongered into buying a ticket! Oh well. Because we didn’t hike up the mountain we decided to hike around the lake at the top. Gotta get those steps in, ya know.

That day actually became one of my favorite days and that night actually became one of the weirdest nights. Keep reading. As we winded down from the lake, the trail took us on one of the most epic ridge walks. With a steep cliff off one side and a steep, exposed incline of lush grass on the other side, this ridge was magical. After miles of gallivanting on this ridge, we come across a ski lodge that looks like it would only be open in the winter. It’s late in the evening at this point, and we all have one thing on the mind. Where are we going to camp tonight? There is a huge back porch attached the building that overlooks the stunning scenery of the Alps. I pitch the idea of sleeping on the porch to the girls, as this will most likely be our only opportunity to sleep on a flat surface. They agree and we start making home of the porch. Expecting the door to be locked, I try at the handle, and to my amazement, the door opens. As we entered the warm building, we hear people upstairs. We’re all perplexed to hear others in such a remote building. I volunteered to go see what’s going on. Upstairs, I find three people eating a nice dinner with fine glassware. Surprised and confused, I nervously ask if anyone speaks English. Thankfully, one of them does. I ask if we could sleep on the back porch and to my surprise, she says we can actually sleep inside. She comes downstairs and takes us all into a backroom where she said we can sleep and…… it was…. a gnome museum! I’m not kidding. There is a wall to wall, floor to ceiling display full of a variety of your favorite gnomes. Just thankful for a warm, flat surface we blew up our air pads and curled up in our sleeping bags and fell asleep under the stars, I mean gnomes.

The next few days brought stunning vistas of mountain peaks with striking walls of vertical rock. Rosenhorn, Mettelhorn, and Wetterhorn loomed overhead. The north face of Eiger stared down as I fell asleep at the base dreaming of maybe one day climbing to the summit. As a rock climber, I felt the power of the moment being in an area where many of the greats have climbed. However, my dreams were abruptly halted by the sound of cowbells approaching out tents the next morning. I opened the tent door and I see a herd of cows encircling our tent with one cow staring me down right outside my tent! I scream! What do I do? I freeze. We remain as silent as we can as though my scream didn’t just startle every living creature in the meadow. Maybe they will think my tent is a bush. After some time, we had to eventually get up, pack up camp, and continue on with our journey. We came across some Swiss hikers later that day. “Was that you who screamed this morning?” one of them asked, staring straight at me. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I replied.

The upcoming passes were very, very steep. I know I have mentioned steep before, but I am talking about 80% grade kinda steep. I am talking about needing stairs and chains kinda steep. I had a sketchy moment coming down from Sefinenfurgge pass. The descent was mostly steep scree that slid out under every step. There were pockets of snow, so I decided to go down on a snowy patch instead. I broke down my trekking poles, strapped my backpack on tight, and started the glissade down the mountain.  However, I started to slide too quickly and lost control of myself. Fortunately, I was able to turn over on my stomach, form a tripod position with my feet, and use my trekking poles to self-arrest. Totally shaken from the experience, we proceeded to slowly and cautiously descend on the scree. Shoutout to my friend, Max, who had jokingly taught me how to self-arrest only a few months before.

Hohturli Pass, at 2778 meters, is the highest point of trail. There is a hut at the top where mountaineers, ice climbers, and glacier travelers stay as base camp. Again, I thought I was cool. Ugh. We enjoyed a summit beer and some hot tea as we chatted with those cooler than us. The descent led to an iconic view of Oeschinen lake that became more stunningly blue as you got nearer. We rested next to the lake amongst the cows before continuing on our journey.

As we neared the end of the journey, the weather became gloomier. The overcast days offered a nice reprieve to the sun-filled, treeless, rocky passes. It’s kind of fun to not see the top of your pass as you climb endlessly into the abyss. sPoOkY.  Dodging rain clouds, we hiked into out last town on trail, Rossiniere. A small, quaint town that was actually packed full of people for an internationally, renowned art walk happening in town that weekend. Oh, these people aren’t clapping for us? Whoops. We celebrated the end to an amazing journey with pasta, bread, wine, bread, and more pasta, and more wine. We walked around town and enjoyed the unique art pieces all made of recycled or natural materials before falling asleep on the cushioned grass under a large tree. I mean, it was just me who fell asleep. Switzerland 1. Emily 0.

Ahh, Switzerland. What a dream. Mountains, wildflowers, steep passes, cows, mini fridges of alp cheese, murder barns/emergency shelters, steep passes, gnome museums, self-arrests, cool people, steep passes, etc. For anyone looking for a grand adventure, I highly recommend hiking on the Via Alpina. You sure won’t regret it. Just bring trekking poles.

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Comments 2

  • Gingerbreadman : Dec 2nd

    Hey gal you might be Pegleg’s neighbor! She’s in Florida now finishing up the ECT. I was a wimp & did Kev Reynolds walkers Haute Route…or maybe the Alpenpass across Switzerland ..or both at different times. Anyway it was after doing the 02-A from Bratislava across Austria…the A being alternative or lower route. I only crossed 1 glacier in Austria (Oosterreich). Then finished with the GR-5 from Switzerland to the Riviera to finish up to the Alps trail more or less Should have extended it with a ferry to the Corsica island trail; which I have the guide for now. Alps was in ’97; Pyrenees in ’99; Pennines in ’01. Highly recommend them all.

    • Rob : Dec 2nd

      Awesome post.


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