Take a family of hikers in Europe and join them as they conquer the Swiss Alps over an exhilarating spring weekend.
I had always dreamed of being in the Alps, not just seeing them from miles away but actually being where the Alps are. Like, on them. We have climbed to the top of Pike's Peak and to the bottom of the Grand Canyon but I never knew you could be so close to mountains that are so rugged and majestic until we went to the Berner Oberland region of Switzerland.
Not only can you see the mountains, you can smell them, feel them, touch them and, best of all, climb them. This part of the Alps isn't as high as the "14ers" in Colorado but the vertical drop from the 10,000-foot/3,048-meter peaks to the valley floor (about 2,000 feet/609 meters) is spectacular.
Alpine Walks Around Gimmelwald
We left our home in Heidelberg one morning for the town of Lauterbrunnen, a hub for Swiss public buses running through the valleys. Our bus route took us to the end of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, past multiple waterfalls cascading from cliffs on either side. We were at an altitude of about 2,623 feet/796 meters. From there, we rode up the Stechelberg cable car — straight up a cliff — to our hiking base at Gimmelwald, which is at about 5,000 feet/1,524 meters.
After checking in to the Hotel Mittaghorn, we left for a hike to the Kilchbalm through the Sefinen Valley. We ended at a bowl topped by glaciers, with waterfalls and a stream flowing through a meadow. We were the only ones there. The noise of the stream was very loud but the breathtaking beauty and view of the glaciers was awesome. Round trip, this hike took about three hours, and it was still early in the afternoon so we went for another hike, this time in the other direction.
We walked uphill to the next town, Mürren (sometimes written Muerren, seen here from above), rode the Allmendhubelbahn (a funicular train) to 6344 feet/1,934 meters and then hiked for another four hours on the North Face trail back to Gimmelwald. The views of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau mountains were obscured a bit by clouds, but the next day was perfectly clear all day, and the grandeur of these peaks is indescribable. We arrived back at our hotel at 7 in the evening and a wonderful dinner awaited us a half-hour later.
Conquering the Schilthorn – Pinnacle of Alpine Views
We got an early start on day two. A breakfast of bread, jam, cheese, OJ, coffee or tea at 7:30am, then onto the cable car to get to the Schilthorn peak at 8:15. This is actually a series of three cable cars from Gimmelwald at a cost of €80 per person (since we left before 9am, we only paid €69 each).
The trip took almost one hour to reach the 9,650-foot/2,941 meter peak. There wasn't a cloud in the sky for miles; not even a breeze at the top although it was a bit chilly. We were in awe at the shear beauty that exists in nature. We had a level view of the glaciers we had looked up at the day before, and a better idea of the size of these things. We sat in the Piz Gloria restaurant for almost an hour, enjoying the views from the outside ring, rotating a full 360-degrees while drinking a glass of champagne. After walking on the outside terrace and taking dozens of photos, we began our descent to Murren.
We were here over Labor Day weekend and, fortunately, the trail was dry. I would not have descended from the peak had it been wet or in a cloud because the trail is very steep, with loose slate-type rocks all the way down to Grauseeli Lake. There are cables to hold onto at the really steep, narrow places and we used them. I can only imagine what it would be like to ski down.
We hiked around the top of a large bowl and wound our way down to the lake where the reflections of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau make a wonderful photo-op. There was a flock of sheep working their way to the lake as we approached, and one brave sheep stopped right in front of us and just stared for a while before moving on. We stopped here and had a romantic little lunch of cheese, sausage, bread and water while basking in some of the most beautiful scenery on earth. We saw very few people on the trails on this day. Rick Steves gives excellent directions for this and other trails in the area in his "Rick Steves' Switzerland" (Avalon Travel, 2008, $19.95) and the trail was very well marked with painted arrows and signposts.
During Descent, the Hills are Alive!
After our lunch we decided that we needed a break from the constant downhill strain on the knees so we followed the trail across to the Wasenegg Ridge. When we arrived at the top of the ridge we had another "Sound of Music" moment looking at the Kilchbalm face of the Gspaltenhorn Mountain — the Jungfrau to our left, the Schilthorn on our right, and the valley down to Mürren behind us. These are the Alps in all their glory.
We walked along this ridge until the end, with the steep alpine cow pastures to our right and left, then started down again toward the Schiltalp (a farm only open in the summer). We realized that we were on the cow trail that led down from the alpine pastures. The hike from here was very civilized (not too steep) and led us right into Mürren where we finished the day with a rest and a German beer at one of the many small restaurants. We also bought some Swiss cheese and Lindt chocolate to celebrate the end of this hike. The sun was bright, warm and wonderfully soothing after this five-hour downhill hike.
We took the cable car the rest of the way down to Gimmelwald since there is no option of "one way" to the Schilthorn. We took a short walk around Gimmelwald before dinner, a quaint town with one school building and very steep meadows. We watched families; old and young, cutting the fields, fluffing and raking the grasses into piles on these very steep meadows.
Our second evening's meal at Hotel Mittaghorn was also very good, as was the after dinner conversation about the day's events. The many people we met here were all return visitors, most returning to the same place year after year. Our plan is to return with our son and hike UP to the Schilthorn from Gimmelwald and then go over to the other side of the valley to hike on the lower level of the Jungfrau to the Jungfraujoch. We will be return visitors!
It was time to return. We left for our Heidelberg home in the morning, ready to hike more. After taking the cable car down to the Lauterbrunnen Valley (you can walk it in 1½ hours), we walked the length of the flat valley to the train station in Lauterbrunnen. In this narrow valley, the cliffs are only a 10-minute walk apart so the many spectacular waterfalls were even more impressive than they appeared on our first bus ride.
There are many small lodgings in the area and bargains to be had in spring and September. In Gimmelwald, we chose the Hotel Mittaghorn (033-855-1658) at the suggestion of "Rick Steves Switzerland" and enjoyed our stay there immensely. There is no e-mail for this hotel so you must call to make reservations. The local tourist information website for the Schilthorn mountain resort often has hotel specials too.
Our room at the Mittaghorn only cost €50 for a double, which includes breakfast. Dinner was €15 per person more and worth every euro-cent. It included all the Tunisian red wine you could drink and good company for hours into the night. Of course, we were all Americans, but we have been starved of American conversation for a year living in Germany and found these evenings very relaxing and enjoyable. It is always fun to hear where people are from, how and why they got to wherever in Europe, and what their plans are.
Lodging and hiking trail information for the Lauterbrunnental region can be found at the Lauterbrunnen tourist office website. Hiking is best between May and October when snow is less likely. In winter, however, the Mürren-Schilthorn region, with grand peaks ranging from 5,110 feet (1650m) to 2,744 feet (2970m), is the highest skiing area in the Bernese Oberlands. For winter sports facilities and the update snow report, visit the Jungfrau region website.
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