Walking in Valais and Zermatt… from the mighty Matterhorn to scenic walks along former canals in stunning countryside, this region is undoubtedly one of the finest for hiking in the Swiss Alps.
Zermatt & Matterhorn – One of Europe’s most exclusive resorts, the stunning town of Zermatt (1,620m/5,310ft) enjoys a fabulous location beneath one of Switzerland’s most celebrated peaks, the mighty Matterhorn (4,478m/14,692ft). Zermatt is well connected by public transport, being an easy train ride on the Matterhorn-Gotthard route from Täsch. Cars are not permitted in Zermatt, but there is a good network of buses, as well as plenty of electro-taxis and horse-drawn carriages. The town is home to some of the most upmarket hotels in the Alps and there are many top end restaurants, bars and shops dotted along its romantic, chalet-lined streets. While tourism has undoubtedly impacted its character, it is nevertheless easy to see why Zermatt quickly became such a popular destination for skiers, climbers and walkers – as well as the international jet set crowd. In winter, Zermatt is a skiers’ paradise, but summer holidays in Zermatt are equally attractive.
Walking and climbing has been popular in Zermatt since the 19th century and mountaineers have been flocking there ever since the Matterhorn was conquered by the British climber and explorer Edward Whymper in 1865. The ascent took him and his crew 32 hours and was relatively straightforward and incident-free. However, the descent was altogether more treacherous and sadly ended in tragedy. One member of the group wrong-footed and slipped, which resulted in him and three fellow climbers tumbling to their deaths in a 1,200m (3,937ft) fall down the North Wall. The only three survivors were Whymper and two mountain guides. A visit to Zermatt cemetery provides a sad reminder of the dangers of mountaineering, with a number of monuments dedicated to intrepid explorers who lost their lives on Monte Rosa and the Matterhorn.
Zermatt remains nonetheless a magnet for the more adventurous hiker looking for some more challenging walking in Valais and Zermatt as no less than 38 of the peaks surrounding the town rise above 4,000 metres (13,123ft). Walking in the Zermatt region of the Valais does not have to involve dizzying heights, either, as there are routes to suit all abilities and at lower altitudes. It is worth paying a visit to the Matterhorn Museum (located next to the church), to find out more about the history of the mountain, what to expect when climbing the Matterhorn and the transformation of Zermatt from a small farming settlement into a glitzy resort.
The mountains here are excellent for climbing – but downhill pursuits are equally popular and Zermatt is widely considered to be one of the finest skiing and snowboarding destinations in the world. It is also one of the few places were decent summer skiing is possible – courtesy of the ‘Theodule Glacier’ – and Zermatt is, in fact, Europe’s largest summer ski area.
If you fancy learning to ski or snowboard here, there is an Alpine Centre with its own school. For hikers wanting to experience the exhilarating climb to the Matterhorn peak, there is also a mountain guides office (Bergführerbüro). You are not advised to climb the Matterhorn without a certified mountain guide, previous experience and a week of dedicated preparation. The Matterhorn is one of the Alps’ most challenging climbs. It’s rocky and icy and a high level of fitness combined with solid rock climbing experience (with and without crampons) is strongly recommended. The route is also tricky to navigate – even for experienced mountaineers – so everyone is advised to book a local mountain guide.
Walking & Hiking around Zermatt – The Zermatt region offers some of the finest walking in Switzerland, with over 400km (249mi) of marked walking trails. There are mountain railways too, which make high altitude walking very accessible – with some treks starting at over 3,000 metres (9843 feet) above sea level. If you’re thinking of taking your summer holidays in Zermatt and you love walking, then you will be spoilt for choice! The scenery surrounding the villages of Täsch and Randa is outstanding and the more adventurous may like to tackle Mt. Weisshorn (4,506m/14,783ft) and the Mischabel range, where the most wonderful views can be enjoyed from the top. The Mischabelhörner (also referred to as simply Mischabel), is the massif which separates the Saastal and the Mattertal Valleys. There are five valleys around Zermatt with more than 70 high altitude ridge trails, including the Matterhorn Circuit and the revered Tour de Monte Rosa. Other popular routes include Europaweg, a ridge trail leading from Sass-Fee or Zermatt to Grächen and vice-versa. There are 15 alpine huts serving this area, where you can stop off for rest and refreshment – while still enjoying the breathtaking scenery. For those who are seeking something more leisurely, there are a number of excellent, easier walking routes close to the villages, including some themed trails where you can learn more about the history of this fascinating area (which, incidentally, comprises around 90% nature reserve).
Verbier — For those seeking an outdoor adventure playground, there are few places on earth that can rival Verbier, with its seemingly unlimited supply of ski slopes, hiking trails and incredible scenery. Just over 100 years ago, the high plateau of Verbier (1,500m/4,921ft) was simply an empty pasture. The first hotel was opened in 1934 but even in the 1950s, the place was still just a tranquil village. It was when skiing really became fashionable in the 1960s that the tourist boom began and this once quiet retreat became a buzzing and modern resort. Verbier is perhaps not the most attractive of towns, but with the quality of the winter sports on offer and the amazing scenery which surrounds it, this pales into insignificance. As soon as the first snow falls in winter, skiers and snowboarders descend upon Verbier from far and wide. The ski resort is part of what’s known as Les 4 Vallées (Four Valleys) and comprises 412km of piste and more than 90 ski lifts and cable cars. Verbier is well linked by rail to Nendaz, Veysonnaz, Thyon and La Tzoumaz. While it is perhaps best known for its winter sports, summer is equally a great time to visit – and especially if you are into climbing, walking or mountain biking. Once the winter snow melts, spring is a quiet time for Verbier, but activity soon ramps up around June time and many visit the area for its events, such as the Verbier Classical Music Festival. With its backdrop of majestic mountain scenes and swathes of colour in its alpine meadows, Verbier truly is a wonderful place to visit in summer and an excellent base for hiking in the Swiss Alps. There are more than 400km (249mi) of well-signposted walking trails from easy valley strolls to high alpine routes and over 200km (124mi) of mountain bike trails in and around Verbier.
Saas-Fee – Popular Saas-Fee is a pretty, pedestrianised Upper Valais village, located on a ledge above Saas Grund at 1,560m (5,118ft). It is encircled by 13 mighty peaks, all of which belong to the Mischabel mountain range (Pennine Alps). Every nearby mountain towers above 13,000 feet (3,962m), including the imposing Mt. Dom, (4,545m /14,812ft)). Skiing and snowboarding naturally take centre stage in winter, the high season. In summer, the snow makes way for 280km of way-marked hiking trails (of which over 20km worth do remain open year-round).
Crans-Montana — The two neighbouring resorts of Crans and Montana, which lie at an altitude of 1500m on a sunny terrace high above the Rhone Valley, together form one of the largest and most popular Swiss holiday spots. The views here are magnificent, and it is possible to enjoy the sight of a chain of peaks, from the Matterhorn to Mont Blanc. From the Rhone valley below to the high Alps, the landscape here offers a contrasting and enticing mix of hills and meadows, vineyards and verdant forests. Crans-Montana is also a Mecca for skiers and snowboarders in winter and for climbers and hikers in summer.
Moreover, the sporting pursuits do not stop there. Crans-Montana is also renowned for canyoning, water skiing and paragliding. There are five wonderful swimming lakes right beside the village and Plaine Morte; a massive glacier at 3,000m (9,843 ft) which stretches across 10 sq km (6 sq mi) is also one of the area’s biggest drawcards in summer. Crans-Montana is handily located for exploring the nearby town of Sierre – the sunniest town in Switzerland – which has a lovely old centre and some interesting museums.
Sion (pronounced see-ohh) — French-speaking Sion (or Sitten as it is known in German), lying north of the Rhône River, is the capital of Canton Valais. Both interesting and attractive, this small town has a fascinating and long history: there is archaeological evidence of settlement during the Neolithic era. Sion is dramatically framed by the twin battlement hills of Valére and Tourbillon, with their medieval castles. Sion, named after the town’s Latin name Sedunum (which literally translates as ‘place of castles’) – has preserved a great deal of its medieval architecture. A myriad of cobbled streets wind down from Château de Tourbillon to the Old Town, via some museums, churches and ancient buildings.
Martigny — This is surely one of Switzerland’s most dramatically sited cities. On a wide valley floor, bordered by verdant hillsides, vineyards and orchards, French-speaking Martigny is the oldest town in Valais. In spite of its history, the town at first feels quite contemporary. However, a little exploration will give you a flavour of how it was in days gone by when the Romans ruled the area from 15BC; Martigny boasts a fine restored amphitheatre, thermal baths and temples. The town is also home to one of the country’s most impressive art galleries – Fondation Pierre Gianadda. Food is an important part of life in Martigny, as its vineyards and orchards, combined with the warm climate, make it an ideal area for growing fine local produce, including grapes, apricots and strawberries.
Champéry — This small, pretty village is a fine example of traditional Swiss postcard-perfection. With its stunning mountain scenery and traditional chalets, Champéry never fails to delight the year-round visitors who seek out fine skiing, hiking, mountain biking climbing, skating, swimming and just about any outdoor pursuit you can think of! Champéry offers easy access to a number of excellent walking trails, both in the Portes du Soleil area and the Dents du Midi mountain range. The village has retained a very traditional feel and many historic buildings still stand to this day. This, combined with its excellent facilities and welcoming atmosphere, means that the village has a number of loyal visitors who return to this Switzerland walking destination year after year.
Less Bisses / Suonen / Leats (Historic Irrigation Channels) — The south-facing slopes of the Valais have always suffered from a lack of rainfall, so to give nature a helping hand, a series of man-made irrigation canals were constructed – some dating back to the 13th century – to channel water from glacial streams to the fields and meadows. These ‘Suonen’ (sometimes referred to as Less Bisses or Leats) are perfect for day walks, most of them being fairly gentle. Here are just a few examples which you may wish to explore when you visit this region:
Torrent Neuf Irrigation Water Canal (Savièse)
Bisse du Ro (Crans-Montana)
Suonen in Grächen
The Zeneggen Aqueducts
The Suonen in the Baltschieder Valley (Eggerberg / Sonnige Halden)
The Irrigation Channels of Nendaz: The Historic Water Trail
Sierre (Siders in German) — This small hillside town, tucked away among pretty vineyards, is another place which is blessed with plenty of sunshine. It is renowned for both its wine-growing and its cultural events, which draw in the crowds. Sierre “enjoys the best of both worlds”, as it is located right on the border between Upper and Lower Valais – and between French and German-speaking areas. The Romans dubbed it “the town of a hundred hills”. These hills are adorned with a scattering of hills, castles and fortresses – and over the centuries, settlements developed around them. These settlements eventually merged to form the town of Sierre. In the centre, there is a lavish town hall and the attractive Rue du Bourg, which is home to a number of historic houses and the pretty St Catherine’s church. The Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke, who was fervently passionate about the town, spent his last few years here in a medieval stone tower, Château de Muzot, from 1921 until his death in 1926. There is now a museum in town, dedicated to his life and works. This is also one of Switzerland’s biggest wine growing areas; known in particular for the Valais’ most famous white varietal, Fendant, which is produced from the Chasselas grape. Reds are also produced here, including Dôle from Pinot Noir grapes. There is a Vineyard Trail, which passes right by the Vineyard Museum – a handy and enjoyable way to find out more about this region’s fine wines. Other attractions here which are worth a look include the underground cave lake of St-Léonard and the Nature Parc Pfyn-Finges.
St-Luc and Chandolin — These two spectacular villages are located on the sunny eastern slope of the Val d’Anniviers (Eifischtal Valley). The views here are incredible and it’s a veritable walkers’ paradise – an ideal base for walking in the Swiss Alps. Chandolin, characterised by native pine and larch woodland, has a very traditional, unspoilt charm about it. It is also one of the highest, continuously inhabited areas in Europe, at an altitude of 1936m (6,352ft). The neighbouring village of St.Luc also retains historical charm, recalling the splendour of the Belle Époque era. In something of a contrast, one of the village’s star attractions is an ultra-modern François-Xavier Bagnoud observatory, where you can view the night sky up close with a 60cm telescope. You can take a walk along the Planet Trail, which climbs to 2,513m (8,245ft). For walkers, the possibilities here are great. There are walks to suit all abilities and other themed trails, including a botanical footpath which passes through 24 species of orchid as it winds its way to a 860-year-old giant larch tree at the end. Walking in the St-Luc and Chandolin area of the Valais is ideal for families too. During the summer months, there is a children’s entertainment programme in St-Luc, based on the Heidi stories. There is also an interesting natural phenomenon located close to Chandolin (about an hour’s walk away) – the Illgraben, a gigantic rocky crater, which formed following the collapse of a mountain due to erosion. It’s the only one of its kind in Europe. Once you reach the top, you can enjoy gazing directly down into the vast and barren crater.
Pays du St-Bernard & Grand-St-Bernard Pass – Pays du St-Bernard, located South of Martigny, is an enticing medieval village, hemmed in by the Pennine Alps which form the Italian border. There is a lovely, Baroque church here and fountains whose waters have unusually high levels of natural fluoride. About 6km south – and up – is Orsiéres (820m/2,690ft), where trains terminate and transportation from this point on is via bus. From here you can take a road up to the somewhat isolated Val Ferret, which is known as an excellent birdwatching area. Take the windy road further up again to the tiny resort of Champex (1,470m/4,823ft), best known as a mountaineering hub and starting point for the famous Mont Blanc Circuit. The main road from Orsiéres ascends further through increasingly stunning scenery up to the historic village of Bourg-St-Pierre (1,632m/5,354ft), which was home for the guardians of the pass, back in the eighth century. There is a Roman milestone here which dates back to around 310 AD and an ancient church, which was rebuilt in 1739. The village’s main road is roofed over to limit problems with snowdrifts in winter. The nearby Grand-St-Bernard tunnel, emerging will take you through to Italy, but if you take the tiny winding road which continues up the mountain, you will pass the Four Valley Ski Area, before it eventually reaching the dramatic Grand-St-Bernard Pass itself, at 2,470m (8,104ft). The Grand-St-Bernard Pass is the oldest in the western Alps and the third largest in all of Switzerland, connecting Martigny with Aosta in Italy.
The Leukerbad Via Ferrata (Klettersteig in German)
Dare you attempt Switzerland’s longest and toughest Via Ferrata…?
Difficulty: K5-6! A Via Ferrata is a mountain route with ladders and fixed cables to provide assistance across some of the steeper sections. You may well encounter several of these when hiking in Valais. Seasoned climbers who are not fazed by heights can enjoy an experience which is something like a cross between a challenging hike and a full mountaineering expedition. The Leukerbad Via Ferrata, which leads to the top of Mt. Daubenhorn and offers an exhilarating and unique view of the Alps, starts with an immediately difficult segment (often referred to as the “small” via ferrata). A series of rather exposed ladders then lead up to the Obere Gemsfreiheit and on to the “big” via ferrata. The route is very steep throughout and often highly exposed. Therefore, you should not attempt this walk unless you are physically fit and strong and can hold your nerve! It should only be attempted in fine weather conditions. If you attempt the small via ferrata and feel unnerved or run into difficulties, it is possible to take an alternative route back via Mieläss. There is also a serious risk of rock fall in the gorge above the Gemsfreiheit, so you should also not attempt the walk for a couple of days following heavy rainfall or storms, whatever your skill level.
There is a grand total of 216 metres (709 feet) of ladders and over 2,000 metres (6,562 feet) of steel cable built into the rock face of the towering Mt. Dauberhorn. Those who attempt this heart-pumping excursion will be rewarded with the most incredible panoramic views of this stunning region. Another unique feature which forms part of this walk is a 100m (328ft)-long natural cave. On the upper section of the route, the ‘Via Konst’ takes you to the dizzying heights of Mt. Daubenhorn. Be prepared for an 8 hour climb up 1,000 metres (3,281 feet) to reach the summit (2,941m/9,649ft). For those who struggle or do not wish to make it all the way to the top, it is possible to return to Leukerbad about a third of the way into the route. Weather permitting, the Leukerbad Via Ferrata is accessible from July to early October.
Music Festivals – Visitors don’t just come to this region for walking and other outdoor activities; Valais has grown into a genuine hub for culture and the arts. There are many great music festivals taking place here each year. For classical music lovers, there’s the renowned International Music Festival in Sion or the summer series of concerts in Ernen village. More traditional native music can be enjoyed in Saas Fee at the International Alpine Music Festival or at the Alphorn Festival in Nendaz. If rock music is more your thing, then you may like to check out the Caprices Festival in Crans-Montana or “Zermatt Unplugged”.
Eringer Cows / Cow Fights – While walking in the Valais, you will more than likely encounter Eringer cows making some loud stamping, grunting and snorting noises as they fight for supremacy in their herd! The Valais tradition of cow fighting has been around for centuries and is celebrated around the region, with a number of folk festivals to mark the celebrations. Regional elimination heats are held from the end of March, with the winner crowned in early May at the final in the village of Aproz. From mid-June there is a series of summer pasture contests, followed by some competitions up in the Alps. Some continue through to the autumn. The Eringer cows fight naturally – both when they come down from the mountains (the “désalpe”) and when they return to their Alpine pastures (the “inalpe”). The cattle are surprisingly small in stature, but they do look rather majestic with their dark red or black hides and that in-built fighting spirit when they meet for battle in the meadows. Animal-lovers need not fear for these creatures; they are natural born fighters and rarely get hurt or injured.
Valaisan Wine – The Valais region is arguably Switzerland’s most important wine-producing region today, and a wide range of varietals are grown here. There are a huge number of vineyards across the Rhône valley, from Martigny to Brig. The valley floor is fairly flat, and as the hills are very steep, often at angles of up to 70°, an accessibility issue makes labour and maintenance quite costly. A lot of the wine here is grown at high altitudes and Visperterminen in the Haut Valais is home to some of the highest vines in Europe, its grapes thriving at altitudes in excess of 1,000m (3,281ft). The Valais climate is really quite arid and this area of the Rhône valley is of the driest in the Alps, as the surrounding mountains hinder rainfall. It’s often very hot during summer, whereas winter and early spring are cold (the chill is tempered somewhat by warm winds from the Mediterranean). Some of the wines produced are unique to the region – and have been for a very long time – yet are still produced commercially (Humagne Blanche & Rouge, Petite Arvine, Amigne, Cornalin, Heida, to name but a few). During the 19th century, non-indigenous grapes were introduced (such as Pinot Noir and Chasselas) and other global favourites have been added to the region’s repertoire in more recent years. Valais now produces a comprehensive range of fine wines, from full-bodied reds to delicate whites – including the locals’ favourite, Fendant.
History & Culture
Following Roman invasion in approximately 25 B.C, this area formed part of the Rhaetian province. During this time, the inhabitants were Celtic but the four resident tribes seemed to accept the Roman domination and peace was maintained. There are a number of Roman remains and artifacts which have been preserved in local museums.
Sion became an important settlement following a visit and blessing from the Bishop of Valais – who went on to live there from AD 580. By 1000, the bishop’s reign extended from Martigny to the Furka Pass. However, there were several challenges to this religious rule. A Savoyard army invaded Sion in 1475 and the town was freed at the battle of Planta, with some assistance from the Swiss Confederation. It wasn’t just ‘outsiders’ who challenged the Valais’ leadership, as various Valais communities joined forces and ousted the bishops’ secular rule in the 1630s, with control handed over to Diet, a regional parliament. After a period of calm, the Valais was next invaded by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 as he sought to dominate all routes into Italy. In 1802 Napoleon I declared Valais an independent republic, and in 1810 it became part of Napoleonic France. Independence was restored in 1813, and in 1815, Valais finally entered the Swiss confederation as the 22nd canton.
Geography, Flora & Fauna
The Valais is blessed with some wonderful flora and fauna, best appreciated during the summer months. There are various family-friendly nature trails which allow you to view the natural wonders up close; each trail focusing on different plants and/or creatures.
Marmots are one of the most prevalent fauna here and they can be viewed in their natural habitat in Bettmeralp or on the hiking trail from Spielboden to Saas Fee. You can get close to them and sometimes even feed them, if you wish to. The Nature Park Pfyn-Finges in Sierre is another good place for viewing various flora and fauna in their natural habitat. For native birdlife, the Riedhaltä Bird Sanctuary in Lötschental is well worth a visit. The best time to see and hear the birds is from late April to June.
The St. Bernard dogs are one of Switzerland’s national emblems and they are bred at the Alpine Pass villages of Great Saint Bernard.
Valais goats, with their distinctive black necks, known as “glacier goats” are found mostly in the Lower Valais. Their origin is unknown; it is thought that they may be traced back to arrivals from Africa or possibly descendants of the Italian “Kupferziege” goats, but either way, they’ve been around for a very long time! The “glacier goat” is a protected species.
Another animal you are likely to spot is the black-nosed Valais sheep. Although there are references to them dating back as far as 1400, these large, placid creatures were first noted as a separate breed in 1962. The sheep have adapted well to mountain life and graze quite happily on the steepest, slipperiest slopes. The distinctive black patches on their noses, eyes, ears, knees and feet make them quite hard to mistake!
Summer is a great time for admiring the local flora; the leaves are green and the flowers are all in bloom. Some of the most prevalent plant species here include the alpine moon daisy (Alpenwucherblume), gray grousel (Graues Kreuzkraut), Carlin thistle (Silbedistel), alpine forget-me-nots (Alpenvergißmeinnicht), Scheuchzer’s bellflower, common cottongrass (Schmalblättriges Wollgras), mountain houseleek, spring gentian, dwarf gentian, alpine willowherb – to name but a few.
The area around Visp, an ancient landscape with a number of Suonen (historic irrigation channels), is another top spot for viewing a host of rare Alpine plants.