Friday, April 30, 2021


The Aletschhorn rises above the Aletsch Glacier
5 km round trip, 200 meters elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate, best to bring snow traction
Access: Jungfraujoch Railway to trailhead with associated costs

Panoramas of ice and rock, of towering Alpine peaks rising above the mighty Aletsch Glacier, are usually the domain of alpinists alone. However, this cross-glacier walk from Jungfraujoch to Monchsjochhutte in the Bernese Alps of Switzerland makes such stark and stunning scenery available to tourists and casual hikers. The cog railroad to Jungfraujoch- a marvel of engineering and the highest railway line in Europe- does most of the work, bringing visitors to an icy landscape at a high pass in the Bernese Oberland. From here, a short path across the head of the Aletsch Glacier, doable for most hikers and made safe by maintainence, leads to an even higher pass with vast views over the glaciers and sharp peaks of the Bernese Oberland. It's important to note that this hike does involve crossing a glacier so some preparation can make your experience much more pleasant: it's useful to bring hiking boots as well as snow traction like Yaktrax or microspikes, sunglasses, sunscreen, and layers of clothing for staying warm on a glacier.

I hiked to Monchsjochhutte with my family during a trip to the Swiss Alps. Getting to the trailhead at Jungfraujoch is a fairly involved affair by public transport: it is not possible to reach Jungfraujoch or anywhere nearby by car. We spent a few days exploring the Bernese Oberland and I encourage you to do so as well, as this is one of the most scenic parts of the Alps. While traveling by car may be appropriate when exploring the eastern Swiss Alps or the Austrian Alps, it is far easier to travel by train in the Bernese Oberland. Many of the villages in the Bernese Oberland are car-free and there is a network of railway lines that connect the villages and many tourist areas in the Bernese Oberland. We enjoyed our stay in Wengen, a car-free village above Lauterbrunnen that was extremely scenic and provided easy access to the Jungfraujoch railway. We picked up the Jungfrau Travel Pass to use for unlimited travel on trains and cable cars in the area; this allowed us to qualify for a large discount on our Jungfraujoch tickets, which we had to buy separately. Yes, Jungfraujoch is an expensive experience; but if you time your visit for a clear day, it is a superb and unforgettable one as well.

We traveled by train to Interlaken and then transferred trains at Interlaken Ost to reach Lauterbrunnen; there, we transferred to a cog railway, which brought us to Wengen and then continued up the mountain to Kleine Scheidegg, a pass with a railway station that also serves as the starting point of the Jungfraujoch Railway. We boarded the Jungfraujoch Railway at Kleine Scheidegg: this cog railway began to climb up the slopes of the Eiger and then entered the mountain itself, traveling through tunnel the rest of the way to Jungfraujoch. The train made a brief stop at Eismeer, where we gazed out from windows set in to the cliffs of the Eiger at the mighty icefalls and crevasses of the Ischmeer Glacier. The train finally deposited us at Jungfraujoch, the terminus of the line and the highest railway station on the continent at 3450 meters. 

The Jungfraujoch station and the associated restaurants and stores were packed with tourists; however, we made a beeline for the large panoramic windows that delivered a view from this high mountain pass directly down the length of the Aletsch Glacier. The Aletsch Glacier is the longest and largest glacier in the Alps: it runs for 23 km until it terminates near the village of Reideralp, just a short distance above the Rhone River Valley in Valais. At Konkordiaplatz, three massive glaciers that originate from high alpine cirques combine into a single monstrous body of ice, one kilometer thick, that grinds its way unceasingly down an Alpine valley. With a combined volume of over 15 cubic kilometers, this glacier has no peer in the Alps; here is an ice age yet to end, a vivid example of the might and power of permanent ice. This was a view impossible to forget.

View down the Aletsch Glacier from Jungfraujoch
We spent a little bit more time in Jungfraujoch station before starting our hike to Monchsjochhutte, taking an elevator to the top of the Sphinx Observatory, an observation deck from which to study the magnificent view from Jungfraujoch. In addition to the views of the Aletsch Glacier, this deck provided views of the two giant Alpine peaks rising to either side of Jungfraujoch: the Monch to the east and Jungfrau to the west. Both peaks exceed 4000 meters in height, placing them among the Alps' tallest peaks; along with the Eiger, these two peaks are also the most iconic and omnipresent mountains of the Bernese Oberland. The Monch was absolutely spectacular from this angle, where we could see the mountain's rocky northwest face soaring from the green valleys of Wengeralp and Kleine Scheidegg below to its sharp, icy peak. The peak's southern slopes cradled the head of the Aletsch Glacier; we could see the clearly defined path to Monchsjochhutte stretching across the glacier here. Looking to the north, we gazed out over the greenery of the Alpine foothills; the valleys of Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald emptied into Interlaken and beyond that, the hills died out into the flatter country of northern Switzerland.

Monch from Jungfraujoch
Returning to the station level of Jungfraujoch, we followed the signs for Monchsjochhutte to exit the station onto the glacier and start our hike. Once we emerged on the glacier, we put on our microspikes and started following the groomed, well-marked path to Monchsjochhutte. Near the exit from the Jungfraujoch tunnels, we passed a number of snow-play facilities for anyone who would be so inclined; we skipped these. We had amazing views as soon as we were on the ice: the Monch rose ahead and Jungfrau rose behind, along with the steep pinnacle of the Sphinx, where we had stood just a few minutes earlier.

Venturing onto the Aletsch Glacier below Jungfraujoch
The groomed path cut across the upper part of the Aletsch Glacier and we were initially treated to views down the length of the glacier. From here, we could see down to Konkordiaplatz, although we could not see the glaciers that flowed in to join the branch feeding from Jungfrau. Further down the valley, we could see that many lateral moraines traced the length of the Aletsch, each additional path of dirt marking an additional tributary glacier that had fed into this behemoth of ice. Clouds covered the Eggishorn, a lower peak separating the Aletsch Glacier from the Rhone Valley and the town of Fiesch, but far off in the distance a number of snowy summits in the Pennine Alps- the high peaks near Zermatt and Saas Fee- poked above the clouds.

Aletsch Glacier, the greatest glacier of the Alps
The groomed path initially ascended gradually and later more steeply towards a saddle on the east side of the Monch. While passing beneath the Monch, we had close up views of a glacier, its ice easily over 50 meters thick, hanging off the steep slopes of the Monch above us. From time to time, portions of this glacier would loosen and tumble down onto the Aletsch Glacier, a powerfully exciting sight that was also somewhat frightening as the glacial debris would fall towards the direction of the Monchsjochhutte path. However, the falling ice always stopped before reaching the actual trail. Falling ice is not the only danger to be concerned with: the Aletsch is an active glacier and there are crevasses on the glacier off the groomed path. A few crevasses had opened just meters away from the trail and footprints indicated some tourists had walked over to the edges of those crevasses; that is extremely dangerous as snow bridges may give away, so hikers should stick to the groomed path.

Climbing party beneath a glacier on the Monch
As we continued towards Monchsjochhutte, the grade on the glacier steepened. Seeing other hikers slipping or failing to gain traction in the snow, we were glad that we brought traction. As we approached Monchjochshutte, views of the main trunk of the Aletsch disappeared behind nearby mountains. Looking back, we still enjoyed spectacular views of Jungfrau and Aletschhorn.

After rounding a minor ridge of the Monch, the Monchsjoch- a high saddle east of the Monch- came into view. A final uphill push brought us to the pass between the Monch and Trugberg. We followed a groomed snow path from the pass up to the hut itself, which was slightly above the pass on the slopes of the Monch. The hut lies at 3658 meters- just over 12000 feet for us Americans- and serves as a launching point for climbers tackling the Monch. Day hikers can buy food and refreshments here; there are also dorm-style accommodations for those wanting to spend a night high in the Alps.

The primary reason to come out to Monchjochshutte, though, were the views. From the entrance of the hut, there were stark, wondrous views to the east across another lobe of ice that feeds the Aletsch Glacier. Across this great icy plain we could see many of the other great peaks of the Bernese Oberland: Mittelhorn and Schreckhorn, both of which rise above the valley of Grindelwald, and Klein Fiescherhorn, a dramatic rocky peak that rises over the Grindelwald Glacier and is at the northern end of a great ridge that culminates in Finsteraarhorn, the highest summit of the Bernese Alps. Here, the whole world seems to be made of just ice and rock. It is a cold, stark beauty, a landscape filled with harsh drama.

Mittelhorn and Schreckhorn
Klein Fiescherhorn and Monchsjoch
The Aletsch Glacier is at the center of the Jungfrau-Aletsch Protected Area, the first region in the Alps to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, despite these protections, the Aletsch Glacier- like most other glaciers in the Alps- is retreating due to climate change. While the volume of ice loss from the glacier has been great, the relative effect on the Aletsch has not been as extreme compared to other Alpine glaciers, largely because the Aletsch was so big to begin with. However, with forecasts for a warming climate, the glacier is predicted to shrink to less than half of its current size by the end of this century. The future of the Aletsch and of glaciers around the world will depend on how humans approach the problem of carbon emissions in the coming decades.

The Alpine world of the Aletsch Glacier between Jungfraujoch and Monchsjochhutte is unforgetably beautiful. If you are visiting the Swiss Alps and in particular if you're traveling through the Bernese Oberland, a train ride to Jungfraujoch and the hike to Monchsjochhutte must not be missed. Alpinists throw themselves at the steep mountains and cross great glaciers to find views like these; this is a rare place where just about anyone can marvel at this usually inaccessible world, too.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Murren Mountain View Trail

Bernese Alps rising above the wildflower meadows near Murren
8 km one way, 550 meters elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Grutschalp cable car to trailhead with associated fees

The Murren Mountain View Trail is a lovely walk through meadows high above Lauterbrunnen Valley in Switzerland's Bernese Oberland. On its way from the cable car station at Grutschalp to the mountain-top town of Murren, this hike delivers knockout views of the region's three most famous peaks: the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau. In summer, the meadows and pastures along this hike explode with amazing wildflowers, making this already enchanting alpine landscape even more magical. This is a quintessential alpine hike and an experience that I recommend to visitors to the Bernese Oberland.

The Murren Mountain View Trail stretches between Grutschalp and Murren. While it's possible to do the hike as a round trip starting at either Grutschalp or Murren, the wealth of public transit options in the area make this a great option for a one-way hike. The Murren area is car-free, so all visitors will either have to take cable cars up the mountain or hike in. Visitors can reach Grutschalp from Lauterbrunnen- the nearest town in the valley below- by cable car and there is a separate cable car running through Murren to Schilthorn from the town of Stechelberg. Grutschalp and Murren are themselves connected by the Lauterbrunnen-Murren Mountain Railway. We did this hike by taking the cable car from Lauterbrunnen up to Grutschalp, hiking to Murren, and then returning to Grutschalp on the railway. Hiking the opposite way- from Murren to Grutschalp- would save 150 meters of elevation gain but require experiencing the best of the hike first.

Riding cable cars and the mountain railway all the time can be expensive, so I recommend that visitors spending a few days in the Jungfrau area buy the Jungfrau Travel Pass for unlimited travel on most of the region's railways and cable cars. If you're planning a longer trip in Switzerland and intend to do much of your travel by train, you can also pick up the Swiss Half Fare Card from SBB for additional discounts to the Jungfrau Travel Pass. Check timetables before your hike to make sure that you make it to your destination before the last train or cable car of the day no matter which direction you're hiking.

I did this hike during a family trip to the Alps. We stayed in Wengen, which is at a unique location on mountain slopes high above Lauterbrunnen Valley, across from Murren. We started our journey for this hike in Lauterbrunnen. Lauterbrunnen is a tremendously scenic and ethereal town: massive cliffs rise above the town, with waterfalls plunging down the steep cliffs into this valley, including Staubbach Fall, a dramatic plunge near the town. Further up the valley, the snowy peaks of Jungfrau and Breithorn made an already unbelievable landscape ever more so. In fact, the valley of Lauterbrunnen inspired a young JRR Tolkein to write of a fantastic valley of snowy peaks and waterfalls that was the abode of elves: Rivendell, featured in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. 

Lauterbrunnen and Staubbach Falls
From Lauterbrunnen, we took the Grutschalpbahn Cable Car uphill to the Grutschalp. The cable car station was directly across the road from the Lauterbrunnen train station and the cable cars ran up the mountain once every quarter of an hour. The ride up featured great views to the south of the great Bernese Alps, including the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau, which would keep us company on our hike all day. We exited the Grutschalp station to find a colorfully painted cow and an observation platform with great views of the three great peaks.

The Grutschalp-Murren Railway headed south from the Grutschalp station towards Murren. There are actually two routes from Grutschalp to Murren: the lower and easier route simply parallels the railway and spends a good amount of time in the forest, while the the higher and more difficult route ascends into open meadows, delivering good views the entire way. Unsurprisingly, we chose to hike the high, scenic route: the Mountain View Trail. Both trails started on the same initial path: we followed a broad, gravel-covered path south from the station along the railway for about 200 meters. At 200 meters in, as the wide trail made a bend to the left into the forest, we took a forking trail that led off to the right into the forest. This trail immediately began a steep ascent through the forest, making a few switchbacks before exiting into meadows at a half kilometer from Grutschalp.

Between 0.5 km and 1 km into the hike, the trail ascended steeply through a rocky meadow. Views here were already excellent. The Eiger's steep profile, the Monch's lofty summit, and the Jungfrau's massive form rose to the southeast, with the Sphinx Observatory visible on the icy saddle of Jungfraujoch between the Monch and Jungfrau. The part grassy, part rocky ridge that included Mannlichen, Tschuggen, and Lauberhorn rose across Lauterbrunnen Valley, with Wengen's idyllic cottages nestled on the ridge's green slopes above the cliffs of the valley below.

Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau
At 1 km into the hike, the trail briefly reentered the forest. Here, we passed by a farmhouse; cows were grazing in the forest nearby, the clanging of their cowbells carrying for a distance. At 1.3 km, we came to two successive trail junctions; at the first junction, I took the left fork to stay on the Mountain View Trail, while at the second junction I took the right fork (the left fork here led down towards the Winteregg Train Station). At this point, the trail had already brought us uphill nearly 300 meters; the most prolonged uphill of the hike was over.

Most of the rest of the hike to Murren was out in the open meadows and pastures of the Bernese Alps. This was a spectacular mountainside trail with almost continuous views. The Mountain View Trail made a steady but more gentle ascent from 1.3 to 2.5 km as it gradually climbed higher and higher in these alpine meadows. Views of Schynige Platte to the north and the Jungfrau massif to the southeast kept us constantly entertained. Above us, the rocky slopes of Bietenhorn were lined with snow fences for avalanche control in winter. Blooming pink rhododendrons, Queen Anne's Lace, and phlox near the trail here hinted at the glorious wildflower displays that awaited us near Murren.

Schynige Platte from the high meadows above Grutschalp
After about 2.7 km, the trail was relatively flat, with occasional undulations as it delivered stunning view after stunning view of the Bernese Alps. The farther south that we hiked, the more we were able to appreciate the incredibly steep north face of the Eiger. This landscape was, however, not a particularly quiet or natural-sounding one: we constantly heard the ring of cowbells and the loud cogwheel train to Kleine Scheidegg across the valley. And while the meadows and mountains were beautiful natural surroundings, we also hiked by chairlifts around the 4 km mark, a reminder of the heavy human use of this landscape.

Wengen and the Eiger
Some of the best views of the hike came around the 3.5 km mark, where we came to the high point of the hike. Cresting a hill, views opened up to include not just the Eiger-Monch-Jungfrau massif, but also a wall of peaks to the south: Gletscherhorn, Mittaghorn, Grosshorn, and Breithorn. Glaciers adorned these steep mountain walls, which formed a formidable Alpine front along with their three more famous sibling peaks. 

Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau
The trail network became a little messier in this area around the 3.5 km mark; we passed junctions with a few road traces but stayed on the Mountain View Trail. After passing the high point at 3.5 km, the trail began a gradual descent through meadows and ski lifts, passing a small marsh and then crossing over a stream, Agertenbach, at 4.4 km. Agertenbach dropped out of a rocky gorge into the beautifully green pastures near Allmendhubel in a pretty cascade.

Agertenbach waterfall and meadows near Allmendhubel
After crossing Agertenbach, the trail made a short but steep ascent- perhaps the steepest of the hike- up a hill to reach the a junction with the trails leading to Allmendhubel. This was a complicated junction with five trails intersecting atop a ridge; there are a number of options for hikers here. While our hike itinerary would eventually take us downhill past the Pension Sonnenberg to Murren- which could be reached by the two trails descending down the other side of the ridge, including the wider road trace- we decided to first visit Allmendhubel, a low hill on the end of the ridge to the east. As I felt that the side trip to Allmenhubel was just okay, you can feel free to skip it and shave a half kilometer and 30 meters of elevation gain off this hike.

Turning left at the five-way trail junction, we followed a wide road trace along the ridge to Allmendhubel, arriving at the top of the hill after a short ascent over 0.3 km. At Allmendhubel, there is a restaurant, a funicular station, and a playground. The view from Allmendhubel was certainly nice: Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau were their usual impressive selves, with Breithorn and other impressive peaks to the south and a glimpse of Wetterhorn and the more westerly Bernese Alps through the gap of Kleine Scheidegg. However, some trees to the south made the views a little less open than what we had enjoyed earlier in the hike. Hikers wishing to cut their hike short can take the Allmendhubel funicular down to Murren and save some wear and tear on their knees, but I found the final downhill stretch of the hike a pleasant and enjoyable experience as well.

We returned to the five-way junction; after the detour to Allmendhubel, we were now 5.2 km into the hike. From atop the ridge, we could look down below into a hanging valley with farmhouses and cottages. While a number of paths led down into the valley, we followed the broad dirt road downhill through a switchback and then a broad turn around the west side of the valley. The descent into the valley was one of the most scenic stretches of the hike, with constant views of Breithorn and the other Bernese Alpine peaks as we crossed through mountainside pastures filled with wildflowers, passing cows grazing on the alpine grasses.

Descending through the meadows near Allmendhubel
At just over 6 km into the hike, we passed Restaurant Hotel Sonnenberg, a nice place to stop for refreshments and snacks at the bottom of the hanging valley on the way into Murren. The hamlet at the valley's bottom was one of the most idyllic spots I've been to in the Alps: here, old wooden farmhouses and cottages were interspersed through grassy fields packed with wildflowers in front of a backdrop of glacier-capped Alpine peaks. The rocky peak of Birg rose to the west of the valley; the cable car to Schilthorn ran along the south side of the valley, carrying visitors to a high alpine summit with sweeping views of the Bernese Alps made famous by George Lazenby's only outing as James Bond in On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

Wildflowers above Murren
From the Restaurant Hotel Sonnenberg, there were two routes down to Murren. The most direct route was simply to follow the road downhill to the town; this might have been the more scenic route as well, as it stays completely out in open pastures. We chose to take the Murren Flower Trail, which branched off to the right from the main road about a hundred meters after we passed the Restaurant Hotel Sonnenberg. This trail started off by passing through some more meadows, with another round of views of Eiger, Munch, and Jungfrau- this time with a impressive stack of clouds building up on the nearly vertical north face of the Eiger. 

After the meadows, the trail returned to the forest and then alternated between wooded and open over the next kilometer as it dropped downhill towards Murren with a fairly steep grade. There was a maze of trails here and it's not terribly important that you follow an exact path; just pick a direction that indicates Murren at each of the many trail junctions encountered here and you'll be fine. At 7.4 km into the hike, we found ourselves on a street in Murren that was just above the Murren cable car station. Here, we turned left and walked north through the charming streets of the car-free resort town. 

We passed by houses with flowers hanging from the windows and enjoyed the town's spectacular views of the Bernese Alps. Jungfrau looked absolutely massive from here, towering high directly across the valley from Murren. From the literal edge of town, we could see down massive vertical cliffs to Lauterbrunnen Valley directly below. These vertical cliffs make Murren one of the most popular places for wingsuit BASE jumping in the world, where daredevil adventurers come to throw themselves off cliffs and glide above Alpine valleys. At the north end of town, we came to the train station; here, we hopped onto the train and took it north back to Grutschalp to end this wonderful hike. On our train ride north to Grutschalp, we made a short stop in Winteregg to buy some cheese from a local cheesemaker.

Breithorn from Murren
This is a superb hike. While it lacks the high drama of Jungfraujoch, the Murren Mountain View Trail from Grutschalp to Murren delivers idyllic pastoral scenes of wildflowers and grazing cows coupled with views of the great Bernese Alps. Visitors to the Bernese Oberland should have this hike- along with Jungfraujoch and Bachalpsee- on their list, and any hiker who has yet to come to the Bernese Oberland should plan to do so to avoid missing some of the most spectacular mountain scenery of our planet. 

Friday, April 23, 2021


Shrouded Bernese Alps rise over Bachalpsee
6.5 km round trip, 200 meters elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: First Cable Car to trailhead with associated fees

The short hike to Bachalpsee from the First Cable Car station is renowned for its sweeping views of Switzerland's Bernese Alps. It has long been known as a spot of extraordinary beauty in the Alps but is even more widely known after being featured in Gmail's mountain theme backgrounds. From the shores of Bachalpsee on a clear day, visitors can see some of the sharpest peaks of the Bernese Oberland cloaked in glaciers and rising over the calm waters of Bachalpsee, which is set in a basin amidst meadow-covered mountains. The hike- a stroll along a wide path through beautiful, open meadows- can be done by most visitors and is a highlight of the Bernese Oberland.

The hike starts from the First Cable Car station high above Grindelwald. You'll have to take the First Cable Car to do this hike unless you're willing to do the long and strenuous hike up to First from Grindelwald. Grindelwald- unlike many of the other towns in the Jungfrau region- actually allows cars, so there a few more options for reaching the area. However, Grindelwald is still a mountain resort town with limited space, so the best option is still to reach the area by train on the Berner Oberland Bahn, which connects Grindelwald to Interlaken Ost and Lauterbrunnen.

Riding cable cars and trains all the time can be expensive, so I recommend that visitors spending a few days in the Jungfrau area buy the Jungfrau Travel Pass for unlimited travel on most of the region's railways and cable cars. If you're planning a longer trip in Switzerland and intend to do much of your travel by train, you can also pick up the Swiss Half Fare Card from SBB for additional discounts to the Jungfrau Travel Pass. Check timetables before your hike to make sure that you make sure you finish your hike before the last train or cable car of the day, depending on how far you're coming from.

I did this hike during a family trip to the Alps. We stayed in Wengen, which is at a unique location on mountain slopes high above Lauterbrunnen Valley, with views of both glacial-capped peaks above and steep cliffs with tumbling waterfalls below. From Wengen, there were two options to reach Grindelwald: either by cog railway over Kleine Scheidegg, or by going downhill to Lauterbrunnen on cog railway and then taking the Berner Oberland Bahn. Once we arrived at the Grindelwald Train Station (the cog railway and Berner Oberland Bahn share a station), we disembarked and had to reach the base station for the First Cable Car, which was actually on the other side of town. We decided to walk over to the cable car station- a roughly 1 km walk along Dorfstrasse through the center of town- but of course you could arrange for motorized transit to shuttle you over. The kilometer walk through town each way from the train station is not factored into the distance or elevation gain stats for this hike.

At the cable car station, we boarded the small gondola car and rode it up to the First Cable Car station. The First Cable Car took nearly a half hour to bring us to the upper station, climbing about 1100 meters along the way with stunning views of the Grindelwald Valley, the Eiger, and the Grindelwald Glacier. 

The First Cable Car station had a restaurant and there were a few touristy trails with bells and whistles right outside the cable car station, including the First Cliff Walk, which led from the restaurant patio to a dead-end overhang with railings suspended hundreds of meters in the air and then along metal walkways hanging onto the side of the cliffs of the mountain. It's a fun but fairly tame experience right next to the Cable Car station, but the walk to Bachalpsee is far more rewarding. Still, the views from First were amazing: the town of Grindelwald lay in the valley below, a patch of dense houses amongst a tapestry of forest and pastures. A great Alpine wall rose directly from Grindelwald, culminating in the high peaks of Wetterhorn, Fiescherhorn, and the Eiger, with the many different glaciers carrying the name "Grindelwald" nestled on high nooks on those great peaks. Unfortunately, it was quite cloudy on the day of our visit and we were unable to see a number of the Alpine peaks for which this viewpoint is usually known.

The Eiger rises over Grindelwald
Trails branched out in every which direction from the First Cable Car station; we followed the path towards Bachalpsee, which started out as a broad gravel road heading north. The gravel road forked after just a hundred meters and we took the left fork here to continue towards Bachalpsee. After passing the junction, we began a steady uphill climb over the next kilometer as we hiked through open meadows, ascending about 120 meters. At 2/3 km from First, we passed Adi's Skibar, a restaurant high in the Bernese Alps. Shortly after passing the skibar, the trail briefly split: the main gravel road headed to the right while a single-track trail broke off to the left to climb up a hill. Both paths led to Bachalpsee, although the single-track option was slightly shorter.

After the two paths rejoined, the trail flattened out a bit, undulating for the remainder of its length with gentler elevation gain and loss. There were great views ahead of the trail towards our destination: Rotihorn and Faulhorn, both still partially snow covered, rose above the basin holding Bachalpsee. Verdantly green meadows stretched across the lower reaches of these peaks, dotted with colorful wildflowers and grazing cows. The peaks on this side of the Grindelwald valley were far more gentle than the Eiger and its companion peaks across the valley.

Rotihorn and Faulhorn rising over the landscape around Bachalpsee
The final 2 km to the lake were all out in the open, meaning that we were continuously treated to great views. Chief among these views were those across the valley of Grindelwald. Here, the Bernese Alps reached their most impressive heights, with the highest peaks in the Alps outside of Mont Blanc and the Pennine Alps. On a clear day, I am sure that this view would have few rivals and even on a cloudy day we were impressed by the craggy mix of rock and glacier. While the Eiger was not the tallest of the these peaks, it was still one of the most impressive: a great limestone wall rising directly from Grindelwald. The Eiger's north face is immense and vertical and has for over a century stood as one of the greatest challenges in Alpine mountaineering. Beyond the Eiger were a number of other notable peaks: Wetterhorn, a great rocky peak directly across the valley, and Fiescherhorn, a great pyramid of rock rising over the icy mass of the lower Grindelwald Glacier. Schreckhorn, the northernmost 4000 meter peak in Europe, rose over a high hanging glacier. On a clear day, the view would extend all the way back to Finsteraarhorn, the tallest peak in the Bernese Alps.

Cliffs of Fiescherhorn rising over the Lower Grindelwald Glacier
Wetterhorn and the Upper Grindelwald Glacier
At 1.3 km and then again at 2.6 km, the trail crossed over pretty alpine streams, which flowed downhill and tumbled over long cascades into the valley below. The trail dropped and then reascended about 40 meters across the final 2 km.

The Eiger
Stream through the alpine meadows
At 3.2 km from the trailhead, we arrived at Bachalpsee. There were actually two lakes here: a smaller, lower lake and the larger and higher main lake. Both lakes were held back by dams and lay at the foot of Rotihorn in a verdantly green grassy basin. At Bachalpsee, a trail led out onto the isthmus between the two lakes, providing beautiful views of the main lake at the foot of grassy Rotihorn and Faulhorn and of Wetterhorn and Schreckhorn rising over the lower lake. A small hut stood near the lakeshore of the main lake. There were quite a few hikers here: the easy hike on a broad path and easy access via the First Cable Car make this one of the most popular spots with tourists in the Bernese Alps. 

Wetterhorn rising over the lower lake at Bachalpsee
Wetterhorn rises over the lower lake at Bachalpsee
The wide trail continued around the northeast shore of the lake. Many hikers will be content with the views at the isthmus between the lakes but hikers who venture a little farther are rewarded with views of the great Bernese Alps rising above Bachalpsee itself- the view made famous by Gmail backgrounds. 

The Bernese Alps are already a renowned region for high mountain scenery. If you don't mind crowds, Bachalpsee is an easily-accessible way to see some of the scenery that makes this range so magical. 

Tuesday, April 20, 2021


Matterhorn and Dent Blanche reflected in Riffelsee
3 km one-way, 50 meters elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Gornergrat cog railway to trailhead with associated costs

The Matterhorn reflected in shallow Riffelsee, high in the Swiss Alps, is the most iconic view of our planet's most iconic peak. Near Zermatt, the sharp rock pyramid of Matterhorn and a panel of other great, glaciated Alpine peaks form one of the most awesome mountain spectacles in the world. This is the greatest concentration of peaks over 4000 meters in the Alps and among the most heavily glaciated areas of the world outside of the polar regions. This easy one-way hike to Riffelsee descends from the Rotenboden station on the Gornergrat Cog Railway to the Riffelberg Station, delivering nonstop views of these peaks as it traverses alpine meadows and passes calm alpine ponds. 

I hiked the Riffelseeweg during a trip to the Alps with my family. We only had one day of good weather while we were in Zermatt, so we decided to take full advantage of it by combining a trip up to Gornergrat with the cable car up to the Klein Matterhorn to spend as much time as possible in the high alpine. As of 2019, the Gornergratbahn offers a Peak2Peak pass that combines the two experiences into a single day ticket for a discount, if you're inclined to pack two of the most incredible and accessible glacial alpine experiences into 10 hours or less. The tickets are certainly pricy but there are few other places on earth where you can ride a cog railway to see one of Europe's larger glaciers and ride a cable car straight above the crevasses of another. If you're planning on a longer stay in Switzerland, you should seriously consider getting the Swiss Half Fare Card, a 120 CHF (as of 2019) offering from the SBB that would pay for itself if you visit Zermatt and redeem discounts with it for Gornergrat or the Peak2Peak experience.

Doing this hike required a substantial amount of travel by rail: not only did we need to take the Gornergratbahn to reach the trailhead from Zermatt, but Zermatt itself is a car-free town that we had to reach by rail from Visp. Once in Zermatt, we bought early morning tickets for the Gornergratbahn and took the cog railway up to its terminus at Gornergrat station. 

Gornergrat station is on a high alpine ridge overlooking the Gorner Glacier and offers a jaw-dropping panorama of nearby alpine peaks. The mighty Gorner Glacier filled the valley below, with a tributary glacier feeding it and numerous other glaciers hanging off the high mountain slopes near it. The Gorner is the third longest glacier in Switzerland and part of the third largest glacial system in the Alps, after those of the Aletsch Glacier and the Mer de Glace. Gornergrat is surrounded by 4000-meter peaks: Monte Rosa, Lyskamm, Castor, Pollux, Breithorn, Matterhorn, Dent Blanche, Ober Gabelhorn, Zinalrotthorn, Weisshorn, Taschhorn, and the Dom. These peaks- all within the Pennine Alps of Valais- are the densest concentration of high peaks in the Alps, exceeding the number of 4000 meter peaks in either the Bernese Alps or in the Mont Blanc massif. This truly extraordinary view was accessible by train, without having to take a single step on a trail.

The mighty Gorner Glacier flows down from Monte Rosa
After admiring the indescribably beautiful scene at Gornergrat, we took the Gornergratbahn downhill one stop to Rotenboden and disembarked. There were no services at Rotenboden- it is just a stop for accessing Riffelsee. We started our Riffelseeweg hike here, following the trail downhill for 3 km past Riffelsee itself and through open meadows to reach the next stop on the Gornergratbahn at Riffelberg. There is about 200 meters of elevation loss on this one-way hike with minimal elevation gain.

We headed south from the Rotenboden station towards Riffelsee, which was already visible in a basin below us at the foot of the Riffelhorn. Unfortunately, the area's extreme popularity with tourists (like us!) have caused visiting hordes to tramp out multiple paths down to the lake. To prevent further erosion and meadow loss, we stuck to existing paths here. Views were incredible straight from the start: Monte Rosa, Lyskamm, Castor and Pollux, and Breithorn rose above the grassy ridge to the south. Monte Rosa is the second highest peak in the Alps after Mont Blanc and the highest point in Switzerland; however, the mountain does not quite have as memorable a form as its taller rival Mont Blanc or its close neighbor, the Matterhorn. From this angle, we also spotted Klein Matterhorn, a small and sharp peak rising above the Theodul Glacier that we would visit later in the day by cable car.

Lyskamm, Castor and Pollux, and Breithorn from Rotenboden Station
Klein Matterhorn and the Theodul Glacier
As this trailhead was accessible by train, there was a crowd of other tourists ahead of us who were heading down to the lake. We hung behind the main pack, taking time to enjoy the beautiful surroundings as we slowly descended to the lake. Matterhorn and the wall of peaks west of Zermatt rose above Riffelsee as we approached the lake. Every peak carried glaciers on its slopes. These glaciers are remnants of massive, ancient glaciers that carved these mountains into their dramatic shapes: Matterhorn is the quintessential glacial horn, with cirques on four sides that been progressively carved deeper until the peak became a pyramid with four nearly vertical faces.

At the lakeshore, we arrived at one of the most iconic views of Matterhorn. When the waters of Riffelsee are calm, this shallow lake is able to almost perfectly reflect Matterhorn. After admiring this famed view, we followed the trail along the north side of the lake, passing by views of Monte Rosa and Lyskamm reflected in the lake as well.

Monte Rosa rises above Riffelsee
About 400 meters downhill from Riffelsee, the trail came to a smaller, unnamed pond that had views nearly as spectacular as those at the better known lake. The difference was that other hikers and tourists were zipping by this pond, meaning that we were able to enjoy this pond in relative quiet.

Pond below Riffelsee
After leaving the pond, the next two kilometers of trail were across open Alpine meadows as the trail dropped towards Riffelberg. There was about 160 meters of elevation loss across this stretch of trail. After initially following the creek draining Riffelsee, we arrived at a junction where two separate trails led to Riffelberg. The left fork was slightly longer; both cross the open country near Riffelberg and are very scenic. We chose to take the right fork, which headed north, leaving the stream and crossing open slopes. We had tremendously scenic views of Matterhorn here and soon the valley of Zermatt below and great peaks of Weisshorn and Taschhorn to the north were in view. While the views from Riffelsee had centered on Matterhorn's east face, the north face and the form of Hornli Ridge came into view as we approached Riffelberg. The mountain's extraordinary shape has made it an emblem of the Swiss Alps, appearing on tourist brochures and Toblerone chocolates. 

The hike ended with a descent along the Gornergratbahn to Riffelberg. At Riffelberg, there are two options for returning to Zermatt: one is to take the Gornergratbahn back down, while the other is to ride the Riffelberg Express cable car, which descends to the Furi cable car station, which is just uphill from Zermatt. We stopped at the buffet at Riffelberg for lunch, where I enjoyed rosti while enjoying views of Matterhorn and the Riffelberg chapel. We took the Riffelberg Express cable car down the mountain, as that cable car connects to the Klein Matterhorn cable car.

Gornergrat Railway near Riffelberg Station
The cable car ride up to Klein Matterhorn was another extraordinary Alpine experience that comes from the willingness of Europeans to build cable cars in ridiculous terrain. From Furi, we hopped on the cable car to Trockner Steg, which headed up first to the Schwarzsee station at the foot of Matterhorn's Hornli Ridge and then continued up to Trockner Steg, a high mountain cable car station near the foot of the Oberer Theodul Glacier. At Trockner Steg, we transferred to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise cable car, which soared over the entire width of the massive Theodul Glacier, passing directly over the glacier's crevasses and great icefalls. The cable car then made a steep final climb along a dramatic icefall on a tributary to the Theodul Glacier to reach Klein Matterhorn, where we disembarked at a station carved into the mountain at an elevation of 3883 meters. This is the highest cable car station in the Alps, about 40 meters in elevation higher than the Aiguille du Midi cable car near Chamonix in the Mont Blanc region. The Klein Matterhorn cable car station also goes by the name Matterhorn Glacier Paradise. Unfortunately, clouds had rolled in once we reached Klein Matterhorn so views were quite limited when we exited the mountain onto the glacier outside. There's unfortunately not much hiking that can be safely done here, unlike at similar accessible Alpine glacial experiences like Jungfraujoch. I know these types of cable cars aren't so rare in the Alps, but there's really no equivalent experience to this in North America outside of the glacier flightseeing tours of Alaska and northern Canada.

Theodul Glacier from the cable car to Klein Matterhorn
While hikers who are seeking a wilderness experience and challenging workouts would be sorely disappointed by this hike, tourists in Zermatt who want to spice up their Gornergrat train ride or their Gornergrat/Klein Matterhorn combo day trip will find this one-way hike to be an enjoyable and rewarding add-on. The views of Matterhorn from Riffelsee shouldn't be missed, so you shouldn't skip the short hike on the Riffelseeweg if you're in Zermatt.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Rothbach Waterfall

8 km round trip, 200 meters elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Parking fee, Konigssee boat to trailhead with associated costs

The journey to see Germany's highest waterfall- the Rothbach- packs in so much more scenery, requiring a boat ride down fjord-like Konigssee and an easy hike past the magical waters of Obersee in the soaring mountains of Bavaria's Berchtesgaden National Park. Although this hike does not visit the high country of the Berchtesgaden Alps, it passes some absolutely beautiful scenery in the range's deep, glacier-carved valleys. This is an excellent hike for visitors to the park looking for a pleasantly gentle outdoor experience that takes them beyond the standard Konigssee boat ride. However, be warned that this is an extremely popular hike: this is one of the most beloved spots in the German Alps.

I visited Rothbach Waterfall and Konigssee during a trip to the Alps with my parents. Berchtesgaden National Park is the only national park in the German Alps and is in the extreme southeastern corner of the country; in fact, the closest city to Berchtesgaden is Salzburg, Austria. We stayed in Salzburg and made a day trip to the park, coupling a morning bus trip up to the Kehlsteinhaus with an afternoon boat ride on Konigssee and the short hike to Obersee and the Rothbach Waterfall. From downtown Salzburg, we took B150 and then B160 to the German border, where the route numbering changed to B305; we followed this road past the town of Berchtesgaden to the large traffic circle over the Berchtesgadener Ache, where we took the exit for B20, which ended at the massive Konigssee Parkplatz, a parking area with enough capacity for a few thousand cars. We paid a parking fee to park here.

From the parking lot, we headed over to the visitor center, from where we had to walk another 500 meters down a pedestrian street to the Konigssee boat dock (this distance is not included in the hike length). Along the way, we passed a Romy Schneider exhibition; my mom was quite excited about this as she had enjoyed watching Schneider play Sisi, the Empress of Austria, during movies that my mom watched in her childhood. At the boat dock, we lined up to buy tickets for the boat ride down Konigssee to Salet. In summer, electric boats leave every few minutes, heading down the lake with stops at St. Bartholomew and Salet. There were long lines for buying tickets; unless you arrive early in the morning, you should expect to wait an hour or more to buy a ticket and board a boat in the summer. Check the latest timetable before you go to plan your hike and make sure that you'll make it back to Salet before the last boat of the day.

From the boat dock, Konigssee is pretty but not particularly special. However, after our boat set out and sailed around a massive cliff to reach the main body of the lake, our mouths were gaping in amazement at the steep-sided peaks rising from the lakeshore. The lake has the feel of a fjord, with mountains soaring directly above the lakeshore and waterfalls tumbling directly into the lake. The boat made a stop at St. Bartholomew, a small village along the lake where there is a small but beautiful Baroque Catholic church. Watzmann- the third tallest peak in Germany- rose magnificently behind the church.

St. Bartholomew Church on Konigssee
The lake narrowed and became even more dramatic as we approached its southern end. Here, Schrainbach Waterfall dropped directly into the lake, a scene that evoked the Inside Passage of North America more than it did Germany. However, the Saletalm restaurants and the Salet boat dock at the lake's southern end reminded us that we were indeed in Bavaria. 

Schrainbach Waterfall flows into Konigssee
We disembarked with the rest of the passengers at Salet. There are public restrooms at this boat dock, which marks the start of the hike to the Rothbach Waterfall. The first 300 meters of trail followed the lakeshore of Konigssee south to the Alpengaststatte Saletalm, a restaurant. The views here encompassed the massive limestone cliffs across the lake, Schrainbach Waterfall, and the constant stream of boats arriving and departing from Salet.

Boat dock at Salet
The wide and well built trail crossed over the inlet where Saletbach flows into Konigssee and then began to follow the Saletbach upstream into its valley. We passed a junction with a trail leading to the Mooskaser Saletalm, a cheese shop and restaurant on the south shore of Konigssee. That trail would lead past the cheese shop to connect to alpine trails in the high country of the Berchtesgaden Alps, including routes into Austria and across the divide of the mountains to Maria Alm. Perhaps someday I'll return to explore these paths; but on the day of my visit, my parents and I stuck to the main path, which reached the shoreline of Obersee after 1 km of flat and extremely easy hiking from the Salet boat dock.

Obersee is a truly magical place. The lake's calm and clear waters had a beautiful, blue-green hue and almost perfectly reflected the mountains of the Berchtesgaden Alps that rose around it. From the boathouse at the west end of the lake, we had a stunning view down the lake to rocky limestone peaks that rose high above and the great rocky bowl that defined the head of the valley. Rothbach Waterfall was a slender thread of water dropping precipitously down the cliffs of that bowl into the forests and meadows of the valley below. Many visitors simply do this short walk to Obersee and return to Salet, which is understandable because Obersee is the most beautiful spot on the hike. However, by continuing to Rothback Waterfall, we not only got to see the waterfall but spent more time seeing Obersee from a number of different perspectives.

Waters of Obersee
We followed the trail along the south shore of Obersee. The trail narrowed substantially here as it passed through forest while tracing the lake's shoreline. Although this trail was initially flat, it was soon forced upward to cross the cliffs on the lake's shoreline. The trail climbed about 50 meters here via stairs and portions of the trail were a bit rockier; there was some fenching along this part of the trail as the cliffs on the north side of the trail dropped straight into the lake.

Rocky trail above Obersee
At the east end of the lake, the trail dropped back down to the shoreline of Obersee and came to a trail junction: the trail heading straight led to the Rothbach Waterfall, while the trail to the left headed to Fischunkelalm, a cottage that serves as a cow barn and a rest stop where hikers can buy some snacks and refreshments. Both trails eventually end at the Rothbach Waterfall, but the slightly longer route going by Fischunkelalm is more interesting and scenic, so you should consider taking that detour at least one way on your hike.

We decided to swing by Fischunkelalm on our way in, taking the left fork at the junction and then hiking along the east shore of Obersee to the cottage. From this angle, there were beautiful views back across Obersee, with the Watzmann now rising behind Obersee.

Fischunkelalm was a cottage in the middle of a large pasture at the east end of Obersee. Here, a herd of cows were grazing on the Alpine grass and lounging about. Their cowbells rang constantly as they moved and filled the air with a gentle clanging. Once we reached the cottage, the trail turned to the right and began heading uphill through the pastures, taking us past the herd of cows and their everpresent manure. As we ascended through the pastures, beautiful views of Obersee opened up behind us.

Cows grazing near Obersee
It was about 1.2 km from Fischunkelalm to the Rothbach Waterfall. The trail ascended about 100 meters here, making this the most substantial stretch of elevation gain of our day. Our surroundings alternated between forest and meadows as we approached the head of the massive bowl. We saw more grazing cows and had progressively better views of the Rothbach Waterfall as we approached the base of the massive cliffs. The trail leaving from Fischunkelalm joined back up with the main trail from Salet.

Approaching the Rothbach Waterfall
There is no officially marked end to the hike, but we chose to stop hiking when we reached a large meadow at the base of Rothbach Waterfall. From here, the trail continued on, climbing the steep walls of this mountainous bowl to reach the high country of the Berchtesgaden Alps. We instead followed a side trail that led us along the Rothbach to the base of the falls.

Rothbach Waterfall tumbled 470 meters (1550 feet) down the high cliffs defining the head of the alpine bowl at the head of the valley. The waterfall is most impressive earlier in the summer, as it is fed by snowmelt from the Berchtesgaden Alps, which have few glaciers. Arriving in early July, there was still moderate flow in the waterfall, although I've seen photos of much higher flow and assume those must have been from May and June visits. From close up, the waterfall is truly quite impressive: the main drop is about 300 meters, after which the stream cascades downhill until reaching the valley. The waterfall is tall enough that the water appears to fall in slow motion, hanging in mid-air and gently floating down the sides of the huge cliffs.

Rothbach Waterfall
The hike back was equally enjoyable, packing in more amazing views of Obersee; we had to do another 50 meters of elevation gain on the way back along the south shore of the lake. We made sure to return to the Salet boat dock before 5:30 PM, when the last boat of the day headed back up Konigssee.

This is a superbly beautiful easy hike, a highly recommended way to see Berchtesgaden National Park's limestone Alps and gem-like lakes without a strenuous physical effort. No one should skip visiting Berchtesgaden while in Salzburg and this hike is requisite when you're in this part of the Alps.