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.

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