50 routes in Zermatt and Saas-Fee
Lesley and Jonathan Williams headed to the Valais region in the heart of the Swiss Alps to research their guidebook, Walking in Zermatt and Saas-Fee
Zermatt and Saas-Fee are two renowned centres of the Swiss Valais region, lying at or near the head of long parallel valleys on a north-south axis, separated by the magnificent Michabel range, which includes the Nadelhorn, Dom, Lenzspitze, Täschorn, Alphubel and Allalinhorn, all over 4000m in height.
To the south the border of Italy is shared with Monte Rosa, Liskamm, Castor, Pollox, the Breithorn and the Matterhorn, the list bringing tremors of joy and anticipation to any alpinist.
But for most, the attraction of these two valleys is for the variety of walking opportunities, the occasional challenges to stretch the walker to the limit, and the sheer range of facilities provided to make a mountain walking holiday so fulfilling and enjoyable.
The Valais region
The Valais region of the Swiss Alps is one of the oldest inhabited regions in Switzerland, with records showing the establishment of churches in the 9th century, while the oldest barn in the Alps, if not the whole of Europe, can be found near Herbrigg just above Zermatt, dating back from 1261, possibly as early as 1145.
Lying next to the border with Italy, high passes have been used for trade for hundreds if not thousands of years, while the valleys and alps have provided land for subsistence farming, with echos of this seen today, characterised by various festivals and parades of goats and cattle as the mountain communities celebrate the transition of the seasons.
Walking in Zermatt and Saas-Fee
50 routes in the Valais: Mattertal and Saastal
Guidebook describing 50 graded day walks in Valais, Switzerland, based around the resort towns of Zermatt and Saas-Fee. The routes cover the Mattertal and Saastal valleys and their surrounding mountains and offer spectacular views of the Swiss 4000m giants, including the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa. Welcoming huts offer refreshment on the routes.More information
Walking in Zermatt and Saas-Fee has 50 routes – more than enough to keep the most energetic walker engaged for several alpine holidays. Switzerland has an excellent and integrated public transport system, so getting around, particularly when staying in traffic-free resorts, is best done without a car.
You can get to these valleys from the UK by car, air or train, although the resorts are at least two hours away from the nearest airports, making train travel directly door-to-door an attractive and more environmentally sensible option unless you have a car-full of people, even if it is a little more expensive.
Keeping expenditure under control in Switzerland is a challenge, but possible. Camping and staying in apartments or cheaper hotels still provides a free transport pass for everyone in the Saastal above Saas-Balen.
Eating out is expensive, but pizzas, rösti and pasta tend to be the budget dishes, while cooking yourself is a clear winner. If travelling on the trains up and down the Mattertal, then using the SBB app and booking at least 24 hours ahead will reduce the price considerably. There are also travel passes for reduced or half price fares if you are likely to use a lot of trains during your stay.
It was one such day when we did our first ‘proper’ walk research. We had arrived in Saas-Grund in the evening, having left early in the morning from St Pancras to travel by train. Our first day had been one of recovery, shopping and an easy triangular walk up to Saas-Fee, along to Saas-Almagel then back down the valley.
Day two saw us climbing up to an alp called Triftalp, each taking a different route in order to check out which paths might be the best ones to go into the guidebook. I could tell there was something going on, as there were many more people on the path than I would have expected so early in the season, in mid-June.
Drawing nearer, music and singing drifted across the hanging valley, and by the time I passed underneath the cable car lines, I was deep in among families with children and toddlers, many of the ‘elders’ of the valley and efficient teenagers delivering plates and bottles from the food and beer tents. A line of trestle tables stretched in a wobbly fashion up the track, and bright umbrellas festooned the tiny alp hamlet.
The open-air church service had just finished when I spotted Jonathan approaching from the other path. The bemused expression on his face evidence of a variety of plans running through his head. Clearly this was a festival for the whole valley, with probably two or three hundred people assembled in an alp hamlet of 10 houses.
Should we keep to our plans for a full day of walking research, or should we enjoy the party? A compromise was reached. We bought food and drink vouchers, enjoyed our lunch and inspected the healthy looking black cows as they rested in the shade, each one with a large white number on its flank.
Soon the cows were led into a large, enclosed pasture, where they began to challenge each other for the position of the dominant cow of the herd. This tradition of fighting cows is both natural, and encouraged by the farmers, with awards and status for the winning farmer – and the cow!
We had first seen this tradition playing out in Grüben in late summer on the Chamonix to Zermatt trek; now we had witnessed the corresponding spring celebration when the cattle are able to access the high alp pastures for the summer.
Route to Kreuzboden
As the noise drifted away we both continued our climb, again each taking a different route to Kreuzboden, the main cable car station above Saas-Grund, and then while Jonathan continued up to the Weismiesshütte, I enjoyed a further excursion on a higher cable car to Hohsass, just for the fun of enjoying the free ride and the snow.
Staying in the Saas valley provides visitors with a pass to use all the public transport available between Saas-Balen and the head of the valley at Mattmark. This is a fantastic offer, covering both busses and all the ski lift infrastructure, making it possible to achieve many long, higher-level routes and saving tired knees from an otherwise grinding descent, or ascent come to that!
Busses run frequently up and down the valley to Stalden, the town at the junction of the Saastal and Mattertal, while Saas-Grund serves as a hub with half-hourly connections up to Saas-Fee. There are lifts and cable cars in the main valley and more from Saas-Fee, whisking tourists, walkers and summer skiers up to around 3000m.
The network of paths throughout the Saastal is excellent, and varies from almost level leite paths (running next to water channels) to high balcony routes, and challenging mountain routes that include aided sections with cables, ladders and high levels of exposure. In other words, there is something for everyone.
In the Mattertal, with no such arrangement for free transport, although it is possible to buy tickets at reduced rates, many routes that we have in the book describe walks directly from the valley floor, from Zermatt, Randa and Tasch which are all served by the frequent rail service through the valley.
The attraction of the Mattertal is the busyness of it all. High visitor numbers ensure that the myriad mountain restaurants remain open throughout the summer season, and there is plenty of accommodation to suit different budgets, from luxury hotels, apartments and chalets to rent, to mountain huts, hostels and camp sites at the more manageable budget end.
Our guidebook also includes 10 walks from the friendly little mountain resort of Grächen. Located at roughly the same altitude as Zermatt, Grächen is perched on the rim of a hanging valley high above the main Mattertal, cradled beneath the outlying peaks of the Mischabel range, with great views across to Jungen, nestling on its tiny prominent terrace.
Grächen is known for being an excellent family ski resort during the winter, but in summer it shines out as a quieter resort from which to enjoy some wonderful, but far less busy walking routes, many of them along the network of parallel leite paths that irrigate the hillside.
Researching 50 walking routes takes time, and we spent nearly all the time walking alone, so that we could cover enough possibilities to know that we had, we hoped, selected the very best that the area had to offer, as well as hinting at other possibilities for the more adventurous walker.
At the top end of the adventure scale come a number of routes involving ‘walkers summits’, including the Mettelhorn (3406m), Platthorn (3345m), Oberrothorn (3414m) and the much easier Wannehorn (2669m).
Then there are some technical mountain adventures. A day, or optional two-day trip to the Monte Rosa Hut is described as perhaps the ‘hardest and finest walk that the Zermatt region offers’.
Jonathan sets the scene: ‘The futuristic-looking hut appears tiny on the vast mountainside of Monte Rosa, but in fact is a substantial five-story building. The route is more of a full mountaineering day than a walk, and you will certainly know that you have done something if you complete the return trip in a day.’
The buzz of elated excitement as Jonathan recalled his day was memorable! The route divides itself into three main sections; the descent path down from Rottenberg, the crossing of the Gornergletscher requiring crampons (and ideally walking poles) navigating around small crevasses, and then a difficult traverse and ascent across moraines and rocks with assisted sections in order to get to the hut.
Other adventures in the Mattertal include a two-day excursion from Zermatt to the Schönbielhütte via Höhbalmen, with fantastic views of the north face of the Matterhorn, and over towards the Dent Blanche.
The Matterhorn Glacier Trail
There’s an outing to the Hörnli Hut, the Matterhorn Glacier Trail, a climb to experience crossing the Charles Kuonen suspension bridge and the open section of the Europaweg from the Europahutte to Zermatt.
While these might be some of the more ‘interesting’ walks, the easier ones are no less worthwhile, enjoying the glorious descent paths from Gornergratt down to Zermatt, the five lakes route from Findeln, interesting rock formations in the Gletschergarten and the Gorner Gorge below – just to mention some of the other walks.
Research can bring both highs and disappointments, as interesting ideas seen on a map translate into boring or dangerously neglected, depending on what you find.
Fortunately, most days we were able to end knowing that we had either found a good route, or at least sorted out the best way to tackle something, but occasionally some paths were completely rejected. Like the paths above Grächen up towards the Distelhorn (2830m), which gave Jonathan some anxious moments as he tackled exposed hillsides on loose ground, among an increasingly barren and stark landscape.
On returning to Grächen we later learned from our friends and advisers in the Tourist Office that these were ‘closed’ paths, deemed too dangerous. They are not indicated on the most up to date maps, but older versions show the network of paths criss-crossing the hillside.
The mountain landscape is constantly eroding, more so than ever as the permafrost that once held everything firmly in place has thawed, causing massive instability and rockfall, particularly well known to those intending to walk the length of the Europaweg, which is still closed between Grächen and the Europahütte.
Having an up-to-date map, (as well as the guidebook) is really important, as while the Swiss authorities are incredibly good at ensuring that paths are maintained in good condition, some less-frequented paths are now being closed as being uneconomic to maintain in a safe condition. That’s not to say that everything is well maintained all of the time. I too had some ‘interesting’ moments, including a ‘Swiss Path’ above Saas-Grund, which is an euphonism for ‘exposed narrow scraping of a vague path, with rusty metal steps, staples, cables awkward rock outcrops and loose bits’.
Some ‘mistakes’ can be great fun, however. Jonathan and I were heading for Alamgelleralp, but being a bit slower, I missed seeing Jonathan take a turning off to the left, and realised a while later that I was on my own. A quick text established that I would meet him higher up, as I could see a joining path on the map that looked promising.
My path went vertical less than a minute from the start; climbing ladders, metal steps and clinging onto cables, I reached the first of two long rope bridges spanning waterfalls and deep gorges far below.
The views across the valley were great, the views directly down were awe-inspiring. Called the Erlebnisweg, it’s a recognised and well maintained via-ferrata-type route. Rope bridges negotiated, there were more metal steps and staples, before I finally emerged onto a gentle woodland path just 500m from where Jonathan was waiting for me. I had had a ball! Full of the adrenalin and endorphins I had generated, I persuaded Jonathan to have a go a few days later, and the route definitely went in the book!
Balfrin Höhenweg route
Linking Grächen and Saas-Fee is the Balfrin Höhenweg route, undoubtedly one of the highlights of the region. First constructed in 1954, the pathway works its way up the side of the Saastal, undulating between around 1600m and a high point of 2384m. Views across to the Weismiess are impressive, beneath which a parallel höhenweg runs up-valley from Gspon to Alamgelleralp.
Both paths are well constructed and protected, however there are active boulderfields to cross, and several cabled sections. The Balfrin Höhenweg is one of the stages in the Tour of Monte Rosa, and the final section of the UTMR ultra-marathon.
Saas-Fee is the principal resort for the Saastal, however while like Zermatt it is completely traffic-free (apart from electric buggies and bicycles), it is a much smaller, quieter resort especially in the summer months. As a gateway to the Mischabel range it remains popular with alpinists, however as an excellent resort base for walkers, Saas-Fee and the smaller resorts of Saas-Grund and Saas-Almagell are some of the best for a walking holiday in the whole of Switzerland. Here’s why.
If you imagine the easiest, gentlest and most scenic walk possible, it would probably be along a well-laid flat, or nearly flat path, perhaps through the dappled shade of trees, with flowers hugging the sides of the path, and maybe a small, gently flowing stream beside you.
Looking up, and between the trees, lofty snow-capped mountains soar into the vivid blue sky, and ahead you might see inviting red and white umbrellas, and the smell of coffee on the gentle breeze.
There are many such paths in the Saas valley, following leite paths, or beside the Saasavispa in the main valley. There’s a good leite path on the east side of the main valley that would be great fun for young children as it combines everything that you would want on a mini adventure, but on a small scale – a stream, little rocky sections, a bridge over a waterfall and plenty of opportunities for ‘poo sticks’.
There are plenty of intermediate grade walks covering the vast network of paths, including trips for a lunch, or even overnight stay in some of the mountain huts. Several cable cars, telecabins and chairlifts operate to help walkers quickly access the higher balcony paths, so it’s easy to take on some higher altitude adventures within a single day.
More experienced and adventurous walkers can enjoy excursions to the Mischabel Hut – involving steep, exposed and heavily aided climbing on the final approach, a circuit up to the Britannia Hut, a trip into Italy over the Monte Moro Pass, and a challenging full day over the Jazzilücke and Antronapass.
The best time to visit for summer walking is from mid-June to around the end of September. In mid-June there will be considerable snow cover remaining on the higher passes, making some routes very challenging, or closed.
By late September most mountain huts will be closing, and other facilities will become more limited. The weather can still be good, and autumn colours are beautiful, but days will be shorter and cooler, with more likelihood of rain and snow on higher ground. Whenever you choose to visit, you can be assured of a warm welcome and some fantastic walking!
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