Winter walking in Kandersteg
Fancy some spectacular winter walking in the Alps? Kandersteg in Switzerland's Bernese Alps is an excellent place to go for a winter walking holiday. The pisted walking trails and waymarked snowshoe routes take you through tremendous Alpine scenery.
Following a visit to Kandersteg in 1878, Mark Twain wrote ‘The spirit of the place was a sense of deep, pervading peace; one might dream his life tranquilly away there, and not miss it or mind when it was gone.’
Kandersteg is a peaceful village in the southern part of the mountainous Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland. Situated at 1200m, it offers fantastic views of the Blüemlisalp massif, which rises to 3663m. Hemmed in by high peaks, Kandersteg was formerly a traditional farming village and, with only around 1000 permanent residents, it offers plenty of charm, with picturesque wooden chalets, some over 500 years old, dotted among the meadows on either side of the Kander river.
During the summer months the area is now a walking hotspot, with trails wandering off to every corner and viewpoint, from the shady pine forests to the higher peaks. However, unlike many alpine resorts that become the domain of the downhill skier in winter, Kandersteg offers something a bit different. Sure there is downhill skiing, but it's at a more sedate pace, without the glamour, or lively après-ski, of the larger resorts.
What's on offer in winter
Kandersteg has been a winter resort for well over 100 years, and cross-country skiers love the extensive network of dedicated cross-country skiing trails that weave their way through the pine forests. There is a wonderful 3.5km sledge run that whizzes down from the Oeschinensee gondola top station to the valley, some 480m below, which will appeal to For adrenaline junkies young and old.
But for us walkers, the raison d'être is the network of specially marked winter trails that allow 'summer walkers' to explore this alpine winter playground, admiring magical views of snow-crusted peaks or meandering through the serene pine forests that lie draped in a snowy blanket.
Time to walk
The network of prepared trails, covering around 55km and marked with special pink signs, guide you through this wonderful scenery, allowing you to explore the Kander valley, the impressive Oeschinensee – a frozen mountain lake surrounded by a natural amphitheatre of jagged peaks – or the high level Spittelmatte plateau at Sunnbüel. A walk through the Spittelmatte, past the Schwarenbach mountain restaurant, follows in the illustrious footsteps of the likes of Mark Twain and Jules Verne, as well as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson who travelled through here on their way to meet the dastardly Moriarty in Meiringen.
If you don’t want to follow the groomed walking trails then hire a set of snowshoes – several places in the village offer this service during the winter – and get off the beaten track. Special snowshoe trails, denoted by a snowshoe symbol, weave their way over the pine-clad slopes; for those seeking more altitude, there is a 5km snowshoe trail from the top station of the Sunnbüel cable car that meanders through the Spittelmatte.
All of the dedicated winter walking and snowshoe trails are marked on the Winterwandern leaflet, available online, or in Kandersteg when you arrive, and they should keep you occupied for several days. Although the walks may appear short, bear in mind that a covering of snow can greatly reduce your normal walking speed, especially when icy or freshly fallen: and besides, you'll want plenty of spare time to soak up the view.
No matter what you opt for, Kandersteg will reward the winter visitor with some lovely walks set among stunning alpine scenery.
Here's my pick of the top three walks:
Walk 1: Valley tour
There are a number of short, low-level walks in the valley that meander along forest tracks, and follow parts of the Kander river. These are between 3 and 6km: for a more demanding 12km day walk, parts of several shorter walks can be joined together so that you can explore both sides of the valley in a single outing.
From the rail station head along Banhofstrasse to the picturesque white-washed church, and turn right then left along the Feldweg, heading towards the Oeschiwald. The path meanders through the pine forest – which, after a fresh fall of snow, is an enchanting place to wander – before crossing the Oeschibach river that flows down from the Oeschinensee to join the Kander. The route continues northwards past the lower station of the Oeschinensee gondola and then along Oeschigässli.
After a short stint beside the road the route bears left to cross the Kander river and then dips under the railway. The path now takes a meandering loop, skirting round the pine-clad Höhwald (1318m), with glimpses here and there of higher peaks and ice-encrusted cliffs. Don't miss out on a short detour to the Risetenegg viewpoint, grab a seat and take time to admire the view across Kandersteg to the impressively jagged outline of the Blüemlisalp massif.
Having dragged yourself away from the view, the path continues to Bütschels: from here you can shorten the walk and head directly back to Kandersteg. To continue with the full walk, soon pass the lower station of the summer-only Allmenalp cable car and then follow a meandering path beside the Kander river, heading upstream and soon passing the Kandersteg International Scout Centre (KISC). Join the road heading south to the lower station of the Sunnbüel cable car. The walk then passes over the entrance to the 14.6km Lötschberg Rail Tunnel, which opened in 1913: some 400m below this tunnel is the much longer, 34.6km Lötschberg Base Tunnel, which opened in 2007. The final leg heads northwards back to Kandersteg. After passing the campsite entrance bear right through Filfalle to pass the Hotel Doldernhorn, before joining the road. Just before the Hotel Des Alpes a short detour on the right visits the Muggenseeli, a small, picturesque lake with a lovely mountainous backdrop, before heading back into the village.
Walk 2: Oeschinensee splendour
From the Hotel Bernerhof, in the centre of the village, it’s an easy 10 minute walk east past the picture-perfect 16th-century Catholic church to the lower station of the Oeschinensee gondola, which takes you silently and effortlessly up to the top station, at 1682m, from where the walk starts (tickets cost 26CHF return).
Head east, soon crossing a ski piste, after which the path splits. Fork left, through a mix of woods and open areas, as views unfold at every corner. Continue past Läger to reach the Oeschinensee Berghotel, overlooking the frozen lake (keen anglers sometimes have a go at ice fishing during the winter). Surrounding the lake is the stunning mountain scenery of the Blüemlisalp massif, including the Blüemlisalphorn (3663m), which forms part of the Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn UNESCO World Heritage Site. Take a seat on the terrace and enjoy the views. The return route follows the other winter trail back to the top station: unfortunately it's not possible to walk down to Kandersteg during the winter.
Walk 3: High-level vistas
If you are feeling energetic and, more importantly, the weather is set fair, then a walk along the once important trading route between the Cantons of Bern and Valais is a must. This vast, snowy landscape offers magnificent views throughout, but bear in mind that the full walk from Sunnbüel to the Gemmi Pass is 10km each way: a better option for the less experienced is to go as far as Schwarenbach, or Daubensee, before heading back. From the rail station take the 241 bus south along the valley to Eggenschwand, from where the Sunnbüel cable car provides a vertigo-inducing ride up sheer cliffs to the upper station and bergrestaurant at 1934m (tickets cost 23CHF return). From here the trail winds its way southwards slightly downhill towards the Spittelmatte, with snowy peaks, including the Rinderhorn (3448m), towering up on either side. After a fairly level walk through what, in summer, would be alpine meadows, the path crosses the border between the Cantons of Bern and Valais and path starts climbing to the Berghotel Schwarenbach, at 2060m, conveniently located at the halfway point.
From here you can either return direct to the lift station or continue to the frozen waters of Daubensee, at 2229m, before heading down. For the really energetic, you could continue to the Gemmi Pass (2322m), from where there are impressive views of the Valais mountains. From here you could either retrace your route back to Sunnbüel or take the cable car down to Leukerbad, from where it is possible to get a bus and train back to Kandersteg: check before setting out that the full route is open.
For those who have headed back to Sunnbüel, take the cable car back down into the valley and either opt for a pleasant 3km walk back to the village or take the bus. The walk back heads north along the road for a while and then forks left past the scout centre (KISC) before meandering alongside the Kander river back to the rail station.
Steve Davison is a writer and photographer who has lived in Berkshire for over 25 years. He has written a number of books as well as articles for magazines and national and local newspapers, specialising in hill-walking and UK and European travel, and counts nature, geology and the countryside among his particular interests. A keen hill-walker for many years, and a Mountain Leader, Steve has also worked as a part-time outdoor education instructor. He is also a member of the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild.View Articles and Books by Steve Davison