Swiss nature parks The diversity of Switzerland's nature parks

Switzerland has no less than 18 nature parks scattered all over the country.

Ten of these are regional, and have been designated "parks of national importance", including two "biospheres"; two are candidates for this status; four more applications are under consideration; and one is a wilderness park. But the only "Swiss National Park" is to be found in the canton of Graubünden (Grisons) in the eastern corner of Switzerland.

 

What is a park?

There are two prerequisites:

1. High natural and scenic value

Parks consist of exceptionally beautiful landscapes with an abundance of natural habitats, home to a rich variety of flora and fauna. Cultivated landscapes and residential areas, both in the national park buffer zones and in the regional natural parks, are carefully managed and to a large extent intact.

2. The park has the backing of the community

The initiative for creating a park must come from the community. The participation of the community and specific interest groups must be ensured in the project planning, establishment and operation of a park. The communities are significantly represented in the sponsorship of the park.

 

Maintaining values and promoting sustainable management

Parks serve to maintain and enhance the variety of nature and the beauty of the landscapes on a long-term basis. At the same time they give valuable impetus for reinforcing sustainable management in the regional natural parks and in the buffer zones of the national parks.

 

"Park of national importance" label *

 

The Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) examines the quality of the parks and their programs and in particular the Charter for the initial ten-year operation phase. The label is awarded to park projects fulfilling the requirements.

 

Parks offer the visitor genuine experiences of nature, fascinating history, contact with a living community and the enjoyment of regional specialities. Here are just a few of Switzerland's delightful parks, collated by the whole Hello Switzerland team.

 

Northwest Switzerland

There are two new "nature parks" in the Jura within easy reach of Basel: the Thal, between the Passwang and Balsthal/Weissenstein, and the Jurapark Aargau. Both offer beautiful varied landscapes with picturesque villages, castles, meadows, vineyards, orchards, woods, cliffs, waterfalls, and plenty of attractive country restaurants. The variety of plants and flowers is amazing and includes species of orchids rarely found elsewhere. The park projects enjoy a lot of support from local people, who don't want to see their beautiful valleys and way of life fall victim to industrialisation.  

The Thal nature park is fabulous hiking country with a lot of well-marked paths: try one of the ridge walks, or the Wolfschlucht (wolf gorge) from Welschenrohr, a romantic trail showing many facets of the Jura landscape. You can also go riding (Matzendorf), biking, rock climbing or hang-gliding (both in Balsthal), swimming and even lama trekking, and there's a full programme of events with guided tours, concerts, exhibitions and markets.

From the Passwang at the northern edge, there's a superb view of the distant Alps on a clear day. Down below – the road is tortuous – is Mümliswil, a lovely village with a hair and comb museum in a disused comb factory that apparently used to be world famous. On the park border are the waterfalls above Reigoldswil; a trip up there in the modern cablecar gives you a unique panoramic view over the Black Forest and even the Vosges. At Langenbruck, also just outside the park, is the solar bob-run and rope garden, both popular with children.  

The Jurapark Aargau, the biggest nature zone between Basel and Zurich, only opened in May 2011. People in this area between the Aare and the Rhine voted on a village-by-village basis whether they wanted to be part of the park project, which is why it's ended up as an untidy U shape. Frick, which could be seen as the natural centre, has not joined in, possibly because it's more interested in its industrial potential. Nonetheless, the Jurapark Aargau is now a "regional nature park of national importance", with many activities including guided tours and excursions, agro-tourism and gastronomic specialities.

 

Again, beautiful varied scenery, unspoilt villages, and a variety of flora and fauna that's practically unique in Europe. The geology is also interesting; you can even find your own ammonites. In Herznach and Wölfinswil there used to be iron ore mines, and there's a plan to re-open one of the shafts. There are lots of orchards; try taking the Chriesiwäg (cherry path) from Gipf-Oberfrick, a walk of 5.5 km telling you all about cherries. Another curiosity is the majestic 650-year-old lime tree at Linn, on the ridge overlooking the Aare near Brugg.

 

Also within reach of Basel are the impressive cross-border nature reserves of the Black Forest and the Vosges. Closer to home is the Petite Camargue in St Louis (France), a wetland area by the Rhine that's a birdwatchers' paradise (see page 21).

contributed by Anitra Green

 

North-eastern and Central Switzerland

The Wildnispark Zurich is a 12-square-km area encompassing the Sihlwald forest and the Langenberg Wildpark. Situated between Zurich and Zug, it attracts half a million visitors a year.

The Sihlwald is currently the only park in Switzerland with "Nature Discovery Park" status, which it received in 2009. Throughout the last millennium it was Zurich's main source of building and firewood, which could be easily floated down the Sihl. Only since 2000 has it been protected, and so its ecosystem is still changing. The contrast between the paths here and in most Swiss woodlands is quite interesting: They are very minimally maintained, and all around you can see fallen trees and overhanging branches, making the typical Swiss forest look like a city park in contrast.

The visitor's centre near the Sihlwald railroad station, open until 4 November, has a small café and a bookshop, along with a museum. There are currently three exhibitions: The permanent exhibition illustrates the natural history of the Sihlwald, how it was previously used and also protected. One temporary exhibition is about the Sihl river and all the life forms it supports, and the other is about wilderness and people's interpretations of it.

The Langenberg Wildpark, several kilometres away by the town of Langnau am Albis, has a rather good restaurant and children's playground, as well as large, reasonably natural enclosures for bears, wolves, deer, lynx and more.

The Wildnispark offers an extensive educational programme for children and adults, including the "Geissen-Kids" Club, an opportunity for children to help feed and care for the farm animals; Sunday afternoon talks about the different animals in residence; and, this autumn, courses on making fire the Stone Age way and hunting for mushrooms. The 14th edition of the Sihlwald Kino will take place on 1-9 September this year and the Wildnispark-Fest is 23 September.

 

The UNESCO Biosphere Entlebuch (UBE), or the "Wild West of Lucerne" covers 394 square kilometres in eight municipalities in the canton of Lucerne. The moorland areas have been protected since 1987, and now form part of the "core" areas of the biosphere. As these protections were being implemented, the 17,000 people in the area began the process of achieving UNESCO recognition. A whopping 94% of voters approved the initiative in 2000, and the status was granted the following year.

The policy of the UBE is "conservation through utilization": far from leaving nature alone, 33% of the working population works in the primary sector (compared to 5.4% in Switzerland as a whole), especially in agriculture and forestry. Over 300 products are recognized as "Real Entlebuch" — many types of cheeses and sausages, but also breads and herbal teas, and even wood products. In general, 75% of their raw materials and 75% of their added value must be produced within the UBE for them to qualify.

There are a wide variety of activities on offer in the UBE, including the Sorenberg ski area, as well as guided or unguided hikes, bike and e-bike rides. As expected, you can tour the moors and the caves; perhaps less expected, you can pan for gold. The challenging Lättgässli, 203 steep steps lead you up to the Rothorn, the highest point in the canton.  Another option is the Biosphärenpass, available from June to October, which gives you six days of unlimited travel on the local trains, postal buses, gondolas and chairlifts in the area.

contributed by Allison Turner

Bernese Oberland

If you enjoy hiking, you'll love Diemtigtal Nature Park. Those who look forward to the breathtaking views that are the reward of a challenging hike up a mountain can follow the route from Oey up to the Niesen (2362m), where you can take in the views over Lake Thun and Lake Brienz as well as a panoramic view of the Alps. Those who want to enjoy a pleasant hike and learn about the area without losing their breath can choose one of the several theme trails. For example, the Diemtigtaler Hausweg present traditional houses, including information about the building styles and history of the houses. Other theme trails focus on the flora, fauna, culture or history.

Whether speed-loving downhillers, thrill-seeking mountain bikers or easy-going electrobike riders, cyclists also have plenty of options in Diemtigtal Nature Park. A favorite spot for fun on wheels is Wiriehorn where you can rent a bike, bikeboard or trottinette and take the chair lift up to Nüegg and then take one of four trails back down to Riedli. Hours of operation are limited in autumn.

Horseback riding, rock-climbing and paragliding are among the other sports on offer, so whether you prefer a relaxing mini-break or an adrenalin kick, you can find it at Diemtigtal Nature Park.

Gantrisch Nature Park is a great place to go when you want to slow down and enjoy the countryside. An impressive hiking trail is the Gantrisch Panoramaweg (between Plaffeien and Gurnigelbad) with amazing views of the Gantrisch chain to the south and the Alps in the distance. To the north, you'll look out over the Bernese Midlands and on a clear day can even see Lake Biel. The trail is difficult in places, so you might prefer to do it in stages.

contributed by Querida Long

 

Western Switzerland

Parc Jura Vaudois

At just over 1000m Parc Jura Vaudois, at Mont d'Orzeires in the Jura Mountains, provides a unique level of viewing opportunity: the chance to see bears, wolves and bison where they live and are bred.  Although the site began receiving bison as early as 1987, it was equipped as an animal park around 2001, when wolves were introduced – in addition to bears.  These species respectively gave birth to more louveteaux and oursons, much to the delight of visitors.  In another example of Swiss intercultural cooperation, Croatian Papa Bear George and his Swiss female partner, Ursina, have produced three cubs, one of which is called "Yogy".  Other additions to the park have included a variety of wild horse known as Przewalski's Horse.  These rare horses are said to be the only type truly never to have been domesticated. 

One can go wild in safety at the Parc Jura Vaudois, viewing the denizens by means of short access paths and a footbridge three metres above ground.  Parc Jura Vaudois welcomes visitors year-round from 9:00 to dusk, though they do close at 18:00 on Mondays and Tuesdays.  The cost is about 6 francs for adults, 4.50 francs for children, and free for children ages 5 and under.  A nearby Alpine chalet restaurant maintained by Famille Blanc, Chalet-Restaurant du Mont d'Orzeires, provides meals and drinks – though you may hesitate over the Terrine, Emincé or Carpaccio of bison, once you've actually met the providers.

Parc Jura Vaudois, or the Jura Nature Park for the Vaudois Region, covers an area of more than 530 km2, representing over 18% of the land surface of the Canton of Vaud. Full details can be found on their website at:

 

contributed by Jennifer Bew

The Doubs nature park

The image that is used to illustrate the Doubs Nature Park on the park's own website is that of the River Doubs itself. You can "see it" winding its way across hill and dale and also "hear" the sound of water as you click on the images of the attractions of the park.  This is because the river is an integral part of this area forming the border with France. Officially created in August 1999, the "Association pour le Parc Naturel Régional du Doubs" began with the objective of "creating a regional nature park in the Doubs region in partnership with the towns, associations, population and cantons concerned".  Some of the many attractions in this park include the Lac de Brenets and the Saut du Doubs waterfall, along with fishing and canoeing. 

The town of St-Ursanne is also to be found on the banks of the river Doubs. According to legend, this picturesque town was founded by the Irish monk Ursinicus, who lived as a hermit in an isolated spot. Tourists can visit the hermitage, located in a grotto by means of a steep staircase with 190 steps. The town itself consists mainly of medieval buildings, 14th to 16th century burgher houses dating from the 14th through to the 16th century and an impressive collegiate church.

For hikers keen to explore the park via the river, there is an official Swiss water trail in the area called "Following the Doubs" which takes walkers between Soubey and St-Ursanne.  According to My Switzerland this is "fifteen kilometres of meditative hiking pleasure and one of Switzerland's most beautiful water trails".

contributed by Catherine Nelson-Pollard

Southern Switzerland

Pfyn/Bois de Finges

The canton of Valais has its own "regional park of national importance" at Binntal, but perhaps the most interesting nature park to explore is the forest area known as Pfyn-Bois de Finges. Located between Sierre and Leuk, this largely wooded area amounts to some 350 hectares, including 7km of the Rhone.

Overlooking the forest and river below, the Illgraben mountain has one of the most active debris flow torrents in the Swiss Alps. The Illgraben catchment (erosion slope) measures an impressive 10 km2 and consists of quartzite, limestone deposits and dolomite. The latter in particular is especially susceptible to weathering and yields a lot of material that is swept along in the debris flow. This is the only section of the Rhone that could not be canalized due to the constant deposit of material from the mountain, resulting in the unique floodplain landscape visible today.

The nature park includes an astounding variety of natural features: the wild Rhone, pinewoods, ponds, pastureland with orchards, steppes, grasslands and marshes.

No less than 134 species of breeding birds can be found in the nature park, 17 of them on the Swiss Red List of Threatened Species. Many breeding birds migrate in winter, leaving only the resident birds – robust species capable of surviving the harsh conditions on a varied diet. Exotic-sounding names include sandpipers, kingfishers, hoopoes, nightjars, goshawks and long-eared owls.

Some 50 species of mammals are found in the region and the rest of Valais. Back in 1977 a very special guest made an appearance on the banks of the main canal, and has stayed there ever since – the beaver! These bashful animals leave very clear traces on the landscape, but are rarely seen in public.

Since July 2007 the Nature and Landscape Centre – the point of contact for visitors, as well as the park's administrative centre – has been located in Salgesch. Built to the specifications of the MINERGIE® standard, the renovated, 300-year-old Commandery of St. John houses the visitor reception area, the park's offices and the nature park shop. Additionally, a converted barn provides space for the nature park exhibition, a multipurpose area and a library. The park specialises in guided walks on every aspect of nature, for adults and schoolchildren alike.

 

 contributed by Caroline Thonger

 

Eastern Switzerland

Parc Naziunal Svizzer - Swiss National Park

In 2014 the Swiss National Park celebrated its centenary. Located in the canton of Graubünden or Grisons, extending for more than 170 square kilometres, and including 7000 habitants in five municipalities, this unique area has all the natural features required of a "park of national importance". Similar in size to Liechtenstein, the park is part of the Engadine Dolomites, with their typical loose-scree slopes, and lies in the eastern corner of Switzerland along the Italian border.

This is not only the oldest national park in the Alps, but also the most protected. The objective of the nature conservancy pioneers of a hundred years ago was to leave a segment of Switzerland's mountain landscape entirely alone, to develop naturally. The result was one of the most significant "open-air laboratories" in the Alps. Then as now, great importance is given to educating the public, and keeping them informed on how this national park has developed.

Since its inception, all human intervention has been forbidden, allowing natural processes to take effect without hindrance. No animals are hunted, no trees are felled, no meadows are mown, and visitors must keep to the 80 kms of walking trails. These protective measures are unique anywhere in the Alps, creating what is known as "strictly protected nature reserves" where wild animals can be easily observed.

Opened in 2008, the national park centre at Zernez attracts some 40,000 visitors a year. The comprehensive, interactive exhibition on permanent show offers a rich and diverse experience. Added to this are various digital information systems, temporary exhibitions and of course a shop.

Every year some 5000 visitors take advantage of a guided tour. Not only can they gain experience of the wealth and variety of preserved nature, but they are also made aware of the delicate balance between ecological relationships. These tours provide an opportunity to uncover some of the secrets of the astounding abundance of flora and fauna – all to be found in the Swiss National Park.

contributed by Caroline Thonger

 

For comprehensive information on all Swiss parks, go to:

www.paerke.ch

 

Photo: swiss-image.ch / Roland Gerth, parcdoubs.ch

Author: HELLO SWITZERLAND EDITORIAL TEAM

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  • 7/10/13 10:58 AM

    Suddenly, I really feel like going for a hike:-)

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