It meanders the length and breadth of the country, taking the hiker through vineyards, pastures, and forests, along rivers and ridges, and up mountains and glaciers. Originating in a time when walking was the only practical way to move people and livestock around the mountains, hiking has now become a national pastime, and an endless array of trails beckon walkers in every canton. There are seven main national routes including the Alpine Panorama Trail from Bodensee to Lac Léman, and countless regional routes. Tour de Mont Blanc and Matterhorn Tour are two of the most famous multi-day excursions, but the options are limitless. The Swiss Alpine Club makes overnight hikes even more enjoyable with their various cabins and huts, many of which are even open in winter for skiers and snow shoers.
Freshly painted blazes abound, and yellow signposts appear just when you start to wonder if you're still on the right track. The Swiss Hiking Federation maintains trails in excellent condition and has created a system to signal their difficulty. Yellow blazes, often diamond-shaped and surrounded by a black line, indicate hiking routes. These easiest trails range from dirt or even paved roads to rockier, narrower tracks. Mountain routes, more challenging than hiking routes, encompass a perhaps still broader range. Their difficulty can come in the form of steepness, rock-strewn switchbacks, high altitude, or even frighteningly exposed cols and ridges. Some are equipped with chains for an additional handhold. A white-red-white blaze indicates a mountain route. Blue-and-white blazes signal Alpine routes, which are generally recommended only for those with technical climbing and mountaineering abilities. They can involve rock-climbing, glacier crossings, or extremely exposed scrambles.
Detailed topographical maps, available at every tourist office and some bookstores, are a further invaluable aid to hikers. They are marked with altitude in meters and with contour lines: the closer these are packed, the steeper the angle of the slope. Glaciers are shown in white with blue contour lines, forests in green with brown lines, and rocky high altitude zones in grey with black lines. One can glean an immense amount of information from the maps: the paths of rivers, railways, and Post buses, the locations of towns and Alpine club cabins, the border between Switzerland and surrounding countries, even whether or not a lake is man-made. Simple topographical maps have green covers; ski and snowboard touring maps have blue covers; and hiking maps have yellow covers. Walking trails are highlighted in red on the hiking maps. Alpine routes are marked in small red dots, mountain routes with dashes, and hiking routes with a solid line. An exhaustive resource of maps and suggestions can be found at www.wanderland.ch
On almost any trail one finds mountain views, the earthy smell of forest and pasture, and sometimes even wildlife, but here are three of my favorites. In summer or fall, the walk through UNESCO World Heritage site Lavaux commands a panoramic view fronted by acres of leafy grape vines. The Lavaux Terraces tumble down the steep hillsides between Lausanne and Vevey, but the best of the hike is between two small towns: St-Saphorin and Lutry. St-Saphorin is a medieval town whose train station is built right on the edge of Lac Léman. The hike begins in its shaded streets and soon emerges in the sunlit Chasselas vineyards. The view takes in Montreux and its hills, and across the lake the mountains of France and Valais plunge into the blue water. Hiking up and down on the narrow paved walkways between terraces, one encounters a variety of restaurants and wine cellars, so it is always inviting to pause along this yellow-marked hiking trail.
Mountain routes penetrate more untamed landscapes, particularly in the rugged Alps of the Valais. A favourite of mine crosses Col de Mille between Liddes and Lourtier. Liddes is an Alpine village below Col du Grand- St-Bernard, and Lourtier lies in the same valley that encompasses Verbier. Moderate hiking trails lead uphill from both but quickly change into mountain routes. Purple loosestrife and wild raspberries grow beside the narrow switchbacks leading out of the forest. The tufted grass of Alpine pasture then opens a wide vista of high peaks, their jagged crags snow clad even in summer. At the top of the col (2472m) is Cabane du Col de Mille where one can stay the night and have a meal. When I arrived in early September, the cabin was being supplied by donkey. I had started early, so completed the 8-hour hike in one day, but breaking the hike into two days and watching the alpenglow on Petit-Combin would be a pleasant alternative. Overhead scores of peregrine falcons hunted for smaller birds or rodents in the grass. Like many of the more remote mountain routes, this was a place to watch the wild inhabitants of the Alps.
Alpine routes often remove the hiker even farther from civilization, but one of my favorites is actually quite accessible. Starting from Col du Pillon between the ski towns of Les Diablerets and Gstaad, it weaves up sparsely treed fields to a rocky scree. The slender trail is exposed to a long fall over cliffs to the climber's right, but maintenance crews have anchored chains to the rock on the left for more security. The trail skirts the bottom of the several-hundred-meter cliff rising up to Tête aux Chamois; if one so chooses, there is a Via Ferrata up the rock wall. One can also continue on the Alpine route, climbing past the Cabane des Diablerets, a quaint stone cabin with beds, meals, and a young caretaker. I was lucky enough to see a herd of female ibex and their young on this section of the trail. Finally one reaches the Tsanfleuron Glacier, one of the few made accessible to almost everyone. The ski resort of Les Diablerets has marked a trail free of crevasses. Tour St-Martin, a pinnacle rising from the glacier at the other end, provides a vertiginous view all the way to the Rhone Valley and across it to Mt Blanc. Another hut, Cabane de Prarochet, awaits at the base of a mountain route down from the pinnacle, or one can walk back along the glacier and board the aerial tramway to return to Col du Pillon.
Hiking can be a surprising amount of exercise, so walkers should be sure to evaluate their fitness and skill level before setting out. Always wear stout, grippy shoes, and bring plenty of water and snacks. The change in altitude on Alpine hikes often means a big temperature drop, so pack warm clothes and a jacket even in summer. Ski or walking poles add good support on the trickier trails, especially for walking downhill. Most of all, decide on your trail carefully and choose one suited to the weather conditions and your level. Whether in search of mountaineering adventures, ibex and falcons, a quiet moment in the woods, or a lakeside stroll, a hiker can find it on the Swiss trail network, truly a national treasure.
Photos:Ellen Massey Leonard