Swiss National Park: where the wild things are

Emily Mawson, 18 May, 2017
Writer Emily Mawson explores the wilderness of Switzerland's only National Park... 

It’s so still. So still that I can decipher every sound: the tread of my boots on the carpet of larch needles, the breeze rustling the leaves and the flapping of birds’ wings.

The scene ahead is suitably, irresistibly wild. Wizened tree trunks frame a jagged curtain of sky-prodding summits studded with outcrops of pine and spliced by scree fields.

Suddenly, a nutcracker calls out and the peace is lost for a moment, as unseen creatures scurry among the larch and Scots pine trees. We are on the border to Switzerland’s only National Park, in the rugged Engadine Valley in the east of the country, and I feel like we are entering the animal kingdom.

It’s important we keep to the path to avoid disturbing the 30 types of mammals and 100 species of birds that lurk here. It is, after all, very much their territory. The National Park, a 170-square kilometre wilderness of Alpine terrain laced with 80 kilometres of footpaths, was founded in 1914 to protect an area of the Alps from development. It is so wild that it is inaccessible in winter.

The effect is mesmerising. There is no interfering hum of cableways, or roar of nearby traffic. Since we left Zernez on the border of the Park about 40 minutes ago, we have passed just one other person – though we are certainly being watched by many pairs of eyes.

Among them could be chamois, ibex, marmots, red deer and bearded vultures. Seeing them tends to be a matter of luck, however, according to Swiss National Park guide Laurence Badilatti.

She says: “Sometimes you see the wildlife, and sometimes you don’t. It is simply important to take your time, walk slowly, and keep your eyes and ears open.”

Being as in tune with your surroundings as she is certainly helps. She points out an hour-glass-shaped pine tree – so formed because chamois have been nibbling at it – before helping me position my binoculars so that I come face-to-face with a crowd of the nimble goat-like creatures grazing at the top of a scree slope ahead.

Just above them, the highest peak in the park, the 3,165-metre Piz Quattervals, is a charcoal bulk against the blue sky. Beyond its shoulder, an imposing grey wall blocks the end of the valley: Piz dal Diavel, or the ‘devil’s peak’. In the right conditions, you can make out dinosaur footprints on one of its limestone surfaces. It looks inhospitable, even on this warm summer’s day, and I’m glad we’re keeping to our lower-level plateau of meadows and woodland.

As we walk, treading softly in the hope of encouraging wildlife into the open, Laurence points out a host of colourful plants – there are 650 varieties in the Park. Among them are bright orange pinnate-leaved ragwort, pale purple rock jasmine and Alpine butterwort, whose dainty appearance belies its ability to eat small flies.

It is approaching lunchtime, but we’re not heading for a hut as we might be on a typical Alpine hike. In fact, there aren’t any. The only buildings in the National Park are the rustic-looking Chamanna Cluozza, which opened in 1910 and provides a bed for the night for people hiking across the Park though it's a good stretch on from here; and the cosy Hotel Il Fuorn outside Zernez.

Instead, we select a couple of boulders amid an enormous grassy meadow. No sooner have we opened our rucksacks than a pair of brown eyes pops up from the ground a short distance away. They disappear, and are replaced by several more pairs in different holes.

We watch in amusement as the furry little creatures rise and duck, deciding whether they dare venture closer. Clearly, when it comes to spotting marmots, stillness isn’t what’s needed – it’s the rustle of a sandwich bag.

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