The High Route | Posted: 19 March 2015
Self-guided walking holidays in Switzerland
Self-guided walking holidays in Switzerland
Self-guided walking holidays in Switzerland

Inntraveller Shelley Hinsley travelled to the Bernese Oberland in early September. Here, she delights in the flora and fauna she came upon...

The High Route is well named – it takes you through the mountains along interesting but well way-marked paths with stonking views of some of the most iconic peaks in the Alps. As the name implies, it does go up and down a bit (the down being the most challenging) – we were grateful for our pre-trip training stomp up and around Fan-y-Big, Cribyn, Pen-y-Fan and Corn Du in the Brecons (and yes, it really is called Fan-y-Big), but the effort is well worth it.

After slogging up the Hohtürli Pass to c. 9,000 feet, we sat on the terrace outside the Blümlisalp hut drinking coffee and eating apricot tart whilst watching the clouds and sunshine roll around the peaks and glaciers and listening to the ptarmigan we had seen just below the top – distinctly surreal, but unmissable.

The trip kicked off with the spectacular from the beginning – as the train went up the valley from Wilderswil to Grindelwald, our first stop, the mountains got bigger and then, there was the Eiger. It filled the view from our hotel room, and when it got dark the lights, by the railway ‘window’ and up on the ridge, were a reminder of some of the more dramatic (and tragic) events in the Eiger’s mountaineering history.

One of the (many) good aspects of the trip was the continuity of the route. Walking from place to place gives you the chance to really appreciate the landscape, to spend time with the mountains and see how the views changed. I found it very satisfying to be able to look back or across to where we had been the day, or days, before – to see the ridges and routes we had walked, and similarly, the way we would be going (binoculars are very handy for this). We spent an extra day at each of Wengen and Mürren and this, in addition to some fantastic walking, added to this sense of location.

Looking down on Kleine Scheidegg and back to Grindelwald from the slopes of the Lauberhorn was brilliant, not to mention the Alpine salamander, jet black and unconcerned by us nosey tourists, and flocks of Alpine choughs twanging around the slopes. Likewise, the view from the top of Männlichen, above Wengen, down along the valley towards Mürren, was a great introduction to the next day’s walk.

The extra day at Grindelwald also supplied stunning views of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau (amongst other peaks) all along the ridge to the Schynige Platte and provided a useful chance to adjust to the altitude – we were a bit surprised to be breathing harder than expected at the first real climb after getting off the gondola, but were too busy with the views to notice it for long.

In addition to the stunning scenery, we were surprised by how many flowers were still in bloom at the beginning of September, especially at higher elevations. Large purple swathes of monkshood were impressive, at least four species of gentian, and although the Pasque flowers had gone over, the fields full of their fluffy/feathery seed heads were just as lovely in their own way.

For my money, the clear winner in the flower stakes was a small, but perfect little plant, Linaria Alpina (according to Wikipedia, also called Alpine toadflax), growing in lonely splendour on some of the bare, grey scree slopes – the flowers were only a few millimetres across, but were bright purple with dayglow orange centres (almost as outrageous as the purple honeycreeper in Trinidad which has bright purple and black plumage, lemon yellow legs and shiny little black toenails).

Related Holidays

The High Route

This is the holiday for those seeking exhilarating walks along high mountain ridges far above the wooded slopes, valley meadows and small villages below. The views will thrill as much as the abundant flora and fauna that you, like Shelley, will see.

More about our walking holidays in the Swiss Alps >

And talking of birds, we were surprised to find that the most common bird was the black redstart – and they were everywhere, from village gardens to well above the treeline. I don’t remember hearing one sing before, and think I would have remembered because the song included a quiet crackling sound like bacon frying – an odd, but very entertaining noise to come out of a bird. Other birds of particular note included golden eagle, nutcracker, citril finch, crossbill, Alpine accentor, crested tit and willow tit. We heard the nutcrackers before we saw them – they had an impressively loud and raucaus caw that easily puts a jay to shame – and were distinctive in flight with their chunky build and short, white-tipped tails. It was nice to see willow tits, they were common in the forests and even in gardens on the edge of Wengen – in the UK numbers have plummeted since the 1970s and they have more or less disappeared from south-east England.

We also had a perfect view of a three-toed woodpecker – we were ploughing up a steep path through conifer forest on the way to Bussenalp and the steepness of the slope rewarded us with a horizontal, clear view of him drumming on a dead tree – a great treat compared with the usual neck-breaking, branch-littered attempts to see woodpeckers in conifers.

Other impressive wildlife included chamois – a group of about 10 including kids, running around on slopes below the Mönch – and a herd of 17 ibex seen from the top of the Sefinenfurgge Pass. They were fairly distant, but we had a great view with binoculars. They were walking up the edge of a scree slope, and the sound of the falling rocks that they dislodged gave them away – not that they cared, they must have been well used to sweaty tourists making rather harder work of the ascent than they were. There was also a fair sprinkle of butterflies including some sorts of fritillary, swallow tail, apollo and blues.

All the hotels had different characters, but all shared the quality of excellence. Hard to pick a favourite, but the Hotel Victoria in Kandersteg had the elegance of a past century combined with all mod cons. It reminded me a bit of the hotel in the film Death in Venice – I half expected to bump into Mr von Aschenbach as we strolled down to the pool, in our bath robes (no kidding), for a swim (just us and the pool) before dinner.

Kandersteg is a great location for walking, and I’d recommend coming down in the Allmenalp gondola – the bottom drops out of the view in very spectacular fashion as you go over the edge of the cliff. There’s also an interesting bit of via ferrata up that same cliff – we settled for watching some other folks climb it (well, it was late in the day and raining slightly and...). The dippers on the Kander River were another bonus.

The mountain scenery gives you the impression of a really wild experience, but everything is actually very organised – trains, cable cars, way-marking, walking notes, mountain restaurants, hotels, luggage transfers, etc. It all works beautifully, so all you have to do is walk and admire the scenery. In fact, it was one of the best organised and “easy” overseas trips I have ever done – often I have more trouble driving from Cambs to Cardiff!

My only concern, in fact, was trying not to eat too much: usually when we go walking I lose a bit of weight; this time I think I broke even – perfect! And perhaps only the Swiss would have thought to stick a railway (opened in 1912 no less) up through the Eiger. Thoroughly recommended – my partner and I have a combined age of 126, so if you like a good walk, go for it.

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