Life in the Alps: a weekend in the Swiss National Park

Switzerland’s remarkable landscapes demand immediate action – grab your boots, jump on a train, and hit the trails. And perhaps nowhere deserves a visit more than the Swiss National Park, a relatively off-the-grid destination that bundles everything the country has to offer into a compact 170 sq km pocket of nature. With a three-day weekend ahead of us, we packed our bags and jumped on board.

Switzerland’s only national park is located on the Italian border in the canton of Graubünden, reached by train from Geneva in five and a half hours, or two and a half from Zurich. The train arrives in Zernez, a tiny mountain village that speaks Switzerland’s fourth official language of Romansh and serves as the gateway to the park.  We arrived late on a Friday night, stepping off the train into the smell of fresh pine and a clear dark sky painted with bright mountain stars. The cafes were still lively, a little bit of Italian air drifting across the border as we walked to our hotel.

In 10 minutes we had reached hotel Adler Garni, where we were greeted by the smiling owner who stayed up late just to let us in. Hotel Adler is my idea of a perfect hotel – a simple accommodation, the cozy wooden rooms of a traditional Swiss chalet, spotlessly clean, comfortable beds, and exceptional staff. Breakfast the next morning was a delicious, hearty buffet of fresh bread, muesli, Alp cheese and eggs, the perfect start to a long weekend of hiking.

By 9am we were out the door, the hotel superbly located next to the park visitor center and the trailhead for the 3-4 hour hike to the rustic Chammana Clouzza mountain hut where we would be spending the next two nights. I hadn’t been able to find any comprehensive information about the park trails online aside from the park’s website, which displays each trail individually but never as a complete map, so our first stop was the visitor’s center. Here we purchased a map for $14, in lieu of an entrance fee, and the ranger on duty explained the park’s geography. There is only one road through the park, called “Pass dal Fuorn”, which connects Zernez with Müstair, a remote valley close to the Italian border. It is open to the public, but highly recommended to take the postal bus that runs every hour down its length, offering regular service to nine parking lots (P1 to P9) and many bus stops along the road that provide access to 80 km network of hiking trails. Trail 7 leads from Zernez to hut Clouzza, trail 8 leads from bus stop P3 on the park road to hut Clouzza, and trail 3 and 4, both technical blue alpine trails, begin at hut Clouzza and split off in different directions. We decided to hike in on trail 7 and out on trail 8, with a day in between to explore.

Entering the National Park, we could see the mighty Bernina range towering above the southern horizon. Below the tree line, the land was covered with beautiful pine forests. Higher up revealed magnificent views over the Clouzza valley, a blue glacial river running along its floor. The hike took us through a variety of spectacular scenery, the fresh pine smell now mixed with the sweet nectar of flowers. At some point we stopped for lunch, sitting on a log by the river for a picnic of PB&J sandwiches and fruit, not realizing that the hut lay just around the corner. We licked our fingers and slung our packs back on, and within minutes we were standing in front of a charming log cabin on a ledge overlooking the mountains, forests and river of the gloriously unspoiled Clouzza Valley.

We traded our boots for colorful rubber crocs, or “house shoes”, to protect the wooden floors and the guests’ feet for the trek down to the scenic outdoor bathroom, perched on the edge of the mountain. There was a spacious common room with wooden tables and chairs and an iron wood burning stove for cold days. A small counter was set up to take lunch orders and pour drinks throughout the day, all supplies helicoptered in from a nearby town. Expecting two mattresses in a large dorm, we were pleasantly surprised when we were given our own private room with a set of bunk beds and view out to the mountains. Each bed was supplied with a pillow and down comforter, but hut rules required that we also bring or rent a sleeping bag liner (even a sheet will do). There was one power outlet to share between all 60 people staying the night, but because there was no cell phone service it went mostly unused – we were all there to enjoy nature and escape our modern devices.

Feeling suddenly very lethargic after our morning hike, we joined the crowd draped over the deck furniture on the front lawn, happily basking in the sun. There were families reading at picnic tables, couples napping in the grass, heads propped up on backpack pillows, a cheerful meet-up group toasting mugs of cold beer, kids wobbling slowly across the slackline strung between two large oak trees.  We stretched out in the lounge chairs facing the ravine, pulling out our books and taking sips of frosty beer while wondering, is this what heaven feels like?

A few hours before we were due at the dinner table, we laced up our boots once more to enjoy the rest of the golden afternoon on one of the alpine trails leading across the valley. Cautiously, we traipsed down to the river, relieved to find that this portion of the trail didn’t require any advanced technical skills. Bright pink alpenrose were devouring the rocks near the water, brilliantly accenting the river banks, while a rainbow of wildflowers lined the edge of the trail. Breathing in the pure mountain air, drinking the clear glacial water, and listening only to the sounds of nature surrounding us was almost spiritual, reminding us what life is really all about. A simple existence brings so much more joy than anything money can buy. Except maybe good hiking gear.

Dinner is served promptly at 6:30pm, so we hurried back to find our names on a chalkboard sign before sitting down next to a young couple and a father hiking with his small daughter. Sixty or so hikers of all ages gathered at the tables around us drinking pitchers of wine as we passed food around the table family-style, steaming pots of soup, baskets of bread, a huge bowl of salad, mashed potatoes and sausage-loaf all making the rounds until we had each served ourselves a mountain-sized portion. Bellies full, we trudged up the stairs to squeeze in some bedtime reading before 10pm, when a darkened hush fell over the house. Barely any noise could be heard (except for the occasional snore or gulp of water through the paper-thin walls) until 6am when all of a sudden it sounded like a herd of elephants trampling through the hallways. No need to set an alarm clock.

Breakfast was the standard mountain hut bread and jam, a piece of cheese and unlimited coffee, and then we were off to put our legs to work for another full day in the mountains. It was a grey, drizzly morning, but that doesn’t stop the Swiss, and a long line of brightly colored raincoats had begun trickling onto the trail. The ranger at the visitor’s center told us that if we got an early start we might finally see our much sought-after ibex, which has eluded us for the past year, and for this we were willing to brave any kind of weather. Back and forth we plodded up the muddy switchbacks above the treeline until, breathless, we reached the summit at 2800 meters. We peered out into the gloom on the other side and there on the slope, just like the ranger predicted, was a flock of nimble-footed chamois munching on the dewy grass and two magnificent ibex with heavy sets of curved horns lying next to them. A herd of red deer grazed on a pinnacle above them while more chamois scaled the rocks on our other side, billowing clouds rising up like huge steam vents around us, suddenly engulfing the animals in a thick fog before blowing over just as quickly. We parked ourselves on a boulder, eyes glued to our binoculars, and ibex-watched to our hearts content .

We would take this trail all the way to the road tomorrow, but today we turned back towards the hut. The rising temperature had transformed the grey landscape we traversed just hours earlier into a mystical place. Families of plump playful marmots popped up from their burrows at every step, rolling around in the grass and giving the occasional high-pitched scream when they feared a predator overhead. The mountains across the valley now looked like the terrain of a distant planet – craters, valleys and ridges framed by wispy clouds. A fine mist shrouded the green hills in mysterious layers that eventually dropped off into a white abyss. And suddenly, at the edge of this fantasy world appeared a perfectly silhouetted ibex. And then another. And another, until we counted four in total, nibbling their way up the steep hillside.

As we continued our descent, the ibex still in the corner of our vision, a huge bird swooped into view, gliding gracefully along the length of the valley. There was no mistaking it, this was one of the few bearded vultures that has made its home in the valley. The entire bearded vulture, or Lämmergeier, population was exterminated in Switzerland by the end of the 19th century, but a program to reintroduce them to the Alps released 26 young birds into the wild between 1991 and 2007. With a wing span of over 2.6 meters, they dominate the sky, along with their slightly smaller and easier-to-spot comrade, the Golden Eagle, which we also saw twice during our stay in the park.

We arrived back at the hut in the damp afternoon to a fire burning in the wood stove, filling the cozy dining area with warmth. The party had moved inside and wet hikers crowded around the wooden tables drinking beer and eating lunch in a festive mood. We snuggled next to the fire with our books and a huge slice of homemade linzer torte that reminded me of Oma’s (but not as good, of course) and realized we had no idea what time it was – such a luxury – our bodies falling asleep early from pure physical exhaustion, rising to the sun, eating when hungry, completely in tune with nature’s rhythm.

Late in the day the sun broke through the clouds and like sunflowers, everyone quickly ran outside to turn their face up to the light. We threw on our boots and headed down to the river in hopes of catching another glimpse of one of the majestic raptors we had seen soaring by earlier, but had to make do with a spotted nutcracker, a bird famous for its spatial abilities, which allows it to cache food over wide areas and then find it to eat during the winter. It also turns out to be the park’s logo.

At dinner, some of our new dining companions seemed unfamiliar with the concept of family-style, serving themselves all the salad and leaving none for the second half of the table.  But we made up for this with great conversation between our hungry neighbors, all Swiss, one a geographer working in the park, who described their favorite skiing and hiking destinations and regaled us with Swiss park stories like surveillance drones being attacked by Golden Eagles.

We left early the next morning to hike back to Zernez, clouds nestled in all the nooks and crannies of the mountains. Rays of light slowly illuminated the summit as we drew near, casting beautiful shadows across the undulating green mountainside. The ibex and chamois were waiting for us again on the same slope, and we were just as captivated as before.  Finally, we tore ourselves away and continued on to the P3 lot where a bus would take us back to Zernez. Crossing through meadows of bright orange and purple flowers, above the milky blue waters of the Ova Dal Fuorn, we gradually descended back into the pines. “This is what I think of when I drink pinot” said Chris, observing the bright green moss carpeting the ground.

Soon, we strode out from the canopy into the warm midday sunshine. From the log bus stop I looked out over the pristine landscape once more, taking in the serene beauty and utter peacefulness before heading back to civilization. The next time I need a respite from the world, I know where to come.

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