People have been wandering through the Lötschental Valley since before the Bronze Age. Up until the Middle Ages, the Lötsch Pass was an important connection between Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland and Valais. Nestled between the Bernese and Valais Alps in the Jungfrau-Aletsch UNESCO World Heritage Site, the remoteness of the Lötschental has preserved a simple way of life and given rise to a wealth of tales, legends and myths. Wild figures that raced through Lötschental’s history have left their traces, including serving as the origins of the Tschäggättä, the terrifying masked figures that appear during the Carnival period.
Months earlier, we had passed through Lötschental on a train from Kandersteg to Brig, and were immediately captivated by its soaring mountains and vast emptiness. With two hundred kilometers of hiking trails leading through the valley, there are ample opportunities for a weekend escape. We anticipated that the area’s larchwood forests would make autumn a particularly spectacular time of year to visit, and planned accordingly.
Finally, one late October weekend, we took a two-hour train to Goppenstein, with a change in Brig, then climbed on a yellow post bus that dropped us off 20 minutes later in the tiny town of Reid, just outside the larger Blatten (Lötschen). In the dark night, the windows of the cozy Hotel Nest-und Bietschhorn, our destination for the evening, were glowing warmly, and seemed to be inviting us in for dinner. Despite the town’s population of under 300 people, the restaurant had landed an official Gault Millau selection and was fully booked. A four course meal was included in our half board, and before we even checked in, we were seated at a table in a wood-paneled log cabin-esque dining room choosing which wine to pair with our meal. The dishes were prepared entirely from fresh local products, and were cooked to perfection. Not only was the duck breast was one of the best I’ve ever had, but the real star was the homemade stracciatella ice cream – so good that we ordered another scoop. Then we trekked our bags up the many flights of stairs to our attic room, and snuggled in under our down comforters for the night.
One of the best parts about arriving in the Alps after dark is the surprise view in the morning. It never ceases to disappoint, and this was no exception. As we helped ourselves to the breakfast buffet of warm bread and butter with homemade apricot basil jam, bircher muesli, and hardboiled eggs, we stared wide-eyed out the window at the snow-capped mountains covered in a rainbow of orange, yellow and green larchwoods, a smattering of black and white cows dotting the pastures below.
Stepping outside and taking a deep breath of crisp morning air, we hoisted our packs on our shoulders and began a casual hike up through the village’s wooden cabins, adorned with frightening Tschäggättä masks, towards Fafleralp at the end of the valley. As the sun rose and we climbed higher, the mountains looked like as if they had burst into flames, colors blazing from green at the bottom to red at the top. A brilliant trail of orange and yellow trees lined our path, dazzling us as we worked our way towards Fafleralp. Just before Fafleralp we reached the magnificent Schwarzee lake. It was a clear day and the air was still, allowing a perfect reflection of the Lötschental Breithorn, Breitlauihorn and Bietschhorn mountains to grace its deep green glassy waters.
Hoping to reach our accommodation before any sign of rain, we decided to turn back and head up to Lauchernalp where we were spending our second night in the Alpenhotel Zur Wildi. Lauchernalp is primarily known as a sunny ski resort, sitting at just over 2100 meters, and lies on the scenic Lötschental Panoramaweg connecting the towns of Blatten and Kandersteg. The remainder of the path was equally spectacular, covered in a soft carpet of pine needles that had fallen from the bright larchwoods towering over our heads, the spaces between the branches revealing a spectacular view of the valley and Alps.
The hotel was large, with a tiled interior meant for wet skiers coming in off the mountain, but the rooms and dining area were cozy. A raclette room with a wood burning stove just off the main building was exactly what we’d been hoping for, but was unfortunately closed until the winter season began. After a short jaunt up the mountain behind the hotel we returned to watch the setting sun light up the mountainside with an orange glow, then headed in for an early dinner. Our waitress presented us with a Wildkarte, a special seasonal menu for the month of October featuring local game and produce. Unable to resist, I ordered the day’s special and was brought out a plate of “springbock” steak with wild mushroom sauce, brussels sprouts, red cabbage with caramelized chestnuts, and a roasted pear filled with berries, accompanied by a Fendant wine.
A hearty meal in our bellies, legs tired, and eyelids heavy, we turned in early good night’s rest. To our surprise, we awoke the next morning cloaked in a cloud of pure white, the ground dusted with snow, which was still coming down. Taking our time in the warm dining room at breakfast, we reluctantly finished the last of our coffee, laced up our boots, and stepped out into the cold, hoping the curtain of bleakness would lift and once again reveal the vast and colorful views of the valley that we’d hoped for.
The snow had cleared all traffic from the trails and it was blissfully quiet as we hiked out of town alone, tracking our fresh footprints over the little bridges and dirt roads of the village. Soon, tinkling bells signaled we had company, as two shepherds appeared over the hill, angrily rounding up a group of stray sheep. We watched as their plight was nearly thwarted by a group of hungry cows who ran down the mountain at the sound of bells, hoping for some scraps of bread. The shepherds were having none of it, and threw rocks until the cows filed down the trail.
Continuing on, the sky cleared and the sun lit up the surroundings, making the fresh snow sparkle as if someone had sprinkled a bag of sugar crystals over the trees and mountains to create the perfect holiday card image. Before we knew it, it was snowing again, a pattern that would repeat itself over the course of our five-hour hike as mother nature played with the scenery, making villages and mountains pop out of nowhere before tucking them away again just as quickly.
Before we knew it, we were back on the valley floor under sunny skies, gazing up at swaths of trees that looked like they were melting down the side of the mountain on a wave of molten lava. Then we exited through one of the classic Swiss gates – a door in the middle of a field, and headed for the train station.