Switzerland’s best hiking is found in The Chedi Andermatt’s back yard — Canton Uri. Below are travel writer Adam H. Graham’s three favourites, each offering a unique slice of Swiss bliss.
I’ve been living in Switzerland for four years now and often get asked what my favourite region is. It’s a difficult question to answer because I like different regions for different reasons: Appenzell for its cheese and rolling hills; Canton Valais for its wine and majestic mountains; and Engadine for its brilliant light and superb skiing. But without a doubt, Canton Uri, located in Central Switzerland just 80 miles from Zurich, is my favourite place to hike. All you need are a good pair of boots and a love of Alpine scenery.
Lesser-visited Canton Uri is separated from its neighbouring cantons by the toothy wall of over 2,000 metres — Urner Alps. Inside that wall is an especially scenic hiker’s paradise and the motherload of Alpine scenery — rare Alpine orchids, swimmable blue alpsees, rocky mountaintops brushed with pinkish alpenglühen (alpine glow) each evening, and mystical nabelmeer (fog seas) that fill the valleys each autumn. There are also snow-frosted peaks, yodellers, Alpine horns, bell-clad cows, and dozens of open-air cable cars that take hikers up to quiet and cool higher elevations. There, trails abound with birds and wildflowers as colourful as anything you’ll see on a tropical snorkelling expedition. This is a rarefied Switzerland free from mass tourism, and where you’re guaranteed to get some peace and quiet.
There, trails abound with birds and wildflowers as colourful as anything you’ll see on a tropical snorkelling expedition.
The drive to Canton Uri itself is the first of many scenic highlights. To get there from Zürich, follow Route 4 south for 60-minutes until you reach the historic Axenstrasse (or 40 minutes down the mountain from The Chedi Andermatt). The ancient 12-kilometre long mountain ridge road winds along the steep-cliffed perimeter of Urnersee (Lake Uri), a branch of the four-fingered Vierwaldstättersee, (Four Forest Cantons Lake), also know as Lake Lucerne. It occasionally plunges through century-old mountain tunnels and offers spectacular vistas of the shimmering turquoise waters below.
My favourite trails are located on the eastern side of Axenstrasse and Urnersee which are accessible only by a luftseilbahn (cable car). The four-person, open-air gondola to Ober-Axen is self-operating and a round-trip ticket costs CHF 13 (US $14). Use the free wall-mounted phone to ring the mountain station atop before boarding and pay when you exit. The seven-minute ride brings you to the 5-kilometre, 3-hour Eggberge trail, where you’ll encounter mystical fairytale forests, moss-strewn larch and pine woods and sloping meadows that will make you want to twirl like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (though the von Trapp family came from Austria, not Switzerland). The first 800 metres are an intense vertical climb through Alpine meadow and ideal for walkers who enjoy a bit of a challenge but the trail levels out at 1,500 metres and the rarefied Urnersee views are worth the workout. In autumn, this is ground zero for nebelmeer (fog sea) watching, while spring often brings warm, dry föhn winds, said by locals to cause madness!
Canton Uri is the historic birthplace of Switzerland. The 20-minute Wiliam Tell trail is especially good for history buffs and vertigo sufferers as it sticks to the lowlands. It traverses through the cantonal capital of Altdorf, where the famed Swiss archer William Tell allegedly split an apple atop his son’s head, and the neighbouring village of Bürglen, his birthplace. The picturesque towns are worthy of a stop to admire the half-timber houses, quaint churches and clock-towers, the William Tell fountain, and Tell Museum, teeming with 600 years of historical artifacts. Just across the lake (and accessible by steamship) is the Rütli-Meadow where Switzerland’s founding Confœderatio Helvetica oath was sworn in 1291.
Another favourite hike of mine is to the Sittlisalp Alpkäserei, a local cheese cooperative. The easy 3-kilometre, 60-minute loop is mostly flat with a somewhat steep descent towards the end that may present a bit of a challenge for those with knee problems. But the wide trail is lined with gravel and leads to a hydroelectric-powered cheese dairy and shepherd’s cooperative maintained by nine local family farms. The staff speak English and will tell you about Switzerland’s AOC-protected Alpkäse — cheese that’s made with milk from cows grazing above 1,400 metres and rich in Omega-3 fatty acids. Many hikers can taste certain wildflower flavours in the cheese, so pay attention and see if you can too. I sampled a few different cheese before settling on a hunk of mutschli nature, along with a tub of local butter and a tangy whey drink called molke that’s especially popular with locals.
This is a trail designed for those who want to take a slow place and linger over Alpine birds, butterflies and wildflowers, capped off by a swim in a typical alpsee and a bowl of vanilla ice cream topped with wild Swiss blueberries.
I’ve done the 6-kilometre, 3-hour Golzernsee hike three times and never tire of its magnificent beauty. This is a trail designed for those who want to take a slow place and linger over Alpine birds, butterflies and wildflowers, capped off by a swim in a typical alpsee and a bowl of vanilla ice cream topped with wild Swiss blueberries. To access it, head to Bristen’s cable-car station in Maderanertal. There, the Golzernseilbahn ascends over lush meadows and steep scrubby gullies before dropping you at the trailhead. The landscape is peppered with old wooden chalets and the adjacent meadows are rich with the sound of clanging cow bells, the likes of whom you will share the trail with in the late afternoons. The trail is also home to honour-system shops hawking locally quarried quartz and crystals with prices as low as CHF 5 per crystal. The trail’s namesake Golzernsee is a tiny, crystal blue alpine pond that is perfect for summer swims with a floating dock and shallow water areas for kids. Reward yourself after at the cosy, weathered and wooden Golzernsee Restaurant, a fantastic place to savour a local dessert made with local wild blueberries. It’s not only a great way to end the hike, but a reminder of the bounty and purity of these most magnificent alps.
(Featured image: A wide variety of terrain and flowers in bloom make hiking the Swiss Alps and foothills in the summer a peaceful change of pace from the typical bustling winter months.)