I love Switzerland, and hiking in Switzerland, so it’s surprising how little time I’ve actually spent there. I visited several times in college – meeting up with a friend in Zurich, spending a weekend with friends hiking up and down the ski slopes in Crans-Montana and making the requisite pilgrimage to Balmer’s Youth Hostel in Interlaken. I’ve also had half a dozen long layovers in Zurich, and when we rented a villa on Lake Como a few years ago, we did day trips to Lugano. Other than that it’s been a place that ranks highly for us as a family but that we simply have not explored.
When the Adventure Travel World Summit (ATWS) in Lugano was announced, I signed up immediately. As I’ve written before, ATWS is a great event, but even better are the Pre Summit Adventures and Days of Adventure. You get to travel deeper into the destination and meet amazing people while doing it. Previous Pre Summit Adventures of mine have included adventuring in Argentinian Patagonia, hiking across Tuscany and exploring the forests of Sweden. This year I opted to hike and e-bike from Engelberg to Interlaken.
The Swiss Trains
Before I get into trip specifics, let me sing the praises of the Swiss transportation network. It’s perfect. This trip included arriving into Zurich Airport and taking a train to the city, then taking a train to Engelberg, using chairlifts, funiculars, buses and trains to supplement our hiking between there and Meiringen, taking a train to Lugano from Interlaken, taking trains to go hiking for a day in Ticino, riding a bus and then taking funicular to the top of Monte Bre in Lugano, and then hopping on a final train from Lugano to Zurich. I had a 15-day Swiss Travel Pass which worked perfectly. The pass was within the SBB App whenever I was asked for my ticket, and it got me discounts on any transportation that was not 100% covered, like the Monte Bre funicular. The app also let me see timetables. If you’re heading to Switzerland and moving around a little, look into getting a Swiss Travel Pass.
FYI, right now (2022) a 15-day 2nd class Swiss Travel Pass is $477. There are also 3-day, 4-day, 6-day and 8-day passes, but the 15-day pass is by far the best value. Youth passes are discounted. Children under 16 are free as long as they’re traveling with at least one paying adult.
This Swiss trip started in Zurich. I took a 10-minute train ride from the airport to the central station, and then walked roughly 10 minutes to the 25hours Hotel Langstrasse. I’ve stayed at 25hours in Florence several times now and love it, and Langstrasse is just as great – modern, playful and well-located. I arrived late and it was cold and rainy, so I didn’t do much in Zurich besides watch trains from the window of my room, have breakfast with a friend and explore the hotel. I headed to Engelberg around 11am. If the weather was nicer I would have explored Zurich and or stopped in Zug to see another friend. No problem – I’ll return.
Engelberg was similarly cold and rainy, so I didn’t explore a lot. I walked around the famous convent, and then headed to the grocery store to buy chocolate (because Switzerland) where I was surprised to find out that my Swiss currency from just a couple years earlier was no longer accepted. So a heads up: if you have old Swiss bills, you’ll need to take them to any Swiss bank and trade them for new bills.
In Engelberg I stayed at the Engelberg Trail Hotel (aka Hotel Engelberg). It was perfect – boutiquey, charming, old (from 1854), comfortable and inexpensive. Dinner was in the hotel’s restaurant and was excellent.
Hiking in Switzerland: Engelberg to Engstlenalp
In the morning we had breakfast at the hotel and then walked through town to the funicular, which we took up to Gerschnialp and started hiking. Our path to Untertrübsee took us through forests and meadows (with cows) and was gorgeous – even though the low clouds prevented us from seeing the mountains all around us.
At Untertrübsee we took a tiny blue gondola (Äelplerseil) to the top and then walked from there around Trübsee clockwise to Alpstubli am Trübsee where we had lunch. This entire hike was kid-friendly, but the section around Trübsee was especially good, with many kid-oriented stations with fables and games, as well as play areas. It’s great when destinations go out of their way to entertain and educate kids.
After lunch we took the chairlift from the lake to the top of Jochpass where we were suddenly in winter. There was over a foot of snow on the ground and it was coming down. So fun! And it was the best snow I’ve ever found for making snowballs.
We were only at the top for a few minutes however when we took another chairlift down to Steinigi Egg / Engstlenalp above Engstlensee. Just like that we were back in autumn! There was still a little snow, but as we hiked from the base of the lift to Hotel Engstlenalp, it turned to rain and then stopped altogether. No complaints from me at all – coming from very dry California, it would take weeks of non-stop rain for me to grow tired of it. And as we would find out the next day, there were major benefits from the rain.
Hotel Engstlenalp is one of Switzerland’s classic Berghotels – straight out of a Wes Anderson film. Our bathroom was across the hall – the only place we stayed where that was the case, but not a big deal for a night.
Hiking in Switzerland: Engstlenalp to Meiringen
This was a day of downhill hiking, with low clouds but no rain. We benefited from the previous days’ rain, however, since there were gorgeous waterfalls and streams all along the hike.
We headed out at 11am, hiked through mossy forests and a stunning valley to Gäntel, where we arrived around 2:15pm. It’s actually not that long a hike, but we stopped often to enjoy the scenery, and at one point we ate our packed lunches. At 2:15 we hopped on a bus at Gäntelhitti for just a few minutes to Innertkirchen, where we then boarded a train for a two-minute-ride to the Aareschlucht Ost station. FYI, we could have hiked the 18km from Engstlenalp to Aareschlucht in four hours, but opted to walk much slower, enjoy the hike, and then use the short bus and train rides to get us to the Aare Gorge by 3pm.
The Aare Gorge (Aareschlucht) – 1.6km of icy blue water that you walk through on an elevated walkway – is stunning! We walked from east to west, but just as easily could have gone the other direction, or made it a round-trip. The path is mostly wheelchair and stroller-friendly, especially if you’re going west to east. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. This is definitely worth your time if you’re anywhere nearby. There’s an entrance fee of CHF 10 for adults and 6.50 for kids 6-16 (2022). It’s free for kids under six.
Leaving the Aare Gorge at the west entrance, we then walked maybe 25 minutes to our hotel, Hotel Dakota, in Meiringen. Dinner (excellent) was at Hotel Meiringen across the street.
Biking in Switzerland: Meiringen to Interlaken
In the morning we met up with Flying Wheels Interlaken outside our hotel. They brought us e-bikes from Interlaken and gave us instructions on how to ride. I’ve been on many e-bikes before, but every one is different, so I appreciated the guidance. We then set off for nearby Reichenbach Falls.
If you’re a Sherlock Holmes fan, you’ll know Reichenbach Falls. It’s where the fictional detective died in 1891. There are Holmes-inspired sites throughout Meiringen, including a pub and museum, and at the falls there are several plaques, a mini-museum and a marker at the spot where he died. And if you’re not a Sherlock Holmes fan, you can at least enjoy a gorgeous view from the funicular and the falls!
I should note that we headed out from Hotel Dakota at 9am, with the intent of stopping at the falls for an hour and then taking five hours to reach Interlaken, just in time for the rain to start at 3pm. The rain actually started at 9:45am and never stopped! Anyway we left Reichenbach Falls right on time at 10, newly clad in rain gear, and had an amazing ride.
Our first stop was at a little coffee house in Unterbäch, where we had coffee and got out of the rain for a few minutes. We then continued, with some serious climbs (thank you e-bikes) to Giessbach Falls, which was exceptionally cool – the bike/pedestrian path crosses a bridge right over the waterfall, overlooking the Grandhotel Giessbach and beyond it, Lake Brienz (Brienzersee). We enjoyed the falls for a good 20 minutes before riding on to the small town of Iseltwald where we ate our packed lunches and had pastries. I loved riding through town and relaxing at the lake. I can only imagine that it’s even nicer when it’s not raining!
We left Iseltwald at roughly 2:30 and turned our bikes in at Flying Wheels Interlaken at 3:15. The last part of the ride was gorgeous, along Lake Brienz and then along the Aare River (remember the Aare?) and through Interlaken.
In Interlaken we checked into Carlton-Europe Hotel. The hotel and service were ok, although no kids are allowed, so don’t book it if you’re a family traveler! To search for all Interlaken hotels, click here. I wandered around a little that afternoon (in the rain) and then the next morning (in the sun). Nice to be back in Interlaken after all these years! Dinner was at Stadthaus – the meatballs were excellent.
Interlaken to Lugano by Train
We left Interlaken at noon and arrived in Lugano at 4pm, with a 20-minute connection in Luzern. This train ride flew by. The scenery was breathtakingly beautiful the entire trip and just reminded us even more of what an extraordinary country Switzerland is. Totally curious: do the Swiss ever get tired of perfect towns, blue lakes, snow-capped mountains, green fields, chocolate and cheese? 🙂
The last week of my trip was in Lugano, centering around the Adventure Travel World Summit. I know the title of this blog post is Engelberg to Interlaken, but I’ll do a short section on Lugano here since I’m otherwise not planning to write about it.
Lugano is wonderful – an Italian-speaking town on Lake Lugano with perfectly Swiss pedestrian areas, great views and excellent food. The train station is up above town. The walk down into town is easy without luggage. If you have bags, or if you’re walking up, take the funicular – the stop is inside the train station, and it’s included with the Swiss Travel Pass. I loved walking around at sunrise (of course), and I also took the Monte Bre Funicular to the top of Monte Bre and hiked back to my hotel. I enjoyed the funicular up and the view from the top, but the walk down wasn’t exciting – mostly on roads and through neighborhoods. We’ve pedal boated out onto Lake Lugano with the kids, which is always fun, and Parco Ciani on the lake is enjoyable, with a great playground. Lugano is truly the perfect combination of Italy and Switzerland.
I stayed at LUGANODANTE. I really enjoyed the hotel, and breakfast was excellent. It’s right at the base of the funicular, so it couldn’t be more convenient if you’re arriving and departing by train. I liked my view and room, although the shower was annoying – very small with an overpowering rain can. I’d still stay there again. I saved 10% by booking through Hotels.com (you get one night free with every 10 booked, so the savings over time works out to 10%).
Lugano – Zurich – Home
My flight to San Francisco departed Zurich at 1:35pm. I left my hotel in Lugano at 8am, took the funicular up to the train station, and got on the 8:30 train to Zurich, connecting to another train and arriving at the Zurich airport at 10:44am. Checking in was fast, but the line to reach the E Gates had at least 1,500 people in it. It took a little over an hour to get through passport control and reach the lounge. Zurich has always been seamless for me in the past, so this was a good reminder to expect the worst and ALWAYS arrive several hours early for your flight. Luggage retrieval in Los Angeles was fast, as was the parking shuttle.
Organizing Hiking in Switzerland
This trip was planned by Out & About Switzerland Trekking and led by our amazing guide Marina. It’s of course possible to go hiking in Switzerland without a guide, but this trip had a lot of different elements, and I couldn’t have otherwise pieced them all together. At one point we arrived at a ski lift and no one was there. Marina knew who to contact to have a lift operator show up. She also called ahead to confirm the Gäntelhitti bus for us, since it was the end of the season and rainy and the bus wasn’t otherwise going to run that day, and when rain made it less than enjoyable to sleep outside (our original plan), Marina and Out & About scrambled to change our route and book us into Hotel Engstlenalp. They also made sure our luggage was transferred from Engelberg to Meiringen and then from Meiringen to Interlaken. In short, this was a perfect, error-free trip with Marina and Out & About handling everything.
Packing for Hiking in Switzerland
I wrote up a vacation packing list for adventurous destinations, inspired by this trip to Switzerland as well as my recent Uganda safari and an upcoming return to Antarctica. In general I lived in merino wool shirts and base layers (Unbound Merino is the best) and was very grateful I had rain pants (Patagonia) and a rain jacket (Prana). It’s a cliche, but bring things that can be layered! For the long bike ride in the rain, I had on a merino wool shirt and sweatshirt, a fleece and a rain jacket, and on bottom I had a wool base layer, biking shorts, hiking pants and rain pants. Other than my shoes and socks, I stayed dry and nicely warm.
I brought a large rolling duffel, a 40L hiking backpack and a small daypack. It worked well. The duffel was sent on ahead for two legs of our trip. The 40L backpack was perfect for the two days from Engelberg to Meiringen, and the day pack was great for the day of cycling. Both packs came with rain covers which were indispensable.
Switzerland: Your Turn
Where have you been in Switzerland that you loved? Where should I hike next?