The Walker’s Haute Route through Switzerland’s Alps
I can’t even say how many years the Walker’s Haute Route has been on my bucket list. My grandma loved Switzerland, so it’s always been a place of interest for me! The Chamonix to Zermatt Walker’s Haute Route is a 187 km trail through the Swiss Alps. After some research, I decided to use Utah-based Alpenwild to handle my travel arrangements, and they did a fantastic job with amazing attention to detail! While basically following their Walker’s Haute Route itinerary, I decided to make my own route, the Slacker’s Haute Route! I used a combination of hiking and transit options, because my mind is adventurous, but my body is lazy! (Even after a rigorous training program!)
Haute Route Day -1 Arrival in Geneva
I flew in a day early so that I had room for any flight or luggage delays. All went well and I arrived in Geneva (via London) on Wednesday afternoon. I blew all of my IHG points to stay at the Intercontinental Geneva and I felt pretty fancy! However, I didn’t do much in Geneva besides rest. I did enjoy a nice sidewalk dinner and strolled along the lakefront where my vacation brain OK’d a $10 purchase of churros. This sweet tooth is strong, I tell ya! (Monopoly money gets me every time!)
Haute Route Day 0 – Geneva to Chamonix
After sleeping too late, I was so hungry I *almost* paid the $45 for the breakfast buffet at my hotel. Yikes! Instead, I grabbed a $4 croissant and a coke from the gas station next door. I took a short stroll around the neighborhood, which included the United Nations, and then jumped on the city bus to the airport (free with a guest card you get from the hotel – these cards were pretty common throughout Switzerland)
At the airport, I checked in at the AlpyBus desk for my van shuttle to Chamonix. There were two other hikers for the 2 hour trip and I slept most of the way! Chamonix is a chic little ski town just over the French border. I stayed at the Hotel Gourmets Italy, which was super cute and my room had a small balcony overlooking the glacial river running through town. I strolled around, had a nice dinner and spend a lot of time re-packing my backpack and throwing out items at the last minute. Anything I don’t carry in my pack will be shuttled to meet me on Day 12 in Zermatt, for a mere $250! (Many people have their luggage shuttled each day, reducing the need to carry a large pack – I am not that smart. Or rich.)
Haute Route Day 1 – Chamonix to Trient
The forecast called for 100% chance of snow, and a high of 49 degrees for my first day of hiking. After breakfast at my hotel, I purchased some lunch supplies and caught the Chamonix bus (free with a hotel guess pass, 3 Euros without) to Le Tour. At Le Tour, I took the gondola ($28) up to the Col de Balme (2204 meters) At the top, it was cold and spitting snow, but I started hiking right away and I had the right clothes to keep me warm.
After 3 hours of steep, muddy downhill hiking*, I arrived in the small village of Trient and my lodging for the evening, Hotel La Grand Ourse. I had a lovely private room with a great view of the pink chapel in town. The hotel is a combo hostel / hotel with some shared rooms and shared bathrooms. There is only wifi on the ground floor, and it frequently cuts out as guests congregate in the lobby and flood the network. Dinner was served at 7:00 and they did a nice job of grouping us by language. I had great dinner conversation with a family from England and a retired couple from Milwaukee who were on the “Deluxe Haute Route” also booked through Alpenwild.
*Hiking downhill doesn’t sound too bad, but this was the beginning of a toe problem that plagued me for the rest of my trip. Boots that fit just fine on flat land don’t allow room for toes on steep descents. I thought at one point I would lose my toenail, but 4 weeks later, it’s still just bruised.
Haute Route Day 2 – Trient to Champex-Lac
In keeping with my slacker schedule, today I planned to take the bus from Trient to Champex, as the hike is 16km with a steep hike out of the valley. The bus didn’t leave until 11:00 but I knew our Alpenwild rep would be transferring the Milwaukee couples luggage so I grabbed a ride with her instead! I also relinquished my laptop as I knew I should lighten my pack as much as possible. We arrived in Champex-Lac around 11 am and I checked into my room at the Hotel Splendide, a gorgeous property hanging off the valley wall. I now had the whole day ahead of me, so I purchased a tourist card from the hotel ($9) and walked through town to the chairlift and took that up high for phenomenal views all the way to Geneva Lake! Afterwards I strolled leisurely through town, enjoying ice cream while watching paddle boards, pedal boats and a RC-sailboat regatta. Dinner at the hotel was included and delicious, with a great view!
Haute Route Day 3 – Champex-Lac to Verbier
After a rest day, I was ready to hike again. I started with a scenic breakfast at Hotel Splendide, and set out for another mostly downhill hike to Sembrancher. This path took me through lots of fields and farms, always with gorgeous mountain views. After about 3 hours of walking, I arrived in Sembrancher and luckily caught a train just departing for Le Chable. (There was much language confusion between the conductor and I, and I ended up not paying for this ride) From Le Chable, I hopped on the gondola to Verbier. (10CHF) In Verbier, I quickly found my hotel and after depositing my pack, set off to explore the town.
Haute Route Day 4 – Verbier to Cabane de Louvie
This was the toughest day so far. I took the 8:30 chairlift to La Chaux and started my hike to the tune of cowbells. After quite a bit of climbing, and several chamois sightings, I reached the Col Termin at 1:30. Frankly, the uphill was a relief on my feet and my quads, although my lungs and calves were protesting a bit! From the Col, we could see Lac Louvie and had a choice of two descents – fast and steep, or slow and steady. I foolishly chose the fast and steep route, which took me over two hours due to the pain in my feet! Once the Cabane de Louvie came into view, I quickly hobbled my way up to the deck and ordered a Coke. I was shown to the sleeping quarters and purchased a 5CHF token for a 2-minute shower. (Worth it!)
My only injury today? Tripping on the deck in my rush to get dinner!
Haute Route Day 5 – Cabane de Louvie to Arolla via Fionnay
This day is where I completely differentiated from my Alpenwild itinerary and incurred the expense of an additional hotel night. The itinerary called for a fairly long hike to Cabane de Prafleuri, followed by another strenuous hike to Arolla. I wasn’t feeling up to two more strenuous days, and the idea of staying in the same place for 2 nights was too tempting. Rather than continue on to Prafleuri, I hiked down to Fionnay, where I caught a bus to Le Chable, train to Martigny, train to Sion, bus to Les Hauderes and then a bus to Arolla. Whew!
Fortunately, I got the international phone package for the first time and was able to call ahead to the Hotel de Glacier in Arolla to confirm I could arrive 1 night early. Unfortunately, this was the worst food of the trip and I had it all twice!
Haute Route Day 6 – Arolla Rest Day
With no plans in this small mountain town, I enjoyed some downtime and basked in this amazing view from my balcony. I had a lot of great views, but this was one of the best! I also did some laundry and finally treated myself to a $20 cheeseburger. The summer festival in this valley was winding down, and it was the last night of daily entertainment on the stage right outside the hotel. We enjoyed a dance group from India before another bad dinner at the hotel.
Haute Route Day 7 – Arolla to Les Hauderes
In the itinerary, this day was mentioned as a good rest day since Les Hauderes is just down the hill from Arolla, and serviced by the PostBus 3 times a day. I didn’t really need another rest day, so I ended up walking as it was just 7km and downhill. Of course, it wasn’t without incident as I managed to roll my ankle somewhere along the way. I gimped into Les Hauderes and easily found Hotel Les Melezes. I loved my cozy room and was possibly the only person at the inn that night.
Haute Route Day 8 – Les Hauderes to Grimentz
A tender ankle was all the excuse I needed to take the Slacker’s Route today! I really love how easy these options are in Switzerland. I caught the morning bus to Sion, where I took a train to Sierre and then a bus to Vissoie, and another bus to the ski town of Grimentz. The bus ride was harrowing, made all the more interesting by all of the school kids riding the bus home, complete with 7-year-old boys making farting noises in their armpits and giggling hysterically.
Grimentz is described as a medieval village, and much of the history has been preserved, but it is also a ski village with plenty of modern amenities.
Haute Route Day 9 – Grimentz to Zinal
Today I strayed again from the itinerary, but I wouldn’t call it a rest day. Rather than hike from Grimentz to Zinal, I instead spent most of the day hiking around Lac Moiry, and then took a bus to Zinal. I missed out on some close-up glacier viewing and icefalls by doing this, but the photos I took at the lake were some of my favorites from the trip.
Haute Route Day 10 – Zinal to Gruben
Finally, a day where there are no shortcuts or public transit. The day called for a steep hike over the Col de la Forcletta, then a descent into Gruben, which is so remote it’s only open in the summer. I started early (8am) and quickly joined up with a group from Denver. Several guys in their 70’s joined by a few of their daughters who were about my age. They were a fun group and I was glad to have company for this tough day. As we neared the pass, I urged them to go on and I’d catch up, but they refused to leave me behind.
(The toughness of this day is obvious by the very few pics I took!)
After clearing the pass (6 hours uphill!) we started our descent and arrived at Chalte Berg, a dairy farm at 8200′ elevation. After a rest, we started to leave and one of the Denver guys quickly fell very ill. Ultimately, they decided to call in a helicopter rescue. He turned out to have low blood pressure and was severely dehydrated, so fortunately it wasn’t life threatening, but serious and scary nonetheless. After spending at least an hour dealing with that situation, it was now approaching 5pm and we still had a good 2 hours of downhill hiking. Most of us set out for Gruben, while a few stayed back to see the helicopter off.
I arrived at Hotel Schwarzhorn just as the sun went down at 7pm. It was an 11 hour day. I took a hot shower and went straight to dinner, knowing if I so much as touched my bed, I’d never get up again! Throughout dinner, we received updates from the daughter of the man who was now in the hospital in Visp. As the group came up with a game plan for their hike, I knew I was done with my Haute Route.
Haute Route Day 11 – Gruben to Zermatt
I waved off the hearty Colorado folks as they set out for another tough hike the next morning. Meanwhile, I took a van to the chairlift which took me down to Turtmann, where I caught the train to Visp and another to Zermatt. I arrived at the Hotel La Ginabelle, eager to stay in the same place for 2 nights! I also had a spa treatment booked for the evening, and a gourmet 4-course dinner as part of my half-board package. I enjoyed a nice walk around Zermatt and spent some time researching my options for the following day.
Haute Route Day 12 – Zermatt
I spent the morning catching up on email and blog stuff, while enjoying the phenomenal Matterhorn view from my balcony. I decided to hike the “5 Lakes Walk” which offered several Matterhorn views. Of course, my “hike” involved a funicular to a chairlift, and then a bit of alpine hiking. I couldn’t take my eye off the Matterhorn, it’s just surreal to see it in person!
Post Haute Route – Zurich
After two nights in Zermatt, it was time to head to Zurich for my flight home. After 12 hotels in 14 nights, I was pretty beat. When I arrived at the Movenpick Zurich Regensdorf, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere. Sorry, Zurich, maybe next time! After a quick night in Zurich, it was time to head home. But not without a 24-hour layover in Reykjavik, thanks to Iceland Air! You can read about the Iceland food tour I took here.
Haute Route Reflection
In hindsight, I wish I’d spent more time reviewing and customizing the itinerary that Alpenwild provided, and taking a more realistic approach to how much hiking I wanted to do. The public transit worked out really well and I enjoyed it, although had I planned it ahead of time, I think I would have saved some money with a SwissPass. By paying as I went, I undoubtedly spent more money than I needed to.
At some point, I realized this was the longest amount of time I’d ever spent in one country before, and that was incredible! I highly recommend this kind of trip to anyone interested in combining outdoor adventure travel with a unique cultural experience!
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Haute Route Planning
The Bible of the Haute Route is Cicerone Press’s Trekking Chamonix to Zermatt: The Walker’s Haute Route by Kev Reynolds. This book was invaluable for planning and information. Down to the directions like “turn left at the water trough in town.” Start here and adjust your plan as needed.
Walker’s Haute Route Cost
My Alpenwild package included lodging and most breakfasts and dinners (called half-board or demi-pension) In total, I spent just over $5000 on this 18-day trip.
- Alpenwild Trip Cost: $2884 (including 1 luggage transfer for $250)
- Flights: $600 (I used American miles to get to Geneva)
- Lodging: $380 (Arolla extra night + Reykjavik)
- Transportation: $215
- Food: $450
- Souvenirs & Attractions: $525