Date of Trip: June 2006
HIKING IN THE SWISS ALPS. GIMMELWALD
While planning our trip to Europe, I was intrigued by travel author Rick Steve’s enthusiastic reviews of hiking opportunities near Gimmelwald, Switzerland. Located in the Jungfrau mountains (reportedly the most spectacular region of the Alps) Gimmelwald is a tiny farming village with a population of only 100. The place has no roads, no hotels, and only a few simple accommodations, one of which is Maria and Olle Eggimann’s B&B. Contacting Olle by email, email@example.com, I learned they have a three-night minimum stay. This was worrisome: What if the weather were terrible or we disliked the place? Gathering my courage, I made reservations, and mailed off a check (no credit cards accepted) for the required deposit, approximately $200.00. Thus in June of 2006, my husband Lynn and I found ourselves departing Lucerne, Switzerland by train, ready to begin our “Gimmelwald adventure”.
The rail line from Lucerne to Interlaken is part of what has been designated “The Golden Pass” because it is so spectacular. I was unaware there were domed-roof panorama units on this train until the conductor suggested we might enjoy moving forward to one of their air-conditioned “viewing” cars. Luckily, there were two unoccupied seats and the glass ceiling afforded a wonderful vista of the passing Alpine scenery. We were late arriving into Interlaken, which precipitated a mad dash to the Lauterbrunnen train with only 5 seconds to spare! From there we caught a bus to the village of Stetchelberg, and squeezed into the crowded (and expensive) gondola for the ride up to our final destination, Gimmelwald at 4593 feet of elevation.
Stepping off the gondola, our first glimpse dissolved all concerns, for the scenery was breathtaking! Against bright blue skies, the snowy peaks of the Jungfrau, Monch and Eiger mountains dominated the landscape and wild flowers were everywhere. After grabbing a trail map at the gondola hut, we checked into our B & B where we had opted for their apartment with kitchen facilities. The place, perched on the steep hillside, boasted a fabulous view of the mountains and valley below. Outside our door a profusion of wildflowers grew and just across the path was a barn with three goats. (Flies were to prove a big nuisance, as our screens were not well secured and anytime the door opened, we had swarms of uninvited guests. Fortunately, rural flies apparently only expect the occasional twitching animal tail and, completely unprepared to deal with a fly swatter, could be easily dispatched).
There is only one small cafe/bar in Gimmelwald and our simple lunch cost 40 francs. (Thank goodness our apartment had a kitchen). Leaving the cafe, we encountered two young women returning from a hike which they enthusiastically recommended: follow the Sefinenlutschine River to its glacier source. But upon learning it took at least two hours to get there, we decided to save that experience for the following day. We chose instead to hike the Flower Trail, originating in the next village of Murren, which also had the only grocery store on the mountain. Taking the gondola up to Murren was expensive: twelve franks each. However, the Flower Trail certainly lived up to its name. With meadows of wildflowers set against a back-drop of snow-covered peaks, the trail personified the Alpine experience we were hoping to find. The one other person we encountered during our hike was a local woman, picking wild salad greens. She graciously took our photo and divulged that a few weeks earlier, there had been two feet of snow on the ground. At the Murren grocery store, we purchased provisions and wine for the next three days. Lynn insisted we walk the1/2-hour path down to Gimmelwald, but as my back was acting up, he was forced to carry all the groceries. After several rest stops along the way, we were both regretting we didn’t take the gondola instead. Finally at our B&B, we relaxed with some wine before a dinner of pizza and salad. It was an early bedtime and the cool Alpine air was welcome.
The next morning’s agenda was hiking to the source of the Sefinenlutschine River (which had been so enthusiastically recommended yesterday). We were up early, packed a picnic lunch and were on our way by 8:30. Leaving Gimmelwald, a paved track led down the mountain towards the valley. Approaching the river, we left the main track and followed a gravel path ascending towards the river’s source. This latter path eventually became an earthen trail as we gained altitude. We occasionally encountered other hikers, and it was impossible to get lost since the tumbling waters were always either in view or easy to hear. Approximately 1 ½ hours later, we arrived at a split in the trail. The main portion continued up the mountain while a second, more obscure, path headed downhill. Certainly going downhill was in my mind a more attractive option than continuing to climb and I persuaded Lynn to choose that lower trail. What a fortuitous decision that would be, for it led to the base of a huge mountain bowl filled with glaciers that were the river’s source. We counted fourteen waterfalls pouring into the bowl and its entire rocky basin was filled with wildflowers. It was, without question, the most beautiful place either of us had ever seen! Apparently, the majority of hikers ignore this lower trail option as the few other visitors we encountered there were all local. Time slipped away as we checked out the largest waterfall, ate our picnic and admired the scenery. Eventually, we pulled ourselves together and headed back, with a brief detour to explore a cave overlooking the area. It obviously served as some sort of alpine shelter since there was a fire- pit and sleeping board inside. It was close to 3:00 p.m. when we returned to our apartment. No sooner were our hiking shoes off than clouds rolled in and a big thunderstorm erupted. Good grief! We had heard storms could come up quickly in the mountains, but this was absurd. Obviously, a closer attention to the forecast would be beneficial in the future.
When the storm abated, Ollie, the B& B owner and local teacher, came down to introduce himself. Since his mother-in-law had checked us in, we hadn’t yet met. Upon hearing of our great morning hike, he gave us directions to his favorite trail and insisted on lending us two sets of hiking poles. He also set up his telescope to show us some Ibex (mountain goats) on the opposite mountain. Back in the apartment, the dinner dishes were barely washed when a second storm rolled in. Cracks of thunder were accompanied by the terrified bleating of the three goats. When the rain stopped, puffs of heavy “smoke” rolled into view. Stepping outside, I realized these were clouds rushing up from the valley below. It was a surreal experience.
The following morning was cooler and cloudy as we set out early for the trail Ollie had recommended. His directions were somewhat complicated: Take the gondola to Murren and catch the tiny local train to Grutschap where we should follow trail signs to Sauslager, eventually leading us into a lovely valley. We got to the Grutschap station without difficulty only to find two signs for Sauslager, both pointing in different directions. What to do? There was nobody around to ask. Finally, I chose one path and we followed it through a strand of pines and then straight up the mountain. After a 25 minute climb Lynn gasped, “I thought Ollie said this trail was mostly level” and I panted in response, “Maybe for the Swiss, this is level.” In another 20 minutes I conceded defeat and we turned around. Descending was actually more difficult as the narrow path was rocky and slippery. Thank goodness we had poles and Lynn avoided blaming me for the whole thing. We defaulted to the second path (a much easier one) and eventually arrived at Sauslager, which consisted of three mountain huts. (Recounting this experience to Ollie later, he explained that both trails led to Sauslager, with one going over the mountain and the other around it. We had apparently turned back too soon). However, by now we had been hiking for over two hours and didn’t have the energy to explore much of the valley. It was a very pretty place, rimmed by mountains, cut by a rocky shallow river and hosting fields of wildflowers. On the surrounding hillsides, cows were grazing on the steep slopes and the sound of their bells echoed in the distance. Perched on a large boulder eating our picnic, we both agreed that it was not quite as spectacular as the site we visited yesterday. Maybe if we could have seen the rest of the valley, we might have been more impressed. However, a light rain began to fall and, more leery of the weather after yesterday’s thunderstorms, we headed back. This trail traversed the best forest of any we had seen so far. Dense shade from the tall pines discouraged underbrush and contributed to a very “Hansel and Gretel” woodland appearance. Our earthen path skirted deep ravines and detoured to rocky ledges offering spectacular overlooks of the Jungfrau mountain. The rain stopped but there were still very few other hikers to be seen. By the time we had returned to our apartment, it was late afternoon. As this was our last day, we packed and were enjoying a glass of wine when a loud clamor of bells startled us from our reverie. I rushed outside to see a herd of approximately 25 cows being led down the path just outside our door. One paused briefly to nibble flowers from our hanging basket. This was truly a “Swiss moment”.
We are in our early sixties and with the exception of the wrong trail to Sauslager, none of our hikes were particularly arduous for someone in reasonably good shape. Travelers interested in more amenities might prefer to stay in Murren where there are considerably more lodging and dining options. For us, however, Gimmelwald was one of the highlights of our trip to Europe.