Traveling solo in Switzerland
Last year I had already technically been to Switzerland, but for only a few hours on a layover. I made a loop around the city of Zurich, I toured a church with Chagall stained glass windows, wandered in some shops, and then ate melted cheese by myself. It was a lovely day, and an easy way to cross Switzerland off the list. But I try not to think of travel in terms of a to-do list, or a scavenger hunt with countries to only be touched down in without gaining any meaningful insight about the culture and topography. I had been to Switzerland, but hadn’t really been to Switzerland.
This past June my Russian sailing friends of SeaSoulDiary were having another Greek sailing voyage, and I wanted to join them. The sailing would be just one week, which in my mind is never quite enough time to justify traveling to the opposite side of the world (and burning copious amounts of jet fuel to get there). I booked a two week trip in and out of Athens with the second week open for another destination (I love Greece, but I’ve seen a bit of it already and wanted a different experience for the second week). Having recently camped and hiked in Yosemite, I was craving to see more mountains. I was unable to find a travel companion to join me for the week, so I needed to go somewhere I would be comfortable traveling to alone, so I decided to return to Switzerland.
I had been looking for places to stay on Booking.com, and using the map view I was intrigued by the location of a little old guesthouse in a place called Stechelberg. The reviews were all glowing, and the reviewers mentioned the convenient proximity to a mountain called Jungfraujoch, the "top of Europe". So I Googled, fell in love with photos of both the guesthouse and this Jungfraujoch place, and without further hesitation I booked my stay.
Quite the day of travel lie ahead of me; I was to fly from Los Angeles to Montreal, Montreal to Athens—collect my baggage, leave half of it at left luggage for the later half of my trip in Greece—then fly to Zurich, Switzerland. From Zurich airport I would take the train to Zurich's main train station. Then I would transfer and ride the train for 2-3 hours from Zurich to Lucerne, then transfer trains again to Interlaken. In Interlaken I'd transfer again to Lauterbrunnen, then board a bus to the last stop. Then I would walk 5 minutes and stand before the guesthouse that had just been pixels on my computer screen a few days prior in Los Angeles. But its not the destination it's the journey, right?
Before I left home I purchased a 4 day Swiss Rail pass online, as I read that everything is expensive in Switzerland, and train travel is no exception. The 4-day train pass cost CHF 270.00 ($270), but I likely saved hundreds of dollars over paying for train fares once in Switzerland.
My first thought as I arrived in the Lauterbrunnen Valley was "HOLY SHIT. THIS IS LIKE YOSEMITE, BUT BETTER". The valley, like Yosemite Valley, is between shear granite walls. Cascading over a thousand feet down the granite walls there are all of these delicate little waterfalls, above the rock, overlooking the valley are green hillsides dotted with homes. Within the valley is the most charming old town of wooden buildings, churches, farms with cows and their bells clanging, flower gardens, a glacial river flowing through the valley, and in the background; just the most massive glacier covered mountains... it's all just TOO PICTURE PERFECT. The natural beauty and charm was literally OVERWHELMING. It induces the good kind of anxiety to try to take it all in.
Hiking to Chilchbalm
You may assume that because I travel often, that I probably do a lot of solo travel and solo hiking, but I don’t. Negative experiences while traveling in the past have made me nervous about being alone, or in vulnerable situations. I’ve been hiking (with friends) more in California this year, and I’ve made it a goal to hike more and do more challenging trails. With this as a goal, I wasn’t going to let my anxiety get in the way of experiencing some of the world-famous hiking that the region has to offer.
There are an endless number of trails in the Swiss Alps, and dozens within the Lauterbrunnen Valley. I asked my hosts Marc and Dianne at the Alpenhof Guesthouse recommend a trail to hike. Marc lit up with excitement as he told me about his all time favorite hike, which conveniently starts less than 100 feet outside the front door of the guesthouse. He said “It’ll cost you some sweat”, but that the trail would offer the most immersive experience of Switzerland.
I borrowed a set of trekking poles and set out on the trail. I climbed 1300 feet of switchbacks in just the first mile, which brought me above the treeline, to the top of the valley. Here the trail straightened and leveled out as it continued alongside a glacial river, deeper into the mountains. I walked through fields of spring flowers, passing the occasional happy Swiss cow with its big collar bell clanging. Every few minutes offered a new vantage point to see back across the valley, and the massive mountains I was hiking towards gradually grew nearer. I encountered only two groups of other hikers on the entire trail, otherwise I was completely (and comfortably) alone.
When I finally made it the 4 miles and 2,500 foot elevation gain to the end of the trail in the valley Chilchbaum, the view was absolutely stunning. Glaciers clinging to the sides of the steep surrounding mountains melted into waterfalls which fed into the river I had hiked to get here. I took in the serenity and solitude for a while before flying my drone to capture a higher view of this glorious place.
To return, I hiked back along the same trail, but rather than ascend back to the bottom of the valley I walked into the town of Gimmelwald. Gimmelwald looks like a fairy tale, the most idyllic family farms and wooden houses, all perched at the edge of the steep cliffs that overlook the valley, thousands of feet below. It is easily the most charming place I have seen in my life! I used my rail pass to ride the scenic cable tram down the valley back to Stechelberg, where I slept very well in my bed at the guesthouse that night.
If you'd like to see my recording of this hike on AllTrails click here