The spirit of expedition continues to thrive as travellers seek out epic journeys to broaden their minds and stimulate their senses. Winter months or chilly climates might seem like challenges, but breathtaking snow-capped mountains and windswept views of glacial lakes create a magical travel experience. Discover three epic icy journeys in this excerpt from Lonely Planet’s Great Journeys.
The Glacier Express, Switzerland
It might not be as long as the Trans-Siberian, but this classic rail journey makes up for it with a vertical spectacle of stunning proportions. Switzerland has several mountain rail trips, but it is the Glacier Express, which runs northeast from Zermatt to St Moritz, that is the most mythical.
Starting in Zermatt, the gateway to the Matterhorn, the train winds slowly north down a valley to Brig. From here it swings northeast along the pretty eastern stretch of the Rhône Valley towards the Furka Pass (which it circumvents by tunnel) and descends on Andermatt before again climbing up to the Oberalp Pass, the literal high point of the trip at 2044m. From there it meanders alongside the Vorderrhein River, passing through Disentis/Mustér before arriving in Chur. The main train continues to St Moritz, which has been luring royals, the filthy rich and moneyed wannabes since 1864.
This stretch of Swiss narrow-gauge rail rambles through meadows and over mountain passes, skirts stone castles, gingerbread villages and the Matterhorn, and rumbles over 291 bridges and through 91 tunnels. It’s one of most beautiful rail journeys on Earth.
Ideal time commitment: one to two days
Best time of year: December to April
Essential tip: take the eastbound train, it’s usually less crowded. Book in advance if you’re headed west from St Moritz.
Iceland’s Ring Road
Iceland is a magical country, and the best way to see it is via the Ring Road, where you’ll encounter sheep ambling out of the way or herds of horses galloping across the tarmac. It all adds to that unique Icelandic character.
You’ll notice you’re in a very different land straight away, with the drive from Kevlavík airport to Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík, an eye-popping introduction as you pass through a barren landscape of jagged, black lava fields. Then, the Ring Road: the perfect road trip. Not only is traffic light anywhere you go, but camping opportunities abound, and many of Iceland’s highlights can be found right by the roadside including Jökulsárlón, a pristine glacial lake on the south coast filled with huge icebergs that calve from Vatnajökull, the mammoth glacier forming Europe’s largest ice cap.
Other Ring Road highlights include Northern Mývatn’s geological gems, which also lie conveniently along the road as it weaves through the harsh terrain between the north end of Lake Mývatn and the turn-off to steaming Krafla. At Jökulsá á Dal, the outcrop called Goðanes, about 3km west of the farm Hofteigur, was the site of an ancient pagan temple where some ruins are still visible. The iron-stained spring Blóðkelda (Blood Spring) carries an apocryphal legend that the blood of both human and animal sacrifices once flowed into it.
Indeed, the ice won’t be the only thing that’ll make you shiver: some of the scenery alongside the Ring Road is said to be haunted by mischievous leprechauns and bloodthirsty Norse deities.
Ideal time commitment: one to three weeks
Best time of year: June to August
Essential tip: detour off the road for many of Iceland’s more unheralded sights
Icefields Parkway, Canada
Threading through creases in the Rocky Mountains, the Icefields Parkway is arguably the most spectacular mountain road-trip in North America, and high among the finest in the world. It offers the full glossary of mountain features - shapely peaks, glacial lakes, glaciers, copious wildlife, wildflower meadows, open passes, the massive Columbia Icefield – as it crosses between Banff National Park and Jasper National Park.
Today, it’s said that around 400,000 vehicles travel the parkway each year. The road transitions between alpine and subalpine zones, with the dazzlingly coloured lakes ever-present and the icefields like frosting across the tops of the mountains. Numerous roadside stops allow you to take in the parkway’s natural features and viewpoints. And, though this road takes you about as close as you’re ever going to get to the Rockies’ craggy summits in a vehicle, you needn’t just admire the views from the road.
The parkway is stitched with 19 trailheads heading away into various wildernesses and national parks; stop your car and follow one of the walking trails and you’ll feel as though you’re on top of the world within a matter of hours.
Ideal time commitment: 3 to 4 days
Essential tip: drive in the early morning or late afternoon for the best chance of spotting wildlife