In a country with a whole lot of vertical, the Swiss are practically born on skis. And the rush is never greater than where the glacier-capped Alps are at their highest: Valais, tucked away in the south of the country and straddling the Italian border.
When the first flakes fall in winter, the land of mighty Matterhorn and the 4634m Dufourspitze, Switzerland’s highest peak, has skiers itching to hurtle down the pistes or make fresh tracks in the backcountry. And whether you’re a black-run thrill seeker, a lover of cruisy blues with big views, or an absolute beginner, there’s a run with your name on it.
Zermatt: Matterhorn magic
You never forget the first time you clap eyes on 4478m Matterhorn: that perfect pyramid-shaped peak that says Switzerland like no other. Most likely it will be a fleeting glimpse from the little red train that chugs from Visp to Zermatt. There are distractingly lovely views from the slopes, which are the country’s highest, topping out at 3883m from the top of the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise cable car station.
Car-free Zermatt makes a terrific base for hitting the pistes, which amount to 360km when coupled with over-the-mountain Cervinia in Italy (a joyous day’s ski away). The cruisy slopes around Rothorn, Stockhorn and Klein Matterhorn suit confident intermediates, while plenty of great off-piste areas will please powder hounds (though getting a guide is wise). Likewise, there is fine skiing for beginners and families at Wolli’s Park at Sunnegga, and a snowpark with rails, boxes, jumps and kickers for boarders. A bonus for families is that under-nine year-olds ski free.
Tell me more: One of the world’s most scenic train rides, the Glacier Express makes the 290km, eight-hour journey between Zermatt and St Moritz twice daily from mid-December to early May.
Bettmeralp-Aletsch: glacier gazing
Imagine the Swiss alpine village of your dreams and you’ll probably conjure up something like Bettmeralp: snowbound, mountain-rimmed, sprinkled with dark-timber chalets and perched high above the Upper Rhône Valley at 1970m. In winter it’s pure Christmas-card stuff. And with just 449 permanent residents, this family-friendly hamlet naturally has a far more chilled vibe than the bigger resorts.
On the often sunny, car-free plateau, there are 104km of pistes forming the Aletsch Arena to play on. These are best geared toward intermediates, snowboarders and off-piste thrill-seekers, but there is also ample terrain for beginners and experts.
Tell me more: Skiing doesn’t get more ludicrously lovely than on the run from 2627m Bettmerhorn cable car top station, shadowing the 23km Aletsch Glacier, the longest glacier in the European Alps and a Unesco World Heritage site.
Champéry: ski to France
Nudging France in the northwest of Valais, Champéry forms part of Les Portes du Soleil (‘Gates of the Sun’) ski area, comprising a whopping 600km of pistes spread across two countries and 12 resorts, making it one of the biggest in the world. A single pass covers the lot.
Dwarfed by the jagged, multi-summited Dents du Midi, Champéry’s wide slopes and long valley runs are well suited to intermediates (beginners will find them a little tough). Boarders head across to Avoriaz and Les Crosets for terrain parks. Black runs and some substantial off-piste ramp up the challenge for experts.
Tell me more: La Chavanette, otherwise known as the ‘Swiss Wall’, is a real thigh-burner of a ski – it's so breathtakingly sheer it’s like leaping into the void, and so heavily mogulled that there is no respite from bumps along its entire length. It’s classed as an itinéraire (avalanche controlled but not patrolled).
Arolla: between Matterhorn and Mont Blanc
Huddled away in the deeply traditional Val d'Hérens, and with pop-up views of glacier-encrusted four-thousanders (4000m peaks), the sleepy hamlet of Arolla has a backdrop out of all proportion with its size (population 200). Sitting at a high 1998m, the endearingly Alpine village has an excellent snow record, ravishing scenery and 47km of downhill slopes to whoosh down – mostly reds and blues geared toward beginners and intermediates respectively.
Given its remoteness, there’s fine off-piste terrain, too (best tackled with a guide). The village forms a leg of the famous high-level, week-long Haute Route from Zermatt to Chamonix, which threads through the Mont Blanc massif. It’s suitable for expert ski tourers only.
Tell me more: It’s not just about the downhill; there are cross-country ski tracks where you can glide to a glacier in quiet exhilaration, not to mention an extensive network of snowshoe trails.
Crans-Montana: sun and sparkle
On a high plateau above the Rhône Valley is the ritzy ski resort of Crans-Montana, where 160km of largely south-facing slopes, linked by ultra-modern cable cars, are perfect for confident beginners and cruisy intermediates, especially around the Cry d'Er section. And the 360-degree views are phenomenal, taking in white giants like the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc.
There are a few black runs in the mix, as well as ski mountaineering trails, a snowpark with a superpipe for boarders and freestylers, an igloo village at Plaine Morte glacier and a happening après-ski scene. The latter cranks up a notch during the end-of-the-winter-season Caprice music festival, bringing big-name acts to the slopes.
Tell me more: One of the hippest mountain hangouts in the Swiss Alps at 2112m, Chetzeron has gasp-eliciting views from its terrace, where you can snag a hammock or sheepskin-clad deckchair to sip chocolat chaud post-ski. Reach it by ski or snowboard from the top of Cry d’Er cable car.
Verbier: ultimate challenge
Cradled in a south-facing bowl, glamorous, celebrity-magnet Verbier is the Swiss king of cool, with seriously hard-core skiing spread over elevations of 1500m (the village) to 3330m (Mont Fort). Its pulse-quickening black runs, glorious off-piste, narrow couloirs and mogulled itinerary routes (the toughest being Tortin) challenge even very adventurous skiers. Freeriders and boarders are in their element at La Chaux terrain park. Right at the heart of Les 4 Vallées ski area, with soul-stirring views of the Mont Blanc and Combins massifs, the resort has an impeccable snow record and access to more than 400km of runs, many of which target bold intermediates.
The skiers that flock here – royals, Richard Branson, James Blunt and Ed Sheeran included – party just as hard as they pound the powder, and the champagne-fuelled après-ski scene here is legend.
Tell me more: If you want to find fresh powder in the backcountry, check out Les Guides de Verbier. Besides off-piste guiding, they also offer ski touring and ice climbing.
Saas Fee: born to freeride
Hemmed in by an amphitheatre of 13 implacable peaks above 4000m, glacier-licked Saas Fee sits at the foot of the 4545m Dom – the second highest mountain in Switzerland and the third highest in the Alps. As you might expect, the scenery is out of this world. A happening resort today, Saas Fee was an isolated outpost only reachable by mule trail until 1951.
Now the car-free resort is an architectural mix of traditional dark-wood granaries sidling up to modern chalets. The skiing on 145km of runs is overall fairly gentle: great for beginners and easy-going intermediates, though the 1700m top-to-bottom descent of the mountain ups the challenge. Experts can hook onto guided ski tours, while boarders find big air thrills at Morenia’s snowpark.
Tell me more: If you fancy a post-ski snack with a view, hop on the underground funicular to 3456m Allalin, home to the world’s highest revolving restaurant.
Make it happen
Geneva Airport (GVA) is the gateway to the Valais region, with fast, frequent and scenic SBB rail connections to all the major ski resorts. Taking the train, in fact, is often preferable to driving, as many resorts are car-free. Buses and cable cars fill in the gaps.
The ski season runs roughly from December to April. For better deals and more availability, avoid peak season (Christmas and Easter). You can often beat the queues and save money by purchasing ski passes and organising ski hire online with Intersport. For group tuition, check out Swiss Ski Schools.
Produced by Lonely Planet for Swiss International Air Lines. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.