My heart is racing and a wave of elation washes over me. Not because of the arresting view as the morning sun creeps down the mountainsides. No, I am thrilled because in a meadow freckled with summer wildflowers, high above the Stabelchod valley in Switzerland, I have found edelweiss – the delicate, fuzzy white bloom for which folk once risked life and limb to pick for their sweethearts. I've spent years hiking in the Alps and this is the first time I have ever seen it grow in the wild in such abundance.
But then the Swiss National Park (nationalpark.ch) is all about firsts. This was, after all, the first national park to be established in the Alps on 1st August 1914, and 100 years later it remains true to its original conservation ethos. "Little has changed over the course of a century and I hope we will be able to say the same in another hundred years' time," the park's communications director Hans Lozza confesses. "Our three aims are to protect, research and inform. Since the park was founded, no trees have been felled, no meadows cut, no animals hunted. This is what nature left to its own devices looks like."
Rugged and beautiful is how it looks, particularly in the dew of a summer's morning, as the clouds part and light filters softly through treetops of larch and pine, dappling the footpath that weaves ever so gently higher. Our guide, Roman Gross, has been leading group hikes in the park for the past eight years. What keeps him there, I ask. "Every trail is different. Every season has its own appeal," he replies. He goes on to cite the incredible wildlife in spring when the park wakes up from its long winter slumber, the profusion of flowers in summer, the spectacle of the stag rutting in late September, the golden larch forests in October. "What we have here is a little Canada – pristine forests, mountains and lakes that are undisturbed by human intervention," he says, not without a hint of pride.
"You can't camp here or leave the trails, you can't pick anything or make a fire, you can't bring your dog – not even in a rucksack, though some have tried. Rules are rules. Yes, they're strictly enforced, but that's what makes the Swiss National Park stand out when it comes to conservation," Roman admits. His enthusiasm for this 170 sq km pocket of nature is infectious. Soon our little group is gathered in wonder around trees deciphering between a cembra and a mountain pine by looking at their cones, or gazing up at woodpecker holes big enough to shelter squirrels and martens.
We arrive at the clearing of Alp Stabelchod at 1958m, where Roman's binoculars and telescope allow me to pick out red deer grazing in the distance and a pair of nimble-footed chamois. The meadows are pockmarked with marmot holes but why, I ask Roman, can't we hear their shrill whistling that warns of enemies approaching from the ground? "It's because they feel no threat from us up here. They are savvy enough to realise that we won't leave the trail," he says. As if to prove the point, a couple of podgy specimens emerge to stand sentinel over their burrows.
Leaving behind the territory of these ground-dwelling rodents, our hike continues up to a crystal-clear, swiftly flowing stream, where Roman points out a glacial moulin in the rock face and shows us how to distinguish between the different kinds of rock found in the park – dolomite and gneiss, verrucano and radiolorite. "This valley is where 26 young captive-bred bearded vultures were released between 1991 and 2007. You might spot one if you are very lucky," Roman tells us. We gaze hopefully up to the sky as Roman feeds us fascinating titbits about their breeding and behavioural patterns. "The red colouring of the bearded vulture is not natural," he confides. "Fully grown bearded vultures bathe in pools of water that is rich in ferric oxide, and one way to tell males and females apart is that the females are better at colouring their feathers," he laughs. "Quite why they do is a mystery. Maybe it's a form of camouflage or to ward off parasites."
The jagged summit of 2328m Margunet comes into focus and by the time we reach the saddle, we are famished and ready for a Swiss-style picnic of cheese, tangy cured salsiz sausage and chocolate. The views that stretch across the starkly eroded, moraine-streaked peaks are phenomenal, and it is with difficulty that I tear myself away to join the group for the descent through the wild Val dal Botsch. Roman keeps up the running commentary, pointing out features like the creeping soils that form garland shapes on the slopes when surface layers of soil thaw. Back down at tree level, he dips into the forest to retrieve his treasure chest of antlers. "You can tell how old a chamois is by counting the rings, just as you can with trees," he tells us.
When we exit the park after our three-hour hike, I feel not only as though I've had a good walk but also as though I've become a minor expert in alpine geology and wildlife. I stride out into the warm midday sunshine, taking with me nothing but memories and, like a century of hikers before me, leaving nothing but footprints.
Other Top Hikes in the Swiss National Park
Macun (nationalpark.ch) Perched at 2500m, this high-alpine plateau is splashed with 23 jewel-coloured lakes. The challenging eight-hour hike from Lavin to Zernez is nothing short of extraordinary, with views of the snow-capped Bernese, Silvretta and Ortler Alps, and the chance of spotting ibex on the high reaches.
Munt la Schera (nationalpark.ch) A four-hour hike from Buffalora via this summit takes you through a one-of-a-kind steppe landscape. Grazing the border to Italy, you are granted views deep into the neighbouring Stelvio National Park. Cyclamens of every colour bloom here in early summer.
Val Mingèr (nationalpark.ch) Switzerland's last native bear was shot in this valley in 1904, a decade before the park was founded. The two-hour uphill hike from Pradatsch to Sur il Foss takes in weirdly eroded rock formations and you might well spot chamois and deer.
Val Trupchun (nationalpark.ch) Flat, easy-going and suitable for families, the three-hour trek from S-chanf to Alp Trupchun provides a good overview to the park. The stag rutting is at its most spectacular here.
Val Cluozza (nationalpark.ch) Staying overnight at Chamanna Cluozza, the only hut offering accommodation in the national park, is an experience not to be missed. Marmots, chamois, deer, golden eagles and even ibex can be spotted in the gloriously unspoilt valley. To up the challenge, tag on a four-hour hike the following day to Vallun Chafuol via the 2545m saddle of Murter, keeping your eyes peeled for fossilised coral and dinosaur tracks.
Make it Happen
- Your first port of call for a visit to the Swiss National Park should be the excellent visitor centre (nationalpark.ch/go/en/visit/national-park-centre) in Zernez, where you can book guided hikes (around Sfr35) and pick up a handy 1:50,000 park map and guide (Sfr20).
- Trains (sbb.ch/home.html) and buses run between the quaint Engadine villages on the fringes of the park, including Zernez, Scuol, Lavin, Zuoz and S-chanf. Another option, close to many of the trailheads, is Hotel Il Fuorn (ilfuorn.ch).
- Summer is the time to hike here, as the park closes in winter to give the wildlife all-important breathing space.
Kerry Christiani is the co-author of the Switzerland guidebook and is truly in her element when hiking in the Swiss Alps. She also authors a number of Lonely Planet's other European titles. Follow her travels @kerrychristiani.
To find out more about Kerry's travels in the Swiss National Park, check out this behind-the-scenes account of Lonely Planet on the road in Switzerland.