Why hike the Via Alpina?

Since I live in Montana in the USA’s Northern Rockies, people sometimes ask why I’d go all the way to Switzerland to hike.   Good question.   The answer: as much as I love hiking wilderness trails here in the Northern Rockies, hiking in the Swiss Alps is a totally different (and equally worthwhile) experience.

For one thing, while there is little true “wilderness” (in the American sense) in Switzerland, the Alps do provide some of the finest high-altitude hiking anywhere.  Much of it is in what I’d call “countryside”: a working landscape tended with gentle care for centuries, where dairy cattle roam, hay is cut and stacked by hand, and “old ways” persist even in the Twenty-first Century.   Here in the USA, it’s just about impossible to do a long hike in countryside.  But in Switzerland, portions of the Via take you through countless farms, pastures and cropped fields.  Almost always, those farms are organically managed; you simply don’t see the telltale “scorch marks” on the land and vegetation that (here in the USA) indicate the use of herbicides and pesticides.  Often, you end up staying overnight on farms and buying your food directly from farmers.  The meals served you at night feature local products.  That’s a hiking experience that can’t be found here in the USA.

Also, the scenery is world class.  I’ve hiked all over the Western USA and Canada, in New Zealand, the British Isles and Switzerland.  Our daughter and our youngest son (who also went on the Via with us) have also trekked in Chile’s Patagonia.   We agree that, from a global perspective, the Swiss Alps rate near the very top in terms of mountain beauty.

In addition, the Swiss Alps simply don’t have the junky, touristy messes that you often encounter in mountain towns and resorts here in the American West.   Just compare West Yellowstone, Montana with Grindelwald, Switzerland.  The Swiss alpine towns (even the ones most overrun with tourists) have more class, tradition and beauty.

And, as much as I love being alone in the American wilderness with everything I need on my back, I also enjoy the Swiss approach:  carrying a lighter pack, sleeping in a bunk inside at night, and enjoying several-course meals cooked by someone else.   With their system, the Swiss can accommodate huge numbers of hikers with minimal environmental impact. Rather than allowing tents and campfires to spread impacts all over the landscape, the Swiss concentrate use in limited places.

Generally, getting to and from Swiss trailheads is easier, more scenic and more sustainable than getting to American trailheads.  Thanks to the integrated Swiss transportation system, we catch a train upon arriving at the airport and zip to any trailhead in the Alps (making easy connections to buses or cablecars where necessary).  In fact, when we go hiking in Switzerland, we never set foot in a car.  Compare that with hiking in the Northern Rockies, which almost always involves long drives in the car.

Finally, there is the cultural element.  On the Via Alpina, you encounter Goethe, Conan Doyle, Shelley and a host of other writers and artists who have made the Alps the subject of their art.

Again, let me be clear:  I’m proud to be a resident of the American West, and will always enjoy wilderness hiking and backpacking here in the Northern Rockies.  But I’m equally fond of the Swiss style of hiking.   Both offer high quality experiences for the hiker.


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