Natural Habitat Adventures

Know Before You Go

Places We Visit in Switzerland

Switzerland is a place of local flavor and pride. Instead of a “Swiss” culture, each individual village and canton exude a unique character. Having a little sense of where you’re headed will help give you a preliminary taste of experiences to come!

APPENZELL

Located in the northeastern section of the country, due to religious differences, Appenzell has been divided into two cantons since 1597. The government, economic, and tourist center resides in the Catholic Appenzell Innerrhoden canton. The Alpstein mountains rise majestically in this area and will awe you on your visit. Appenzell Ausserrhoden is the Protestant half of the canton. About 7,000 people live in Appenzell. Both in population and land area it is the smallest canton in Switzerland. The area is steeped in tradition, and other people in the country even joke that the canton is ten years behind the times. The fact that women did not have the right to vote in local elections until 1990 supports this point of view. Locals rebut the idea and say that now they are changed leaders. For example, they point out that in 2000 they required school children to study English instead of French as their second language, the first canton in the country to do so!

MOUNT SANTIS

You cannot miss Mount Santis. Rising to 8209 feet above sea level makes it the highest peak in the region, which also exposes it to the elements causing dramatic erosion patterns. The location makes it easy to understand why officials built a weather station at the top. You will see for miles around, including additional peaks in the region and the vast expanses of pastures for the area’s famous cows!

AESCHER INN

Located below Ebenalp Peak, Aescher Inn perches on a 300-foot-high narrow cliff. No need for a back wall, as the mountain fills that purpose! The inn originally housed farmers and their livestock. Later, visitors valued the inn as a quiet place to rest on their journey to visit a hermitage nearby. Monks at the hermitage lived in caves used by Neanderthals 40,000 years ago.

UPPER ENGADINE

Engadine lies at the southeastern edge of Switzerland and at the Western end of the eastern Alps. This area is the only one during your visit for which Romansch is the official language. Hopefully you will get a chance to listen to and enjoy this unique local language.

Upper Engadine is located in a high alpine valley in the central Alps and boasts four renowned and inspiring high alpine lakes: St. Moritz Lake, Silvaplana Lake, Champferer Lake, and Lake Sils. The views seem almost too grand to be real and have inspired poets and philosophers for centuries. It’s hard not to appreciate the splendor of the forests and glaciers in the region as well!

ST. MORITZ

Just below 6,000 feet and nestled in a valley on the southern edge of the Albula Alps that rise high around it, St. Moritz inspires visitors with its splendor. St. Moritz has had the honor of hosting two Winter Olympics. Even more importantly for the popularity of winter sports, in 1864, Hotelier Johannes Badrutt first inspired wary European tourists to take a hand at skiing and ice skating on their winter holidays, revolutionizing winter sports.

An even older tradition dates back over 3,400 years: hot mineral spa baths. Records show millennials-old use of the hot springs for bathing, and the construction of a formal building for the baths 1,000 years ago, the Forum Paracelsus. Modern technology came into play in 1866 with the introduction of a pump house, preserved as a museum display to this day.

Many other features will draw your attention, from architecture, to lakes, to stunning skies and elegant places to shop. We will let nature pull us deeper into her beauty with St. Moritz serving as just a short stop on our way.

SWISS NATIONAL PARK

By the end of the 19th century, humans had hunted numerous animal species within Swiss borders to extinction or near extinction. Plant species also suffered from the effects of pollution from industrialization and a general lack of awareness of their importance. A rising naturalist movement spreading across the globe at the beginning of the 20th century took hold in Switzerland and led people to take action and reverse the loss of species.

Swiss National Park, founded in 1914, is a successful and ongoing example of this action. The founders of the park sought to create awareness of the extinction of plant species, draw attention to factors harming fauna and act on their desire to protect natural treasures. They set aside approximately 65 square miles to achieve their goals.

Not only did the founders create a protected ecosystem for flora and fauna, they preserved over 200 dinosaur tracks imbedded in an ancient steep rock wall at Val dal Viadel, as well as stunning examples of the varied geology of the area.

We will journey along footpaths within the park looking for wild ibexes, chamois, marmots, bearded vultures and golden eagles, among other wildlife. Varied flora will spread colors all around us, from tiny moss campion and Swiss androsace (rock-jasmine) to regal Norway spruce trees.

GLACIER EXPRESS

Workers completed the continuous rail route from St. Moritz to Zermatt on June 25, 1930. Electricity powered most of the journey from its introduction, and the entire route by June 1, 1941.

As you can imagine, nature often wreaked havoc on the train. For example, on February 27, 1990, the severe winds from storm Viviane blew the train over on the Oberlap Pass. In the spring of 1991, a landslide closed the rail and rescue teams had to bus passengers around the blockage.

Riding on the train in the summer will mean you see the calmer, more beautiful side of nature on your journey. You will enjoy gazing out upon vast glaciers, gorges, valleys, and idyllic mountain villages. Traveling slowly on this “express” train will give you time to take in the views and cherish their beauty.

ZERMATT

You will notice something missing in Zermatt – cars – allowing you to enjoy this pedestrian and cyclist-friendly setting looking up at the Matterhorn and 37 other peaks over 13,000 feet high.

What you might not see is the geological history that made such a view possible. The African and Eurasian tectonic plates collide in the Alps, with the African Plate moving northwards over the last 130 million years and pushing against the Eurasian continent. The rocks are deformed and folded by the immense pressure. The pressure continues and still uplifts the Alps today by about ¼ inch per year. In fact, the Matterhorn contains African gneiss at the peak due to it rising from the African tectonic plate! Erosion does its part, creating dramatic stone faces and other features to wow you.

The combination of this unique geological foundation and weather in the area has led to the evolution of plants endemic to Zermatt. Over 39 mountains rising to above 12,000 feet protect Zermatt on three sides, making the climate very dry. Zermatt also has the highest forest line in the Alps, around 7,500 feet. Interestingly, some parts of Zermatt rose out of the Arctic Sea during the last ice age, meaning that some plants originate from that time! Lastly, Zermatt has the greatest variety of rocks in the Alps. Four geological zones come together with their different chemical compositions, creating unique conditions for the plants.

Seven species are endemic to Zermatt: snow wormwood, dwarf rampion, sweet clover, umbel pennycress, Hallers ragwort, fringed sedge, and hairy stitchwort. Citizens of Zermatt and members of the Swiss government, as well as botanists from around the globe, strive to protect the ecosystem that created and support these plants. About 75% of Zermatt’s municipal territory consists of nature reserves.

GORNERGRAT SUMMIT

The Gornergrat Bahn has bragging rights for being the first fully electric cog railway. Today three downhill trips create enough electricity to power one to two ascents. In addition to its eco-friendly power source, this route is the highest open-air cog railway in the world. It travels to the top of Gornergrat 365 days a year, taking passengers on a 33-minute journey filled with dramatic bridges, tunnels, larch and Swiss stone pine forests, rocky ravines and mountain lakes.

You cannot help but see the Matterhorn from your mountain top vantage point. Perhaps as you look at this iconic wonder you can call to mind a few stories of human interaction with the mountain. On July 14, 1865, seven men were the first modern Europeans to successfully summit the peak. On the descent, one of the climbers slipped, creating significant pressure to the safety rope, causing it to snap. Four climbers fell to their deaths. These four were the first of an estimated 500 people who have died on the mountain. The metal cross at the peak commemorates the lives of those who died.

More successful than this first male team of climbers, two women fought fiercely to earn the title of first female to the top. Both reached the summit in 1871, Lucy Walker, an Englishwoman on July 22, 1871, and Meta Brevoort a few days later. Brevoort did earn the honor of being the first woman to reach the summit from the Italian side.

You will have beautiful views not only of the Matterhorn but also Monte Rosa Massif and Gorner Glacier from Gornergrat Summit. Monte Rosa Massif is home to Mount Dufour, the highest mountain entirely in the Swiss Alps.

Gorner Glacier is the second largest glacier in the European Alps, after Aletsch. Explorers discovered and photographed beautiful ice caves below the glacial mass in 2012. Unfortunately, Gorner Glacier has suffered significant glacial retreat in the last decade, threatening its survival.

GRIMSEL PASS

Grimsel pass has many similarities with Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. You will be on one of highest paved roads in Europe and crossing the European Continental Divide, which separates the North Sea and The Mediterranean Sea. The pass is typically closed from October through May due to snow. Traditionally a trade route, there are now multiple hydro-electric power plants along the route. Many of these plants have reservoirs that catch glacial melt and add to the majestic vistas. You will know you’ve arrived at the summit when the road winds along the shores of Totesee, a natural lake that has been dammed to increase its size and productivity as a reservoir for the power plants. Keep your eyes out for bikes. Grimsel pass is a popular route for cyclists and it has been featured as a stage in the Tour de Suisse.

MURREN

After enjoying Grimsel Pass, we take the gondola up to catch a train to Murren, where we will once again immerse ourselves in Swiss German culture, with picturesque buildings, foods, and folk art. Looking down on the Lauterbrunnen Valley from the village will keep us connected to the natural wonder of the area, as we gaze upon its towering rock faces and 72 thundering waterfalls in view of snow-clad mountains.

Romance language records from 1240 refer to Lauterbrunnen as in claro fonte, which means “clear spring.” A local explanation for the name Lauterbrunnen is that the word derives from German and means “many springs.” Linguists suggest that this derivation is an example of folk etymology.

HIKING AROUND MÜRREN WITH VIEWS OF EIGER, MONCH, AND JUNGFRAU

As we hike around Murren, we can see three of the most famous mountains in Switzerland: Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau. Eiger, rising to 13,025 feet, and Monch, ascending to 13,448 feet, both draw climbers from the world over.

While climbers do not flock in the same numbers to Jungfrau at 13,642 feet, scientists do. The research station at the top began as a meteorology and astronomy observatory in 1900. Over the years, scientists focused their energies on extreme high-altitude research, looking at medical conditions affected by high altitude. Some of the research attempts to mimic conditions for humans in space. Researchers also examine environmental issues, such as the deposit of pollutants in high alpine areas, and the effects of solar and cosmic rays.

UNESCO named Eiger-Monch-Jungfrau a World Heritage Site in 2001, in part because of its geology, ecosystems, and the large Aletsch glacier.

MONTREUX

Welcome to Swiss French language and culture! Located in southwestern Switzerland, Montreux greets you at the shores of Lake Geneva. The town stretches along a large bay facing south and rises in stair-step fashion up hills that shelter Montreux from north and east winds. As a result, Montreux enjoys a mild climate.

Mediterranean temperatures enable a wide variety of trees to grow along the shores of Lake Geneva, including fig, bay, almond, mulberry, cypress, magnolia, and, surprisingly, even palm trees.

The mild temperatures impact the ability of other plants to grow in the region as well. Vines grow at an altitude of nearly 2,000 feet, making for a flourishing and famous wine industry in Montreux.

GLACIER 3000

Located at the highest point in the Vaudois Alps, Glacier 3000 affords a spectacular view over the Bernese Alps, with 24 summits of 12,000 feet or more. Architect Mario Botta designed the famous mountain station that provides views not only of the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau, but the Alps’ and Europe’s tallest peak, Mont Blanc.

Winter sports enthusiasts can participate in a variety of winter sports on the glacier year-round. That being said, the glacier suffers the same trend as other glaciers around the world – recession. In 1860, researchers measured 14 miles of ice, a distance reduced to 11.9 miles of ice by 2006. Most of the melt occurred since 1950, with 10% of the ice lost in 2003 alone. An additional side effect is worsening floods in the valley below.

LAKE GENEVA

Bordered by both France and Switzerland, Lake Geneva is the largest lake on the Rhone River and one of the largest in all of Western Europe. Due to the underlying geology, it is divided into three separate designations: Upper Lake, or Haut Lac, is the eastern-most section; Large Lake, or Grand Lac, is in the middle and contains the deepest of the three basins; and the shallow and narrow Small Lake, Petit Lac, is on the southwest end. Boasting stunning views of the surrounding mountain peaks, the lake is also a central part of the community, welcoming swimmers, boaters and even scuba divers! The world’s longest non-stop rowing regatta, the Tour du Lac, has taken place on Lake Geneva since 1972. You can row the 99 miles around the perimeter of the lake, or relax at one of the vineyards and raise a glass to the rowers as they go by.
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