Nature-watching in the Swiss National Park

Why visit the Swiss National Park . . . .

  • Glorious scenery
  • 100km of hiking trails
  • Wilderness that has not been touched (away from the paths) for over 100 years
  • Wonderful Wildflowers
  • Brilliant butterflies and other invertebrates
  • A good variety of birds and mammals

About . . . .

The Swiss National Park is located in the canton of Graubünden, spread across the four communes of Zernez, S-chanf, Scuol and Val Müstair and covering an area of 170 km2 at an altitude of 1,400 to 3,174 metres.

Established in 1914, it is the oldest national park in the Alps and indeed the oldest in central Europe. As of April 2021, the site is listed on the IUCN’s Green List of Protected and Conserved Areas and is formally recognised as one of the 59 best managed sites in the world. 

Protected areas in Switzerland

Despite its small size, Switzerland manages to squeeze in a number of major sites of ecological importance.  Perhaps that is not so surprising in a country where 25% of the land is categorized as “non-productive”, ie high mountains and lakes.  However, until 2007, there was only a single national park.  Now there are a total of 18 areas designated, or proposed for designation as, national or regional nature parks, each of them at least 100 square kilometres in area.

There are also a handful of nature discovery parks – relatively small areas of only a few square kilometres within densely populated regions, offering intact spaces for local flora and fauna and improving the life quality of the urban population. Their primary purpose is to allow the public to experience nature and receive environmental education. 

Map from the Swiss National Park website which provides information in German, English, French and Italian.

Best things to do:

Go to the visitor centre

I’m an advocate for visitor centres. Having arrived in Zernez when it was raining, this visitor centre was most welcome, and I visited on several other occasions when the weather was poor during my ten-day stay in the area. There were exhibitions about various aspects of the park – geology, animals, plants, history, hiking, etc. The staff were helpful, even the park director was happy to talk to visitors who had questions that the centre staff couldn’t answer themselves.

It has all changed since then. Opened in 2008, the new national park centre at Zernez attracts some 40,000 visitors a year.  It’s well worth visiting for up-to-date information, and for maps and route guides from the shop.  There is a comprehensive, interactive exhibition on permanent show, with various digital information systems, temporary exhibitions and a theatre, all of which provide a set of interesting alternatives for when the weather is too wet for hiking to be pleasant.

Download the app

A fairly recent innovation, the Swiss National Park app is a digital hiking guide that leads you through the National Park region with stories, information and detailed maps. Not all areas of the Park have mobile phone/online coverage; so the app was created in offline mode – so download it when you have a wi-fi signal because it is a rather large file. The app is available in German, English, and French, so is also useful if you are on a guided walk and need help with understanding what the guide is saying in German.

Take a hike

There is a single road through the park, going on down to the Italian border. Along it, you’ll find car parks, hotels, and bus stops. These are all very handy when hiking through the park. The rules are strict. You must stay on the path, camping and fires are not allowed. But the 80km or so of footpaths are all well-worth exploring. I’ve been on about half of them. The campsite in Zernez provided a useful base for some short hikes, and the starting point for some of the longer ones. The need to get back to base meant a good deal of planning for buses or trains, and making sure there was enough time to catch the last one back to base. Nature-watching really tends to slow us down, but if you are just out for the hike, the distances are easy to do in plenty of time.

Go on a guided walk

A guide can give so much extra information and interpretation about the landscape. Guided hikes happen on Tuesdays and Thursdays, are usually conducted in German, and usually have a specialist theme. Alongside the human guides, you can use the app to provide extra information. Both kinds of tour provide an opportunity to uncover some of the secrets of the astounding abundance of flora and fauna – all to be found in the Swiss National Park.

Look for birds

Despite there being only half a dozen pairs of golden eagles in the park, we saw one or two every day. During the summer they feed mainly on marmots, while in the winter they scavenge deer carcasses and whatever else they can find. Carcasses are also important for the Lammergeier – also known as the bone vulture and the bearded vulture. This species has been the subject of an extensive reintroduction program throughout the Alps, including 26 young captive-bred released in the park between 1991 and 2007. They seem to be breeding by themselves now, so no further releases are needed.

Nutcrackers are members of the crow family, restricted in range to areas of pine forests and so most often found in the mountains and the far north where conifers form the main forests. Like jays, it stores its winter food supply in the ground, and the seeds that it doesn’t find again germinate and extend the forest. The nutcracker is the logo for the Swiss National Park.

Looking at the list of 56 species that I saw here, the ptarmigan, Alpine chough, Alpine accentor, and citril finch stand out as being special to the mountains, at least. Most of the other species are more generalist, and found in the lower areas – the forests and along the river corridors.

Shepherd’s Fritillary
Silky ringlet

Look for butterflies

The best place for butterflies proved to be the track alongside the river from Zernez – and on a couple of occasions, we barely managed a mile of hiking because of trying to photograph and identify all the butterflies. But to find the specialities of the region, you have to go to higher altitudes.

En route to Alp Trubchun, we found a shepherd’s fritillary basking on a stone (above left), and while we were trying to photograph that, the local form of the silky ringlet put in an appearance (above right). Depending on the light angle, this butterfly can look much like any other brown ringlet, or it can shimmer an iridescent green.

It’s really the blues and the fritillaries that dominate the butterfly lists here. And to have any hope of identifying unfamiliar species, you really have to photograph both the under-side and the upper-side. And nowadays, having the luxury of looking at the photos on a computer screen, much enlarged, makes it so much easier. I ended up with a list of 34 species, plus a few that I couldn’t identify, and of course, there were a few that didn’t hang around long enough for a photo.

Leontopodium alpinum. Edelweiss – close up of the small white flowers.

Enjoy the wildflowers

Where to start with the wildflowers! As in most mountain regions, there is a huge variety due to the variation in altitude and aspect. However, there are perhaps not so many here as elsewhere in the Alps, due to the dry climate (low in rainfall and in humidity), the extremes of temperature, and the lack of limestone rocks. Nevertheless, up to 600 species can be found here.

I didn’t really look hard at them – I was more interested in the butterflies – but was happy to at last find an Edelweiss. This iconic flower of the Alps prefers rocky limestone places at about 1,800–3,000 metres (5,900–9,800 ft) altitude. Its leaves and flowers are covered with dense hairs, which are believed to protect the plant from cold, aridity, and ultraviolet radiation. It is a scarce, short-lived flower found in remote mountain areas, although it will grow in gardens with a bit of help. It is a national symbol Switzerland and some other Alpine countries.  It is non-toxic and has been used in traditional medicine as a remedy against abdominal and respiratory diseases.

Look for mammals

We saw mammals, or signs of mammals, on each day. However, the best place is generally considered to be Alp Trubchun at the south-west end of the Park. We took the train from Zernez to S-chanf, and started the hike from there – although now there is a bus service that stops closer to the footpath. It’s a relatively easy hike, gently climbing 400m in 10km, but you do have to allow time to walk back too. The scenery is, as always, wonderful, but with the added views of plenty of wildlife. We had to try to ignore the birds, butterflies and plants on the outward journey through Val Trubchun, just to make sure we got to Alp Trubchun itself.

Herds of red deer grazed on the Alp, watching us from a distance. Amongst them were a few ibex. This species was surreptitiously reintroduced to the area in the early 1900s after being exterminated by 1650 – thanks mainly to the medicinal properties attributed to its flesh and horns – plus the fact that they often seem to have no fear of humans, and are therefore easy to hunt. Chamois were not quite so easy to see, as they spend the summer at even higher elevations, so you need time to continue to path up to Fuorcla Trupchun – a steady but much steeper and more difficult climb – from where you can even continue downhill to Livigno in Italy (and return to Zernez by bus, according to the Swiss National Park website).

Marmots are also common on the Alp, and we stopped to watch their antics on the way back. This was early August, and youngsters were out, playing around a rock next to their burrow. An adult posed obligingly outside its burrow nearby. It then wandered through the flowery meadow, stopping to bite off some vegetation here and there, or tug at a juicy root just underground. Then two more young marmots appeared. They hung around a burrow entrance under a rock for a while – mum climbed on the rock to keep an eye on us – then scampered up the hill. When she returned, the family did a lot of licking and grooming as a greeting ceremony, and then the youngsters disappeared into the burrow while the adult still lounged outside, soaking up the late afternoon sun.

Another hike that gave us good sightings of mammals was the route from Zernez via Cluozza to Ova Spin. First, there were signs of otter and fox alongside the river. Then through woodland with red squirrels, and a garden dormouse which, unfortunately, was dead. The woodland gave way to alpine pasture, with red deer, chamois (probably the closest views we ever had), a few ibex, and the inevitable marmots. This route was much more demanding than the Val Trubchun one, including two 700m climbs and requiring sure-footedness in places on the downhills. Fortunately, there was a bus service from Ova Spin back to Zernez, although a passing motorist offered us a ride before the bus arrived.

Photo of chamois with kid
Chamois

So there you have it

Those are my recommendations, but I feel I sampled only a little of the park.

What I’d do next time

Some of the hikes I didn’t do last time – perhaps including the one where you can do an overnight stay in a refuge – remember to book first.

Watch and photograph Lammergeiers – I’ve had only brief and distant views so far

Take more photos – especially now that I’ve got better equipment!


Best time to go

Winter: From mid-November onwards there is generally so much snow that footpaths are no longer visible, and there is a risk of avalanches. From now until the end of May the Park remains closed to visitors. The main Pass dal Fuorn (Ofenpass) road remains open in winter, ensuring access to the Val Müstair. However, the parking areas within the Park and the Hotel Parc Naziunal Il Fuorn are closed in winter.

Spring: During May there can still be heavy falls of snow, and large avalanches are not unusual. But by the end of the month, the trails in the lower and sunnier parts of the Park become accessible, and wildflowers begin to bloom. Trails in the higher areas remain under snow, and are generally only passable towards the end of June. The birds in particular are especially active at this time of year.

Summer: July and August are the ideal months to visit the National Park. All the trails are accessible; days are long and the temperatures pleasant.  At 2000 and 3000m, most flowering plants bloom during the second half of July. In high mountainous regions flowering can be delayed until well into August, according to snow conditions. Depending on the weather, the main flowering season may be delayed by 2 to 3 weeks. With the flowers come the butterflies, providing a visual feast of colour.

Autumn: As the days shorten and the temperature drops, nights can be frosty and the first snows fall in the upper regions. Footpaths may be frozen in places, and walkers heading out to higher regions should enquire about walking conditions at the National Park Centre. The highlight of the season is the red deer rut – when hundreds of stags can be heard roaring and strutting their stuff in traditional rutting areas, such as the Val Trupchun.


Resources

Swiss National Park website

Videos

This short video from the ‘Idle Brain’ YouTube channel will give you more idea of the scenery of the National Park.


How to get there

The Swiss National Park lies in the south-east of the country, and is accessible by rail, bus and road. The nearest railway station is at Zernez, and the line also passes through S-chanf for access to Val Trubchun.

Overnight accommodation within the National Park is available only in the  Chamanna Cluozza (mountain hut) or at the  Hotel Parc Naziunal Il Fuorn. Other accommodation in the region can be found via the  local tourist offices or via the internet. There is also a campsite at Zernez.


Bookshop

Buying books through these links earns a small commission which helps towards the costs of this website at no extra cost to you.

Sadly the English version of this book is now out of print. It was a standard volume available in several languages. On walks, the guide would identify a flower, and whoever found it first in their book would call out the page number so everyone could mark it in their own book, regardless of language.

It’s a subject that seems to be more easily available locally rather than trying to buy something in advance.

 If you are trying to buy something in advance, make sure it is about the Alpine flora in Europe, rather than Alpine regions of North or South America, or Australia or New Zealand, for example.

Finding books specific to the Alpine Region seems to be best done when you are there. The National Park Visitor Centre usually has a good variety. There will be books in French, German and Italian, and it seems if you are lucky, in English too. Otherwise, the main guides to birds, mammals, etc covering the whole of Europe, will do the job. I am slowly replacing my older versions with those mentioned below.

The books below are my ‘go to’ books for European wildlife, when I can’t find anything more specific to a region. Click on the covers for more information.


Botany and Butterflies in the French Alps

The French Alps provide a wonderful backdrop for a botanical and/or butterfly trip. Here are some of my recommendations after a week at La Grave, near the Col du Galibier which is equally well-known for the tour du France cycle race.

Keep reading

Nature of Grindelwald

The area around Grindelwald, in the shadow of the Eiger and the Jungfrau, is great for plants, birds, and butterflies as well as just great scenery for hiking through.

Keep reading

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2 thoughts on “Nature-watching in the Swiss National Park

  1. I’ve been to some other areas near here but not to this park. As an avid hiker and bird watcher I know I would love it. I hope I can visit someday. Great round up!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. I think perhaps it is not widely known because access is so restricted in order to preserve the wilderness. But it is well worth a visit, and I hope you do get there some day.

      Like

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