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.

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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.

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Botany and Butterflies in the French Alps

Why the French Alps

A high biodiversity due mainly to the large range in altitude

A relative lack of intensive farming means more space for wildlife

My week at this site, with a botanical group, resulted in lists of 418 plant species, 41 butterfly species, 46 birds species and a few other odds and ends.

However, had it not been for the emphasis on botany, I’m sure we would have found a lot more of the other things.

Best time to go? May – August

La Grave

La Grave – it sounds ominous. But the name of this small French village actually means severe.  And it refers to the terrain, which is difficult to navigate.  Despite the presence of a telepherique, there are no ski pistes, and it isn’t a ski resort.  This is where the really adventurous skiers go – and a guide is recommended, if not a necessity, for most.  Too many people have met their deaths here.

In summer, it is a different story.  Like so much of the Alps, it is a paradise for botanists and butterfly watchers.  There are plenty of footpaths, and the telepherique comes in handy for getting to those high levels where only the specialist plants can survive. 

One reason for the diversity of plant and butterfly life here is the huge vertical distance – over 3,000m – from the valley bottoms to the mountain peaks. Another is the orientation of the slopes – most are facing either north or south. And thirdly, there is geology. A geological map of the area shows a patchwork of colour, representing and whole range of acid to alkaline rocks, which in turn affect the soil types, and therefore the plants that grow in particular localities.

Walking around the village, along the roads to villages higher up the slope, along the Romanche river at the bottom of the valley, through the Arboretum (where there is a small collection of trees labelled only in French) provides a good introduction to the local plants and butterflies. But while you are there, it’s worth visiting a few other nearby sites.

The Alpine Botanical Garden at Lautaret

To help get into the right frame of mind for Alpine plants, start at the Alpine Botanical Garden at the Col du Lauteret.  It is well worth a visit, and all the plants are labelled!

The Col du Lautaret is located at the crossroads of the Northern Alps (high snow cover and cloud amount) and the Southern Alps (high levels of sunshine and Mediterranean influence) on the border of the external Alps (oceanic influence causing high levels of precipitation) and the dry inner alps (continental influence).

Add to that, the varied geology and altitude (Lautaret is at 2058m) of the immediate area, and it isn’t surprising that over 1500 species of higher plants have been recorded here.  It is a site of considerable botanical research, being part of the University of Grenoble.

At the end of the 19th century, dozens of botanical gardens sprang up in Europe.  The garden at Lautaret was opened in 1899, presenting a rich systematic collection of 500 species from the western Alps, all painstakingly classed and labelled.

Round-headed orchid Traunsteinera globosa
Vanilla orchid Nigritella rubra
Man orchid Orchis anthropophora

In 1915 the highways agency of the time decided to improve the road between Lautaret and Galibier – right through the garden.  The garden had to move – not far – to its current position, where it is easily accessible to travellers through the Alps. 

In the last twenty years, in particular, it has grown in both popularity and size.  There are now collections of alpine (and arctic) plants from various regions of the world. The garden website includes a virtual tour.

There is limited parking on-site, but plenty nearby at the Col du Lautaret itself.  Walking the few hundred metres along the road winding up to the garden is a delight in itself – enough to keep any botanist happy for an hour or two.

Once in the garden, you can wander around the various alpine areas of the world, though I settled for just the local stuff.  It’s a great introduction to the local flora as all the specimens are labelled.  Ideally, a place to visit at the start of a botanical trip to the area, and again at the end to answer the questions you found along the way.  Certainly, in these days of digital photography, it’s useful to be able to compare photos with labelled specimens, or ask someone.

Titania’s fritillary Clossiana titania and small skipper Thymelicus sylvestris on field scabious Knautia arvensis.

There are areas of alpine meadows where such striking local plants as Campanula thyrsoides ssp thyrsoides could be seen. In the fields behind the café opposite the car park there was spotted gentian Gentiana punctata as well as the much more common spring and trumpet gentians Gentiana verna and G acualis.  This, with a background of the green valleys and the rocky mountain peaks, some still snow-capped, forms a picture that is difficult to beat.

So, even if you can’t spend time wandering alpine paths and discovering the flora for yourself, you can still enjoy it in the Alpine Botanical Garden.  And the learn more about the Parc National des Ecrins in the Maison du Parc, have a meal in the French restaurant, stay overnight in the Hotel des Glacier, and do more of the same the next day!

Part of the panoramic view from the telepherique top station.

La Meije

La Meije is the mountain massif overlooking La Grave from the south. The name is derived from a local word meaning midday, and refers to the fact that the sun passes over (or behind depending on the season) the peak at midday.

There are some footpaths – some of them quite a scramble in places. So the best way to explore the botany is to make us of the Telepherique de la Meije which starts in la Grave. There is a middle station, and a top station.

The top station overlooks the Girose glacier, and a wonderful panorama (above) of the other nearby glaciers and mountain peaks. It’s a pretty stark place, but a few plants can be found at the top – glacier crowfoot Ranunculus glacialis and Alpine toadflax Linaria alpina survive mainly in the lee of the structure that supports a cafe above the glacier. The cafe provides welcome hot drinks!

Alpine toadflax Linaria alpina
Glacier crowfoot Ranunculus glacialis
The Meije glacier from the middle station.
Shepherd’s Fritillary  Boloria pales – a high altitude butterfly photographed near the middle station.

The Col du Galibier

The Col du Galibier – looking to the north side, the Col du Télégraphe. On these higher levels, the plants are often small, only a few centimetres tall to avoid the stresses of harshness of life at high altitude.  Lower down, where there is more shelter, the plants are often taller and more luxurious.

At 2,645m, the Col du Galibier is probably best known for being (often) the highest point of the Tour du France cycle race.  The pass is closed during the winter.  The road over the top is the ninth highest paved road in the Alps.  It wasn’t actually paved until 1976 when the tunnel (at 2556m) was closed for restoration and an alternative route over the mountains was needed until the tunnel reopened in 2002.

According to local folklore, before the tunnel no one from the north side of the Galibier ever married anyone from the south. The people of each side were different and full of mistrust for each other. The isolation of the north side was compounded by its climate, which is still much harsher than the south.

Alpine Avens Geum rossii
Mount Baldo Anemone Anemone baldensis
Unbranched Lovage Ligusticum mutellinoides
Above the villages, there is a flattish ‘shoulder’ of land used for summer grazing – this is what is meant by an alp. This seems to be a particularly good area for plants and butterflies. Visiting these alps before breakfast – while it was still cool and the butterflies relatively inactive – proved to be the best time for photography.
Apollo Parnassius apollo
Chequered Skipper Carterocephalus palaemon
Darwin’s Heath Coenonympha darwiniana

La Grave – getting there

It is possible to get to La Grave by public transport – eg bus from Grenoble (Rome2Rio website) – and on to the Col du Lautaret. However, anywhere else beyond walking distance requires a car or a bike. The Hotel Edelweiss in La Grave offers mountain e-bike tours.

Hotel Edelweiss – There is other accommodation in the village, but this is where I stayed – very comfortable and friendly.

See it on Google maps

Resources

La Grave – information in Wikipedia

Telepheriques des Glaciers la Grave/la Meije

The Col du Galibier is on the route of the Tour de France cycle race, but still great for wildlife and scenery.

The Botanical Garden – in French or in English

The Parc National des Ecrins is immediately south of the road and is my favourite French National Park – scenery, wildlife, walking etc.

Organised trips

The company I travelled with ceased to exist when the owners retired, however, there are a number of other companies which provide nature trips to the Alps, for example:

Greenwings wildlife holidays – Butterflies of the French Alps

Naturetrek – Italian and French Alps


Bookshop

Click on the covers for more information. Buying books through these links brings me a small commission which helps with maintaining this website at no extra cost to you.

English language field guides to Alpine plants are hard to find. These French ones have pictures and icons that make them reasonably usable to anyone.

If you are trying to buy a wildflower book 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.

The Alpine Botanical Garden at Lautaret

More nature-watching in the Alps

Nature of Grindelwald

The culture, landscape and nature of Grindelwald has been recognised by its designation as part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch site has the impressive Eiger-Mönch-Jungfrau rock massif

Why visit Grindelwald

The ‘Jungfrau Region’ contains one of the most spectacular landscapes in Europe

A butterfly enthusiast could find 50-60 species in July – including up to 19 species of ringlet!

A keen birdwatcher could find 40-50 species breeding here.

A group on a botanical trip could find 600 species – the more eyes the more you see! Most, but not all, will be in flower in July.

Or you could just enjoy hiking through the magnificent landscape!

About Grindelwald

You can drive to Grindelwald – but it is the end of the road. To go further, you need to use the post bus, or one of the many cablecars or other mountain transport systems. Or you just hike in almost any direction.

Or you can get there by train or bus from Zurich or Interlaken.

It is a tourist town, so there is plenty of accommodation, and a campsite (where I stayed).

Grindelwald is set at about 1000m in the valley below the Eiger and Jungfrau. The next 1000m or so is mainly farmland – haymeadows, pastures, a golf course, etc.. Once you’ve explored this, it becomes worth using the various transport systems to get to and from hikes at higher levels.

But first, stop in at the tourist centre to pick up current leaflets and timetables. The program of walks, talks and tours can be interesting. You don’t need to join any of them, but it is useful guide about things to do when the weather is wet.  The guided walks are useful to get acquainted with the local fauna and flora – the nature of Grindelwald.

They also have maps and books.  The panoramic maps were particularly useful for seeing the marked trails in relation to each other, and to the various ski lifts and shuttles, etc.  And in respect of the latter, it can be handy to know which ones were running and at what times.

While there is quite a lot of visitor information on the Grindelwald and Jungfrau region websites, there is disappointingly little about the wildlife.

Families walking along the panoramic route – between First and Grosse Scheidegg

Best places for seeing the nature of Grindelwald

So, you’re now established in your hotel in town or up on a hillside, or you’re in the campsite.  Or maybe just driving in for a day trip from Interlaken. Here are my recommendations of where to watch wildlife under the Eiger and Jungfrau:

Männlichen

It’s a long slow hike from Grindelwald to Männlichen, along the route marked Itramenstrasse and then Alp tramen on Google maps, then on a hiking trail. Much of this route is wheel-chair friendly, but there are options for hikers to cut across the zig-zags. I did this on the way up, and used the longer track on the way down (when it rained). The climb is 1200m, but the flowers and butterflies are wonderful. At the top – Trumpet Gentian Gentiana acaulis Mountain Pansy Viola lutea, Bird’s-eye Primrose Primula farinosa, Moss Campion Silene acaulis and Alpine Cinquefoil Potentilla crantzii to name but a few.

You can also get to the top via the newly refurbished cable-car route, or by taxi.

Once at the top, there are several hiking options, including the panorama trail to Kleine Scheidegg, the Royal Walk, the Romantic trail, etc. The panorama trail is good, it isn’t difficult, and the views of the Eiger especially are superb. But be prepared for lots of family groups at weekends and in the holiday season.

Chequered Skipper Carterocephalus palaemon – recently re-introduced back home in Britain, but more common in the Alps
Blind Ringlet Erebia pharte – so-called because there are no black ‘eyes’ in the orange spots

The Eiger Trail

Apparently there are two Eiger Trails. A 6km route which needs a reasonable level of fitness, and a 2km route that is easier and has information boards. The latter wasn’t available when I visited. The 6km distance is one-way, and assumes you use the train to get to and from the start and end points of the trail. We incorporated it into a day’s hiking including other trails.

The 500m ascent from Grindelwald was pretty steep, though mostly in the cool shade of spruce trees. At the top was a welcome sunny glade for a lunch stop. A few butterflies passed through and a hummingbird hawkmoth paused to drink nectar from some nearby flowers. From Boneren to Alpiglen the path rises and fall several times, ultimately reaching 1800m, crossing an old glacier track, a snow field and a scree slope under the sheer cliffs of the Eiger. In between these obstacles were rough places over spruce roots, and open marginal habitats with masses of wildflowers from the red alpenrose to the white cottony seedheads of dwarf willow, from the last few globe-flowers to the tiny alpine toadflax. Most of the butterflies were mountain ringlets. We returned via a postbus route lower down the slope, seeing far more birds there – ring ouzels, fieldfares and other thrushes.

Glacier Gorge

Deep gorge cut by the meltwaters of the Lower Glacier

Grindlewald is surrounded by glaciers – though they have mostly retreated so far up the slopes that they could now be missed. The Glacier Gorge, or Gletscherschlucht is a steep-sided gorge left by the meltwaters of the lower glacier (Unterer Gletscher). When the glacier began to retreat in 1875, two enterprising brothers made its rocky and fissured route safe and accessible to tourists by means of wooden steps and boardwalks in and over the gorge. As the glacier withdrew more and more, the construction followed and today its length is 720m. 

Access to the walkways is easy – by car or bus from town. However, to make a day of it, you can walk to to top of the gorge via Pfinstegg and look down on it. This proved an excellent place for watching wallcreepers and wagtails, as well as a few other birds.

Marmorbruch is a restaurant at the site of an old marble quarry. Marble was extracted from the first half of 18th century until 1903 when the quarry was shut down due to foreign competition. There were still blocks of unpolished marble and some of the shafts remaining. The door frames of the rooms of the Upper House of the Federal Parliament in Berne are made of Grindelwald marble. It is a pleasant walk up from Grindelwald, with woodland and streams. Plenty of flowers and butterflies, and the birds included Orphean Warblers.

Upper Glacier

Go back to Pfinstegg and continue eastwards to the Upper Glacier (Oberer Gletscher). This was famous for being the glacier reaching the lowest altitude anywhere in the Alps. It has retreated considerably, beyond the point of the ice grotto and other attractions of the 1990s. The pictures in this article show the change between 1910 and 2000. I don’t know how much of the glacier is visible now from the track from Pfinstegg. This alternative trail should also give you a view of it from the east side.

Grosse Scheidegg

Grosse Scheidegg is the mountain pass to the north-east of Grindelwald. It is accessible by post bus, on foot or by bicycle. Following the postbus route on foot takes a good three hours – and that was walking fast to keep warm in the shadow of the Eiger and Wetterhorn. As with most destinations around Grindelwald, there is a hotel and cafe.

Various events are held here, and the one I went to was a Bergfest. It was really a ploy to get tourists to spend a bit more on bus fares and refreshments. There was an accordion quartet (three squeeze-boxes and a base) and a yodelling choir with 13 voices.  A pleasant way to while away a few hours, and admire the local flowers and butterflies.

Yodelling choir at the Bergfest
Alpine Chough keeping an eye out for eagles

The best part was watching a flock of about a dozen Alpine chough, coming in like jackdaws to investigate anywhere people had just vacated in hope of finding a free meal. These birds are habituated to humans, and are often found around Alpine resorts. Studies have shown that while they make the most of whatever people leave behind, they are not dependent on this food source. Still, there is no need to share our unhealthy (for them) diet with them.

From Grosse Scheidegg you can take an easy hike along the paths from the cable-car station at First. Alternatively, continue north-eastwards on foot or by bus into the valley on the other side, eventually emerging at Meiringen and the road to Interlaken.

Looking across the valley from First in 1989 – left to right: – Wetterhorn – the Upper Glacier – Schreckhorn – Lower Glacier – the Eiger

First

First means ridge, and this ridge to the north of Grindelwald offers a spectacular overlook across the village and valley. It’s a place for thrill-seekers – weather permitting. The easiest thrill is walking out on the First Cliff Walk which leads along the rock face to a viewing platform – but there is nothing between you and a long drop down into the valley.

Then there is the First Flieger – an 800m zip cable-type ‘flight’ to the station below First. The First Glider isn’t quite so fast. The First Mountain Cart is a longer ground-based ride. The First Trotti Bike . . . . . . well, I’m sure you get the idea.

I’ll stick with hiking. There is a panoramic trail eastwards to Grosse Scheidegg, or westward to Bachalpsee and Faulhorn – this being quite spectacular. From Faulhorn it’s a long way down (1600m) back to Grindelwald, and by the time I got there, my knees were wishing I’d taken a bus or cable car at least part of the way.

An unexpected sight at a farm on the way down from Faulhorn

So there you have it

My recommendations for getting the best nature-watching experiences during a summer trip to Grindelwald in the Bernese Oberland and how to watch wildlife under the Eiger and Jungfrau. At least the weather here was better than the previous ten days of watching wildlife under the Matterhorn. Next time, I know I’ll see changes, particularly in extent of the glaciers. And I’ll aim to do the train ride up to the Eigerwand and Jungfraujoch – to the restaurant at the top of the world.


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 a wildflower book 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. 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. Buying books through these links earns a small commission which helps pay for this website at no extra cost to you.


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More nature-watching in the Alps

Wildlife under the Matterhorn

Why visit the Matterhorn?

With 38 four-thousand-metre peaks (including the Matterhorn itself) in the immediate area and a 400 km hiking trail network, Zermatt is an ideal starting point for watching wildlife under the Matterhorn.

The area around Zermatt is an isolated ecosystem with high biodiversity that has survived thanks to a unique combination of a dry climate, the highest tree line in the Alps, plus a large variety of soil conditions from acid to alkali, from wet to dry, and from shallow to deep.

Zermatt’s flora is a delight for botanists. There are seven species that are unique to the area. And they are mostly easy to find thanks to the mountain railways and those 400 km of hiking trails.

The Zermatt-Matterhorn area, with its varied mountain types, Alpine meadows and forests, is ideal for bird-watching. The Mattertal area is designated an “Important Bird Area” (IBA) Region, in other words, an area where many rare and threatened bird species can be found.

Chamois resting

Mammals can be seen here too – marmots aren’t confined to the marmot trail, deer can turn up anywhere, red squirrels haunt the woodlands, while ibex and chamois prefer the higher levels.

Please respect this fragile environment – conservation of the species here really needs the appreciation and cooperation of visitors

Nowhere else in the Alps can one find such a variety of rocks. Four geological zones each with different chemical compositions have crashed together here to make a fascinating diversity of geology.

Zermatt has over 50 lakes and almost 100 springs, rivers and streams. In the village, you can drink straight from the fountains as the water is top quality – and it’s cold as it has just come from the glaciers.

About Zermatt

If you’re driving to Zermatt, you’ll be stopped at Tasch.  Zermatt itself is car free, and always has been.  So you leave your car in one of the 2000 parking spaces at Tasch, and take the shuttle train or a taxi the rest of the way (5km).  Or, if you’re in a camper, you make yourself at home in the campsite at Tasch, and then hike or take the shuttle as required. In Zermatt only electric vehicles, horse-drawn taxis and bicycles are permitted, and that makes it a wonderfully peaceful place.

Mostly, we hiked in from the campsite.  There are plenty of flowers, birds and butterflies to see en route, and plenty of routes in addition to the direct one that more-or-less follows the River and the railway tracks through the narrowest part of the Mattertal (Matter Valley).

While there are several routes in different directions from Tasch, there are plenty more options once you get to Zermatt.  Most of them are pretty spectacular, offering scenic views as well as plenty of flowers, butterflies, birds and occasional glimpses of alpine mammals.

But first, stop in at the information centre. They have a program of walks, talks and tours, and while you don’t need to join any of them, I found it useful to at least know about the lectures for something to do when the weather was wet (I went to one where the local weather itself was being explained).  The guided walks were useful to get acquainted with the local fauna and flora.

They also have maps and books.  The panoramic maps were particularly useful for seeing the marked trails in relation to each other, and to the various ski lifts and shuttles, etc.  And in respect of the latter, it can be handy to know which ones were running and at what times.

A lot of this information is on the Zermatt visitor website in more detail, but it’s often useful to pick up printed matter, especially maps that are too big to print at home.

Best places for watching wildlife under the Matterhorn

So, you’re established in your hotel in town or up on a hillside, or you’re in the campsite at Tasch. Now to decide what to do next.  Here are my recommendations of where to watch wildlife under the Matterhorn:

Patterns in the cracked ice surface of a glacier

Gornergrat

Europe’s highest cogwheel railway, the Gornergratbahn has been taking passengers up to Gornergrat (3089m) since 1898. The Gornergrat Bahn was also the world’s first fully electrified cog railway. Now equipped with a regenerative braking system that generates electricity on the descent, it is a truly eco-friendly system.

The ride takes 33 minutes and covers a vertical climb of 1,469 m. The 9.4 kilometres of track goes over dramatic bridges, through galleries and tunnels, across forests of larch and Swiss stone pine, and past rocky ravines and mountain lakes. Best to sit on the right-hand side of the train facing uphill to photograph the Matterhorn and the magnificent panorama of seven glaciers and 29 peaks over 4000m. 

July and August are probably the best times for finding plants and butterflies at this altitude.  Hang around the top station for a while, then either take one of the footpaths downhill, or take the train down to Rotenboden.

A ten-minute walk from the station is the Riffelsee – one of the many lakes of the region, and one of the best for photographing the reflection of the Matterhorn on calm weather – usually early morning or in the evening. This is a particularly good area for rare Alpine flowers and high-level butterflies. 

Continue along the Rotenboden-Gornergrat hiking trail and over the lateral moraine of the Gorner glacier for Zermatt’s hotspot for observing flowers. It has the greatest variety of rare flowers in a relatively small area. But beware, there is a section of the trail that requires surefootedness and freedom from dizziness.

Please take care here and STAY ON THE FOOTPATH – the southern slope of the Gornergrat is a very sensitive ecosystem. An alpine meadow at this altitude takes hundreds of years to develop and stabilise, and a moment or two of carelessness can damage the extremely vulnerable plants.

Depending on the season – the Gornergrat trail is accessible from June – you can find dwarf rampion, alpine aster, alpine alyssum, umbel pennycress, glacier wormwood, Haller’s pasqueflower and Haller’s ragwort, Schleicher’s gentian and the fine-haired sweet clover.  Many of these are small, and you’ll need a magnifying glass to look at things like the small barbs on the heads of the sepals of the dwarf rampion, for example.  Or better still, join a botanical walk with an expert to help you find these species.

Matterhorn Glacier Paradise

Europe’s highest cable-car station is the Matterhorn Glacier Ride on the Klein Matterhorn (3883m). Views are stunning – 14 glaciers and 38 mountain peaks over 4000m from the Panoramic Platform (good weather only). The Matterhorn looks different from up here – this is best place to see the south face.

Then there is the Glacier Palace, an ice palace with glittering ice sculptures and an ice slide, and even some exhilarating snow tubing outside in the snowy surrounds.  There is snow here all year round, but not a lot for the naturalist once you have admired the views – including the one looking down on the glacier from the cable-car.

Return to the cable-car station at Trockener Steg and explore along the Matterhorn Glacier trail. Since the Little Ice Age of around 1850, the Furgg and Theodul Glaciers have retreated by more than three kilometres. This 6.5km trail offers insights into the phenomenon of glacier retreat, displaying what the melting glacier leaves behind, showing the conditions it creates for plant and animal life, and revealing how humans make use of the remains from the river of ice.  Information panels along the route tell the whole fascinating story. 

The other end of the trail is at the Schwarzsee (Black Lake) gondola station with its tiny chapel dedicated to ‘Maria zum Schnee’ (Our Lady of the Snow).  It’s one of the many lakes that give you a reflection of the Matterhorn in calm weather.

Alpine Marmots can be seen anywhere there is open ground

Sunnegga

The Sunnegga Express was my first experience of a tunnel funicular – the whole train built at the angle of the slope, but with everything properly levelled.  The slight unreality of it was increased by leaving a relatively warm and clear Zermatt, then disembarking to a cool thick mist at Sunnegga.

Some 650m above Zermatt, and you’re also just above the tree-line. This means open meadows for Alpine marmots. The marmot trail covers nearly 4km, and offers a chance to watch marmots close-up.  The animals live in burrows, and can often be seen sun-bathing at the burrow entrance, visiting the neighbours, collecting food, and generally going about their business.  In July there is a chance of seeing the babies on their first forays out of the burrows too.  They mostly ignore humans, so long as humans stay where humans are supposed to be – ie on the footpath.  There is also a marmot-watching station a few minutes easy walk from the funicular station.

Another easy hike here is the Blumenweg (flower path) with alpine anemones, gentians and violet pasqueflowers among many others.  All these trails have information boards in several languages. Of course, flowers aren’t the only thing to be seen, and from the section of the trail between Tuftern and Sunnega, I watched golden eagles and goshawks – not at the same time though!

Sunnegga is also one end of the 5-Seenweg – the Five Lakes Walk (Seen = Lakes)  It’s a 10 km hike that takes you past five scenic lakes, with the Matterhorn reflected in three of them (if the weather is reasonably clear!).  Each of the lakes is different in terms of shape, colour, character and size. The Leisee is good for swimming, the Grünsee looks out over a rather more rugged landscape, with Swiss stone pines growing among the scree and sand. The shores of the Grindjisee are home to rare flowers. And so on.  The other end of the walk is the Blauherd cable-car station, further uphill, so it’s your choice of mostly uphill, or mostly downhill for the route.

Flower Trail – Trift

The Trift valley runs west from Zermatt, and is another botanical delight – although for me, the wallcreepers were part of the pleasure, especially as they were an excuse to pause on the steepest part of the path.  A small herd/flock of Alpine Ibex frequent the area around the Pension Edelweiss at the top of that steep section, though they can be out of sight on the slopes above.

The trail from Zermatt to the Trift restaurant is the Botanischer Lehrpfad (Botanical Educational Trail).  It’s a long climb of over 700m, but the local world of flowers is explained on the boards along the trail. In May-June there are numerous orchids, eg the Knabenkraut orchid.  Spring gentians bring bright shades of blue, soon followed by various anemones and pasque flowers, including the rare Haller’s pasque flower Pulsatilla halleri.  Later, in July and August, you can see edelweiss, alpine aster, and rare grasses. Edelweiss is surprisingly inconspicuous, but it is there, just after the alpine aster lookout.

Where there are flowers, there are insects.  And amongst the great variety of butterflies is the Apollo.

Edelweiss Leontopodium alpinum flowers in late summer in Alpine meadows.

Edelweissweg (Edelweiss trail)

If you have the time and energy (I didn’t), you can continue along the Edelweiss trail for more botanical delights.  The route takes you up another 1000 metres, through Höhbalmen and Zmutt before returning to Zermatt. It’s another 18.8 km (7 ½ hours) and gives you a spectacular view of the Matterhorn north face and the Monte Rosa massif.

Why does the edelweiss (and many other mountain flowers) have fleecy hairs? The answers come as a surprise: the edelweiss’s hairs, for example, protect it from sun damage, frost and drying out.

Scarce copper butterfly on a Lychnis flower

Mattertal

In between long mountain walks, you need something easier.  I mentioned the Mattertal earlier – it provides easy walking between Zermatt and Tasch (5km) and Tash and Randa (4km) along the river.  Lots of plants, butterflies and birds to enjoy here.  South of Zermatt there are two more fairly easy walks.

Ricola Herb Garden

At Ricola, they make hard-boiled sweets with a difference – they are flavoured with herbs. The herbs are grown locally, and there is a short herb-garden hike at Blatten where you can learn about the 13 species that go into every drop. Blatten is about 2.5km from Zermatt, and the start of the herb-garden walk is next to the small chapel.

Gornerschlucht

For a complete change of scenery, it is hard to beat the Gornerschlucht – a deep gorge cut by the outflowing water from ice-age glaciers.  You could spend all day in the gorge, which is carved out of green serpentine rock and accessed by a series of wooden staircases and walkways. Or you could be out in less than half an hour.  Take a waterproof jacket, though, as the rushing water leaves a mist in the air. This hike is recommended especially for geologists, though you don’t have to be one to appreciate the place.

Suspension Bridge at Furi

A 3km circular walk from Furi includes the 100m long suspension bridge across the Gornerschlucht.  You need a head for heights, as there is a 90 m drop to the river below. The structure – a lattice and cables of steel – is quite secure, though the vibrations of other people crossing, plus the occasional swaying in the wind, make it quite an experience.

Golden Eagle – often seen hunting along the valley between Tasch and Zermatt

Further away

Arigscheis

The panoramic map showed a hike to Arigscheiss close to the campsite at Tasch, and it didn’t look like a hard walk.  Unfortunately – and the problem with these panoramic or perspective maps – is that they are great for stuff on the far side of the valley, but not good for the near side.  This turned out to be quite a strenuous hike, climbing nearly 1000m, assisted in places by metal ladders and walkways.  But, when the clouds lifted a bit, there were good views across the valley to the tongues of glaciers on the higher levels.  It’s also good for seeing animals – a family of chamois, roe deer, birds such as ring ouzels (a kind of blackbird with a white throat) and golden eagles, among many others.  There were even a few butterflies when the sun came out.

The name Arigscheis indicates that eagles have been seen here. “Ari” means eagle in the local dialect, and Arigscheis refers to a place where eagles hang out.

Circular Hike to the Suspension Bridge in Randa

If the suspension bridge at Furi whetted your appetite, then the next place to go is Randa for the “Charles Kuonen Suspension Bridge“, also known as the ‘Europaweg Skywalk’. At 494 m, this is the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world. It takes almost 10 minutes to cross and in the middle, swaying walkers are at the highest point: 85 m above the Grabengufer.

The bridge opened in July 2017, so it is definitely on my list for next time. 

So there you have it

My recommendations for getting the best nature-watching experiences during a summer trip to Zermatt – how to watch wildlife under the Matterhorn. I only hope that the next time I visit, I get better weather. In ten days I hardly saw the sun, and the low cloud meant I only saw the Matterhorn itself a couple of times. People tell me I was unlucky. I hope you do better!

At least I had better weather for the next part of my journey – enjoying the nature at Grindelwald – under the Eiger.


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. For example:

 “Alpine flowers around Zermatt”, by Hanspeter Steidle, published by edition punktuell, Herisau, 2009. Bilingual German/English, ISBN 978-3-905724-15-8 and available from the shop at the Information Centre.

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. 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.


Nore nature-watching in the Alps