A slow hike on the Alta Via 2

The Giant’s Trek is a 7-stage round-trip itinerary through the Aosta Valley, around 4 of the highest mountains (giants) in Europe. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be done in one go, or even in seven stages (roughly 20 hours trekking per stage!).

With a few days to spare before attending a conference in Cogne, I was able to enjoy a slow hike, at first in the shadow of Monti Bianco (Mont Blanc). As I was carrying full hiking/camping gear, I had only a basic camera with me – so no pictures of the birds or marmots!

The trek follows the route of the Alta Via, a high-level trail around the Aosta Valley in northern Italy. Part of the trail runs through the Gran Paradiso National Park, another part along the southern edge of Monti Bianco (Mont Blanc). This trail, divided into Alta Via 1 (on the northern side) and Alta Via 2 (the southern half), is further divided into some 35 sections, often linked by other trails and roads so that you can walk shorter routes, allowing you time to enjoy the scenery and the wildlife, without wearing yourself out.

On this occasion, I had stayed overnight with friends Skip and Jeannie at Villeneuve. From their place, it takes about an hour to drive along the valley to Courmayeur, where the main road continues to the tunnel through Monti Bianco.

See on map

The Miage Lake – the glacier has retreated considerably since this photo was taken in 1996, and the lake is now smaller

Day 1

Monti Bianco dominates the landscape from well down the valley, and just grows ever bigger in the scenery. In fact, the massif is some 50km from east to west, and the highest point is about 4,800m (nearly 16,000 feet). There is a cable car system that allows you to go over the top into France to Chamonix. One day, I would like to take that ride. Skip takes a road to the west, along the Val Veny on the south side of Monti Bianco. Cars are allowed to go only as far as Visaille, so we park at the end and have lunch in the car – bread, cheese, ham and wine, followed by a cappuccino at the nearby ristorante.

Thus refreshed, we begin the hike to the Miage glacial lake. It is uphill all the way. Skip’s long legs soon take him ahead, while Jeannie and I follow at a more sedate pace.

At first the road is paved as it wends its way up through larch woods. On the south side of the road is a deep fluvial valley, with trees and rocks washed down with the spring-summer torrents. Willow and coal tits inhabit the trees, and the few butterflies include red admiral and a fritillary. Behind us, a magnificent view of the east end of Mont Blanc – les Grandes Jorasses, and other mountains.

The road gives way to a rougher track, then a flat plain opens out ahead. Lake Miage is immediately above us, behind a huge moraine left by a glacier. We have to climb that moraine. It makes you appreciate the power of ice – to build a wall that high.

The lake itself is at the base of a glacier – the one which left the huge moraine as it retreated. Skip said they had previously seen small icebergs in the lake, which is milky with ice and rock particles. Bits of ice and rock drop into the water as we watch, and with the magnificent backdrop it is hard to stop taking pictures – I suspect I have taken quite a few exactly the same.

Jeannie and Skip head back to their car, while I continue westwards.

Refugio Elisabetta

The sign says it is an hour to the Rifugio Elisabetta Soldini, which is visible at the far end of the valley. I expect it to take two hours. At first the road is flat and straight, though a boggy plain, then uphill to the Rifugio. The plain is glacial outwash gravel, now partially vegetated with even a few willows and birches growing in the drier parts. A marsh marigold is still showing its golden blooms, indicating how late the seasons are at this altitude. Marsh marigold flowers are gone by May/June in Wales. A fisherman plies his rod in one of the bigger pools.

The uphill part is hard work, and I take any rock of suitable height as an excuse to stop and admire the view behind. The sun sinks behind Monti Bianco, and the lengthening shadows gobble up the plain. By the time I reach the Rifugio, only a distant mountain glows orange in the evening light. I ask if this is Monte Rosa, the highest peak in the Alps, but am told that it is le Grand Combin.

Only about 25 people have booked into the Rifugio, so there is room for one more. The Rifugio Elisabetta has some small bunk rooms, but up in the loft are three long low bunks, each taking 6-12 people laying side by side. Sleeping like sardines in a can takes some getting used to, especially as there is no segregation even by sex. I am lucky – I have an end bed with space between myself and the two French lads at the other end.

Everybody has to put up with everybody else’s snoring, restlessness etc, though most people are too tired after a day’s hiking to care. One of the French lads makes a very loud fart, which has them both in hysterical giggles for the next few minutes. Then the peace returns.

Day 2

People seem to be getting up while it is still dark, then I see faint daylight coming through a window. After a while it isn’t getting any lighter, so I get up too (I am not the last). I discover that I am in the darkest part of the loft, and the shutters have fooled me again. Outside it is bright sunlight. Most people have breakfasted and left by the time I get downstairs. A Swiss lady asks if am travelling alone. I try out my rusty German – how long is she in the mountains – only for the weekend, Monday is for working. She and her husband are carrying daypacks. The younger people with them have mountain boots and are equipped perhaps for glaciers and high routes.

The Colle delle Chevannes – the path goes up to cross over the ridge in the centre.

There is no sign of other human life on the Alte Vie as I set out. I walk in the sun for a while, along another flat outwash plain. Then I am in the shadow for the uphill – 400m of it. It is hard work, with nothing but chough and marmot calls for company. In the distance I see a large group of hikers on the skyline, they seem to cluster around the cairn which marks the French border. They venture a little way into Italy, probably to find shelter. The air is so clear, that even at this distance I can see them getting out the coffee flasks. Then they return towards the cairn.

My progress up the mountainside is slow. I have all day, so there is no point in rushing. I stop frequently, looking out for other birds and animals. The path is frozen, and there are patches of ice and snow. There are weasel and mountain hare tracks on the snow. Staying in the shadow keeps me cool, and the path looks as though it could be slippery when it thaws out. I am surprised to see mountain bike tracks – but then I remember Jeannie saying that one year they met someone who they had earlier seen carrying a mountain bike over one of the glaciers on Mont Blanc. He was a city bus driver and this was his idea of getting away from it all and relaxing. Looking back towards the Mont Blanc glaciers, I see two tiny figures hiking across a high snowfield, heading towards a glacier.

About three-quarters of the way up I am in the sun, and find a flat grassy area looks ideal for a much-needed rest. My view is dominated by Mont Blanc and its glaciers, with almost every stone standing out in the clear air. The path ahead does not look so steep, but appears to cross a scree slope before reaching the pass – the Colle di Chavannes. A guy pushes a mountain bike past me, I will watch where he goes. Water pipits, goldfinches and redpolls fly past. There is a light but cold breeze coming off the mountains. The cyclist finds it hard work on the scree and resorts to carrying the bike as the path gets steep again. However, he has nothing else to carry. Now I see where the path goes. Someone looks over the ridge from the other direction. I have rested for an hour, and it’s about time I moved myself.

The cyclist went up the path like a mountain goat, my progress is more like an old woman’s. It is steep and narrow in places, and great care is needed. The pack makes me top heavy, and the monopod is useful as a hiking cane. Again most of the path is in shadow, and I find mountain hare tracks in a snow patch. The figure who appeared at the top earlier is having lunch when I get there, the cyclist is long gone. The view into the next valley contrasts sharply with the grey rocks and gleaming glaciers of Mont Blanc. Everything looks more green, the mountains are not so high, and apart from one huge vertical north-east-facing cliff, the slopes are more gentle.

South the Colle and the scenery is greener and gentler. It says Porassey on google maps, but I can’t make out if that refers to the valley itself, or a settlement or ski resort at the southern end.

A group of about 20-25 alpine choughs feed on the slopes, they are widely spaced but keep in contact through little high-pitched calls which sound as though they belong to smaller birds. Their ‘chough’ call is higher and thinner than the red-billed chough back home in Wales. There is also another un-chough-like sound, and it takes me a while to be sure that it really does come from the birds. A group of small birds fly over the pass after me, and land close enough that I can identify them as wheatears and black redstarts. The ubiquitous marmots call from the valley below.

My feet are screaming to be let out of the hiking boots, and sandals will be no problem on this track. I walk as slowly as I can, with lots of stops, even though it is all downhill. I want to camp on a mountainside tonight, not in the main Aosta valley. I noticed last night that my eyes were puffy and sore. Today they are badly affected by the bright sunlight, and my lips are also sunburnt.

A young golden eagle drifts up from the valley, and is mobbed by the choughs. A pair of kestrels hovering below, looking minute, are the only other raptors. Below 2,200m the variety of wildflowers increases, but most are beyond their best for photography. Fortunately, I have photographed many of them before. Grasshoppers are also abundant, including the banded grasshopper, whose distinctive call I remember from a previous trip. Painted lady butterflies bask in the sun, or whizz along the valley.

From mid-afternoon the path is in shadow from the huge rock face, and I walk faster to keep warm. Eventually I reach sunshine again. A small herd of diary cows hangs around a decrepit building, and there are more tumbledown buildings beyond. A new building, higher up the hillside, overlooks it all. It’s time to find a campsite, and after a while I come across a cleared patch – rocky but level in places, with black redstarts flitting around. There is now a strong cold breeze, which blows my hat off into the vegetation where I risk life and limb to rescue it – I will suffer if I am walking in the sun without it tomorrow. It is also difficult to put up the tent – the ground is too hard for tent pegs, so I tie the guys round lumps of rock instead. The last sounds of the evening are a green woodpecker calling, and cowbells from the huge herd in a pasture across the valley.

View from my campsite

Day 3

My tent gets the first rays of sun this morning – desperately welcome after a cold night at 1900m. The wind also dropped during the night. A nearby marmot screams at the strange intrusion into its view. After breakfast I look around for marmots, and find one basking at the entrance to its burrow – it looks like a doormat soaking up the sun. Scanning further around I find a red fox hunting voles. He pounces on one, misses, but gets it on the second attempt. He works his way up the slope, away from me, and soon disappears over the ridge.

Up on the ridge is a thrush of some kind, perched on a stone and singing. Frustratingly, it is too far away to be identified, and I don’t recognise the song. A handful of black redstarts chase each other from boulder to boulder, recognisable even at that distance by their grey bodies and orange rumps. Later one sings its strange little ditty from the roof of a derelict building. There are also wheatears, whinchats, grey wagtails, coal tits, crossbills and rock bunting.

It is hard to work up the enthusiasm to leave such a place. On the southeast horizon is a huge glacier which partially blocks the Col di Planaval. Unfortunately, you need ice equipment and some experience, to negotiate this col, which is on the Alta Vie, and so I will be going by road from now on. (NB – this glacier has now retreated to the point where the footpath is accessible)

It is 10:30 by the time I have packed up. More birds greet me as I go downhill – jay, wren, willow tit, crow, chiff-chaff, chaffinch willow warbler, more whinchats, even a blackbird. Alpine chough call from way up the slope. Then a female goshawk flats past, low over the pasture and swooping up to land on a rock. A while later she moves to perch on top of a larch. Four buzzards circle and call overhead.

I stop where the mountain road joins the main road over the Colle di Piccolo San Bernardo. A constant sound of traffic comes from the few vehicles making their way up the switchbacks. I sit here for an hour, enjoying the sounds of the birds, grasshoppers and crickets. A crag martin hawks along and above the river channel, a sparrowhawk struggles to find a thermal over the trees. The grasshoppers include one that tries to eat me, and a very large green bush-cricket which makes ridiculously tiny chirps with its wing cases. There are an amazing variety of stridulation rhythms. Among the butterflies are an Apollo, clouded yellows, some very faded fritillaries and Damon blues.

From here, I’ll be walking along the road back to civilisation.

Val d’Aosta – a brief history

The Colle de Piccolo San Bernardo is the westernmost end of the Aosta valley, which is described as the smallest and least populated Italian region, a mountain territory lying in the heart of the Alps. The history and economy of the valley have always been influenced by the role of the Piccolo and Grande San Bernado Passes, which have been controlled by the town of Aosta itself, some 70km down the valley. Habitation here goes back to ancient times, with the Ligurian and Celtic people in 3,000 BC, and the local ‘Salassi’ tribe in the 2nd century BC. The Romans gained control of it as a strategic route into Gaul and Germany in the 1st century AD. Then the Burgundians, Goths, and Byzantines struggled for possession, but the Franks eventually won in the sixth century AD. After more feudal authorities gained control over the next few centuries, the Savoy Family claimed rights in the 11th century, and the French influence remains til this day. The area now has some legislative, economic and administrative autonomy, and the local language is a patois of French and Italian – hence the path is known as both the Alta Via, and the Alte Vie.

Val d’Aosta resources

Between them, these websites have most of the information that most tourists need:

Val d’Aosta official tourist website

Alte Vie hiking trails

General information for travellers to Italy


There are a lot of books about Italian wildlife, hiking, climbing, etc. Click on the banner above, and search for Italy or the Alps. Buying books through this link brings me a small commission (at no extra cost to you) that helps maintain this website.

Valdostan coffee

A traditional object from Valle d’Aosta, the Friendship Cup (Coppa dell’Amicizia), is a wide shallow bowl made of wood with a lid and several spouts from which to drink “à la ronde” (passing it round a group of friends). It was traditionally used for drinking “Valdostan coffee” with family or friends on important occasions to show a strong feeling of group belonging.

Drinking from it is a true ritual, following strict rules. Each person takes a sip then passes it to the friend sitting at his or her side who takes a “coupe”, this continues in a clockwise direction until the cup is empty. Once the “ronde” has begun, the cup should not be put down until all the contents are finished, otherwise it will bring bad luck.

Caffè alla Valdostana (Valdostan coffee), drunk in the Friendship Cup, is made according to an ancient recipe combining grappa, sugar and coffee, plus a dash of orange, juniper, cloves and cinnamon. And it tasted wonderful.

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Nature of the Queyras Natural Park

Queyras Natural Park in the French Pyrenees boasts 300 days of sunshine a year. We managed to be there on one of the other 65! But there was still lots to see.

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.

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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The Vouraikos Gorge

Why visit the Vouraikos Gorge?

The spectacular scenery

The abundance of wildlflowers – including a few found only in Greece, and one found only in the Gorge itself.

A variety of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, and other insects.

The heritage railway and the Mega Spilio Monastery

There are two ways to see the Vouraikos Gorge – either you walk through it, or take the train. Or perhaps you take the train, and spend a couple of hours wandering around near each station until the next train comes. The latter is probably best done at weekends when there are five trains each way a day, rather than the three on weekdays.

Beginning near the village of Priolithos in the Aroania/Chelmos mountains, the Vouraikos river flows some 40km past the towns of Kalavryta and Diakopto to the Gulf of Corinth. The gorge itself is the last half of this journey, where the river has cut through limestone and conglomerates, and now passes through dense vegetation and tunnels with many caves, passes and crags.

Legend has it that the name derives from Boura, a mythological daughter of Ion and Helice. She was courted by Hercules who opened the gorge in order to get closer to her.

The river and gorge and part of the National Park of Chelmos-Vouraikos, which was established in 2009 to preserve the biodiversity, the natural resources, and the ecological value of the natural ecosystems in the area. The steep sides of the gorge provide a myriad of micro-climates, with plenty of opportunity for plants to evolve into endemic species, and for scarce animals to find refuge.

The endemic plants include Silene conglomeratica (endemic to the gorge), Aurinia moreana, and Campanula topaliana subsp. cordifolia (pictured left).

Otters Lutra lutra hunt along the river. Bats (Miniopterus sehreibasi, Myotis blythii, Myotis myotis, Rhinolophus blasii, Rhinolophus ferrumequinum) also live in the caves and the rock crevices.

Several birds of prey nest on the rock ledges higher up.

The railway line dates from the 1890s. Charilaos Trikinos was the Greek prime minister at the time, and he wanted to create local railway networks to connect the interior regions with the main railway. These local railways were to be narrow gauge, because small trains were better suited to the mountainous country and were cheaper to construct. It also meant that, using a cog system, the trains could negotiate steeper inclines. This railway climbs 750m in its 20km journey. Since it was inaugurated on 10th March 1896, the trains have run every day, regardless of the weather (although parts of the line were closed for refurbishment when I visited).

The E4 European long distance footpath starts in Portugal and runs through the Alps before turning south through the Balkans and ending in Cyprus. It makes use of existing routes, including the railway line through the Vouraikos Gorge. That means that with some careful planning, and keeping an eye and ear out for trains, it is possible to take nature walks within the gorge.

The route

The first station north of Kalavrita is Zahlorov. From here we crossed the rail bridge over the river, noting pale speedwell Veronica cymbalaria and Narrow navelwort Umbilicus horizontalis (horizontalis refers to the flowers in this case, not the whole plant) growing from the crevices, and large plane trees Platanus orientalis shading the river valley below. Iridescent blue male beautiful demoiselle damselflies Calopteryx virgo were flitting from leaf to leaf, and showing off in the sun to the iridescent green females.

A road leads uphill from here to Mega Spilio Monastery, which is mostly located in a cave. The rocky slopes supported dry species from the garrigue – Rock bellflower Campanula rupestris, the pink cistuses Cistus incanus and C creticus, and kermes oak Quercus coccifera whose small holly-like leaves host the Kermes scale insect Kermes vermilio. These insects were harvested and dried, then used to produce a crimson dye until the mid-1500s when the cochineal insects were discovered on cactuses in America.

A stream frog Rana graeca was well camouflaged amongst the leaf litter until it moved. We examined it carefully because all the brown frogs look similar – the diagnostic feature here is that the distance between the nostrils is less than the distance between the eye and the nostril!

Closer to Diakopto the land flattens out somewhat to reveal extensive lemon and olive groves. Use of pesticides has meant that native wildflowers have largely been replaced by the invasive Bermuda buttercup Oxalis pes-caprae, but there are still some places with a mass of colour – bellflower Campanula ramoissima, blue houndstone Cynoglossum creticum, bug orchid Orchis coriophoroa, tongue orchid Serapia vomeracea, branching broomrape Orobanche ramosa, birthwort Aristolocia sempervirens, and grass poly Lythrum junceum, to name just a few, and then wonderful fields of scarlet poppies Papaver rhoeas.

Amongst the trees in one field, the dappled sunlight illuminated a patch of bright pink Cyclamen repandum ssp peloponnesiacum – a local speciality – pictured right.

In a nearby ditch we found shepherds needle Scandex pectin-veneris (the common name deriving from the striking seed pods), and also Calabrian soapwort Saponaria calabrica.

Diakopto itself is on the Corinthian Gulf, with maritime species along the shore by the railway line – yellow horned poppy Glaucium flavum, three-horned stock Malcomia tricuspidata, and sea beet Beta maritima.

On the way back to Kalavrita, we had views of a pair of short-toed eagles circling the top of the gorge. A delightful day out indeed.


This is the standard flora for Greece.

First published in 1987, this guide lists many of the richest plant-hunting areas in southeast Europe at first hand, and each description is accompanied by several line drawings.

Names and describes almost 3,000 species of flowering plants in the region.

However, it is a key, and if you prefer to ID your flowers from pictures, then there are other books that might suit better, but are not as comprehensive.

There are some books available that are specific to Greece – this one about bird-watching sites for example.

Most of the ones I have used are now out of print, but the general ones for Europe, shown below, are perfectly adequate.

Note that buying books through these links earns a small commission (at no extra cost to you) that goes towards the cost of maintaining this website.

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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:


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 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.


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.

Pin it for later

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


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


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


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.


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


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.


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