This Swiss Trip Needs More Cowbell

WE FINALLY SAW THE MATTERHORN!!

I realize that I’ve just removed the opportunity for a suspenseful build-up to the climax of this post, but the excitement is too hard to contain for long. For those that read my post back in November of 2018, you will recall that we so very unfortunately did not see the Matterhorn on our last visit to Zermatt (we will not discuss in detail the faux pas we made in thinking that we had seen it…). I hate to say it, but there really is a fair amount of luck needed if you’re making the trek to Zermatt and your only goal is to see the Matterhorn. Best to level-set your expectations and accept that weather, even less predictable in the mountains, could derail your plans. That being said, hiking in the area of Zermatt is incredible and there is more to enthrall you than just this singular mountain. I say all this now in hindsight while the week before our trip I was practically jumping for joy when I saw that our visit coincided with sunny weather. I was not prepared to accept defeat for a second time!

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I’ve already ruined the surprise so here’s a picture to prove it

We arrived in Lausanne on Wednesday night to meet up with my family before heading on to Zermatt. While Dan and I were arriving with fresh legs, my family was coming off an impressive five day hike in the Bernese Oberland region, and Lausanne was their one day rest stop before we would all descend on Zermatt together. This time, our Airbnb in Lausanne for the evening was further off the shore of Lake Geneva and nearer to Le Mont-sur-Lausanne, which meant that the next morning we were in for a very hilly run to and from the lake. After a quick breakfast at the train station, we were on our way to Zermatt.

Approaching Zermatt, Dan and I couldn’t help but anticipate a view of the Matterhorn from the window around every bend in the tracks. About the time we were arriving at the station, we realized that some lower lying clouds were sabotaging our opportunity for that first coveted view. I frantically checked the weather to confirm that those pesky clouds weren’t supposed to stick around all weekend and was revived when I saw the nice forecast for the next day.

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Plenty of Matterhorn pics to go around, so here’s another

We made the short walk to our hotel, this time weaving our way through the thick crowds on the main street that were absent from the city during our last visit in the off-season. August is definitely high tourist season in Zermatt so the town had a completely different ambiance. Fortunately, Hotel Romantica was tucked away on a side street and upon our arrival we were greeted warmly by Thor and Michèle. We were eager to squeeze in a shorter hike that afternoon for which Thor was most helpful in recommending trails, sharing an updated weather forecast, and providing plenty of assurance that we would in fact see the Matterhorn during our three-day stay.

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The welcoming Hotel Romantica

So it was that we kicked off our Matterhorn hiking extravaganza by taking the cogwheel train from Zermatt to the Gornergrat observation platform for views of the highest peak in Switzerland – Monte Rosa and the Gorner glacier; but not the Matterhorn since it was still wearing its cloud “hat”. Although we were unable to see the Matterhorn, it was still a spectacular view and even worth the hefty price of the 30 minute train ride.

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View of the glacier from the Gornergrat observation

From Gornergrat, we started our hike back towards Zermatt via the Riffelseeweg trail, enjoying a practically deserted trail down to Riffelberg. Along the way, we passed the Riffelsee Lake, which makes for a great photo opportunity, especially if you can catch the Matterhorn’s reflection in the water (not the case for us but still beautiful). There are a couple options for trails in the area and because they are well-marked, it’s easy to manage your directions without much advance preparation. While our trail did continue on all the way down the mountain to Zermatt, we were eager for dinner and decided to take the train back to Zermatt instead.

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That’s quite a hat on the Matterhorn

Dining at Avena that evening, Brynn and I opted for the “Surprise 4 Course Menu” which consisted of a starter (that I sadly can’t recall), pasta, duck, a strong pear liquor sorbet, none of which disappointed! Dan and I had actually intended to visit this restaurant last November, but it was closed in the off-season so we were glad to experience it as the food was delicious and the service friendly.

At breakfast the next morning we informed Thor of our trail plans for the day to which he responded that he had an even better hike for us. Apparently having convinced him the night before that we were capable and adventurous mountaineers, he proposed a “wild hike” up to Bänkli auf Höhbalmen, which he assured us would offer spectacular views of the Matterhorn and much less people on the trail. Thor’s proposed trail was also recommended by Alpinehikers, the company used by my family to plan their spectacular Bernese Oberland leg of the trip, so a group consensus was easily reached and we postponed our original trail plans until the next day. Before we could start the uphill trail trek, Dan and I were insistent on catching our first fully unobstructed view of the Matterhorn from Zermatt. Out on a run earlier that morning, Brynn had informed us that we were in for a treat as the iconic mountain was indeed staring down over the town without a cloud in sight. We didn’t think that would be our only view of the day, but having previously experienced disappointment we didn’t want to waste an opportunity.

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Our first full and glorious glimpse of the Matterhorn from Zermatt

The Triftweg trailhead was located right behind Hotel Romantica, and after an initial steep incline we veered left onto the Edelweissweg trail to continue towards Pension Edelweiss and Hotel du Trift even further up. Again, the trail was well-marked and groomed making the ascent pleasant, so while our view of the Matterhorn was obstructed for the first two hours, we didn’t mind the scenic overlooks of the valley and surrounding mountains.

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The quaint and solitary Hotel du Trift

A brief break at the picturesque Hotel du Trift and we continued on with hopes of even grander Matterhorn views just up the path. Our patience was rewarded after we rounded a couple bends in the trail and were greeted by a jaw-dropping vista of the mountain over an alpine meadow. Viewing the Matterhorn from this angle was better than I could have expected and made the almost ten month wait worth it!

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Now that’s a panorama!
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What a view (not including our shoe-less companion in the background)
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It’s hard not to get excited by this view (but apparently it’s hard to keep my eyes open)

If we thought that the first overlook was grand, it was a good thing that we didn’t stop there seeing as the panorama from Höhbalmen was even better. While the path up was far from crowded, we found that were not the only hikers pausing at Höhbalmen for lunch with a view, which ended up working to our favor when we wanted a Matterhorn group photo. We struck up a conversation with another couple of trail companions who suggested our next adventure be mountaineering up Breithorn, the snowy next-door neighbor of the Matterhorn, with crampons, harness and ice axe in tow… or a multi-day circumnavigation of Mont Blanc.

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Lunch time at Höhbalmen

Without losing the epic view, we continued along the trail past a herd of vocal Blacknose sheep and daring mountain bikers. Encountering some steep drop-offs on the trail, we had to remind ourselves to keep our eyes on the path even when tempted to glance at the north face of the Matterhorn. Putting more distance between ourselves and Zermatt, we continued west on the trail for a long distance before finally reaching a switchback and winding our way down into the valley back towards Zermatt. Around mile 12 we reached the tiny town of Z’Mutt where we stopped for thirst-quenching Rivellas, the iconic Swiss soft drink, before completing the last leg of the trek back into town.

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My favorite picture of the trip required some sheep stalking
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On the look-out for climbers summiting the Matterhorn

Back at Hotel Romatica, Thor greeted us upon our return from the almost 15 mile hike with celebratory local brews and we thanked him profusely for the excellent recommendation. A freshening up in order, we then capped off the night by satisfying our hunger with a spread of pizza, lasagna, and ribs at Grampi’s Italian restaurant, less than a minute walk from the hotel.

On our last day in Zermatt, we awoke to another fantastic breakfast at Hotel Romantica before heading across town to take the underground funicular up to Sunnegga for an easier half-day of trekking along the 5 Seenweg (Five Lakes) Hike. Upon reaching Sunnegga, we were greeted by the highly-esteemed Blackneck goats that Thor had described to us the night before. To the delight of summer tourists, during July and August, a herd of these goats is shepherded through Zermatt on a daily basis in both the morning and evening. This parade tends to draw a crowd, which make sense when you consider the peculiarity of their coloring – black from the nose past the shoulder, and then white to the tail.

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The peculiar goats of the Matterhorn

From Sunnegga you can take a separate gondola further up to the Blauherd station and dine with a view or descend on the trail from there. At the time of our visit in August, the gondola was not operating (thanks for the heads up Thor!), so we instead picked up the trail in Sunnegga and headed towards Stellisee Lake, the most picturesque and busiest of the five. Even without the solitude we experienced the day before, the lakeside panorama that we shared with quite a few other visitors was nonetheless striking.

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That’s a happy crew!

The trail swung down the side of the mountain swiftly and upon reaching a level surface changed from a narrow path to a wider paved road. Despite being surrounded by interesting terrain on the 5 Seenweg hike, in certain sections the route is indeed “less wild” as Thor had suggested the day before. With Zermatt being a popular ski destination during the winter months, it’s not surprising that while hiking in the area during summer you’ll still encounter gravel cat tracks, ski resort equipment, and chair lifts on the mountainside. Nonetheless, the well-travelled route offers scenic views and a mostly descending path making it more accessible to varying skill levels.

Having started at the highest point on the trail, our descent continued past the Grindjisee, Grünsee, and Moosjisee Lakes within about two hours, with the most impressive still being the first – Stellisee.

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I’m ready for a real-estate investment here

In order to save some time we chose to bypass the fifth lake, Leisee, which in hindsight was a great decision. We then returned to a more “natural” trail while descending further but still well above Zermatt. Just before reaching the tiny mountain town of Findeln, we found ourselves tip-toeing behind an outdoor wedding ceremony on the side of the hill overlooking the Matterhorn.

The trail led us all the way back into Zermatt, even passing by the same spot where Dan and I excitedly snapped our infamous photo of “the Matterhorn” – hard to tell a difference between the two scenes…

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Brynn’s Wolli sheep cookie

Back at Hotel Romantica, we thanked Thor and Michèle for their excellent recommendations and hospitality before catching a last glimpse of the majestic Matterhorn on the train ride out. We parted ways, with Dan and I travelling to Geneva and my family headed to Zurich ahead of their flights back home. That evening in Geneva, we enjoyed an excellent dinner and lake views followed by an early wake up the next morning for a run along Lake Geneva before flying home.

Victory is sweet and I left with sore legs feeling very thankful that we were able to witness the mountain that towers over Zermatt. As I said earlier though, even when the Matterhorn is wearing its hat, there are plenty of ways to appreciate the beauty of the Pennine Alps whether by hike or observation deck. The Swiss sights continue to amaze me and while we’ve finally checked this item off the bucket list, I doubt it’s the last time we’ll find ourselves in awe of the Alps.

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A final pic of the Matterhorn and the Wolli sheep

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