Fall Hiking in Switzerland

With so many places to see and limited time, you need travel short cuts.   Person to person recommendations are often the best.  We asked our Swiss friends Christian and Iris for their favorite day hiking destination in the Swiss Alps.  Avid hikers both before and after kids, their favorite spot is LENK IN SIMMENTAL which offers easy valley hiking, more challenging and varied mountain paths, and higher more technical alpine climbs.

GSTAAD is a destination in the Berner Oberland with an international reputation but nearby Lenk in Simmental has the Swiss reputation.  It has been awarded as one of the best Swiss holiday family resorts for both its winter and summer activities.  Like Gstaad it has a charming, picturesque village but it trades the designer label shops for more outdoor stores and a working population.  While it caters to the outdoor enthusiast, it feels like a more authentic Swiss village.  For those of you familiar with recreational areas in Idaho, Lenk is the Hailey to Sun Valley’s Ketchum.

Sitting at an altitude of just over 1000 meters, Lenk is in the Simmental valley about 65km southwest of Interlaken.  The valley has 600km of walking trails and 290 km of mountain bike trails for all levels, so plenty to keep busy for a long weekend.  One of the attractions is the compactness of the outdoor activity which means no time is wasted in getting to your activity.  It's a great destination for both families and older people.

With a recent dusting of snow on the highest peaks and idyllic late September weather, the only challenge was choosing which of the hiking and mountain trails to do.  (We weren't looking to do any of the more advanced alpine or overnight trails, much to my husband's dismay.)  There too we had help from the owner of the hotel that was also recommended to us by Christian and Iris.  (see below in “Where to Stay.”)

On the first day, we took the gondola up to LEITERLI above Lenk.  There is an easy 3km loop hike on the top with beautiful vista views and interesting sign posts (in Swiss) about Lenk’s history.   There are several additional trails to do from the top which, if the weather is good, we’d recommend over hiking back down to Lenk.  From Leiterli back down to Lenk there is a discovery Marmot Trail (3 km) and Lynx Trail (6 km) aimed at kids but its ankle breaking steep and not quite as interesting for older kids.  There is another themed trail called the Alpine Flower Trail with 95 plant species that would have been lovely to do when the wildflowers are in season.

On the second day, we took the bus to IFFIGENALP (which is not accessible by gondola.)  From there we did an up and net down hike past several beautiful waterfalls and lots of cows.  One of the treats of hiking in Switzerland are all the old chalets en route where you can usually stop for a drink and buy some locally made cheese.    We extended what would have been a 3.5 hour mountain hike finishing in Simmenfalle into a leisurely 5 hour stroll.  Had it just been Brett and Lawton on the hike, they would have traded the stroll for a 600 meter add on climb to Flueseehutte.  The two of them are already plotting their return.

Getting there:

It’s a 5.5 hour drive to Lenk in Simmental from Luxembourg without traffic.  Expect some delays near Strasbourg and a few tolls in France.  The last hour of drive is on windy two lane road so it’s advisable to drive in daylight.  You will need to stop and buy the Swiss autobahn toll sticker (cost of 40 Swiss francs for one calendar year) when crossing into Switzerland.  If you fly, nearest airport is in Bern which is 1.5 hours by car or 2.5 hours by train.   From Zurich Airport it is 2.5 hours by car and 3.5 hours by train.

Getting around:

It is nice to have a car but if you are staying in the town center of Lenk, you can easily manage without one.  The Lenk bus leaves regularly from the train station in the town center to many of the trail heads and in some cases (where roads are only open one direction on an hourly schedule) is a better option than driving.  

Where to Stay:

At our friend’s recommendation, we stayed at HOTEL SIMMENHOF, Lenkstrasse 43 | 3775 Lenk Im Simmental, Lenk-Simmental 3775, Switzerland; +41 33 736 34 34; Family-run hotel 1km from the center of Lenk; large spacious family rooms available; indoor pool with smaller outdoor pool; free and excellent WiFi; exceptionally kid friendly; hearty breakfast offering included; onsite restaurant for dinner; free parking and shuttle service into Lenk; owners are as helpful and good as any tourist office.  90% of guests are Swiss.

If you have a few more francs to rub together or you want to be in town, LENKERHOF GOURMENT SPA RESORT is the highest rated hotel in the area and looked to be a special spot, Badstrasse 20 | Postfach 241, Lenk-Simmental 3775, Switzerland; :+41 33 736 36 36.

There are numerous other hotels in the town as well as a number of rental properties.  Because it is mostly a skiing destination, you should have ample lodging options for hiking seasons.

Where to Eat:

One does not travel to Switzerland for the food, but a warm Rösti (elevated hashbrowns with cheese and often an egg on top) after a day of hiking goes down easy.   There are 27 restaurants listed on Trip Advisor in Lenk.  We asked around for recommendations, which landed us at these two spots for dinner both of which worked well.

Hirschen Lounge Bar, Oberriedstrasse 1, Lenk-Simmental 3775, Switzerland; don’t mistake the red and white table clothes for pizza; interesting menu with excellent Rösti and very good vegetarian Spätzle with local chanterelles; average pasta dishes and make your own hamburgers; slightly slow service but the night was also quite busy.

Elk Bar & Restaurant, Oberriedstrasse 13, Lenk-Simmental CH-3775, Switzerland; large more modern than traditional Swiss restaurant with excellent terrace; aside from the parsnip soup and house salad nothing that floated above average but food is simple, service was good and there’s something for everyone on the menu. 




“If I can be an example of getting ober, than I can be an example of starting over.”      Lawton's version of Macklemore’s lyrics for “Starting Over.”

Ober, sober.  I’m afraid you’ll need full capacity of your s’s if you want to get sober.   We, on the other hand, needed five hours to get from Luxembourg to Oberalppass in the Swiss Alps – the almost but definitely not half-way point on our twelve hour road trip to Umbria, Italy. (Day two was seven hours of going "straight on" the A-1 motorway through Lake Como, Milan, Tuscany and Umbria with drivers who do not abide their lanes.)


Day one of the drive however was beautiful.  Switzerland hit the jackpot with ubiquitous beauty.   Combine that beauty with good roads, safe drivers, clean and plentiful rest stops, and mountain tunnels and you’ve got yourself an awesome start to a road trip. 

Before getting lost in Lucerne. 

Before getting lost in Lucerne. 

Food is crazy expensive in Switzerland, and frankly not that great, so we decided to stop in Lucerne – an hour shy of our overnight stop at Oberalppass -- for dinner.  We zeroed in on a won’t-break-the-bank Wurst house on Trip Advisor.  After finding/vetting a non-underground parking space (re: husband and bikes on top of car) and locating some Swiss Francs (come on Switzerland, join the Eurozone!) to feed the meter, we headed toward the restaurant hungry and dry mouthed from too many road trip pretzels.  When the blue dot failed us (Google Maps is great when it works, but the wurst when it doesn’t), Brett successfully used his German to ask for directions.  Turns out we were circling the restaurant but didn’t notice because it was under construction and closed for the week.  Snag.


Some families can audible and head to the nearest place to take their chances.  We cannot.  The younger members of the family understand this about their parents.  The teen does not.  He instead decided to clock the time from parking to first bite, with running commentary.  Harsh words were said about Trip Advisor and dependence.  Not wanting to drop 35 euros per person to eat ordinary Swiss food by the river, we finally (55 minutes later) opted for a small take out Mexican restaurant (Trip Advisor recommended.)   Any decision pleased the teen, but not the middle foodie child who spiraled into a crisis of faith about his parents and their commitment to good food.   Lawton, on the other hand, found the bright spot amidst the ordinary burrito served by the super nice Guatemalan co-owner of the restaurant:

“Mom, that always happens to us!  We meet people everywhere we go, we talk to them, get to know them and then they become our friends.” 

Post dinner. 

Post dinner. 

What brought our new Guatemalan friend to Lucerne, Switzerland you ask?  Love actually.  We know because we asked.  And later as we walked towards our safely parked car in search of ice cream, Lawton witnessed/stared at a young couple in a spirited Swiss German conversation to which he observed out loud:

“I think they’re breaking up.” 

How did he know we asked?  “Because they were talking loud, and looked angry and then the guy walked away." 

If what remains of our stopover in Lucerne is our children a) observing that our family brand is to engage with people and b) learning how to listen with their eyes as well as their ears, then that's something to be ober joyed about.

The guest house

The guest house

In Oberalppass (11 kilometers up a mountain from Andermatt driven in the dark), we overnighted in a guest house reminiscent of my Youth Hostel days staying in a family bunk room with a shared bathroom.  It was the wrong day of the month for a shared bathroom.  But with the light of morning, an included breakfast, and a morning hike through furry green hills filled with wildflowers and rushing streams – any slight inconvenience of the toilet situation was soon forgotten.   And when the two big boys got the chance to ride their bikes the 11 kilometers back down the mountain to Andermatt (cycling in the Swiss Alps!), we knew we’d rebook our room for the return road trip home.


Lawton powered up the mountain on the early morning hike, with the rest of us trailing.  He was unstoppable (literally).  When he returned down, he suggested: 

Mom.  You should do a blog about Switzerland and have a photo of me with this sign, and call it BEST HIKER.”  

So here’s to my Best (and oh so quotable) Hiker!



Slack - Switzerland


In the US, the common refrain is “I need a vacation.”  In Europe, that refrain is more like “Which holiday is next week?” What they say about European vacation time and holidays is true.   There are a lot of them.    And to add more green to US envy, Spring Break is always two weeks and falls on Easter.  And everyone gets the exact same two weeks.   What a novel idea.


Thinking it rude to go on holiday while my in laws were in town, we decided to stay put for the first week.  (I happen to like them a lot so it wasn’t really a concession.  Although I do like to keep them on their toes.)   For the second week, we debated between Croatia and Switzerland.    Back home, that debate would have been whether we would drive to Sun Valley via the Interstate or back roads.  And of course, which kid would have to miss school.  Croatia took the lead when we saw 20 Euro roundtrip airfare per person -- meaning our family of four could fly to another country for less than the cost of a single NBA game ticket.  Wowza.  In the end, we decided to save Croatia for another (warmer) time.   So a road trip to Switzerland it was.   It took us only 5 ½ hours to reach our destination – so roughly half the time it takes us to drive from Seattle to Sun Valley.  I think that calls for another Wowza.


Early April is officially slack season in Switzerland (and many ski areas north of the equator).   With warming conditions (except for Luxembourg, Spring 2013, but that’s another blog post about the winter that won’t end in Northern Europe), retreating lowland snow, only a couple of downhill ski runs  stay open, all the epic 5+km sledding hills have closed, and as we discovered – most of the restaurants have shut their kitchens for the season too.  No fondue for you! But, slack or not, Switzerland is not lacking in beauty at any time of the year.  We rented a chalet in the small village of Rossinière in the Alps area of Pays-d'Enhaut.  Sandwiched in between the touristed town of Gruyere (birthplace of the famous stinky cheese) and the ritzy resort of Gstaad where the slogan is “Come up – Slow Down”, this valley could be described as one of the more undiscovered parts of Switzerland.   With sun shining bright for the first two days (a welcome change from Luxembourg, but again more on that later), we chased the snow (which really wasn’t very hard) to find some of the “best sledding hills of all time” in Saanemoser, did an amazing alpine snow shoe hike in Launensee (where we had to turn back after encountering a sheer ice climb), and a couple of Wanderweg walking hikes along gorgeous one lane country roads.  We didn’t have a walking stick, but we should have.  The boys were happy walkers, and we had some memorable conversations that seem only to happen out in the fresh air.


After being out all day, we’d retire back to the 300 year old chalet we rented.  The chalet – appropriately named the “Heidi Chalet” – was 1 km up a mountain road overlooking a lake without a neighbor in sight.  The setting was spectacular.  Being that it was built in the 1700s (!), the entire cabin with attached barn was made of wood and very rustic.  Brett sustained several concussive events with the low ceilings.   Heidi’s husband was clearly not 6’3”.   We were cognizant of the fire hazard that is a wood house and so were very careful about use of the wood stove.   We were however not so careful about checking for wood tongs inside the toaster before using it.  Smelling smoke in a wood house when you should not be smelling smoke is a disturbing event.  And then there was my first ten minutes in the rustic kitchen where the glass top on the gas stove exploded into thousands of tiny pieces.  Oi vey. How was I to know the glass top was only a cover and supposed to be removed before I boiled a pot of water?  Answer: the same way that I should have known to not leave potatoes in a basket on the floor.  Something’s nibbling at my potatoes and my common sense.


But rustic aside, the cabin was comfortable, cozy and the perfect setting to slow down and relax.   We ate well, made (safe) fires, played board games (Ticket to Ride Europe and Spy Alley), explored outside, threw darts, read, and the boys even did a woodworking project.  That’s what can happen when you put the iPad away for a week.  They made a stool – not exactly one a human can sit or stand on, but one that could hold a few pounds (and maybe whatever was eating my floor-stored potatoes.)  If you know Brett, you know that this was a unique experience.  It was also a unique experience having the shower and toilet in two separate rooms, which was accessed through the unheated barn part of the house.   Kind of like an inside outhouse.  Okay… I’m not actually putting rustic aside.   We were warned there was limited water supply – due to an unsealed well filled with rainwater.  Our showers were hot and the water pressure better than 1908 E. Calhoun Street.  Though I would guess with several feet of snow melting, water supply is not an issue during Slack season.   Neither was finding things to do even in a place where most things -- except nature -- were closed.  Maybe I'm a closet camper after all.


The thing about the European’s approach to vacation time is that it gives you more than one opportunity to release tension.  We all need a little more slack – in time, expectations, pace of life.  So for my friends at home who deserve much more slack than I do – those of you who are struggling with illness, parenting alone, difficult relationships, financial hardship, and more – wishing you a Spring Break where you get a break.

 (See all Switzerland photos)