Quite simply, the Swiss Alps is perhaps the best supported hiking destination in the entire world. Where else can you enjoy drop-dead gorgeous mountain scenery and never have to carry anything more than a light daypack? Even on long-distance trails like the Haute Route you can walk for days on end without a tent, sleeping bag, food, or stove. That's because the well-linked system of mountain huts provides great meals, a hot shower, and a comfortable bed in a variety of lodges at the end of a long day.
But in today’s economy, where both vacation time and money are tight, travelers may prefer to spend a more limited time in the Alps, choosing to go on day hikes instead. They’ll be able to enjoy the mountain scenery, waterfalls, glaciers, wildlife, and wildflowers during the day, and still be back in town or moving on to their next destination before sunset.
These recommendations are for the most magnificent day hikes that the Swiss Alps have to offer. All are well-marked, easy to follow, and can be hiked in either direction. You’ll find them charted on free maps available from local tourist information offices throughout the area. In most cases, there is a cogwheel railway, funicular, or gondola to speed you to a high and scenic elevation to get started. Most importantly you’ll find plenty of huts, inns, and mountain restaurants along the way where weary hikers can get recharged with cheese, chocolate, apple strudel, and other delicacies.
Where: Zermatt Length: 11 miles/18km Duration: 5-7 hours
Zermatt is touristy, to be sure, but within five minutes of the center of town, you’re already leaving wildflower-spangled meadows to ascend through larch forests. The route takes you up the steep valley walls with dramatic views back down to the city below. Soon you emerge above treeline to a high alpine meadow known as the Höhbalmen, where a sweeping panorama of Switzerland’s highest peaks spreads out before you. Your descent offers spellbinding views of the Matterhorn to the right and a look at the Zmutt glacier below.
Riffelsee to Sunnegga
Where: Zermatt Length: 8 miles/13km Duration: 3-5 hours
Once again, the Matterhorn is the showstopper here, but you can quickly access the postcard-perfect views by taking the cog-wheeled Gornergrat train to Riffelsee, where you’ll discover mirror-reflections of the iconic mountain in the small glacial lakes. Descending to Rifflealp, you’ll be tempted to stay the night at the elegant Rifflealp Hotel—which is not a bad choice by any standard—but continuing down to cross the Findelbach canyon leads you past more reflecting pools and drop-dead gorgeous alpine meadows.
The Sunnegga funicular makes for a quick descent back to Zermatt, although if you have time consider taking the forest path through the hamlet of Findeln on your return. It is absolutely charming.
Lac de Louvie
Where: Verbier Length: 9 miles/15km Duration: 6-8 hours
Make a quick escape from the hustle and bustle of the ski-resort town Verbier by taking the gondola to Les Ruinettes and continuing on a short stroll to the Cabane du Mont Fort. There you'll find breathtaking views of the legendary Mont Blanc massif. From there, it’s on to the Sentier de Chamois (the Chamois Trail) where you’re likely to spot both ibex and chamois on the rocky slopes above, and commanding views of the Val de Bagnes below. Crossing the Termin Pass, you’ll arrive at Lac de Louvie, a stunningly beautiful gem of a lake with fascinating 200-year old stone barns at its head.
Ring the lake, take in the views of the Grand Combin massif, and descend through the dense forest to the village of Fionnay where you can catch a bus back down the valley or return to your starting point in Verbier.
Where: Grindelwald (Jungfrau) Length: 9 miles/15km Duration: 6-8 hours
For high-level panoramic views of the Jungfrau, the Faulhornweg is a hiker’s dream. From Grindelwald, take the gondola to First, where a well-worn path leads to the Bachalpsee, which creates an infinity-pool with the backdrop of the Eiger, Monch, Jungfrau, and other famous snow-clad peaks. Soon, views to the north open up to overlook Interlaken and its glistening lakes on both sides. You’ll conclude at Schynige Platte, where the gardens display over 600 alpine species and the 360-degree views are among the best in all of Europe.
A mountain railway that dates to 1893 takes you on the descent to the village of Wilderswil where you'll find easy connections to Interlaken or back to Grindelwald.
Where: Lauterbrunnen (Jungfrau) Length: 6 miles/10km Duration: 3-4 hours
Ringed by 72 waterfalls, Lauterbrunnental is the world’s largest glacial valley, outshining even the spectacular and massive Yosemite. There’s no better introductory hike to this incredible valley than the loop that leads from the town of Lauterbrunnen up to Grütshchalp (take the tram or the steep trail), then along a gentle forest path, crossing a dozen streams, to the hillside village of Mürren. You’ll find plenty of picturesque viewpoints along the way before the route descends to the lovely village of Gimmelwald.
From here you can take choose to walk or take the tram back down to Stechelberg at the top of the Lauterbrunnen valley. Return to Lauterbrunnen by bus or follow the riverside trail past meadows, small farms, and waterfalls on every side.
Great Hiking Without Going to Switzerland
If you like hiking, but a trip to Switzerland isn't in the cards, Salt Lake City is probably the greatest hiking destination in America. Name another city in the country where within 300 yards of the state’s Capitol building and the downtown center you can be walking in a protected nature reserve, spotting elk and raptors. For a description of five great hikes in this city click on Salt Lake City hikes.