A week of remote working and hiking in the Val d’Hérens.
Area: Val d’Hérens
A side valley to the south of Sion in Valais.
Other than mountains the main unique point is their special cow. A rather small and solid little thing which naturally engages in a fairly harmless headbutting contest to assert dominance in the herd. Which the locals have turned into a tradition of hosting cow fighting contests (there probably wasn’t much else to do up there in the old days). They really do love their cow fighting, there are dedicated arenas and promotional photos everywhere.
Generally it was very quiet. There were clearly a few other tourists around, but only in small numbers. Almost all the cars were from Swiss-French cantons or French speaking countries (I only saw one canton AI (i.e. rental) car the entire time). I was alone on the hiking trails without anyone else in sight 95% of the time. Even the mountainsides seemed rather empty of cows for July.
There is some evidence that the valley was settled by Moors. What it does have is one of the more unique dialects of french – the Patois d’Evolène – with many signs listing the names in that and standard french. The most notable words in the landscape were ‘gouille’ for lac and ‘Les Chottes’ for cowsheds/alpage.
- A bus runs from Sion up to Les Haudères near the end of the valley.
- The valley is far from wild but it is not all that developed which is nice. Especially given that there is very little in the way of ski infrastructure.
- It is a bit limited if you don’t like hiking, and even if you do like hiking then you will need to enjoy hiking uphill. The one thing I didn’t like was that signage for the footpaths was sometimes rather poor. I started to rely on checking the SwissTopo app for the hiking path network far more than elsewhere in Switzerland. There were numerous times where a simple pole with some arrows would have been helpful to avoid missing a turn, in some cases there were some faded and hard to spot painted arrows on the floor, in others simply nothing as far as I could tell.
- Anytime my French skills ran into trouble (which was most times and very quickly I am sad to say) the other person spoke good English.
- The iconic sight of the valley are the Pyramides d’Euseigne. An impressive sight, though quite why they had to blast a road through the middle of it is another matter…
A rather pretty village (part of the most beautiful villages of Switzerland organisation in fact). I wouldn’t put it on the level of Grimentz in the neighbouring Val d’Anniviers, but it is certainly attractive. There is very little modern development around it which is always nice (and no ski infrastructure in sight).
I spent over a week in Evolene. This was perfect for me, but unless you really love hiking (and especially hiking up and down) then you will quickly run out of things to do. There is a tiny museum which might kill an hour or two on a rainy day but otherwise it is just the outdoors and you will have to gain most of the height yourself.
- Logistically very practical. The Post bus runs from Sion through Evolene and then to Les Haudères (and in some cases on to Arolla). There is a fairly decent sized COOP supermarket (open 7 days a week in season), 3 bakeries, and numerous restaurants
- Very quiet. There are somehow three little tourist shops (which seemed to all sell the same thing), but even in July there were not all that many tourists to support them.
- They take their raclette seriously. Every restaurant had an open fire which often seemed to run all day long for rapid raclette grilling.
- There is a cable car (Lannaz-Chemeuille chairlift), but it is 30 minutes walk away in Lana with no public transport connections. Your options when you are up there are a bit limited. The view is certainly nice, but there is much to do but go further up or back down.
I had also thought about using Arolla as a base. The location at the very end of the valley close to various glaciers is stunning, but it isn’t the most practical place to travel elsewhere in the valley from and back (especially without a car). There are two restaurants, a sports shop, and a tiny corner shop which sells just enough food beyond chocolate to keep you alive but with a very bland and processed diet.
My other option was Les Haudères the next village up the valley from Evolène. This is quite pretty and has connections to the buses heading off up the little side valleys. But there is only a tiny Denner Satellite for food in the village.
Accommodation: Apartment Heida
A fairly well equipped and comfortable studio flat.
This had everything I wanted in a remote office: easy to reach and get around with public transport, a balcony with a view, quiet and fairly private. At nighttime I could leave the window open and hear the sound of a stream and sheep bells across the valley.
- 5 minute walk through the village to the bakery in the morning, and 10-15 minutes to the COOP on the far side of the village.
- Being Valais there was a Fondue set and Raclette grill.
- The flat is a few stories above a restaurant, but it was mostly very quiet.
- It was worth staying here just to sit on the balcony with a drink and stare up the valley.
30 June to 8th July 2023.
A slightly cool and often cloudy period (it made a nice change to the baking sun of my previous trip to Valais the year before).
- Accommodation: 1032 CHF for 8 nights (129 CHF / night).
- Transport: 70 CHF for arrival/departure and 11.4 CHF for three short bus rides (with Half-Fare). Otherwise I just walked everywhere.
- Food: 300 CHF. Only one meal out (and a few coffee/cakes). I don’t tend to eat out much alone, especially if I already have a stunning view to enjoy. I didn’t itemise every item but I suspect the Valais wine might have been a good chunk of the total…
Total: CHF 1400 (175 CHF per night for 8 nights)
- Go to Arolla and hike up to the Plan du Bertol.
- Head up the other end of the valley to the glacier views at Ferpècle.
- The barrage Grand Dix. I was curious to see how big it appears in person, but it is up a side valley and was a bit too awkward with multiple buses.
- There are numerous passes into the neighbouring valleys (like over the Col de Torrent). But these usually mean 1700m of climbing straight up with the choice to then either turn back at the pass or go down the other side and have a long journey back via multiple buses.
- Up to a viewpoint like the Pic d’Artsinol.
Day 1: Arrival
A rainy and overcast day. I didn’t get much of an impression of the valley at first; the cloud was low down and I couldn’t see much of the mountainside above the village (it took a few days before I actually got the whole view of the landscape).
On a clearer day it is a very scenic ride up from Sion. Sit on the left side of the bus for the best views on the way up the valley.
Nothing too exciting due to the weather: shopping, a look around the village, and a walk along the valley floor through meadow and forest to the bridge about half-way to Les Haudères and back (4km, +/- 70m).
Day 2: Plan de Bertol and back along the valley to Evolène
Note: A much more sane version of this route would be simply going from Arolla to Plan de Bertol and back (12km, +/- 750m). Keep in mind that for the return journey the bus service to Arolla is fairly infrequent, only running every 2 hours or so (but there is plenty of parking).
Route: Arolla – Plan de Bertol – Arolla – Les Haudères – Evolène.
Length: 25km, + 980m, -1615m.
I caught the Postbus to Arolla. This is made a bit easier at some times of the day as the bus up the valley just changes number in Les Haudères and then carries on up to Arolla without requiring you to change. The ride is (on a clear day) fantastic. Sit on the left side of the best views.
I had a quick look at Arolla (there really isn’t much to the place) then carried on up the valley through forest and then open meadow with the towering Mt Collon dominating the view. Be careful not to turn left and cross the first bridge despite the path only being signed in that direction (a case of the endemic bad signage in the valley).
The path stayed fairly gentle on a gravel road up until it crossed the stream higher up the valley, then it got steeper and the long climb up started. The glacier on the opposite side of the valley added a nice backdrop.
I just went up to the Plan de Bertol which I had been hoping would have a good view. It did, but nowhere near as good as the Cabane du Mountet near Zinal but still worth the effort.
One point of interest for me was the Cabane de Bertol, visible high up on the ridge above, which Tolkien visited on his trip to Switzerland with a signature in the guestbook to prove it. I would have loved to carry on up to this, but the path up requires glacier crossing and even lower down was still covered in snow fields. The mountains up the valley are very dark and menacing so you could take some Stairs of Cirith Ungol (the stairs into Mordor) vibes from them.
After soaking up the view for a while I turned around and went the same way back to Arolla. Much easier going being downhill all the way.
I then carried on all the way back to Evolène via Les Haudères. I hardly saw anyone else along this section (I really hardly saw anyone most of the time anywhere). I had been a bit sceptical of how enjoyable this would be given how close the path often was to the road (occasionally walking along it) but traffic was very light and it didn’t bother me. This wasn’t as spectacular given that it was going slowly down the valley, but it was a pleasant walk through meadows and forest.
Day 3: Ferpècle and up to the viewpoint at Bricola
Note: I walked up from Les Haudères but there is also a bus service up to Ferpècle which would save and you can park a bit higher up still.
Route: Les Haudères – Ferpècle – Bricola – La Forclaz – La Sage – Evolène
Length: 22km, + 1285m, -1365m.
I took the Postbus to Les Haudères and then set off up the valley towards Ferpècle. This was an enjoyable mix of meadow, forest, and the odd little hamlet. Getting closer to Ferpècle the path joined the road, but only briefly before the parking area marked the point where it became closed to the public.
Shortly after the car park the footpath splits and offers the chance to do a loop in the forest around Barrage de Ferpècle (there is always a hydroelectric power station in Switzerland). This little loop on a Sunday was the busiest I saw anywhere outside of a village the entire week.
The view of the two glaciers from the plain above Ferpècle is one of the classic Swiss shots. Even on a cloudy day the view was certainly impressive (from what I could see of it at least). It must however have been much more impressive in the past. In 1864 the glaciers joined up cascaded down to where the car park is, now they have long since retreated far up their respective valleys. Even comparing the glacier to when I arrived in Switzerland in 2015 is rather disheartening.
From part way around the loop I followed the dead-end path that leads up to Bricola. This is a steep climb up but takes you up to a lone house perched on an otherwise empty bit of mountainside (and visible from way down the valley almost at the start of the hike) with a fantastic view. I knew there should have been the Dent Blanche towering 2000m above me but sadly didn’t see it (I had gambled that the day would turn to high cloud, didn’t happen). This gives you a good idea of what to expect and it is presumably much more impressive in person.
Coming back down from Bricola I finished the loop returning to Ferpècle by the other side of the stream, then stopped for coffee at the Buvette Le petit paradis (basically the only option for refreshments beyond Les Haudères).
Doubling back down the valley towards Les Haudères I turned up to La Forclaz and followed the mountainside along to La Sage before slowly dropping down to Evolène. As with the previous day this wasn’t outstanding after the more dramatic first half, but it was still a beautiful route along the terrace above the valley floor.
Day 4: Up to the Pic d’Artsinol
A long climb up to a fantastic panoramic view.
Day 5: Rest and work
A break after 3 days of long hikes. Just had a quick wander to the shops and around the village.
Day 6: Up to Arbey
Route: Evolène – Arbey – Evolène
Length: 7.6km, +/- 560m.
A quick walk up to the little Alp hamlet of Arbey in the afternoon.
Initially a gentle descent out of Evolène down to the river and up the other side of the valley, but then the path decided to avoid switchbacking and just went straight and steep until the treeline.
Steady climb up through the forest and then a right at the next junction towards Arbey, after which the path traversed across the mountainside staying mostly flat. This was part of a themed path so every few minutes there is a giant printout of cow fighting strung between trees.
There isn’t much to Arbey apart from the views. There is a restaurant but it seemed to be shut for the time being. I did a lap of the little lake, admired the newts floating around in it, and then headed down before the rain that was starting to move down the valley hit.
There are two routes down, both signed as 55 minutes. I took the path which cuts under the village initially heading south for the simple reason that I had already covered most of the other side when going up to the Pic d’Artsinol. This way stayed in the meadows for the first 10 or so minutes keeping the views (including an utterly fantastic view just before it crossed the road), before plunging down through the forest to the valley floor.
Day 7: Up to Villa
Route: Evolène – Voloron – Villa – Evolène
Length: 10.8km, +/- 800m.
A walk up the east side of the valley.
A gentle climb through the forest to the little hamlet at Voloron. From Voloron the path is initially relatively gentle (if rather narrow) through the forest until it crosses a very rocky valley (the sort where you cross it and think how much it looks like a giant landslide whilst staring carefully uphill). After that it climbs much more steeply.
After passing through a clearing the path drops a bit and then emerges out of the forest onto the open Alp. The views from here are fantastic: straight up the valley towards Arosa with the glaciers and above it, and up the other branch to the Ferpècle glacier and.
I followed the road further up for a few minutes to the little hamlet at Mayens du Cotter just to enjoy the views for a few more minutes, then dropped down through the meadows to Villa and then down to Evolène.
Day 8: Le Lac Bleu
Day 9: Onwards
Route: Vex – Salins – Sion
Length: 9.5km, +200m, -650m.
The plan for the day was to check out and then take a little walk on the way down towards Sion to catch a train on to my next stay.
I had a few ideas in my head: get off by Euseigne to admire the pyramids some more and then walk down the hopefully cool valley/gorge to Bromois (10km, +340, -800m), get off at Vex and stay on the terrace to enjoy the view before dropping down to Sion directly, or follow Stage 4 of the Bisse route (17km, +860m, 800m). I went with Vex as it seemed to be the option that promised the most views.
Vex has a nice bakery just by the bus stop which is always a good start. The walk started well with some wide views as the path traversed along the mountainside after leaving Vex. Passing through the forest on the south side of the valley helped keep it cool in the rising heat of the day (it was expected to be a hot one). Then after La Vernaz the path felt increasingly neglected and became a bit of a chore as it dived down to the valley floor.
Sion has a lovely old town. It also sadly has a fair amount of ugly industrial outskirts which is what I was walking through in the increasing heat. I haven’t been to Sion in many years, but I wasn’t in the mood to wander around the town or climb up to the iconic double hills and the next train towards my destination of Champéry was due in a few minutes so I just hurried on.