Photo: Cycling along the Gigerwaldsee.
A slow climb up a varied and beautiful valley and then plunging down a cliff on the other side.
St Martin has been on my to do list for quite a while (though I had intended to combine with a hike over the to Pizol) and through my ever dependable local MTB-Blogger Spoony I had become aware of the Kunkels Pass. I hadn’t expected to ever be in the area with a bike, but a (slightly disappointing) visit to the nearby Greisinger Museum and an invitation from a friend to go hit some alpine passes put me in the perfect position for this route.
Just doing the main valley would be a fantastic ride with varied landscapes, but the detour along the lake was well worth the extra climb.
Route: Bad Ragaz – Vättis – St Martin (SG) – Vättis – Kunkels Pass – Tamins – Reichenau-Tamins station. Basically the sign posted Mountain Bike Route 482 ‘Kunkels bike’ with a diversion.
Length: 48km, + 1455m, -1370m. Max elevation 1365m.
Season: The top of the pass is not kept clear during winter so will be blocked when the snow falls, but given the relatively low height and the topography it is likely to be open early in the spring to late in autumn.
Arrival/Departure: Train to Bad Ragaz / Train from Reichenau-Tamins station.
Supplies: Bad Ragaz is a fairly big town so has supermarkets and shops of various types, there are numerous restaurants and a few little shops along the route. Vättis has a fountain for refilling water bottles.
Alternate routes/shortcuts: Skipping the climb to St Martin would save 400m of height, otherwise the only options are to carry on up the valley or turn back.
Exposure/Hazards: Going up to and along the Gigerwaldsee means passing through a number of tunnels – having lights would be advisable. Traffic was mostly light in my experience, however I did get an early start to beat the 30C heat in the valley and had reached Vättis before 9am.
Technical demands: Despite the Mountain Bike designation it is almost entirely on paved roads and what wasn’t paved was perfectly fine on a gravel bike (even with a wobbly bike-packing saddle bag). There is a 200m section of single trail at the end of the Mapraggsee but this is on a flat and unexposed bit of land (and pushing wouldn’t take long). Coming down the south side of the Kunkels pass there are sections of gravel road which require a bit of care when combined with the steep descent.
Notes along the route
The first serious climb starts right out of the middle of Bad Ragaz. Turning a corner onto the Valenserstrasse the gradient changes from flat to steep and then a steady climb of 300m in 2.5km. I had walked a little way up the Tamina gorge the day before and noticed after only a few minutes that the iconic bridge was already towering about me so I was mentally prepared for this (if not physically warmed up yet). Going via the road to Pfäfers on the other side of the valley would likely be less steep, but the old road is car-free so made a nice relaxed climb through the forest.
Coming out of the forest the route passes by the rather striking Tamina bridge. The bridge is relatively new (opening in 2017) and is an amazingly large project to think it only serves something like 1000 people. After reaching the bridge the road evens out somewhat and the next section along the side of the steep valley through farms and the little village of Valens is much easier going.
After Valens the road dives down to the dam at the wonderfully blue Mapraggsee. There is an option here to switch over to the road. I stuck with the mountain bike trail on the unpaved north side of the lake. Mostly this was just a slightly bumpy gravel road. The last 200m or so was more single trail but still rideable (and much preferable to an enclosed tunnel).
Rejoining the road just after the end of the lake there is a section of narrow gorge and then the feel of the valley changes again – opening up to a wide gentle valley floor.
At Vättis which is the last proper village (with fountains for water) I turned off up the side valley towards the Gigerwaldsee and St Martin. From Vättis It is a fairly steady 8% climb 400m over 5km through wooded and quiet valley up to the top of the dam, and then basically flat along the lake to St Martin.
The Gigerwaldsee is an artificial dam, but it is still very impressive with the towering cliffs. The road from the end of the dam to St Martin is time limited with no official exception for bikes (:00 to :20 up, :30 to :50 down). Such a system at least means there will be a series of cars at the start of the window and then very little if any traffic afterwards. I just missed a window and having come that far decided to hang around on the dam and admire the view. It was well worth the wait.
St Martin itself is a tiny cluster of wooden houses (half of which seemed to be restaurants) and a church with some interesting historic graffiti that is worth checking out. What it seemed to have most of was cars, the car park covered about 4 times the area of the village. I can understand it being a popular spot for starting hikes but don’t see why it can’t just have an electric shuttle bus on weekends.
There is a gravel road which carries on up the valley beyond St Martin to various Alp farms. This would no doubt open up some more views of the valley and be beautiful, but that would be much better suited to a MTB tour. With a laden gravel bike and the pass to conquer I just looked around the village and took the next time slot back.
The views were actually better coming back along the lake and really let me appreciate how the cliffs tower overhead.
Returning back down to Vättis (a fun and easy descent, but watch out traffic coming up on the narrow windy road) I rejoined the road up the main valley. From Vättis the road starts off climbing gently through some lovely meadow and forest with very little traffic around. After the Restaurant Eggwald the last 2km to the Kunkels Pass ramps up to a steady 10%. This is a dead end for most traffic so was (in my experience) very quiet traffic wise.
The Kunkels Pass isn’t especially high at a mere 1357m and being below the tree-line there isn’t much of a view. I recommend turning right at the restaurant and following the flat road to the north for a few minutes just to really take in the views back down the valley a bit more.
I grabbed a cool drink at the Restaurant Kunkelpass and noticed just about everyone else there had also arrived by bike which is always a nice feeling.
The descent was fantastic. From the gentle top of the pass the road enters a forest and then dives down, hugging the cliff face (at one point burrowing through it in a tunnel) with towering mountains overhead and snatches of an expansive view through the trees. This is mostly on paved road and isn’t technically demanding, but there are enough bumps and drains to require keeping your eyes open.
I had noticed that everyone coming up from the southern side was on an E-MTB. There was a good reason why. Looking back as I emerged from the forest there was just a daunting sheer cliff towering overhead. The road through the forest back up to the pass climbs 540m in 3.6km at an almost constant 15% gradient.
The rest of the route went by in a flash. The road wasn’t as steep but I still shot down through the rest of the valley, pretty little village of Tamins (with fountains for a water refill), through the Schloss defending the confluence of the Rhines, over the Rhine itself (worth stopping here to admire the views back over the river and up to the pass), then a few metres uphill to the station at Reichenau-Tamins for onward trains to Chur, Disentis, or St-Moritz.
I was meeting a friend in Andermatt for a few days riding some passes so headed towards Disentis and onward from thee to Andermatt. I took the lazy but fun option of jumping off at the Oberalp Pass and just gliding down.