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Bike – Passes in the Alps (Gotthard, Grimsel, Jaun)

    Oberaar strasse bike

    Photo: Oberaar Panoramastrasse.

    This started out as a planned 3 day route to ride the river Aare from source to Solothurn. But the Grimsel hotels were all sold out on Fridays. So with an extra day I decided to just charge off in another direction rather than do the segment from Thun (which I can just hop on a direct train from home and do whenever).

    • When: Wednesday 23th to Sunday 27th June 2021.
    • Route: Andermatt – Gotthard pass – Andermatt – Furkapass train to Oberwald – Grimselpass – Interlaken – Aeschiried bei Spiez – Jaunpass – Broc – Fribourg – Aarberg – Solothurn. 363km, +6942m, -7948m 333km, +6342m, -7142m.
    • This was a really varied route – especially at this time of year. From high and barren rocky landscapes still covered in snow and ice, to lush green pre-Alp valleys filled with cows, and the gently rolling forested hills and meandering rivers of the Mittelland.
    • It was much cooler and cloudier than the previous cycling trip, just a few days prior. From constant high 20s/30s C to mostly less than 20 C. I actually had to break out the warm clothing up in the mountains. Which after the oven of death the previous week was much appreciated. The forecast was a bit up and down in how rainy it would be, but in the end only the 2nd day had rain during the day.
    • As with the previous week traffic was mostly quite light. Going over the popular passes on weekdays in June with Corona travel restrictions keeping most of the world away probably helped somewhat. Almost every car was Swiss (and clearly not rentals).
    • This passed through 3 of the language zones, and was only a short division away from the Romansch speaking Disentis.
    • You could mostly follow this route by car or public transport. Some corners would be hard to reach by car or would require parking and a hike. The Gotthard/Furka/Grimsel passes do have a bus service, but there are only a few buses a day in each direction so it works as a scenic ride, but isn’t so practical if you want to stop and take it all in slowly.

    Logistics

    • Rather than dragging my bike between multiple trains I sent it ahead by the SBB bike shipping service.
    • I stayed in (mostly) cheap(er) hotels rather than camping. Mostly as I can’t be bothered lugging a tent etc around. Also to have more flexibility beyond wherever campsites are (or going for the wild camping option which I have yet to test).
    • Gear: 15L backpack (warm layers and essentials), 16L saddle bag (change of clothes and less essential items), frame bag (snacks and tools).
    • I have found that 70-80km and +1500m is my ideal range on multi-day trips. I could go further, but I like having the freedom of time to stop and pause/explore on the way without worrying about having a vast distance to cover still.

    Cost

    • Accomodation: 130 + 209 + 103 + 65 = 507 CHF.
    • Food: Per day; breakfast (included with accomodation), lunch and snacks (10 CHF), Cafe/bar visit (10 CHF), dinner (40 CHF) = 60 CHF. Counting 4 full days = 240 CHF.
    • Transport: 20 CHF to send my bike to Andermatt (as opposed to 14 CHF for a day ticket and reservation) and 38 CHF for me with half price card. 7.6 CHF ticket for me and another for my bike from Andermatt to Oberwald. 72.6 CHF.
    • Total: 819.2 CHF (or 164 CHF per day over 5 days)

    I really wasn’t aiming for budget travel.

    If you camped and didn’t eat out I would estimate the daily cost at more like 40-50 CHF. So you could reduce the total cost to around 250 CHF quite easily.

    Rankings

    • Best part: Oberarr Strasse.
    • Best surprise: Most of it I was as I expected (after so many years here you mostly know what is coming). The Oberarr Strasse was even more impressive than I expected. The view from Passo Scimfuss also really added to the experience going over the Gotthard. But the only thing that really was a surprise was the little old town and castle in Laupen which I had never heard of before.
    • Best food: Grimsel Hospiz.
    • Worst part: From Interlaken alongside the Thunnersee the bike path is often along the hard shoulder of a main road. This was made worse by the recent storm damage blocking the quieter diversions by bike and the autobahn so everyone was put on the secondary road together.
    • Ohrwurm: Actually something not terrible for once

    Day 1: Arrival in Andermatt and ride up to the Gotthard pass

    Key Information

    Route: Andermatt – Gotthard pass – Passo Scimfuss – Gotthard pass – Andermatt.

    Length: 36 km, +1000m, -1000m.

    Date: 2021-June-23

    Arrived with a slow but scenic train ride up to Andermatt. Grabbed my bike from the station without any problem then went to see if I could leave my saddle bag at the hotel to save lugging it up the pass and back – turns out I could even check in already at 11:30am.

    Starting out of Andermatt there is a nice little warm up on the flat road to Hospental, then you hit the pass climb. It is a steady easy (as such things go) climb up to the pass. Being a Wednesday afternoon traffic was light. Helped by road works with traffic lights which reduced the cars to batches rather than a continuous flow. I overtook a horse-drawn coach part way up which did a good job of holding up more traffic. A few km short of the top you turn off onto the old cobble stoned pass road and the traffic basically drops to zero.

    Part way up to the Gotthard.
    On the old cobble road close to the pass.

    The Gotthard Pass itself is a very harsh and barren rocky landscape, especially given how it was still so snowy. Impressive, but not the most traditionally beautiful of mountain regions. The area was turned into a massive fortress and the bits of fake wall and gun ports are everywhere.

    Looking over the pass area.
    A slightly suspicious bit of rock.

    I carried on up from the pass onto roads that are closed to cars. I had planned to go up to the dam at Laggo della Sella but the road was blocked by snow (or more snow than I was willing to face with non-waterproof cycling shoes). Instead I went up to Passo Scimfuss which was the best part of the day. The views over Airolo and the valley were far more impressive and extensive than anything on the pass road. It was also very quiet; just me, the marmots, and the distant sound of cowbells and traffic.

    On the way to the Passo Scimfuss.
    Passo Scimfuss.
    Passo Scimfuss

    You can go into one of the former bunkers – the Festung Sasso San Gottardo – but I just had a look around the outside of a fortress instead. Stupidly I crashed on a drain grate when I underestimated the width of the grates (mostly because I was too busy looking around at the landscape). Luckily I was only going at walking pace so all I got was a shock, and then the confusion about why I was on the floor.

    Back down to Andermatt, taking a detour on the last descent into Hospental on a gravel path and a little ride through the village itself which is small but pretty.

    I quite like Andermatt. There is a little old town street with some quite attractive buildings. Not somewhere to visit just for itself, but a nice enough place to spend your evening in. A number of hotels, but there should be in a pass town so it feels right. It is kind of the heart of Switzerland being hemmed in by passes which connect it to each section of the rest of the country.

    Andermatt.

    Andermatt was once important as a pass town, but it lost that importance somewhat when the Gotthard tunnels were built, it existed as a backwater with a military base for sometime, and in recent years is turning itself into a resort with new cable cars and fancy new tourist housing on the outskirts of town (including the increasingly famous Chedi). This is very noticeable in the station which has been converted into a massive tunnel which directly connects to a cable car, it might well be rammed in winter but was a bit eerie when empty on a weekday morning.

    I stayed at the Könige & Post in Andermatt. A nice place in a historic building with good food. It was also the rare experience of a Swiss hotel with cooked breakfast options (sausage, bacon, scrambled egg).

    Day 2: Over the Furka and Grimsel passes

    Key Information

    Route: Andermatt – Furkapass train to Oberwald – Gletsch – Grimselpass – Oberaar Str – Grimselhospiz.

    Length: 53.5km, +1836m, -1322m 28km, 1186m, -590m.

    Date: 2021-June-24.

    There were quite a few turns with the expected weather for this day. Initially it was predicted to rain all day, then mixed, then just late in the afternoon, then early afternoon. In the event of bad weather the Furka Pass could be skipped with the train to Oberwald. Reducing the 30km and 1000m of height from Andermatt to Gletsch to a mere 7km and 400m. In an extreme situation the whole route could be done by sticking your bike on the back of a Postbus too.

    In the end the morning was expected to be (mostly) dry and the afternoon wet. decided to take the boring option of skipping the Furka rather than race the rain over a pass for the sake of it, or get caught out in a very exposed region in sudden cold rain (and possibly thunder). In the end I think this was the right call. It was one of those impossible to predict days with the forecast liable to constantly change: dry turning to rain, or intense storms just appearing as a few drops of rain. I can’t complain really, between this and the previous trip I had 1 half rainy day in 9 days of riding the Alps. I am sure plenty of people have suffered the opposite. Plus I have the luxury that I can always come back to clear the Furka another weekend (which I did a few months later on a glorious day in September).

    The result was that this was a very short day. I only started riding properly at 10:00 and was done by 13:30. Including a coffee break.

    From Andermatt I took the train to Oberwald. Arriving in light drizzle I popped into Volg to grab some lunch and waited out the rain for 30 mins. There was no rush with a tour I could clear before midday.

    Climbing through the forest out of Oberwald.

    The climb to Gletch goes through some lush forest before turning into a suddenly treeless and rocky gorge.

    At Gletsch itself you have the historic hotel with a public cafe and a little information kiosk. There is a good view up the valley to where the Rhone Glacier used to cascade down the mountainside (now just an impressive amount of water shooting out) and the often viral Hotel Belvedere. It was not worth a detour of a 500m climb on that day though.

    Looking from Gletsch towards the Furka Pass.
    Most of the way up the Grimsel Pass, with the cloudy Furka Pass in the background.

    The climb to the Grimsel looks like an imposing wall from below, but is quite a nice steady ascent once you get going. A nice wide gently hairpinning road with lots of places to stop (for bikes) made it easy to admire the views (whilst very carefully checking for grates).

    Around a corner and I was suddenly at the Grimsel pass. It was still very wintery with chunks of ice in the lake and over the surrounding mountains.

    Grimsel Pass
    Totesee at the Grimsel Pass.

    From the Grimsel Pass I headed up higher on the Panoramastrasse Oberaar. It was technically still closed for the winter to public traffic, but was cleared of snow on the road and nobody minds bikes. This was the highlight of the trip: turning the corner was suddenly a world of inhospitable high alpine mountain, snow everywhere, and a nicely cleared paved road all to myself. Peaking at 2400m also made it my literal high point too. There were a few hikers near the start and Lots of marmots all along the way, but otherwise I had it to myself. It is open to traffic but with time windows, and today was too early in the season for it to be open.

    This is as close as you can get to the source of the Aare on the bike, so I counted it as the start for my ride along the entire river.

    Panoramastrasse Oberaar.
    Panoramastrasse Oberaar.

    I had seemingly perfect timing as on my return fog was covering the pass and a check of the forecast suggested rain would start within 20 mins. I just had an easy 5 minute descent down to my accommodation for the night. My heart went out to the poor cycle tourers who were climbing up and probably reached the pass at the exact same time as the rain.

    I stayed in the Grimsel Hospiz. It looks like a castle and feels like one after you cross a ‘bridge’ (dam causeway) and climb up a stony outcrop on a winding road to get there. Very friendly welcome and good service throughout. I was checked in and avoiding the weather at 13:30. Not the worst considering this was the most expensive place and the best view by far so I could enjoy more of that in comfort. I could even hear marmots calling from the room. Very good food there for dinner. Pricier than average but not horrific (209 CHF with lake view).

    The Grimsel Hospiz.

    Day 3: Grimsel pass to Thunersee

    Key Information

    Route: Grimsel Hospiz – Innertkirchen – Urbachtal – Innertkirchen – Iseltwald – Interlaken – Aeschiried.

    Length: 88.8km, +1311m, -2284m.

    Date: 2021-June-25.

    I woke up with mist and clouds hanging over the mountains, but there was no rain. The low cloud at 1800m or so blocked the peaks, but after the last week of intense heat I wasn’t complaining.

    Fun descent down the Haslital. Very little traffic early on a cloudy Friday and even less going downhill. The Haslital down to Innertkirchen is a very wild and rugged valley. Bar the little village of Guttannen, and the odd dam there is basically nothing but the pass road. I had been eager to see this as it was the last section of the route described by JRR Tolkien from his Switzerland trip that I had not done myself.

    Haslital.

    I passed by the Gelmerbahn station as the train was coming down. The track is certainly impressively steep and exposed. It was not on the plan for today and the views at the top would be lost in the cloud anyway.

    Turned off at Innertkirchen into Urbachtal, a little side valley which I decided to go take a look at as it was only a minor diversion and I don’t know when I might ever get there otherwise. Climbed up a slightly steep but fun little series of hairpins before the valley opened out into a gentle uphill. Impressive cliffs line one side of the valley. I just followed the meadows on the gentle road to the end then rolled back down. Stopping for a few minutes to watch some farmers trying to herd a group of rebellious cows into a fresh meadow.

    The impressive cliffs of Urbachtal.

    Back down and over the bump to Meiringen. The Reichenbach Fall looked really impressive with all the snow melt and recent rain water.

    Meiringen could be skipped but I wanted to buy some lunch and it is always amusing to pass through and see the little Swiss town that is obsessed with Sherlock Holmes.

    The Grosse Scheidegg would have been another option, but I went over it last year by foot and had not yet been along the south side of Brienzersee.

    Gentle ride along the valley floor passing various little farm houses. This would have been more impressive if you could have seen the top halves of the mountains, but again I was happy to be cool.

    Diverted at the military airbase to cross the runway and get the classic Oltschibachfall shot. A very surreal spot; a curious mix of kind of secret military base but also everything is totally open. You can cross the middle of the airstrip so long as a jet isn’t taxiing. And even then they raised the barriers before the jet I just saw land was even fully past the road. It looks like there is a dedicated secure hanger right at the base of the falls, and a runway coming straight from it.

    Oltschibachfall.
    Runway leading into the mountainside.

    Bit of a sharp climb up at the end of the lake to reach the Geissbach falls and hotel. The bike route crosses a bridge part way down the falls. Not very road bike friendly as it is on rough rocky paths though (suggested pushing section, probably mostly because of walkers).

    Climbing up with Brienz in the background.

    A bit of up and down through the forest with periodic views of the lake below. Going the other way would mean a very steep climb. Quite a number of what I am going to call Boomer Bikers – couples in their 50s or older who have clearly just bought or rented an ebike and look adorably/worryingly uncomfortable about the thing they are in control of.

    Geissbach falls.

    Dropped into Iseltwald and had a quick tour. A pretty little village that is worth a visit, but there isn’t much to it. Coffee at the bar by the hostel. This was a different world with people speaking English around me and with the waitress quickly switching to English with me when she heard my accent. Both things I hadn’t had so far on this trip.

    Iseltwald.
    Brienzersee.

    A bit more up and down out of Iseltwald then flat by the lakeside to Interlaken. This was my first time going along the main Street in Interlaken since my initial visit to the Alps 6 years ago. It is alright, though I still don’t feel a need to go back and if it takes another 6 years that is fine by me.

    From Interlaken and along the Thunersee was far less enjoyable. Space is limited so the bike path is at times essentially the hard shoulder of the busy main road. Pass traffic in comparison was at least slower and less heavy. Made much worse today by the Autobahn being closed for an accident/mudslide or something like that forcing more traffic onto the road, and the bike path being blocked by storm damage forcing bikes onto a section of the road with literally just a hard shoulder for them. I wasn’t worried about being hit, but it wasn’t much fun.

    I stayed at the Chemihütte in Aeschiried which was a bit up the hillside but looked like an interesting option. 430m up from the lake to be exact….

    The Chemihütte had a good view out over the Thunersee and I could easily hide my bike infront of my room which was great. Good hearty very Swiss dinner. Very Swiss place in general really. I doubt many non-locals make it up there.

    Climbed up the hill a little bit in the evening. View up the length of both lakes and of the Kandertal. Meadows, Cow bells, Steam ship on the lake. Very idyllic. That was more than worth the extra climb by bike.

    Day 4: Through the Simmental and over the Juanpass to Lac de Gryuere

    Key Information

    Route: Aeschiried – Jaunpass – Broc – Morlon.

    Length: 74km, +1536m, -1841m.

    Date: 2021-June-26.

    Woke up to a much sunnier and clearer day. Especially when the sun rose over the mountains and hit my face at 05:30. Nice to actually see the tops of the mountains though.

    Unintended 5am wakeup call from the sun.

    Dropped down to Aeschi and into the bottom of Kandertal in absurdly beautiful conditions, from there it was a gentle flat transfer across to Wimmis, and then into Simmental.

    If you wanted to make an example of idyllic Swiss mountains then Simmental would be a good choice. Grassy rolling Meadows dotted with wooden farm houses rise up into steep forest, with enough rocky outcrops and high meadow up above to keep the mountainous feeling. There are a few ugly bits of industry (as is always the case in Switzerland), but only the odd bit and not very obtrusive.

    Simmental.
    Simmental.
    Simmental.

    The official bike path avoids the road and takes you into some little corners you wouldn’t see from the road or train (this is probably the most forgettable part of the Goldenpass line despite it being a beautiful area). At times it was gentle paths along the stream, but then it is very up and down. The route also often switches to rough gravel so isn’t road bike friendly.

    Turned off the bike route at Reidenbach and joined the main road to head up the Juanpass. Beautiful views going up. Flip side was being back in the hot sun climbing a pass. Being a clear and sunny Saturday the roads were much busier than the previous days. Motorbikes varied between fine and suicidal idiots (one overtook a car who was overtaking me on a narrow road with a blind corner up ahead….).

    Climbing up the Jaun Pass.
    Climbing up the Jaun Pass.

    There are a few restaurants at the pass, but with very limited views. It is much better to head up a few hundred meters higher past the campsite for wide open views of both sides.

    Above the Jaun Pass.

    Fun descent down, but very windy. This headwind would make would should have been an effortless gentle glide down to Charmey much more strenuous.

    Jaun itself went straight on my list of fairytale places. A beautiful little village, which felt so remote in a stunning valley. It also has a fountain with drinking water by the church which is always appreciated. One of my other goals in the area is to ride over the Euschelspass from Jaun to the Schwarzsee.

    Jaun
    Jaun.

    Through some steep and lonely valley until Charmey. Reaching Charmey the landscape ahead was clearly much gentler and lower.

    Took a small detour at Charmey to visit Les Arses. I had hoped for a community sign, but a street sign had to do. Dropped down to have a quick look at the center of Charmey itself and then back along to the bike path.

    The bike route takes a car-free winding path through some forest and farms on the opposite side of the valley from the main road. Emerging out of the woods on the edge of the Alps it suddenly looked VERY flat ahead.

    Dropped into Broc with a view of Gruyere across the valley and passed by the Cailler factory. I thought I was done but there were two more climbs to reach Morlon. Not horrible, but at the end of the day when I think you are finished

    Stayed at Goya Onda. An old farmhouse on the lakeside which serves as a bar/guest house and is being run as an eco project focused on trying to use only their own or very local products. Not hippy, certainly not vegan or even veggie. Big garden acting as a public bar filled with seating and toys scattered all over the place. Only speaking English might present a bit of problem as they mostly just expect French or German speaking visitors from Switzerland (though I am sure they would try their hardest to make it work).

    Day 5: Back home to Solothurn via Fribourg

    Key Information

    Route: Morlon – Fribourg – Laupen – Aarberg – Büren aA – Solothurn.

    Length: 110km, +1185m, -1450m.

    Date: 2021-June-27.

    I took a quick walk by the lake in the early morning sun before breakfast. It really was a fantastic spot.

    Riding alongside lake Gruyere.

    Initially through rolling hills and little villages with off and on views of lake Gruyere. And then later also on it was through rolling hills, just without the lake.

    Passed by the self-service dairy Pierre-Alain Uldry in Pont la Ville and filled up as much of my bag as I could with cheese.

    Loading up on cheese.

    Fribourg appeared out of nowhere. From a lonely hilltop you suddenly descend into the centre in almost no time. Fribourg is utterly gorgeous, the old town dropping down into the gorge on a river bend makes it feel like a French speaking verion of Bern. Plus there are a number of medieval towers and bits of wall scattered around. I will never understand how it isn’t better known despite being only 20 mins from Bern by train.

    Entering Fribourg.
    The little village like old core seen from the bridge in Fribourg.

    Going out of Fribourg the route crosses the railway bridge by Grandfey which is a fun little experience.

    Crossing the railway bridge.
    Typical view of the landscape.

    From Düdingen to Grueneburg the route follows a fairly busy main road which isn’t the nicest. Sadly there isn’t any easy way to avoid this

    Surprise of the day was the little old town and castle at Laupen. There isn’t much of it, but it is only 30 minutes out of Bern by train if you ever have half a day and no idea what else to do.

    Laupen.
    Laupen.

    Up and through endless little villages with old buildings across the Mittelland.

    The last ‘pass’ of the tour.

    At this point the temperature was starting to rise again so I was happy to be getting home.

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