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Bike – Passes in the Alps (Klausen, Pragel)

    Photo: Urnerboden.

    A 4 day cycling tour I put together to explore some regions I hadn’t been into before, and finally hit a few alpine passes by bike. I followed this up a week later with another tour hitting some more of the classic passes.

    • When: Thursday 17th to Sunday 20th June 2021.
    • Route: Andermatt – Maderanertal – Altdorf – Klausen Pass (1948m) – Glarus – Pragel Pass (1548m) – Schwyz – Brunnen – Gersau – Lucerne – Sursee. 254km, +5100m, – 6000m.
    • The weather was very dry and sunny during the day the whole time. Which would have perfect had it not been a heatwave (high 20s to low 30s C, and barely any cooler at night) which my poor body had not adjusted to after the long cold winter and spring. For the first two days the valleys were like ovens and I slept very poorly. Worth it still, but it was not much fun at its worst in the late afternoon each day, I was also basically a zombie when I got home.
    • 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 with Swiss (and not rentals).

    Logistics

    • I decided to try the SBB bike shipping service and sent my bike ahead, rather than going through the faff of changing trains with a bike multiple times. It was very easy: I just had to take the bike to the counter at my station, say where I wanted it to go, and then pick it up 2 days later (eg send it on Monday and pick it up from 9am on Wednesday). Pick up was also quick and easy, bikes are shipped with plastic covers and it got there in one piece. Cost is 20 CHF, which compared to 14 CHF for a standard day ticket for the bike plus at least one 2 CHF reservation isn’t much of a difference.
    • I stayed in cheap(er) hotels rather than camping. Mostly as I can’t be bothered lugging a tent etc around. Also having more flexibility beyond wherever campsites are (or going for the wild camping option which I have yet to test).
    • 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 having time to stop and pause/explore on the way without worrying about having a vast distance to cover still.
    • You could do most of this by car or public transport. Only the Pragel pass presents a problem there. You can get up to Richisau by bus and cross to Muotathal by foot in a reasonable day hike, or drive up the Muotathal side.

    Cost

    • Transport: out (20 CHF bike send + 33 CHF for me to Andermatt inc half price and discount) and partly back (14 CHF bike day pass and 2 CHF reservation, 12.5 CHF for me inc half price) = 81.5 CHF.
    • Accommodation: 3 nights in hotels (8 5CHF, 98 CHF, 137 CHF) = 327 CHF.
    • Food: 3 restaurant meals (3x 40 CHF), lunch and snacks from supermarkets (10 CHF per day?), cafe visits (40 CHF total-ish) = 200.
    • Total: 608 CHF

    Obviously big savings could be had by camping (or finding a hostel with a shared room) and eating simpler food options. Doing so could knock it down to more like 40 CHF per day and push the cost down to 300 CHF or less.

    Rankings

    • Best part: The climb up to the Pragel pass.
    • Best surprise: Maderanertal. The whole thing.
    • Best food: Gasthaus Legni in Maderanertal.
    • Worst part: The heat. Oh god the heat….
    • Ohrwurm: this…. Not sure what any hikers who heard an English accent singing that in a lonely meadow would have thought.

    Day 1: Andermatt to Attinghausen via Maderanertal

    Key Information

    Route: Andermatt – Amsteg – Maderanertal up to Alp Stössi – Amsteg – Attinghausen.

    Length: 54km, +1000m, -2000m.

    Date: 2021-June-17.

    The plans for my first day evolved a bit. It started as just arriving at the base of the Klausen pass sometime in the late afternoon, then I had the idea of taking more time and exploring a side valley, before finally realising I could start in Andermatt and simply start with an easy roll down rather than having to double back on myself.

    It is very odd going on a bike tour without a bike. Getting off a train in cycling shoes and carrying a helmet it is hard to fight the urge to not worry that I was meant to be taking a bike with me.

    From Olten to Göschenen was on the Treno Gottardo inter-regional train. This is slow (2hr20min slow) but very scenic. I hadn’t been up the section from Erstfeld to Göschenen since the base tunnel opened in 2016. I had forgotten how impressive this route was. The train and autobahn going up to the tunnels by Göschenen create a strange contrast to the few villages and farms clinging to the otherwise very steep and rugged valley. Plus it is always fun to pass by the church at Wassern from 3 different angles.

    Uri tends to get overlooked being somewhere you pass through on the way to Ticino or Italy. It is essentially one valley with very steep mountains and a few side valleys. There isn’t much of it, but it is impressive.

    I picked up my bike at the station in Andermatt and headed straight back down the way I just came up on the train. I didn’t bother taking a proper look at Andermatt (I would be back for a night in less than a week anyway – see this post).

    The first section is the Schöllenen, a very rocky and steep gorge. Quick stop at the Teufelsbrücke, with an impressive amount of water going down the falls next to it, and the slightly unlikely giant Suworow memorial commemorating the Russian army who fought here in the Napoleonic wars (one of the rare Swiss war memorials).

    Schöllenen
    The Schöllenen by the Teufelsbrücke.

    From Andermatt to Göschenen there are a mix of totally separate paths and (painted) markers on the road for bikes climbing up. Going down you are on the road with the traffic.

    Teufelsbrücke
    Teufelsbrücke.
    Uri
    Cruising down the valley.

    One diversion I had considered was riding along the Göschenental to the dam at Göscheneralpsee (10km, +700m). I partly walked along this valley in the snow years ago, so decided to do something new instead. In retrospect with the heat that day it would have been better to have stayed higher up and done this.

    I carried on down the Reuss valley. The road was much quieter after the Autobahn exit just after Göschenen (where most scenic tourers will rejoin the faster Autobahn), and other than a few short and gentle rises it was an easy downhill glide the whole way.

    Climbing up to Maderanertal.
    Climbing up to Maderanertal.

    I had never been into (or even heard of) the Maderanertal before, so I decided to head up there. From Amsteg a series of narrow switchbacks cling to the cliff (so narrow the road is time limited for cars to make sure the Postbus can get up and down), before you clear the gorge and the valley opens up at Birsten. The initial climb and through Birsten was fine, but after that I was caught out by temperature. I had been waiting for a suitable shady spot to rest for a bit, but then I suddenly really suffered with the heat, it was one of those states where just riding 50m along seems exhausting, and I had to find a shady stream to rest and try to cool down. Something something Mad dogs and English men.

    Maderanertal
    Maderanertal

    I had thought about going up to the Golzerensee which is the main attraction in the valley, but the exposed climb in the sun and no entry sign (which I mostly ignore on the bike to be honest) put me off. Better to come back some other time and use the hiking routes and/or cable car.

    Pressed on up the valley beyond Legni on the footpath / mountainbike route to Alp Stössi. At times steep and rocky, but it was in the shade at least. This was a bit of a challenge on a loaded gravel bike and still suffering from heat exhaustion.

    I got as far as Alp Stössi which was really worth it. It was utterly beautiful and felt so hidden. For somewhere I had never heard of before I was really blown away. Grabbed a drink at the Alp dairy where you can see them making the cheese in copper cauldrons through the windows, and watched the cows walking around( bells and all). I would love to come back up here for a weekend sometime to explore it some more – and also make an overnight hut hike through to Disentis.

    On the way to Alp Stössi
    On the way to Alp Stössi
    Alp Stössi
    Alp Stössi

    I doubled back the same way, stopping for ice cream at the beautiful hotel Legni (I am claiming it was medicinal), and back down to Amsteg in the main valley.

    Hotel Legni
    Hotel Legni
    Hotel Legni
    Hotel Legni

    Carrying on along the Reuss valley and towards Attinghausen it was hot. Even just cruising along a very gentle downhill I was suffering. The wind coming against me was like an oven. The bike path varies between side roads following the river and/or Autobahn

    Reuss
    Along the Reuss (and Autobahn).

    I stayed in at Hotel Krone in Attinghausen. A nice enough family run place. Bike storage was the “basic but works” sticking your bike in the garage by the owner’s car. It would be a good place to stay on the via Alpina with the cable car to Brüsti just around the corner. There is not much to say about Attinghausen itself – it is a pleasant enough but fairly forgettable village with a shop and few places to eat/stay, and a gentle hum from the Autobahn.

    Walking up the side of the valley in the evening I found a bench by Tschingel above Attinghausen to watch the sunset with a beer.

    Attinghausen
    Evening above Attinghausen.

    Day 2: Over the Klausen pass to Glarus

    Key Information

    Route: Attinghausen – Altdorf – Klausen pass – Glarus.

    Length: 70km, +1785m, -1780m.

    Date: 2021-June-18.

    I slept poorly and then headed out by 8am to try and beat the heat (even then it was around 20C already).

    I took a small diversion to pass through the centre of Altdorf just because. I am very unlikely to pass through again and figured I might as well took the chance to visit a new canton capital. It is a pleasant enough little town with a big love of William Tell. Not really worth going out of your way for.

    From Altdorf the road slowly starts to climb up to the Klausen pass (1948m). At 1500m over 25km it is a long but fairly gentle climb. This was my first alpine pass by bike, highest single continuous climb, and highest point reached by bike to date. Being used to much steeper gradients in the Jura this felt quite easy at an average of 7% or so. Obviously the demand on the stamina was a bit higher, but I took quite a few breaks when shade presented itself to try and keep cool so that wasn’t a problem.

    Passing by the waterfalls.
    Passing by the waterfalls.
    Close to the pass.
    Close to the pass.

    About a third of the way up the road passes through Spiringen, a little village that has the rather unenviable achievement of being most opposed to giving women the vote in the 1971 national vote with a mere 8.3% of the male voters saying yes. Oddly they don’t mention that anywhere in their tourist info or Wikipedia page. They do at least have a fountain with a shady tree.

    Higher up the road passes above the waterfall at Aesch which often goes viral on social media. I could have diverted up to Aesch to see the falls up close from the iconic spot (an extra 3km, +200m), but I really wanted to beat the heat up the pass so skipped that.

    I had been avoiding the big pass roads for a while now due to concerns about traffic, but at this time of year it was quite light (being a weekday in June and post COVID helped too). It is also quite satisfying seeing a lone driver who has to concentrate on the road speed past whilst you can just take in the landscape as you slowly grind your way up, and with a bike you can stop in so many more places to enjoy the view.

    The Klausen pass itself still had quite a bit of snow despite being mid/late June. There was of course the mandatory cafe, and the mandatory mobs of motorbikes and convoys of expensive sports cars.

    Klausen pass.
    Klausen pass.

    Really beautiful and fun descent down into Urnerboden with some nice viewpoints along the way. Urnerboden is apparently the biggest Alp (seasonal meadow) in Switzerland. Despite being well over the far side of the pass from Uri it somehow belongs to Uri rather than Glarus. I highly recommend a visit, it is just the perfect picture of alpine farm life.

    Starting the descent.
    Starting the descent.
    Taking a break on the descent.
    Taking a break on the descent.

    I had a good lunch at the Gasthof Urnerboden which was fancier than I expected for a restaurant in tiny village way up in a high valley. Not posh, just more polished and modern than I expect in such places where you expect wooden panelling and strange toilet tiling from the 70s combined with awful Schlager music to be standard.

    Went off the main road and took the gravel road alongside the stream instead. The path is wide and there were only a few hikers around so this didn’t create any problems.

    Urnerboden
    Urnerboden
    Urnerboden
    Urnerboden

    With the early start I had plenty of time to spare, so decided to sit and enjoy the view somewhere shady. I got the idea to divert onto MTB route 307 and climb up a bit in search of somewhere quiet and scenic. This paid off (at the cost of a 14% climb in the sun for 1km) with the Sennerei at Vorderstafel having a self-service drinks station offering shade and views for you to enjoy your soda/beer/goat milk.

    I had thought about carrying along the 307 MTB route and traversing across via Braunwald to drop down in Schwanden. An unknown MTB trail with a loaded (and slightly wobbly) gravel bike isn’t the best idea, but mostly I was put off by the thought of 800m more of height gain in the heat.

    Glarus is another canton that tends to get overlooked. Being tucked out of the way up a side valley it is quite easy to forget that it exists. Curiously it has more industrial revolution style mills than I have seen anywhere in Switzerland – like the Lancashire of Switzerland The bike route mostly avoids the roads and is a gentle roll down the valley through fields and villages. This would have been much nicer were it not so bloody hot again.

    Through Glarus
    Through Glarus
    Through Glarus
    Through Glarus

    Glarus (the town) almost entirely burnt down in 1861 and was rebuilt in a structured American style layout. So it is very different to most Swiss mountain towns – with a slight feel of a small historic American or Australian colonial era town. It is actually quite nicely done and interesting to walk around. It also felt quite lively for a small Swiss town.

    Stayed at the Hotel Freihof. Again bike storage was sticking the bike in their private garage. It wasn’t anything special but it was cheap and I had an airblade fan in the room so I was very happy.

    Glarus
    Glarus
    Glarus
    Glarus

    A thunderstorm hit during the evening, but it didn’t reduce the temperature anywhere near as much as I wanted (if anything I paid for the rain with the humidity the next morning).


    Day 3 – Over the Pragel pass to lake Lucerne

    Key Information

    Route: Glarus – Klöntalersee – Pragelpass – Muotathal – Schwyz – Brunnen – Gersau.

    Length: 65km, +1500, -1400m.

    Date: 2021-June-19.

    From Glarus it was a short, sharp, and very humid climb through forest up to the Köntalersee (7km, 400m).

    On the way up to the Köntalersee.
    On the way up to the Köntalersee.
    Köntalersee
    Köntalersee.

    The Klöntalersee is a natural lake that has been increased in size with a dam. It is a really beautiful spot with the mountains along the valley side rising up to 2000m above the surface of the lake. It is a very scenic and easy ride along the lake with plenty of places to stop and take in the views. There was some traffic, but not much and they had to go slow on the winding road.

    Köntalersee.
    Köntalersee

    Cows were being moved up to the meadows, but not in the most traditional method. It is slightly odd seeing tractors pulling trailers which constantly jingled.

    From the end of the Klöntalersee it is a really beautiful climb up to the Pragel pass through lush meadows and forest before arriving at a more “barren” alpine meadow above the treeline. This involved much less height gain than the Klausen pass, but it was certainly steeper. It threatened 18% but I didn’t notice it go that steep.

    Köntalersee
    Above the Köntalersee.
    Climbing to the Pragel pass.
    Climbing to the Pragel pass.

    The Pragel pass is partly closed to normal traffic at the weekend so traffic was very low, but farmers might be driving over it and public cars are allowed up to the pass on the Schwyz side and to the Klöntalersee on the Glarus side – so some care is still required. As it was a sunny Saturday morning the local cyclists were out in force – I have never seen so many fancy looking road bikes with electronic shifters.

    I stopped at the pass restaurant for coffee and cake. The pass itself has somewhat limited views compared to the routes up/down, but a parade of cows being led across the meadows made up for that.

    Pragel pass
    Pragel pass.

    I took a detour part way down onto the footpath network to try and reach what seemed a good lookout point at Obersaum. I ignored the first general no entry for vehicles sign (usually fine for bikes), but with a more explicit no bikes sign saying I was about to enter a nature reserve and with hikers about I decided to skip that and return another time by foot.

    Signs warning of surface damage (Strasse schäden) in the lower part of the descent to Muotathal were not kidding. The descent on the rough road surface was uncomfortable on a gravel bike, nevermind how it would have been with a proper road bike.

    At the Pragel pass.
    At the Pragel pass.
    Muotathal
    Muotathal

    Coming down the pass I got waved down by a farmer at one point who warned me to watch out the sheep being herded up to the Alp. I took refugee between some parked cars and waited it out. It took about 15 minutes for all the sheep to file past.

    Caught in a sheep jam.

    Muotathal is quite a pretty valley without much development. I would quite like to go back and explore some of the side valleys and cliffs a bit more by foot – especially the Bisistal.

    Muotathal
    Muotathal

    I missed the turning for the bike route by the Stoosbahn and took the ‘wrong’ main road to Schwyz, which wasn’t actually busy and made life much easier by being more direct and with less height gain.

    Schwyz itself is small but the centre of the old town is quite grand. This was my first time seeing it beyond the station (which isn’t actually that close to the town).

    Schwyz
    Schwyz

    The Schwyz-Brunnen section didn’t seem especially interesting and was mostly just industrial (beyond a bit of river where some locals were surfing on a standing wave like in Munich), but I was mostly distracted by the horrible creaking sound which had suddenly started coming from my bottom bracket. Luckily I was able to quickly find a bike shop who had time to help and got me back on the road in 40 minutes or so.

    Reaching Lake Lucerne I stopped at the waterfont in Brunnen for an ice cream and paddle in the lake. The town has been a popular spot for centuries so is quite handsome, and it occupies a great position on a bend of the lake so has extensive views.

    The waterfront at Brunnen.
    The waterfront at Brunnen.
    Taking a Swim at Gersau.
    Taking a Swim at Gersau.

    A nice enough ride along the lake to my goal at Gersau. An easy flatish run without much traffic. Though it would have been better going the other way without the road between me and the lake.

    I spent an hour in Gersau by the lake swimming and relaxing. The cooler air around the lake and chance to take a dip made a big difference to the “oven of hell” experience that covered the last two days.

    Stayed at the Hotel Platten which comes with a beautiful view over the village and lake from 170m up. The only problem being the 170m climb up undid the cooling swim in the lake.

    View from Hotel Platten over Gersau.
    View from Hotel Platten over Gersau.

    In the evening I followed the footpath a little further up the hillside to read and watch the view from a meadow. Cow bells were jingling in the background and it was finally a comfortable temperature. It would have been pretty perfect if I didn’t have to knock off 3 ticks that tried to climb my legs.


    Day 4 – around the lake to Lucerne and on to Sursee

    Key Information

    Route: Gersau – Weggis – Küssnacht – Luzern – Sempach – Sursee.

    Length: 65km, +800m, -900m.

    Date: 2021-June-20.

    My plan was to follow the lake to Lucerne and then as far home as I can be bothered to ride then take the train. The route beyond Lucerne is away from the mountains and probably isn’t of interest for most people (unless you live near me).

    A thankfully cooler and cloudier, but still somewhat humid day.

    Rolled down into Gersau and set off along the lake towards Lucerne. It would be nicer for the view and traffic safety to be going the other way on the lake-side of the road, but there was very little traffic heading away from the mountains first thing on a Sunday morning at least.

    Alongside the lake near Küssnacht.
    Alongside the lake near Küssnacht.

    The lakefront from Brunnen to Weggis is an exercise in making you feel poor. So many expensive looking houses and cars. I made a little detour to Hertenstein at the top of the peninsula by Weggis which was worth it for the views. This was the first time I passed through Weggis (other than by boat) since I did the Mark Twain hike up to Rigi, it has a fantastic view but isn’t really all that interesting in itself.

    From Küssnacht the bike route climbs onto a ridge. It is not very high, but they sure picked a mean bit of steep farm road for you to climb up onto it. You do stay up for a while and have good views from the top of the ridge back to the Alps though.

    The route leading into and through Lucerne is well marked and easy to follow. In the centre it passes through the old town, then coming out of Lucerne you are bounced through various industrial and bland suburban areas going towards Sempach.

    Passing through Lucerne.
    Passing through Lucerne.

    It is a bit odd after a few days in the Alps to enter the relatively flat Mittelland with only gentle hills around.

    I was barely aware that Sempach existed and was rather impressed by the little old town. Not a must see, but a nice surprise when I had no expectations for the area. It has its own lake (the Sempachersee) which I carried on alongside to Sursee.

    Gentler landscape by the Sempachersee.
    Gentler landscape by the Sempachersee.
    Sempach.
    Sempach.

    Sursee also has quite a nice old town. Again – not a must see but a very nice place to find yourself passing through. It also has frequent trains on the Lucerne/Olten line.

    I had been playing with the idea of carrying on as far as Hägendorf for an easy final direct ride home on my local regional train. Given the lack of sleep over the last few days and the rapidly rising temperature I decided Sursee was far enough.

    Sursee.
    Sursee.

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