Photo: View from Lüdneralp looking south to the Alps.
My goal here was to draw a long line through parts of the Emmental I hadn’t visited before: especially the Thun-Langnau section of route 99, and Lüderenalp and Ahornalp in the Napf region.
When: Friday 30th October to Sunday 1st November 2020. For the end of October it was quite warm being in the 5-14 C range. Saturday morning was a bit frosty at first but quickly warmed up in the sun. Even riding in light drizzle on Sunday for a few hours was fine.
Total distance: 189km, +4366m, -4491m.
- I really love the Emmental region. The giant farmhouses, layers of wooded ridges, and endless cows feel very Swiss. Most of it is very rural and almost forgotten so you often have the place to yourself. I can easily ride to parts from my house and back in a day so it has been a favourite during 2020. The flip side to a landscape of ridges and valleys is that the total riding over the three days involved a few climbs (189km, + 4366m, – 4491m).
- The Emmental is especially nice in autumn. The colour change in the trees is not especially strong, but on a good day the layers of forested valleys above the fog and clear views of the Alps is hard to beat. Previously I have hiked the very prominent peak Napf in October a few times.
- The region is clearly increasingly focusing on bike tourism to bring visitors and money in. There were charging stations for E-bikes along the way.
There had been a big spike around this time. Whilst everything I did was well within the boundaries of the law (I could have legally done far more) I was really on the edge of my ethical comfort zone here. My Covid-Footprint has been tiny so far, and given what people were doing at the same time with even higher cases my trip can’t even be compared.
Over the course of 3 days I took 1 very quiet train, ate and stayed in 2 very quiet hotels in quiet and rural (but only 30 mins drive from major hospitals, so not screw your health system remote) places. In theory I had less contact with people than a trip to my local shops.
The only time I really saw many people was at the lookouts around Lüderenalp and Ahorn. Where at least there was lots of space.
Gear and Packing
- Gravel bike. Given that the route was 95% or so paved it made the most sense. There were a few times I wished I had my MTB, but that was entirely due to my own shortcuts taking footpaths which were certainly not suggested by the bike routes.
- All the official routes are well signed, but I still like to have the sat-nav to hand to check how far until the next turn etc to concentrate on the views rather than scanning for signs all the time. Sometimes the route will turn off onto a hidden side path with little warning.
- The gear I carried was: 15L backpack (warm layers and essentials), 16L saddle bag (change of clothes and less essential items), frame bag (snacks and tools).
- At least in terms of volume I over packed a bit. But I went on side of too much warm clothing as it didn’t add much weight.
- When doing big bike tours I just try to remember to eat a snack once an hour but don’t tend to eat much other than small items like cereal bars, apples, mint cake etc to keep the legs moving until the evening meal.
Accommodation: 110CHF and 80CHF.
Food: 2x evening meal and breakfast at the hotels totalling about 120CHF (this could have been much reduced). Given that I figured I wouldn’t be eating out again any time soon (still havn’t) and this was the time of year that you get hearty game based autumn meals I splurged there. Plus about 20CHF worth of snacks.
Drink: Probably about 20CHF worth of beer and coffee.
Transport: A full fare for me would have been 35CHF, with another 14CHF for the bike day ticket.
Cheese: 15CHF for a 900g wheel of Mütschli to take home.
Total: About 400CHF.
With more camping friendly weather this could easily have been knocked down to more like 100CHF or less.
Day 1 – Thun to Signua on Route 99
Route: Thun – Signau. Route 99 from Thun direction Langnau IE.
Length: 67km, +1790m, -1644m.
Started with a train to the start point in Thun. I waited until the end of rush hour and took the slower direct train from Solothurn (1hr37min vs 1hr07min). Partly this was to ensure it would be as quiet as possible, but also for some new views through Biglental which I hadn’t gone through before, and also to save having to faff with a change at Bern or the extra charge for reservation on the 2nd train to Thun. The Solothurn-Thun line is run by BLS rather than SBB and is notable for featuring what must be some of the oldest rolling stock in Switzerland (still better than UK Sprinters). Unsurprisingly not many people wanted to travel very slowly to obscure villages mid-morning on a Friday so I had the train to myself.
Wheeling out of Thun station I jumped straight onto Route 99. The other sections of this I have done were fantastic so I had high expectations. This was a stunning ride at times, but sometimes felt like it was taking the piss a little in just constantly throwing you around. For the height gain it felt like the views could have been more consistent. My mood wasn’t helped by my sat-nav telling me I still had massive amounts of height to gain the whole time, something I later released was very wrong (it thought I still had 600m more climb left at the end).
Thun has a beautiful river section and old town which route 99 takes you through the heart of it.
This was the biggest urban area on the ride, but escaping Thun was an easy 10-15 minutes down some fairly quiet roads a few minutes through some forgettable suburbs. Then it was forests and farms almost all the way.
Looking at the height change this starts with a big climb out of Thun and then constant series of little climbs and drops afterwards. The big climb out of Thun was quite gradual and didn’t have any nasty steep sections, though the later part of knowing that any fun descent was going to paid for afterwards.
The view across Thunnersee and to the mountains around it which opened up just before Heiligenschwendi was impressive but quite short lived (you get it for less than 5km of the ride). I still got some bits of Alp later, but mostly just the peaks poking up over the hills.
After losing sight of the lake the rest of the ride was basically following windy backroads through some very lonely parts of the Emmental. Sometimes in the forest, sometimes with more expansive views, very often wondering how so many remote farmhouses survive with nothing but trees and one tiny bit of grazing land around them.
The historic church at Würzbrunnen after the last climb was worth a look. There is also a lookout tower (Aussichtsturm Chuderhüsi) which I was unaware of at the time but would have been worth a little detour.
I didn’t quite do the full route to Langau, stopping instead a few km short to spend the night in the much smaller village of Signau. The village is narrow and just strung along 500m or so of road but has everything you need (supermarket, restaurants, bakers, even a butchers).
I stayed at Zum Roten Thurm in Signau. Friendly staff, good food and it offered a bike garage, which was literally a garage but did keep the bike safe. The building itself is quite historic being an old court house. The interior decoration was also historic, sporting the 1970s wood panel and green bathroom that many Swiss hotels of a certain age have. It even had an indoor smoking room which is a rare sight these days.
Day 2 – to Luthern via Lüderenalp and Ahorn
Route: Signau to Langau – Route 399 to Eriswil – Ahorn – Luthern.
Length: 58km, +1733m, -1652m.
The day got off to a cool but sunny and clear start. Perfect conditions for a day in the Emmental in autumn. This had everything: endless cows with bells, layers of valleys in the mist, cliché giant wooden farmhouses perched everywhere, alpine views.
Despite being a fair bit of climbing packed into a shorter distance this was a much better day, it was only a little bit easier than the previous day but felt much better. Maybe I was less anxious (I tend to be a bit anxious at the start of trips), maybe the route felt a bit less like it was taking the piss, certainly the views were more consistent and impressive.
Started by knocking off the last few km of the route 99 section into Langnau, I quickly crossed the Emme (meeting my route from my other big tour in the region this year).
At Langnau I joined Route 399 heading to Willisau on what is the spin-off loop of route 99.
Out of Langnau there is a short climb over the ridge to Gohl then a ride up the beautiful (and very low car) Gohlgrabe valley to the restaurant and lookout at Lüdneralp. I quickly stopped at Lüderenalp to admire the views with a coffee and Nussgipfeli.
From Lüdeneralp there was amazing flowy descent along a ridge to Sumiswald. I highly recommend riding in this direction rather than towards Langnau, the valley descent in the opposite direction towards Langnau wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good.
I had thought it was a mess you around with what seemed like a diversion to Summiswald. But the ridge ride along to Wyssachen was fantastic. I had also planned an alternative (and much steeper) direct route via Wasen to Ahorn but am glad I didn’t do that.
Leaving Route 399 in Eriswil I headed up the road to the Ahorn. The climb wasn’t too bad: mostly it was shallower than I expected. Ahorn itself was busy with a very full carpark and the Ahorn restaurant itself was quite an ugly modern building. Going a few minutes around the corner to Brestenegg was much nicer in terms of atmosphere and views. No alpine view there, but there wasn’t any from the Arhorn itself anyway.
As I sat drinking a beer it occurred me that my planned descent was a bit questionable. There was a very steep part which I walked the bike down, then another with very loose gravel which was rather tricky. With a MTB it would have all been ok, but on a racing style setup it was a bit too steep and sketchy. I later realised that the steeper part could have been avoided and I suspect taking the ridge to the north would have been a far better idea.
My end goal was Luthern. A tiny village which is basically the last thing in the valley bigger than a farm. The main reason for choosing this was the fact I could just roll straight down from the Ahorn at the end of the route. There are few surprisingly grand buildings, a bakery, and a small cheese shop, but otherwise nothing. You would have to go 5km+ to the nearest small supermarket. I later saw that it is on one of the lists of most beautiful villages, although while it certainly isn’t ugly I wouldn’t have raised it so high up myself.
Stayed at Gasthof Krone. Again it was an old historic building, but it seems the rooms were recently renovated and felt like a high-end student dorm. Good food though. Safe and easy bike storage in their garage. They also sold chunks of local cheese which I picked up on check out in the morning.
A moonlit walk up to the chapel on the Heuberg overlooking the village was a nice way to spend the evening.
Day 3 – Homeward to Solothurn via Pfaffnau
This was going to be the least interesting and easiest day with less dramatic landscapes (and ones that I already knew well closer to home) and a mere half of the climb. Though in the end it turned out more varied than I expected.
The weather was tolerable but not amazing. It had started with predictions of slightly sunny but then slowly turned into cloud and rain. I could have simply rolled down to Zell and taken some slow trains home from there if it turned out to be too bad.
My plan was to head down the valley to Zell and follow the various marked routes with a diversion to Pffnau to see some more new areas.
Instead of simply rolling 10km down the valley to Zell I took the road towards Hergiswil up the side of the valley, then turned along the ridge following the marked footpath towards Zell. This was totally empty (which isn’t surprising for that area at the start of November) and other than one rough section (which would have been fine with a MTB) perfectly ridable.
From Zell I joined Route 38. I was rather surprised at how high I found myself climbing up to Bellevue which did at least earn its name with the last expansive high view of the trip. The descent down on gravel roads was fun (despite the light drizzle kicking in).
Dropped into the gentle rolling hills of the Swiss plateau, taking Route 84 to Herzogenbuchsee. There were some attractive even rural areas and pleasant riding, but nothing spectacular.
The giant (former) monastery at St Urban was a bit of a surprise. I have lived 30km away for years and was totally unaware of it. The building is tucked away in a rather quiet and out of the way valley in my defense.
From Herzogenbuchsee I followed Route 802 for the last few km back to Solothurn.