Photo: Looking across to the Jungfrauregion from the ridge above Niederhorn.
A long hike through edge of the Alps in canton Bern. Each section had a very different feel. Initially you are on a bare high alpine ridge with outstanding views all around. Then you drop into a wild and rugged forest with meadows and glacier carved rocks. Finally you leave the rocky mountains behind and head into the forested and steep farmlands of the Emmental region.
Route: Niederhorn – Burgfeldstand – Gemmenalphorn – Grünebergpass – Rotmoss – Schangnau.
Length: 20.3km, +701m, -1704m.
Anyone going past Thunersee on the train will likely have noticed the impressive mountain on the other side of the lake that looks like someone tore the heart out of it with a giant ice cream scooper. Where there should be a single mountain is a valley going up with steep cliffs rising up on either side. This is the Justital, and the higher side (with the tower and cable car) is the Niederhorn.
I had always planned to get in there. Ideally going around the back to Innereriz, climbing up through the pass at Sichle into Justital, and then up to Niederhorn for some well earned views. Sadly the bus time from Thun to Innereiz and the warning of an overcast afternoon made me decide to do it in reverse (with an extension to Schangau if I arrived at Innereriz during the 2 hour no bus gap in the afternoon).
I had done part of this route before, from Niederhorn to Habkern, in December and noted the region to the north of Habkern looked curiously wild and untouched making me want to go back for a closer look. Oddly thanks to a dry winter there was almost as much snow then as in June.
I still havn’t actually gotten into Justital yet. Though it sure does look pretty with lots of little farms snuggled up inside
This route ends in Emmental the home of the Emmentaler “Swiss Cheese” cheese, though it is fairly boring compared to what else is made here (like the Wilde Bergfee made in Schangnau). It isn’t the most dramatic region – but the landscape is still wonderful. A mix of rolling and rugged steep hills that offer great views of the Alps. A bit like Appenzellerland. The only downside is that getting around it by public transport isn’t that fast (but is of course possible given that this is Switzerland).
Season: Late Spring to Autumn.
Arrival/Departure: Cable car to Niederhorn via Beatenberg from Thun or Interlaken / Bus from Schangnau to Eschholzmatt where trains run to Bern or Lucerne.
Supplies: A restaurant at Niederhorn and shops and restaurants at Schangnau, otherwise there is nothing along the route (though you can divert to Habkern or Innereriz).
Alternate routes/shortcuts: Much easier options are Niederhorn – Waldegg (6.5km, +40, – 786m directly, or the more scenic route 342), Niederhorn – Habkern (10km, + 160m, -1000m), Niederhorn – Innereriz (15km, + 670m, -1570m). All of which have connections by bus back t the main train line.
Exposure/Hazards: There is one section on the north side of the ridge to the Gemmenalphorn which might be blocked or made risky by snow.
Notes along the route
Arrival at Niederhorn via the cable car with a break to take a coffee at the restaurant. At the very least admire the Dragon slide, and take a look at the views down to Lake Thun from the far side of the building and Justital to the north. The unbeatable panorama of the Oberland will be with you for a while.
Then head up following the signs for Gemmenalphorn. The first section is easy, with only a minor climb up to Burgfeldstand (2063), the main danger is tripping over something whilst watching the Jungfrau trio to your right.
Keep an eye out for wildlife. Both times I have seen Steinböcke/Gämse with very little few of people hanging out at the top of the cliffs on the left. In Spring I was surprised to see little ponds were stuffed full of newts/salamanders.
From the Burgfeldstand until after the descent from the Gemmenalphorn it is rather rocky and steep. No need for any equipment beyond good shoes, but just be ready for that. There are also a few sections where the path switches to the northface and you might have trouble with snow piles.
After you descend down from the Gemmenalphorn (following signs for Grünebergpass) you will start to enter the tree line and encounter vast amounts of rock formations created by glacial carvings.
This area had caught my eye from afar before and it was interesting to hike across it. Especially finding somewhere that felt so wild but was so close to the major Jungfrau/Interlaken tourist area.
The route was a bit up and down but never hard. It was some of the best glacial carving I have seen outside of places like the Aletsch forest. The rugged landscape doesn’t make it very suitable for much farming (beyond maybe a few goats) so there is very little up here beyond rocks and trees. There are a few huts, and a few other hikers, but mostly you have it all to yourself. The Oberland continues to tower over you here, and looks even more impressive as it rises over layer upon layer of hills.
You come across numerous options here to turn down to Habkern for a shorter route.
The Grünebergpass is in a forest and hemmed in by steep cliffs so there isn’t any view (but there is a bunker and firing port to greet you). From the Grünebergpass you follow the signs for Innereriz (the valley you are coming up to is Eriztal, so it is the inner most part of it). The initial descent is a (very rough as I found out when riding it on a MTB) road and seems to be what you would follow all the way down to the village.
Following the road you then come across a turn off for Schangnau, this takes you onto a narrow path along the steep hillside which climbs and dips through forest, meadows and below cliffs. There is a bit of up and down and some scree, but nothing too bad.
Once you join the road you sadly stay on it for most of the remaining hike. It is still a beautiful route, and there is no traffic beyond the odd farmer, but walking on a road just isn’t the same as a nice footpath through the fields.
From here I saw nobody but a few farmers who were hard at work collecting in the hay. It felt like an utterly untouched area.
This route swings you around to Bumbachtal. A valley with a moderately hilarious name but some beautiful views, big rocky ridges. It is also a fantastic example of the steep valleys, wooden stream ravines, and giant Emmentaler farmhouses that define the region.
As you finally approach Schangnau you cross a stream with a little beach type area 5 mins out from the village – a good chance to cool your feet. After one last little climb and crossing a field you enter the village of Schangnau itself. There are a few shops and a pub (but sadly no fountain that I could find) for refreshment.
From Schangau take the Postbus to Escholzmatt then the train to Bern (passing by the the very Swiss Kambly biscuit factory at Trubenschachen). A very scenic ride, if not the fastest.