Photo: Approaching the Kandersteg end of the pass.
A classic route crossing between Valais and Bern.
Route: Leukerbad – Gemmi pass – Gasterntal – Kandersteg.
Length: 21km, +1050m, -1250m.
For more hikes in Switzerland see my list of hikes.
Season: Late spring to Autumn. The hike over the top of the pass is also doable in winter (taking the cable car at each end), the snow is pressed down like a ski-piste so no special equipment or skills are required.
Arrival/Departure: Bus to Luekerbad / Train from Kandersteg.
Supplies: Restaurants/shops at the start and end. Restaurants at the Gemmi pass cable car, the Hotel Schwarenbach halfway along the pass and Hotel Waldhaus in Gasterntal.
Alternate routes/shortcuts: The far more sensible option would be to take the cable car from Leukerbad to the Gemmipass to get up, and then the cable car down from Sunnbüel to Kandersteg, reducing the hike to a much more reasonable 9km, +110m, – 520m.
Exposure/Hazards: Nothing much to worry about beyond the standard rules for hiking in the mountains. The path over the pass especially is a wide and gentle gravel road.
Despite not being that famous it is quite a popular route. I passed people more consistently on this route than on most other paths I have taken in the Alps.
Notes along the route
The Gemmi pass was an important route in the early days of tourism for those connecting the Berner Oberland and Valais before the train tunnels. It is by far the easiest pass between Bern and Valais. I was quite curious to see it after reading ‘A Tramp Abroad’ by Mark Twain and ‘Slow Train to Switzerland’ by Diccon Bewes. All the accounts from the 1800s when it was a key trade/tourist route come with details of perilous moments on precarious cliff paths. It has been presumably made a bit safer since then (and there are less tourist on donkeys going past each other) as I didn’t see any points that seemed so dangerous. It does still cut an impressive line when seen from the cable car though and is an impressive start to the hike with the cliffs towering above the village. There is also a Via Ferrata near the top if you really want to hang off the edge of the cliff.
At the top of the pass you are greeted by a glacier, a bunker with the gun port pointing at you, and sheep. Because Switzerland.
From the pass there is view back over Leukerbad and the Valais Alps is quite good, including the Matterhorn (which isn’t instantly recognisable from this angle)
Once past the Gemmi the rest of the pass isn’t especially pretty. Bare rock with bits of grass. Not bad, but it doesn’t really stand out and I wouldn’t call it a must see (beyond the novelty of crossing the pass). The electricity pylons which accompany you the whole way across don’t help either.
It is gently downhill all the way to the turn off for Gasterntal.
A colleague had suggested seeing Gasternal when in the area so I planned a diversion into the lower end of the valley to have a quick look. This added some distance on to the route and removed the chance to take the cable car down, but the path going down into the hidden and often overlooked Gasterntal was by far the best part of the hike (it is worth a visit in itself). The views up the valley with its steep cliffs were stunning too. Like Lauterbrunnen, but with nothing but a few farms inside it. I stopped for a beer at the Hotel Waldhaus which was a perfect spot to admire the valley and waterfall.
From the Hotel Waldhaus the path follows a narrow section of gorge down before entering the wide and flat valley around Kandersteg next to the Sunnbüel cable car station. There is a chance to take the bus from here to Kandersteg station (stop ‘Kandersteg (Talst. Sunnbüel)’, runs hourly), otherwise the last few kilometres into the village are very easy and enjoyable.