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MTB – To the source of the Emme river

    Emme Tour

    Photo: Close to the source of the Emme. Looking towards Sörenberg from the climb towards Lombachalp.

    Three days biking into the Alps and out again through the Emmental/Entlebuch regions along the Emme from 17-19 July 2020.


    Where

    Emme:

    • A river that runs from the Alps into the Aare. Apparently from the celtic word for river.
    • It is a pretty enough but not especially impressive river for the most part. For most of the length you could walk across it and not get your knees wet, but when it floods it can cause quite a bit of damage.

    Emmental and the Entlebuch:

    • A beautiful region of forest, hills, cows, and giant farmhouses that basically forms a circle with Bern/Luzern/Interlaken being the west/east/south points. As you go from north to south it changes from rolling hills, to steep but rounded hills, and finally to towering cliffs as you reach the Alps.
    • Split into Emmental and Entlebuch the only real difference I can tell is that the former is in canton Bern and the later in canton Luzern. Otherwise the landscape they offer is much of the same.

    Schangnau:

    • A tiny village of about 20 buildings sat below the towering cliffs of the Hohgant.
    • Despite the size there is a supermarket, bakery, and hotel/restaurant.
    • A bus goes to Escholzmatt where you can get the train towards Bern or Luzern.

    Hohgant:

    • A giant lump of rock and cliffs surrounded by forests and high moors and very little else.
    • I had passed through part of this on a previous trip and had been really struck by the landscape, so I was very eager to see more of it.
    • There will be a few hikers and bikers around, but with no drivable pass roads and compared to the nearby Interlaken and Jungfrau regions it is deserted and wild.
    Route

    Plan

    I have lived near the mouth of the river Emme where it enters the Aare for 5 years now. So the idea occurred to me to ride the length of it, which at 82km isn’t much as far as rivers go. I came up with the idea then found that a local blogger called Spoony had done a very similar trip 13 years ago and a swiss friend is doing it by foot in weekend segments so it wasn’t the most original of ideas (but this might be the only English language blog to cover it).

    A clear July weekend with “warm but not too hot” temperatures seemed a good chance to finally get around to doing it. In total it came to 180km with 3400m of height gain over the 3 days. This worked out quite nicely as two half day rides, and one very relaxed full day.

    Camping was my original plan in line with the bike packing theme. Finding a camping spot at short notice (and especially in an out of the way location) can be a little hard so I settled for a room and Credit Card touring instead. I wasn’t too sad at the resulting drop in weight and bulk.

    Security is my biggest concern when travelling with a bike (that and the faff of getting it on an off trains). Though if you are not safe in a small Swiss hamlet or on a farm then you are not safe anywhere.

    Gear

    • Mountain bike – could easily have been a gravel or road bike instead to have done most of the route.
    • 18L backpack and saddle bag. Neither full.
    • The main items were: 2 pairs of shorts, 2 pairs shirts, bike tools, water bottle for bike and bag, waterproofs, hoody, toothbrush/paste. Basically enough to protect against the weather when out, and let me reuse the first set of clothes for 2 rides and have another set to keep me smelling nice in the evening until I left the hotel on day 3.
    • Food kept to a minimum. It was never more than a few kilometres before passing the next shop or place to eat. I had more than enough cereal bars in an emergency.

    A note on taking bikes onto Swiss trains

    Taking bikes on trains can be a pain. The main problem is the lack of space in most trains. The ICE trains have 3 tight spaces with hooks that are not especially MTB friendly. On some lines bike reservation is required to avoid conflict, but not everyone knows or cares and it doesn’t affect other items. Often the space is seen as somewhere to store your luggage or pram (and in fairness there isn’t much room for your pram otherwise). So I entered to find 2 bikes, 2 prams, and 2 suitcases occupying the space, but did manage to fit in at least.

    For a few Franks extra on the bike day pass you can send it ahead. This costs 18CHF vs 14CHF for self loading, but there is no reservation cost. It isn’t able to send bikes everywhere, but it is damn near everywhere, even tiny bus only villages. Often you can get a discounted or free return if going to a popular tourist area like Ticino. I will certainly use this next time I plan to go anywhere more than an hour or few changes away. The only downside is that it requires a full day between sending and collecting so it is not for spontaneous trips.

    Accommodation

    Hotel Alpenrose. Single bed room with shared bathroom – 65CHF per night including breakfast.

    There are a not insignificant number of rural Swiss hotels that are not on any search engine. You either have to find them whilst out, or by trawling Google maps for accommodation markers. Then there probably isn’t a booking system beyond sending them an email (might take days if you ever even get a reply) or phone up and ask (might be a challenge for those who don’t speak the local language). Alpenrose ist very much one of these.

    Located outside of the tiny Bumbach hamlet near the tiny village of Schangnau in an out of the way part of the Emmental this is very rural. But there is a bus stop right outside (“Bumbach, Alpenrose”) which takes you to Escholzmatt where trains connect to Bern and Luzern (buses run until 7pm, with a late bus on the weekend).

    A family run place it is very typical of rural Swiss restaurant. Very friendly. Very good food. It appeared on the SRF TV show Mini Beiz Dini Beiz if you want a very Swiss introduction to it. It was not full either night, and it seemed all the other guests were through-hikers staying one night. The floor was quite creaky and there not much soundproofing between rooms. So if your neighbour is the sort to start packing at 11pm or wake up at 6am you will know about it.

    Hotel Alpenrose (front centre) with the Hohgrant towering above.


    I had also looked at fancy(er) hotel Kemmeribodenbad, but it was full. Likewise the Gasthof Löwen in Schangnau itself looked very nice but didn’t answer the phone.


    Day 1 – Home to Schangnau

    Key Information

    Route: Lucerne – Rengg – Entlebuch – Eschholzmatt – Schangnau – Bumbach.

    Length: 64km, +1300m, -800m.

    Date: 2020-July-17.

    Emme ride day 1


    I had various ideas for what I would have like to have done to get to the Schangnau area:

    1. Train to Giswil. Then over the Glaubenbergpass to Sörenberg and then over the next pass to Schangnau. Either the whole pass from Geswil, or trying to use the train up to Lungern to cut off some of the climb. This would have been by far the most interesting and impressive, but the weather wasn’t the best and I didn’t fancy pushing too hard right away. In the end it would have just been cloud and rain if I had taken this route.
    2. Train to Thun then on Route 4 or similar. Such as with a detour up to Inner Eriz.
    3. Train to Lucerne then cycle through the Entlebuch. This would also fit the theme as I would follow the Klein Emme and Wiss Emme.
    4. Cycle all the way from home, basically doing a similar trip on days 1 and 3.

    Given the weather and looking for something new I went for the Lucerne option. Most of the way sticks on or close to roads, but the views are impressive. Or would be if the weather wasn’t overcast with the odd threat of rain. There is a constant series of towns or farms selling stuff along the way so you never need go hungry or have to carry much. It also allowed an easy out with trains/buses that can take your bike.

    I used a mix of cycling paths: Route 24 to Escholzmatt, with a detour on part of Route 73 from Shach to Entlebuch, then from Escholzmatt to Schangnau and onto Bumbach on Route 4.

    Initially wonderful. Walking the bike through the centre of Lucerne along the river whilst munching a snack picked up in the station.

    The problem with Lucerne is that it quickly goes from old town to ugly, especially going inland away from the lake. I sheltered from the rain in this postcard location. Then the route took me alongside a busy road and through an industrial area which had all the charm of an American strip mall. This might have been improved by the view in the background had it not been grey and raining. I didn’t feel unsafe with the road (clear markings and space for bikes), but it certainly could have been better separated and wasn’t much fun. I have been lucky to have had very few bad experiences in Switzerland, so that certainly makes the list.

    The turning point was marked by a giant concrete chicken. After this the industry turned to countryside and I was taken off the main road and didn’t have to deal with heavy/fast traffic again.

    At this point I had two options:

    • Follow Route 24 around Wolhusen. Easy with less of a climb, but more built up and more road.
    • Climb over a high valley on Route 73 to cut the corner. This would require more height gain but would also be quieter and more scenic.

    I went with the climb. I had done almost all the trip by car/bus/train before so this and the last few km were the only new bits. There were limited views given the weather, but it was still beautiful and very quiet.

    Looking over the Entlebuch from Münenberg.

    Dropping down to Entlebuch and along the valley I stuck to the marked bike route which whilst a bit round about is much nicer than going down the narrow and busy main road without a bike lane.

    The road was busy but bearable as something to ride beside and occasionally on. I imagine on a sunny weekend day it would be much busier with motorbikes.

    After I arrived the last bit of rain cleared up and I got to enjoy one of my favourite parts of staying in the Alps: a post dinner walk. Turning left out of the hotel brings you to a marked footpath which you can follow up the hillside for some fantastic views of the cliffs and a chorus of cow bells clunking around the valley.


    Day 2: To the Emme source and round the Hohgant to Habkern

    Key Information

    Route: Bumbach – Kemmeriboden – Lombachalp – Habkern – Grünenbergpass – Innereriz – Bumbach.

    Length: 43km, +1600m, -1600m.

    Date: 2020-July-18

    Emme ride day 1

    I followed the Hohgant circular tour with a detour down to Innereriz. The route is suggested going clockwise and I strongly agree with this – you will have a fair bit less fun pushing your bike all the way up the rocky north side of the Grünenbergpass and having to push it down to Kemmeriboden.

    Initially a very nice and easy warm up from Bumbach through the gentle valley to Kemmeriboden and through a gorge.
    At the turn off from the road it got steeper and then reached what the info page describes as a push section. I was a bit confused as my mountain bike map said it was unpaved road, but showed as a black “very hard” section which is a rare sight. They weren’t kidding, it turned to be a 35% rock garden to start with (with a gate across the path at the bottom to stop you if you did decide to try and ride down it). Just to add to the fun the size of the rocks ensured you had to keep lifting the front of your bike to avoid getting stuck (or carry it on your back). The gradient shallowed out quickly, but it was still so rocky that I ended up pushing for the better part of a km. A pain for me, a damn sight worse for the E-bikers who had just caught up to me at the start of the rocks and now had much heavier bikes to push. Upon reaching the first farmhouse the path turned to smooth gravel road and from here on the climb was gentle on gravel and then paved roads.

    A gentle start from Bumbach alongside the Emme.
    The rocky push/climb up.

    After a sharp right turn it suddenly changed to a nice glide at consistent height over the pass/plateau through meadows and forests with expansive views for the next 5 km until Lombachalp. The Emme Source was along this section, but would have required some hiking through a field to really visit. I don’t think there is anything to see other than one bit of meadow which is slightly less muddy than the bit of meadow below it, so I am calling passing by on the road to be close enough.

    A highlight was seeing a car coming towards me on the road which blocked by cows. Every action they took resulted in more cows coming onto the road. At one point they were down to just one cow, tried honking their horn, and found 6 more panicked cows in their way.

    The Jägerstübli at Lombachalp was very busy (this and the descent were the most touristy I saw anywhere). Lots of cars were parked and more were constantly coming up (despite the rather limited parking). A good reason for this is that it offers easy access to the Augstmatthorn which is only “550m” climb up from there. A large number of hikers were heading up and visible on the ridge, despite the fact that clouds had formed and would be blocking the view entirely.

    Gentle climb up to Alp Lombach close to the source of the Emme.
    Enjoying some shade on the way down to Habkern.

    Being Switzerland there is a public transport option if you take a mini-bus (with mandatory reservation) from Habkern. For such a popular place the offerings were quite basic snacks rather than meals, but it would a good place to grab cheese. Sadly despite passing so many chances to buy cheese from an Alp farm I simply couldn’t eat it all myself or want to carry it back home in the sun on day 3.

    From here there are a few other options beyond carrying on with the signed loop:

    Sadly clouds were blocking the nicer parts of the views. I got glimpses at least. And it was better to be a bit cooler and in the shade than die in extreme heat. Though coming down the pass to Habkern I actually would have appreciated a pair of gloves. The descent itself is down a paved road with the only concern being oncoming traffic/bikers/hikers.

    Through Habkern which makes a good start for a number of hikes but isn’t very memorable in itself (but is in a pretty location). You pass by a fountain for water, and there are shops just off the marked route.

    A nice flat section after Habkern had me wondering how badly I was going to pay for it later, I found out shortly as a fairly unrelenting climb led to the Grünenbergpass. As the name suggests it is very green being mostly in forest, but with some beautiful views out over the Hohgant and off to the Oberland. The climb up the south side is either paved or smooth(ish) gravel/stone. The descent down the north side is marked as a black hard route in my mountain bike trails map and is very rocky. The worst part is the initial descent to the first footpath sign, after which is gets steadily smoother and more flowy.

    Descending from the Grünenbergpass.
    The last section back to Bumbach.

    As I had no shortage of time and had not been into the valley before I descended for a few minutes down to Säge at the end of Zulgtal to take an Eiscafe at the Gasthof Säge.

    A short climb then a beautiful descent towards Schangnau with nothing but forest mountains and the odd farm around. I took this at almost walking speed to admire the views. Having done this part with tired feet at the end of a long hike it was especially nice just to glide over it.

    I stopped to cool my feet in the Emme river for a while. Rivers and streams are something to be careful with as discharges from hydroelectric plants are always possible. But the bank of the Emme is a paddling/BBQ spot for locals all the way down.
    The route joins the main road at Bumbach just before the hotel which was very nice.

    All in all I was on the road for about 6 hours. But I really didn’t push myself and stopped to admire the views often.


    Day 3: Following the Emme back to Solothurn

    Key Information

    Route: Schangnau – Eggiwil – Schüpbach – Burgdorf – Utzenstorf – Solothurn.

    Length: 73 km, +500m, -1000m.

    Date: 2020-July-18.

    Emme ride day 3

    Ride:

    This would be more scenic going upstream with the mountains in front of you. But either way it was good, and travelling almost all downhill was nice after the last 2 days.

    I made a plan to follow the Emme as closely as possible. Initially this is a bit hard out of Schangnau as it goes into a deep valley/ditch without a path or road that close to it. I chose to go along the east side which follows a small road through sparse farms rather than the main road on the west side.

    About halfway along the ditch I turned away from the Emme at Pfaffenmoos into the next valley (the Schopfgrabe) and followed the marked hiking footpath on what turned out to be a fun bit of single trail (got to justify dragging the MTB all that way).

    Emmental from the single trail diversion.
    The Emme near Eggiswil.

    Very pleasant ride from Heidbühl to Dieboldswil as a car free road followed the river. After that I stayed on the road until Emmenmatt. From Emmenmatt a mix of following the marked bike paths and careful selection of grave paths was enough to keep me off the road and close to the river until the end. You can stay right on the footpath right beside the river most of the way, however on a sunny weekend you will be slowed somewhat by families out for a walk or other cyclists. It just wasn’t worth the hassle so I mostly avoided this unless it was a wider gravel street.

    My final goal was the Emmespitz where the Emme enters the Aare (which I also finished riding a few years later). If you hang around there in the morning or evening you might see beavers (or at least some drunk teens). From there it was just 10 gentle minutes along the Aare to get home to Solothurn.

    Emmespitz. The Emme (right) flowing into the Aare (left).
    Along the Aare to Solothurn

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