Photo: Zervreilahorn above the Zervreilasee.
Looking at my map of my travels around Switzerland I noticed a large hole in the south-east, and decided to fill it. So I headed off for the San Bernardino pass and the area around Splügen for a 4 day adventure.
I was especially happy to do this as I don’t spend enough time in Graubünden. The region has a raw/rough rugged feel to the mountains that you just don’t get in the more popular areas like the Jungfrau region. The enormity of them feels just so much greater, especially the Glarus Thrust area which is just giant raw lumps of rock.
I did this over the 22nd-25th of August 2019. Mid August is perfect for these high places. Flowers are out and the high meadows are as green as they are going to get. I passed a few patches of remaining snow high up, but none on the actual path so it didn’t cause a problem.
- Train to Bellinzona (3hrs), Postbus to San Bernardino (1hr).
- Hike to Pian Lumbrif, Cassina da Vignum and back to San Bernardino (6.8km, 500m+, 500m-).
- Postbus over the pass to Splügen (1hr).
- Overnight in Splügen. Hotel Piz Tambo.
- Hike from Splügen to Thalkirch via Seiferberg (15km, 1000m+, 900m-, est 5hrs).
- Bus/train/bus back to Splügen via Chur (2.5hrs).
- Overnight in Splügen. Hotel Piz Tambo.
- Postbus to Hinterrhein (10 mins).
- Hike to Vals via Valserberg and Uf der Matta following Route 35 (15km, 1000m+,1300m-, est 6hrs).
- Thermal baths at Hotel 7132. (80CHF full price, discounted to 45CHF if you stay in the area overnight)
- Overnight in Vals. Schynder B&B.
- Postbus to ‘Vals, Zervreila’ (20mins).
- Short walk along the Zervreilasee (4km, 150m+, 150m-).
- Bus/train/train/train home via Postbus from ‘Vals, Zervreila’ down to the station at Ilanz (1hr13min), train to Chur (38mins), train to Zürich (1hr14min), train to Solothurn (50mins)
Day 1: Home to Splügen via the San Bernardino
Train to Bellinzona
This is a route I know well and always enjoy taking. Though the Luzern – Brunnen section just seems to get slower everytime I take it, it is very scenic at least (even with the base tunnel skipping part of the route).
It is just a gentle 5-10 minute walk from the station into the centre of the small but beautiful old town. I just came to grab a bit of scenic lunch with the 40 minutes I had before the bus onwards, but it is worth spending more time to also walk up the hill and see the 3 castles and fortifications that dominate the city.
I forgot what little Italian I knew, and stammered out something that was possibly a mix of French and Spanish (not that I speak much of either). It did the job at least.
This was the first bit of new territory for me. The ride did not disappoint as the bus turned off into a beautiful valley and then started to climb. Especially as this was in a double decker yellow Postbus which was rather novel (plus getting the front seat the top for the view). Another novelty is that the bus goes from Bellinzona to Chur which at about 115km covers a good chunk of the length of Switzerland.
The village has a few nice buildings left over from the olden days, but mostly feels like it exists purely to be a ski resort. It is one of the few places with ugly towers for mass accommodation of ski tourists that I have seen in Switzerland. Normally they are much better at making the infrastructure fit in a bit better.
I would use the village as the start/end point for a few passes in the area that look interesting, but I wouldn’t want to hang out in the village for more than the 10 minutes that I did already.
My original plan had been to check out the lakes by the village, but as we got closer I saw how close to the road they were and that they didn’t look that special. I almost just stayed on the bus, but decided I was spending enough time in Splügen over the next day or two anyway. So I went with the idea of going for a hike and catching the bus 2 or 3 hours later.
I looked at the hiking route signpost and picked Pian Lumbrif purely because it seemed the path led away from the road and at 1 hour it fit my timeframe.
It was well worth it. The initial climb through some forest was quite steep (but did include a nice waterfall) but then I emerged onto an open meadow with fantastic views all around (and a few power pylons at the lower heights). I had the place to myself, and following the signs a bit further to Cassina da Vignum it took me into a valley filled with streams and waterfalls. I could have powered on through this valley and down to Nufenen, but that would have been doable (15km, +/- 1000m) but I hadn’t planned to do anything quite so extreme that day. So I returned to San Bernardino via an alternate route down.
I got back into San Bernadino just in time for the next Postbus over the pass. You can also take the bus that goes through the tunnel straight out of the village through to the next valley which is much quicker (17 mins rather than 53) and runs more frequently, but is of course far less scenic.
The views back down the valley were well worth going over the pass. The top itself was not so special being a bit barren and grim (often the case with such pass roads). Going over a pass or similar road with a Postbus is always impressive just to see the driver handle the tight hairpins with a full size bus; often whilst chatting with the passengers.
Often called one of the most beautiful villages in Switzerland. It is very apparent why. It will only take 15 minutes to see the whole place, but it was a beautiful spot to be based out of for a few days.
It has a good location with access to a number of hikes and passes around it. Transport connections are good by car, and decent enough by bus being on the Bellinzona-Chur line. It has a supermarket, bakery, cheese shop, a few restaurants, tourist info, and even a little hut in the center which sells books on an honesty system. Plus of course plenty of honesty-box farm shops around.
It had a few tourists like any mountain village, but it seemed to only be a few Swiss or Italian people. Nothing like the hoards you see in places like Interlaken.
I stayed at the Hotel Piz Tambo which was right in the center and was a nice place with friendly staff.
I had a good meal of Capuns at the hotel, and then took a 20 or so minute wander along the road through meadows to the ruins of the castle to take in the sky during sunset. (going for an evening or night walk around the village is always a favourite when I am in the Alps – especially when it is snowy).
Day 2: Over the Seiferbergpass to Thalkirch and back
My original idea was something with the Splügenpass to the Italian border, but being a road pass I didn’t feel it would be that nice (and I couldn’t find any evidence of nice views with a google image search). I then thought of nearby Juf, the highest permanently inhabited village in Europe (I have since visited and done a hike there). But looking at a hiking map I was then tempted by the hiking route climbing right out of Splügen, over a roadless pass and into the next valley – which sounded like a nice way to stick with my theme of exploring some new areas. At the slight cost of the return route being a rather roundabout route requiring a bus, a train, then another bus (2.5hrs).
Route: Splügen – Seiferbergpass – Turrahus.
Length: 14.1km, +1080m, – 850m.
This was a very easy route to follow (mainly as there are not many other paths in the area), simply following the signs for Safierberg and Turrahus the whole way. The path was well maintained and there were no rocky and awkward sections.
I only saw a few other people on the pass hike, and not many more in the valley on the far side. There were far more marmots than people along the way.
The initial climb was a bastard, from zero to steep even as you are leaving the village – but once you reach the meadows it starts to even out a bit and despite being a climb all the way is never that steep again.
The landscape is quite barren being above the treeline and in mountains that felt more vast than towering. Still beautiful, but other than the waterfalls you never get the same feel in photos (it always looks a bit too sad and details like flowers tend to be lost).
I got an early start heading off at 8am to try and get the 1330 bus back from Thalkirch rather waiting until 1530 when I would be hitting rush hour around Chur. The advantage of getting up and off early is that you see so many marmots in the morning. I was almost tripping over them at one point.
I had lunch at the Berggasthaus Turrahus in Thalkirch. It was one of the most relaxed places I have been to, on asking for a coffee and to pay the landlord decided to just leave the wallet full of cash for the restaurant on the table with me whilst he disappeared inside to get the coffee. Another highlight was a lady who turned up with her dog and goat on leads. The view was nice too.
There is a bus stop by the Gasthaus ‘Thalkirch, Turrahus’ that takes you down to the station at ‘Versam-Safien’ where you can get a train to Chur for further connections. It only runs every 2 hours, but it is amazing that such a route is even maintained (and year round too).
Valleys are often wide and flat at the top before narrowing down to a tight gorge. This was really the case here, and this made the bus ride down incredible. A full-size bus going down a single lane road with a sheer drop on one side and a towering cliff on the other. Leaving the steep gorge we emerged to a fantastic mountain view of the giant Segnes fault region, before descending down into the Rhine Gorge to the train station at Versam-Safien. It is one the most memorable rides I have had in Switzerland it is amazing that this valley and ride isn’t better known. I would not want to be the driver on that route in icy winter conditions.
What is better known is the Glacier express that was waiting at the station for my coming train to be out of the way. It is was sat in the full sun with the people onboard looking rather hot and bored, with still almost half of the journey left to go. I never understand why people find that appealing….
The rest of the ride home through the Rhine Gorge to Chur and then through various valleys by bus back to Splügen was long but beautiful. I would have been happy just doing that ride even without the hike.
Day 3: Over the Valserbergpass to Vals
I took the Postbus 10 minutes up the valley to Hinterrhein and followed the footpath signs for Vals via hiking Route 35.
Route: Hinterrhein – Valserbärg – Vals
Length: 14.7km, +990m, -1360m.
The next stage on Route 35 goes from Vals to Thalkirch so I could have stayed in Thalkirch and saved on commuting times if I had planned ahead a bit more, but it was still worth the travel time for the ride down the valley and seeing more new areas.
This had a much gentler start than the previous day, but was still uphill all the way until the pass. The path passed through forest and then meadows, however being that you just climbed one big hillside the views didn’t change much other than the buildings below getting smaller.
As I climbed I could see cloud/fog around where the pass would be which was making me a bit anxious. Stumbling around alone on unknown mountains is not something I want to be doing. I was considering that I might need to double back down to Hinterrhein and take a series of buses and trains to get to Vals the long way. This wasn’t helped by the description for the route warning that one section was very risky being narrow and steep (in the end I didn’t even realise that it was narrow and steep when I did it).
In the end I got to the Valserbergpass and found that the fog was sweeping about but mostly just above it, so I could see clearly down the valley beyond and where I was going (which made me much happier). Still I descended the first section fairly quickly just to be safe (and also the wind at the top was bloody cold). The initial descent was rocky, but not too bad in terms of scree or the risk of slipping on loose rocks.
Entering the high grassy meadows I actually got lost for a few minutes as crossed a stream I followed markers that led me on what seems to have been a former route and found there wasn’t any clear track or markers. Backtracking a few minutes and checking my maps with GPS allowed me to quickly find the current route. A very rare event in the Swiss hiking network.
After you reach the first farm you get a choice of dropping straight down to the valley floor to reach Vals via a small road, or continuing along the meadows. I stuck with the meadow route (sign posted by Route 35 and “Uf der Matta”). This was a bit longer and harder, but well worth it for the views about the area. It is also the section with the warning of “Please note: narrow path over steep terrain between Wallatsch and Tschifera; sure-footedness required.” which seemed a bit over the top.
As I got towards Vals the weather got sunnier and clearer (noticeably the pass far above and behind me was now clear of all cloud….)
Again I hardly saw anybody else. I passed 2 people from Hinterrhein to the outer hamlets of Vals, and then only a few more on the last section into Vals.
A nice and pretty, if not spectacular, village. It is quite large considering its remote location and what it has to offer. There are not many options: the thermal baths, a cable car, and the road/bus to the dam at Zervreila. Otherwise there is lots of mountainside in every direction – but you better be fit.
This was the most touristic spot of the tour. But nothing on the grand scheme of things, and mostly it just seemed to be other Swiss people (going by the car license plates) other than a few Americans I overheard. Going by the visiting cars it is a popular spot for rich people (though that might just be for the baths). For a Saturday in August it seemed to be very quiet.
Surprisingly Vals was bombed by the allies right at the end of WW2 (it is only 15km in a straight line from Italy but can’t have looked like it would pose much of a threat).
I stayed at the Schynder B&B. Which was less a B&B as you might expect and more a self contained bed-sit type mini-flat with a cafe over the road that did breakfast. It was modern and comfy, had a nice mountain view. And it was right by the thermal baths which my legs really appreciated.
This was expensive, but rather fancy and very nice. Staying in Vals I got a discount (check in first before going to the baths). It seemed worth the price either way to rest my legs after two days of fairly intense hiking.
The lady at the front desk was surprisingly very friendly despite my appearance. I was at full long messy hair, messy beard, and icky from the hike. I would have phoned the police if I had seen me (or even caught my reflection in the mirror)
The baths had a good mix of pools of various temperatures and a steam room (but not a proper wood sauna).
The only bit not to like (other than the price) was the number of couples who seemed able to spend hours holding each other staring into each others eyes. Which made entering an otherwise empty pool room feel like some awkward invasion of privacy.
Dinner at the Gasthaus Edelweiss. I had Pizokels (a local food) with a fantastic view of the village center and mountains. Followed by another walk out the village and a little up the valley side to watch the light fade.
The night was made a little bit more interesting when I woke up at 2am to find my finger massively swollen. It had been stung by a bee the week before without any problems at the time, but something in the baths must have triggered an inflammation in the sting. Lying sleeplessly at night in a tiny remote village wondering if you are going to have to phone distant medical help isn’t much fun. Nothing fell off in the end at least.
Day 4: to Zervreila and then home
I caught the Postbus to ‘Vals, Zervreila’. This was a fantastic 20 minute ride from the village on a narrow road that passes through a waterfall lined gorge.
The bus/road takes you to the mountain restaurant at the side of the dam. Normally I don’t like reservoir lakes as they always feel too fake with the dead region around the changing waterline, but this was stunning (the water was seemingly at the maximum level). The spot was utterly stunning and felt so remote.
You can walk across the dam (which is high but not as impressive as the “Goldeneye” Verzasca dam in Ticino) which gives you a good view, especially of the Zervreilahorn which seen from the angle of the dam is like a mini Matterhorn. Though nowhere near as big, the prominence and point (from the dam angle anyway) really catch the eye. The area had a hell of a lot of sheep. Around the dam there was a constant symphony of baa-ing.
I walked along the path to a quiet point about 10-15 minutes beyond the final car park. The ground started to drop away and the view was open, so I sat by the side of the path and just admired the view for a while before wandering back to catch the bus.
With more time I would carry on around the lake for lunch at the mountain house. Or with a week you could do a really good remote back valley tour in the area.
Bus ride to Ilanz
Again like with the ride down from Thalkirch this was long (1hr 7mins) but very beautiful, with some really impressive gorges and vistas. If you look at a map of the hiking routes in Switzerland you will see that Vals is very oddy not connected via footpath to the rest of the country unless you go via a high pass. Riding down the valley it is apparent why. It is amazing that people live normal lives there now, never mind in the past.
From Ilanz it was a long ride home with changes at Chur and Zürich. This was of course still a beautiful ride, with the Ilanz section passing through the Rhine gorge (again) and the section from Chur going past the Walensee and Zürichsee.