Favorite Villages on the Swiss Haute Route
The Haute Route, widely known as “The Most Beautiful Walk in Europe,” stretches from Chamonix to Zermatt, linking Mont Blanc with the Matterhorn. Along the way, hikers pass by 10 of the 12 highest peaks in the Alps. It’s a daily visual feast of mountain vistas, glaciers, expansive valleys, larch forests, and meadows carpeted with wildflowers. The natural scenery is so impressive, that it’s sometimes easy to overlook the cultural, historic, and man-made charm of the Haute Route.
The Haute Route links villages-dozens of them-that have preserved and nourished a traditional mountain way of life for hundreds of years. Many of the villages trace their roots to the eleventh and twelfth centuries when Walser peoples first entered the area to settle the higher alpine meadows and upper valleys. From many of the mountain passes and high slopes on the Haute Route hikers can gaze down into the Rhone Valley or Martigny where Romans established outposts and first planted grapes on the sunny slopes.
As you make your Haute Route plans, here are a few of the villages you won’t want to hurriedly bypass. Instead, you may even consider planning a short detour or altering the normal arrangement of stages to spend the night in one of these choice locations:
Champex. The village of Champex on the shore of Lac de Champex is set at the foot of the Mont Blanc Massif. It’s a great hiking town as it offers direct access to many surrounding huts and mountain routes. Set in the midst of forests, Champex has attracted tourist in search of a bucolic setting for nearly 150 years, and the town has never exchanged its peaceful quality for large-scale mass tourism. For a more off-the-beaten-path attraction, visit Military Fort A46, an underground town, which was built as part of the hidden Swiss defenses during WWII to protect the Grand Saint Bernard Pass, and remained classified as a “secret” until 1998. The town’s alpine garden contains over 3000 species, many of which you’ll see along the Haute Route.
Verbier. Admittedly, modern Verbier is anything but quaint. It’s the premier ski resort in the Swiss Alps and the enormous bowl that rises above the village is laced with lifts. Most Haute Route hikers try to escape it as quickly as possible for the Upper Val de Bagne Nature Reserve or the wild reaches beyond Mont Fort. But if you have an ear for classical music, the Verbier Festival during the last two weeks in July attracts some brightest stars and an audience of over 40,000. Free concerts, street performances, and jazz quartets in local bars and restaurants bring the village to life. If you plan on arriving during the festival, make sure you have advance hotel reservations.
Les Hauderes. Along with the nearby village of Evolene Les Hauderes is one of the best preserved villages in the Swiss canton of Valais, with a majority of the houses built between the 16th and 19th centuries. This picturesque village is remarkable for its traditional alpine architecture-sun-burnished timber houses and granaries on stone bases, surrounding carefully tended garden plots. Note that many homes are built in two sections-a multistory living area made of wood and an adjoining masonry kitchen. A colorful coat of arms appears on many houses. The residents cling fast to tradition, and many local women can be seen wearing their embroidery-trimmed black dresses and hats. If you find yourself in Les Hauderes on a rainy day pay a visit to the town’s geological center in which you’ll discover that the village is located at the intersection of the African and the European tectonic plates.
Grimentz. Not precisely on the Haute Route, but a short 45 minute downhill walk from the Barrage de Moiry, Grimentz is always a welcoming overnight stay, and one of the best preserved historic villages on the Haute Route. Grimentz is a wonderful blend of new and old, ancient houses, granaries, and community buildings, set among modern chalet-styled inns and shops, and vibrantly decorated with geraniums and other flowers on nearly every building in the village. You’ll see a number of buildings dating back to the 17th and 18th century and one from as early as 1510. The principle community building of Grimentz is the 15th century Burgher’s House which was the center of village life. Guided and self guided tours are available starting at the town’s visitor information center.
Jungen. Some think of Jungen as nothing more than a tram stop before descending into the Mattertal near the end of the Haute Route. But this village perched on a precipitous hillside, and accessible only on foot or by gondola, is a testament to the determination of the people who maintain their traditional lifestyle farming and grazing goats and sheep on these mountain slopes. Rather than taking the first gondola down, take a few minutes to explore the village, have lunch at the Junger-Stubli, gaze down at the valley 3000 feet below and at the Dom, the highest peak entirely within Switzerland, to the east. Better yet, stay overnight in the hamlet’s only accommodation, a simple six-bed dormitory.
Zermatt. This is the ultimate destination on the Haute Route, so it’s doesn’t require any deviation or change of plans. But too many Haute Route hikers don’t allow enough time at the end of the Haute Route to enjoy the great hiking around Zermatt. One you arrive in Zermatt, allow at least two nights. Ignore the throngs of tourists and shoppers that parade up and down Bahnhofstrasse and make your way up the hillside in any direction. Within minutes you’ll be on your own, away from the crowds, and often face to face with the Matterhorn. In town, don’t miss seeing the new Matterhorn Museum where the collection focuses on 19th century life in Zermatt and features some choice bits of mountaineering history including the frayed and broken rope used by Edward Whymper on the tragic first ascent of the Matterhorn. Also be sure to explore the historic section on Hinterdorfstrasse with its 500-year old barns, granaries, and homes.
There is much to love about the Haute Route, not the least being the vibrant cultural experience found in its various villages. Don’t ever get so wrapped up in the trail that you overlook the villages, people, and way of life that existed long before the trail was there. Above all, take your time and enjoy every minute of the Haute Route.
Greg Witt is the author of Ultimate Adventures: A Rough Guide to Adventure Travel and the U.S. Editor of Off the Tourist Trail (DK Eyewitness Travel). Each summer he guides walking and hiking tours in the Swiss Alps through his company, Alpenwild.