After a fabulous night of sleep, in a super comfortable bed, in a quiet room, that we have all to ourselves—definitely not the norm on the Haute Route if you are trying to travel on a budget—we wander downstairs to the restaurant to discover a fantastic breakfast. Peter, the chef/proprietor of the hotel serves us coffee and tea while running around and greeting all the guests. Man, does he work hard! The coffee is the cleanest, best-tasting cup I’ve had in a long time, and I savor every last sip.
The coffee in the Alps has been inconsistent: great in Italy (of course!), good in France, but hit and miss in Switzerland. I often rely on Starbucks Via packets for emergencies like avoiding Nescafé instant coffee—God’s way of cursing coffee lovers—but not this morning! We also have an impressive selection of breads including fresh croissants, the usual spread of jams and spreads, and even smoked salmon. We like it here!
We are eager to hit the trail as today completes the Walker’s Haute Route and takes us into the mountain village/outdoor tourist Mecca of Zermatt. This is our 20th consecutive day of hiking in the Alps and Stage 13 of the HR for those who choose not to do the alternate 2-day Europaweg Route. In fact, this is the original route into Zermatt, and we are content to have an easy entry to our end destination.
Before we leave St. Niklaus, though, we backtrack to the Backerei in town to pick up some bread, in a vain attempt to recreate the incredible baguette lunch experience of a few days ago. Sadly, we are on the German side of the HR now, and, while the German bread is excellent, true baguette is not to be found.
Still, the loaf we buy smells amazing—like real bread should! Every once in a while on the trail I get a whiff of it emanating from Alison’s backpack, and I get excited for lunch, despite the fact that we just finished breakfast not long ago. But first, we have to get on the trail, and this turns out not to be the most exciting day from a visual/aesthetic standpoint.
The route today is down a valley that narrows as you approach Zermatt. First, while there are high rock cliffs to our right and left, much of it is shrouded in clouds. There is a light rain falling as we begin, so we cover the packs and don our raincoats from the start, not our favorite way to hike.
Second, the path parallels both the road and the train line to Zermatt, as well as the Matter Vispa river. While the traffic is not bad, the constant reminder of civilization makes it difficult to concentrate on the natural beauty of the valley.
The path starts on tarmac road, veers onto footpaths covered with pine needles from the larch trees, back onto gravel service roads, past hay barns and fields. It is pleasant, and the path is easy with a gentle uphill grade. It feels strange to walk on flat, level surfaces for so long after so much constant up and down over the past 19 days.
Every few kilometers our progress is marked by small villages on the opposite side of the river—Mattsand, Herbriggen, Randa and finally Tasch—but we choose to pass by rather than veer off course. We are motivated to finish, not least because we are intent on washing ALL our clothes today. We stop for lunch at a man-made lake that has a zipline and a mini water ski jump. The sun comes out for the first time today, and we take advantage of the picnic tables and WC for our lunch break.
Soon we are back on the trail and find ourselves wandering past an 11-hole golf course. We realize we are standing in the danger zone just behind the 9th green just as two golfers are taking aim in our direction, so we hustle on.
Our guidebook warns us that this trail is anticlimactic and seems to be a permanent construction zone. This doesn’t seem to have changed in the 12 years since the publication of our edition. There are earthmovers and dump trucks actively moving rocks and soil about. We pass piles of gravel and even see an active gravel-production site where a giant machine pulverizes rock into tiny gravel, neither visually nor acoustically attractive. Everything is conspiring to keep us pushing forward.
I do find the frequent passage of trains to and from Zermatt fascinating. European rail travel is clean and quiet and so much more advanced than what we see in the States. I do wish train travel were more of a thing in the US.
The final approach to Zermatt is a short climb up into forest, around a mountain side and then into view of the town, which is nestled in the bowl of snow-capped mountains dominated by Breithorn. Our guidebook promises our first view of the famous Matterhorn since the Pas de Chevre in Stage 7, but all we see today is clouds.
To add insult to injury, it starts to rain again heavily enough to put on raincoats. Still, we charge forward, then downhill, finally crossing the train tracks and walking into this “pedestrian” town. Officially, there are no cars here, but there are plenty of taxi vans and small vehicles delivering goods to restaurants plying the crowded streets.
We find Hotel Bahnhof, conveniently located across from the train station, check in and dump our bags. We are relieved to have finished the Haute Route, but ready to get to the business of transitioning to the next phase. First step, laundry!
We take a few hours to take care of chores: food, laundry, train tickets on to Verona and set a plan for day hiking around Zermatt. Then we head off to grab a quick falafel sandwich for dinner before joining Tony and Jenny for some celebratory drinks at an outdoor pub/restaurant next to our hotel.
It’s great to see them again, hear about their experience and compare notes on the trail. We all agree that there were some great visual moments on the Walker’s Haute Route, but also feel that the trail felt like it lacked continuity especially compared to the Tour du Mont Blanc. There are no trail markers, for example, that identify the Chamonix to Zermatt as a unique experience. Instead, it feels like a series of connected day hikes. This is partly due to the variety of accommodation (cabanes, auberges, hotels) and partly due to the fact that so many other trails intersect the Haute Route that we never felt like we were on an exclusive experience.
We did, however, meet more people who were hiking the Haute Route with whom we formed some memorable bonds: Tony and Jenny from Atlanta, Reinhold and Jacqueline from Switzerland, and the Australian blokes: David, Graham, Simon and Nev, who will finish the Europaweg tomorrow. We hope to share a celebratory drink with them when they arrive. For now, it has been a great experience to complete yet another of the world’s classics treks. Cheers!