I got hooked on the Berner Oberland (Bernese Highland) when my school buddy Deborah and I sprinted up the first path we spotted from the Grindelwald train station, and soon found ourselves lost on a verdant hillside, all alone with brilliant wildflowers, granite peaks, azure skies and, of course, the region’s ubiquitous happy cows. Despite having passed several times in prior years (by car, train and the definitely-not-overrated ferry from Thun) through the Interlaken Valley below, this was my first time up the canyon, and I was an instant junkie.
This supremely bucolic region offers no lack of activity for both high- and low-octane adventurists. The former can hang glide, negotiate an adrenaline-spiking via ferrata, or tempt fate by BASE jumping in a wingsuit. The latter can glide in gondolas to stunning panoramas, and soak in vistas at every glance through the windows of cogwheel trains that chug their way over and around endless mountainsides. And if mountain sides aren’t enough, the outrageously expensive Jungfraujochbahn will wind you up an engineering marvel of a corkscrew tunnel to 11,332 feet for a view of the Aletsch Gletscher, Europe’s largest glacier.
With or without the help of a trekking pole borrowed from the honor-system barrel at the trail head, almost any ambulatory visitor can peek out over Lauterbrunnen’s brown rooftops and postcard-perfect white church, from a cave tucked behind Staubbachfälle, the most iconic of the 72 loud (laut) falls (Brunnen, fountains) that give the valley its name. Similarly, over on the Grindelwald side, most can manage their way with little difficulty to the far end of the Bachalpsee for a million-dollar mirrored view–on a windless day–of the peaks.
Indeed, the Berner Oberland abounds in pathways that guarantee outsize rewards for the effort invested. For example, the top of Wengen’s Männlichen gondola (immediately north of which is a small peak worth ascending) is connected to the Kleine Scheidegg train station by the Panorama Trail, a five-kilometer downhill saunter facing the glorious Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau peaks the whole way and requiring perhaps two hours if crawled. A slightly more assertive approach to Kleine Scheidegg is the Eiger Trail, a moderate, six-kilometer hike beginning at the Alpiglen station — overachievers can begin down in Grindelwald — and traversing the gully-cut northern base of one of Europe’s most dramatic mountains. (The Eiger Trail can of course also be done downhill from Kleine Scheidegg, but ascending from Alpiglen directs most views toward the mountains rather than the valley, and is easier on the knees.)
A presumably less-known, but no less memorable, trail was recommended to us by a family in Geneva, who said it’s a favorite weekend energy-burner for their kids. I say “presumably,” because we were there during high season and, outside of the villages, passed a total of seven people, four of whom happened to hail from our hometown in the States. And I qualify “energy-burner” because, again, all the uphill part is done by machines, allowing your legs to be downhill specialists.
The hiking itself begins at Allmendhubel, which was described to us as a viewpoint much less expensive, yet only slightly less impressive, than the famous Schilthorn. How you get to Allmendhubel depends on where you spend the night before: If in Mürren, roll out of bed; If in Gimmelwald (rustic Pension Gimmelwald was a cozy delight, the food well-paired with its terrace’s unobstructed view of the Eiger and Jungfrau, and the honor-system shop on its main level enhancing the charm factor), your journey begins with the gondola to Mürren; If you’re still on the valley floor, bus to the Schilthornbahn tram base parking lot at Stechelberg for the gondola to Gimmelwald, and then on to Mürren. Car-free Mürren does have a small Coop store where you can fill your daypack with Apfelschorle (mildly-sweet carbonated apple juice) and Nuss-Stengeli (crunchy hazelnut cookies, a Swiss specialty also called Totenbeinli, or “little dead legs”) before riding the short funicular to the Allmendhubel. Trust me: You’ll want these when you find yourselves at that perfect bench where my boys and I rested for half an hour and heard, in crystalline surround-sound, absolutely nothing but the singing of birds, the kling-klang of cowbells, and the relentless murmur of distant waterfalls. And the crunching of Nuss-Stengli.
The first half of this route shares departure (Allmendhubel) and arrival (Gimmelwald) points with the popular North Face Trail, but a good deal of that trail is paved, whereas if you improvise a bit, using your instincts to follow cattle cuts and tractor paths, you’ll have a decidedly more rustic and less trodden experience. And before the idea of “improvising” in the Alps conjures grisly images of Die Donner Partei, keep in mind that today’s journey is similar to walking parallel to a shore, in that the cliffline over the valley below makes getting lost virtually impossible. So if you simply keep heading downhill while bearing mostly right (i.e., roughly south-southeast), you’ll eventually end up at the correct place.
ALLMENDHUBEL, MÜRREN, GIMMELWALD, STECHELBERG
From Allmendhubel, your first objective is to meander back down the mountain to Mürren in the most jaw-droppingly scenic way possible. Then Mürren to Gimmelwald is more or less a mild-grade traverse, the flattest section of your route and, unless you get really creative, the most likely to require a little time on asphalt — for which I’d apologize if I weren’t certain that you’ll be accompanied, and amply distracted, by wildflowers, mountain vistas, babbling brooks and happy cows all the way. Refuel in Gimmelwald before descending the hillside stairs that usher you down into the second half of your journey, whose course is something akin to a lazily-reclining “C” shape, its bow tugging southwestward, that transitions gradually from pastures to thick forest cut by occasional streams and waterfalls, including the majestic Sefinenfall. Emerging eventually from the forest, you cross a meadow and the bluish, mineral-rich Sefinen Lütschine river before arriving at the Stechelberg bus stop.
If you plan to spend the night in the Lauterbrunnen valley, don’t hesitate to consider the hostel, which is maintained so meticulously that guests are issued slippers because shoes are verboten in the (happy) cow-themed rooms. Plus, it’s a short walk to Hotel Steinbock’s scrumptious pork skillet mit Rösti. But a final note before you get hungry and sleepy: If you boarded the Stechelberg bus by 3 or even (during summer) 4 p.m., hop off for an hour or two to see, hear and feel the UNESCO-designated Trümmelbachfälle, a series of waterfalls that pound more than 5,000 gallons of Eiger/Mönch/Jungfrau runoff per second through what used to be solid rock until it was ferociously water-jetted into a tortured configuration of caves and chasms.