Via Alpina Switzerland: Ultimate Guide
The Via Alpina is the Swiss No. 1 National Route (literally), taking you from east to west across 14 mountain passes, showing you the best of the Swiss Alpine landscape and culture.
It is actually part of the much larger Via Alpina trail network that leads across all the countries of the European Alps, from Monaco to Italy. The entire Via Alpina has 342 stages — 18 stages in Switzerland.
The route is also called the Via Alpina Green Trail, though previously it had the name of Alpine Pass Route (because of the number of passes it crosses), which is now the name of another long-distance trail in the country.
It is one of our favorite trails in the Alps for the amount of epic and diverse landscapes you can encounter on it.
If your goal is to explore the country to the fullest, and you are an outdoor enthusiast, this hike across Switzerland is the best way to do so.
The route starts in the far east of Switzerland, in the town of Sargans at the border with Lichtenstein. From there it travels west across one mountain pass after another, all the way to Montreux at the shore of Lake Geneva.
It takes you through some of the most breathtaking scenery of the country, including the traverse below some of the most iconic peaks in the Bernese Oberland, like Eiger and Jungfrau. It takes you through lush Swiss valleys full of Alpine culture — cheesemaking hamlets with cows grazing will be a common occurrence.
The Via Alpina is a journey of high passes and breathtaking vistas, with the Hohturli Pass standing as the pinnacle at 2,778 meters. This challenging stretch between Griesalp and Kandersteg is an achievement in itself, crowned by the optional ascent to the Blüemlisalphütte, the trek's zenith at 2,834 meters.
You can check out the full itinerary on our Via Alpina Switzerland Self-Guided Hike or explore the approximate 3D representation below for a better understanding of the trail.
Compared to some other long-distance hiking routes, like the Haute Route, the Via Alpina is a relatively young route.
Its beginnings are in 1991 when the 8 alpine countries — Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Slovenia, Lichtenstein, and Monaco — signed an international treaty for the sustainable development of the entire Alpine region. 8 years later, a proposition came for a trail that would link all of the countries and support this development of the region.
After a lot went into marking the trail and improving the local tourist offer, it was officially launched in 2002.
The Via Alpina is somewhere in the middle compared to other long-distance trails in the Alps. It has some tougher sections but is overall an average mountain hiking trail.
Technically, it is a walk, though a few sections feature loose terrain over scree and shale, ascending or descending over some of the higher passes. It is also sometimes exposed, so a good head for heights is required.
Still, you should not underestimate the route. It is not a walk in the park but an Alpine hiking route. That means the average trail terrain is uneven and filled with rocks and roots. A good sense of where to step is a must if you don't want to turn an ankle.
Navigating through the Via Alpina, trekkers encounter a variety of terrains, from the gentle whispers of forest trails to the assertive presence of rocky paths. The path demands respect and readiness for steep scree slopes that test your balance and resolve.
The most demanding thing about the trail is its length and elevation gain. The stages are long and usually feature one big climb to a mountain pass and a descent from it.
That means good hiking fitness is a requirement if you want to be able to hike all of it. If a day of 1500 meters up and 1500 down makes your muscles ache for a week, you are not ready for the Via Alpina yet.
Yet, it's these very challenges that amplify the sense of accomplishment as you traverse from one majestic valley to the next under the watchful gaze of the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau peaks.
If you’re not sure, you can also hike a short section. We recommend the most scenic one — The Bear Trek.
On the Via Alpina, you'll walk on many different kinds of paths. Your feet will feel the soft earth of valley floors, the solid ground of grassy fields, and the shifting stones of mountain trails.
The path is easy to follow, marked with red and white signs that help show you where to go. Yellow signs and other markers also help you at key spots along the way, ensuring you don't get lost.
Even with these signs, it's necessary to know how to find your way on your own. GPS navigation is always welcome, and with current technology, you're carrying the only device you'll ever need in your pocket at all times. If you prefer, you can use a physical map and a compass, but ensure you know how to use both.
Sometimes, bad weather or snow can hide the trail signs, and you'll need to rely on your own skills to keep going. When the weather is good, the path is easy to see, but if it gets cloudy or foggy, it can be tricky to know where to go.
That's when being able to navigate really matters, making your hike an exciting challenge at best and a life-threatening situation at worst.
The starting point of the Via Alpina Switzerland is Sargans. It is pretty easy to get there with multiple ways of transportation.
The best way to get here is by plane. Zurich International Airport (GVA) is just 100 km away from Sargans and has direct flights from most major European cities.
The best public transport option is the train, which goes directly from Zurich and reaches Sargans in 75 minutes. The only minus is that you must first get to the city from the airport, which means a change is necessary.
If you want to go directly from the airport, take a shuttle, which takes approximately the same amount of time. We can book those for you if you so desire.
The hiking season on any of the treks in the Alps depends heavily on the amount of snow in the previous winter. In a normal year, the season for the Via Alpina runs from mid-July to the end of September.
Earlier than August, it’s still possible to find snow on the shady sections of the highest passes, but they don’t require special equipment, and there is no avalanche threat. Now, if the winter was very snowy, the path could be very dangerous till the end of July.
The temperatures in late July and August are usually pretty high, even sometimes 25-30°C above 2000 meters of elevation. You can also expect afternoon storms to pop up regularly on the trail, which is why hiking over a high mountain pass before noon is a good strategy.
Be prepared for a big drop in temperatures in the case of a severe storm. It’s not rare that even snow can start falling in those cases. But don’t worry, it usually disappears quite quickly with sunshine.
The weather gets colder again in September, sometimes even freezing at night. On the other hand, it is also more stable with more consecutive days without any rain.
At the end of the month the season end, as all the mountain huts close their doors, leaving only modest winter rooms open — these are unmanned basic rooms that stay unlocked also in the winter.
It is still possible to hike in October, but you must have a tent (wild camping is tolerated above the tree line, except for protected areas). Expect much more rain and possibly the first heavy dose of snow, which can end your Via Alpina experience in the middle.
Most of the stages of the Via Alpina end in a valley, where the choice of accommodation is bigger than high in the mountains. That means you can hike the whole trail while staying in hotels or inns, with the comfort and quality depending on your budget.
Still, some of the sections are more remote and have a limited choice of where to stay — including some of the days where you can stay in a mountain hut.
The most important thing is to book in advance, because some can be booked full very quickly.
Switzerland's reputation for precision and quality extends to its accommodations along the Via Alpina. From cozy mountain huts up high to luxurious hotels in the valleys, each stop is an opportunity to experience Swiss hospitality at its finest.
The culinary journey is equally delightful, with hearty breakfasts fueling your days and evening meals celebrating local flavors. Swiss cuisine, with its emphasis on fresh, regional ingredients, turns each meal into a moment of cultural discovery.
While the trek offers a return to nature, the comforts of modern hospitality are never far away. The mountain huts provide a communal atmosphere where stories are shared over communal tables and private rooms offer a retreat after a day's hike.
Most accommodations can be booked as a half-board (dinner and breakfast). The food is robust and satisfying, ensuring each trekker is well-fed and ready for the next day's adventure.
In Switzerland, the joy of the journey is matched by the warmth of the welcome at each stop, be it at the top of a mountain pass or a lively evening in an alpine town.
Water can be filled up in most accommodations, although some huts do not have drinking water. In that case, you can always buy bottled water, but even better (and cheaper) is to have a water filter with you.
You will also find plenty of streams on the way from which you can fill up, just not if it is below a pasture with cattle, as it might not be drinkable.
Hiking the Via Alpina requires preparation and stamina. You can take your time and go at a leisurely pace, but you'll still need to be ready for many days of hiking with a relatively heavy backpack.
If you want to complete the hike, you need to be prepared. Start by walking at least 10 kilometers and ascending 1,000 meters in elevation without being lethargic the next day. Why? Don't want to feel exhausted by the second day of your trek.
Long-distance hiking is a craft that requires practice. If you don’t start training before your big adventure, you will suffer more than you need to and that means a less pleasant experience.
Why spend all that time struggling to reach the next mountain pass, when you could enjoy the scenery instead?
You need to start hiking regularly. It doesn’t mean you should jump right into very long hikes at first, especially if you haven’t been hiking much before. Instead, build the distance and elevation gain each week.
Near the end of your training, try incorporating two-day hikes (or longer) into your weekend schedule to prepare your body for the rigors of hiking multiple days in a row.
Even if your local hiking trails don’t present the same challenges as long-distance paths or mountain hikes, you can still get a great workout by doing multiple circuits around them.
On your training hikes for the Via Alpina, wear the backpack you plan to take and pack it as if you were going to do the actual trek. This will help you get used to what feels comfortable and what does not, so you won't have any surprises on your big hike. Wear your hiking shoes too, so they can break in.
And don't take the elevator unless you have to. Take the stairs instead!
Pack only what you need to enjoy your hike. Every extra pound will feel like dead weight on your shoulders.
If you want, we can also help you with luggage transfer if you book the hike with us.
A backpack with 25 to 40 liters of space is ideal for most people. Anything larger and you risk packing too much.
When choosing your shoes for the Walker's Haute Route, it is most important to consider what will work best for your feet. You can choose between either hiking boots or hiking shoes, or sturdier trail-running shoes if you prefer a lighter and more flexible option.
For an average hiker, hiking shoes are still the best choice. They’re sturdy and supportive enough to carry all the extra weight of the backpack, but they’re not as bulky and heavy as boots.
Completing the Via Alpina is an exhilarating achievement, and what better way to celebrate than by exploring some of the most charming cities and towns in Switzerland?
After your trek on the Via Alpina, you might enjoy visiting historic cities, relaxing by lakes, or finding new adventures. Here's a list of places that could be interesting to check out:
1. Bern is the capital of Switzerland, characterized by its storybook streets and historical resonance. The city's medieval architecture, the iconic Zytglogge clock tower, and the peaceful Rose Garden are notable highlights.
2. Lausanne, positioned on the shores of Lake Geneva, is a city where history and modernity merge. It hosts the Olympic Museum and offers panoramic views from its old town, capturing the essence of the region's vibrant culture.
3. Interlaken boasts a reputation as an adventure hub, nestled between Lake Thun and Lake Brienz and encircled by the Alps. It's a center for outdoor activities, appealing to those seeking adventure amidst natural beauty.
4. Thun, often considered a hidden treasure, features a historic castle and an inviting old town. The town is perfect for leisurely activities such as boat rides on the lake or walks along the Aare River.
5. Montreux, renowned for its annual Jazz Festival, stands as a cultural beacon. The city's lakeside promenade and the historical Château de Chillon are prominent attractions.
6. Geneva offers a blend of international sophistication and historical charm. The city is known for its Old Town, the relaxing shores of Lake Geneva, and the impressive Jet d'Eau fountain.
7. Luzern, famed for its Chapel Bridge and stunning lake vistas, presents a picturesque setting. The city is a gateway to cultural experiences and mountain adventures, with its scenic landscapes and cultural offerings.
Each location on the list brings its own activities and sights. Following your journey on the Via Alpina, you could explore local culture, enjoy regional foods, or take some time to relax. These places offer a variety of options for your post-trek plans.
Planning the Via Alpina is not easy. But that doesn’t have to intimidate you from going on your adventure.
Booking a self-guided tour can save you a lot of time, stress, and hassle. And it’s not even that much more expensive than planning the tour all by yourself.
Check out our Via Alpina tours below and start planning the hike of your life:
Via Alpina or Via Alpina: The Bear Trek
An In-Depth Exploration of All Things Hut to Hut Hiking Switzerland
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