You may have heard that Switzerland is all about mountains, mountains, and mountains.
So, if we can get to the summit of mountains in the Bernese Oberland - Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau - there is surely a way to visit the Matterhorn by train!
Well, jein! (That's both yes and no in Swiss German.)
Of course, Swiss trains will never let you far from any of the nation's classic mountains, but the Matterhorn is easier seen than climbed. Ascending to the very top of the mountain is not for the faint of heart, and quite a few have lost their lives in doing so.
However, it is still easy and very safe to enjoy one of Switzerland's most recognizable mountains by rail. I am almost ashamed to say that, as a naturalized Swiss citizen, this was my very first visit to the mountain known as Le Cervin in French, and Il Cervino in Italian! My wife, Tracy, joined me for this journey which coincided with very pleasant skies.
From Zürich to Visp in slightly more than two hours
Platform 31 is the newest bit of Zürich’s main station. There, we embark on an InterCity train bound for Switzerland’s federal city of Bern. (Officially, there is no de jure capital in Switzerland - did you know?)
And here's one for the train people among you: You know your train is a true sprinter if it escapes Olten without stopping! The Olten station, of course, is the Clapham Junction of German-speaking Switzerland - if not of the whole country!
The view begins to get truly awesome after we leave the next stop, Thun. There is the magnificent Lake Thun, and soon after Spiez, we are heading south into the Lötschberg Base Tunnel. Thanks to this straight connection to Switzerland's south, we soon arrive at our first interchange: Visp.
Making our way from Visp to Zermatt
On this sunny late summer day, connecting onto our second train to Zermatt feels a little like going back to a railway station in China. The masses are flooding the station underpasses, proving that we must be headed to a highly popular mountain!
We have booked first-class tickets for this rail journey. The modern panoramic coaches have much larger windows than the old-school ones, but they can no longer be lowered:
By now, you may have guessed it: I am into train stations a lot. (Sheldon Cooper, by contrast, is more into locomotives...) The train to Zermatt is much slower than the previous InterCity train. Part of it is because it activates its cogwheels every once in a while. Just minutes into this leg, we can spot the epic Matterhorn. Everyone is getting their cameras out...
Some stations we pass are request stops only, with the major stations being Täsch and Zermatt. (To train people, Täsch is possibly insignificant. But to car people, it is super important: with Zermatt being car-free, all motorists must park their cars in Täsch and proceed to Zermatt by train.)
Just over an hour later, we hit the terminus of this leg: Zermatt.
The station is popular with locals and guests from abroad, as you can tell from the international signage. Who knows, maybe a few years down the road, visitors from China will see the station add Chinese translations?
A quick lunch later, it is time to cross the street to the final leg: Zermatt to Gornergrat.
The train journey to Gornergrat is easily one of the most scenic ever! Add in stellar weather conditions and it becomes majestic:
The journey reminded me of my geography courses in Switzerland, for we soon pass the tree line. Our coach is full of other photo bugs who are shuttering away at the many lakes along the tracks, including one at the Rotenboden station. Half an hour in, we reach the terminus of Gornergrat at 3089 meters above the sea. And then, the moment we have been waiting for: the iconic Matterhorn.
To make matters perfect, Tracy is treating herself to her favorite Swiss beverage: Rivella. It will be her "highest altitude" beverage consumed in Switzerland so far - to the view of one of the most famous peaks nonetheless. (There are some things you simply can't make up.)
We are ready for some hiking so we head down to Rotenboden:
And finally, a quick refresher for hikers: watch your trails!
In case you have never seen all types of Swiss hiking trails, they come in three colors:
- plain yellow for generally accessible hiking trails anyone can use;
- white-red-white for tougher ones (such as the bit from Gornergrat to Rotenboden);
- white-blue-white for true mountaineers (professional equipment is required.)
After many years of hiking Switerland's trails, my legs have grown to the sturdy kind they are now. But for the uninitiated, here is some advice:
- On white-red-white trails, where you see the trail markings (marked on stones), make a point of following them. Also, if you know in advance that you will be using them, make sure your shoes are ready for the challenge. Those intended for city streets might not be the best idea.
- Make a point of taking breaks when you need them. Stay alert, hydrated, and in a state ready to climb. If you cannot continue anymore, stop and return if needed. But beware: the way back downhill can be equally challenging! If you find fellow hikers pick a route, stick to the same way. Especially if this is your first "red/white trail"...
- A little Grüezi to other hikers, especially in German-speaking Switzerland, can hardly ever go wrong. These greetings can make you feel a lot more “Swiss"!
- I know, we are all used to getting hooked on our mobile phones. Resist the urge because safety comes first on these tricky trails.
Don't miss that last train!
Our rented flat is in Zürich, so we have to be out of Zermatt by about 7:15 PM. This is also when it starts getting dark. By all means, enjoy Zermatt and the Matterhorn. But unless you are planning on spending the night in this alpine resort or have a car parked in Täsch, make a note of the last train out...
So, there you have it: a beautiful day trip from Zürich to Zermatt with all the toppings!