Home to the famous Matterhorn and the massive Aletsch Glacier, Valais is a canton of outstanding mountaineering beauty. Yet, it should also be recognized for the Stoneman Glaciara mountain bike tour in Aletsch Arena.
Its upscale alpine resorts offer numerous ski slopes, hiking trails, and, of course, world-class mountain bike trails. MTB trails are the sole reason why I’m headed to Aletsch Arena, home of the Stoneman Glaciara mountain bike tour.
The Stoneman Glaciara is neither an event nor a race. Instead, it is a 127-kilometers long adventure, with MTB trails leading to the Alps' largest glacier.
With the enormous 4700 meters gained in altitude, the route takes you through Swiss postcard landscapes: think imposing mountain peaks, centuries-old villages, and the 27-billion-tons of ice that form the breathtaking Aletsch Glacier.
Hotel Des Alpes in Fiesch is my base
My journey begins with a three-hour drive from the north of Zürich to Fiesch, the starting point of my adventure. If you are driving, I suggest crossing the Grimsel Pass with its scenic vistas.
Hotel Des Alpes in the center of Fiesch is my shelter for two nights. It offers secure bike storage, an important factor for those bringing their own gear.
The breakfast selection is excellent – it sets me up for the day. And if you like beer, you are in for a treat: at dinner, drink as many beers from the extensive selection, choose a three-course beer dish, or even a dinner with beer pairing.
During these times of Covid-19, the owner of the hotel who is also a certified beer sommelier, had a good idea. Fabian Albrecht started brewing his own Aletsch Beer. Handcrafted and produced in the hotel's kitchen in small batches, this beer variety is only available to drink in-house.
What the Stoneman Glaciara is all about
The Starter Pack is waiting at the hotel reception. Together with my local guide Romeo from Rodeo Bikes, I analyze the route in detail. Since I am only here for a short time, we decide to skip some of the most challenging climbs. Instead, I will be enjoying the best trails and views...
Being more of a gravity rider, I have no objection to that. After all, the concept of the Stoneman Glaciara is that you can do it at your own pace, and you don't even have to complete it. Albeit, if you finish the route in one day, you are awarded the Stoneman Trophy in gold. For two or three days, you will receive silver and bronze, consecutively.
The MTB route starts in Bellwald, the sun terrace of Goms.
Green landscapes and a charming historic village await as you switch between trails, paved and unpaved roads down to Bodmen. From there, the trail enters the woods as you descend to the town of Fiesch.
We set off by skipping the first challenging ascend of 1200 m from Fiesch to Fiescheralp. Thanks to the gondola, we only do the climb up to Märjela by bike. This is where the fun begins for me... In my opinion, the Märjela at 2364 m gives you the best combination: it’s a technical single track with breathtaking views of Aletsch Glacier’s little brother, the Fiescher Glacier.
Further down the trail, the views change from the exposed, dramatic ice and rock scene to green valleys overseeing the town of Bellwald.
The route takes you back through the Fiescheralp station and up to Moosfluh. Here, the views of the impressive 23 km long and 900 m thick Aletsch Glacier will leave you speechless. At this point, if you are not in "racing mode", take a deep breath and appreciate the sights. You are looking at no less than thirty-two 4K peaks that surround the Great Aletsch Glacier.
The imposing views of the mountains and glacier are so profound, they will re-energize you to continue your quest straight into the long descent to Mörel.
It is advised in this section to have the highest level of concentration. In some places, short passages are a bit sketchy. However, if you are an experienced rider, you will have no issue. I have great fun descending. I especially like the technical parts and the single track, as I am not a big fan of the long downhills on wide gravel or tarmac roads.
If the long climbs and technical descents with incredibly distracting views were not enough, an almost flat tarmac road leads you to Stoneman Glaciara's "Alpe d'Heuz".
The endless steep climb consists of 14 hairpin corners to gain 1450 m in elevation that takes you to the Breithorn Pass at 2450 m above sea level. And, from this point, a 12 km long descent to the village of Binn at 1400 m is waiting for you.
Once in Binn, the next stage of the mountain bike trail will not disappoint.
It starts on a tarmac road (and has some more sections along the way). I am never a fan of tarmac on MTB rides, but the scenery will make up for it. This descent will take you along a beautiful path to Ernen - once the religious and cultural center of Goms. Ernen holds the Wakker Prize for its well-conserved historic village center.
The next stage that takes you to Reckingen is excellent to relax. We go upstream, with minor climbs, through Mühlebach. Here, you will see the oldest wooden houses in Switzerland.
Unfortunately, I did not have the time (and perhaps strength) to do the last stage from Reckingen up to Bellwald. I genuinely regret this. So, I must return to the Aletsch Arena! Not just to ride this final stage through quaint mountain villages with their ancient larch houses.
But also because I genuinely want to ride the trails on the upper section of Aletsch Arena with the glacier views again, and explore further outside the route.
Stoneman Glaciara it is a must-do adventure for any MTB enthusiast.
I would buy the Starterpack Classic (34 francs) as it comes with the printed, detailed map of the route. Plan a minimum of three days to do it, which gives you time to enjoy the views and explore the local food and culture.
Since you are in high alpine ground with many technical descents, I advise the use of a full-suspension mountain bike. In my personal opinion, an aggressive geometry cross-country bike or a mid-travel trail/enduro bike will be best suited. That is due to the challenging climbs and descents you will face. It goes without saying to prepare yourself a little, too.
Spare parts such as a mech hanger and inner tube are a must, as well as a first-aid kit and clothing for a possible weather change, which can happen in minutes. Last but not least, emergency food and cash. I have learned the hard that way in Switzerland, many mountain huts take cash only. No cash means no food.
Aletsch Arena is such a cool place, an unexplored area for mountain biking. I have planned a second visit already in early October before the winter season begins.
Have you visited Aletsch Arena for mountain biking? Let us know your experience in the comments!
(Disclaimer: For the purpose of this review, Aletsch Arena has invited the author for a two-night stay at Hotel Des Alpes, including an MTB guide for one day. All photographs but the hotel and beer shot are copyright Daniel Breece. Follow his adventures on Instagram @danielbreece.)