From Chamonix to Zermatt, from Mont Blanc to the Matterhorn, how could you go wrong with a hike like this! The Walker’s Haute Route is an absolutely stunning trail that offers what I would consider to be the classic Alps experience: beautiful mountain hamlets, green flower-rich valleys, gorgeous snow-capped peaks and almost constant access to great food and drink.
After reading a Backpacker Magazine article a few years ago about the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB), Chelsea and I both knew that we needed to head for the Alps. While we initially considered the TMB, we soon realized that it would be a bit too crowded for our tastes and perhaps not offer the challenge we were looking for. After doing some more research, we settled on the Walker’s Haute Route (WHR) for its high alpine experience and because it would allow us to walk between two of some of the most famous mountains and mountain towns in the world. Even though the WHR is more in tune with our liking, it is still (like the TMB) almost exclusively a hut to hut hike. This is problematic for us because we don’t like huts and huts are much, much more expensive than sleeping in a tent. If we were going to do this hike and stay on budget, we needed to camp.
A simple search online, however, shows that doing the hike with a tent is not so easy. In many European countries, wild (not in a designated campsite) camping is illegal and the number of legitimate campsites are few and far between. In addition, other trip reports for the WHR were claiming that tenting the whole way was impossible due to the terrain and/or that all camping in Switzerland was illegal. Looking a bit closer though it became clear that while wild camping in Switzerland is highly discouraged, it is not “illegal” in all places. You are generally allowed to camp high , but should avoid camping outside of designated sites in the valleys as each canton and town has different laws and can impose a fine for wild camping. Armed with this information we decided to go ahead with our plan and hike the trail with our tent. We hope this guide will help others who are looking to do the same.
The Walker’s Haute Route is a roughly 115 mile trail from Chamonix, France to Zermatt Switzerland, and is widely considered one of the best multi-day alpine hikes in the world.
Who we recommend it for:
This trail is for everybody (with some caveats)! Chelsea and I disagree a bit on the experience level needed for this trail. I really believe that almost anyone can hike this trail safely, but it depends on how you do it… If you decide to carry a small pack, stay in the huts, eat the hut food, give yourself enough time, and are fortunate with the weather/snow pack conditions, I don’t see why a beginner could not handle this trail. With that being said, there are some difficult sections that require scrambling, a bit of exposure and, in our case, lots of snow. All of these issues are made easier if you are carrying a small and light pack. If you decide to carry a tent and your food, just be prepared for some tough slogs through the aforementioned difficulties.
This was the best signed trail that I have ever been on. We made a last-minute decision to not bring a map (not recommended) due to the exorbitant price (over $100), but never managed to find ourselves “lost”. The path was always extremely well maintained and there were often multiple routes going to the same place in case you got off track a bit. In Switzerland, they label their hiking trails in a similar fashion as ski-runs. Most of the easy walks are signed yellow and have white-red blazes, and some of the more difficult alpine routes are marked blue and white. The WHR is almost always white-red-white striped with some of the passes white-red-blue. The blue sections require some scrambling and often have some exposure. While the trail is 98% excellent, both Chelsea and I had a very difficult time coming down the Fenetre d’Arpette pass on the second day. I managed to fall three times on some pretty steep snow and three times on the trail – due to marble sized rocks that were just like, well marbles. Chelsea managed to fall twice in the snow and twice on the trail. I have fallen in snow before, but never on the trail because of the trail conditions. And, yes, we both use hiking poles. But we will chalk that up to happenstance and move on. The trail is generally great!
Errr don’t get me started on the maps. You should pretty much always have a map when you go hiking (and know how to use it), but the maps for this trail were just stupid expensive and big. Instead, we relied solely on the Kindle version of the Kev Reynolds guide, Chamonix-Zermatt: The Walker’s Haute Route. While we disliked Kev by the end of the hike for his nonchalant writing style, he did manage to get us to Zermatt without major incident or getting lost. The guide provides multiple variations for most sections, which allows you to change routes if needed for weather or fitness reasons. We found the guide to be pretty accurate and a good companion. The only time we really wished we had a map was after we found our way blocked by deep snow and had to figure out an alternative route. ***I wish we had known that you can get excellent interactive maps of almost all the trails in Switzerland at www.swisstopo.com. Not only can you use it on your cell, as there is often great cell coverage on the trail, but you can also print out the maps! I assume this option is not mentioned often because it is free or because people just don’t know about it. A Swiss friend of ours was kind enough to enlighten us on the matter towards the end of the hike.
You should not go hungry on this trail! There are so many restaurants, grocery stories and huts along the way that it would be a challenge to starve out there. It just depends how much you are willing to spend. For our hike, we decided we would purchase 4 days worth of food to start with and then wing it from there. We mainly did this because we were not sure about the prices of food along the trail and wanted to make sure that we at least had several days of low-cost meals. I think our plan worked out pretty well and saved us some money. When buying food, I would recommend shopping at Migros (there is one in the Geneva Airport) or Co-op as they are both low-cost grocery stores that carry some very cheap house brands of food and beer. We were able to stretch our food out by purchasing dinners (making big sandwiches) at the grocery stores along the way, in addition to anything else we might need. I know there were times that we were probably carrying too much food, but we didn’t really care as we were very well fed and feeling strong. Some things to keep in mind are that the grocery stores are almost always closed on Sundays and that eating at a restaurant in Switzerland is super expensive, and you will pay at least 20€/person for a simple meal. Meats, cheeses, wine and bread were all very cheap at the grocery stores.
There is plenty of water along the trail and in each town there is at least one fountain that provides potable water. There is no need to carry lots of water.
Getting there and back:
It took a bit of effort to figure out the logistics of getting to and from the trail, mainly because we needed to find an economical way to store our other gear while we hiked. Since we were flying in and out of Geneva Airport we decided to stay our first and last nights at a hotel near Geneva that offered free luggage storage and free airport shuttle service. It ended up being less than half the price it would have been if we just stored our gear at the Geneva airport or train station. From the airport you have plenty of low-cost options for getting to Chamonix. We took EasyBus for 17€ each and it takes about an hour. Easy peasy. Getting back from Zermatt can be a bit more expensive, as Zermatt is a car-less town and there really aren’t many options for getting back to the airport other than the SBB train. Initially the train tickets were going to be around 100€ each, but after some looking I found that you can get a supersaver train ticket for 50€ if you wait until less than a month to your departure and you book online. Nice!
We planned to hike the trail in 10 nights, with an additional buffer day if needed, but it ended up only taking us 9. There are many variations of the trail and many cable cars, buses, and shortcuts to use if needed. Our original plan was to take all the high routes (minus the Europaweg) and not “cheat” so to speak, by progressing forward any way other than walking. We mostly succeeded… unfortunately, we hit some very deep steep snow above the Cabane du Mont Fort which prevented us from going over the Col de la Chaux. Our first route choice around the pass via the Sentier de Chamoix was closed due to snow and the direct route over the pass was just too dangerous for us to attempt with the gear we had. After looking at the map in the Cabane we thought we found an alternate route, but after going over two other passes we found the only way down was a steep icy 350ft glissade (sliding down on your butt). Luckily, Chelsea was there to talk me out of it…So, we were forced to retreat and head down into some unknown (to us, the mapless) valley that looked like it had a good amount of civilization. This detour forced us to miss two of the arguably best days of the trail, and replace them with the new Chelsea and Joseph Misery March.
Day 1: Chamonix to Trient – A great first day on the trail. We left the campground in Chamonix around 9 am, grabbed a cup of coffee and croissant and hit the trail. The first half of the day is a nice walk down the valley to Argentiere and then up and over the pass that takes you into Switzerland. There is a solid ascent out of the valley and some people decided to take a cable car up, but the trail is easy and the climb is a great way to get your legs ready for the days to come. We camped at a small campground near Trient for 8€. We walked all over Trient but could not find a grocery store. There was a small yurt/bar that sold some odds and ends, but nothing substantial.
Day 2: Trient to near La Garde – This was a surprisingly rough day for us. The day started off with a stiff climb out of Trient, but rewarded with beautiful views of the Trient Glacier and plenty of wildflowers. As we made the 4,500 foot climb up the Fenetre d’Arpette, we were passed by a woman who had to be at least 75 years old. Having just finished a couple of solid hikes in Peru and feeling pretty fit, it was quite humbling…The real problem though didn’t start until we began making our way down the other side of the Fenetre d’Arpette. The trail down is pretty steep and it was covered in icy, slushy snow. I managed to slip and fall in the snow on three separate occasions and Chelsea twice. After leaving the snow, we were faced with some difficulty going over a large boulder field and terrible trail conditions. We have hiked on many trails of all types, but have never experienced such slippage underfoot. The trail was covered in marble sized rocks that were ridiculously dangerous. I managed to fall three more times and Chelsea twice. Every step was nerve-wracking and the falling was sapping our energy. It is not a fun experience to be carrying a 25lb pack and fall on a rocky trail, it is dangerous and it hurts! After a demoralizing long descent we finally made it to the picturesque, lakeside town of Champex where we grabbed a bite to eat and rested a bit. After a couple of hours recuperating we decided to just keep walking until we found a good campsite. We were able to find a secluded spot between La Garde and Sembrancher.
Day 3: La Garde to near Cabane du Mont Fort – We headed out early and grabbed a cup of coffee and a pastry in Le Chable in preparation for the big ascent up to Cabane du Mont Fort. The hike up to the Cabane is gorgeous but at 4800+ ft in elevation gain, quite the workout. We stopped in Clamblin to have a Coupe Denmark (like a chocolate sunday) and then made our way up past the large ski-resort town of Verbier, where we watched paragliders take off and fly though the valleys – pretty awesome! As we made our way to the Cabane du Mont Fort, we could see pretty quickly that the way up the Col de la Chaux may not be possible for us. This is one part of the hike that there very few reroute options. You need to go over Col de la Chaux or around it via the Sentier des Chamoix, in order to link the trail otherwise you must go back down into one of the valleys and make your way around. After looking at the situation, we decided to go into the Cabane and speak with the warden about the conditions. He said, with a non-confidence-inspiring shrug, that it was “possible” but would be very difficult, with the snow being waist deep all the way to to the pass where it was then icy and steep. The more troublesome part for us though, was that on the other side the snow continued very steeply down the pass and then stretched for miles to the next cabane. Looking at our gear and the risk/reward ratio we decided to try and find another route that would keep us from having to descend back into one of the nearby valleys.
Day 4: Cabane du Mont Fort to Sion – This was not the funnest of days. After waking up and setting out to take a look at some alternate routes around the snow we found ourselves stumped. When went over two mountain passes only to find the only way down guarded by very steep icy snow. Left with no real alternate options we decided it would just be best to head down into the valley and find another way to get back on the trail. Since we didn’t have a map, we just started making our way down and followed the signs for the town of Tzoumaz, where we were able to grab a map at the local tourist office and find the bus route that would get us back on track. Unfortunately, that bus stop was in Sion – a 6 hour road walk away. Never again! We decided not to take the buses between Tzoumaz and Sion as it would cost us some money and would break our goal to not “cheat”, but it was a mistake. The road walk was miserable, hot, and dangerous. We slumped into the TCS campground just outside of Sion grumpy and very sore. Before the long road-walk down we had discussed doing a 13 hour road walk from Sion to La Sage the following day instead of using a bus, but that was absolutely not going to happen. I will never do a road walk like that again! Terrible! On a bright side, at the campground we ate the best pizza of our entire trip so far. The most expensive, but the best!
Day 5: Sion to near Villa – We woke up early and walked the 1.5 hours to Sion where we decided to catch the bus to Les Hombres. Luckily, there was a Migros close to the bus station where we were able to resupply and grab 4 more days worth of food while we waited for the next bus. You can buy tickets directly from the bus driver. It cost us about 17€ each. Once in Les Hauderes we grabbed a cup of coffee and set up toward the pass. Our plan was to hike as far as we could, maybe even get over the pass, but a big thunderstorm rolled in and we were forced to take shelter and camp early. We camped just above Villa.
Day 6: Villa to Grimentz – The day started off great with beautiful weather in the morning as we made our way up and over the pass, but soon turned to a rainy mess. It poured and poured all afternoon and into the evening, making for a very cold and un-scenic day. To our good luck however, we were able to find a campground right outside of Grimentz where we were able to pitch our tent under a dry picnic overhang. There is a Co-op in town where we again bought supplies for a massive sandwich, grabbed some good beer and a bottle of local wine. It was a great way to finish out an otherwise miserable day.
Day 7: Grimentz to Cabane Bella Tola – There are a couple of route choices this day and apparently one of the most scenic valley walks on the trail, but we wouldn’t have known the difference. We knew the forecast was calling for bad weather so we just took the shortest path up to Cabane Bella Tola. The whole morning we were socked in with fog, but at least we got to see the beautiful historic center of Grimentz. As we made our way up to the mountain side, it started to rain and sleet on us, so we ducked into the Hotel Weisshorn for a cup of coffee to wait until the rain passed. As the weather began deteriorating and the rain and sleet turned to snow, we decided to break our tent-only motto and stay at the Cabane Bella Tola. It was a good choice and one of the least expensive Cabanes on the trail at 31 Francs per person (only for a dorm style bed). The showers were hot and we met some nice people who shared some of their very expensive Cabane food with us. We could have easily camped near the Cabane and wondered if we should have saved the money, but as the snow continued to fall, we were happy to have a warm place to sleep for the night.
Day 8: Cabane Bella Tola to Gruben – This was such a fun day! While its not always fun to hike in the snow, it does provide for some beautiful views and a bit of excitement. Our guide book said that the way up to the Medipass from the Cabane could be difficult in bad weather, but we found it to be pretty straightforward. The snow continued to fall throughout the morning and into the afternoon, but never in a harsh way and made for nice cooler temps – perfect for hiking. After making our way over the pass, we headed down into the valley town of Gruben, where we grabbed a nice dinner at the hotel restaurant. We weren’t quite sure where we were going to camp, as the nearest legitimate campsite was 2 hours away and we didn’t really want to make our way to the next pass yet, so we just found a nice secluded spot in the woods just above the town.
Day 9: Gruben to Randa – Our last full day and one of the nicest. The way up to Augstbordpass was pretty undemanding, but we did hit a patch of steep snow towards the top that required some caution. The other side of the pass still had a bit of snow and rocky sections, but nothing too crazy. This day offered some of the most spectacular views of the whole trip and also allowed us to see a herd of Ibex relaxing in the open. So marvelous! On entering the small mountain hamlet of Jungen, we decided to “cheat” and take the cable car down into the valley. We were excited to ride a cable car for the first time and to avoid another couple thousand feet of descent and pounding on our knees. Once the cable car dropped us off at the town of St. Niklaus we hiked another 2 hours to a campsite just outside the town of Randa.
Day 10: Randa to Zermatt – Our last day and a short one at that. We woke up late and walked the last easy miles into Zermatt.
We hiked the trail in early July and had pretty great weather for the most part. The days were hot and the evenings warm. Our 20F quilts were often too warm. We only had a couple of days of rain, a bit of snow and one cold night. However, we took a chance doing the trail a bit earlier in the season, and paid the price when we had to reroute and miss one of the best sections because of lingering deep and steep snow. While we love hiking in the shoulder seasons, you definitely take that risk and may be better served going later in the season when all the snow has melted off.
For the most part our gear choices were spot on. I say “for the most part” because had we taken our waterproof boots and pants, instead of our trail-runners and rain kilts, we might have be able to tackle the difficult snow sections. But who knows…rain pants aren’t going to keep us from falling and rocketing down a steep snow field. Gear lists HERE.
Joseph’s MVP Gear: Before we left on our trip my brother got us, among other things, an Anker AstroE5 external battery. This was indispensable as I was able to charge my Nexus 5x phone 4 times over, allowing me to use google maps and the internet to find a new route around the snow. I hadn’t brought my phone charger with me, so we would have had a much tougher time without it. Thanks, bro!
Chelsea’s MVP Gear: “My Patagonia R1 pullover fleece was perfect for the crappy weather. I think it is designed for climbing mountain passes in the snow. This is the only insulating layer I have that I’m actually comfortable wearing when the weather turns bad. I don’t have to baby it like I do with my down jacket, it dries quickly and even sheds a little bit of moisture, and never fails to keep me warm, but not too warm . . . ”
So far this my favorite hut-to-hut hike, even though we don’t sleep in the huts…This would be a great hike for those wanting to experience the alps and who want a bit more challenge than the Tour du Mont Blanc. Trying to compare this hike with a much more remote backcountry experience, like the Alpamayo Circuit, is just too difficult as they are very different, but if you like more civilization, this hike is for you. For those of you who want to hike this trail with a tent, I say go for it. Your campsites won’t always have the best views, and you may find yourself searching a long time for a site, but it CAN be done. You can find our photo album here.
Next hike, Corsica and the GR20!!