Though it lacks the glitz and glamour of St. Moritz, Gstaad, or Zermatt, the Jungfrau region may be the most truly “Swiss” of any alpine resort area in Switzerland.
All the prototypical Swiss images are here: the towering snow-capped peaks, the glacier-cut valleys, the flower-blanketed meadows, the rushing rivers and thundering waterfalls, the neatly trimmed A-frame chalets, the colorful little cogwheel trains chugging up the hillsides.
If you encountered Heidi on your morning walk, you wouldn’t blink twice.
And while towns like Wengen, Mürren, and Grindelwald may not be household names in the U.S., the Swiss know them well. The Jungfrau was one of the first alpine resort areas in Europe, and the Swiss have flocked here for outdoorsy vacations for more than a century.
While no area of Switzerland is exactly a budget haven, the Jungfrau region – situated in the German-speaking heart of the country, well removed from any big city – is a family-oriented resort area, where campgrounds, modest hotels and short-term chalet rentals abound. But the scenery would suit the most jaded jet-setters.
A wall of three 13,000-foot peaks – the Eiger, the Mönch, and the Jungfrau — dominate the landscape, standing watch like granite sentinels over the deep valleys below. In the vicinity soar other impressive Bernese Alps like the 9,700-foot Schilthorn, known for its dramatic location scenes in the James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. (A revolving restaurant at the top offers 360-degree vistas.)
The region’s best known and most easily accessible resort town, Interlaken, is situated between two lakes and can serve as a base for local touring, but I prefer the smaller, higher-altitude villages like Wengen and Mürren. Reached by mountain trains, they’re low-key, traffic-free and enjoy enviable settings with killer views of their own.
Once settled in, you can set off exploring the area by foot, train, or aerial cable car. Staying in a small hotel in Wengen, my wife and I were within steps of hiking trailheads and the local train and cable car stations. We took advantage of all three.
Hiking the Männlichen
Our favorite hike led from Wengen up to the 7,300-foot-summit of the Männlichen, which rises imposingly more than 3,000 feet above the village. At first, as we eyeballed potential trails, no hiking route short of sheer torture appeared to lead to the top. The aerial cable car, which can whisk you up the side of the mountain in short order, looked inviting.
But, guided by bright yellow signposts pointing to way stations like Wengernalp and Kleine Scheidegg, we decided to try a circuitous route – figuring that as long as we kept going up, we couldn’t go wrong.
The first part of the trail through an evergreen forest was marked by steep switchbacks and occasional fits of envy for the passengers enjoying the comforts of passing trains. But we were able to put our pain in perspective after encountering the leaders of the annual Jungfrau Marathon, who huffed past us in the midst of a grueling 26-mile foot race up the mountainsides.
Awestruck and humbled by their grit and stamina, we soldiered on. And then, as we came out upon an open mountain ridge, we were met by the full glories of an unfolding panorama: the Jungfrau, Mönch, and Eiger rising side by side across a deep green valley, their glacier-topped peaks glistening in the sun and seeming almost close enough to touch.
In the little village of Wengernalp, about an hour and a half along the trail, the aroma of sizzling wursts lured us to an outdoor grill adjacent to the train tracks. Ignoring the prepackaged sandwiches we were lugging in our backpacks, we stopped for a hot sausage break while watching the long line of marathoners snake their way ever upward along the underside of the Eiger’s stark north face.
A pack of hearty-looking hikers, many outfitted with walking sticks and sturdy boots, alighted at the train station there to join the trek up. While the gradient of the trail eased up a bit from here, the mountain vistas grew progressively more dramatic with each turn. But some pastoral charms lay nearer: At the top of one hill we came face to face with a trio of grazing dairy cows, their tinkling bells echoing rhythmically across the valleys.
Another hour’s hike brought us to Kleine Scheidegg, a legendary alpine way station complete with train depot, a guest house, restaurants, and more dazzling views. Like an alpine Grand Central, it was overrun with a mix of sweaty, adrenaline-flushed runners gulping celebratory bottles of mineral water and jovial European holiday-makers swigging beers on open-air terraces.
The Jungfraujoch — Top of Europe
While Kleine Scheidegg marked the end of the marathon, it was a popular embarkation point for the Jungfraujoch, an even more amazing journey by train.
Completed nearly a century ago, the tracks are a marvel of engineering and lead to the highest-elevation train station in Europe, perched on an 11,300-foot-high glacier lying between the Mönch and the Jungfrau. Along the way the train travels through a long tunnel chiseled right out of the north wall of the Eiger, where two lookout stations have been carved from the granite face of the mountain. At the terminus are viewing terraces, an ice palace, restaurants, snow play areas, and chances to trek along the longest glacier in the Alps – something of a “Top of Europe” theme park.
Though we were tempted to board the train, that adventure would have to wait for another day; we were determined to finish our hike to the Männlichen summit, and were well rewarded for it. While the quality of the views never diminished – we marveled at each new angle from which to view the sun-dappled splendors of the Eiger — the final hour of the trail was flat and wide enough for even young children to manage.
At the summit, we sat on an outdoor terrace and nursed cold beers against a stunning backdrop of endless alpine peaks and valleys. In the distance, cogwheel trains and aerial cable cars made their way up and down the steep terrain, part of the world’s most remarkable and efficient public transport system. (For about $300, the six-day Jungfrau Railways Pass provides unlimited passage on nearly all the routes in the region, with a 50 percent discount on the Jungfraujoch.)
As the cool of late afternoon set in, we took the easy way down, riding the aerial cable car back to Wengen. In five dramatic minutes, we had swooped down the mountainside, safely in front of our hotel. With wonders like these, who needs glitz and glamour?
This piece originally appeared in Ohio Motorist Magazine. Copyright 2014 Clark Norton