The Valais is a canton of Switzerland right in the heart of the Alps. With 27 peaks over 4,000 m including the Matterhorn (4,478 m), Jungfrau (4,158 m) and Switzerland’s highest mountain the Monte Rosa (4,634 m) and another 150 summits over 3,000 m it is a mountaineering and hiking paradise. Constantin likes to say that the Valais is where the real Alps are.
The region was one of the main “playgrounds” of the first Alpine explorers and became the birthplace of the Saint-Bernard mountain rescue dog at the Hospice du Grand Saint-Bernard. Today the Valais remains a prime mountaineering destination, but it also offers great opportunities to gaze at its imposing summits from its narrow valleys and famous high altitude trails.
It is home to most of the classic high altitude treks – the Haute Route, and several other treks circumventing Valais’s most prominent mountain ranges such as the Tour of the Matterhorn or Tour of Monte Rosa. On top of that there are countless trails through the region allowing for thousands of bespoke trips of all lengths and difficulties.
The valleys of the Valais
The Valais is in the South-West of Switzerland. It is more or less defined by the Rhone valley, starting with the Rhonegletscher in the East and flowing into Lac Léman in the West. It encompasses short side valleys to the North of the Rhone and long narrow valleys to its South.
From West to East the main valleys are:
- Vallée du Trient: Connects Martigny to Chamonix in France. Both the Tour de Mont Blanc and the Haute Route pass through the valley
- Val Ferret: Main centers are Champex and Ferret
- Val d’Entremont: Connects Martigny to Aosta in Italy via the Cold du Grand Saint-Bernard
- Val de Bagnes: Main center is Verbier, ends with the Mauvoisin dam
- Val d’Hérémence: Ends with the tallest gravity dam in the world – the Grande Dixance
- Val d’Hérens: Main centers are Evolèn, Les Haudères and Arolla
- Val d’Anniviers: Main centres are Grimentz and Zinal
- Turtmanntal: Main center is Gruben
- Mattertal: Probably the most famous valley in Switzerland, with the Matterhorn towering over Zermatt
- Lötschental: The largest northerly valley in the Valais around Blatten
- Saastal: Main centers are Saas Grund and Saas Fee
- Fieschertal/ Goms: West of its mouth is the toe of the Aletschgletscher – the largest glacier in the Alps
Despite its mountainous terrain, the Valais is well connected thanks to a dense network of post buses that span the valleys and connect them to the main train line running through the Rhone valley from Martigny to Brig.
The excellent Swiss rail runs several trains a day connecting the Rhone valley to Geneva as well as Milano. Both have an international airport and are suitable as gateways to the hiking trails of the Valais.
Hikes and treks in the Valais
There are countless day hike routes in the Valais and over 40 mountain huts run by the Swiss Alpine Club. Together they can make up thousands of different multi-day treks throughout the region. Five treks in the Valais stand out though:
The Haute Route
This is one of the treks to do in the Alps. It is based on a mountaineering expedition from the early days of Alpine exploration running from the foot of the Mont Blanc in Chamonix across most of the Valais to Zermatt in the Mattertal. Though don’t worry the walkers Haute Route avoids glaciated cols and can therefore be tackled without extensive mountaineering experience.
Find out more:
- The walker’s Haute Route part 1: From Chamonix to Arolla
- The walker’s Haute Route part 2: From Arolla to Zermatt
- Walking in the Valais: 6 days of meandering around the Haute Route
Tour of Monte Rosa
This trek circles around Switzerland’s highest mountain Monte Rosa or Dufourspitze (4, 634 m). It starts and ends in Zermatt (or any other of the villages it passes through, if you like) and takes in the Mattertal and the Saastal.
In contrast to the Haute Route this trek requires some mountaineering skills, as it crosses the crevassed Theodul glacier where crampons, an ice axe and a rope are required.
Find out more:
- Zermatt Tourism: Tour of Monte Rosa
- Outdoor Active: Tour of Monte Rosa
- The Tour de Monte Rosa official website
Tour of the Matterhorn
The Tour of the Matterhorn promises spectacular views of Switzerland’s most iconic mountain from every angle. As the Tour of Monte Rosa it starts and ends in Zermatt, but takes in the Turtmantal, Val d’Annivier and Val d’Herens. It includes two glacier crossings; the Theodul glacier and the Arolla glacier and therefore also requires appropriate mountaineering experience.
Find out more:
Tour des Combins
While the three treks above belong to the book of Alpine classics, the Tour des Combins is slightly less well known. However, it still provides spectacular views of a substantial Alpine massive – the Grand Combin as well as an opportunity to enjoy some less trodden routes on a shorter trek. I walked it in summer 2011 and can more than recommend it.
Find out more:
Tour du Saint-Bernard
This trek centers around the historical St. Bernard Pass the birthplace of the St. Bernard mountain rescue dog. It covers Valais’s two most westerly valleys Val Ferret and Val d’Entrement. Similar to the Tour de Combins it is shorter and somewhat easier than the first two treks.
Find out more:
Day trips and short treks
Aside from these long trips there are obviously plenty of opportunities for shorter one day or weekend hikes. The Valais tourist board website lists a whole range of these as does the Swiss tourist board. This Cicerone website focuses on short hikes in the Val d’Herens.
- Three treks in the Valais that were not meant to be
- Walking in the Valais: 6 days of meandering around the Walker’s Haute Route
- What I did last summer: Tour des Combins on the Swiss-Italian border