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Friends fulfill a dream of hiking the Swiss Alps

Two hikers stand on the side of a mountain, taking in sweeping views of the Engadin valley The author and her friend Marianna take in sweeping views of the Engadin valley on the first day of their trek. Photo by Sally Reeder

I’d been longing to do this inn-to-inn Alpine trek since 2000. During an annual ski trip that year, my friend Lynn Angell raved about the Alpine trek she and her husband had done the previous summer. I didn’t know such a thing was even possible and promptly made it a life goal.

As I hiked through a cool, wildflower-studded forest on the first morning of a weeklong trek in the Swiss Alps, I was struck by the quiet. There were no cars. No sirens. Not a single person yelling into a phone. But as my ears adjusted, I started hearing more: birdsong, the sound of my friends’ poles spiking the trail, and wasn’t that rushing water somewhere?

When my friends and I reached a vast meadow with mountain views so astounding we needed a stop to catch our breath, we heard something else, too.

“Where in the world are those bells coming from?” asked Susan.

“You’re not looking up enough!” answered her sister Marianna.

Sure enough, in a rocky meadow high above us, we spied grazing cows, each wearing a clanking bell. (How did the cows get up there, anyway?)

Hikers passing by 3 cows along the trail

Marianna greets cows on the trail. Photo by Susan Harmon

I’d been longing to do this inn-to-inn Alpine trek since 2000. During an annual ski trip that year, my friend Lynn Angell raved about the Alpine trek she and her husband had done the previous summer. I didn’t know such a thing was even possible and promptly made it a life goal.

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For me, walking is the best way to experience a place, and ever since I’d taken a spectacular train ride through the Alps in my early 20s, I’d dreamed of returning to explore the region on foot. With boon companions? Even better.

I’d hoped to do the trip with Lynn and several other women, but the next year, she and her husband were killed on one of the hijacked planes on 9/11. We were, of course, devastated.

It took 2 decades for me and the other 2 founding members of our old ski group to make the trip happen, and we found 2 other brave women to join us. Jen was the baby at 49, and the rest of us—my friend Sally (Jen’s mom), my friend Susan, and my new friend Marianna (Susan’s sister)—were in our 60s and 70s. But we were a pretty fit bunch, committed to training for 10-mile day hikes, and if we didn’t go now, then when?

So this past July, we all converged on Scuol, a small town in southeast Switzerland with 300-year-old houses decorated with ornamental paintings, lushly planted flower boxes, and arched wooden doors.

Red flowers and shutters frame the windows along a street in Guarda

Guarda is one of several storybook villages along the Engadin trekking route. Photo by Mattias Nutt/

The picturesque village is the gateway to the Engadin, a long, narrow valley cut by the Inn River, dotted with a string of time-stands-still villages and punctuated by snowcapped peaks and Alpine lakes. (The Engadin is also one of the only places left in the world where people speak Romansh, a first cousin of Italian, Spanish, and French, although German is the official language and English is widespread.)

We’d planned a self-guided trek on a few trails, but mainly on the Via Engiadina, the path that runs the length of the valley. The route blends high-quality hotels (6 in all) and great food with spectacular scenery. Importantly for us, our daily hikes of 8 to 13 miles were said to be only moderately difficult. (Though we would soon discover that “moderately difficult” was in the eyes—or legs—of the beholder.)

Hitting the trail

Two people filling buckets with water at the trough in Guarda

A handy water trough in the ancient village of Guarda. Photo by Claudio Colombo/

After a night at Scuol’s handsome Guarda Val hotel, we had breakfast and reviewed maps and route instructions. Then we snagged rolls, cheese, and cured meats from the breakfast buffet to snack on and rode a gondola to a Via Engiadina trailhead well above the tree line.

Setting out at an elevation of at least 7,500 feet, we all felt the altitude as we hiked about 3 miles to the Alp Laret stone hut, where we plopped down at a picnic table for lunch. (While some hikers spend their nights in huts, we visited them only for midday meals.)

With warm sunshine on our backs and the Alps spread out before us, we dined on barley soup (a tasty staple of Engadin huts) and radlers (a refreshing drink blending lager and lemon-lime soda).

Marianna, who’d lived in Germany for many years and knew the language, chatted with the waitress, whose family had resided here for the past 14 summers while serving food and drinks to hikers and mountain bikers.

Hikers waiting for their lunch at a table outside the Alp Laret stone hut

Lunch at the Alp Laret stone hut. Photo by Jen Reeder

The 5 of us also got to know each other better. For example, we learned that Jen had donated a kidney to her husband, who’d been stricken with a kidney disease when he was very young; clearly, the donation hadn’t slowed her down.

After lunch, we took off on what looked to be the obvious trail. But 20 minutes later, I noticed we hadn’t seen any of the red-and-white trail markings painted on rocks.

Had we missed a turn?

Fortunately, a friendly Swiss hiker enlightened us: We’d walked right past a tall pole with a clearly marked yellow sign—we’d been studying the footpath so closely to avoid tripping on rocks and roots that we’d missed seeing the marker. So we backtracked. Lesson learned: Look up!

We continued on, acknowledging occasional hikers by calling out “Allegra,” the customary Romansh greeting. At one point, while traversing a huge, flower-dotted meadow, we heard distant “baahs” but couldn’t see their source.

Not long thereafter, a large, uncollared dog barked at us, refusing to cede its spot on the trail and clearly unhappy with our presence. Thankfully, Jen, my journalist friend who specializes in pets, also turned out to be a dog whisperer. “That’s a good girl,” she said, gingerly leading us past. We soon spied the flock of sheep far above and understood why the dog was so protective.

That night, at the wood-paneled Hotel Meisser in the ancient village of Guarda, we enjoyed a dinner of local vegetables, pasta al pesto, and chocolate mousse, then slept the sleep of the exhausted.

Let it rain

Marianna hiking through a boulder field

Marianna navigates a boulder field. Photo by Colleen Dunn Bates

The next day, the weather turned. After getting a late start due to confusion over our train ride to the trailhead, we climbed a steep farm road for a mile or so, watching the skies grow increasingly dark.

Sally, our most senior hiker, was feeling the elevation gain, and when she decided to slow down, Jen stuck with her, telling us, “You guys go ahead, and we’ll meet you at the hotel tonight.”

An hour later, as Susan, Marianna, and I entered the broad, treeless Es-cha Valley, thunder rumbled; a little later came the rain—and then lightning. We were the only people foolish enough to be out in the exposed valley, but we donned our rain gear and slogged on.

As the trail grew rockier and steeper, we heard a distant “yoo-hoo!” and saw Sally and Jen far below, signaling that they were turning around. My group didn’t make it to the hut for lunch until 2:45, soaking wet and starving.

When Marianna and I ordered soup with a side of wienerli (Vienna sausages), Susan said, “Make it 3.” She’s a pescatarian who hadn’t touched such a thing in years—but this day had done her in. As she inhaled a wienerli, she said, “This is the best damn thing I’ve ever eaten!”

A painted vine wraps around an archway on the front of a house in Zuoz

A painted house in Zuoz. Photo by Colleen Dunn Bates

The storm passed and we staggered into the village of Zuoz, our stop for the night. Jen and Sally arrived safely, and over glasses of Chianti, we learned that Sally had slipped on a wet rock and cut her hand. With rain pouring and lightning flashing, Jen apparently had told her, “Let’s get the hell off this mountain!”

Now safe and dry, we all laughed. Jen sipped her wine and announced, “We’re doing the pinks from now on and will meet you for happy hour.” In our guidebook, the “pinks” were the easier hiking options each day. They led to the same destinations and still involved plenty of jaw-dropping scenery, so when we reunited each evening for Aperol spritzes, all parties inevitably glowed.

“No sorry on the mountain”

Over the coming days, we encountered all sorts of new sights and experiences. One sunny morning we rode the adorably red Muottas Muragl funicular.

At the top, we enjoyed watching kids on the playground (all the summertime gondolas and funiculars have playgrounds at the top and bottom). Then Jen and Sally took a lower hiking route to a little mountain restaurant, where an enchanting alpenhorn quartet played. Meanwhile, Susan, Marianna, and I climbed what seemed like a million stone stairs to the Segantini hut, which is famous for its barley soup.

A bowl of soup served with a basket of bread

Photo by Colleen Dunn Bates

“You wouldn’t believe the little kids who made the hike to our hut!” said Sally when we met for spritzers later that afternoon.

“Same at our hut,” Susan replied. “And the parents with toddlers in backpacks, climbing all those stone stairs!” We agreed that Americans could learn from those hearty Swiss families.

They got the music, we got the delicious soup, and despite our different routes, we all took in magnificent views of the mighty Bernina and other peaks, as well as a glider catching the mountains’ wind currents. It was a perfect day.

For our final hike, a 10-miler, Sally said, “I want to finish this together—no pink for me today.” We walked a couple of miles uphill and she paused several times, saying, “Sorry, I need a break.”

Then I announced a new rule: “There’s no sorry on the mountain.” We were in this together, and we were all happy to slow down and ogle the close-up wildflowers and distant glaciers. “All right then,” said perpetually cheerful Sally, “I’ll just say ‘thank you.’ ” Which she did, every time we paused for a catch-your-breath-and-take-in-the-views break.

Late that afternoon, the 5 of us descended ancient stone steps into Soglio, an unspeakably charming village on a hilltop near the Italian border.

We were giddy with the sense of accomplishment, and ready for one last Aperol spritz to toast the bonds we’d made. We had arrived here with a range of ages, fitness levels, and hiking experience. We were a mix of old and new friends. But after trekking more than 60 miles together on foot and sharing great meals and lots of laughs, we’d become a team.

“I’d walk anywhere with you all,” said Marianna when we said our goodbyes. “Funny you should say that,” I replied with a smile. “I have a couple of ideas.”

Longtime Westways contributor Colleen Dunn Bates frequently goes hiking near her home in Altadena.

*  *  *  *  *

A signpost on the trail

Photo by Colleen Dunn Bates

Tips for hiking the Swiss Alps

Beware hiking times

The copious trail signs note hikes by time, not distance. These seemed to be based on how long it would take for a 30-year-old who’s been hiking these trails since toddlerhood. It will likely take you longer.

Bring hiking poles

Trails are often steep, rocky, wet, slippery, and/or narrow.

Stay hydrated

Every village—and often huts and trails, too—has troughs that pipe delicious Alpine water to refill your bottle or pack bladder.

If you hike

Several outfitters offer guided treks in the Alps or arrange self-guided hikes.

The author booked a self-guided Engadin Trek with Ryder-Walker Alpine Adventures, which reserved the 3- and 4-star hotels (breakfasts and dinners included), transferred luggage each day, and provided route information. The treks are offered from mid-June to mid-October. On a scale of 1 to 4, this trek was rated a 4 for comfort (hotels and food) and a 2.5 for difficulty (there are no 2s in the Alps). Rates for 7 nights start at $3,025.

Nonstop flights between LAX and Zurich, the closest gateway to the Engadin Trek, are offered by Swiss Air/United Airlines.

Engadin food to try

You’ll find an Italian influence in the Swiss cooking here. Be sure to sample these specialties:

Bündner Gerstensuppe

A hut staple, this barley soup (pictured) is a clear but richly flavorful broth scattered with bits of ham or bacon, carrot, celery, potato, white beans, and a handful of nutty, chewy barley.

Bündner Nusstorte

A shortbread pie with a walnut-cream-honey filling, this treat is ideal to pack for a hike.

Bündnerfleisch and Salsiz

Historically, surviving Alpine winters meant mastering dried meats, and these air-dried beef and sausage snacks are exceptional.

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