“If you can’t find a place to stay, you are more than welcome to use our backyard,” Marianne told me from behind the fence. It was late afternoon on the first day of my bikepacking tour through Switzerland, and I was looking for a place to camp. Outdoor enthusiasts can access certain public and even private land in Switzerland under the Swiss Civil Code, which opens up camping options for the tired bicycle traveler. Weissbad, the town I found myself in, was the last settlement before the climb towards Schwägalp Pass and the first foray into higher elevations and Swiss alpine terrain. The area ahead did not seem ideal for finding a decent place to pitch my tent, so inquiring about places to stay in town seemed the best option.
I had seen Marianne gardening in her front yard, while her two little boys, Fabian and Claudio, were playing with their toys close by. Standing on the road with my bike, I decided to ask her about places in town where I could stay, and she offered their backyard to pitch my tent. I gladly accepted, and while I was preparing my dinner on their wooden picnic table in the back, I learned a bit about my hosts. Daniel, Marianne’s husband, is local to the area and owns a construction company. They had been living in Weissbad for roughly five years. After a reasonably good night I spent sleeping on the trampoline they had set up for their kids in the backyard, I enjoyed breakfast with them in the morning over cereal, bread, and homemade jam. As they got their kids ready for a little bike ride in the area, I made my way uphill towards the mountains.
The thought of a trip to Switzerland usually conjures up a particular set of images in a person’s mind. Quaint villages, wooden houses, lush green pastures with roaming cows, and their distinct cowbell sound and breathtaking alpine scenery. Switzerland boasts an extensive cycle path system, with multiple cycle paths crisscrossing the country. A track matching one’s interest and fitness level is easily found and followed. For my tour, I eventually combined a few routes that would bring me from Lake Constance in the east to the city of Montreux on Lake Geneva in the west. The cyclist seeking an adventure into the unknown will most likely be disappointed. Still, a seemingly endless array of mountain passes, crossed on gravel roads if one chooses to, more than make up for this lack of unpredictability.
From the very beginning, the environment I passed through very much matched the stereotypes. From the town of Rorschach, on the south side of Lake Constance, the route meandered through the Swiss countryside, through small villages and past farmland, with barns dating back to the mid-1800s. Dairy cows, roaming the pastures and, occasionally, on the road, eyed me curiously. The sound of their cowbells almost unbearably loud at times. Everything seemed meticulously clean, peaceful and idyllic, the outside appearance a reflection of organized and orderly daily life, all supported by well-functioning public transportation. I got the impression that if I were to come back to the same spot in a hundred years, it would not look much different.
I got my first taste of traditional Swiss architecture and connection to history in the village of Appenzell, featuring a historic village square with colorfully painted, wooden houses and their characteristic curved gables. On some of their facades, depictions of historically significant scenes from the village’s past, either painted or artfully carved in wooden panels. A coffee and some ice cream later, I decided to move on from the narrow streets, busy with tourists and locals, and made my way to Weissbad and then onwards to Schwägalp Pass the following day. On a hardpacked gravel road, skirting the lower elevations of the Alpstein massif, I rode past alpine farms and a flock of rare Appenzell goats, with their characteristic long, white hair. From the base terminal of the aerial tramway taking visitors up to the summit of Säntis, it was a downhill cruise through the town of Stein, before the next mountain pass was unwaveringly waiting.
“You must be Klaus,” Ueli yelled at me from a second-story window. Intermittent rain showers had followed me all the way to Weesen, beautifully situated on the western shore of Walensee, when I decided to book a bed & breakfast in Bilten for the night. A short 7km ride later, I stood at Ueli’s door, who runs the inn together with his wife, Margaret. A passionate mountain biker himself, we immediately started chatting about my ride thus far and my experiences. After storing my bike in the basement, he gave me a tour of the house. Little did I know I would soon step back into history. The house, a manor, was about 400 years old and initially built by a local who had made his money with livestock farming. The building underwent renovations and extensions over the years, but the jewel was the preserved stateroom (ger. “Prunkraum”), located in the attic, the owner had commissioned for his brother. The intricate wood paneling dates back to 1618. Eventually, the manor ended up in the hands of Margaret’s great grandfather, from whom she took it over. Not only was I glad to be out of the rain, but getting to learn a bit about local history was an unexpected bonus.
The chance of taking a gondola ride with my bike seemed too good to pass up. Besides, I could very much feel the elevation gain from the previous days in my legs. So I decided to shell out the 17 Sfr. ($17), save me about 500 meters of climbing, and enjoy elevated views of the valley in the relaxed atmosphere of a small gondola car of the Luftseilbahn Niederurnen-Morgenholz. It turned out I would very much need the energy I conserved this way later on. At the crest at Rossweidhöchi, ankle-deep mud and boggy marshland threw a wrench in any riding efforts. For about half an hour, I had to pull, push, and carry the bike through the sludge, my shoes, and clothes getting dirtier and caked in a brown paste with every step I took. Eventually, conditions improved, and I found a garden hose draped to a wooden fence next to a farmhouse to wash off some of the silt.
“En Guetä” is something you hear a lot when sitting down for a meal in Switzerland. The waiter serving you your food might say it, it might be printed at the bottom of your final bill or, sometimes, even an overly friendly table-mate might send it your way. Akin to the French bon appetit, it means to “enjoy your meal”. Oh, and was I enjoying it. I was taking a break at a table on the patio at the Bergrestaurant Sattelegg (elev. 1200m) after conquering the second climb of the day, devouring my Toast Hawaii, washed down with some Apfelschorle, in the company of a mix of other cyclists, motorbikers, locals and day-trippers. I could have stayed here for hours, watching other cyclists conquering the last few meters of the climb and the occasional retiree speeding past in a convertible. Yet I did not have time to waste as I was supposed to make it to Unterägeri by the end of the day, meeting up with a Swiss family I had met a few months earlier in New Zealand.
The descent towards Lake Aegeri, nestled in a valley flanked by foothills of the Alps, could not have been more picturesque. The glacial lake in front of me, I slowly lost elevation until I connected with Road 381, the main thoroughfare connecting the area with the city of Zug in the northwest. A few minutes later, I knocked on the door of Trailrider bike shop, whose owner, Rene, and his family I had met on the Timber Trail in New Zealand earlier in the year. I would later have dinner with them in the backyard of their home, about a five-minute bike ride from the lake.
After three days of cycling over mountain passes, it was time for a taste of the flatter areas of Switzerland. From the town of Zug and the shores of Lake Zug, well-marked cycle paths along the Reuss River brought me to Lucerne, the largest city in Central Switzerland. The contrast was stark with a plethora of people out and about, especially in the city center, in the vicinity of Chapel Bridge, a major tourist attraction. I navigated through affluent suburbs before the views from the shore of Lake Lucerne captured me, the crystal clear water beckoning to jump in and take a swim. I puttered along for a little while longer before a significant climb towards Lungerersee and an even more challenging one to Brünigpass, mostly paralleling the tracks of the Brünig railway line. Views of the Haslital opened up in front of me from the top of the pass, the sight of it made even more imposing by the mountains, with elevations in the 2,000 to 3,000-meter range, surrounding the area.
What a view. Exhausted but happy, I stood at the top of Grosse Scheidegg, a mountain pass in the Bernese Alps, looking west into the adjacent valley towards the town of Grindelwald. The view was dominated by the Eiger mountain, standing proudly at close to 4,000 meters, and it’s 1,800-meter north face, the biggest in the Alps. The weather, sunny and calm, could not have been any better. Probably one of the most arduous 21 kilometers I had ever cycled, I was far from alone up here. Fellow cyclists on road bikes kept arriving at the crest every few minutes, grabbing a refreshment at the Berghotel and reveling in their accomplishment on one of the wooden tables set outside. Tourists who had taken the bus up from either Meiringen or Grindelwald, as well as hikers, joined the lot.
I had left my campground in Meiringen in the early morning and then, unbeknownst to me, cycled past the spot where the most famous fictional detective fell to his demise: Sherlock Holmes. It was at the Reichenbach Falls where, after a struggle with his archenemy Professor Moriarty, the two of them fell down the watery chute. I had labored past the falls on the main road, my legs already protesting at the steepness of it on those first few kilometers.
The higher I got, the more impressive the views, which somewhat alleviated the physical suffering. The Scheideggstrasse mostly followed the Reichenbach, offering views of jagged mountain peaks and glaciers all around. From the small hamlet of Rosenlaui, the paved road meandered through a mix of forest and open grassland, at grades hovering around ten percent, before eventually topping out at the pass at 1,962 meters.
The downhill on the other side was nothing but exhilarating. In what seemed no time at all, I was in Grindelwald, a popular base for tourists for any mountain-related activities. After lunch at a cafe in the company of international visitors, I continued my descent down the valley and to Interlaken, another tourist community, located between the two Lakes of Brienz and Thun. A couple of hours later, my body ran out of energy, and I closed out the day in the town of Spiez, romantically located on the south shore of Lake Thun.
One of the intriguing factors about traveling through Switzerland is its four national languages. Ever since starting from Lake Constance in the east, I had stayed in the German-speaking regions, however, that would soon change. From Spiez, I followed the Simme river westward, on gently graded bike paths and through smaller hamlets with houses built in a style typical in these alpine foothills. Patches of forest covered the flanks of the valley with plenty of grassland and pasture space in between. I grazed the northern end of Gstaad, a major winter tourism destination, and popular amongst high-society and celebrities. Only a few minutes later, I crossed into the canton of Vaud and the French-speaking western part of the country, which became apparent when I tried to order a coffee at the Early Beck boulangerie in Chateau-d’Oex, my destination for the day. I found it fascinating that, almost with the flick of a switch, it felt as if I had entered a different country.
A break forced on me by inclement weather turned my stay in Chateau-d’Oex from one to two nights. Thankfully I could not have picked a better host to stay with. Marc-Etienne was, in a way, the quintessential Swiss. I met him at his clean and tidy, yet modest apartment, located in a multi-story building on a hillside, overlooking the town from the west. My bike was securely parked in the detached garage of the building, only a few stalls away from a Ferrari. But here is where his story got interesting: he has hosted over 360 visitors from all over the world, mostly through the Couchsurfing network. A world map adorns the wall adjacent to the guest bedroom, with pins indicating the places his guests were from. An avid hiker and cyclist himself, he ended up suggesting a route for me to take to get to Lake Geneva.
The Col des Mosses pass, previously part of both the Tour de France and Tour de Suisse cycling races, brought me from Chateau-d’Oex to the Rhone valley. Along the way, I came through the hamlet of L’Etivaz, the origin of the hard Swiss cheese made from raw cow’s milk of the same name. Vinyards blanketed the hills on the descent into Aigle, home of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), and a bike path along the Rhone brought me to the eastern tip of Lake Geneva.
Freddie Mercury, Queen’s iconic lead singer, settled in Montreux after his HIV diagnosis in 1987, the quiet and serene atmosphere on the shores of Lake Geneva was precisely what he longed for. Queen ended up recording seven albums at the Mountain Studio recording studio Mercury had purchased, including the final Made In Heaven. In memory of the singer’s connection with Montreux, a bronze statue was erected on the lakeside promenade in 1996, which served as the perfect destination for my ride across Switzerland. On the way there, I had to make sure not to get too distracted by the expanding views from the rather busy Avenue de la Riviera flanking the lake. And then, after passing stores of well-known shopping brands, banks, and hotels, I turned towards the promenade and saw Freddie, in his recognizable pose, a handful of flower bouquets at his feet.
My destination reached, it was now time to find a place. Pascal and Valentine, a couple I had contacted via the Warmshowers network, agreed to take me in for the night. However, their guest bedroom was already taken by another traveler. The alternative I got to enjoy was, however, even better. Their house, which Pascal’s parents had purchased in the seventies “for nothing,” as Valentine put it, is on a lakeside property in Vevey, roughly a 30-minute ride from Montreux. The backyard of the house in a quiet residential neighborhood enjoys its own access to the water. I ended up pitching my tent on a little gravel area, next to a small outdoor kitchen area and table they had set up, probably one of the most beautiful camp spots I had the pleasure of staying at. The icing on the cake was a swim in the refreshingly chilly water in the evening.
Switzerland has quite an extensive network of cycling routes, both for road cyclists, as well as mountain bikers. I was more drawn to an itinerary on dirt/gravel roads, which is why I had initially planned to follow the 450km long Panorama Bike.
For multiple reasons, I ended up combining a couple of route options, as I really wanted to include the section from Meiringen to Interlaken via Grindelwald. Luckily, the choices are plenty, so if you get tired of the amount of climbing (as I eventually did), a path that lets you continue on flatter terrain is usually not too far away.
I went to college in Vorarlberg, the westernmost state in Austria and bordering Switzerland. I ended up traveling there by train from Vienna and then cycling to Rorschach, the start of my planned route.
The closest international airport is Zurich Airport from where you can take advantage of the excellent Swiss Railway System. From the airport, you could take a train to Sankt Gallen, which is about 20km away from Rorschach.
From Lake Geneva, where I ended my journey, I took a train back east to Sankt Gallen and cycled back to my friends place in Dornbirn, Vorarlberg. Taking a bike on a train in Switzerland is fairly straight forward, long-distance trains usually have cars with bike racks for two bikes each, which can also be reserved in advance.
Apart from concerns about the price, there is really no issue with getting food or water or obtaining supplies. A sizeable town or even city is never far away. Even small villages usually have at least one public fountain with perfectly drinkable water to refill your water bottles. One thing to consider is that, especially in smaller towns, stores will most likely close earlier on Saturdays and will be fully closed Sundays.
Given that I had decided to follow a designated “mountain bike” route for much of the way, I was initially concerned whether the gravel bike could handle the terrain. Eventually, I ended up riding on mostly hard-packed surfaces without much technical terrain, so my gear choice ended up working well in the end.
- Bed and Breakfast Switzerland. Platform to book accommodation in over 800 B&Bs across Switzerland.
- Swiss Radio and TV (SRF) Weather Forecast. Highly reliable and accurate weather forecasting for Switzerland
- Swiss Railway (SBB) Mobile App.
- The HOPE-1000 (formerly Navad 1000). Annual unsupported bikepacking event from Lake Constance to Lake Geneva