Val Minor: Where nature hides around the corner

High on the Bernina Pass, red trains criss-cross, rare ponies graze, and hikers find wild nature just a short walk from the car park.

There's a bleakness to the Bernina Pass - the desolation typical of roads that precariously connect lonesome mountain valleys. Rising to over 2,300 metres' altitude, this one binds the Upper Engadine region of Switzerland with Valtellina in the Italy's Lombardy. But it looks more like a ferry terminal to nowhere on the day we hike there, in late September. The Lagalb cable car is closed and in its car park, bordering the empty road, cars are lined up like they do to board seagoing vessels. Abandoned too are the pastures, which earlier in the week were bustling with cows. It's the end of the season, and a good day for a hike. Quiet, I mean. We have the place to ourselves. 

We park up, heading out into the mountain air while drivers in the queuing cars peer listlessly out of their windscreens, wondering when the road will reopen. Our route will take us up and around Val Minor, which is like a moat to Piz Lagalp. As we plod uphill, we have a good view of the railway far below, and every so often a streak of red pulled taut alongside Lej Nair as the highest railway across the Alps, the Bernina Express, makes its way to Tirano. Occasionally a classic car hares along the road, like something from a James Bond car chase. The pass road must be closed for a rally of sorts.

Typical of many mountain passes, there is a lot of infrastructure up here. But look higher and all there is between you and the heavens are the sharp white peaks of the Bernina Massif. Soon, we round Piz Lagalp and emerge onto a grassy basin of tangled grass and strewn boulders, the path lost in the undergrowth. We cross over into another layer of the scenery, where we teeter on a steep slope that unfurls into an amphitheatre of gigantic mountains around Piz Cabrena and moody valleys splashed in hues of blue and grey. Gone is the infrastructure; we might be in the wilds of Scotland. 

Lej Minor soon comes into view, at the bottom of a descent popular with mountain bikers. There's one on his way back up - lost, I wonder, or going for a second run. The wind is so ferocious that it's licking droplets of water off the surface of the lake and, when the fury settles, the depths glitter. A pair of rosy-cheeked Italian hikers approach and coo at Albie with a chorus of 'Ciao, bello'. We're on the edge of Italy and its warmth has crept over the border. 

It's time for a lunch stop, and once settled behind an appropriate stony windbreaker, we pull out sourdough sandwiches and chestnut cake from Cafe Castinet in La Punt Chamues-ch. I look down Val Minor as the shadows of clouds move across the soft grassy groove like ghosts, and think it looks absolutely unrecognisable. The only other image I'd seen of it was in a photography hardback in our Airbnb: it was of the valley deep in snow, monochrome almost, with Lowry-esque figures on skis sliding along. 

Following the stream out of the valley, we encounter a herd of ponies lazily basking in a pool of sunlight. They're Barb horses, one the the oldest but also rarest breeds in the world, bred by a local yard and allowed to roam here all summer long. It's an almost allegorical scene - these shiny beasts magnificent beside the rushing brook. 

Before we know it, we've dropped back out at Lagalp. The 'ferry terminal' queues have disappeared, traffic is flowing again, and our car is alone in the car park. Red trains gently trundle past as the sun starts to sink behind Piz Bernina. Our hike took just three hours but seemed to extend into the wilds. That's the thing about the Swiss Alps - you're never far from infrastructure, but you're even closer to nature. 

Plan your route here. We enjoyed this hike while staying in La Punt Chamues-ch, a great base for exploring the scenery of the Upper Engadine. 


Val Trupchun: The accessible wilderness of the Swiss National Park

An Alpine interpretation of a moonscape, Val Trupchun in the Swiss National Park is a wilderness within easy reach. The spectacular scenery is home to red deer, marmots and ibex.

I moaned and cursed Tim on the climb up, because, true to form, I disliked the slog through woodland without a view. But oh, when we emerged... Val Trupchun. It looked like a tapestry of moss-green brushed velvet with embroidered stone pines, some clustered but those higher all alone. The green rising in a smooth semi-circle and suddenly, startlingly, giving onto the harder part, the bit that could have been crafted in leather: magnificent turrets like those on a Gothic cathedral, glinting, sparkling. On the grassland, crowds of wildlife spotters were gathered, wearing colourful clothes and training their binoculars on the skies and ridges. 

This valley in the Swiss National Park is on a large scale. There's so much space - great depths from the mountain tops to the river on the valley floor. It's like a lunar landscape, somehow. You could call it untidy, but a better word would be wild. Trees are left where they fall, some creating natural bridges that I like to imagine woodland fairies using. The valley is known for its red deer, but we spot a couple of marmots and what could be a bearded vulture. Some of the wildlife spotters seem to be pointing at ibex, but we're ill-equipped to see, given our lack of binoculars - a silly oversight.  

Like most of the Swiss Alps, Val Trupchun startles with its accessibility. The meadow is two hours' walk from the car park outside S-chanf in the Upper Engadine, and the time can be shortened if you take the tourist train up the initial stretch. But the word 'tourist' is misleading. It calls up beach arcades and streets full of stalls selling tat. Quite the antithesis of Trupchun.

Before our return leg, which rather than following the valley and river will teeter high on the opposite flank of the valley in the shade of woodland, I find a moment of calm lying on our picnic blanket watching the clouds move across the sky while Tim meanders further along the path with Albie. I listen to his excited coos as he reaches out to touch plants and grass, and think I'd be happy for this moment to last forever.

The walk 
Distance: 14km
Time: 4-5 hours incl. stops


Out and about on e-bike in the Upper Engadine

E-bike is a great way to get around in the Upper Engadine, taking advantage of those sweeping valley paths that are cross country loipers in the winter, and helping you climb the steeper sections of woodland.

Ahead of us is a view that could be a Turner landscape: emerald blue water in soft focus amid dusky summits, those in the near distance sharply defined, but melding into misty haze in the distance. Not that I can pay too much attention to the view: I am hurtling downhill on an e-bike and trying to avoid tree roots and pedestrians. 

We hired our bikes earlier this morning at Colani Sport, a family-run sports outfit in La Punt, and found our pedals, so to speak, as we cycled out of the village past the park and followed the river towards Bever and then Samedan. Just outside Bever we encountered congestion: a herd of bullocks was enjoying the only patch of sunlight in their field, which happened to be on the cycle path/road. Later we passed horses grazing by the river and all the way, trains intermittently chugged past.  

On the edge of Celerina, the 15th-century church of San Gian looked like brushed gold on its hilltop in the morning sunlight. We skirted around its base, passing a wood chopping yard where I inhaled deeply, that delicious scent of pine oozing into my nostrils. Then it was a steep climb - thank goodness for our e-bikes! - into the loose woodland around Lej da Staz. On its throne high above we could see the elegant Muottas Muragl funicular station. The lake was dark green, almost black in tone.    

Up and down, up and down we went as we passed Lake St. Moritz and Lej da Champfér in quick succession. Which is where we find ourselves now, zooming downhill towards Lej da Silvaplana. We're planning to picnic in the buttery light and listen to the waves gently lapping. From there it will be a gentle route onward to Sils, but I've a feeling a headwind will be accompanying us for the return journey. Better check the battery levels on our e-bikes!

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Galloping into the prettiest valley in the Upper Engadine

Take a carriage ride into one of the Engadine's prettiest side valleys then walk back out, taking in the colours and details at a slower pace. 

There's a buzz in the air around Pontresina train station, where hikers, bikers, and day tourists are gathered in the morning sun. It's dazzling now after an ethereal start, the valley cloaked in a thin veil of mist. Cherry red trains chug in and out of the station, and to each one Albie cries "choo choo" and points in rapturous excitement.  

We're not boarding a train, but instead the Pferde-Omnibus. It's a sunshine yellow affair with three sturdy steeds roped on who will pull us halfway up Val Roseg, one of the prettiest side valleys in the Upper Engadine. It's exquisite: the glacier shines like marble at the top of the valley, where it is embedded in the pristine, powerful Bernina Massif. 

Not far into the valley we almost collide with a biker who waves his fists and shouts effuse angry words in a Basil Fawlty comedy moment that probably doesn't have the desired effect. We soon lose sight of the view as it becomes obscured by a leafy web of tangled larch, stone pine and rowan trees. Stray branches brush our faces as we hurtle along the track. As we follow the icy, gushing river up the valley we pass a meadow of cows wearing huge bells, and a multitude of bikers and other carriages, all clamouring for space.

From the shade, the landscape suddenly opens up onto the broad valley bottom, grassland spreading until it meets rock and then ice. The sun dazzles in this natural amphitheatre, where our journey ends at Hotel Roseg Gletscher. We pat Wanda, Maggie and Flurina in thanks; their flanks are lathered from the effort of climbing into the valley. We, in turn, have taken the easy option: it's all downhill from here. 

The path leaves the plateau and ducks back into the woodland, meandering above the river on the opposite, and sheerer, side of the valley to which we arrived on. There are gigantic boulders and dainty fairy pools draped in juicy red rowan berries, so heavy the trees' branches are bowing under the weight. All this red in the landscape - the berries and the Rhaetian Railway trains that streak through Pontresina - is as if put there by an artist. But it's nature's perfect eye, captured here in the Upper Engadine like nowhere else on earth. 

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Magnificence despite depletion: Morteratsch Glacier, Upper Engadine

Temporality makes the Morteratsch Glacier even more beautiful. It's worth a visit before it disappears completely.

The Morteratsch Glacier remains proudly magnificent despite its belittling depletion in size that is occurring rapidly, a shrinking of proportions that is represented by waymarkers along the path up to it. It presents a scene among the most beautiful I have ever laid eyes on: a tumbling river of ice bedded between jagged white summits that rise above deep green pines and, between them, an ice blue, roaring river. 

From the car park just outside Pontresina on the road up to the Bernina Pass, the walk to the tongue takes just under an hour and enjoys views the whole way. At the start you're in 1870, and from here the shrinkage accelerates, so between 1980, 1985, 2005 and 2015, the signs - and the ice loss they represent - comes thick and fast. Since 2015, the glacier has retreated to a shocking extent. The tree cover becomes thinner as you advance, yet it is surprising how quickly the foliage has pushed through where the glacier lay as recently as 2005.  

Albie shrieks and points at the sights; he's in raptures when a train passes on the line that cuts across the path at the opening to the valley. We picnic among wild mushrooms and discarded boulders, in the shade of larches that will soon turn yellow, and ponder on how small Morteratsch Glacier will be when Albie reaches adulthood. 

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The best views of the Upper Engadine: Muottas Muragl

A must-do when in the Upper Engadine, Muottas Muragl is no less enchanting for its touristy status. Take the funcicular up to 2,456 metres for sweeping panoramas across the whole region. 

Muottas Muragl sits on the southern slopes of the Blais de Muottas, where it perches above the most stunning scenery the Upper Engadine has to offer. It's between Samedan, St. Moritz and Pontresina, and from the top of the funicular you can gaze across the twinkling lakes, rich woodland and clustered resorts, and up to the 4,000-metre Bernina Range topped by Piz Palü and cloaked in glaciers.

We wander at a steady height along the trail towards Lej Muragl, the terrain a grassy flank where marmots whistle and we find horses grazing wild. Across the valley is a murderously steep grey scree slope, and we can hear rockfall - or so we think. It turns out to be the gunshots of a huntsman seeking marmots. There are flowers here and there, not showy and bright like in the full throes of spring, but solitary and delicate: the last outliers of crocuses and gentians. 

The lake, when we arrive, is a giant's puddle, turquoise beneath a chalkboard of mountains. Crowds of summits come into view as we navigate our way back to the funicular station, the view unfolding beyond cow pastures onto that peaceful full scene of the Upper Engadine. Our return path is precipitously sheer and narrow. To be mindful would mean noticing the bubbling brook and lively crowd of cows outside the alm in the valley, but I am concentrating on not losing my footing or tripping in a marmot hole. 

As well as Piz Bernina, pointy and snowy, we can now see Piz Julier, an angular charcoal grey block, and Piz Ot too. The view stretches up Val Roseg and across lakes Staz, St. Moritz and Silvaplana. Bright blue puddles, sparkling, vying to grab attention from the undulating massifs. 

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