Here is an article on a five day hiking trip in the Val d’Hérens (just 90 minutes drive from Nyon) taken by two Living in Nyon readers in July 2016.
Living in Nyon has posted other similar articles such as testing the new signed bike route around Lac Léman, skiing options in small resorts two hours drive from Nyon and skiing options further afield
The Val d’Hérens is a valley full of living traditions, high alpine pastures and even higher mountains. A five day hike around it is a perfect way to experience what the valley has to offer, whilst providing constantly changing scenery, sights and sounds. There is plenty of wildlife: deer, chamois and marmots are not too difficult to see, as are birds of prey and many forest birds. In July there are a multitude of flowers and butterflies even at the highest elevations. Sounds abound too – principally that of running water from fast flowing streams, as well as cow bells and the shrieks of marmots.
Carry everything yourself or let the tourist office arrange it for you
There are various ways to organise the trip – carry everything yourself for the true hiking experience, or let the Val d’Hérens Tourism Office arrange everything for you – booking hotels and transferring your bag every day so you just carry a day sack. There is an official route, but there are plenty of options to take different paths according to interests, weather conditions and fitness levels. If you have only a few days, public transport links are good, so it’s possible to design a trip for two or three days, picking a stretch to suit your tastes. The timings given below are based upon a moderate walking pace.
Day 1: Veysonnaz to the Grande Dixence Dam
6 hours 45 minutes – 18km
We set off from the bus station in Sion, taking the 09:10 Postbus up to Veysonnaz where we then took the télépherique up to Thyon2000. The path starts right in front of the top station and soon leads you away from the ski area and into open mountains. Across the valley we could see the small village of Nax, our destination in five days time. One option upon leaving Thyon2000 is to follow the ridge as far as Mont Rouge which affords good views in all directions, we elected to stay lower down and conserve our legs for the hike up to the Grande Dixence dam. We still had great views of the Becs de Bosson, La Maja, the Weisshorn and down into the valley below.
Photo above – Val d’Hérens cows with the Grande Dixence in the background
The path passes by raised bogs, herds of Val d’Hérens cows and the Cabane d’Essertse (which could be an option to stay over if you start the walk in the afternoon). The dam wall soon comes into view, but quickly lulls you into a false sense of security, as it does not seem to ever get closer – the Grande Dixence is the largest gravity dam in the world and it’s a long traverse around the slope to reach it. The path takes you to the top of the dam, whilst the hotel is at the base of the dam wall. The map indicates a path that would take you to the hotel without having to climb up to the top of the dam but we missed seeing it. It is possible, however, to take the cable car down. One other option for those that are fit is to climb up to the Cabane de Prafleuri to stay the night. We opted for the hotel and although its location is below the imposing dam wall, there was a warm welcome and we had excellent three course meal (as part of a demi-pension option). Once the day tourists have departed, the hotel is quiet and there is nothing much to do, but we were glad of an early night.
Day 2: Grande Dixence Dam to Arolla
7 hours 30 mins – 19 km
We had a leisurely start, taking the first cable car ride of the day at 09:35 to the top of the dam wall. This was followed by an easy walk to the end of the dam with fantastic views of Mont Blanc de Cheilon, La Sâle and the Aiguilles Rouges d’Arolla. There were plenty of marmots scampering around and the almost obligatory herd of Val d’Hérens cows, with their bells audible from afar.
Photo above – the Grande Dixence
At the end of the lake the path heads up to the Cabane de Dix. The map shows the path crossing over the river quite soon after the end of the dam, but this is now not marked on the ground. Follow the well marked trail and as the path starts to climb the glacial moraine, the route to the Col de Riedmatten and Pas de Chèvres branches off and is well signposted. It crosses the stream at a new bridge. This is the only disparity we found on the trip between the map and the signposting. If in doubt follow the good signs on the ground!
Photo above – stream with glacier water. Mont Blanc de Cheilon in the background
Photo above – flowers and route marking at 2500m
By now the route is into some wild country travelling through glaciated terrain, with spectacular views all around, and occasional flowers clinging on in surprising places. The geography is still evolving as the glacier retreats and rivers carry silt downstream. There was the constant sound of rock and icefalls reverberating around us, though we never managed to see them. Close to the Col de Riedmatten the route gets a little more difficult as a landslide has carried away the previously route, and the new one is not yet well established.
Don’t look down!
There are two options now, the Col de Riedmatten itself, or the Pas de Chévres. The route up to the Col de Riedmatten is quite steep and there are chains near the top which makes progress easier. The Pas de Chévres has an easier entry, although ends with a series of ladders up a rock face. These are new ladders erected in 2014 in four sections (15-20 steps each) with platforms in between to gather your breath. They have replaced the previous rather scary ones, and should be scalable by most with a reasonable head for heights (if in doubt, don’t look down and don’t look up, and you’ll soon find yourself at the top!). We took the ladder route.
Photo above – the first of four ladders at the Pas de Chèvres
From there its a gradual descent past ski slopes, more cows and then pine and larch trees to Arolla. Just outside Arolla there is a buvette which is a good place for a drink, an apricot tart, and a moment to contemplate the view. The smell of the pine trees makes a contrast from the rocky vistas of just 90 minutes previously.
There are various accommodation options in Arolla. We chose the Kurhaus, one of the historic hotels of Switzerland – all wood, geraniums and memorabilia from its early days – it opened in 1896 and the walls have framed guest lists and accounts that make fascinating reading. The rooms are very comfortable, there are deer in the surrounding forest and warnings not to leave food on the balcony as the squirrels can take off with it. We had an excellent four course dinner (half-board option) and that evening there was a live concert in the lounge area with works by Kreisler, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Debussy. All very civilized.
Photo above – 120 years of the Kurhaus. The first guest list from 1896: “Success to the new hotel”
Day 3: Arolla to Les Haudères
7 hours 30 mins – 17 km
The destination for day three can vary – either being Les Haudères, Evolène or La Sage, though most people seem to favour Les Haudères. There are two main options down to Les Haudères, following the river, or along the contour to the Lac Bleu (though quite a taxing up and down route). After a splendid breakfast looking over the lawn and onto Mont Collon, we took a third route, electing to hike up to the Cabane des Aiguilles Rouges at 2810m before descending to the Lac Bleu. This afforded us spectacular views all around to Mont Collon, the Pigne d’Arolla, Les Aiguilles Rouges d’Arolla (from the other side from the day before), the Dent de Perroc and the Aiguille de la Tsa. Looking down there were views to a spectacular waterfall and the Lac Bleu nestled in forests in the valley.
Photo above: Pra Gra above Arolla
A great place to take off the boots!
The hut is easily reached in three hours (including some stops to admire the views) and we had a cup of tea and homemade cake. This could be a good place for an early lunch, though we made the steep descent to the Lac Bleu to eat our picnic. This is a great place to take off your boots and revitalize your feet in the ice cold water. A few hardy folks were swimming.
Photo above – Lac Bleu
Then it was down through the trees to La Gouille. After the hike up to and down from the Cabane the bus to Les Haudères is an option, but the walk to Les Haudères is a pleasant one which goes through larch and spruce forests and then alder and birch woodlands before reaching the village and our first taste of “civilization” since leaving Veysonnaz (the Kurhaus is above Arolla and we did not venture into the village there).
We stayed at the Hôtel Les Mélèzes, a very nice hotel with the most spectacular collection of flowers on the balconies. Again we had a very tasty four course meal (it should have been five courses but we were already full…).
Day 4: Les Haudères to Cabane des Becs de Bosson
7 hours – 12 km
An extensive breakfast with a great expresso set us up for the day. We took the bus to Evolène to save a few kilometres as the day was a big one – 1600m uphill. A couple staying at the same hotel and also doing the Val d’Hérens Tour got the hotel taxi to take them a few kilometres further on to Fourcla which also gained them 400m of altitude.
Photo above – Evolène, Les Haudères and the Dent Blanche
We wandered through the village of Evolène and up through the pastures and forests with the view opening out behind us, to show the Dent Blanche (the Val d’Hérens iconic mountain) and the Ferpècle glacier. Farmers were gathering in hay by hand in the fields. We then had an hour or so climbing gently through larch and spruce forests before emerging into pastures and eventually a buvette at L’A Vieille. This was a very popular place with a “plat du jour” and a long list of desserts which we sampled, to the accompaniment of cow bells.
We then navigated the herd of cows and it was onwards to the Pas de Lona. This is part of the Verbier to Grimentz cycle race and we were overtaken by several cyclists in training for the main event – they breezed past us carrying their bikes. A family came running past us, presumably in training for a fell race. Finally we were at the Cabane des Becs de Bosson and had a well earned rest. That evening there was a family atmosphere with parents and young children having also made the trip. There was a thunder storm and we were treated to a fantastic double rainbow before we turned in early for the night.
Day 5: Cabane des Becs de Bosson to Nax
8 hours – 27 km
We were up early to watch the sunrise come up and light up the 4000m peaks that are visible from the hut – the Bishorn, Weisshorn, Zinalrothorn, Ober Gaberlhorn, Dent Blanche, the Dent d’Hérens and Mont Blanc. Spectacular!
Video – the sunrise from the Becs de Bosson hut
We then climbed the Becs de Bosson (getting close to the top before the going got a bit scary) and then made it back to the hut in time for breakfast. The it was then time to set off down to Nax, through the Vallon de Réchy, a nature reserve with unique (for Switzerland) habitats. There was still a lot of snow on the first part of the way down so the walking poles came in handy.
Photo above – La Maya, and the route down to the Vallon de Réchy
Reaching the Col du Cou in good time we went “off piste” again, climbing Mont Noble where we had lunch with a great view of the Rhone Valley, the Weisshorn in one direction and Mont Blanc in the other. It was then a long way down past more alpages (with more Val d’Hérens cows) and through forests until we reached Nax. Across the valley we could see Thyon2000 and Veysonnaz where we had begun the trip. It was time for a few beers from the local Mont Noble craft brewery.
Photo above – from Nax, looking over to the start at Veysonnaz, and down to Sion
Some helpful details:
The official Val d’Hérens tourism brochure about the Tour is here. The recommended map is Val d’Anniviers & Val d’Hérens Map 23 by Kümmerly+Frey. With this you can add variants to the tour as we did by taking slightly different routes according to the weather, fitness levels and interests.
Strong hiking boots at best though hiking shoes are also possible. Poles come in handy, especially when crossing patches of snow on steeper slopes.
Hotels and the Cabanes can provide packed lunches. There are supermarkets in Les Haudéres and Evolène. Take plenty of water and sun cream. And a camera.