Autumn Hiking in the Swiss National Park

In the 7 years that I have lived here, I had yet to visit the Swiss National Park. It looked far to get to on the map as the park is right on the Italian border. Well, the SBB train schedule revealed that Scuol and Zernez (the 2 possible entry points into the Park) are only about 2h 30m from Zurich by train – not that far at all! The area is rather well-known for its larches which turn golden in autumn and I had been wanting to see this since last year. We were planning to stay at the National Park hut for a night, but it was closed after October 12th, and many of the trails in the park were also closed due to snow. However, a day trip was still possible and totally worth it! It was my first proper hike this year; we were biking so much that we didn’t have any weekends left to see the mountains on foot!

Like every trip into the Graubunden area, the train followed the southern Walensee shore and rewarded passengers with full views of the Churfirsten. The autumn colours were just amazing.

Walensee, views from the train

At Scuol, I met up with my colleague who drove her car to save us the Post bus trip into the valley (this would have taken an additional 30 minutes). The valley road leading to the National Park is narrow with lots of bends and we prayed we wouldn’t meet the Swiss Post bus coming from the other direction! We parked the car near the Val Mingèr bus stop where there is also a good-sized parking lot for visitors who want to hike the Val Mingèr. We started off the hike at 1654m and were surprised to see that there was already snow at that altitude!

Forest trails

The hike was approximately 663m uphill; our destination was Sur il Foss. It’s a white-red-white mountain trail but it wasn’t difficult at all. The National Park website even says it’s suitable for young kids (and we did see many of them with their parents!). We had gorgeous views of the larch trees on our way up but the forest that we hiked in did not really have them.

Multicoloured larch trees

At Mingèr (2168m), there is a little picnic area where a National Park Ranger was hanging out with a telescope for viewing the wildlife. While Switzerland is full of nature and mountains, it’s quite difficult to spot any animals. (In fact, the last bear in Switzerland was shot in this valley in 1904!). We were hoping we would be able to get up close to some ibex or other mountain animals, but the closest animals were far away on a mountain across! We could barely spot them by eye.

Swiss Wildlife

Swiss Made since 1902

After a quick break to wolf down our sandwiches and spy on the animals, we continued to Sur il Foss. The snow was about a foot high at this point, but a trail of compacted snow was already prepared. The hike was surprisingly easy, even though it was slippery and icy at times. We managed to make it to the top in 2h 30m including breaks. Definitely need to plan for 1000m ascents in the future! In the summer it would actually be possible to hike further and across to another valley, to Il Fuorn where the Park hut is located. However, the trail was closed (but I wonder if we could have snow shoed over… didn’t think of that).

Sur il Foss, 2317m

Some gorgeous views of larch across the valley (colours a little muted in this photo).

Trudging through autumn snow

And we were back down at the parking lot by 4pm. That was a short hike!

Larch trees

I got to take the Vereina Car Transporter for the first time. It’s an open train carriage that you drive into, and in 18 minutes you emerge on the other side of the tunnel at Klosters. Pretty neat.

Vereina car transporter

Check out the rest of the Swiss National Park hiking routes: http://www.nationalpark.ch/go/en/visit/trails-routes/ (or check the german page as it has more information).

Hopefully I’ll be able to find a larch forest this weekend to walk or bike in 🙂

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Hitting up local mountain biking trails in Zurich

Who knew there were such great trails in our own backyard?

Züriberg is a little forested hill, 679m high, located right on our doorstep. The hiking/biking trails start behind Dz’s office (University of Zurich’s Irchel campus). We learnt about these trails last year and it became my “training ground” where I first learnt to mountain bike with DZ’s rear-brake-only dirt jump bike. After a 200m climb to the top of Züriberg (or less if you take the Seilbahn Rigiblick funicular) there is a little pump track where you can practice berms and jumps. The downhill trail back home is short but sweet – with enough features like drop-ins, steep slopes, rocks, roots and stairs to challenge and train a beginner!

Steep slopes at Zuriberg

The Züriberg is also part of a chain of hills that run along Lake Zurich. We decided to explore these hills one Saturday afternoon when forecast of rain cancelled our plans to explore Davos that weekend. After cycling up familiar trails in Züriberg, we headed south towards the Zoo, and on towards the Adlisberg forest. It was a mix of singletrack (whenever we found them) and fire roads. Next was the Zollikerberg/Forch meadows that had views of two lakes (Zürisee and Greifensee), and the Alps beyond. At one point, we lost the biking signs towards the Pfannenstiel, and instead found some recommended trails that I had saved on our GPS. Those trails turned out to be unused and overgrown with grass and thorny bushes!

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After some downhills and uphills, we hit the highest point of the Pfannenstiel at 853m. In the old days (circa 15th century), there used to be a watch tower here where fire or smoke signals could be sent to towers on neighbouring hills, and the alarm propagated along the country. Zurich alone had 23 such towers! The system was apparently efficient enough that the warning signal could reach all of Zurich within 15 minutes! The Hochwacht tower has since been rebuilt at a slightly lower point (but still guarantees good views if you have a head for heights!), and there is a restaurant in its name. After our usual order of pommes frites at the restaurant, we started the final downhill stretch of the route! It was a really fun trail, wide and technical at the beginning (no photos because we flew down this bit after hearing and suspecting a colony of wasps or bees nearby!) then shoulder-width gravel trails that ran through a gorge! We rode alongside a river all the way down, stopping to admire waterfalls and rock pools, crossing bridges and also walking down a few flights of stairs!

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We might have been able to ride longer and find more suitable downhill trails if we had taken a different route leading to Kusnacht instead of Meilen, but we might have then missed the beautiful part of the gorge altogether. I guess we’ll just have to find out another time!

Route stats 

Total ascent: 768m  |   Total descent: 808m   |    Distance: 28.3km

Route map, elevation profile and downloadable GPS track at: http://adventures.garmin.com/en-US/by/dzxch/zuriberg-adlisberg-pfannenstiel/#.UlB1wBZxl94

(GPS track might not be the ideal route as it was our first time and we were just exploring! Beware thorny bushes!)

 

Cycling in Brittany Day 7-8: St-Quay-Portrieux – St Brieuc

We were meant to leave Bréhat on Day 6 of our trip, to continue pedalling towards St Malo. As I had expected, it was a little hard to leave so quickly ( and before our friends)! Dz’s stitches meant we were out of action for a day, so we justified staying one more day in order to cycle around the island and allow Dz’s forehead to close up a little. On Day 7, we packed up our tents and bikes and got on the ferry back to the mainland. Our friend, Nipon, gave us a lift by car to the little seaside resort of Saint-Quay-Portrieux, saving us one day of cycling. Even so, it was impossible to get to St. Malo the next morning by bike (100km), so we changed plans and headed towards St. Brieuc (30km) where TGV trains connected to Rennes and then Paris.

Getting ready to hop on board the ferry

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Since we now had a lot of time, we detoured to hiking paths and stuck as close to the coast as possible. (We may or may not have entered some No-Biking zones, which frankly were too steep to cycle anyway!)

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We also had enough time to scout for the perfect dinner + camp spot for the night, on a bluff high above a bay.  We eventually moved the campsite to a more secluded field on the other side of the hedge, with less views but also less exposure. After a good night’s sleep, we woke up to a foggy morning and pedalled as fast as we could to St. Brieuc 15km away to catch the morning train to Rennes. This was perhaps the most stressful ride of the trip, with time pressure, missing signboards, and bike-lane-next-to-highway riding (in the wrong direction). We made it to the train station with 10 minutes to spare, and were soon on our way to Paris!

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Exploring Bréhat

After recovering from our first day in Bréhat, we spent the next few days exploring the island by foot and bike. (Dz was also brave enough to get back in that canoe!)

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The north island, where our home base was located, was wild, windy and ruggedly beautiful. The northernmost part of the island by the Paon lighthouse was sculptured from pink granite rock and surrounded by deep turquoise waters.

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Not far from there, the rocks merged into a weirdly spongy grass bed with fine purple flowers! Underneath it must be home to a million rabbits!

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On Day 3, we spent a few hours cycling around the island and visited the south. The south island is quite inhabited, but we were still able to turn off into quiet tracks and enjoy some great views. The western side had views of other small islands and the mainland. Truthfully, in the 200km we covered this trip, the 5km or so that we walked or biked in Bréhat was probably the most beautiful!

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Canoeing Adventures in Bréhat

On our very first morning on the island, Dz decided it was a good time to head out on our friend’s kayaks + 1 canoe before the rest of the crew woke up. It was actually quite a windy morning, but the bay we were in seemed rather calm. 3 other friends took the one-person kayaks, while Dz and I got into the canoe.

Sarah and Oliver in their kayaks

kayaking

Canoeing was pretty tough work. It was way harder to coordinate than a 2-person kayak. My paddling didn’t seem to have any effect, whereas Dz’s single stroke would send our canoe rotating. But with the help of the wind, soon enough our canoe got quite far out from the coast. A little too far. Then really REALLY too far.

We ended up amongst some small islands where the waters were calmer, but as soon as we tried to get out of there and head back to the main island, the wind and waves simply knocked us back out. After 2 attempts of swinging oars about in the water in the most uncoordinated fashion, and a lot of shouting, I decided it was absolutely pointless. We were quite stuck. Plan B : get out of the canoe and somehow walk the canoe around the small rocky island until we were facing the larger island, where it was more protected from wind and the waves were calmer.

We were almost at the tip of the small island, when I suddenly saw Dz’s flip flops floating in the water. “Your slipper!!!” I yelled. Then I saw him and saw blood running down his face. Ahhhhh shit. His flip flops broke while he was walking on the rocks, and he fell and hit his forehead. Things were seriously not going good! Luckily his long curly hair covered his wound so that I did not have to see it, if not there would be two of us down! At that point, we already had a view of our friend’s house, and we could just about huddle in a small space by a rock to hide from the wind. And Dz had the ultimate lifesaver tool – his iPhone! As usual, I contemplated whether Rega might come to save us in such a situation, and in France. But before sending for a helicopter rescue service, we decided to call our friend for help. While they tried to locate us with my not-very-useful descriptions (I *think* we are on an island, we are right in front of you, we’re kinda on the right hand side, I’m wearing an orange jacket), I also tried to yell and wave to get the attention of other people who were picking up or parking their boats not very far from where we were (apparently there was a marina right on the other side). However, they were too busy sorting out their boats that they did not see a girl in bright orange waving frantically for help. I guess I blended in with the red rocks.  =__=

After a few frantic phone calls, our friends managed to spot us with binoculars! They also managed to get a neighbour who had a boat to agree to rescue us. Woohoo! While waiting for our rescuers, we got back into the canoe and paddled back to the quiet cove that we first landed on. It was much warmer and drier there, compared to the little rock recession we had earlier.  Knowing that help was on the way, we could relax a little and walk around our little island.

Our own little cove...

 

Looks so nice and peaceful, until you get past those rocks…

Stuck in the cove

Poor Dz… He was so quiet after his fall, I was a little worried.

In case we were really hungry (we did not even have breakfast before setting off on this adventure), we could have survived on some sea asparagus and algae.

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Waiting to be rescued….

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Our boat came in no time with two of our friends. After struggling with the canoe in the water (it kept flipping over), we hoisted it up on board with us, and sped back home. What a relief to be back on real land! Dz’s friends also marched him over to the doctor’s on the other side of the island (30 minutes away by bicycle) to get his head stitched. Dz insisted it was not necessary of course, but it definitely was a big enough gash for stitches. (Warning: Gory photos ahead! If you get sick at the sight of blood or stitches, stop reading now!)

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The bleeding gash. Yuck.

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The doctor was not the most gentle (they said “vet” would have been a more appropriate term) but he got the job done.

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So, a rather eventful first day on Bréhat. A big thanks to Claire, her family, her neighbour and Juliette for saving us! And apologies for causing quite a bit of stress so early in the morning :p As for canoeing, I think I might not want to try it again! Maybe on a lake… or maybe I’ll stick to kayaks.

Île-de-Bréhat

Bréhat is a tiny 3km2 island off the coast of Brittany, which boasts pink granite rocks and a Mediterranean-like microclimate. Our friend’s grandfather had the foresight to build a house there before the hordes of tourists arrived! Their garden became our base camp for a couple of days.

camping in the garden

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Like the rest of the English Channel, the tides in Bréhat are phenomenal.

Brehat tides

Tide Table

Tide chart

Carlos the cat gets his own water jug.

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The French take their food seriously.

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And also their alcohol!

Serious cocktail mixing

Thanks Claire and family for having us over!

Cycling in Brittany Day 3: Chasing the ferry to Île-de-Bréhat

It turned out that we had picked a pretty good spot to rest for the night. The campsite was nothing special, but we were right by the most scenic part of the Côte de Granit Rose! Just 5 minutes away was the protected site of Ploumanac’h, where giant pink rocks merged with cypress trees.

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Pink Granite Coast

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The hiking trails were technically off-limit for bikes, so we couldn’t explore the rest of the park. 😦

In any case, we hadn’t had breakfast yet so a pain-au-chocolate was in order!

This boulangerie likes bikes

We then got rather lost on our way to Perros-Guirec, going around in circles looking for the little green cycling sign, and in a really hilly area of all places! We took more than an hour to cover 3kms, and were so frustrated that we decided to stop for lunch as soon as we managed to find the coast (bypassing Perros-Guirec altogether).

Seaside lunch treats

Our aim for Day 3 was to get the evening ferry to Île-de-Bréhat, where we would relax and party for a few days at our friend’s family home. We barely covered 10kms that morning, so after lunch we pedalled non-stop in the direction of Paimpol in the most direct way possible (but still managed to stop for some photos!)

Right out of my Lego medieval village set!

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We followed the EuroVelo4 cycling route but sometimes ended up on really busy main roads when we lost track of the little green signs. There is not much room for cyclists on these busy roads, and many large trucks use the stretch too, speeding along at 70kph. Not recommended! But I guess taking these direct roads was a tad faster than the farm roads and we managed to reach the L’Arcouest ferry at 6pm, just in time to meet our friends who had flown in from Switzerland that day!

Brehat in the distanceBrehat in the distance!

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KMs done: 60

http://goo.gl/maps/NS94E

Cycling in Brittany Day 2: Côte de Granit Rose

I (CH) was still suffering from a cold and fever, so we took it easy and left the campsite at 11. First stop: brunch! The French don’t really seem to do fry-ups for brunch so we ended up ordering from this menu.
Crêperie delightsWe also had savoury lobster and mushroom crêpes before the sweet crêpes 🙂

We cycled alongside many beaches.

We also had to follow a long river that separated two peninsulas as there wasn’t a bridge anywhere. Brittany is full of these peninsulas!
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After a long, hot afternoon pedalling, we decided to take a dip at a beach we spotted from high up on a hill. Well, Dz took a dip; I found the water much too cold and just climbed around the rocks and wet my feet. The rocks were already taking on a pinkish hue. Looks like we have arrived in the famous Côte de Granit Rose (Pink Granite Coast)! The beach was more like a seaside resort, not exactly the quiet all-to-ourselves-bay we were looking for, but the water looked too amazingly turquoise to miss!
The water was a tad cold for tropical me

We finally ended our day at the little village of Tourony. We wanted to stealth camp but it’s rather difficult in Brittany as there are houses everywhere! The campsite in Tourony was not spectacular – unlike Day 1’s campsite, this one was full of large caravans/motorhomes and there was no separation of space between caravans and tent-campers. In fact, they tried to squeeze us into a tiny half-lot of one of the caravan spots! We asked for a more comfortable space and got one across the bathrooms, but at least we had more space and no neighbours (we forgot about the morning bathroom traffic). We spent most of our time hanging out at the campsite restaurant where they dished out moules-frites (mussels and fries) and chicken wings. No photos of the place because it was really unspectacular!

The tide however, was worth photographing. It was one of the highest tides of the year and the sea spilled onto the hiking trails and streets.
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KMs done: 54 (started too late and spent too long lounging on rocks!)
http://goo.gl/maps/6pHnG

Cycling in Brittany Day 1: Morlaix to Loquirec

It took us 9 hours to get to Morlaix from Geneva by train, with a much-too-short stopover in Paris in between.

We still managed to sample some coffee at our favourite Parisian cafe La Cafeotheque, before rushing off to find Gare Montparnasse.
A quick stop for coffee at our favourite Parisian cafe

We got to Morlaix in the late afternoon, and just started pedalling to see where we could get to by sundown.
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There were some really amazing cliffs and bays!
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I really wanted to hike through those coastal cliff-side trails but it was too steep and narrow for our bikes. 😦

Just before it got too late, we found a fantastic municipal campground in Loquirec that was right on the beach! Just 10€/night for cycle-camping couples 🙂 Facilities were clean and new-ish, the cafe-bar was cheap (french fries and bun-less (frozen patty) burgers seem to be the French version of fast food) and the drunk campervan residents at the bar were friendly…
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Perfect place to rest after a long day of travelling!

KMs achieved, around 40.