Posted: October 17, 2017
Author: Jack Shaw
With a cracking forecast of weeks of high-presssure, fall foliage at its peak, and trails in prime condition after late September's snowfalls, we decided to explore some of the lesser-known corners of our home Canton, the Valais - or Wallis as it's called in the Swiss-German. With dozens of cablecars, trains, and alpine buses still running through October, and mountain huts and hotels staying open to take advantage of the fine weather, we pored over the topo maps to seek out the best stretches of singletrack, offering that key combination of ideal gradient, exposure, access, and scenery. What we found far exceeded our expectations, and begged for deeper exploration as long as this weather holds.
Stalden is the village where the Saasertal (Saas Fee) and the Mattertal (Zermatt) valleys join to form the Vispa River. A tiny cablecar accesses the village of Gspon, where we began our Valais MTB traverse. A funky, authentic alpine village with outrageous views of the Dom, Switzerland's highest peak entirely within its borders, and our first stretches of new (to us) singletrack. A fresh snowfall the night before made for some sketchy off-camber roots sections in the forest, but the day warmed up quickly enough, and before long, we were in short-sleeves and ripping across the ridgeline toward Visperterminen. For the first time of many in the days to come, we let out some real whoops of joy, our bikes at full-speed with hands off the brakes, devouring the trail in 100m stretches with golden larches and orange hardwood trees in a peripheral blur. Through Visperterminen, the home of some of Europe's highest vineyards, the little-known Heida wines, and the trail continued through the terraced vines and down to Visp.
Then it was off to the Val d'Anniviers, 2 valleys west of the Mattertal, and home to St. Luc, and the Bella Tola, one of our favorite hotels in the Alps. But this time we were staying at altitude, in the equally iconic Hotel Weisshorn. Built in 1882 up at nearly 2400m, this is one of the last best historic alpine hotels remaining from the Belle Epoque. Back in the day, mules carried a grand piano up for the Weisshorn's ballroom, and in many ways little has changed since then. We were the only guests in the hotel on this sleepy Sunday night, but they still served an incredible "chasse", or wild game dinner as the sun set over the Rhône Valley. The next morning, another epic stretch of trail lay before us, and it was just as good, if not better than the day before, our Yeti SB6's stretching their legs on ideal terrain. The Val d'Anniviers has an incredible network of trails, perfectly suited for mountain bikes, some stretching all the way to the Rhône Valley below, for a total descent of nearly 2000m. And the classic Weisshorn is an ideal base camp to set out from, a throwback to the golden era of Alpine tourism.
Next, we were off to Leukerbad, a limestone cliff-ringed valley that is home to some of Switzerland's most famous mineral waters. Taking the Post bus up from Leuk, we climbed this impossibly-cut road just as the early tourists did 150 years before us, but by horse-drawn postal coach. Taking the Torrent-Bahn cablecar out of town, we arrived on the plateau, and made a sunset descent towards Albinen, another of the Swiss Alps' most beautiful authentic villages. Spending the night at the Hotel Flaschen was a natural find, right at the base of the gondola of the same name, it would offer us an easy access back to Torrent the next morning for one of the marquee trails in the Valais, stretching from Leukerbad to Jeizinen on a flowing panoramic descent, with views from Mont Blanc to the Monte Rosa, all capped with a fresh coat of snow.
From there it was on to the Lötschental, a hidden valley high above the Rhône dominated by the mighty Bietschhorn. With some of the densest larch forests in the Valais, the Lötschental is always a great region to visit this time of year, when the contrast between the golden trees and the blue skies and white peaks makes for a stunning visual. This night our destination was the Hotel Fafleralp, another classic Alpine hotel nestled in the forest at the head of the valley. But first, a 10km descent of pure joy, ripping through the forest, along mirror-like lakes, and ending right at the hotel door in time for a bottle of refreshing Fendant white wine, made by the hotel chef the year before.
Our last stop was the Aletsch region, and it was clearly a popular decision as the parking lots at all of the access points were jammed with like-minded hikers. We opted out of our initial plan, knowing that the number of leaf- and glacier-peeping hikers would impede our riding, and instead chose to do some laps on the Fiesch cablecar - steep, loamy trails that were some of the best of the trip.
There's no question that the fall is the best time of the year for mountain biking, and even after more than a decade of exploring, we are still finding new trails and even totally new (to us) regions to ride, with countless options that seem to be made for mountain bikes. As long as this indian summer holds, we will keep on looking at the maps and testing out our discoveries. The Valais truly is one of the best places in the world to be a mountain biker.