Moraine Lake to Waimea Canyon: My Top 10 Photo Spots
Posted on December 9, 2015 by Mickey
Everyone has those favorite places they love to visit. Whether it’s hiking in Switzerland, walking in the sand at the Pacific Ocean as waves roll in on a wild beach, or watching buffalo roam the tallgrass prairie in the Flint Hills, we all have our special places! My favorite places to photograph have evolved dramatically over the past 6-7 years as I’ve picked up a camera and photographed the places I travel to. I wanted to share some of these favorite places to photograph with you. This list only consists of places I’ve been too. If I had been hiking in at Torres del Paine in Chile, traveling the countryside of New Zealand or photographing under the stars at Monument Rocks in western Kansas, I would imagine this list would be even harder. But I’m only going off of places I’ve been to over and over again! I really struggled to decide this list. The top three in particular kept changing places as I was writing this. If you were to ask me to name my favorite spot to photograph in any given week, it would probably change weekly.
Also keep in mind that this list is based of my favorite places to photograph, not visit. There are undoubtedly a few spots I would have much higher on this list (Chamonix-Mont Blanc in France, Vancouver Island, the Chateau de Chillon in Switzerland) had my photography plans in those places worked out better. Poor lighting, lack of time and more kept these places off this list. These are simply the top 10 places I’ve had the pleasure of photographing.
1. Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada
When I visited the Canadian Rockies back in 2012, the place I tended to always gravitate back to was Moraine Lake. While driving up and down the beautiful Icefields Parkway, I probably visited Moraine Lake 5 times in 3 days. It’s a special place, and easily the most beautiful alpine lake I’ve ever seen.
2. Keeper of the Plains, Wichita, Kansas
This is my go-to spot for photography. It’s treated me well. A lot of my best images are from this Wichita icon, and while the mountains are always my favorite terrain, the Keeper of the Plains has become a constant subject in my work that no other place has filled. I’ve shot more images at the Keeper of the Plains than any other place in the world, and I keep going back for more and more!
3. Wengen, Berner Oberland, Wengen, Switzerland
Much like Moraine Lake, the view from the bench at the church in Wengen, Switzerland was a spot I continued to return to on my trip through the Alps for photography. It’s also the spot I long to go back to most in Europe someday.
The Dallas Divide on the north side of the San Juans in the Colorado Rockies have become my favorite place in all of Colorado to visit. There’s a two-fold reason. My hike in 2011 to Blue Lakes in the Sneffels Wilderness produced some of the most beautiful wildflower displays I have ever seen! Second, Dallas Divide is easily my favorite spot to return to for autumn colors, as the vistas along it’s many backroads are unforgettable!
5. Big Sur, California
I’ve now visited Big Sur twice. Once was for a brief morning in early 2012 that produced a spectacular sunrise. The second was in autumn of 2015, which also produced some of the best sunrises and sunsets of the entire year for me. One particular sunset was one of the best I’ve ever photographed! My favorite spot along Big Sur: McWay Falls. Not only does it have a beautiful tidefall waterfall that drops directly into the ocean at a gorgeous beach, but the view back towards the north is also spectacular!
6. Maroon Bells, Aspen, Colorado
I’m not sure why it took me so long to visit the Maroon Bells in my years of visited Colorado, but I’ve been back almost every year since! Once for wildflowers, but mostly for the beautiful fall colors. Pro-tip: Droves of people will line the northwest shore of Maroon Lake to get the classic reflective Maroon Bells shot, but I find walking to the far side of the lake and photographing the various angles there far more rewarding. I don’t know how many times I’ve shown up for a sunrise with 200 other people fighting for rock or something in their foreground at the edge of the lake, only to find views along Maroon Creek completely deserted.
7. Dream Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
If you had asked me in the years prior to taking my photography as seriously as I do now, Rocky Mountain National Park would be #1 without a shadow of a doubt. I’ve since visited some amazing places in the world, but I’ll always hold a soft spot for Dream Lake in Colorado.
8. Waimea Canyon, Waimea, Kauai, Hawaii
There were a few places on Kauai that I kept returning to in the week I spent on the island. The one that produced the best images was the Waimea Canyon. I continued to drive up that road to the canyon and into Kokee State Park beyond. Other spots on Kauai that almost made this list include the Kilauea Lighthouse, Hanalei Bay and the Napali Coast.
9. Teter Rock, near Cassoday, Kansas
Teter Rock has become my go-to spot for shooting Milky Way and star scenes in recent years. Far enough away from city lights, but within an hour and a half drive from Wichita, it makes for an easy getaway to get out under the stars. It’s also a great place to photograph a good Kansas thunderstorm as it rolls across the prairie.
10. The Old Mill, Little Rock Arkansas
I’ve only visited the Old Mill once, but the shots I got for the little time I spent there rank up there as some of my favorites. The one pictured here was a particular favorite. While most of Arkansas is probably inundated with images from the Old Mill (it’s a Little Rock icon), for a tourist looking for a great place to photograph, it was the perfect spot!
Other spots I loved photographing at:
Emerald Lake, Yoho National Park, Canada
Kilauea Lighthouse, Kauai
Lauterbrunnen Valley Floor, Switzerland
Hanging Lake, Colorado
Peyto Lake, Banff National Park, Canada
Mer de Glace, France
Cowley Falls, Kansas
Moraine Park, Colorado
Bear Lake, Colorado
Geary Lake Falls, Kansas
Kalalau Overlook, Kauai
Napali Coast, Kauai
Hanalei Valley, Kauai
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California
Multnomah Falls, Oregon
Boulder Brook, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Welcome to the final part of Alpine Magic! In the last post, I went exploring Wengen during an amazing afternoon and evening, and then hiked to the top of the Mannlichen. In this final part of my 7 part Alpine Magic travel blog series, I visit Spiez and it’s wonderful castle on the beautiful Thunersee lake.
We had packed all our bags at Hotel Oberland in Lauterbrunnen where we had been staying, and jumped on the train out of Lauterbrunnen for Interlaken. Interlaken itself is a beautiful town that’s situated between the Thunersee and Lake Brienz, connected by the Aare river that flows between the two lakes. While I would have loved to have a day to explore Interlaken, all we had left was one afternoon before having to head back home to America, and we had chosen to spend it in Spiez. So we switched trains in Interlaken and sped off to Spiez.
We arrived at the train station from Interlaken and were immediately floored by how beautiful the views were across the town and lake. Spiez is a beautiful little town to get lost in. Numerous vineyards and orchards dot the surrounding hillsides and it’s main attraction is the Schloss Spiez, or Spiez Castle. And it has a gorgeous harbor, nestled against the beautiful Thunersee! We were there on a day with perfect spring weather. There were dozens of sailboats out on the lake, kids playing football (soccer) on the lawn in front of the harbor and a lot of people just enjoying a beautiful day in an amazing Swiss town!
Our first order of business was lunch. We stopped at a place near the train station called Brasserie 66. I think I had a salad of some kind, but I honestly don’t even remember. What I do remember was the amazing view from the terrace of the restaurant towards the castle and lake. (Are you seeing a theme yet? This town had amazing views!) Once we had paid, we started our walk down to the castle. Before we got very far, I turned towards the west and saw a church standing tall among other buildings as seen in the photo below.
Like everywhere else in town, the walk down to the castle had gorgeous views all around. The next three photos show the views at various points on our walk down to the castle entrance.
Schloss Spiez (Spiez Castle)
We walked by all sorts of people enjoying the amazing weather, especially as we got close to the lake. When we found the castle entrance, we were told our admission was free because of the Swiss Pass. Yet another reason the Swiss Pass was such a great deal for us! We were excited to begin exploring this castle!
The castle of Spiez was built in 933 by Rudolph II, King of Burgundy. Early on, it was settled by Freiherr von Strättligen, and has changed ownership and been passed down by many important families in the region. It has also undergone many renovations over it’s nearly 1,100 year lifespan. It went through major construction in the 13th centuries. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the castle became a residence to the von Bubenberg and von Erlach families.
In the late 1920’s, the Spiez Castle foundation purchased the castle and did some major restoration work. This included an armory with displays of many different weapons, armor and beautiful shields in displays. You can see one of the shield displays and a wall of various swords and weapons in the photos below.
On the lower floors of the castle, lots of windows out onto the Spiez Harbor and towards the church show the beauty that surrounds this amazing castle. The first window below shows how thick the castle walls were closer to the ground floor. These walls were almost 10 feet thick, creating a great defensive barrier around the castle.
Another beautiful room in the castle featured a library in a wood-paneled bookshelf with an old ceramic stove next to it. The castle was filled with beautiful and interesting treasures like these. The Spiez castle had a number of these ceramic stoves in some of the rooms throughout. I had read that these stoves were built into the walls in ways that kept the rooms cold during harsh winters without smoke pouring out into the rooms.
The kitches of Spiez castle were set up in a way that made you visualize what life would have been like cooking centuries ago in a castle like this. Plaques were set up on the walls of the kitchen (and everywhere else in the castle) with really interesting information and facts about the room.
The most interesting room in the entire castle to me was the gorgeous banquet hall, which was built in 1614. It’s been renovated over the years with polished wooden floors, beautiful wooden doors and hand crafted antiques such as the hand-crafted wooden trunk and table and chairs. The room also has some beautifully created stained glass windows depicting various medieval themes along with various family portraits and an intricately designed ceiling. I shot multiple closed up images of this room from the corner and stitched them together in the photo below. This is one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken.
Wooden staircases like the one below took us up into the castle tower, where thin windows out over the Thunersee and back towards the town of Spiez would have been useful for defending the castle in times of turbulence and war. The views out over the church and Thunersee were beautiful, if a bit hazy by the time we reached the top of the tower on that day.
After we had fully explored the beautiful castle, we walked back out towards the castle church. We had hoped to also look inside it, but a wedding ceremony was taking place, so it was obviously off-limits. Pity, as it looked beautiful from the outside at least! We spent some time wandering the castle grounds and ran into a statue of Adrian von Bubenberg along with an interesting fountain, both of which can be viewed below.
One of the best things about the castle was the perfectly manicured gardens and the views of the harbor to the south of the castle! The garden flowers were magnificant. I don’t know whether they are this well kept through the entire summer into the fall, but in late May, the colors of the various flowers in the garden were extremely vivid. The grass and trees around the place were as vivid green as any green I’ve ever seen. And the beautiful blue-green color of the Thunersee out across the lake and in the harbor of Spiez were also extremely colorful. We wandered around enjoying the views with the rest of the tourists. Some of the images below show just how beautiful the entire area is!
After this amazing afternoon through Spiez and it’s castle, it’s safe to say this town on the southwest shore of the Thunersee is an amazing place! I know in the previous blog that I sung the praises of Chamonix, Montreux, Lauterbrunnen and especially Wengen as some of my favorite towns in the world, but Spiez adds to that list! It was a great day watching all the people having fun out near the harbor, out on the Thunersee on their sailboats, exploring the castle, or enjoying lunch while looking out over the lake and mountains in the background.
Our Swiss adventure was coming to an end at this point. We enjoyed the train ride back to Zurich in the late afternoon and evening, making it back to Zurich just after sunset. I had booked us into rooms at a hotel called Park Inn as it was fairly cheap and near the airport. Thankfully they also had a shuttle. What I didn’t know, was that it was themed after the famous fast food restaurant McDonald’s. (when writing this article, I’ve found that they’ve removed the McDonald’s theme from the hotel between the time we stayed there in 2009 and now) It was actually pretty interesting. It was a really clean hotel, with an elaborite and funky design, as you can see in the photo below.
Our night there went good. We managed to get a good night’s sleep knowing we had a long trip home to the USA. When we got to the airport, we had an hour or so to spare and so we did a little shopping at the grocery store across from the airport. As I hadn’t really gotten any souveniers to bring back for friends and family, I dropped a good 75 swiss francs on Swiss chocolate to haul back in a checked bag. There’s not much better than Swiss chocolate to give as a souvenier from Switzerland!
As our Alpine Magic adventure in the Swiss and French Alps ended, I thought back to how amazing it was. It’s been almost 6 years since I was in Switzerland, and I’ve longed to go back ever since! While I’d love to revisit some of my favorite places there, there were a number of places I missed out on in the short time I was there that I really would like to see!
In the previous Alpine Magic blog post, we explored a lot of the Berner Oberland. We took the train to Kleine Scheidegg, and up to the Jungfraujoch (also known as the Top of Europe). We also hiked to the Bachalpsee and toured the beautiful town of Grindelwald. Today’s post centers around what I consider my favorite mountain town in the world: Wengen, Switzerland.
A Magical Evening in Wengen
In the last Alpine Magic blog post, we had just gotten back to Lauterbrunnen from our hiking above Grindelwald. After an early afternoon-nap, I was refreshed and ready to explore Wengen fully. I had already visited it the day before for a nice sunrise, but really wanted to walk up and down many of the little streets and just see the entire town. However, I still had quite a bit of daylight, so I decided to walk around Lauterbrunnen a little more, shooting the image below.
At one point, I considered walking up to Wengen from Lauterbrunnen, but didn’t feel like I had enough time to do that and fully explore Wengen before the sun went down. So after shooting the above shot, I hiked back down to train station and boarded the train up to Wengen again. I could tell there would be a beautiful sunset based on the clouds in the sky, and was excited to see what kind of photos I could get from this amazing mountain town. When I arrived, I walked east from the train station towards the east side of town, which featured a lot of beautiful fields of spring wildflowers starting to bloom.
I walked further to the north back into the various houses on the northeast side of Wengen. At one point I turned around and saw the sky was just beginning to light up in the background.
I continued down the various roads until I looked back and saw the clouds really starting to light up at this point. It was hard not to just set the camera up in the middle of the path and start shooting photos. Every corner had another beautiful view of Wengen and the stunning Swiss Alpine scenery!
I walked around the various little pathways towards the north side of Wengen. I looked back to the south again and saw the clouds hovering over the Jungfrau were turning to vibrant pink! This was one spectacular sunset! I stopped to take the following photo between some houses in Wengen.
Back to the north, the clouds were also lighting up in vivid reds and pinks, but I couldn’t find a good composition to shoot from, as the trees on the north side of Wengen blocked a lot of the sky where I had walked to. Eventually the intense sunset started to subside and I continued exploring the little roads all around Wengen. I decided I wanted to just sit down and enjoy the views, and so I headed back to an area I had found the morning before when searching for a good sunrise location. The little church that’s just above the train tracks has an amazing view of the Lauterbrunnental Valley below. Even though it was getting to be night time, there was still a little post-sunset color in the sky. I always like this time of night, called the blue hour, when shooting more low-light scenes can wield interesting photographs. I managed to capture one such amazing shot below.
After shooting this image, I sat on the benches next to the Wengen church and just admired the amazing view. I knew this was my last evening up in the Berner Oberland and I didn’t want it to end. Eventually I made my way back to the Wengen train station and down to the Hotel Oberland in Lauterbrunnen where I was staying to get some sleep. I still had the morning to go back up to Wengen and on to the Mannlichen for an unforgettable hike!
Day 10: Sunday, May 31st, 2009 – Hiking the Mannlichen!
My plan for the final morning in Switzerland was to get high up into the Alps for a nice alpine hike. I also wanted to spent a few more minutes in Wengen before leaving the Berner Oberland. Our afternoon would consist of visiting Spiez on our way back to a night in Zurich before our morning flight home the next day. My brother and his girlfriend decided they would rather visit Trummelbach Falls further down the Lauterbrunnen valley, while I would hike to the top of the Mannlichen on my own. I had originally wanted to hike from Kleine Scheidegg to Mannlichen two days before, but the route was difficult due to snow for someone in a pair of hiking shoes, shorts and a t-shirt. So I felt like at least taking the cable car up and seeing the view off both sides of the Mannlichen towards Grindelwald on the east and Wengen/Lauterbrunnen on the west side would be a great end to my time in the Bernese Alps!
I awoke early, stopping at the Lauterbrunnen bakery for some breakfast. As usual, the bakeries in Switzerland never disappoint! I enjoyed the views from the train from Lauterbrunnen to Wengen while eating my breakfast. I got to Wengen around the time the Mannlichen aerial cableway was opening. The original line from Wengen to the Mannlichen station was built in the early 1950s, and was replaced in the early 1990s after an avalance buried the lower station. This renovated aerial cableway starts near the main street from Wengen, not too far from the train station.
The hike from the cable car station to the top of the Mannlichen is only a 15-20 minute walk. I took my time to shoot photos. Unfortunately clouds really covered the views to the east towards Grindelwald and had completely blocked views of the famous Berner Oberland mountain trio of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau. However, the views back down towards Lauterbrunnen, Murren and Wengen still looked great!
Looking down to the Lauterbrunnen and Wengen below, it’s a marvel of technology that a train ride and an aerial cableway can take you from Lauterbrunnen’s elevation of 2,608 feet at the valley floor to over 7,500 ft at the cableway station on the Mannlichen. All this in about 20 or so minutes! I took my time shooting photos and enjoying the scenery on my way up to the Mannlichen summit.
At the top, the views were phenominal, if a bit cloud covered. The clouds had been rolling in even thicker than they had been when I started at the cable car station a half hour before. You could make out the area where the Thunersee and Interlaken were. We would be continuing in that direction to Spiez later in the day. The views back towards Wengen still looked great, as you can see in the photo above. But the views to the east and towards the towering peaks were still blocked by clouds that were rolling in fast and furious. I knew we needed to get moving to have any time in Spiez, so I started heading back down to the summit while chatting with a Swiss mountain climber who was planning to do a climb up the Eiger in the coming weeks. Apparently he was training for an ascent up Mount Everest later that year! That was pretty awesome just to hear his climbing stories.
I arrived back at the Mannlichen cable car and rode back down to Wengen, saying goodbye to this amazing town before taking the train back down to Lauterbrunnen. We packed our stuff up, and got ready to visit the town of Spiez on our way back to Zurich for our plane home the next morning. I was sad to leave Lauterbrunnen, Wengen, Murren, Gimmelwald, Grindelwald and the entire Berner Oberland. I’ve dreamed of going back ever since! But I still had an afternoon to spend on the shores of the Thunersee at Spiez and it’s gorgeous castle! Check back in a day or two to read more about that adventure!
Grindelwald and the Berner Oberland: Alpine Magic Part 5
Posted on March 15, 2015 by Mickey
In the last part of Alpine Magic, I hiked through Murren, Gimmelwald and Lauterbrunnen and had a blast exploring these three towns and the countryside around them. Towering waterfalls, beautiful alpine meadows and great hiking abounded! The next stop in my plans was to visit some of the beautiful Berner Oberland by taking the train to the Jungfraujoch. I had also seen views of the Lauterbrunnental Valley from Wengen prior to my trip. These images of looking down on an amazing U-shaped valley with waterfalls everywhere is what sold me on my trip to Switzerland! And I would finally be visiting. I got up earlier than the rest of my group, and decided to venture up to Wengen for sunrise. I also had plans to hike from Kleine Scheidegg to the Mannlichen, as I had seen some beautiful photos from that area prior to my trip as well. I was also looking forward to hiking above Grindelwald the next day.
Visiting Wengen for the first time
I grabbed some cereal for a quick breakfast and jumped on one of the early trains to Wengen to see the sunrise from this beautiful town. The town had a few folks wandering the streets, but for the most part, I had a lot of Wengen to myself to explore in peace. I visited Wengen many times during my trip to Switzerland, and have come to consider it my favorite little mountain town in the world! It has a nice charm to it, and the scenery is absolutely gorgeous! There are no cars, and the only way into the town is to walk or ride the train up from Lauterbrunnen. There weren’t many clouds in the sky, so I didn’t expect an amazing sunrise, but thought it would be nice to get the alpine-glow as it hit the mountains. So I explored Wengen until I came to a path leading out of town into fields of wildflowers, where I set up and shot the image below.
After sunrise, I wandered around town a little more before making my way back to the train station. I took the train up to Kleine Scheidegg with the thought of hiking to the Mannlichen. Unfortunately I got up to Kleine Scheidegg only to find that there was still too much snow on the trail to the Mannlichen. So I had to be content with walking around Kleine Scheidegg and enjoying the hazy views off towards the Grindelwald valley.
While I was up there, I noticed that there was a train that continue on up into the mountains, so I read about the Top of Europe Jungfraujoch station that’s situated on the ridge between the Monch and Jungfrau, near the upper snows of the giant Aletsch glacier. So after spending some time wandering around Kleine Scheidegg, I jumped back on the train down to Lauterbrunnen to see if my brother and his girlfriend wanted to go. They were game, and because we were using the Swiss rail pass to travel, the Top of Europe train ride was reduced in cost for us.
Junfraujoch: The Top of Europe and the Aletsch glacier
Early in the afternoon, we paid our tickets, jumped on the early afternoon train up, and began the ascent from 2,608 feet at Lauterbrunnen to 11,371 feet at the Jungfraujoch station! The views as we rode the train up to the tunnel built into the side of the Monch were amazing! We entered the tunnel into the mountain amidst beautiful alpine meadows and came out at the top amidst the largest glacier in Europe and snow everywhere! However, before getting to the top, the journey is punctuated by two stops to look out these windows built into the side of the Eiger, and again at the Eismeer, giving some amazing views! Once at the Jungfraujoch station, there are a plethora of interesting things to do. This place opened in 1912, and is almost like being in a mini-town built into a mountain! There’s a post office, a restaurant, an ice palace, an elevator to the top of the Sphinx for a dizzying view, and an opening to walk out onto the upper reaches of the snow of the mighty Aletschgletscher (Aletsch glacier) shown below!
When we first arrived, we decided to walk out onto the Aletsch glacier. While we had been treated to some amazing late spring weather everywhere we went, the top of the Aletschgletscher was something different all-together. At 11,000+ miles above sea level, bitter cold wind pounded us the moment we walked out the door. When I set up my tripod and camera to shoot the above shot, I had to hold the tripod still to keep the entire thing from flying off the ridge and down to the glacier below. However, the views of the Aletsch glacier below are stunning! The Aletsch glacier is the longest glacier in the Alps at more than 13 and a half miles long! As cold as it was, we stayed out shooting photos and marveling at the amazing views for a good 20 minutes.
When we finally had our fill, we went back into the Jungfraujoch and decided to explore the Ice Palace. The entrance to the Ice Palace is a long ice corridor that leads to various scultures as you can see below.
Once we had explored the ice palace for a while, we ascended via the double lift to the Sphinx observation decks. This was just as cool as being outside on the top of the glacier. When you step out onto the decks, you can look down below you through the metal mesh flooring to the rocks, ice and snow hundreds of feet below you. The views from here were outstanding! As the last train back down from the Jungfraujoch was only 20 minutes away, we unfortunately had little time up here. Had the trains been running later, I would have loved to shoot a sunset or night sky from high above the Aletsch glacier. Unfortunately, like many other attractions, late May had shortened hours for the off-season. I shot some photos like the one below and we headed back to down the train station.
That evening was spent wandering around Wengen prior to sunset, then watching the sunset from the balcony of the Valley Hostel in Lauterbrunnen while eating a nice dinner of cheese, bread and some amazing chocolate from the dairy! We went to bed early, with dreams of hiking above the famous town of Grindelwald the next morning!
Day 8: Friday, May 29th, 2009 – Hiking Above Grindelwald
We awoke early the next morning and dropped our luggage off at the storage lockers at the Lauterbrunnen train station before getting on the train to Grindelwald. We needed to do this, because we were switching from the Valley Hostel to Hotel Oberland Lauterbrunnen for our last night in Lauterbrunnen. Once we got the luggage dropped off, we hopped on the train from Lauterbrunnen to Grindelwald. Today’s plans were to hike up to the Bachalpsee from First after taking the cable car up from Grindelwald. Grindelwald is another beautiful Swiss mountain town. It’s history spans back for many centuries, with first mention back in the 1100’s. It’s history as a tourist destination began in the 19th century and it has become one of Switzerland’s crown jewels of mountain towns! Some of the most famous Alps surround the Grindelwald valley. The famous trio of the Monch, Eiger and Jungfrau are to the southwest, whereas the Finsteraarhorn, Wetterhorn, Schreckhorn and Gross Fiescherhorn also stand high above Grindelwald.
We walked to the First cable car station from Grindelwald, getting on the impressive cable car that took us high above Grindelwald to the First summit. At the top, we watched a paraglider getting ready to descend to the valley below. We marveled at the beautiful views of the massive Grindelwald valley. The panorama below should give you an idea of the vast expanse from one side of Grindelwald’s valley to the south where the north face of the Eiger dominates.
The hike to the Bachalpsee (or Bachsee) was beautiful. I’ve always had a thing for alpine lakes, as I frequently hike to many high mountain lakes in Colorado on my yearly trips out there. So I was excited to see one of Grindelwald’s famous hiking locations at the Bachalpsee. My photography goal with this hike was to get a good reflection of the jagged peaks in the lake. This hike didn’t disappoint, as the views across the valley were phenomenal, with famous peaks such as the Eiger, Wetterhorn and Schreckhorn standing tall all around us! These peaks across the valley contrasted with the beautiful alpine meadows we were walking through. In addition you could see a lot of glaciers hanging off the various peaks. After an hour or so, we arrived at the Bachalpsee. There’s technically two lakes here. A natural dam divides a smaller pond just below the Bachalpsee proper. Unfortunately the main lake was almost fully covered in snow and ice still, but the lower pond had quite a bit of open water. There was little wind that morning allowing me to shoot a good reflection on the lake surface.
We spent an hour or so wandering around the lake, and walking a ways above it to admire the views. Once we had our fill of the views (not that it’s really possible to get your fill of views like these) we decided to head back towards First. On the way back, the clouds picked up and gave me a chance to shoot the moody scene below.
We finished our hike back to First, and jumped on the gondola (pictured above) back to Grindelwald. By the time we made it back to Grindelwald, it was almost lunch time and we were starving! We hadn’t eaten out in a few days, and really felt like sitting down to enjoy a meal, so we went in search of a restaurant. Many weren’t open yet, as we had gotten back into town a little before lunch hours (plus, it was the off-season so places weren’t open as early as they would have been in the summer months) After walking down the streets of Grindelwald a bit, we found a place called Sport Pub that was open. We split a delicious pizza while watching a random football (soccer) game on the TV.
Once we finished up our meal, we did a little shopping in Grindelwald, as most of the stores had opened at this point. It was a beautiful town I’d love to go back and visit again. Once we had bought a few shirts to take back home with us, we jumped on the train back to Lauterbrunnen, grabbing our stuff at the storage lockers, and heading to the Hotel Oberland Lauterbrunnen for our final night up in the Berner Oberland.
The next part of my adventure deals with the last 24 hours in the Berner Oberland, where I spend an amazing evening walking the streets of Wengen and hike the Mannlichen the next morning. Check back tomorrow for that post!
Lauterbrunnen, Murren & Gimmelwald: Alpine Magic Part 4
Posted on March 11, 2015 by Mickey
In the last post for Alpine Magic, we visited the Chateau de Chillon. We knew we needed to be to our next location, Lauterbrunnen, by late afternoon. The reason? The Champion’s League final between Manchested United and Barcelona was being played, and we needed to find a place to watch it! We really wanted to take the Golden Pass scenic train, but timing didn’t allow it, so we boarded the train back to Martigny, and eventually to Interlaken, where the train would take us up into the Berner Oberland and Lauterbrunnen! I still remember seeing the first of many famous waterfall’s in the Lauterbrunnental Valley on the train and being in awe. I will say up front, while the rest of my Switzerland and France trip was fantastic, this area was, hands down, the best. Lauterbrunnen, Wengen, Murren and Gimmelwald are a mountain-lovers paradise. All of it is amazing. From the culture and way of life to the scenery and the hiking, it’s hard to find a place anywhere in the world that compares! I’ve been dreaming of the day I can visit Lauterbrunnen, Murren, Gimmelwald and Wengen again! It’s the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen in my life!
When we got off the train, we grabbed an easy dinner of cheese, bread and fruit at the bakery and dairy shops. The bakery, dairy, butcher, COOP and train station were all just a few short steps to the place we were staying, at the Valley Hostel of Lauterbrunnen. I normally don’t stay in hostels while traveling. This is mainly because I’m lugging expensive camera equipment and honestly, I just like my privacy. I like to work on photos in peace in my downtime. Thankfully, as we were there in the off-season, there were a number of private rooms available for a really good price. It didn’t come with breakfast or anything like many hotels do, but I was more interested in getting breakfast at the local bakeries by this point anyways. When many people think of hostels, they think of a dormitory style room with a bunch of beds stuck together. While they did have shared rooms, the upper floor had private rooms, of which I had one with a small balcony overlooking Staubbach Falls. The view was amazing, and the price was perfect!
We inquired from the Valley Hostel owners where we could watch the Champions League as the rooms didn’t have a TV. They suggested going down to the Horner Pub, as they would have the game on. So we walked down the main street, and entered the pub. We took the only open table left in the place, and listened to the elderly Scottish and English gentlemen talk about how great the game would be. We were ready to watch Cristiano Ronaldo and Manchester United take on Leo Messi and Barcelona, live from Rome for the coveted Champion’s League final! The only problem? We didn’t see a TV in the place. When a waitress finally came around, we asked about the game, to be told that they were showing it in a room in the back of the pub. “Bloody ‘ell, lads, we better get back there before we miss the kickoff!” I’ve never seen a group of elderly guys move so fast in my life. The English, Scottish, and, well, most of Europe live for their football. I felt right at home! The only thing that could have made it better was if my beloved Arsenal had made it into the final. But to just watch a Champion’s League final with a lot of British and Scottish folks in a place as beautiful as Lauterbrunnen was an experience! We filtered in to a few of the last seats in the back of the big room right in time to hear that famous Champion’s League anthem.
In many Swiss restaurants, ordering a beer is cheaper than water or a coke. That would be great, if I drank beer. However, I don’t. So I ordered a $4 bottle of Coke, and sat back to enjoy the experience. When I tried to tip the waitress/bartender for my Coke, she proceeded to explain to me how American culture tips more than Swiss culture, and I was giving her too much money. The honesty was nice! Another interesting thing I remember about the game was that most non-British tourists in the place were die-hard United fans. But almost all the British and Scottish fans were rooting for Barcelona. I suspect it wasn’t so much that they wanted Barca to win, but rather, United to lose. Many of them probably were fans of their local teams in England and Scotland, and so by principle couldn’t support the red half of Manchester. In the end, Barcelona won rather convincingly by 2-0.
As we left, we followed the older Scottish and English gentlemen towards the hostel as they bantered back and forth about Carlos Tevez, Cristiano Ronaldo, the vision of Xavi and other players and moments of the game. I crashed pretty quickly that evening, excited for the hike through Murren and Gimmelwald that was planned for the morning!
Day 7: Thursday, May 28th, 2009 – Hiking Murren and Gimmelwald
We awoke the next morning ready to visit Murren and Gimmelwald! When I was first researching where I wanted to go in Europe, the entire Lauterbrunnental Valley kept coming up. A friend’s parents lent me some Switzerland travel guides and DVDs where I had first read about Gimmelwald. I researched the area, and knew I had to visit myself. So we grabbed breakfast at the local Lauterbrunnen bakery. Like Fuchs in Zermatt, Lauterbrunnen’s bakery was amazing! With breakfast in hand, we were ready to hike Murren and Gimmelwald.
There are three ways up to Murren and Gimmelwald, which sit perched atop the massive cliffs on the west side of the Lauterbrunnental valleys. One is to ride the bus from Lauterbrunnen to Stechelberg and then taking the cable car up from there to Murren. The second option is to take the funicular from Lauterbrunnen up the Grutschalp, and then board a scenic train that follows the top of the cliff to Murren. The third option is to hike one of the trails up from the valley floor, up and around the cliffs to Murren or Gimmelwald. We decided to take the second option, riding the funicular right down the street from the bakery, and then taking the beautiful train ride to Murren. We would then hike down from Murren to Gimmelwald, then down to Stechelberg and back to Lauterbrunnen. When we arrived in Murren, we saw a Swiss mountain town at it’s finest. Murren sits at almost 5,500 feet above sea level, whereas Gimmelwald is at almost 4,500 feet. We walked through Murren and it’s many hotels. It’s said that there’s 4 times as many hotel beds in Murren as their are permanent residents in the village. It’s a beautiful village, with an amazing view across the Lauterbrunnental valley and the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau trio of famous Alps in the distance.
We walked through town, admiring the views at every turn. Eventually, we got to the edge of town, where various farms take over the scenery from the hotels of Murren. We eventually came to the outskirts of Gimmelwald, where it’s said the cows far outnumber the people!
Gimmelwald has been made famous by Rick Steves and his Europe books and videos. It’s a beautiful town, with tourism and farming the main gigs for permanent residents. It didn’t take long to move from one side of the town to the other, as beautiful as it was. We had already dropped a good 1,000 feet since Murren, and would be hiking down around the cliffs to Stechelberg another almost 1,500 feet below. We began the hike, which continued with it’s beautiful views of the valley below, but eventually turned back to the west and became more forested. Views like the one below dominated the landscape.
As we walked deeper into the forests and started turning back towards the east, lots of small hidden waterfalls came into view. The entire Lauterbrunnen valley is sometimes referred to as the “Land of 72 waterfalls”. Beautiful waterfalls pour off the cliffs everywhere, and this stretch of the hike between Gimmelwald and Stechelberg contained a good number of them! The waterfall below might be my favorite from that hike because of the way the sun was directly overhead, hitting the water just right!
When we got to Stechelberg, it had gotten quite warm outside, and we were getting really hungry. We decided the evening would be spent walking the valley floor between Lauterbrunnen and Stechelberg, so instead of walking back to Lauterbrunnen, we hopped on the bus that took us back. We stopped into the bakery, dairy store and COOP to pick up food for lunch and snacks for the next few days. Many of the little stores in Lauterbrunnen were fun to visit. I bought more chocolate than I should have, and enjoyed a LOT of cheese while I was there. At one point, I read that some people in Switzerland can tell you what region the cheese came from by it’s taste. We scarfed down a quick lunch then took a much needed powernap.
An amazing evening hike
I awoke after a short while and worked on some of the photos I had taken in the morning. By late afternoon, I decided ventured out into the Lauterbrunnen valley on my own. This easy hike through the valley is one of those memories I remember vividly. The weather was as perfect as it could be, and I started my walk down Lauterbrunnen’s main street towards the church.
Passing by the church, I stopped in the Lauterbrunnen cemetery and shot the photo below. Vivid flowers adorned the perfectly manicured grave-sites.
I continued walking down the road that went to Stechelberg. Towards the edge of town was Lauterbrunnen’s Camping Jungfrau which is highly rated for it’s facilities. A little further along, a stream that came from Staubbach Falls crossed under the road. Right next to the stream was a driveway leading to the house in the photo below. If there was ever a house that I could call my dream house, this is it. Having a beautiful cascading mountain stream run right by your house, and a famous, 1,000 foot waterfall in your backyard for scenery would be a dream come true!
I continued on through the valley, and realized just how many flowers were starting their spring bloom. There was color everywhere, and the trees were so green! This was typical of all of Switzerland, but on this night, it stood out even more! Every direction I looked, I either saw colorful flowers, towering cliffs, massive waterfalls, or amazing views of the surrounding Swiss Alps.
At some point, halfway to Stechelberg, I decided to follow a small walking path between the various fields that eventually turned and followed the main river. The sunset was showing some good light in the distance. I tried grabbing some good photos of it, but nothing came out well. Or so I thought. The light had mostly gone in the distance towards the north, but as I was passing back by the church in Lauterbrunnen, I looked back to see the most vivid purple hued post-sunset glow I’ve ever seen.
Come back in a few days for the next few parts, where I explore Wengen, Grindelwald, hike the Mannlichen and take an amazing train ride to the Top of Europe station!
Part 3 of my Alpine Magic travel adventure took me to the beautiful Swiss Riviera of the town of Montreux and Switzerland’s most famous castle, the Chateau de Chillon, which was built on the edge of Lac Leman, better known as Lake Geneva. If you haven’t read the first two parts of Alpine Magic, which focused on Zermatt and the Matterhorn and Chamonix-Mont Blanc in France, you can find them to the left.
Day 6: Wednesday, May 27th, 2009 – On to the Chateau de Chillon
We awoke to an overcast morning in Chamonix, France. I didn’t bother to shoot a sunrise, as the sky was covered with low-hanging clouds blocking the sun and mountains. We made our way down to the delicious breakfast at Hotel L’Arve that was again full of amazing bread, cheese, jams and fruit. With the weather being cloudy and a full day ahead of ourselves, we packed up to head off to the train station. The “Mont Blanc Express” train ride from Chamonix to Martigny had some spectacular scenery and views when we first arrived. I regretted not shooting photos two days before, as the foggy weather kept the views completely cloudy on the way back into Switzerland. While the views were gone, the sort of dreamy feel of taking this train ride up into the clouds and mountains across the border back into Switzerland was still beautiful nonetheless.
We enjoyed the train ride back to Martigny, then changed trains to head for Montreux. The train ride from Martigny to Montreux was also beautiful, full of views of the Alps and various vineyards, but town of Montreux itself was gorgeous! We knew we had a mile or two walk from the Montreux train station to our intended destination of Chateau de Chillon, but I had found information that some train stations had lockers you could rent to stuff your luggage in. We really did not want to lug our entire luggage with us to the castle, so we inquired about the lockers and lucked out that the Montreux station had lots of storage lockers available. After stuffing our luggage in our locker, we immediately set out to explore Montreux.
While Montreux’s history spans back to being a settlement on an important Roman road, it’s more recent history has been as a major tourist destination. Montreux was already becoming an international tourist destination back in the early 1800s, and is famous for the annual jazz festival. Montreux has attracted poets ever since Lord Byron first visited and wrote Prisoner of Chillon Castle in 1816. Lord Byron, Leo Tolstoy, Mary Shelley and Igor Stravinsky were all visitors of Montreux and it’s beauty. One famous aspect of Montreux is the statue of Freddie Mercury, vocalist for the band Queen, who called Montreux his home until his death in 1991. While Montreux is famous for this history of music, jazz and the many poets that visited, it’s probably even more famous as possibly the best section of the Swiss Riviera. The promenade along the shore of Lake Geneva is possible the most beautiful lakeside walk I’ve ever taken. Both palm trees and mountain pine trees can be found, along with colorful flowers. Hotels and restaurants line the promenade and continue up the hillside into the foothills of the Alps above. Color, especially the green of the trees and the green-blue colors of Lake Geneva (or Lac Leman in French – as we were in the French speaking part of Switzerland here) was as vivid as possible.
Everywhere we looked, people were just out enjoying themselves, walking or riding a bike along the promenade, sitting on various benches enjoying food from a local spot or just watching the ducks on Lake Geneva below. Watching people enjoy lunch on the benches made us hungry. We knew we needed to move fast, as we had a mile or two walk to our main destination, the Chateau de Chillon, so instead of hitting up a restaurant, we stopped at the local grocery store, Migros, and picked up some sandwiches. We walked while we ate, enjoying the amazing scenery, like the view below, looking towards the Chateau de Chillon in the distance.
Walking along the Swiss Riviera towards the Chateau de Chillon castle, I really regretted not planning a night in Montruex. Just thinking of the photo opportunities I would have had of a sunrise, sunset or night scene over Lake Geneva and the Chateau de Chillon left me disappointed I hadn’t looked into it. If I ever get to return to Switzerland, it’s a must-do on my next trip. I also remember thinking it would have made one of the best locations to spend a honeymoon or anniversary someday. Montreux just exudes romance. Maybe it’s the history of famous poets who have called the area a second home. Being married now, it’s one of the top places I would love for my wife to see. Being able to go on an evening walk along the promenade would be amazing!
The Chateau de Chillon
Approaching the castle from the north, you get a great view of the Alps to the south. They make a stunning backdrop to the castle and are the subject of many photographs from people who visit. In fact, any angle of the castle is beautiful (one of mine is featured towards the bottom of this page). I had done some research and found that entrance to the castle is free with a Swiss Pass, which was great for us and another reason to recommend using the rail passes as a way to travel in Switzerland. What I hadn’t realized is that some of the boat rides from various towns on the lake are also free with the Swiss Pass. While we were a little disappointed we didn’t take advantage of that, it’s hard to be sad that we walked the beautiful prominade instead. Unfortunately the boat times back to Montreux were a little too late for us to take back when we left the castle.
The Chateau de Chillon has a history dating back more than 1000 years. While there is no definitive date for when the earliest parts of the castle were built, it began as a Roman outpost as early as 1005AD to control the road from Burgundy to the Great Saint Bernard Pass. By the mid 12th century, the Count’s of Savoy used it as a summer home and in the mid-1250’s, Chillon castle was expanded by Peter II, a Count of Savoy. As the castle was built on a rocky island, the lake actually forms a natural moat, with a modern bridge to it’s entrance. We entered into the castle, exploring the various courtyards, the largest of which is the “The Courtyard of Honor”. We entered into the castle, and decided to save the dungeons for last, as they were supposed to be pretty awesome. We climbed up to the top, where various sentry walks line the castle. These have some nice views out onto Lake Geneva. But on the shore-side, the walls were built far more defensively, to protect from attacks.
Walking through more of the castles rooms, we came to the Grand Ducal Hall, also known as the Aula Magna, with it’s checkered walls. Black marble columns support the 15th century wooden ceiling. The Aula Nova, which was once the banquet hall now contains a museum, including various weapons and armor like the ones on display below.
We continued through the castle to the Grand Burgrave Hall, with it’s support arches that hold up a large wooden ceiling. Various furniture and paintings adorned the room. There was also a chapel dedicated to St George on the northeast side of the castle with a rib-vaulted ceiling and various frescoes along the wall.
Next, we made our way down towards the underground chambers that were once used as a prison. These are possibly the most famous parts of the castle, as Lord Byron’s poem The Prisoner of Chillon was written about the Chateau de Chillon’s most famous prisoner, Francois de Bonivard. Bonivard was a Genevois monk who was imprisoned from 1532 to 1536 here. The giant vaulted ceiling encompasses a lot of the grandier of the castle, as seen below:
I can see why the Chateau de Chillon is Switzerland’s most famous castle. It’s beautiful, inside and out. I really wanted at least one decent shot of the castle from the outside as well and so before getting on the bus to the Montreux train station, I tried one more shot of the castle, which you can see below. It was a real struggle to get a good photograph, due to harsh lighting and lack of any filters to smooth out the water. (I had unfortunately forgotten them in the travel bag back in the locker) But this shot turned out alright, and has an almost storybook feel to it which lends to the castle’s fairy-tale beauty.
We jumped on the bus back to the heart of Montreux, grabbed our stuff out of the storage lockers and boarded the train for our next destination: Lauterbrunnen and the Berner Oberland. More on that adventure in a few days when I post part 4.
Welcome back to part two of Alpine Magic where I continue my exploration of the Swiss and French Alps. If you haven’t read part 1, it’s worth a read, as I trekked around Zermatt and the Matterhorn before heading for Chamonix!
However, this part of Alpine Magic focuses on my adventures in Chamonix at the base of Mont Blanc in the French Alps.
Day 4: Monday, May 25th, 2009 – Off to France!
I awoke early in the morning, and like the day before, went out to shoot a cloud-less sunrise. I was still determined to try and get a decent Matterhorn sunrise, but unfortunately the weather never cooperated in giving me a great sunrise or sunset. Even so, it was still a blast trying and just seeing the Matterhorn left me in awe. Especially since it’s pyramid-like peak was covered in a golden alpine glow.
After the sunrise, we packed up and headed for the train station. Our train ride would take us from Zermatt back to Visp, and then to Martigny, across the border and finally to Chamonix-Mont Blanc, France! We grabbed one last amazing breakfast at Fuchs bakery on the way to the train station, and set off to visit France for the first time. The rail trips from Zermatt to Visp and then on to Martigny were beautiful. Martigny is an old Roman town, and I remember seeing at least one old castle up on a hill top that was likely Château de Tourbillon near Sion. The countryside was beautiful with the Rhone river running parallel to the train, vineyards on the hillsides and above them the Alps towering over the entire valley of Valais.
As beautiful as this train ride was, it didn’t even compare to the train ride that crossed the border from Martigny, Switzerland to Chamonix, France. This train ride is called the Mont Blanc Express and was covered by our Swiss rail pass even though Chamonix is in France. The scenery along the way is stunning. The train immediately climbs out of Martigny, passing through the Trient valley, with amazing views, dizzying heights, crashing waterfalls in beautiful forests and charming little villages. One of my biggest regrets to this trip was not having my camera out. I had expected to just enjoy the train ride to Chamonix, then take some shots when we came back this way towards the Berner Oberland a few days later, but that day was cloudy and rainy, so I missed the chance to keep a visual record, but I recall the train on the side of steep cliffs, looking off across the valleys and wondering how in the world people who lived in small houses on the mountainside ever got to their house with the incline on the side of some of these mountains. It looked like a dream mountain environment to explore.
By the time we arrived in France, the train was rolling through a few beautiful mountain towns like Vallorcine, where you changed trains to finish the ride to Chamonix. The Chamonix valley itself was gorgeous. Glacier’s hung from Mont Blanc massif, and the peaks towered over the valley in a way I’ve never seen before. Mont Blanc, which towers above the Chamonix valley on the south is the tallest mountain in Europe excluding Russia. Once we arrived in Chamonix, we had a few blocks to walk to our hotel, which gave us a good sense of the beautiful town. Hotel d’Larve, where we stayed in Chamonix, was right next to the Arve river, with great views of the Mont Blanc massif and Bossons glacier. We explored the hotel a little, and found they had a small rock climbing wall in their workout area. There was also a beautiful patio area next to the river with great views of Aiguille du Midi.
Once we had explored our hotel, we decided to walk through town and find some lunch. We happened upon an outdoor cafe, called Cafe Valentino. It took me a lot of Googling, looking at Google Maps and then pictures of restaurants to figure out what the name of this cafe was, and truthfully, I can’t even remember what I ate there for lunch. From the reviews online, it’s not surprising I can’t remember what I ate. The only thing I really remember about it was a waiter at the restaurant next door having the biggest handlebar mustache I’ve ever seen. We spent a the rest of the afternoon wandering the shops a little bit and just walking up and down some of the streets.
The best memory I have of Chamonix was when I ventured out on my own to explore the valley. In the evening, I took a walk towards the northeast in the Chamonix valley. It was in this evening that I fell in love with Chamonix. I walked along the Arve River, crossing bridges, through forests, shooting some photos and just generally enjoying an amazing evening in the quiet of this place. On a few occasions I talked to a local or two who was also out for a stroll. I was still in awe of how deep this valley was compared to the massive Mont Blanc. Mont Blanc is around 15000 feet, whereas the valley floor is around 3500 feet. That’s a HUGE different in elevation for someone living in the Great Plains of Kansas. Even Colorado, where I often visit, struggles to compare to this. Most ski resort and mountain towns are between 7500-9500 feet, and Colorado’s tallest mountains are called the 14ers, at 14000+ feet. And even those 14ers rarely nestle themselves right next to a town. So the grand scale of everything in Chamonix was impressive to say the least. Add in a beautiful evening and the sound of the glacier water roaring along the Arve River, and it made for a fantastic walk in the valley. Even as someone who is obsessed with taking photos of my travels, it was far more about the experience than the photos on this evening.
Day 5: Tuesday, May 26th, 2009 – Chamonix and the Mer de Glace
I awoke early (though a little later than I had planned), with hopes of getting a nice sunrise shot of Mont Blanc somewhere in the valley. I didn’t have a lot of time to find a good composition as the light was beginning to present some vivid colors in the clouds swirling above Mont Blanc. I set up shop in a open area near the Alpine Museum of Chamonix to shoot the beautiful sunrise unfolding above Bossons Glacier and Mont Blanc.
Breakfast at Hotel d’Larve was fantastic. There were many different types of breads and jams, local cheese, fruits and more. While we enjoyed this great food, we discussed what we wanted to do for the day. As we only had one full day in Chamonix, we had to decide how we were going to spend it. Many options were impossible. The cable cars and such on the north side of Chamonix to Brévent and Flégère were either on limited schedules or were still in off-season and not running. The original plan was to take the Aiguille du Midi cable car and then the cable car from there across the Mont Blanc massif to the Italian side at Courmayeur. The Aiguille du Midi cable car is the world’s highest vertical ascent cable car, going from just under 4000 feet in Chamonix, to the towering spires at over 12600 feet! At one point, during the trip planning, I had planned for to stay a night or two in Courmayeur, as they have a highly recommended hotel with an amazing Italian breakfast called Hotel Bouton d’Or. However, after contacting them, they informed me they were closed on the dates we were there for the off-season. This was a letdown, because the hotel and the entire area on the Italian side of Mont Blanc looked awesome.
Unfortunately, a number of things completely ended our hope to even make it to the Italian side of Mont Blanc. While the Aiguille du Midi cable car was running, the cable car running from there, across the border to Italy was in the off-season still. In addition, the weather looked a little sketchy with rain in the forecast, so we opted for taking the Montenvers train up to see the Mer de Glace instead of going up to Aiguille du Midi.
This option proved to be pretty amazing. We walked to the station that would take us from Chamonix up to the Montenvers rail station. The train that took us up here originally began operating in 1908 and the Grand Hotel in Montenvers has been open since 1880. But the real attraction to taking this train up here is the Mer de Glace which translates to “Sea of Ice.” The Mer de Glace is France’s longest glacier at almost 4.5 miles long and 650 feet deep of pure ice. We got off the train after a large group of French mountaineers with full gear, who immediately set off down the path and ladders that lead to the glacier to begin crossing it. In a few of the large stitched images I took of the glacier, this group of 20 or so mountaineers look like tiny ants on a giant sea of ice. We followed them down towards the glacier, stopping at the point where railings became sketchy without proper gear, admiring the beauty of Mer de Glace. As we went back to the train station, we found out about the Ice Cave. A cable car (or hike) with another walk down some bolted in metal stairs could take you down to the base of the glacier where you can enter the ice grotto. The Mer de Glace Ice Grotto was filled with many ice sculptures and beautiful caves. We explored these caves, reading about the history of the glacier and admiring the ice sculptures. As we left the ice grotto we decided to hike back up to the Montenvers train station. There were a lot of good look-out points to view the glacier from as we hiked back up. One of which can be seen below.
By the time we got back to Chamonix on the train, we were starving. Fortunately, Chamonix didn’t shut down shop like Zermatt did in the afternoon, so after dropping off our backpacks at the hotel we went in search of food. After walking up and down the streets of Chamonix, we decided to try a place called Poco Loco. We had eaten tons of cheese and bread most of the trip, but had been craving some protein and figured a good burger and fries would fit the bill. I got the special Poco Loco burger with fries (frites) while the others tried different kinds of burgers. Feeling satisfied from a good meal, we decided to get a nap in at the hotel for a bit.
Once we awoke in late afternoon, the stormy looking clouds that had been up at the glacier earlier in the day had made their way into the valley. We still wanted to do a little walking of the streets, knowing we would be leaving fairly early in the morning for our next destination and wouldn’t have time to explore then. So we walked the streets to check out the shops. I always like to see what local landscape photographers in mountain towns like Chamonix have to offer. I found a photo gallery of Chamonix photographer Mario Colonel that was unfortunately closed for the evening. I admired the images in the window as the rain began to fall. Within a few minutes, the drizzle turned to sheer downpour and we ducked into, of all places, a French McDonalds.
Once the rain died back off to a drizzle, we made our way back to the hotel. As this was my last night in France I wanted to make the most of it so I decided to venture out in the drizzle to explore the nearby area. While there was no chance of a sunset, the drizzle and clouds over the valley still created a nice effect moody scene. I wandered around the town square near the Tourism Office and eventually just past the church, where I eventually shot the image below.
Tour du Mont Blanc
Before finishing this part of the Alpine Magic travel series, I wanted to bring up a part of the trip that I researched heavily, but never actually did. When originally looking up where to visit in Europe, one spectacular idea called the Tour of Mont Blanc came up on a number of occasions. The Tour du Mont Blanc is an extremely amazing multi-day trek around the entire Mont Blanc massif, spanning France, Italy and Switzerland! It’s over 100 miles in length, typically starting in Chamonix, France, heading south, then cutting east into Italy, and eventually turning more northward from Courmayeur and into Switzerland before cutting back to the west and south to finish in Chamonix. The tour boasts more than 6 miles of ascent and descent in Val Veni, Val Ferret, Vallee des Glaciers, the Trient valley and more amazing places. There is a plethora of accommodations on the trek, ranging from simple dormitory based refuges to luxurious hotels. When I was considering this trek as part of my trip, I realized late May was quite a bit early for someone to tackle the Tour du Mont Blanc, as snow still covers many places of the trail, and most of the refuges and huts in the mountains, and even hotels in Courmayeur and other locations, were closed for the off season. While it didn’t work out on this trip, some day I still want to give this trek a go. The opportunities for great photography and just an amazing experience still keep me researching and thinking about this trek at least once a year.
Join me in a few days when part three of Alpine Magic continues back into Switzerland with a day spent walking the promenade of Montreux and exploring Switzerland’s famous Chateau de Chillon!
I have to admit, I should have written this travel journal of my 10 days in the Alps about 5 years ago and not waited so long to start a travel blog. This trip is what started my true love for traveling beyond the familiar to new places. Looking back through my life, the one place I have visited the most is Colorado. I still visit it at least once a year. These days it’s usually for it’s beautiful autumn aspens. It’s practically been my home away from home. From skiing as a 3-year old to hiking a 14er after college, I never get tired of the mountains. And the smell of those pine trees on a cool summer evening or crisp autumn morning has stuck with me all of my life. For almost 29 years, with the exception of a trip to Yellowstone and twice to the Black Hills of South Dakota, the majority of my vacation experiences were from the Colorado Rockies. Going out of the country was something I had always imagined and dreamed about, but until my late 20’s, I never took serious enough to realize that dream. By the time I was 26, I had become fairly overweight. I spent 3 months losing 60 pounds and getting into great shape. This new-found confidence in myself and an ever-growing interest in landscape photography had me again dreaming of visiting some of the world’s most beautiful mountain ranges to photograph and trek. The mountain landscapes of New Zealand. Torres del Paine and Los Glaciares National Park of South America. The Canadian Rockies. Denali National Park in Alaska. The Himalayas. European’s famous Alps. These are some of the most impressive and beautiful mountain ranges in the world. And I needed to finally take that step and visit one!
Like many people, I felt Europe was a great place to start my international travel experience. So I began researching a Europe trip. I started all over the place, from the Scottish Highlands to the islands of Greece. But I finally settled on the Swiss and French Alps. I spent months pouring over Switzerland travel books and Googling all the best places to visit. The iconic Matterhorn stuck out in my mind as a mountain I had to see in my lifetime. I read about Chamonix, just past the border of Switzerland, in the French Alps. I learned about a stunning cable car ride across the craggy peaks and giant glaciers of the Mont Blanc Massif lies Courmayeur in Italy. I saw pictures of all these places and got excited. And then I saw photos of the Lauterbrunnental Valley. This sold me. This beautiful green valley that is surrounded by cliff walls adorned with waterfalls from every angle. And yet higher still, the cliff walls are surrounded by some of the famous peaks of the Alps, including the mighty Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau! In the 1910’s, J.R.R. Tolkien took a backpacking trip through this reason, and it’s said that the beauty of the Lauterbrunnental Valley inspired the creation of Rivendell in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit books. And so I decided upon a 10 day trip: Three nights in Zermatt-Matterhorn, Switzerland, two nights in Chamonix-Mont Blanc, France with a possible day-trip into Courmayeur in Italy, four nights in Lauterbrunnen and a final night in Zurich before flying home. The trip was set!
A little snag
With dreams of hiking near the Matterhorn, viewing Mont Blanc in Chamonix, and gazing on the beautiful Berner Oberland calling, I booked the plane tickets, hotel rooms and Swiss rail passes! The trip was originally supposed to be a group of four. Two friends who were moving back home after college, my brother and myself. Unfortunately our two friends couldn’t make it, but my brother’s girlfriend at the time was interested in seeing Europe. So the three of us put in our passport applications and waited. A few weeks later, two of us received passports. A few more weeks passed, but my brother’s passport never came. Less than a week remained before our flights to Zurich. This turned into quite the ordeal. Two days before our trip, my brother was forced into taking a flight to Houston to speak with the passport office in person. He was told that was the only way he would have a chance at getting his passport in time. Once he arrived and waiting in line for an hour, he was told he had wasted his time and there was nothing that could be done. Thankfully a phone call to a congressman’s office changed all that. Within an hour of that phone call, my brother was back at the passport office, with passport in hand.
Day 1: Friday, May 22nd, 2009 – My first day in Europe
After months of planning and a diverted fiasco, the day was finally here! We had two legs: Wichita to Atlanta and Atlanta to Zurich, Switzerland! By the time we boarded our flights from Wichita, we were already exhausted. My brother had already done a spur of the moment trip to Houston over the previous two days and I was so excited for the trip I barely slept in the days leading up to the trip. The time spent in the Atlanta airport was a blur. And the flight to Zurich was an over-nighter that at least brought a few hours of sleep. However, because of the direction we were going, we were losing about 8 hours, which drastically reduced the night time sleep on the plane. By the time we arrived in Zurich, it was 8AM but felt like 2AM! (because it practically was midnight in the States) The excitement of where we were was the only thing keeping us going! As tired as we were, we had a train ride from one end of the country to the other. Zurich is situated closer to the Germany border in the north, whereas Zermatt, our first destination, is maybe five miles from the Italian border in the south. What people from the United States don’t realize is that many countries in Europe are no bigger than most states in the US. So the world class rail system (more on that in a minute) is only 3-4 hours. So we got off the plane, and did some money exchanging while waiting for the next train ride out of Zurich. As the Swiss rail system is, as they say, like clockwork, our train was right on time. The train ride itself was beautiful, but I literally dozed off multiple times on the train, nearly missing our connection in Visp to Zermatt. However, in my zombie-like state, I still remember seeing amazing scenery! I’ve never seen so much color in my life! The train passed through many Swiss towns, including Bern, which is one of Switzerland’s famous and beautiful cities. The trees, plants and grass were just so green! Everything from Zurich to Zermatt was absolutely gorgeous! And even though I was dying from exhaustion, the thought of finally glimpsing one of the most famous mountains in the world, the Matterhorn, kept me awake on the final train ride up from Visp to Zermatt. I still remember bending around a mountain and finally glimpsing that majestic peak for the first time!
We arrived in Zermatt right on schedule, thanks again to that ever effecient Swiss timing. As it turns out, the apartment we stayed at, Casa Vanessa, in Zermatt was a little over half a mile from the rail station. Exhausted though we were, walking through a town as gorgeous as Zermatt for the first time is pretty amazing. Seeing the little tourist shops, the bakeries (a lot more on these later), the various stores selling cheese and chocolate, both of which Switzerland is famous for, was a great introduction to our first Swiss town! However, as enticing as these stores were, we needed a nap in a bad way and trudged on to the south end of Zermatt.
It took us a moment to find our apartment. One of the things I remember most about staying at the Casa Vanessa apartment was entering from the street level into what seemed like a cave. Once in the “cave”, we took an elevator and ended up in a really nice apartment complex. The rooms were great, with spacious area, nice beds, a great kitchen. While I knew I would spend far less time in any hotel or apartment than I would out seeing everything on this trip, it was still nice to stay in a great place!
After a much needed nap, we awoke in late afternoon to stroll around Zermatt, just taking in the sights. We walked across the town to the northeast side of town, on a hill, where I was able to shoot a post-sunset twilight image of Zermatt and the Matterhorn during the “blue hour” of the evening. After grabbing a few shots, we eventually made our way back towards the center of town where we stopped and ate at a restaraunt near the train station, splitting two delicious pizzas between the three of us before heading back to the apartment to call it a night.
Swiss Rail System
I should really take a pause from my adventure here to mention the extremely efficient Swiss rail system. It’s world class! It’s a beautiful way to travel in this amazing country. I’m not sure how the rail system is throughout the rest of Europe, as I’ve heard some places can be pretty bad – worker strikes, really late arrivals and departures, etc. – but in Switzerland, the train system is as punctual as their famous Swiss watches! It’s a cheaper alternative in most cases to renting a car or any other method of transportation within the country. Plus, there are some places in the Alps that are car free (Zermatt, Wengen, Murren and Gimmelwald all come to mind) that are accessible by rail, cable car or foot only. It’s a great way for someone from the States to really see the country! We had purchased a multiple-day Swiss rail pass that basically allowed us to ride the Swiss rail system as much as you like in the alloted time. There were a few specific or special train rides that were seperate of the cost of this, but for the most part, the pass could get you all over the country. One of the best features of the rail system is that it comes with free admission into many museums, castles, attractions and other discounts! It also gave both discounts and free admission on many of the cable cars that we took. In addition, even if a special train ride wasn’t part of the Swiss Pass, it usually gave quite a bit of discount to those with a pass. We took advantage of this multiple times on the trip, including the Jungfraujoch and Gornergrat! We also took advantage of it to visit other attractions such as the Chateau de Chillon and castle in Spiez to get in for free or much less than normal cost. All things considered, if you ever take a trip to Switzerland, a Swiss rail pass is the way to go.
Day 2: Saturday, May 23nd, 2009 – Exploring the Alps
Before my trip, I had many people tell me that the first few days would be tiring from the jetlag, but I actually awoke full of energy and ready to tackle a good hike! I chalked it up to a weird schedule which let us take a nap after arriving in Switzerland, which compensated for the time difference. Either way, I never felt this supposed jetlag the entire time I was there. It was like my body adjusted to the schedule immediately. Our plan for the morning was to take the underground funicular cable car to the Sunnegga Paradise area. We stopped at a local bakery called Fuchs to get some breakfast. This was our first experience in a Swiss bakery. And it wouldn’t be our last. I can’t explain how amazing the bakeries in Switzerland are! And Fuchs was one of the best. We grabbed some pastries and ate them on the way to the Sunnegga funicular station.
The funicular ride up to Sunnegga was interesting. It could probably be best described as a cross between a train and a ski lift built into a tunnel inside the mountain that stretched from Zermatt to a beautiful viewing platform and area called Sunnegga. My hope was to hike the famous 5-Seenweg (Five Lakes Walk), but we only really made it to two. The first, Leisee, was right near the Sunnegga paradise area, and only about a 10 minute walk down from there. We then hiked to Grindjisee, which is a beautiful lake with a clear view of the Matterhorn.
As a photographer, my hope was to capture a nice reflection shot of the Matterhorn in one of these lakes, but the day was extremely hazy, making it difficult to get any sort of good shot. In addition, being there in the off-season of late May had it’s trade offs. While it was more peaceful with less tourists, many of the cable cars and lifts were either on shortened hours or not running until June. It was after 10AM before we even arrived at Sunnegga and unfortuantely, the day we were up here it was extremely hazy. Other than the one above, I never really captured that reflection shot I hoped for. However, thankfully I did have a great time hiking around the mountainside on my first full day in Switzerland!
Aftter hiking in the high country, we were pretty tired and hungry. We got back to Zermatt a little later than lunch time, and found that most restaurants close for a few hours in the afternoon. So we grabbed some food at the COOP, which is Switzerland’s largest retail and wholesale company. It’s a pretty sweet grocery store, selling lots of organic foods and leading the charge as a very eco-friendly and sustainable retailer. Back in 2011, they were awarded the title of “World’s Most Sustainable Retailer” by German-based Oekom Research agency.
Once we got back to the apartment, we had a nice lunch that probably consisted of way too much cheese (not that I’m complaining – it was amazing!), some great bread and Fanta soda. The rest of the afternoon was spent napping. After a few hours of rest, I set off to explore the south side of Zermatt. My hope was to shoot a nice sunset of the Matterhorn, but clouds muted any color I could hope for. Even without a vivid sunset, it was still a beautiful place to be, and as we were there in the off-season, it was very peaceful to just explore and relax.
Day 3: Sunday, May 24th, 2009 – Glimpsing a Glacier
We awoke to a beautiful clear morning and so I was up early to attempt a sunrise. I really was hoping for that iconic alpineglow view of the Matterhorn. After 2 days, I was still so mesmerized by this famous mountain that I had only seen in books or on the Internet. After getting a few shots, we decided to splurge for a train ride up to the Gornergrat (Gorner Ridge) and the giant Gorner glacier that resided up there. So we trekked back through town and stopped at another Fuchs bakery for more delicious breakfast treats near the entrance for the Gornergrat train.
The train ride up the Gornergrat was spectacular! The Gornergrat Bahn (or train) was the first fully electrified cog railway, built in the late 1800’s! Nowadays, like many things in Switzerland, it’s very green and eco-friendly. On the ride up to the Gornergrat station, we glimpsed some amazing views of the Matterhorn along the way, also crossing some beautiful bridges that had dizzying views. Once at the top, we found that not much was open. Like many things in late May, we were there in the off-season, so while everything was far less touristy (and cheaper), many things were either not open, or had limited hours. Some had hotels, like the Gornergrat, but unfortunately, were not open when we were there. Had I been there during these times, I’m sure I would have taken advantage to shoot some sunrises and sunsets from higher in the Alps! But we really weren’t at the Gornergrat to shop or eat, so we set foot above the observatory to take in the stunning panorama before us!
This was my first time seeing a glacier in person. I will never forget it. Nothing can fully explain what it’s like to see a giant glacier sprawled out before you. A huge river of ice with the power to crush the rock below it. The Gorner glacial system is actually the second largest glacial system in the Alps, only smaller than the massive Aletsch glacial system to the north of it. From the Gornergrat we could not only see this massive glacier, but also many of the famous peaks of the Alps. Obviously the Matterhorn was in view, with it’s famous pyramidal peak, but also Monte Rosa, Switzerland’s tallest mountain, topping out at 15,203 feet stood before us!
The above photo is a stitched panorama that can be printed at ridiculous sizes (at least 20×5 feet). One of my obsessions on this trip was to stitch photos together to be printed at extremely larger sizes. Once I got home and had to do all the editing of these, I thought twice about doing this on future trips. It takes a lot of time. However, you can read more about these large format images on my prints page. Many of the photos I took on this trip can be printed at giant sizes.
In addition to the amazing views, some of the local wildlife also greeted us. A family of ibex (a mountain goat that live in the Alps) were happily content to hover around the salt lick that’s installed at the Gornergrat. Walking back to the train station, we stopped to admire the “Bernhard von Aosta” chapel. After about 50 years of Sunday mass being held in the Gornergrat hotel dining room, the bishop expressed a wish for this chapel to be built. In 1950, construction began and when finished, it was dedicated to Saint Bernard. And it was soon after seeing the chapel dedicated to Saint Bernard that we met our first St. Bernard dog! We had just left the chapel, and wandered in to where the shops were. A post card shop owner was telling his dog to come into the store. This was pretty cool, as we were probably 15 miles from Great St. Bernard Pass where the St. Bernard is said to have originated from. After checking out some shops and buying a few postcards to send to family, we decided to head back to town.
That evening was a relaxing one, again spent wandering around the south side of Zermatt and into the countryside. I often find these times to be the best of a trip. It was a beautiful night with no wind and great temperatures. I took my camera and just walked and explored. Sometimes shooting a scene, and sometimes just marveling at the beauty around me. We stopped at the cross in the picture above numerous times, as it was just south of our apartment. This night wasn’t so much about photography, but just walking at the base of possibly the most famous mountain on the planet. I can also still remember the farms outside of town, with lots of sheep running around, the cross situated on the trail to Zmutt and the signs to hike to one of the Ricola herbal farms. On the way back, I shot what I could get of a subdued and cloudy sunset and we went back to the apartment complex to get ready for our next location: Chamonix, France.
Check back in a few days for part 2 of Alpine Magic where we travel just across the border to Chamonix, France.