The Rhine Valley between Chur and Sargans, just to the South of Lake Constance and the tiny Principality of Liechtenstein, forms a busy transport conduit through the Swiss Alps between Zurich and Milan. Whilst the main valley is heavily developed with settlements and infrastructure, adjacent peaks and side valleys offer a the chance for quick escapes into less intensively developed alpine environments.
A few years back we spent a couple of weeks living in a mountain chalet perched on the steep slopes of Mt Pizol, overlooking the Rhine Valley. Our accommodation was accessible by a tortuous, single track, switch-back road, which provided some interesting encounters with oncoming vehicles on steep gradients and hairpin bends; frequently resulting in awkward standoffs with bullish delivery drivers, who (understandably; like ourselves) were reluctant to reverse backwards, round a blind corner and down a 20 degree slope. The Pizolbahn gondola, which would normally provide alternative access was unfortunately closed for an upgrade.
One of the undisputed highlights of the area is without doubt the Five Lakes hike which takes in a variety of mountain lakes which nestle under the protective flanks of the Mt Pizol. I joined my German brother-in-law Michael, for a trek around the lakes (like Michael you need to be strong man for this trip though !) while Martina and daughter Zoe enjoyed more chilled out pursuits.
The route starts from the top of the Pizol Gondola at 2227m from where the path heads steeply off uphill towards the Wildseeluggen Pass at just under 2500m. Whilst the first lake by the gondola station is unremarkable, the Wildsee over the saddle (and the second lake to be encountered) is set amidst a lunar landscape of rocks, screes and glacial moraines and is a much more dramatic place; its waters reflecting a cool cobalt blue in the morning sunshine.
From the Wildsee, the undulating, rocky path contours around the NW slopes of the Pizol, with a succession of dramatic views unfolding around every corner. The third lake (and my favourite on the circuit), is the smaller and unassuming Schottensee (Scottish connections unknown) which makes a great place for a chilled out lunch break with sublime views of the peaks and small side valleys below. I loved sitting in this peaceful and relaxing spot and taking in the surroundings.
Later on the path traverses across steep open slopes as it ascends to the top of the next high pass at Schwarzplangg at 2505m. From the top there are views down to the atmospheric Schwarzsee, which nestles deep in a mountain cirque. Then it’s an easy walk down a broad ridge to the last lake at Bassegla. On the way down a mysterious landscape of stone cairns, reminiscent of a Pink Floyd album cover is passed before the final descent to the end of the walk at Gaffia, the top gondola station for the Pizolbahn.
There are also numerous other attractions to explore in the surrounding area. The historic town of Chur is located a little further up the Rhine Valley and makes a good jumping off point for exploration. In particular the dramatic single track railway up to the Ski resort of Arosa makes for a fantastic excursion; at the end of the line you can soon be gliding up to the summits by cable car and enjoying extensive views towards nearby Davos, Klosters and the distant snowy peaks of the Bernina Alps further away on the border with Italy.
Nearby “Heidiland” (the place where they made the Heidi film and also the brand name questionably adopted for the wider district by tourism marketing professionals) sounded like it could be a remarkably kitsch experience, however we were pleasantly enthused by the laid back wine village of Maienfeld with its rambling streets and uncluttered, timeless feel. Surprisingly the whole place isn’t yet swamped out by Heidi tourists, in the way that Tobermory has become cluttered with tiny tots seeking out their Balamory idols (though perhaps in reality, the market for this in Heidiland is somewhat restricted). Heidiland paraphernalia is therefore fortunately limited to a reconstructed film-set house with a few token goats, sheep and miniature ponies thrown in for good measure; not quite the theme park tackiness we had envisaged (and enough to keep our daughter Zoe amused).
For a more authentic experience , the isolated Weistannental Valley presents a real step back in time and into the world of small, isolated alpine communities surviving on traditional grazing and forestry. You can drive up the peaceful valley for miles with great access to peaks and trails which head off into the mountains. I found this remote valley a refreshing escape after the somewhat developed and hectic Rhine Valley with its shopping centres and autobahns.
Not to be missed also is a boat trip on the nearby Walensee; you can hike along the lakeside through remarkably subtropical looking vegetation (bananas in Switzerland !) and vineyards and then pick up the ferry for the trip home; a welcome rest after carrying several kg of child in a backpack ! The onetime opulent spa resort of Bad Ragaz is also a pleasant place to unwind and is now currently successfully reinventing itself into a trendy arts, literary and cappachino centre, in an attempt to put back zest into the fading grandeur syndrome facing some similar old spa towns.