Swiss National Park: the Biggest Park in Switzerland

Switzerland, famous for its stunning landscapes, has one national park, the biggest nature preserve in the country. The Swiss National Park is in the far southeastern corner of the country, in the lovely Engadine valley at an elevation of 1400 to 3170 meters and covers 172 square kilometers. It’s about 2-1/2 hours from Zurich. The park has rivers winding through deep valleys, thick forests, wildlife — golden eagles, chamois, deer, marmots, birds, ibex — and high mountains. Bright wildflowers bloom along the 80 kilometers of hiking trails.

The rules are strict: no camping or hunting or fires, no picking flora or mushrooms, no straying from the trail. This protects the sense of the wild.

One warm June day, John and I rode the train to Zernez, a quiet, pretty village known as the gateway to the national park. Rising above it are rugged, rocky peaks, with pastures on the lower slopes. We strolled the town admiring the tidy houses with flower boxes at the windows and elaborate sgraffiti (designs scratched on the surface to show color beneath), on the walls. At the sound of cowbells we turned to see a man herding his cows down the main street toward the barn. I expected Heidi to show up any moment.

We stayed in the comfortable 3-star Hotel Crusch Alba, which had an excellent restaurant serving venison steak and some unusual dishes such as grated, spicy beets and fennel bulb with flavorful cheese. Another recommended 3-star hotel is the Acla-Filli. It has a restaurant and an indoor pool and is a good choice for families. Zernez has several other hotels, and campsites are available.

For our park excursion we first visited the National Park Center in Zernez, where we saw an interesting exhibition and learned the park’s history (founded in 1914, it was modeled on U.S. national parks). Binoculars slung around our necks, small packs on our backs, we headed for the little red postal bus. You can drive the one road through the park, but the bus is by far the best way to get around. The Swiss have this all figured out.

Half an hour later we were on the trail, admiring blue gentians and tall pine and larch trees and sniffing fresh mountain air. Panels along the way explained aspects of the scene in French, German and Italian; the pictures helped those of us with minimal non-English language skills.

Our hike took us above timberline and across patches of snow, and in the distance we spotted the distinctive curved horns and shaggy bodies of chamois, several resting on the snow. Surrounded by craggy peaks and alpine vistas, we could see why this is called “the rooftop of Europe.”

We had an exhilarating walk in a magnificent landscape before boarding the bus back to Zernez and our comfy room. Another time I might choose to linger in the park, because although no camping is allowed, there are, in fact, two places to stay. One is the Chamanna Cluozza, a lodge that sleeps 68 in rooms and dorms. It’s a 3-hour walk from Zernez, set in the trees high above Cluozza Valley. Three meals a day are served. The other lodging is the attractive Hotel Il Fuorn, with 60 beds and a dorm for 20.

Grand as the Swiss National Park is, there’s a lot more to see and do in the beautiful Engadine. I’ll get into that next time.

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