Nestled snugly amongst the thick evergreen forests of the verdant Matter Valley (Mattertal) sits one of Switzerland’s most beautiful treasures. Named for the prominent peak that stands like a sentry over the remote, alpine village, Zermatt is a veritable haven for skiers, hikers, and outdoor adventurers alike. Under the protective shadow of the Matterhorn’s snow-capped slopes, rustic chalets and Valais blacknose sheep pepper the valley floor. Only three main streets span the hamlet, and for as long as anyone can remember, the town has been ‘car-free.’ The only vehicles permitted along Zermatt’s pristine avenues are miniature, electric-powered taxis and small service vehicles (also electric). In an effort to preserve air quality and, in turn, residents’ flawless view of the country’s revered Matterhorn, gas-powered engines are strictly prohibited, and cars must be parked in a lot some five kilometers (three miles) outside the town limits. Because of this thoughtful restriction, most visitors arrive in Zermatt via the Matternhorn Gotthard Bahn, a gorgeous little train running from the nearby mountain towns of Brig and Visp. As our train pulled away from the platform in Brig, warm sunshine and panoramic, alpine views enveloped us as we snaked along the turquoise waters of the Vispa River. When we arrived in Zermatt an hour later, it was as if we were suddenly teleported back in time to a more peaceful world – where crowded streets were traded for quaint passageways, and the sounds of car engines and horns were magically replaced by bleating ewes and whistling songbirds. And that view of the Matterhorn? It was as close to perfection as I could imagine.
We awoke the next morning to a crystal-clear view of the Matterhorn’s summit greeting us through the French doors that lead out to our garden terrace. With not even a wisp of a cloud in the sky, we decided to dedicate our first day of hiking to the iconic, out-and-back trail that winds along the Matterhorn’s northeastern slope to the basecamp at Hörnlihütte. Similar to our experience in the Dolomites, we ended up resigning ourselves to the [pricey] lifts to get up out of the valley, as hiking up through the forest would tack on 3–5 hours in one direction – an entire day of hiking in itself if followed round-trip, let alone with autumn’s severely attenuated daylight hours.
We headed out into the crisp morning air, and hopped on the Matterhorn Express to Schwarzsee. As the gondola climbed out of the valley, we were awestruck by the views of the incredible summits surrounding us. The glaciated peaks were aglow in the intense sunshine, soaring over the blanket of fluffy fog that had cunningly crept into the Matter Valley. Under the pervasive peak of the Matterhorn, the trail passed by the sapphire Schwarzsee Lake before climbing alongside an expansive glacial valley. The trail eventually twisted to the more northern edge of the ridge, and the persistent shade gave rise to a slick, snow-covered track. With fixed ropes to assist as the trail ascended more steeply over slippery sections of snow and rock, we carefully made our way up. With each step we took, the view just seemed to get better and better, and we struggled to put down the cameras. Embarrassingly, by the day’s end, I may or may not have snapped 466 photographs of the Matterhorn and its snow-capped neighbors (I swear this was an atypically inflated number of shutter clicks).
The trail eventually turned back toward the east, and we made one last ascent up a sun-drenched, rocky ridge, now finally free of the slick snow cover. Balanced at the edge of the Hörnligrat, the Matterhorn’s sheer, northeastern ridge, Hörnlihütte base camp overlooked the steep glacial valley below. Here, the fingerlike projections of the Furgg, Theodul, Triftji, Breithorn, and Gorner Glaciers poured into a craggy, russet basin, peppered with small glacial pools. At 3,260 meters (10,696 feet), Hörnlihütte’s expansive sundeck offered the perfect lunch spot, with unsurpassed views of the 4,000-meter massifs of the Pennine Alps in the distance, as well as the bowed summit of the 4,478-meter (14,692-foot) Matterhorn looming overhead. Seeking one final view, we clambered up the final ~100 feet (30 meters) to the start of the climbing section, peering up at the Matterhorn in absolute awe from the base of the Hörnligrat.
While I could have sat out on the Hörnlihütte’s incredible sundeck indefinitely, we eventually had to pull ourselves away from the views and make our descent back to our charming alpine apartment in Zermatt. For some truly magnificent views, add this unforgettable hike to your Zermatt must-do list… this was by far one of my favorite day hikes and, to me, just unimaginably beautiful.
Total distance: 5.7 miles
Elevation gain: 2,323 feet
Note: Some of the snowy sections of the trail are quite exposed, and while there are fixed ropes in spots, crampons should be a serious consideration. Our hiking boots proved to be okay, but we were descending the slick areas exceedingly slowly, and I’m pretty sure I would have been more comfortable with the extra traction. While there weren’t a lot of other hikers on the trail (I think we saw only 8 people), about half had on crampons, and I’m guessing it would have given a feeling of extra security (in addition to the obvious better footing).